Ruth McBride Jordan physically died on January 9th although her identity has gone through several deaths. First came the death of Ruchel Zylska, the Orthodox Jewish two year old born in an Eastern European shtetl. Then came the death of Rachel Zylska, the little girl who immigrated to America only to be abused by her father, a rabbi and storekeeper. Then died Rachel Shilsky and eventually Ruth. Antisemitism murdered those names – the unkindness of those who “would not dance next to a Jew.”
Upon moving to New York, Ruth Shilsky became Ruth McBride when she met the African American minister Andrew McBride and converted to Christianity. She raised twelve biracial children in the ’50’s and ’60’s – a time when civil rights seemed unattainable and passersby would shout racist slurs at her young children.
Her son James McBride recognized how special his mother was and wrote The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. After the book was published, he wrote of his mother, “She had absolutely no interest in a world that seemed incredibly agitated by our presence.”
In a 1996 Times review, H. Jack Grieger wrote, “The triumph of the book – and of their lives – is that race and religion are transcended in these interwoven histories by family love, the sheer force of a mother’s will and her unshakable insistence that only two things really mattered: school and church.”
Who knows why Ruth McBride Jordan converted from Judaism to Christianity? Who knows if she identified as a feminist? All we know is that her actions speak more than words. We know that her actions must be remembered as courageous, anti-racist, and revolutionary.