MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is observing Black History Month through the lens of love, with a series of stories on couples uplifting each other and the community.
At a time when African Americans are facing what seems like a deluge of attacks, including voter suppression, bias in health care, police shootings and other forms of race-based aggression, black love can provide strength, says the Rev. Floridia Jackson.
“When I think of black love, I think of everything it takes to be black in a hated space, to be black in a space of disdain. Black love itself is magic because you keep on pushing,” said Jackson, 48, director of The Memphis School of Servant Leadership, a Christian-based nonprofit that provides community classes. “For us, as a community, it’s psychiatry, it’s psychology, it’s everything.”
“We need black love to help us get up every day.”
Over the years, Jackson and her spouse, Treace Griffin, 47, a salesperson at Cricket Wireless, have celebrated their love with a plethora of dates:
There’s Feb. 14, 2007, when they decided to become a couple.
There’s May 8, 2010, the date of their public wedding she calls an act of civil disobedience since same-sex marriages were not recognized in the state.
And there’s Jan. 7, 2016, when they were legally married.
“We celebrate every last one of them! You hear me?” Jackson said.
Those recognitions provide fuel to stave off indignities leveled at them daily.
“I’m in full-time ministry, and every day I don’t know what I’m going to be faced with or what attitude or who’s going to push me over,” Jackson said. “You just don’t know. And [Griffin will] have customers that come in and say, ‘I just passed a f — — on the street,’’’ Jackson said. “You just don’t know from day to day. So we celebrate every moment we can.”
That’s the case even when they aren’t together physically.
In January, Griffin was horrified to discover she failed to request to be off work for their wedding anniversary, so she enlisted a friend to take Jackson to a celebration lunch on her behalf.
Chance meeting leads to romance
The West Memphis couple met 20 years ago when Jackson, on her way to see a movie, on reflex extended her arm to prevent Griffin, headed for lunch, from stepping into the street and in the path of a car. They started talking and Jackson asked her new friend if she wanted to join her on the movie trip.
That impromptu date turned into a summer fling that ended when both realized they had unfinished business in other relationships, Griffin said. Then after seven years, they reconnected, running into each other at a restaurant.
Griffin, who had continued to long for Jackson, ended her relationship with her then-girlfriend that night.
“It was a sign when I saw her,” Griffin said. “I always knew she was going to be in my life, whether we’d be friends or if we’d get back together.”
“I knew I needed her in my life.”
Griffin is the more reserved of the two: “I’m not very talkative with people, and she’s never met a stranger,” she said.
Her wife is big into helping others celebrate love.
Spreading the love, officially
Jackson has officiated more than 60 same-gender weddings, including in Arkansas and Mississippi. Some love stories stand out; among them, that of a 67-year-old man with cancer, desperate to marry his 27-year-old love but thwarted by a county clerk who refused to recognize them.
The man’s son approached her to perform the ceremony.
“He was the staunch Bible-thumping Southern Baptist, white-privileged and angry at his father,” Jackson said of the son. “He said, ‘I don’t understand it, but I love him.’”
They tied the knot that November, but the elder man died before they could see their first Valentine’s Day as a married couple, she said. “Broke my heart! They were so in love.”
Another couple she married bought their wedding rings and held onto them for 25 years, awaiting the shakeout of various state laws around same-sex marriage, then finally exchanged vows June 26, 2015, the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the unions legal.
Another favorite is the first black ceremony she officiated.
And those unions led to others within the same families.
The son who wasn’t keen on his dad marrying a much younger guy; Jackson about 18 months later officiated the same-sex wedding of his ex-wife.
And last November, she presided over the same-sex wedding of the 77-year-old aunt of one of the brides in her first black wedding.
“Her partner was 62 years old. They’d been together for over 30 years and ducking and dodging all those years,” she said. “They thought, ‘Why not?’ A lot of it for them had to do with resisting Trump in office and not being satisfied with the way the administration treats people. The two of them just made up their mind that they would get married.”
Jackson and Griffin have no children. But they have a bevy of nieces and nephews through Griffin’s 11 siblings and Jackson’s one brother.
They’ve grown their family through the unions Jackson officiates. She invites each couple to stay in touch, telling them, “‘I belong to you. Call me when you get a new house, when your kid goes off to college, when your grandma gets ill.”
It’s that kind of personal extension that Griffin loves about Jackson.
“Whenever I’m having a bad day, she can just say something that makes me feel better,” Griffin said.
Jackson said the moment she knew she loved Griffin was during a time she was overscheduled, ill and trying to get to a commitment. Her self worth had been tied to the things she did for people. she said.
“She looked at me and said, ‘You know you don’t have to go, right?’” Jackson said. “No one in my life had given me that permission. I was 37 years old and have never ever been told that before.”
“I knew I was safe with her and that she would protect me,” she said. “I just took this long, deep breath.”
Find more black love in our Black History Month series
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.