“I will just begin by saying, thank God, I am an alien,” Thomas Trass said, kicking off a conversation about the almost 56 years he’s been married to Emma.
Born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, Thomas was the 10th of 12 children. His parents were both teachers who taught their children the world was larger than their rural Southern town. Thomas was 5 the first time he understood what his parents meant.
When he was in kindergarten, his family’s home burned. His family moved to Boston to live with one of his older sisters. Thomas paid attention to his new world, learning its rules.
“Even though you’re very young, you notice how people live and relate to each other,” Thomas said.
When his family moved back to Brookhaven two years later, he saw his hometown with new eyes. And he paid attention to the way the world around him was changing. He listened to what the adults said about the murder of Emmett Till.
“Then long about 1956, young Dr. Martin Luther King began to be heard in the news,” he remembered. “You could hear his sermons on radio every Sunday morning from Birmingham.”
Though Brookhaven was backward compared to Boston — “We didn’t have indoor plumbing!” he recalled — he had one teacher who changed his life. This man handed Thomas “the instruments of science, the microscope, telescope,” and the science teacher explained how to “see a world that exists beyond your ordinary senses.”
Emma Mitchell was also born in Mississippi, and she, too, came from a large family. She grew up in Columbus near the Alabama border, the fifth of eight children.
Though Columbus was a small town, it had an air force base, which kept it connected to the larger world. Education was important to her family (the elementary school she attended was named for her great-uncle), so as the Mitchell kids graduated from high school, her parents found ways to stretch their farm’s income so their children could go to college.
Emma and three of her sisters became teachers. Emma went to Tougaloo College to study early childhood education, and that is where she met Thomas, who was a scant 13 miles away at Jackson State majoring in science. One weekend, he and some of his fraternity brothers came to Tougaloo to serenade the girls in Emma’s dorm, and she was sitting outside.
“I thought she looked cute,” Thomas said.
She wasn’t impressed. “He talked a little bit too much for me,” Emma said. Besides, she was thinking of things other than marriage, like succeeding in school and launching her career.
Thomas didn’t give up. “What do they say about a freshman?” he asked. “She was fresh.”
Eventually, Thomas wore her down.
“He kept talking and things got a little better,” Emma said, laughing. After graduation, they both found jobs in Memphis. They married on July 24, 1964. Their celebration was special but small. “We just kind of got married,” Emma said.
The Trasses assumed they would have a typical 1960s marriage: Buy a house, have a couple of kids and watch the years pass. But 14 days after their wedding, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which ramped up the number of troops the United States was sending to Vietnam. “They were drafting everybody, the men of that age,” Emma remembered.
When Thomas’ number was called up, he joined the Navy and served on the USS Kitty Hawk, a recently commissioned aircraft carrier. Tapping into his love for science, he was assigned to work in the laboratory supporting the men flying missions over North and South Vietnam.
When he finished his tour of duty, Thomas returned to Emma in Memphis and they settled into married life. They had two daughters, Portia and Phaedra. Emma taught language arts to sixth graders at Wonder Elementary School in West Memphis, guiding her students through integration and white flight. Thomas worked in a series of industrial laboratories doing research and development as a chemical analyst.
And they traveled, taking their daughters to Washington, D.C.; Boston; Nashville and New York. Thomas wanted to teach his daughters the important lesson he’d learned when he was 5: He may have been lived in the South, but “that was not intended to be my environment for the rest of my life,” Thomas Trass said. He had learned to see himself as part of a bigger story, one stretching past Memphis, Tennessee, or even the United States. “I’ve been a citizen of the world.”
So are their girls.
Their daughters are raising families of their own, and Emma and Thomas have retired. “My goal now is to continue to enjoy life,” Emma said. “We are both in our late 70s, so we just wanna live and encourage others.”
They stay busy, volunteering with their church and helping care for their grandchildren. They also still travel. Since retirement, they’ve seen Mount Rushmore, Martha’s Vineyard, Charleston and Myrtle Beach.
Their most memorable trip was to visit their daughter Phaedra who was living in Berlin. Taking full advantage of a monthlong Euro Rail Pass, they visited Paris, Brussels and London, where Queen Elizabeth drove by while they were watching the changing of the guard.
It’s been a good life, but Thomas still feels like an alien.
“When I say we are alien, no, we don’t live there” in outer space, he explained. But in America we can “demonstrate that we can survive in an environment that does not support us.”
Thankfully, Emma has come along for the ride.
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