Author's Note

I wrote The Secret of Magic with four people in mind.

The first person was my grandfather.

In 1942, my maternal grandfather, Joe Howard Thurman, joined a segregated Army and fought in World War II to liberate the world from the Fascists and the Nazis. At the time he did this, he was still effectively denied the right to vote in his home state here in the United States.

My grandfather joined the Army because he loved his country (he always wore a little flag pin, even before they became politically fashionable) and because he loved us. My three sisters and brother and I knew he'd fought because all his friends had; indeed, almost all the men in his generation had. But my grandfather never discussed the war, never talked about his experiences in the Army. He was a quiet, courteous, diligent black man, always right there when we needed him. He was my hero.

I knew, from the time I was very little, that I wanted to grow up to be a writer and that I wanted to write about my grandfather and what he meant to us, how he kept our family together. He was the one who taught me how to read, spending his hard-earned money to buy me a little Golden Book each week at the Kresge's in downtown Kansas City. My grandfather was the first one to tell me I could be what I wanted to be, do what I wanted to. "You can do it. You just got to work at it," he said.

But we knew that he'd not been able to do everything he wanted to do. I can remember getting on a bus with my grandmother, going downtown to take sandwiches to my grandfather when he was on the picket line. He and other black construction workers had banded together and demanded to be paid the same amount of money that the white construction workers were paid for doing the same dangerous work. This was well after the world war that my grandfather helped to fight had been won. But, in Missouri, the blacks lost their battle. The union they started was crushed and they scattered. But this didn't stop my grandfather's faith, either in his country or in us. He knew we could do what we wanted to do. Work hard. Don't give up.

The second person who inspired The Secret of Magic was my grandfather's hero: Thurgood Marshall. Even though Thurgood Marshall was a lawyer and my grandfather had only graduated high school, as a young girl I imagined them having a great deal in common. They both had a particular kind of 1940s "gotcha" charm. This was back in the day when glamour had a lot more to do with a certain natty style, a way of talking and walking, than it did with having huge amounts of money - which was good because my grandfather never had much of that. But he was cool, just like Thurgood Marshall was, though they didn't look anything alike. My grandfather was trim and tidy and dark-skinned, unlike Mr. Marshall, who was taller and fairer and who seemed, in pictures, to have rawer bones. Still, in my mind, I've always put them together, moving along on a trench-coated mid-century noir vibe.

"That Thurgood," my grandfather would say, looking up from the Kansas City Call, where he'd been reading something about him. "That's one somebody who knows him some law."

Back then, Thurgood Marshall was like a member of the family - and not just our family but every African-American family. We all knew what was going on with him and with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund over in New York City. That's because this was a heyday not only of the civil rights movement but of the African-American press as a whole and especially of John Johnson's Ebony and Jet magazines and his Negro Digest. Every black person you knew had a subscription to at least one of these and usually all of them; it was just taken for granted. This meant that you could start reading an article in your own house and know, if you had to leave, you would be able to finish it up wherever you happened to be going - to the barbershop or the beauty shop, down the street to your best friend's, over to your teacher's where you went for a little extra help, or all the way up to Chicago for a visit with your second cousin. The latest issues of Ebony and Jet would be laid out, waiting on a table to greet you. And in those magazines were people who looked like you looked, shared your same interests and ambitions, and weren't just tearing things down but were building them up. Jet and Ebony were filled with news about Thurgood Marshall.

But I can't remember reading anything about Isaac Woodard in them, though his was one of Thurgood Marshall's cases. Mr. Marshall was head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund during the war, and there had been a rash of suits against the government for discrimination. There were so many of them that they took over an actual room at the fund offices - "Reggie's Room" in The Secret of Magic - which was stacked floor to ceiling with envelopes stuffed with neatly typed or handwritten grievances against the way things were in the armed forces. Black soldiers were, indeed, routinely imprisoned or dishonorably discharged for doing what white soldiers had been reprimanded or exonerated for doing. But Isaac Woodard's story was not one of these. It was worse.

Like my grandfather, Isaac Woodard was a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II. Before being honorably discharged from the service in 1946, he had spent the previous fifteen months fighting in the jungles of the Philippines. He told everybody that the first thing he wanted to do once he got out of the military was to visit his mother in Aiken, South Carolina. With that in mind, he boarded an interstate bus. That much is certain; after that testimony varies. Some accounts record that Mr. Woodard was disorderly on the bus, that he was intoxicated. I remember reading once that he offended the white ladies riding on it with him by taking his time in the colored rest room during a station stopover. He kept them waiting. Mr. Woodard denied all this. But even if he'd done what people said he did, how could anybody justify what happened to him next?

The driver got off the bus, made a call, and alerted the authorities about what he considered to be Mr. Woodard's bad behavior. At the next stop two policemen were waiting for him, and they escorted him from the bus. They took him to the jail where they beat him. When Isaac Woodard insisted on his civil rights - that, in America, he should not be beaten - one of the policemen took the end of his billy club and systematically, one by one, used it to punch out both of Mr. Woodard's eyes. He was blinded for life. The policeman who did this obviously didn't think there would be any reprisals. He may even have done the same thing before and gotten away with it. This was a man who must have thought he could do whatever he wanted to, and keep on doing it forever. He didn't realize that things had changed, and that the war my grandfather and Isaac Woodard had fought in had helped to change them. Mr. Woodard's family and friends did not just disappear. Outraged, they called upon Thurgood Marshall. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund took up the case, making it one of the first civil rights causes in the postwar era.

No wonder my grandfather idolized Thurgood Marshall. He showed that this kind of behavior was not to be tolerated. Slowly but surely, case by case, he, and the many others like him, opened a view for us as Americans that was inclusive, not exclusive, and that showed that all of us - not just white men - have equal rights under the law.

But I didn't learn about Isaac Woodard until 2009, when I stared researching this book. It was a pivotal case for both the growth of the NAACP and the LDF, but it's been almost forgotten. The details of the story seared themselves into my brain. Maybe because Mr. Woodard could have been my grandfather, maybe because it seemed to me to be a turning of a tide in the civil rights movement. Maybe because, as with all writers, I like to think I know an unforgettable story when I hear one. And so Isaac Woodard was my third person.

My fourth person was Constance Baker Motley, the inspiration for my Regina Mary Robichard.

By the age of eleven I was ready to branch out a bit from Jet and Ebony - I still loved them but I was a girl, after all, and so I saved up my twenty-five-cent-a-week allowance and got my own subscription to Vogue magazine. I can still remember what a thrill that was, seeing clothes and shoes and even makeup that you'd never come across at the department stores in downtown Omaha back then, at Brandeis, or even at Haas-Aquila. Vogue made me feel part of a much larger world. Of course there was no one like me in it back then, no one who looked like my family - until one day, I opened up an issue and there was this fabulous portrait of Constance Baker Motley, the first woman lawyer hired by Thurgood Marshall at the Legal Defense Fund. She was the one who had organized so many of the veteran cases; she was the one who had actually been in charge of "Reggie's Room." Thurgood Marshall had taken her on in 1946 at a time when few women, and even fewer black women, were encouraged to go into the law. In 1949 he sent her down to Jackson, Mississippi, to participate in a court trial concerning teacher-salary parity between blacks and whites. This was the first time, in that century, that blacks in Mississippi had significantly challenged their separate but equal status, which had been established by the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896. By doing this, Mrs. Motley helped to begin the long slow process that would lead to Brown v. the Board of Education and the end of separate but equal school systems. Of course, every African-American in the South knew all about this. She was famous with us, famous in the pages of Jet and Ebony. But now, I realized, she was famous to the whole world. I remember thinking, Oh, wow! I called my grandfather up, told him all about it. Then I clipped the picture of Constance Baker Motley out and sent it to him. In the photograph she looks like a woman who knew how to fight a just war and to win it.

There is a framed photograph of my grandfather, Joe Howard Thurman, proud in the khaki uniform of a World War II enlisted man, which always sat on the bureau in my grandparents' bedroom. This picture never seemed to change its position, was not allowed to get dusty. Unlike my grandfather, it never aged. We still have it.
There he is, a man who idolized Thurgood Marshall, who shared his granddaughter's admiration for Constance Baker Motley, who had probably identified with Isaac Woodard, caught in time forever, snazzy in his uniform over the inscription

To my Baby,

Love, your Joe Howard

My grandfather, who fought for dignity and liberty just as surely as his heroes did.

I'm looking at that picture as I write these words now.


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Heather A. Connor
Penguin Random House
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