BRUNSWICK — Before she retired to Brunswick in 2013, Louise Hudson taught children from ages 4 to 17 for 65 years, in places as far north as Vassalboro, and as far south as Jackson, Mississippi.
Her travels make Hudson’s life read like one of the history textbooks that appeared in her classroom. Her memories – of going to college in the segregated south, or being the only woman to help a Harvard scientist create a map of Mars – lay bare a shifting, turbulent America.
This fall, however, she wasn’t a teacher, but a student.
Just weeks after her 85th birthday in August, Hudson enrolled in a pair of adult education classes at Southern New Hampshire University’s satellite campus at Cook’s Corner.
The first was in Native American history, a topic she didn’t know much about, Hudson said Tuesday while sitting in her apartment at Sunnybrook Senior Living, doctoring a cup of coffee with a healthy dose of cream and sugar.
The second class, in African American history, was more familiar.
“I think I was the only person in the class that had lived in the South,” she said.
Hudson spent the first two decades of her life in segregated Arkansas and Mississippi, hoping to use her privilege as a white woman to bridge connections to black populations in the neighboring communities.
When she eventually moved to Boston and then Maine, she was disappointed that northern attitudes towards race were less progressive than she had imagined – a realization that took place while she adjusted to a new culture, a new job, and a new marriage all at once.
“It’s a little like the difference in a photograph, which is two dimensional, and a scene, which is three dimensional,” Hudson said. “Being aware of the two environments I’ve lived in is more like the three-dimensional view of life.”
When Hudson was 4, she had a bad case of whooping cough that held her back a grade.
“I thought I was dumb,” she said, about growing up in Arkansas City, a town that was less than a square mile in size on the Mississippi border.
Hudson wasn’t dumb, but she said the experience instilled in her a sense of empathy and overcoming – one that sent her to Methodist Millsaps College, in Jackson, Mississippi.
“Our school was thought to be scandalously liberal by the two newspapers in Jackson,” Hudson said. “They enjoyed writing things disparaging of our college,” brought about by the card playing and dancing that distinguished the Millsaps students from their peers at the stricter Baptist schools.
She enrolled with the hopes of teaching in a black school. She joined the college’s chapter of the YMCA, and chaired a committee on social issues. When the college announced a new president, the Rev. Ellis Finger, had been hired, she approached him to ask if the group could host students from the local black colleges.
Finger listened courteously. “And then he explained why he did not think it was a good idea – for safety reasons, mainly – for us to do this at this time, at this place,” Hudson recalled.
He feared what the newspapers would write, too, but worried about more violent threats.
“He didn’t want someone to come with a torch and set fire to the buildings of the college,” Hudson said.
Denied the opportunity to meet on campus, Hudson looked elsewhere. She planned an annual YWCA event, and hoped students at the local black colleges would come.
“We went to every church in town. Lots of them weren’t even interested in considering (us),” Hudson said. She cited the racism, and a logistical hurdle caused by the fact that the meeting would include lunch, and it was illegal for black and whites to eat together.
Finally, the Capitol Street Methodist Church let the group use space in the basement space, and also provided boxed lunches.
“However, I was in Jackson years later and saw that Capital Church had ceased to exist,” Hudson said Tuesday, nearly 60 years later. “That’s the kind of thing that could happen to groups that had raised their head enough to be conspicuous.”
She was referring, of course, to the consequences that faced white allies.
At the time, Hudson said, she had little first-hand knowledge about the backlash that befell the black students she met. The conversations she had with black college students – or with students enrolled at a black school where she taught a volunteer art class – rarely approached the topic of race, or racial divisions. They simply talked, Hudson said.
In 1954, Hudson graduated from Millsaps a semester early. She immediately married Yeager Hudson, and moved with him to Boston after he accepted a place at Boston University.
Six months later, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education made segregation illegal. It took Millsaps 15 years to eventually desegregate, the first white college in Mississippi to do so voluntarily.
Hudson said that it was “more a cultural shock and adjustment moving from the south to the north than it was moving from the United States to India,” where, years later, she would accompany Yeager for a year during his Fulbright fellowship.
“My first impression of Boston was, there’s a bar on every corner,” she recalled. “‘There’s a bar, there’s a bar, there’s a bar.'”
While moving north was an adjustment, some aspects were less so than she’d hoped, however. Hudson said she miscalculated attitudes in the north, which were more progressive than in the south, but still racist.
Finding it nearly as difficult to teach in a black school in Massachusetts (which, had far fewer black students than in the south), she took an entirely different kind of job, working for the famed French astronomer Gerard Henri de Vaucouleurs.
De Vaucouleurs was stationed at the Harvard observatory, commissioned by NASA to create a more accurate map of Mars.
Though Hudson had only six months of post-college experience drawing maps in Jackson (a job she took while she waited for Yeager to graduate), he hired her for a combination of artistic talents and grit.
Both served her well. The map de Vaucouleurs’s team produced was precise enough to facilitate the Mariner 9 mission, which became the first space probe to orbit a planet in 1971.
But before the work was complete, Yeager accepted a job at Colby College in Waterville.
Not wanting to leave her job, she devised a plan to split her time between Harvard and Waterville. She would spend a week in Cambridge, and then come back up to Waterville for about 10 days to see Yeager, and “because I had to catch up on all the household things, the wash and such.”
“And I was pregnant,” she added.
She joined Yeager eventually, who worked at Colby for 40 years.
All these decades later, Hudson said still misses the south for its cordiality; even if the northeast is more aligned with her politics, she has always found the interpersonal relationships to be a little dry for her liking.
Hudson was the only woman working for de Vaucouleurs, something she confessed Tuesday morning that she rarely considered.
She sipped her coffee, which had gone cold.
“One has to bear of making too much of one’s own individuality,” she cautioned. “Other people have their own experiences; your own is partial.”
Louise Hudson, 85, of Brunswick, and originally from Arkansas, has lived a life defined by travel, culture shock, and a thirst for new experience. “Being aware of the two environments I’ve lived in is more like the three-dimensional view of life,” she said.