Seven-year-old Condoleezza Rice nodded eagerly. It wasn't often that her mother took her shopping in the downtown Birmingham, Alabama department stores. Angelena Rice took the dress off the rack and handed it to her daughter. The pair strolled toward the fitting room, then stopped as a store clerk barred their entrance.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but you'll have to use the storage room in the back of the store. These rooms are for whites only."
Angelena stared coolly at the clerk. "My daughter will change in one of your dressing rooms, or I will take my business, and your commission, elsewhere."
The clerk's cheeks blushed. "Well, let me see, maybe your little girl can use this room, here at the end of the hallway. I'll just stand here and make sure you have everything you need."
Upon entering the remote dressing room, Angelena chattered idly to her daughter while buttoning up the back of the dress. All the while, Condoleezza wondered why the lady was standing outside their dressing room door. Is she afraid we'll steal the dress or that someone will see us?
It was a frozen moment in time in 1961 that Condoleezza would never forget. She realized that being black meant being mistrusted or receiving second-rate treatment. From her mother's response to the store clerk and her patient determination, Condoleezza also learned she could stand her ground.
Condoleezza Rice has spent the rest of her life doing just that.
Born on November 14, 1954, Condoleezza (which means to play "with sweetness" in Italian musical notation) grew up in a Birmingham still crippled from decades of black oppression under the Jim Crow laws. Beginning with her grandfather, John Rice Sr., who was the son of house slaves, education became a crucial component of the heritage that would be passed down through the Rice family. Recognizing that "book learning" was the key to a brighter future, Granddaddy Rice, as Condoleezza affectionately calls the man who died two years before her birth, attended Stillman College in Tuscaloosa in 1918, eventually becoming a Presbyterian minister. John Rice Jr., Condoleezza's father, also a Presbyterian minister, went on to serve as dean of Stillman College as well as vice chancellor of the University of Denver. Condoleezza's mother, Angelena Rice, was also well educated, and taught science and music in an all-black high school.
While John and Angelena felt strongly about the emerging civil rights movement, they were not activists. They believed in fighting racial prejudice of the mind. Within the church and public school settings, they inspired many young blacks to see themselves as equals, and they left nothing to chance with their only child. Condoleezza could read at an age when most children were just beginning to walk. By the time she was three, she was learning to figure skate, dance ballet, speak French, and play what became the love of her life-the piano. Condoleezza's parents initiated these pastimes into their daughter's life to overcome the racism that would surely confront her as she grew up. Perhaps, if she excelled at the activities prized by white society, she would be accepted on her own terms and not judged simply because of the color of her skin.
But with all her parents' efforts, nothing could completely shield Condoleezza from the racial hatred that at times permeated Birmingham. In September 1963, two years after her department store "awakening," a dynamite blast at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killed four little black girls, including Condoleezza's childhood friend, Denise McNair.
After that Condoleezza's personal drive began to take her where her parents' efforts could not. Due to a tireless work ethic and staunch self-discipline, at fifteen she entered the University of Denver as a music student, intent on becoming a concert pianist. Surrounded by what she considered more capable musicians, she decided her skills would likely land her a position as an accompanist at best, or perhaps a piano instructor, "teaching thirteen-year-olds to murder Beethoven." A political science professor who specialized in Soviet studies wooed Condoleezza away from music to her graduate major, international politics. At age nineteen, she graduated cum laude. A year later, in 1975, she graduated from the University of Notre Dame with her master's degree. By age twenty-six she had a doctorate from the School of International Studies at the University of Denver and had begun to serve as an assistant professor at Stanford University.
But education and hard work are only half the story of Condoleezza's upbringing. Being the child of a minister, she grew up holding hands with prayer and Scripture, resulting in a deep faith in God. However, there comes a time in each person's life when she must either reject or claim for herself what she was taught as a child. Condoleezza's defining moment came when, as a twelve-year-old, she was visiting her grandmother along with several other family members. During the visit her Uncle Alto became sick and needed immediate medical attention. While the rest of the family ran anxiously about the house, Condoleezza's grandmother sat calmly praying on the edge of the bed beside her son.
"Grandmother, aren't you worried about Uncle Alto?" Condoleezza asked.
"God's will be done."
Seeing her grandmother's trusting spirit, Condoleezza realized that God really could be trusted with any crisis, no matter how great. Little did she know then that this lesson in faith would carry her through many turbulent times in the future.