Good Friday, April 15, 1949.
For 70 years, that date remains at the heart of Dr. Eleby and Gloria Washington’s love story.
It began nearly three years earlier in 1946. Eleby was a senior at Howard University Medical School, and Gloria was a sophomore at Bennett College.
As the Christmas holidays approached that year, Eleby arrived in Greensboro, N.C., where he’d been offered a position doing medical exams at the historically black women’s liberal arts college.
Nearly a month would pass and Eleby would meet three students named Gloria before Gloria Simkins, a pretty girl with caramel-colored skin, lighted into his world and they’d spend the rest of their lives together.
“Sparks flew,” he said.
All these years later, the memory still brings a smile to his face.
Some things, it seems, are meant to be.
It was a different era, when men courted their love interest, but Gloria’s parents were strict. They made it hard for Eleby to get to their daughter, but he was determined. It helped that Gloria was a good host looking to meet a nice guy.
“She didn’t do anything to keep me from advancing our relationship,” Eleby said.
They got to know each other over drinks and dancing at a nearby nightclub, and when he returned home to Florence, S.C., they continued their courtship over the phone.
By the new year, things had started to move pretty fast.
For a time, it looked like the Army might call, but Eleby got a deferment to continue medical school. He graduated in May 1947 and headed to Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, where most African American nurses, doctors, technicians and dentists did their clinical training.
By then, Gloria was enrolled at Atlanta University, working on a master’s degree in social work. Despite the distance, their love endured with Eleby visiting as often as he could.
“One of the worst trips I ever had was when I took the train there and had to sit with a half-open window in the first car behind the engine while the German prisoners were allowed to sit in the good cars,” Eleby remembered.
He never took the train again, but not even segregation could keep them apart. Eleby drove the 553 miles instead.
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He’d returned to his hometown of Florence in 1948 after serving in St. Louis. Friends, he said, made him realize what a catch Gloria was, but they didn’t have to convince him he was in love.
Eleby was sure of that.
“She did everything right,” he said. “She was pretty, intelligent and our personalities seem to complement each other. By that time, I knew the handwriting was on the wall.”
Now if only he could get past her dentist activist father, Dr. George Simkins.
“I asked for her hand and he agreed,” Dr. Washington said.
Gloria did, too.
“He did everything right,” she said, echoing her husband’s sentiments.
They were married on 70 Good Fridays ago in the Simkins’ Greensboro, N.C., living room.
Some things, it seems, are meant to be.
Two years later in August 1951, the Army called and Eleby was shipped to Camp Gordon, Georgia, and eventually to England.
He served two years with the medical corps before returning stateside and beginning a residency in orthopedic surgery at Jersey City Medical Center.
He practiced 40 years in the state while Gloria worked as a social worker, all the while modeling for their children the importance of living out their faith — not just in Trinity United Methodist Church, where they were members for more than 60 years, but in their community.
It worked. They raised four successful children: Eleby III, an orthopedic surgeon; their son Eric, a retired chief judge; Karen Washington Carter, a senior finance manager for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; and the youngest son, Stuart, a real estate manager.
After retiring, they lived for 20 years in a New Jersey condo community until they’d had enough of the harsh winters and their children agreed it was time they moved closer to one of them.
“Karen being the love of my life,” Eleby said they decided to move here in 2011 to Sandy Springs. It wasn’t easy, he said.
In all his years, he never dreamed he’d ever return to the “Jim Crow” South he escaped as a young man.
On the eve of another anniversary, they shared a story spanning both time and space, four children, eight surviving grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and travels to all seven continents.
Eleby, 94, does much of the talking while Gloria, 92, enjoys a breakfast of eggs and toast.
It’s hard to say, exactly, how they managed to endure seven decades of ebbs and flows, but it helped, Gloria said, that Eleby never remained for a fight.
“If he found we were not agreeing, he left the house,” she said.
“We wanted to please each other,” Eleby added.
He thought for a moment.
“She didn’t expect much of me, and I expected everything of her,” he said.
Truth is their expectation was in the vows they made to each other on their wedding day. They meant them, so they made every effort to live them.
“They governed our lives,” Eleby said. “And our love for each other made us willing to reconcile the differences without getting disentangled.”
Time, they said, simply slipped away.
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