Jeffrey Copeland’s flea market find of a suitcase stuffed with old letters has blossomed into a movie. Inside that suitcase was the hidden love story of Inman Perkins and Olivia Merriwether, a young black couple separated by The War. The two teachers met in 1940 at Sumner High School in St. Louis, fell in love and were secretly married. At the time, married women were not allowed to be teachers so the young Mrs. Perkins had to hide her marriage to keep her job. This was not too difficult as her new husband was sent off to war in Italy where he was unfortunately killed in an fuel explosion caused by lightning. Miss Merriwether, to honor her husband, then insisted on being called Mrs. Perkins. She was not forced to resign and instead taught school for another forty years.
Inman’s letters to his wife described his trials with segregation and discrimination during WWII, all the more painful to a boy raised by his parents to believe that “differences were created by men, not inherently in men.” His letters inspired Copeland to write a book about Inman’s African-American military experiences, with the added interest of his hidden marriage to Olivia. Apparently none of Olivia’s students or colleagues thought anything of her later name change, and after 1948 her marriage would not have affected her job anyway.
How much do we know of our own parents’ or grandparents’ lives. Inman and Olivia became known because a stranger discovered a part of their lives lost in a suitcase. Our own families may have hidden lives that we might uncover if we only ask the right questions. After publication of Inman’s War: A Soldier’s Story of Life in a Colored Battalion in WWII, one of Olivia’s past students commented, “And to think, we all thought Mrs. Perkins was a little old lady with no life.*”
*from St. Louis Post Dispatch, 4/20/08