Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Harold Macon was giving a presentation in a dorm at Western Michigan University about interracial relationships when a question from a freshman turned his world upside down in the best possible way.
“She said what if you just like each other,” Macon says. His response – then it’s just a relationship.
The “she” is the woman who now has been his wife for 44 years, Laurel Macon, who was pursuing a teaching degree from WMU.
“I had heard that someone in the dorm was giving a talk about interracial relationships and I almost didn’t go because I had an exam to study for and knew I’d be up all night studying for that,” Laurel Macon says. “I was just this freshman from this all-white town and I asked that question and that changed everything.”
They began dating after that initial meeting, eventually marrying and settling in Battle Creek, where Laurel Macon took a job as a teacher with the Battle Creek Public Schools and her husband was employed as the city’s Personnel Director.
The couple, now both retired, have lived in the Historic Northside Neighborhood for the majority of their married lives. They raised three children there and have each in their own way continued the activism that began in their youth.
Before he worked for the city, Harold Macon was involved with the War on Poverty as an organizer, was a school teacher in Covert, a social worker, and had played professional football in Canada.
As he sits on a chair in the living room of his Garrison Street home, he recounts an incident that occurred during a civil rights protest in the south.
“We were demonstrating, and these white dudes were swinging sticks and bats and I got whacked in the head, somebody wrapped a T-shirt around my head, which was bleeding, and we were on our way to a hospital when I saw this white woman on the side of the road with a baby and a car with a flat tire,” he says. “I told them that we had to pull over and help her.”
When the man driving Macon to the hospital couldn’t understand why Macon would want to stop after being assaulted by white people, Macon told him that the woman wasn’t the one who had whacked him over the head.
“My mom always told me to meet one person at a time,” Macon says. “She always said if you see wrong, try to make it right.”
So, when she met the woman who would become her daughter-in-law, her loving warning came as no surprise to Harold Macon. “When Laurel first met my mom, my mom just fell in love with her and said don’t mess it up, that’s a righteous woman. My mom didn’t teach us racial bigotry.”
Laurel Macon says her father was a little “slow on the uptake” about her beau until Harold showed he wasn’t afraid of hard work. “My dad was a hardworking farmer. We were at the orchard and he needed help and Harold helped him get a whole load of fruit on board a truck.”
They not only received unconditional love and support from their families, the couple also were welcomed and accepted in Battle Creek.
“There were a number of interracial couples in the city already and we wanted our kids to go to a school where they wouldn’t be the only biracial kids in their class,” Laurel Macon says. “At that time, if you worked for the city or the schools you had to live in the city.”
The couple lived in homes on Wilson Avenue and Chestnut Street before moving into their home on Garrison. One month after moving into their home on Chestnut Street, one of the neighbors was clearly not happy about having an African American neighbor, but she soon started calling on Harold Macon for help.
“It was a pretty white neighborhood when we moved in,” Laurel Macon says.
Her husband recounts one incident in which a neighbor was driving by and saw him raking leaves.
“He asked me how much I charged an hour and I said, 'Nothing, but the lady who lives here lets me sleep here at night',” Harold Macon says, with a chuckle.
Over the years the neighborhood and their street has become much more diverse. Laurel Macon says she is happy to see more gay couples moving in and likes the fact that she can walk to the YMCA where she's formed a lot of deep and long-lasting friendships.
“It’s always about the people,” she says. “We could move to a warmer climate, but there’s a lot to be said for having these deep friendships,” she says.
Some of those friendships involve former students who the couple has helped. “She’s a compassionate human being and is extremely bright, which gives her the ability to analyze and do the right thing,” Harold Macon says of his wife.
The sight of a man hitting a dog at a park in her native Three Oaks was likely Laurel Macon’s first brush with defending right in the face of wrong. She proceeded to yell at the man while her mother hustled her away from that park.
Macon has never shied away from following her intuition when any situation she finds herself in calls for her to do the right thing.
That moral compass has manifested itself in less visible ways such as the time she and her husband, Harold, got a former student out of jail. Even though that same student later ended up robbing them three times, Laurel says she would do it again because the people who most need help are not the easy fixes.
“You’ve got to take a risk on someone,” she says. “If you only help people who are going to follow suit, what good is that? You’ve got to reach out for those who don’t look or act like you.”
This belief became very public and very visible when Laurel Macon reached out to support another former student, Lorie Williams, who was the victim of years of abuse and incest at the hands of her father.
Laurel Macon and Lori Williams paths first crossed at Franklin Elementary School where Macon taught second grade.
“I had this little tomboy in my class and I had heard that some older boys had been bothering her over the weekend,” Macon says of Williams. “I got her by herself and asked her about it. At first, she clammed up, but then she burst into tears and said it was her half-brother and that he had been abusing her.”
Macon got a female police officer and a social worker involved. Williams was put into a foster care home that afternoon and Macon would not see her again until the girl was in her late 20’s and had endured years of emotional and sexual abuse from her father. Williams was impregnated by her father for the first time when she was 12-years-old and had her first child by him at the age of 15. There would be a total of 15 pregnancies, eight live births, and six surviving children, some of whom live with Williams at her home in Battle Creek.
Those experiences resulted in Slow Escape: 27 Years to Freedom
, a book published in 2016, that Macon wrote which told the story of what Williams endured and had overcome.
In the book, Williams recounts the family’s frequent moves which included time spent living in tents in Canada and foraging for food.
“She will share information like how lily pads are nutritional, and she knows these things because her family lived in Canada in the woods for years and they learned survival skills,” Macon says. “She lived a survivalist existence for 27 years.”
Eventually, they returned to Battle Creek. Williams was left with her father and their children after her siblings left and her mother had a nervous breakdown.
It wasn’t until 1994, more than 15 years after the nightmare started, that authorities caught up with Walter and Lorie Williams in Hillsdale where they had moved with their children after coming back to the area.
Lorie Williams spent one week in jail. Her father was sentenced to 11 months in jail. After his release, he gave up all rights to his five older children and was denied custody of the newborn.
“Twenty years after I last saw her, I had the television on and in the news they were talking about the biggest incest case in the state and my heart just stopped because I thought it was (Lorie). I did some research and I found her,” Macon says.
By this time, Williams was enrolled in adult education classes, trying to regain custody of her children and working at a local store which is where Macon first reconnected with her. With Macon’s help, Williams case was transferred from Hillsdale to social services in Battle Creek and the two women fought to get Williams children back, including the youngest son, who was taken away while she was still in the hospital after giving birth.
In cases like this, Macon says people often ask why the victim didn’t just leave or try to escape. “Her father hid the car keys and wouldn’t let her talk to anyone. When caseworkers showed up at their house, he’d run them off,” Macon says. “It was a female police officer who remembered a young woman with an older husband that tipped authorities off that they were in Hillsdale.”
Despite all that she has been through, Macon says Williams is a devoted mother who supports herself and her family as a masseuse. In 2017, she was named Michigan Habitat for Humanity’s Homeowner of the Year.
That Williams survived and went on to thrive amazes Macon and everyone else who comes into contact with her. “Her kids are happy and healthy and they believe in God and do a lot of things together as a family,” Macon says. “You wonder how the human spirit can survive all of that. She has such an inner strength and she’s so even-keeled.
“Her kids are delightful and everybody’s happy there and there’s a lot of laughter. Lori didn’t have any of that growing up.”
These days Macon can be found advocating for female immigrant detainees at the Calhoun County Jail where she teaches English as a Second Language classes on Mondays. She says of the 100 female detainees, most are from Central and South America with one woman who speaks only Arabic.
“I felt drawn to several of these women in that jail,” Macon says. “I feel when you get a connection like that with someone, you can’t let it go.