Person of the Year: Mary Groce

Mary Groce

Mary Groce is a writer, illustrator, activist and the 2019 Verville Fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. She is also immensely charming — one of those people with whom one feels an immediate connection and affinity. Groce is warm, engaging and full of stories to tell, from her personal run-ins with Donald Trump as a contractor at two of his casinos in Atlantic City to her activism in a series of crucial political movements to how she discovered, she is the great-niece of the first licensed Black pilot in the U.S., Emory Malick.

It is Groce’s discovery of Malick that led to her fellowship at the Smithsonian and the publication of her children’s book, “Lila Tells the Story of Emory Conrad Malick, Our First Licensed Black Pilot.”

In an interview with PGN, Groce spoke in detail about her work at the Smithsonian, her work as an archivist and her deep love for and activism in the LGBTQ community. She’s a prototype for making the personal political.

A youthful and vibrant 70, Groce is a mother of four and, with her partner of 25 years, Suz Atlas, 76, who has three children of her own, the two are grandmothers of six. The couple lives in the John C. Anderson apartments, an LGBTQ-friendly senior housing development, where their activism has expanded to create more of a sense of community within the housing complex.

Groce calls Anderson, “our Nirvana, our escape place.” A series of serious health issues — “we both had heart attacks, we both had cancer, and now Suz has cancer again” — led them to Anderson. An affordable, accessible place, with a built-in queer community, the building is located in the heart of the Gayborhood. Atlas is currently battling a rare cancer and going through chemotherapy, and that has been the focus of the couple’s lives for several months. Groce took a sabbatical from the Smithsonian, despite Atlas’ urging that she stay in D.C.

Yet even in the midst of this crisis, Groce and Atlas are activists.

As Groce explains, “We had all this LGBTQ history right here in this place [Anderson] — we needed to tell those stories.”

Groce, who is passionate about telling stories and about charting LGBTQ history, started a newsletter for the complex, with monthly featured bios detailing the histories of notable tenants. She and Atlas also started a writers group and instituted pot luck dinners for residents to get to know each other and “just create a more active community.”

Queer community means a lot to Groce, who went through two complicated marriages to men before she was able to come out as a lesbian in 1975 — but wasn’t able to live her gay life until later.

Her story is similar —and similarly painful — to many women of her generation who were, like the iconic lesbian film “Carol,” forced to choose between their lesbian identities and their children at a time when lesbian mothers always lost their children in custody battles.

“I would do anything to keep my baby son,” she said she realized when she came out to herself but was unable to leave her marriage or the closet. “Anything.”

Groce tells her story calmly and without a hint of self-pity, but the pain of denying who she was to protect her children and her motherhood is still a shocking narrative, and one Groce thinks we need to remember. She said she and Atlas had similar experiences — going back in the closet, and then when they were finally able to be out, “we vowed we would never hide again.”

“It wasn’t easy to be gay and have kids,” she said simply at the end of her tale. “We shouldn’t forget that. We shouldn’t forget all this history we have and the work that has been done to get us here.”

Groce spent years writing poetry and putting it away — her feelings poured out on those pages. She engaged in other activist work — protesting the Vietnam War and fighting for the rights of women.

Unlike Carol, Groce’s personal story has a happy ending. She met Atlas, and the two have been together for 25 years.

The concept of hidden lives and histories took on a wholly different context a few years ago when Groce discovered her grandmother’s brother was Black.

As Ancestry and other businesses focused on DNA profiles have sprung up in recent years, more and more Americans are discovering complicated racial histories like Groce has.

“I’ve learned through my own experience what it is to be hidden from history,” Groce said. “My great uncle was hidden from his own family because he was Black. I only found him buried in papers in the attic.” She paused, then said, “I was nine when he died — I could have known him.”

And so Groce is making sure he is hidden from history no longer. Her mission to tell his story has consumed her work for the past five years, culminating in the fellowship at the Smithsonian.

In 1912, Emory Malick was flying planes over central Pennsylvania. His accomplishments helped lay the foundation for generations of Black pilots, including the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black U.S. military pilots in World War II.

According to the details Groce uncovered over the past six years, Emory Conrad Malick would have been the first licensed Black aviator, earning his F.A.I. License, #105, on March 20, 1912, while attending the Curtiss School of Aviation on North Island, San Diego, California.

Malick was also the first pilot to fly a powered plane over central Pennsylvania. His first recorded flight was on July 24, 1911, near Shamokin, Northumberland County, where he made headlines again in 1912, and again over Snyder County in 1914, “to the wonderment of all!” He flew that biplane (which he constructed himself, improving upon the original design), a Curtiss “pusher,” over the town of Selinsgrove, where Groce grew up, and where her father, at age three, had moved with his family earlier in 1914.

Malick, who grew up in nearby Sunbury, also flew his homemade gliders across the Susquehanna River to his job as a farmhand on Cottie Weiser’s farm.

All these details will now be part of history at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum. In February, Groce will be the keynote speaker at the NASM for Black History Month, talking about Malick and his contribution to Black History.

Groce describes the affinity and passion she feels about Malick’s story succinctly, “I am gay, and he was Black,” Groce said. “He was isolated [due to his race], and I was disowned for being gay.”

She said, “These stories, these histories, are ones that have been kept from the people who most need to know about them. If there is anything I want people to know, it’s that — tell the stories that haven’t been told.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.