The barbaric constraints of the Jim Crow era in the South are writ large upon American history. We are well aware of how Black citizens were relegated to the backs of buses, not permitted to eat in restaurants or use general restroom facilities, and were often brutally discouraged from pursuing their right to advocate for themselves via the vote. But there were more nuanced aspects to that federally sanctioned oppression we perhaps have not considered; seemingly small denials of humanity—and joy—that can make an impression for a lifetime.
For 94-year-old Martha Tucker, one of denials was the opportunity to try on a wedding gown when she became engaged to be married in Birmingham, Alabama in 1952. “I wasn’t even thinking about buying a wedding dress because I knew I couldn’t go in the store,” Tucker told the Washington Post, which noted that there were no Black-owned bridal shops in Birmingham at the time, and the white-owned shops didn’t allow Black customers to try on clothing.
“When I got married, people of color could not go into any store or buy nothing,” Tucker recalled to USA Today. “It was just my dream, but it didn’t happen.”
Tucker would end up wearing “a navy blue mermaid-style dress” when she married Lehman Tucker Sr. in an intimate ceremony in their pastor’s living room. Still, the dream stuck with her; through her marriage, the births of her four children, and her career—first working for local civil rights leaders before becoming a poll worker in 1963, and ultimately Chief Inspector for her district election voting site. Tucker recently retired after 64 years of serving in the position, her granddaughter, Angela JD Strozier told The Root. (Strozier’s mother, Rita Tucker, assumed the role after serving for several years as Tucker’s assistant chief.)
“She has never missed an election,” said Strozier, noting: “Her first election was for Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency.”
But Tucker, a widow since 1975, did miss the personal milestone of wearing a wedding gown—or at least, trying one on, as she mused while watching the wedding scene in one of her favorite movies, Coming to America.
“I’ve always wanted to wear a wedding dress,” she said to Strozier. “I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time, ever since I got married.” She even had a style in mind for her dream dress: “an embroidered white gown with lace overlay and long sleeves,” noted WaPo.
Strozier decided to make that dream come true, making an appointment at a local David’s Bridal.
“It was a terrible reason why she couldn’t,” Strozier said. “It shocked me and motivated me to get it done.”
“When I heard her story, that made it all the more special,” Mary Adams, a bridal stylist at David’s Bridal, told WaPo, noting that assisting Tucker in the fitting was “an honor,” even knowing she wouldn’t be making a sale during the appointment. “Being a young Black woman, I felt sorrow that she wasn’t able to experience something that every young girl looks forward to—their wedding day,” she added.
Strozier and her family made the day extra special, arranging for a lunch and for Tucker to have her makeup professionally done beforehand—taking place in the car because the nonagenarian’s arthritis causes her discomfort walking up stairs and standing for long periods. Nevertheless, on July 3, Tucker stood radiant and cane-free in the David’s Bridal showroom in Hoover, Ala., wearing an embroidered white gown with lace overlay and long sleeves, a tiara and veil atop her snow-white natural. Several family members had been invited to surprise Tucker at the fitting.
“Awww look at me,” she said upon seeing herself (h/t USA Today), as family, staff and fellow shoppers celebrated the moment.
“I cried, and I think we all did. Even the other brides trying on dresses were crying,” said Strozier. “Not just because of the sweetness of the moment, but to see how she looked at herself in the mirror.”
“I asked the mirror, ‘Who is that?’ ” Tucker added (h/t WaPo). “I really can’t explain how I felt.”
It was a full-circle moment, one Tucker likely never thought she’d experience in this lifetime. “I always have been sad about it because I felt like I should have been able to wear [a wedding gown] if I wanted to,” she told WaPo.
“She is our hero,” said Strozier. “Anything she expresses that she wants to do, we try to make it happen for her.”
As seen in a series of photos Strozier posted to Facebook, Tucker even got playful in on a second dress, flashing a lace garter underneath.
“I always said before I left this world that I was going to get in a wedding dress,” said Tucker (h/t WaPo). “And I’m glad I did.”
“I just wanted to do this for her,” Strozier added. “I wanted her to understand that a dream deferred didn’t have to be a dream denied.”