Their Very Own Loving Story
Before Renee Newman Knake and Wallace B. Jefferson, both lawyers, became romantically involved, they met at various work events. The first time was when Mr. Jefferson delivered a commencement address in 2011 at Michigan State University College of Law, where Ms. Knake was then a law professor, though it wasn’t until years later that she was reminded of that encounter.
The two also worked as volunteers for the American Bar Association, from 2014 to 2016. Ms. Knake, now 46, served as a reporter to the group’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services. Mr. Jefferson, who is 57 and has served as chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, was a commissioner. They spoke on conference calls and attended meetings, maintaining a platonic and professional connection. But during a dinner toward the end of the commission’s work, their relationship seemed to change.
“Something just clicked and all of a sudden this person that I had been aware of professionally — it was suddenly like, wow,” said Ms. Knake, who divorced in 2013. “I remember having a conversation with him at one point and then thinking, ‘I don’t want this conversation to end.’”
In the fall of 2016, Ms. Knake took a job as a law professor at the University of Houston, about two and a half hours from Austin, Texas, where Mr. Jefferson was living. The two continued to stay in contact and met again when Ms. Knake invited Mr. Jefferson to attend her first public lecture at the university in 2017. She was presenting research that eventually would be turned into a book published this year, “Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court.”
“He came and sat in the front row of this lecture hall that was filled with students,” Ms. Knake said. “My parents traveled in and my kids were there. It was this wonderful alignment of my professional world, and my family, and this man who I was starting to fall in love with.”
Because the couple resided and worked in different cities, long distance and commuting became undeniable choices. But both Mr. Jefferson and Ms. Knake were willing to make it work. Between traveling together to conferences and visits when Ms. Knake wasn’t teaching, the couple saw the long distance as an exciting part of their union, rather than an issue.
In 2019, they solidified plans to live together for the first time. Ms. Knake accepted a Fulbright scholar position at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. Her two children, James, 15, and Grace, 12, along with Mr. Jefferson joined her for the six-month stay. Before making the move, Mr. Jefferson proposed on Jan. 1, 2019 in front of her children on a FaceTime call.
The new year would start with greater commitment to each other and lay out a foundation for an unexpected quarantine after the coronavirus outbreak.
“And that was just really a magical time to sort of solidify this new dimension to our love and our family,” Ms. Knake said. “The kids were going to Australian schools, they didn’t know anybody. We had to really rely on each other. And looking back, it was really great preparation for the four of us being in quarantine together since early March.”
“Blending families sometimes can be a real challenge,” she continued. “And for us, it has gone so smoothly in part, because of how this transition evolved over the past couple of years. Being out of the country together helped us prepare for being quarantined in a very small condo in Austin and in East Lansing for the past few months.”
Quarantine has involved adopting a puppy, working from home, online school, and of course, wedding planning. It’s also erupted some very important and in-depth conversations about race. As a social justice movement unfolds in America, Ms. Knake admits there is a lot to learn about her partner’s experience.
“I am learning every single day alongside him, more and more about what it means to be a Black man in the United States,” she said. “My eyes were open to this continually before it was really in the headlines, as it should be deservedly, but being in a relationship with him makes me more aware.”
Coincidentally, Mr. Jefferson and Ms. Knake, who both had not dated outside their race before, share birthdays with Mildred Loving and Richard Loving. In 1967, the Lovings effectively challenged interracial marriage laws in the United States forever, resulting in the legalization of interracial marriage. It is because of their legacy that Mr. Jefferson and Ms. Knake walked down the aisle on July 4 to legally recognize their union.
“When we saw their birthdays, we were like, ‘wow,’ it made us feel even more connected to them,” Ms. Knake said. “Because of that coincidence we can retell our part of their story in a way that will help people remember that it wasn’t that long ago in this country that just loving someone that wasn’t the same race as you could not be made legitimate through marriage.”
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to be so profoundly and deeply in love as I am with this man and to have to feel like I was committing a crime,” Ms. Knake added.
The couple paid homage to the Lovings during their ceremony by sharing statements dedicated to their fight for interracial marriage, read by Samuel Jefferson, one of Mr. Jefferson’s three sons.
Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, officiated on the porch of the governor’s summer residence on Mackinac Island.
Ms. Whitmer is a friend to both Ms. Knake and Mr. Jefferson. When Ms. Knake first moved to Michigan in 2005, Ms. Whitmer lived across the street from her. As for Mr. Jefferson, he and the governor are Michigan State alumni and quickly bonded after meeting through Ms. Knake.
“Over the many years I’ve known her, she’s been an inspiration and a source of strength for me through some really tough times, including helping me recover from a brain aneurysm a decade ago. So it was especially wonderful to have her officiate our wedding, a moment of total happiness and joy,” Ms. Knake said.
The couple were joined by three of their children, four family friends, as well as Dr. Marc Mallory, the governor’s husband. Nearly 150 other guests streamed the ceremony via Zoom. Originally, the wedding was going to take place inside the same residence on July 4, but coronavirus precautions pushed the occasion online for guests.
In proper wedding-planning fashion, a rehearsal was held the evening before. The outdoor lighting, Wi-Fi connection and video camera were all tested. The celebration was organized by Wedfuly, a virtual wedding company that partners with Zoom to host online celebrations.
As attendees entered the video conference, “America the Beautiful,” by Ray Charles, “A Sunday Kind of Love,” by Etta James, and a handful of other songs chosen by the bride and groom played in the background. A slide show of photos featuring the couple and their family hovered over the main screen. Grace Knake, Ms. Knake’s daughter, shared an Acknowledgment of Country, which pays respect to the traditional landowners. This was followed by James Knake, Ms. Knake’s son, reading the poem “Believer’s Hymn for the Republic.”
At about 4:30 p.m., the ceremony took place and was followed by an intermission, allowing guests to grab a drink for the toast. Seated in front of a laptop, Mr. Jefferson and Ms. Knake cut the cake and received seven toasts by friends and family. After, the couple popped into individual chat rooms to speak with guests by group. Ms. Knake described the event as far more moving and magical than expected. “It was probably the only time I ever enjoyed a Zoom call,” she said.
The reception dinner was held outdoors on the patio of the Carriage House at Iroquois Hotel. Their original plans for a larger reception were postponed to 2021, including a boat cruise party on Mackinac Island and a rooftop gathering for family and close friends in Austin. Additionally, honeymoon festivities have been pushed to “further notice.” The couple still plans to vacation in southern France once travel bans are lifted between Europe and American visitors.
“I tell people coronavirus could have canceled pretty much everything in my life, but it has not canceled my commitment to Wallace,” Ms. Knake said.