Lessons for the Journey

I sat in the far corner of my parent’s dining room table as my nearly one hundred year old grandmother shared a recollection. She meandered through the slow-moving wetland on the border of Louisiana to the sugar cane field explaining the process for making molasses, a recipe she’d held onto from her childhood in Mississippi. “You practice patience, wait for it to ripen then cut it down,” she explained. “Then you had to make that juice pour out.” As she spoke her story reached farther back into the vast farmlands of the south, the place that groomed her ethics and nurtured her good nature. It seemed to be the fulfillment of some grander purpose. Tradition and identity. “Then there were the chickens we kept,” She continued. “People say we would chase the chickens, but nobody had time for that! Mama would feed them so they wouldn’t move then catch them for dinner.”

My grandmother’s eyes focus through the lens of her glasses, as she searched for the right words to properly fit each story. It was as if she was searching our family archive for information to impart. And as she spoke about life as it once was, I began to realize something. Without my grandmother’s firsthand accounts, I don’t know that I would have too many details about that branch of my family tree.

That’s true regarding the ancestry of many black families in this country. Far too much has been forgotten beyond a second and certainly third generation. People who were lost, separated from loved ones during Antebellum slavery, or the Great Migration north, were gone and now forgotten in large measure. Missing are documents of legitimacy, birth and death certificates, even evidence of marriage could be lost, if they ever existed, as Antebellum social rules determined enslaved people were morally and legally unfit to marry. The black holes of the past remind us of a time when black humanity wasn’t fully recognized, and therefore wouldn’t qualify as needing legitimate documentation.

That certainty is the reason it’s exceedingly valuable for me to know and honor my family’s history. I recognize the struggle to keep it in tact.

My paternal grandmother Ora Sims has always related her advice to lessons from her past. To my family’s great pleasure, we anticipate celebrating her hundredth birthday this month (May). She is the only surviving member in our immediate tribe to have taken part in that Great Migration. Ora traveled with her husband Howard from Tennessee to Ohio in the late 1940s. And I discovered she’d carried with her a library of lessons past that she has generously shared over time.

In the year of my grandmother’s birth, 1917, Jim Crow ruled her native Mississippi. On its list of deplorable regulations was the declaration that blacks were to incompetent to serve as jurors, and could not vote. Despite the fog of restrictions that choked black society when Grandma Ora was born, it was understood by her family that she would go to school, and earn a college degree. My grandmother told me that academic destiny was shaped by her grandmother Luvenia. Born into slavery and sold to a family as a child companion, Luvenia was allowed to be educated or at least learn to read. My grandmother said they gave her a portion of an education, though the Mistress of the house disapproved of how she “took to it.” The buds of knowledge be damned she thwarted Luvenia’s attempts to learn math or any other subject of merit. It was enough. Enough for Luvenia to promise her descendants to blossom in that field. And so education became tradition.

Ora was born to Archie and Lucille Williams. Raised in the hamlet of Church Hill, Mississippi, she received her basic education from her mother, known to us as Mama Lu. Mama Lu was the local school teacher for negro children. Ora’s introduction to words on paper was magical. She fell in love with the story of Alice in Wonderland and dreamed of a world full of wonder for herself. Mama Lu laid the foundation for her daughter’s formal education teaching her the basics through eighth grade. But her instruction extended beyond the classroom. She taught young Ora the art of cooking and masterful sewing techniques. Ora made use of rainy days creating dolls out of rags to reenact the stories she’d absorbed in school.

My grandmother’s father Archie Williams invested in informal education. Despite completing just the third grade, “Daddy Archie” learned political strategy and lessons in civil rights from lectures he attended by W.E.B. Dubois. He also thrived as a farmer acquiring the knowledge to become a landowner during the 1920s, when black farm ownership peaked in this country. Daddy Archie understood the great benefit of higher education and set it as a goal for his children. He also challenged the obstacles set in place to block them. Like when his cotton crop came in subpar one year. Daddy Archie went to a white neighbor to ask for a loan to begin his sons’ college education. My grandmother remembers the day. Her father came back home exhibiting a righteous anger after the farmer said he would gladly give him money to feed his animals, but not to educate his negro children. She also recalls her father’s determination to find another way to pay for it himself.

In high school, while my grandmother was in the midst of discovering the possibilities of her education, Mary McLeod Bethune was an invited guest. She spoke to the student body and reinforced to the youth, tainted by societal opinions and rules restricting their citizenship, the ideals of wisdom and worthiness. As my grandmother recalled, Ms. Bethune was acutely aware of that Black Americans were feed lies about being inferior. She spoke to it and talked it down. “Don’t be rude,” my grandmother said remembering the lecture. “Be intelligent and dignified to the people that think you are not. And make them question their own decisions about you,” she continued. “Don’t shuffle along when you walk. Walk with some pride! Speak plainly and know what you are talking about!” Her words captivated the students who would surely go on to experiment with ways youth and wisdom might marry.

As Jim Crow continued to reign, young blacks students including my grandmother were discovering education was a tool to overcome. Ora graduated from high school, and went on to attend Tennessee State University, which at the time was called Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial Normal School for Negroes. She told me the only way to get a college education was to work for it. And so she did, earning less than the standard for “the help” at $3 a week. She managed it. The money, the household of a family just outside of Nashville, and her own school work to graduate timely. She married my grandfather Howard, a fellow Tennessee graduate, became a part of the Great Migration movement that ushered southern blacks north.

Ora arrived in Cleveland and set her sights on teaching. Taking the lessons from the kitchen and sewing room her mother shared, she began a career as a home economics educator. She learned in the segregated schools of Cleveland that the advice of Mary McLeod Bethune, the skill of her mother and the determination of her father were invaluable guides through the halls where some people thought she didn’t belong. She evolved from substitute teacher to permanent faculty to educational leader.

As I have absorbed the lessons of my grandmother’s past, I’ve recognized something about her treasury of memories. It was familiar. And it made good sense of my own memories growing up and the time I spent in her care. That enviable certainty she had in preparing our meals was the product of a lesson from Mama Lu . The grace of her tea biscuits and the extra ordinary of her chicken came from time well spent on a farm in Church Hill, Mississippi. Encouraging property ownership was reminiscent of the day Daddy Archie came home with the deed to the farm proclaiming to his young children that they had their own and would never have to work another man’s land again. Hearing her resolve to remove the word “hate” from my vocabulary as she was told by Mama Lu that it was too strong, and there were “too many words in the English language to not find one more appropriate!” There in the midst of each memory was the foundation for some of the most familiar lessons of my youth.

Her stories sorted out for me reasons why my family has an affinity for Historically Black colleges and universities more than ivy league, and why she insisted on making me my very own “rag” doll when I was a girl. That means something. It’s a significant part of who I am and those roots that I’ve now surrendered to are shaping another generation in the form of my daughter.

Those memories, mine with my grandmother and hers beyond my time, are the foundation on which I will continue to build. I know not to be lazy with any of part of this legacy nor neglectful of the richness that Grandma has provided. As determined as she was to hold on to the lessons and share them with us, I too have to use as much care in putting the information to good use in my every day.

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