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Emmett Till’s mother was my fifth grade teacher.
Mamie Till Mobley lost a son to hatred, but inspired hundreds of children to strive for excellence. In fact, she demanded that we do so. In Emmett’s stead.
Carter Elementary School was in the heart of Chicago’s Southside — they called it “the ghetto,” back then. And we were Black inner city children not expected to escape it.
I remember something very different. A neighborhood united, a neighborhood of loving people whose doors were open to all of us. I had dozens of mothers and fathers. Hundreds of sisters and brothers.
I remember going in big groups, kids of all ages, to the movies, the older ones holding the hands of the younger ones. I remember going to the famous Regal Theater, too, to see “Little” Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, the Jackson Five — before they even were the Jackson Five — and many, many others. “Stage shows,” we called them, that lasted for hours.
We went together. We were family. All of us.
So it’s true, what the comedians say. If you did something mean out there playing with all those sisters and brothers, you got a scoldin’ from all the mothers on the porches on the walk of shame back to your house.
How well I remember that long walk. And my own mom standing with her hands on her hips by our porch, having heard them all calling my name.
I feared the wrath of Alberta Dagnal far more than the wrath of God Himself in those days. But I didn’t know that “wrath” was fear, too. Fear for me.
They were Great Migration people, our mothers and fathers. Who fled the South looking for better lives. And for the most part, they found them. They established stable families and started businesses supported by their fellow strivers. I remember every corner store, restaurant, barber and beauty shop.
Black owned, supported by Black people. Because nobody else wanted us. Yes, I get that now. My godfather, the unofficial “Mayor of Bronzeville,” Dr. James Scott, built us our own hospital for that very reason. He named it after his beloved Ida Mae.
He also was the unofficial “inn keeper” for many a jazz great at at time when they, too, were not welcome anywhere else — no matter how great they were. I still have pictures of Natalie Cole as an infant, taken at my godfather’s house on the knee of her proud father Nat “King” Cole.
My mother’s “wrath” was fear. For me, and my safety. Fear that her headstrong daughter might get herself killed with that “smart mouth” of hers someday. We, the younger generation, had grown up in relative safety up North. My mother had hidden under the floorboards to elude the “night riders” who eventually beat her uncle until he was paralyzed on one side. Just for owning his own land and refusing, repeatedly, to work theirs.
But she’d found out that “up North” was perilous, too. Not as obvious, most of the time. No “Whites Only” signs. But there were lines she did not dare cross. Places she did not dare go. Things “we” didn’t do.
She taught us we could do anything. She taught us to be proud of ourselves. To love our Blackness, perilous as our lives would be because of it.
“Miz Mobley,” however, had other ideas. We were going wherever the hell we wanted to go. She would give us the tools we’d need to build the lives we dreamt of.
She taught us we could do anything. She taught us to be proud of ourselves. To love our Blackness, perilous as our lives would be because of it. I mean, who knew that better than Mamie?
I’d seen what happened to her son. I remember the chill that ran down my spine when the Chicago Defender published that awful casket photo I cannot stand to see even now. I’d been to the South, many summers, as white people glared at me for not saying “Ma’am,” or for not getting out of their way as they approached.
I’d never known that kind of fear. For my very life.
Emmett lost his. But his mother saved ours.
I went on to become all the things I’d dreamt, largely because of that remarkable woman. She invited me to dream as big as I wanted. To do all the things she’d hoped her son might do someday.
I’m kind of glad she’s not with us right now. I’m glad she doesn’t have to be reminded of that son every time another Black boy is murdered just for being a Black Boy. She was a charter member of the Civil Rights Movement, and I am sure she died believing that America was, at last, on the right track.
We’ve run off the rails again, Mamie. Bless your heart.
Today, I remember you and your son. Your legacy lives on in all us kids who knew and loved you. And in our kids, who only know your name. Pray for us.
Here’s a song for you, and for all teachers like you, from some other Chicago boys: