My sister Malaya Rucker-Oparabea, a dancer and storyteller, and her son, actor, producer and entrepreneur Lamman Rucker, have devoted their lives to their art. On Sunday, May 15, they talked about their relationship on an online radio program “Phenomenal Saging Mothers.”
11/5/2013: Aunt Alma died this morning. She was a brilliant woman and a bright light. I am so glad Zuri and I were blessed to spend some time with her in February. Rest in peace, Aunt Alma. Yours was a life well lived.
Anybody who talks to me for more than five minutes (OK, two minutes) knows that my daughter, Zuri, goes to Spelman. And if you talk to me for 10 minutes you will hear the story of why, among many of the good decisions she has made in her life, Spelman has so far been one of the best.
But Zuri is not the first member of our extended family to go to Spelman. There is Andrea Williams, MD; Gabrielle Fouché Williams, and Janelle Duckett, who with Zuri is a member of the Class of 2012.
And then there is my Aunt Alma Stone Williams.
Aunt Alma entered Spelman at the age of 15. She was valedictorian when she graduated in 1940. She wrote a lovely letter to me with memories of my mom, who was her late husband Russell’s favorite cousin. I’ll share that letter with you in an upcoming post.
After earning her bachelor’s degree at Spelman, Aunt Alma earned master’s degree at Atlanta University. An accomplished pianist, she planned to study at Juilliard during the summer of 1944 when an opportunity arose that was so compelling she could not pass it up. She was invited to be the first ever and only black student at Black Mountain College, an experimental, liberal arts college in North Carolina. Though the school was founded in 1933 on the principles of democratic governance and community living, it had no black students or faculty for the first decade of its existence. School officials wanted to integrate, but weren’t sure how. In 1944 they decided to admit Aunt Alma as a summer student.
“In attending Black Mountain for their Summer Session in 1944, Alma became possibly the first Black student in the 20th century to attend a predominantly white college in the South. (Most other white colleges did not integrate until twenty years or more later),” her son Russell wrote in a chronology in honor of his mother’s 90th birthday April 26.
In a 2008 profile on Aunt Alma in the Ashville, North Carolina Urban News, she is quoted as saying:
“Pioneering did not frighten me. I was accustomed to studying and living with white teachers at Spelman and to reaching for high standards in all areas.”
Aunt Alma’s decision to take that leap of faith changed Black Mountain College.
“In 1945 the College admitted two African American students to the Summer Session and also two guest faculty members, performers Carol Brice and Roland Hayes,” the Urban News article said. “That fall the college hired an African American faculty member, Dr. Percy H. Baker, and admitted an African American, Sylvesta Martin, as a full-time student for the regular academic year. In the winter of 1947, five black students were enrolled at the college: two men, both veterans of WWII, and three women.
At this point the faculty voted to declare the experimental stage of its interracial program at an end and to release a public statement to the effect that henceforth “admission will be open to all students of all races.”
Spelman’s theme song is “A Choice to Change the World.”
That is exactly what Aunt Alma did.
Congratulations to the Spelman Class of 2011. I’m sure anything I say will pale in comparison to what you hear from First Lady Sister Michelle.
So I will let Aunt Alma’s legacy speak for itself.
- First lady welcomed at historically black college (sfgate.com)
- Returning to Spelman with First Lady Michelle Obama (whitehouse.gov)
Recently, Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, gave a talk at Stanford about the challenges he has faced as he develops the museum, which is scheduled to be completed in 2015. Bunch talked about the “treasures” people often bring him as potential items for the museum’s collection.
Bunch told the story of a pillowcase someone brought him that had been passed among family members for several generations. The pillowcase was embroidered by an enslaved African American woman who had just learned the day before that she would be sold.
The embroidery was a message to her daughter:
“In this pillowcase, you will find a dress, you will find some biscuits, but what you will find is that it’s filled with my love. And though I may never see you again, always know how close you are to my heart. “
According to Bunch, that mother never saw her daughter again.
Bunch’s story put into perspective all the chatter about tiger and helicopter moms. There’s even a new one, snowplow parents – who try to move all the difficulties out of their children’s lives. I used to say that most of my black friends thought I was a pushover when it came to parenting and many of my white friends thought I was too tough. I’m not sure what my other friends thought. In the end, all of our children have made us pretty damn proud.
In an age when everybody’s got an opinion about how children should be raised, protected, nurtured, etc., the pillowcase story makes it all seem so silly. Who among us would have had the resolve to embroider that farewell before being sold to another slave owner? Or who would not have been tempted to do what Sethe did in Toni Morrison’s Beloved?
Maybe this is a downer as Mother’s Day approaches. It’s not meant to be. It’s intended to be a tribute to mothers who, under the worst and best circumstances, did and do their best with every ounce of what they have. Here’s to our mothers, who made sure we had clothes on our backs and something to eat and who stitched together a legacy of love that has sustained us through generations.
On a more uplifting note, and speaking of generations, here’s what my father wrote for Mother’s Day in 1937.
Recently, I left what my father would have referred to as an unkind “Jupiter Pluvius” behind in California to attend a professional meeting in D. C. While I was in the area, I took a bit of a trip down memory lane. My first stop was a visit with my oldest friend, Melana – we’ve known each other since we were eight – and her husband Derek. Then I hung out with my niece M’Balia and her sons, Shomari and (Little) Ron. M’Balia and I drove up to Havre de Grace, Maryland, where my mother spent many a summer with her cousins – the Williams branch of the family. This family of 10 kids was legendary in our household.
They grew up on a farm on Old Robin Hood Road. Their mother, Hattie, and my mother’s father, John Henry Brown, were brother and sister. The Williams’s were highly educated with doctoral, medical and other professional degrees many, but not all, from historically black institutions. And they called my mother “Willie,” short for Wilhelmina, her middle name. This probably had to do with the fact that there were a lot of Marys on both sides of the family. When M’Balia and I made our plans to visit the farm in Havre de Grace, we expected to visit with the three cousins who now live in the house they grew up in and their sister, Catherine, who built a home on the land after she and her husband, Jimmy, retired. But they must have sent out the word, because every living sibling showed up to greet us. They shared family stories, read this blog with fascination and encouragement, cheered on M’Balia, who was on the cusp of earning her first degree in criminal justice with high honors. And they insisted on treating us to lunch.
I found out some things: Why their eldest sister, Ruth, was not listed on the 1930 census document I found. (She was already married and had left home.)
I also learned that my mother’s nuclear family was the second for her father. That John Henry had had a first marriage and that I have a living cousin named Rosie I never knew existed.
As for my father, my mother’s cousin Eva said, surprisingly, that she had only met him once, when he and my mother came for a visit to the farm. “He was very quiet,” she recalled.
On to D. C. I had a chance to visit with my friend Laurence, who I met when I first came to Stanford in 1995. Back then, her oldest son, Benjamin, and my daughter, Zuri, were just five years old. The last time I’d seen Laurence, she and I, her husband, Michel, and their daughter, Chloé, braved the frigid January weather to witness Barack Obama’s inauguration.
And speaking of D. C., I found this column my father wrote following his first visit to the nation’s capital in the fall of 1934. Unlike the chilly but glorious weather I enjoyed the weekend I was there, he saw the city on what sounds like a particularly rainy day.
I wonder what he would have thought about the fact that the nation has its first black president. I passed the Old Executive Office Building, which he mentions was under construction in 1934 and is covered with scaffolding today.
“Washington, with its tree-bedecked boulevards, is a beautiful city – even on a rainy day,” Ebenezer wrote. “Au revoir, I hope not goodbye.”
Last Friday morning, one of my Facebook friends and a favorite genealogist, Lisa Lee, posted a “press release” on her wall announcing that the Walt Disney Company had made a deal to purchase Ancestry.com. The company planned to create a thrill ride called “Memory Lane,” which would “take guests on a magical journey through their own ancestral history.” The ride would require an advance booking and a three-generation pedigree chart to give operators time to “create a customized experience,” complete with photos, sounds, images and historical facts about their ancestor’s lives.
Some Facebook visitors saw through it right away. I, following the journalistic tenet, “Even if your mother tells you, check it out,” searched for other evidence of the acquisition.
It was an April Fool’s joke. But good one.
Later that evening, I watched the NBC version of Who do You Think You Are? a program in which celebrities trace their roots. I’ve learned a lot about Lionel Richie, whose great-grandfather J. Louis Brown, was a principal organizer and Supreme Grand Archon of the Knights of Wise Men, a fraternal organization for black men that formed after the Civil War. It was affirming to hear Richie talk about his community in Tuskegee, Ala. The adults who surrounded him and his sister, Deborah, were doctors and lawyers and holders of PhDs. These adults protected their children from the horrors of Jim Crow. “If the Klan was coming to protest through the streets of Tuskegee, our parents put us to bed early,” said Richie, who was raised on the campus of Tuskegee Institute. (That episode got me thinking about, Richie’s daughter Nicole, and what the experience of tracing one’s ancestry must be like for adopted children. )
Other episodes this season have featured Sex in the City’s Kim Cattrall and character actor Steve Buscemi.
The April 1 episode on actress Gwyneth Paltrow hit home when it revealed that her maternal great-great grandmother, Rosamund Stout, was born in Barbados. It was fun to see genealogist Pat Stafford walk Paltrow though Barbados historical documents at the country’s national archives, which we visited in December looking for clues to my father’s family. With Stafford’s help, Paltrow learned that her great-great grandmother was orphaned at 13 years old and at 18 boarded a commercial ship to the United States. Pedro Welch, a professor at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, offered Paltrow some background on the social climate on 19th-century Barbados and helped her understand why Rosamund and her older sister , the only passengers – and perhaps the only females – boarded a ship carrying salt and Colonial products. The commercial vessel was less expensive than a passenger ship, Welch explained. He added that after slaves were emancipated in 1934, lower-middle-class white women lost their jobs to free black women with the same skills who were willing to work for much less. Welch also noted that the male-female ratio was so out of proportion on the island that the prospects for marriage for these young white women would have been limited.
“So they were competing with other white women for the few available men,” Paltrow concluded.
“And with some black women as well,” Welch pointed out.
It made me think about the factors at work when my father, skilled as a printer, took off for Bermuda and then Harlem in 1923, while his brother, trained in the same profession, remained in Barbados.
NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” is an American adaptation of a BBC documentary series. I have not seen any of the BBC episodes. They are not available on Netflix, and when I try to watch clips on the web I’m told it’s not available in my area. (Maybe I’ll catch a few episodes when I get to London tomorrow.)
The NBC program is sponsored by Ancestry.com.
The Disney/Ancestry “press release” may have been an April Fool’s ruse, but with the resurgence of interest in tracing our roots, don’t be surprised to find a “Memory Lane” center theme park near you where visitors could begin to fill in their family trees.
In the meantime, my own journey is far more thrilling than any roller coaster ride. With every turn of a page, microfilm reel or conversation with a relative, I never know what I’m going to find. Who knows, Gwyenth might be a distant cousin!
She would have laughed too. Probably still is. She had a sick sense of humor. One of her favorite movies was Harold and Maude.
Searching through a box of old correspondence, I was blown away by the number of cards and letters we exchanged, especially during the 70s and 80s, before there was such a thing as email. I’ve got a pile of letters filled with commentary on men, movies and more. Most of the letters are not appropriate for reprint. For one thing, it requires a well-trained eye and years of practice to decipher her handwriting. Secondly, much of the content would have to be redacted to protect the innocent and the guilty.
Ellen-Marie would be 62 today. To celebrate she would likely have yellow cake with chocolate frosting. She would be proud of every candle. She’d take her daughter and son Kamaya and Jeremy, out for Brazilian food. She might listen to Smokey Robinson or watch ET or Jeopardy! or Law and Order. On the weekend, she would look for a dance party. She would be surrounded by friends from every walk of life.
She was a super mom, a dedicated attorney and my best friend.
Last Monday, when I found myself having trouble getting out of bed, I just assumed it was the winter pall, or maybe the martinis I had consumed over the President’s Day weekend. But as much as I was inclined to, as Jamie Foxx sings, “blame it on the alcohol,” (By the way, did anyone see the Glee take on that song last week?) It was something more profound.
On Thursday, while I was visiting the local Family History Center searching for more pieces of the Ray family puzzle, I came upon my mother’s death record. Yep. Feb. 21, 2002. Nine years ago last Monday.
I thought about waiting until next year to pay tribute. It will be the 10th anniversary of her death, a milestone of sorts. But the future is not promised, as we all know, so I’m going to do it now. After all, there is no end to the gifts my mother poured into me. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say next year.
I dug out an article I wrote for Essence in 1986 titled “How to get out of that rut and make life an adventure.” I used my mother as an example of someone who did that every day.
“My mother has always had a positive, energetic spirit and a sense of adventure unmatched in anyone else I’ve ever known,” I wrote in that Essence article. “A firm believer in going for the gusto, she ran track without the benefit of Wilma Rudolph as a role model. She was the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree. And while many of her peers were settling down with their own families, she was relocating to a strange city to take a new job. When she did marry and had my sisters and me, her world and her adventurous spirit simply grew. ‘There is no excuse for boredom,’ she’d say as she dragged us (and any other neighborhood child who happened to be within her reach) to dance classes, music lessons, museums, concerts, libraries and amusement parks — all on public transportation. And as my sisters and I came of age and began moving around to new jobs, new cities, new countries and new adventures, she was always there with her motherly caution, ‘Please be careful,’ and ‘Get some rest,’ — all the while saying ‘Go head, girl!'”
And I know she’s saying it now: To her daughter Malaya, who is still dancing, teaching and storytelling with a passion; To her granddaughter, M’Balia, who is about to get her degree all while working full time and raising three children and getting them through school and college. She’d say it to my daughter, Zuri, who is getting her acting on in London and will be an intern at the Cannes Film Festival in May. She’d say it to her granddaughter Kamaya, who has taken her big brother Jeremy, under her wing as he has determined to turn his life around. And, of course, she would say “well done” to her famous nephew Lamman, not just for his accomplishments as an actor, but for being a man with such a good, good heart.
My mom died on February 21, 2002 at 82. The weekend before, she had attended an AKA luncheon and the symphony. She was so active that when her friends didn’t hear from her in one 36-hour period, they knew something was up. They found her sitting in a comfy chair with her feet up, a cup of tea within reach.
She lived life fully to the end. That’s the best legacy she could leave.