Fifty years have come and gone since the summer of 1956; but I remember the summer I turned twelve years old as if it were yesterday. Like a birthmark that stays on the skin throughout our lives adjusting itself to our weight and height, the summer of 1956 placed an indelible mark on my life that remains with me to this day. That summer focused and defined my youth in a way that I have never forgotten. The summer of 1956 became the prism through which I finally began to learn who I was as a young African-American man. It was also the summer that taught me the real meaning of family and community and the importance of being deeply anchored in both.

My community in Morganton, North Carolina, was especially rich in the values and aspirations that have traditionally sustained and nurtured African-American communities throughout the south, where we survived and flourished despite the serious and often violent obstacles we faced in building strong families and communities. I remember my school, Olive Hill School, a modest one-story red brick building with a basement that housed all twelve grades. According to the School Board in Morganton, the land for Olive Hill School had been purchased from my grandmother, Rebecca Fleming. However, the information passed down in my family indicated that Big Momma (my paternal grandmother) had donated the land for a colored school.

I remember how important my family was to me when I was growing up in Morganton, especially my maternal grandmother Margaret Henessee (Momma), my paternal grandparents William and Rebecca Fleming (DePapa and Big Momma), My Aunt Lillian, and my parents James and Mary Fleming. I remember how my father worked three jobs when we were small. He got up early every morning and went to work at the Drexel Furniture Factory in town. When he got home from the furniture factory, he would eat an early dinner around four o’clock in the afternoon and leave for his second job making picture frames for Greene’s Photography Studio. Daddy also worked a third job driving a cab from 8:00 P.M. to midnight. He worked hard so he could make a good life for his family, which included building a small house next to his father’s home for his wife and three children. I remember how hard my mother worked as a full-time dietician at Olive Hill School and as a full-time homemaker taking care of us three children, cooking all the meals, washing all the clothes and taking care of my father and all the other demands placed on her as a mother and wife.

I remember our neighborhood on West Concord Street before the street was paved and nobody in the neighborhood had much grass. My Aunt Lillian would tie the ends of tree branches together so that we could sweep the yard. I remember that my favorite pattern was the African knot and how pretty it looked when I finished sweeping the yard. I remember working in our backyard garden with my Aunt Lillian and my paternal grandfather De Papa and the security and satisfaction I got from just being around them as they went about their daily activities. They always managed to make a place for me and the other grandchildren when we showed up to help. We grandchildren were never a nuisance. We were family; and the patience and love they showed us, even when we were being naughty rather than helpful, clarified the value of being deeply rooted in family and the meaning of family ties in a way that remains with me to this day.

I remember my father’s older brother, Elliard, even though he died before I was born. Elliard was DePapa and Big Momma’s first child to go off to college. Aunt Lillian often talked about how smart he was and how proud the family had been to send a son off to college because DePapa had been the son and grandson of slaves. Elliard was a student at Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte, North Carolina; because there was no high school for colored in Morganton. He was very bright, one of the best students in his class, and the family had such high hopes for him. Elliard was killed in a random act of racial violence. While he was walking near the campus at Johnson C. Smith, some racists threw some bricks at him. One of the bricks hit him at the base of his brain and killed him instantly. His killer was never found.

I remember my cousin, J.W., my Aunt Emily’s son. One summer, when I was five years old, J.W., who was 17, took me with him from Morganton to Jacksonville, North Carolina, on the Trailways bus. We had to sit in the back of the bus where the heat, loud noise and oily smell of the engine made the trip hard on a five year old. That was in 1949. Two years later, J.W. joined the Marines and at 19 years of age, he was shipped off to the Korean War. One Saturday afternoon in July of 1951, our family received word that J.W. had been killed in action in Korea. My Aunt Emily never got over the death of her only child who could not sit in the front of a bus in North Carolina, but had been killed fighting in distant Korea for the freedom that his own country denied him at home.

I remember the spring and summer evenings we spent in DePapa’s front yard under the shade trees when the weather was good. While I didn’t recognize the feeling at the time, I now realize that those evenings were very secure and comforting times for me sitting there with my elderly relatives enveloping me and the other grandchildren with the living, breathing embodiment of what family truly means. There were usually my grandfather, his brother, his sister, my parents, my aunt, several cousins of my father and us grandchildren. These relatives were the literal roots of my family while they lived, giving us the advantage of their knowledge, wisdom, humor and love simply by spending a cool, relaxing evening under the shade trees in the front yard of DePapa’s house.

I remember the important role Slades Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion church played in my father’s family. My paternal great grandfather, Isaac, and his father, Alfred, were founding members of Slades Chapel AME, which was established in 1881. However, Slades Chapel grew out of an even older African-American church, Gaston Chapel AME, which was founded in 1868. These churches were the heart and soul of a significant segment of the African-American community in Morganton and provided spiritual comfort and material support for their members. Children joined the church, attended Sunday school, church services, Bible classes, and vacation Bible school. They joined the choir, the usher board and the missionary society. They became elders and deacons. They married in the church, aided the sick and elderly, lived their lives as members of the church and were buried in the church.

I remember the story of “The Old African.” I heard this story so often, even as a young child, that I could repeat it verbatim; yet I never tired of hearing my grandfather DePapa repeat it. DePapa said the story was part of our family history and that it taught us who we were. He said that the first African ancestor brought to America on my father’s side of the family was named “Tamishan.” According to family history, Tamishan was of noble birth. He was said to be a very proud man who could read and write from the Koran and could speak seven different African languages and English. Tasmishan’s slave master, Waightstill Avery, was said to be impressed by Tamishan and was also said to listen to him read from the Koran.

However, Tamishan never accepted his bondage and was eventually branded as a troublemaker. Although Tamishan started our family line in America with his slave wife (he left a son, Big Alf, who was DePapa’s great grandfather), he hated bondage and was determined to be a free man again in his native Africa. So, he convinced his master, Waightstill Avery, to let him return to Africa in exchange for four slaves who would take his place on the plantation in Burke County, North Carolina. My grandfather, DePapa, thought it worth remembering that an African slave had the power of reason and persuasion to convince his master to give him his freedom under those conditions; and Waightstill Avery did agree to Tamishan’s terms. Extant records in North Carolina confirm the deal made between the slave master and his slave, after which Tamishan left on a ship for Africa out of the port of Charleston, South Carolina. However, once Tamishan reached his home in Africa, he couldn’t bear to send other Africans into slavery in America. Instead, he paid the ship’s captain the equivalent in gold of four slaves to satisfy his bargain with Waightstill Avery. The captain accepted the gold, and Tamishan remained in Africa.

DePapa made certain that all his children and grandchildren learned the story of “The Old African Tamishan.” That’s why I especially remember my grandfather DePapa, who was a living, breathing reminder to us grandchildren that no one can be enslaved so long as they know who they are and where they came from. Tamishan never lost sight of who he was and was determined to return to Africa where he came from. Even as a young man, I often thought about all the stories my grandfather told me about our family, about what proud men his father, grandfather and great grandfather were; about how slavery had not diminished their self-esteem and their sense of themselves as men. They knew who they were and were proud to be men of African descent. I realize now how lucky I was to have DePapa as my grandfather. DePapa was a short handsome man, very dark in complexion with snow-white hair and a long white mustache. He, along with my father, was my role model for what it meant to be a man. I shall be ever grateful to my family and community for providing me with such a rich heritage that continues to serve as the foundation for who I am today, a half century later.

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