Paw Paw’s Skillet

17 September 2013

Louis Bell NICHOLSON 1895 MS > 1974 Chicago

Louis Bell NICHOLSON
1895 Cliftonville (Noxubee) MS > 1974 Chicago (Cook) IL

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the house of my mother’s father, Louis Nicholson.

The “house” — a three-flat building of seven room apartments (plus two “off the record” units in the basement) — was a gift from a former girlfriend, Sarah Pointer Lemon, whom he and my grandmother cared for until the end of her life in 1963. When Louis died in 1974, the building was the only tangible thing he left for his four children to inherit. It remained the family homestead until 2003, when it was sadly relinquished as the consequence of a tax default.

Louis was born in Cliftonville, Mississippi (a town which no longer exists) in 1895. He spent his early years in West Point, Mississippi, where his father, Wash Nicholson, died of yellow jaundice in 1907.

Sometime around 1910, Louis, his mother Ella, and his five siblings moved on. They sojourned in Memphis, Tennessee (where his grandmother, Bettie WARFE/GAVIN, was buried in 1917). They later made their way to Chicago, surely financed by the bounty Louis and his brothers, Walter and Albert, generated from their “good jobs” on Illinois Central trains. Ella remarried a Jamaican immigrant, William REED, who was shot dead by her nephew in 1924 because he complained about the loud music the young man sacrilegeously played on “the Lord’s day.”

In 1926, Louis married a white woman from Sidell, Illinois (Jennie Waymoth), whom he met in the train station restaurant at 12th Street and Michigan Avenue in Chicago. She was a waitress. He was a cook. Together, they had four children — all of them (and their increase) born in Chicago. At one time or another, every one of his descendants (including me) lived at the family homestead created from the fortuitous gift of 4840 South Parkway (formerly Grand Boulevard, then South Parkway, and, since 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive). 

As a child, I had no idea of my grandfather’s past. He was just the strong, silent man who ruled our roost (with a gentle hand). Our entire family called him “Paw Paw” and we all loved him DEARLY.

Iron Skillet

One BIG thing I remember about Paw Paw is the little iron skillet in which he often cooked — mostly eggs. Although my grandmother made most of the meals, Paw Paw made the “magic” — using that little black skilled which is forever etched into my memory. In my mind’s eye, I can vividly recall watching him heat the skillet over the open flame of our gas stove. Gently cracking an egg or two (depending on the time of the month) into a small amount of oil, he would proceed to fry on high heat. Sometimes, the flames would jump up, eliciting great joy from the small child witness (me) for whom cooking was a yet to be achieved accomplishment. He would mock the fire with a smile on his face, lift the skillet in the air to quell the flames and finish his task with relish — sliding a perfectly asymmetrical orb onto his small plate as an accompaniment to two fat slices of unbuttered super soft Silvercup white bread.

Paw Paw’s admonition about food was that you should take just what you needed from the pot. If still hungry after your first serving, you could always go back for more. Therein, I suppose, is the unexpurgated wisdom of cooking in a tiny skillet and eating from the salad sized plate from which his meals (whether he cooked them or not) were eaten.

Today, that highly seasoned little black skillet is one of the few remaining references to the life of a man who was greatly loved.

I hope Paw Paw is watching as I write this so he can enjoy a good laugh!

Musings on Malevolence

15 September 2013

Tom & Rhoda LESLIE Enslaved at Lowndes County, AL

Tom & Rhoda LESLIE
Enslaved at Lowndes County, AL

Delving into the past is not for the faint hearted… especially when your ancestors were enslaved.

I read the stories of the “grand men and women who made America great” and cringe at the thought of how their riches and acclaim were “achieved’ by crushing the backs and spirits of “others” = MY PEOPLE…. stalked and captured in Africa and transported to America in the holds of slave ships, destined for a life of nothing — other than unrelenting work, service to a “master” and erasure of their identity… transformed into people of NO nation, NO history and diminished prospects ever after.

There are days when I feel SO DEPRESSED upon the discovery of yet another abominable truth, the facts of which feed my fury about the unfathomably unjust past.The more I learn, the more compelling becomes my desire to know even MORE… fueling the frenzy of my discontent. In my more enlightened state — I yearn to integrate what I learn into making myself a better person — thus ascribing the overflow of pain into something positive.

On my worst days, I hear the voice of Bettie Warfe (my maternal great great grandmother), who bore 17 children with the nephew of her master. Surely these children whose genes I share could not have been born of “love” in the context of times in which NO woman (especially an enslaved black “consort”) could ever say “NO.” 

My heart recoils at the story of Rhody Reeves Leslie (my paternal great grandmother) who cries out as an infant, slung against a wall by the enraged wife of her white master/father and then banished/sold with her mother to a fate unknown.

My mind’s eye sees Tom Leslie (my paternal great grandfather) face down a sheriff in Montgomery, Alabama with his shotgun — welcoming death rather than sacrifice his grandchildren (my father) to the whims of white supremacy.

I cringe at the thought of Owen Gavin (my great uncle) witnessing his daughter violated by “Knight riders” determined to drive his family from the small plot of land he managed to occupy after fleeing Mississippi to Oklahoma in the hope of a better life.

I see my grandfather, Louie Nicholson, terrified to his core as his uncle was lynched in Noxubee County, Mississippi for no apparent reason other than the fact of his blackness.

I hurt with the knowledge of my mother’s distress as she was beaten and gang raped by men who knew they would not face prosecution because she was black as night but not at sight.

As the iconic Mississippi writer William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

It is this past  that continues to haunt a present in which Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, Trayvon Martin… and countless others victims of the American myth… continue to suffer the detritus of ignorance and misguided delusions.

LAWD… help me transform my trauma into triumph!!!

Ashes to Ashes

3 June 2013

DSCF0182

As a genealogist, I tend to focus on researching/identifying ancestors who dwell in the deep, dark recesses of history — long before I was born. I attribute that inclination to a primeval calling to discover the earliest origins of who I am. As an African American, my ancestral roots lay in slavery; a research path shrouded in mystery.

But recently (probably in response to my mother’s birthday (May 28), I started thinking about contemporary ancestors = family members who lived and died within my own lifetime.

I am fortunate to not have experienced many deaths of immediate family members during the time in which I have lived (which is beginning to be a long time indeed). As I calculate the demise of my loved ones, I realize their deaths have been spaced over long periods of time. In my 60+ years, only seven really close family members have departed this world. (That number doesn’t include aunts, uncles and cousins, only the closest of close — the people who bore and raised me.) The result averages out to one loss per seven years, a period of time that should allow room for healing from profound grief that, no matter how many years pass, never goes away.

The first one to go was my paternal great grandmother; the woman who first inspired my interest in genealogy. Her name was Rhoda Reeves LESLIE (1850-1954). Born into slavery, she died at age of 104 when I was three years old. I can only remember seeing her but not talking to her. I knew nothing about her history until I was an adult and my father (after much resistance) finally told me some of her story, the essence of which propelled me on a genealogical journey that continues to this day.

Nine years later, in 1963, I lost my mother’s mother — Jeanette Waymoth NICHOLSON (1902-1963). Maw Maw dropped dead (at age 60) right before my 12 year old eyes. After drinking a refreshing glass of tap water from the sink in front of a kitchen window, she remarked “What a lovely day” and dropped to  the floor, dead of a massive heart attack. After my mother and aunt carried her to a nearby bed, we all heard her last gasp of breath, which made us think she was still with us. She was not.

A decade on (1973) my father’s father, Robert LESLIE (1893-1973) died at age 79. I never knew him well because my mother kept me away from my father’s people. Yet, when I attended Mr. Gentleman’s funeral, I cried inconsolably for the man I didn’t know, bruised to the core because I wasn’t even mentioned in his obituary with his other grandchildren.

The next year (1974), my mother’s father, Louis Bell NICHOLSON (1895-1974) died of old age at age 80. His heart just STOPPED. The rock of my existence, I remember changing Paw Paw’s diapers before the task became so overwhelming that my mother was forced to admit him to a nursing home.

In 1983 (nine years later), my father’s step (hate that word) grandmother, Mama Dora (Antonia Dora FEDERICO, 1902-1983) passed away at age 80. I refused to visit her in hospital for weeks because I knew she was waiting for me in order to be released. Once I overcame my fear, went to the hospital, held her hand and whispered “I love you” into her ear, she passed away peacefully. I shall forever regret my callous selfishness in not wanting to live in world without her. 

Traumatized by the loss of my most beloved, I eschewed attending funerals. I could not bear the pain of loss — either my own family members or those of friends. At every funeral invitation, my mind turned to how I had to be restrained from throwing myself into my grandfather’s grave and carried from the funeral service to my grandmother’s home, where I slept in her bed, crying in agony for days.

Eighteen years beyond that vow, my father died in 2001 (age 87); my mother in 2005 (age 76). When my father passed, I was living in Paris. Friends potted up the money to buy me a ticket home so I (his only child) could attend to his last rites (which I heralded with a display of Easter lilies). I returned home from Paris in 2003 and had the good fortune of spending the last two years of my mother’s life with her living in my home — a place I organized for the specific purpose of caring for her.

Where does all of this history lead me?

I have concluded that I don’t want to remember people in death… I prefer to recall them in LIFE…. AND I have no doubt whatsoever that their spirits continue to exist in another realm where they await me with open arms. 

My mother’s ashes are preserved in an urn that I keep on a bookshelf. My father is on another shelf — just above hers. (She told me before she died that they couldn’t be on the same shelf unless I wanted to find ashes spewed all over the floor 🙂

When I recently introduced my two young grandchildren to their great grandparents, they marvelled at the idea of the temporal body v. the everlasting life of the spirit.

I have no idea when my time will come, but I know it won’t be that much longer before it does. My only prayer is that someone will remember my name.

Decoration Day

26 May 2013

Nathaniel McNAIR (uncle of Arthur Leslie -- unknown location)

As I spent my day pondering the meaning of Memorial Day, and its relevance to genealogy, I was led to an account of how the day we now celebrate had it’s genesis in the African American community as a celebration of the end of the Civil War which resulted in the Emancipation of four million people from slavery. That commemoration has evolved to include all casualties of all wars from the Civil War forward.

In the course of my research, I found an account by Historian David Blight, associate professor of history at Connecticut College, who reports:

SoldiersAfrican Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”

Read the entire article: http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/14684833-the-black-roots-of-memorial-day

My personal memories of war are limited to second hand tales of WWII shared by my mother, her brother who served and their contemporaries.

The benchmark war of my generation was in Vietnam. I remember well going to the train station almost every week with friends who had been drafted. Many of them never came back — or returned irrevocably damaged (physically and/or mentally) from the experience.

It is hard to believe that, during this time — when adored world boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to serve — I was a member of my high school ROTC. I achieved the rank of Major, but a military career? No way.

I shared Ali’s feelings when he said:

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?  No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.  This is the day when such evils must come to an end…. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.  I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs.  So I’ll go to jail, so what?  We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

Contemplation of all this history inspired me to wonder how many people in my family tree served in the military. Having never tried to connect the dots before, I was surprised at how many I found.

In a world where more than 100 wars are currently in progress, I have so many thoughts about the subject — it’s horror and futility. Everyone who serves does so with honor, no matter how unjust the war. Putting one’s life on the line (for any reason) is a sacrifice of immeasurable proportion. My heart breaks for the families who endure the loss of loved ones who have made the ultimate sacrifice and for the soldiers who return and are treated so callously by the Veteran’s Administration and other agencies of government.

My great hope is that war will someday (soon) become obsolete — and I don’t mean just the act of sending people off to fight, but the act of waging war of any kind, for any reason.

With that in mind, here is my family honor roll:

Louis NICHOLSON (my mother’s father) said he spent “a few weeks” in service during WWI and  I remember the .38 revolver he proudly showed as a souvenir. I have never found a record of his service although I  have his draft registration card from 1917, when the corners were torn off to indicate race.

Walter Robert NICHOLSON (his brother) served with distinction in WWI on the battlefields of France. When he returned home, many American cities were in flames from race riots. He died a cruel death in a state mental hospital from the effects of gas poisoning in 1929.

Louis NICHOLSON, Jr. (my mother’s brother) served in the Navy during WWII. Because of his appearance, he was treated like a white man, which came with the dubious privilege of being entrusted with superior weaponry. He jokingly told us that he would have much preferred being treated as black so he could work in the kitchen instead of shooting people. I am able to relive his experience from the many letters he and my mother shared while he was in service.

Eugene Owen GAVIN (cousin) served in WWI in France and was awarded a Purple Heart. His service was ironic in that, some years before the war, his family had been driven off of their land by “night riders” in OK in obvious rebuke of their civil rights.

Eugene Victor GAVIN (cousin), a registered Communist, was a Merchant Marine and an early volunteer in the Spanish American War, where he served in the “mixed” Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Assigned to a Spanish formation, he was severely wounded and lost an eye.

His brother, Robert Owen GAVIN served in this same brigade as a medic. He disappeared in 1938 “in combat against the enemy.”

Robert LESLIE (my father’s brother) enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Ft. Huachuka AZ, famous as the headquarters of the 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers). After a year, he was dismissed as “unable to adapt to service” for reasons I have yet to discover.

Ulysses Simpson LESLIE (my father’s uncle) This son of parents who were enslaved in AL served in WWI. I never met him in person and have no details.

Nathaniel McNAIR (cousin) served in WWI. I know absolutely nothing about him other than the photo of him in his uniform, which is at the head of this blog post.

Francine Evelyn LESLIE (my first cousin) was a WAVE. She fled her abusive father by enlisting in the Navy and never experienced combat. Her military service enabled her to be educated as a nurse, a career from which she recently retired.

I don’t have enough details to shout out Paul FARMER (US Army), Frederick WILLIAMSON (USAF) and Charles LITTLE (USN) — but their service is not forgotten.

And then, there are others I have a hard time “honoring” — the white men of the GAVIN family of Noxubee County, MS. More than 10 served in the Confederate Army and mostly survived. At least two of them (Gabriel and Robert Lewis) had black “families” back on the plantation and I will never comprehend how they lived with that hypocrisy.

Perhaps this egregious service can be tempered by knowing that my white grandmother’s grandfather Daniel WAYMOTH served on the Union side from Indiana. Severely wounded in an accident  unrelated to combat, he spent many painful years fighting for a pension that was posthumously awarded to his widow. His family disowned my grandmother when she married a black man in Chicago in 1926.

I will update my list again next year, but until then, think about this: