Thursday, September 15, 2016

Courage In The Face of Fear

Can you imagine living in constant fear and chaos 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year? Being tormented relentlessly?  Well that is how our ancestors lived. The time period was Post Civil War and Post Emancipation . Newly freed slave families were migrating to different parts of the south to settle and begin their new life of freedom. SO THEY THOUGHT! Several traumatic incidents occurred that would affect the economic success or downfall of the black tobacco farmer’s livelihood.
The incidences surrounding these freed people were often brutal, unfair, and in constant transition.
My forefathers were tobacco farmers in Trigg County, KY. Their life was very hard. First of all, coming into freedom, black folks did not have resources to buy supplies to even begin to farm. So if you didn’t have money to purchase the needed supplies, how would you get them? That’s right credit! Farmers would purchase their farming supplies and equipment on credit, thus putting them in IMMEDIATE debt. This dept, along with unscrupulous practices on the store owner’s part, weather conditions, and insect infestation produced little profit for the black tobacco farmer. In some instances the farmer’s life could be described as one of destitution. This meant that he and his family were so poverty stricken that they did not have the means to provide for themselves. Not a glorious life at all, but they did what they had to do in order to survive.
In Kentucky and Tennessee between 1904 and 1909, there was a period of feuding between the American Tobacco Company and the black tobacco farmers in this region. It was called the Black Patch Wars.  The “Silent Brigade” or Night riders would go through the fields  at night and destroy crops, livestock, and tobacco warehouses where the tobacco was stored and dried. This was a very intense period of time for the tobacco farmer and his family. He faced constant fear when these evil men would come and destroy everything that he had worked so hard for with an oiled soaked torch.

How did they accomplish this and overcome other obstacles standing in their way? It was God’s mercy, along with their strength, courage, resilience, and the knowledge of knowing where they had come from. This unshakeable desire to make a better life for themselves and their families kept them moving forward against the tide of injustice, prejudice, and racism. 

Friday, September 9, 2016


Have you ever heard the song “Grandma’s Hands” by Bill Withers? As I listened to this melody, I was reminded of my paternal grandmother, Rubye  Poole Johnson (1912-2002). My grandma’s hands could cook delicious meals and create beautiful clothes. She used her hands, although worn with time, to share her gifts of cooking and sewing with her family and friends.
Grandma Rubye was a fabulous cook, who ruled her kitchen. She was an excellent homemaker to her husband and three sons: Charles, Carl, and Eric. She also raised her five nephews: Jasper, Richard, Andrew, Nathaniel and George.  All had very hearty appetites! My dad, Charles, said that his mother was one of the best cooks that he knew. One of my grandmother’s signature dishes was her famous, melt-in-your mouth, golden brown, homemade rolls. If you visited her house on roll making day, the heavenly aroma of homemade baked rolls would slap you lovingly in your face and you could not wait to eat a hot, fluffy, buttery roll!  Her youngest son, Eric said that he would love Sunday dinners because they would always have “mama’s rolls”.  Her middle son, Carl, remembers helping his mother assemble all the ingredients for “roll making day”. The job of her eldest son, Charles, was to grease the large pans with lard so that the rolls would not stick. Needless to say grandma’s rolls were very memorable and left a lasting impression on those who experienced the delight of them. Unfortunately, grandma did not write her recipe down and her sons were too busy eating the rolls to remember how she made them and what ingredients she used. I guess we will have to use trial and error until we get her recipe right! Grandma was definitely a “master chef” in her kitchen and all her family and friends knew it.
Another one of Grandma’s God given gifts was that she was a fantastic seamstress. One of her dreams. when she got married. was to have her own tailor shop. Yes, she was that good! Unfortunately, that dream did not come to pass, but that did not stop her. I remember in her house she had a sewing room. This room was located just off of the kitchen and was also used as a bedroom. In her sewing room, there was a table with a black, old time Singer sewing machine and around it were lots of spools of  industrial thread in various colors and sizes. This room was where all the “Magic” happened. She would make tailored suits and dresses for her friends and family. My dad said that he always admired the fact that his mother could turn a piece of fabric into something beautiful. He remembers that his mother made him a Gold corduroy car coat with a hood made out of fabric purchased from Jackmann’s Fabric Store on Locust Street in downtown St. Louis.  My dad loved his coat because there was none other like it. A family friend said that Mrs. Johnson, helped her mother finish a sewing project that she had started and also made a pants suit for her.  She taught my dad how to sew and anyone else who desired to learn.
The story goes that Grandpa, Charles Johnson, met Rubye working in a tailoring shop in Anniston, Alabama during his training for WWII. He had brought his uniform to the shop to be altered. Grandma’s motto was” if you had the ability to alter it, you could make it”. She was talking about sewing, but little did they both know that this fateful meeting would alter their lives forever and make such a difference in the lives of many.


Friday, September 2, 2016

Washington Park Cemetery

I am dismayed by the lack of respect and attention given to the maintenance of African American cemeteries in St. Louis, MO and all over this country. My maternal 2x great grandfather, Woodson Ellis, is buried in Washington Park in Berkley, MO. The funeral director that took care of his burial in 1939 told me that people that were buried before 1940 were buried under other bodies. This is very disrespectful to the dead and very heartbreaking to their relatives.

Some of the land that Washington Park is built on was bought out by St. Louis International Airport in the late 90s. The bodies on the land were relocated to other cemeteries in St. Louis by their loved ones. Fortunately, through much research and contacting the Airport Authority, I found out that Woodson Ellis is still buried out in Washington Park on the land that was not bought by the airport. I was relieved and wanted to take a visit out there to see his grave. Because the cemetery is overgrown with weeds, grass, trees, and other things, if I go out there I would have to wear long pants, long sleeves, wear boots, spray insecticide, and bring a weed cutter to get through to the graves. Also, some of the graves are cracked and broken. Our deceased loved ones deserve better than this. As an African American community, we need to come together and fix this problem.