Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future!
Black History is so deeply woven into the fabric of American History that if you remove it the fabric would unravel. You can’t have American History without Black History.
Black History is a story of survival, perseverance and relentless grit in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
February is the usually the month we celebrate Black History. This year I celebrate my family!
I studied my ancestry as research for my book written in 2008 “Grasping at the Wind”.
My ancestry research took me to slavery in the rural South. Then to the life of sharecroppers after slavery, the Great Migration north to Chicago, segregation in Chicago and ends with life today.
One of my main purposes for writing the book is to leave my family a historical written legacy of where we came from and inspiration to strive for where God is taking us as family.
Below is an excerpt from my book:
“My father was born June 22, 1913 in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham became a city in 1871. Iron ore, coal and limestone abounded in the land in and around Birmingham. As a result, steel mills sprouted up providing jobs forblacks weary of sharecropping for little or no profit. During the turn of the century, Birmingham became the industrial capitol of the South. Birmingham oozed racism as blacks and whites competed for the steel mill jobs. During the Civil Rights Movement, Birmingham received the nickname “Bombingham” because of the frequent bombings at the hands of segregationists and white supremist. The bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, in September 1963, where four little girls died shocked the nation with its brutality and lack of concern for human life. This sad event exposed the festering, infected sore of racism and helped usher in the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, in 1964, signed by President Lyndon Johnson.
My grandfather had straight white hair and called my father darling. His mixture of Indian, Caucasian and African-American blood gave him an exotic look. He was born the year 1894, in Elmore County, Alabama to my great-grandfather Gilbert, born in 1874, and my great-grandmother Josephine. Gilbert’s father and my great-great grandfather Abe was born in 1830 in Elmore County, Alabama. The 1880 census listed my great-great-grandfather as a mulatto, which meant his parents had a mixture of white and/or Indian blood combined with black blood. The 1880 and 1910 census listed both my great-grandmother Josephine and great-great grandmother Betsy as black.
Elmore County, located on the outskirts of Montgomery Alabama, straddled a region called the Black Belt. The soil in the Black Belt region proved exceptionally productive for growing cotton. This region extended from Texas to Virginia and produced many plantations in the antebellum South. After the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, many freed slaves remained on plantations working as sharecroppers. They barely eked out a living because of the unfair practices of ex-slave owners and Jim Crow laws designed to keep the African-American race in bondage despite the passing of this law. Usually ex-slaves took the last name of their ex-owners and worked the land of their old plantations. Through research, I found out that, two large plantation owners in Elmore County, during that time, had the last name of Long. My great-great grandfather Abe probably adopted that surname and passed it to us. My ancestors stayed close to the land. The Thirteenth Amendment freed their bodies, but their minds remained imprisoned with a psychological slavery passed down to generations of African-Americans who still struggle to throw off the remnants of the horrific conditions of slavery.
Elmore County did not provide much opportunity for blacks outside of sharecropping and remains one of the poorest sections of the country. My grandfather left the hard- scrabble farm life in Elmore County to pursue an industrial job in Birmingham. The hot, dangerous steel millwork did not appeal to him, so he became a barber. He married my grandmother Ellen who gave birth to my father in 1913. He named my father John, after himself. My father was the oldest of five children I remember, as a child, my family rode a train to Birmingham, to visit my grandfather. This was probably around 1957 or 1958. He lived by some railroad tracks that separated east and west Birmingham. My brother and I loved to play on those tracks. One day, some white kids from the other side of the tracks started throwing rocks at us. We retaliated by throwing rocks back at them. We did not understand the rules of racism. Suddenly, my grandfather rushed us into the house. My brother and I did not understand the fuss until the adults chided us for throwing rocks at white children. Birmingham seethed with bigotry during this time and our innocent childhood game could turn to death. This incident introduced me to the sinister, malevolent face of racism.
Emmitt Till, another lad from Chicago, allegedly flirted with a white woman in Money Mississippi, in 1955. For this violation, a mob mutilated, killed and threw him in the river. His mother showed pictures of his battered face to theworld, choosing to give him an open casket funeral. That explained, and I later understood why the adults feared for our lives. We did not leave the house until our family returned to Chicago.
My father left Birmingham for Chicago during the Depression era. I heard though cannot substantiate stories that he retaliated against a boy for stabbing his younger brother Zack to death. He arrived in Chicago during the Depression era with few opportunities for employment. He stayed with my grandmother Ellen who years earlier left my grandfather, remarried and moved to Chicago. They lived at Thirty-Eighth and Federal, an old Black neighborhood later torn down to make room for the projects.
He found work as a parking lot attendant for downtown garages owned by the Italian Mafia. His boss, Ben Ponzio, was the son-in-law of Paul “The Waiter” Ricca. Paul “The Waiter” Ricca worked for Al Capone during Capone’s reign as boss of the Chicago Mob. When Capone went to prison in 1932, for tax evasion, Paul “the Waiter” Ricca along with Frank Nitti took over as heads of the C committed suicide leaving Mr. Ricca as sole head of the Chicago mob. Ricca went to prison in 1943 for extorting money from the movie industry in Hollywood. He served three years, before the government paroled him. After prison, he shunned the limelight, and kept a low profile. He became the elder statesman of the Chicago mob giving ordersto his successors, Tony Accardo and Sam Giancama from the background. Ricca died in 1972 of natural causes. The Ricca family loved my father for his feistiness, intelligence and excellent work ethic.
My father fought at the least provocation. He weighed 165 pounds, at most, and stood about 5 feet 11 inches tall. However, he demanded respect from everyone. When mad, my father morphed into an Incredible Hulk type character that made him appear larger than his actual size. He intimidated men twice his size. Neighborhood bullies shied away from my brother and me because my father did not allow anyone to mess with his family. Instead of catcalls and whistles, the corner boys called my mother Mrs. Long, or they paid a price. He kept a pistol and did not mind using it. My father worked hard, even when he drank, and instilled that work ethic in me. He taught me the importance ofperforming your job with a spirit of excellence. Though a parking lot attendant, he took pride in his work and considered himself the best car hiker in Chicago. He often took me on jobs with him and I saw first-hand how hard he worked. He always taught me that any job worth performing was worth performing to the best of my ability.
My mother was born August 21, 1926 in Tuscumbia, Alabama in Colbert County. My grandmother, Inez Braden never talked about my mothers’ father. From rumors, I heard he was a white man who abandoned my grandmother and mother. They called my mother a “barn baby.” This derogatory term that originated in the rural South described babies born to interracial couples. These couples usually conceived these babies away from public scrutiny and the spotlight of racism. Usually, this occurred in a barn or some back room. Typically, the baby grew up in the African-American community because one drop of black blood deemed you black. The circumstances around my mother’s birth remain a mystery to me. My grandmother, Inez Braden, was born in Colbert County, Alabama in 1907 to Patty and Joe Braden. Patty and Joe worked as sharecroppers and lacked formal education like most farm workers from that era. Colbert County, Alabama lied in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Northwest Alabama near the coast of Tennessee. My grandmother was the middle of five children and I called her Nana. The family called my grandmother Little Inez because her parents named her after Patty’s twin sister, a woman we called Bottie. My mother moved to Chicago in the 1930’s along with my grandmother, aunts and cousins from Alabama. Her great-aunt Bottie raised her and made sure she went to private schools. She met my father as she worked behind the counter of a drugstore in BronzeVille, the segregated black neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago. She was 16 at the time and stunningly beautiful. She had a light complexion with beautiful eyes. People say she resembled Lena Horne, considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. My father was 29 and love struck. He vowed to marry her when she grew up. Story has it; my father scared all her young suitors away with his reputation as a fighter that carried a pistol. My grandmother resented my father because she hoped my mother would marry one of the nice, respectable boys in the neighborhood. I guess love overcame reason because they eventually wed in April 1949. My mothers’ great-aunt and my great-great aunt Bottie, real name, Inez McDale was the matriarch of our family. Bottie was born in Colbert County, Alabama in 1885. Bottie came to Chicago during one of the first African-American migrations from the rural South to the Northern cities. These cities promised relief from the stifling racism and backbreaking farm work, in the South. She lacked formal education but abounded with common street sense. Bottie ran a brothel during the Depression era and despite her lack of education, had a keen business mind. She could not perform calculus or algebra, but she could count and save money. She resembled Mary Bethune McLeod, the great African-American educator, with the same formidable stature and demeanor. My older cousins tell stories of some of the famous people that frequented Bottie’s brothel, from Ralph Capone, brother of Al Capone to Duke Ellington who liked to bring his band to Chicago. Rollicking, rambunctious and rowdy Chicago provided her with open doors to use her innate entrepreneurial skills. In another time or place, with the benefits of an education, she could have run her own corporation Bottie helped everyone in the family because she kept money and had a gigantic heart. My father respected Bottie along with most people that met her. The nature of her business gave her a tolerance for human frailty. She saw society’s elite during the day turn into perverted pursuers of forbidden flesh at night. Her non judgmental attitude endeared her to many of society’s outcasts. I think more than anyone she understood my father.
Bottie did not have children of her own. She took care of the children in the household while our parents worked. She considered me her favorite and went out of her way to spoil me. During the day, we watched her favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs play. I can still hear her rooting for Ernie Banks to hit a homerun. On Sunday evenings, we listened to the Reverend Clarence Cobbs, Pastor of the First Deliverance Church preach the gospel. A flamboyant preacher, Reverend Cobbs, befriended the gangsters and numbers kings of BronzeVille and had a large congregation. Bottie stopped physically attending church; but she did not miss a Sunday broadcast.
She babied me, allowing me to suck a bottle against my parents’ wishes. I secretly nursed a bottle until I entered kindergarten, with Bottie’s blessing. I finally decided to give it up in kindergarten to avoid embarrassment. I loved that woman for giving me my way! Even then, you could see the seeds of rebellion and deception growing in my young personality.
When Bottie died in 1962 her death left a huge void in our family, especially in me. She wielded a huge influence over me and I missed her. We became latchkey children. This left us children with plenty of time for mischief. I took full advantage of those unsupervised hours, hanging out with my friends. Bold and mischievous, I gravitated towards other naughty children. I started an infatuation with the streets that later blossomed into a full-blown love affair.
Psychologists and behavioral therapists teach that 90% of your personality forms in the first five years of your life. Dr. Henry Cloud said in his book “The Secret Things of God”, that research has shown that it is possible to predict the later academic success of five-year old’s by measuring certain character traits over and above IQ. When they followed five-year old’s long term into high school and beyond, how smart they were did not predict success as well as their ability to delay gratification. The group that could delay gratification at age five outperformed kids with higher IQ’s. Emotional intelligence trumped IQ’s when it came to success later in life. I performed well on IQ tests, but lacked the ability to delay gratification. This character trait caused me many headaches and heartaches later in life”.
This story is an excerpt from my book, “Grasping at the Wind”. You can purchase it from my website at: