Thursday, February 01, 2007

When I think of Black History

During African-American or Black History Month, Americans recognize the many historic achievements and contributions of Blacks to the United States. The fact that a race of people kidnapped from their native land, separated from their families, tribes and culture, and subjected to forced slavery in this land could, in spite of such evil treatment, rise and achieve so much and contribute so critically to the building of this nation is nothing short of a miracle, and is a grand testimony to the grace and power of God. Ultimately, it was God who set Black slaves free in answer to their many prayers. It was the Lord who brought Blacks through Reconstruction and the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. Almighty God delivered Black people from lynchings, “Jim Crow” and forced segregation. God, in answer to the prayers of our slave forebears, brought about the victories of the Civil Rights Movement. In a real sense, Black History is a vivid illustration of the grace of God.

But, Black History is not just about famous people and events, but about ordinary Black families. When I think of Black History, I think of my family. I think of my great-great grandfather, Richmond Duncan, who migrated from Florence, Alabama to North Chicago, Illinois (a small city some 35 miles north of the city of Chicago) in April of 1921, during the period American historians call “the Great Migration”. The son of former slaves, he was almost 50 years old at the time. His original intent was to settle in Michigan, but not finding anyplace to his liking, he decided to visit his wife’s uncle, Jack Fowler, in Waukegan. It was during this visit that he found a place that he liked in North Chicago, on the border with Waukegan. He purchased the house and sent a telegram summoning his wife, Frankie, and their two daughters, Minnie and Wylodine, and son, Fancie, to get their things together and come to Illinois.

I remember Richmond Duncan. I was almost 9 years old when he died in 1972. He lived to be almost 101 years old (100 years, 10 months and 7 days, to be exact). I’m thankful for pioneers like my “Grandpa Duncan.” I live in “Chicagoland” today because of Grandpa Duncan's desire for a better life for his family.

When I think of Black History, I also think of my great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Bettie Rice (yes, I used "great" 5 times). “Bettie” was the name given her by her owners, the Rice family. Bettie was a slave. I don’t think anyone ever knew when she was born, and there’s no one alive today who knows when she died. Based on what I was told, I think she died somewhere between 1899 and 1905. I own an old “tin-type” photo of her—the only picture of her—taken when she was an old woman, weary with years, but still carrying herself with dignity despite the horrors she had witnessed in her life. The other year, I made an enlarged copy of it, framed it, and hung it on the wall of our family room for all who visit our home to see. You see, Bettie holds a special place in our family for Bettie was born in Africa. She told her children and grandchildren that she was a Hottentot. The Hottentot were a tribe in southern and southwest Africa. I’m fascinated by an old story, passed down through the generations, that during slavery, Bettie once threatened to kill her own baby girl rather that have that baby sold away from her. Because of her fighting spirit, Bettie was allowed to keep that baby girl. Because an African Hottentot named Bettie refused to give up her child, our family remained intact and we still tell her story today.

Most of what I know about my family, I learned at the feet of my great grandmother—Richmond Duncan’s daughter, Bettie Rice’s great-great granddaughter—Minnie Duncan Gray. Minnie and her husband, William, raised me. Minnie had a phenomenal memory, and could talk at length about the family history. She knew both sets of her grandparents, all of whom had been slaves. I learned about slavery from one that had known and talked to former slaves. I learned from my great grandmother to appreciate family history and what my forebears had to endure so that I could be where I am today. I also learned from my great grandparents about the love of God in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again that I might have eternal life. This is the faith that has sustained many in my family since slavery days. This is the faith I am committed to passing on to my children.

Black people in the United States have come a long, long way. I believe strongly that Blacks should never forget those who came before us. And we should never, ever forget God who brought us through.


Some of you may have noticed that I recently added a photo to my profile (I finally figured out how it’s done). This photo is one of my favorites. It is from the latter half of 1971, as I remember, and it shows 5 generations of the Duncan family. Seated, in the center, is Richmond Duncan (1871-1972), my great-great grandfather. He was 100 years old at the time this photo was taken. The two women are his daughters, Minnie (to the left) and Wylodine (to the right). Minnie (1896-1986) is my great grandmother. Her husband, William (1905-1989), is behind her. Minnie and William took me in when I was 2 months old, and raised me to adulthood. My great-great aunt, Wylodine (1898-1998), who lived next door to us, probably did more than any other person to introduce me to Jesus. I cannot thank God enough for my great grandparents and my great-great aunt; by God’s grace, and because of them, I am what I am today. Standing behind Richmond is Minnie’s only child, my grandfather, Barney Quentin (1919-2000). On the far left and far right are Barney Q’s two sons, my Uncles, Barney David (on the left) and Charles (on the right). In Barney Q’s arms and on Richmond’s lap are Charles’ two oldest sons, my cousins, Adam and Gabriel. Finally, standing to the right of Richmond, is me (one of the extremely rare photos of me in shorts). I was 8 years old.


RBA Founder Xavier Pickett said...

Hey Wyeth,

This was a very stirring personal story of your (our) history. You made me want to go hug on our Black folks again.

I just hope that I don't have to wait until next Black history month to get more of this. ;-)

Scotty J. Williams said...

I whole heartedly agree with Xavier on this. I would also like to add that this makes me think of my own history (heeheehee).

God bless you mo frer Wyeth,

Anonymous said...

Having just returned to Russellville, Al this past week (passing through Florence on the way)for my great aunt, Victoria's funeral, I can definitely relate to your love of your own family history. Many of us are blessed enough to have a long legacy of faith-filled ancestors. We have come this far by faith and grace!

Also, I'm loving the shorts!