My mother called me out of the blue a few weeks ago. She wondered how I was doing since I have a tendency of not calling her frequently. I thought it would be a conversation about weather in Michigan or what she was cooking for herself that night or an update on relatives I’ve never met. Instead she disclosed things I never heard about her childhood. Maybe she was thinking back over her life since she had her 82nd birthday. It was as if she wanted me to know her life in hard time Mississippi during the Jim Crow Era granted scars that turned her into the scrappy and resilient woman.
She attended school at local Hopewell Baptist Church in Brooksville, Mississippi in 1944. The transition brought joy and pain into her young life. She began attending the segregated school in town. She was bullied by other children through her years. She recalled the groups of boys in one family called the Walker boys who granted her protection. They allowed her to walk home once the bus dropped them at their spot. She was grateful for their help. I heard her voice raised with joy as she talked about her favorite book Quinlan Readers, “See Winky Run.” She ratted off the four worded sentences as if she had the book.
She mentioned food was scarce in the war years at the wooden shack of Josh and Millie Wilbon. Her older brother Josh was a master at catching rabbits in the wild. The rabbits supplemented the chickens his father raised for eleven children. Food was not the only thing in short supply in those years. Clothes were too. My mother did not have warm clothes as a child waiting for the bus on the brisk winter days. Cold was the single word she said several times to me. Her coat was handed down from other relatives. She had socks and shoes never thick enough to ward off the cold that found her feet. She recalled with great relief receiving high-legged stockings and patent leather shoes after first grade. Her voice sounded grateful her parents could provide for her despite the struggles.
The black church, for my mother, became a refuge for her. At Hopewell Baptist Church, her family rubbed shoulders with other struggling families trying to make it the best way they could and hold on to every shred of hope, patience, and dignity without raising the eyebrows of whites in Nouxbee County. Hopewell, started in the middle of the Civil War in 1863, was a congregation filled with Wilbons, Robeys, Smiths, and Jones. I was related to all said names. My mother was Wilbon. My father was a Smith. Hopewell was one of the most important institutions black people had to find help, community, and hold on to Jesus who understood their plight.
In 1958, both my parents, John and Essie, made the trek to Chicago. My father left Mississippi in 1946 to find a better life. He came back in 1958 to take a red haired black woman with freckles to be his wife. They found Rev. Blue who married them at my mother’s cousin’s house. She wore a bright yellow dress purchased for the occasion. They took a Continental Trailways Silver Eagle to my great aunt’s apartment in the Lawndale neighborhood. My aunt moved one year later, the apartment was where my life began in 1962.
Pulitzer Prize winning writer Isabel Wilkerson captured my parents’ hopes and dreams coming to Chicago as part of the second wave of the Great Migration. She wrote, “the Great Migration was the unrecognized immigration within the (United States). The participants bore the marks of immigrant behavior. They plotted a course to places in the North that had some connection to their homes of origin. They created colonies of the villages they came from, imported the food and folkways of the Old Country, and built lives around the people and churches they knew from back home. They took work the people already there considered beneath them. They doubled up and took in the roomers to make ends meet. They tried to instill in their children the values of the Old Country while pressing them to succeed by the standards of the New World they were in.” (The Warmth of Other Suns, p. 536) My mother remembered the Old Country and wanted to make sure I knew it as well.
Essie Mae Wilbon tried to recover and marked gratitude in her life for the people who gave her hope. At the end of the movie “A Hidden Life”, where one man refused to adhere to Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror, a profound George Eliot quote caught my attention. It reads, “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.” (A Hidden Life, 2019 film)
This is what my mother tried to bring from the Old Country and implant in me. She gave me a resilient faith to keep holding on the God who never, ever, let go of me despite the difficulties and troubles in my life. She kept reminding me of the cloud of witnesses from that old country church in Brooksville where they cheer me on from on high. These acts will not be worthy of a camera crew or a reporter, but real nevertheless. Unhistorical acts are acts that fade from over time, but never from the heart that keeps records. Unhistorical acts she recalled were much more impactful than a tweet or a Facebook like.
Christian discipleship is the endless pursuit, “what do live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?” (on the tombstone of author George Eliot)