Sunday, October 31, 2010

Giants in Our Midst

My thoughts about this post arrived with that pre-dawn clarity that emerges where lots of the things one has been wrestling with for a long time suddenly find resolution. For me, the last few months have been full of multiple re-connections, recapitulations and reconsiderations. A Journey to Sankofaland, as Alice Coltrane might call it.

Sankofa, as many of you know, is an African term/concept where one looks to the past to prepare for the future. That has certainly been my situation as my late summer and early fall were periods of reunion and reflection, both real and virtual.

The first look back was especially congenial. Four of my confreres from the epic 1960s came to Cleveland for a mini-reunion. We had met at one of America’s most liberal colleges in one of the nation’s most tumultuous times — President Kennedy was assassinated two months after I arrived as a freshman; Martin King was assassinated two months before I graduated. Coming of age at that time and in that space, we bonded in ways that have held firm through more than four decades and sometimes scant contact. We did the downtown happy hour, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concert, a Saturday morning excursion to the West Side Market, and a mini-tour that encompassed a passage through my old Glenville neighborhood and University Circle before settling in my backyard for well-lubricated repast and talk.

The second look back came with the passing of a family member, Mollye Virginia Jackson Williams, a remarkably joyous, talented, and giving woman who died at 99. Only Alzheimer’s could have dimmed her matchless vitality, which sadly it did for her last decade or so. She was the last survivor of ten remarkable siblings. Read her obituary at the end of this post for a glimpse of those who have worked to redeem America’s promise.

The reunion theme continues for me as the first Andrews Family Reunion in over 40 years takes place this Thanksgiving in Dallas. Not yet sure that I will be there, but I am charged with contributing a piece on my father’s branch. In preparation I pulled out a Texas Trailblazers account of the life of my great-great grandfather, Robert L. Andrews Sr. (1865—1933). A re-read of his story as audacious businessman and civic leader in Houston [he lived on Cleveland Street!] inspired me on a recent milestone birthday to incorporate a new business named for his signature success.

I am a word aficionado. One of my earliest memories is sitting at my father’s feet in the living room of our two-bedroom Howard Manor apartment on the Howard University campus in Washington, DC. I read the comics as he sat in his wing chair, reading the news and stealing a few moments of daily respite. Both my parents spoke and wrote with precision, but it was probably from my dad that I came so early to love the sounds and rhythms of the English language. I still recall in my mind’s ear hearing with fascination hearing the word “Mordecai”. The word never made sense to me but I loved it.

It was only decades later that I realized that Mordecai Johnson was the legendary president of Howard University, where some of my parents’ friends, like James Nabrit, Jimmy Porter and “Dot P” were employed. Very belatedly did I come to appreciate that these adults were world-class achievers.

This has me devouring In Search of the Talented Tenth: Howard University Public Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Race, 1926-1970. Written by University of Akron professor and Cleveland resident Zachery R. Williams, the book examines and argues the important relationship between individual achievement and community culture. While my attraction to it is deeply personal and visceral, I cannot read it without considering its implications for my Cuyahoga arrondissement. I will be reviewing this book soon in this space. I will conclude for now by saying that the book — while focused on a single institution during a defined time —raises questions about race, class, achievement, education, identity, accessibility and community that are arguably more fundamental than our recent county governmental reorganization.

[1] Nabrit was a key member of the legal team in Brown v. Board of Education and later served two terms as Howard’s president. James Porter was a distinguished artist and professor at Howard. His wife, Dorothy, perhaps my mother’s closest friend, was a world-class librarian and archivist. She started and developed Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, which has been described as “the finest collection of black research materials in the world”. My mother, Marjory J. Andrews, was an instructor in Howard’s School of Music.

Mollye Virginia Jackson Williams
April 25, 1911—6 September 6, 2010
Mollye was born in the Allegheny Mountain mining town of Pocahontas, Virginia on 25 April 1911 and died on 6 September 2010 at Judson Park, Bruening Health Center in Cleveland, Ohio. She had been a resident of the Judson Retirement Community since 1997.

Mollye was the ninth child in a family of ten, and the fifth daughter of Robert and Ida Perrow Jackson. Her father worked as a clerk and butcher in Elliott’s General Store, which was privately owned and was in competition with the local (mine owners) company store. Robert’s facility with the Hungarian language enabled Elliott’s to serve the immigrant miners and their families, thus providing a vital edge over the company store.

Mollye began her education in the public schools of Pocahontas and attended high school in Bramwell, West Virginia. In accordance with her parents’ ambition that all of their children attend college, Mollye became the family’s ninth college graduate, finishing West Virginia State College at Institute, W. VA. She later earned a Masters Degree in Business Administration from Columbia University in New York, and a second Masters (of Science) Degree in Special Education from Virginia State University. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Blessed with boundless energy, high spirits, humor, and a generous nature, Mollye loved nothing better than engaging in talk, light-hearted pursuits and mischievous high jinks with family and friends. Yet, most of her adult life was devoted to helping others. As a young girl, fresh out of college in the 1930s, she took a series of teaching positions at ill-equipped one-room schools for Negro children, operated by the State of Virginia in its rural counties. Here, in addition to dedicated teaching, Mollye also raised funds from the community for books and teaching material, often supporting her work with her own meager salary. She became a one-woman civic committee, organizing and conducting small, makeshift “fairs” and bazaars to raise what funds she could. She also solicited donations of old clothes from adults and, using her sewing skills, set about cutting them down and remaking them to fit her children.

Upon her marriage to Rev. John Francis Williams, Mollye enthusiastically added the responsibilities of a Baptist minister’s wife to the demands of her teaching career. Tapping a deep well of kindness and charm, she assumed an active role in church affairs and became a valuable asset to her husband’s ministry as his calling moved them to Wheeling, WV, New Orleans, Newport News, VA, St. Paul, MN, and finally to Cleveland, OH. With each move, Mollye contributed her efforts to the activities of the local community, and continued her work as a tireless educator and organizer. She was a teacher of the deaf in Newport News. Her last position was with the Special Education Department of the public schools of St. Paul, MN.

In spite of her public responsibilities, privately this little dynamo of a woman remained the same girl who had grown up in a kind, close-knit clan, who never failed to come to the aid of a friend or family member in need. Mollye often said that her family “might not have been rich in material things, but was blessed with an abundance of love.” Although she had no children of her own, she took a benevolent interest in the raising of her eight nieces and nephews to whom she was their beloved, fun-loving “Aunt Mollye” of the brilliant dark eyes and the uniquely raucous infectious laugh. A perfectionist in all things, she was a patient but exacting taskmaster to this younger generation.

Raised to be the quintessential southern lady, Mollye maintained a seemingly effortless, yet impressive standard of living throughout her life. As mistress of the various parsonages she and her husband called home, she created attractive, immaculate surroundings, imbued with an atmosphere of style, whimsy, comfort, and ease.

Mollye Williams leaves behind a legacy of fond memories of loving devotion to family and friends, hard work, good deeds, and numerous lives made better for her having touched them.

She is preceded in death by her four brothers, five sisters and her husband of more than fifty years. She is survived by four nieces and nephews: Miss June Morgan of New York City, Clintona Jackson Hare, Esq. of Morristown, NJ, Stanley Jackson, Esq. of Detroit, and Elbert Hendricks, PhD, of Copenhagen, Denmark.

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