Sunday, August 30, 2009

How Will You Be Eulogized?

The death of Senator Kennedy left me thinking about how I would be eulogized.  Even though I have told family members I don't want a funeral, there will be discussions about what type of life I led.  There were some who remarked that not enough was said about the bad things in Kennedy's life and that should have also been stated.

Do we want the focus to be on the bad things, which we all have, do we want them to remember only the good things, or is this the time for balance?  The dictionary defines eulogy as a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something very highly, especially a tribute to someone who has recently died.

The totality of our life will be judged by someone else, not the people who hear or speak the eulogy.  I only hope that when I die, people remember that I helped people more than they remember the people I hurt.  I hope they say that I was a good mother, not an absent mother.  I hope they say that she taught many children how to learn not that she failed some.   I hope they say she was a pleasant, friendly person, not a vixen.  I hope they remember that, in spite of all of my failings,  I did my best.

Friday, August 28, 2009


As summer ends, we reflect on the exuberance of summer.  The summertime of life is bright, hot, and exhilarating.  We think it is going to last forever and the Fall time of life is distant in the future.
  • We wear skimpy clothes that expose our bodies.
  • We swim in the ocean with full abandon.
  • We think our summer romances will last forever.
  • We read the books we want to read, not the books on the required list.
  • We attempt to savor every ride in Disneyland.
  • We vacation to exotic places and welcome cultural exchanges.
  • Tree leaves are bright and green, flowers are in full bloom, and fruits are juicy and succulent.
  • We are at our peak:  vibrant, strong, healthy, and so we think, wise.

Soon, the first whispers of fall are heard.
  • Night temperatures drop 
  • A sense of urgency develops
  • Wardrobe needs are assessed
  • Final picnics are planned
  • Leaves begin to change colors
  • School reopens
The Fall of life begins.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


High school was fun.  That's the first thing that comes to mind when I think of my years at Phillips High School in Chicago.  Friends, classes, athletics, parties--everything was the best.  We walked to school in a group, picking up classmates along the way. Couldn't afford bus fare.

We were not allowed to wear pants in school.  In the winter we wore pants under our dresses or skirts and had to take them off at the door.

When I went to high school in 1949 high schools were as segregated as our elementary schools, but we didn't care or notice because we had wonderful teachers and stimulating classes.  It goes without saying that our athletic teams were at the top.  Some of the famous alumni from Phillips include:  Nat King Cole, Gwendolyn Brooks, first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize; Archibald Carey, Jr., lawyer, judge, politician, diplomat and clergyman; Sam Cooke, Pop and gospel recording star; Paul Des Jardien, Member of College Football Hall of Fame; George E. Johnson, Sr., Founder, Johnson Products, the first African-American owned company listed on American Stock Exchange; Buddy Young, football legend; Alonzo S. Parham, the second African-American to attend West Point;  Al Pullins: Original member, Harlem Globetrotters; and Dinah Washington, legendary recording artist.

Our principal in 1949 was Maudelle Brown Bousfield, the first Black principal in Chicago.  She retired in 1950 and was replaced by Dr. Virginia F. Lewis who at the age of 100 remained involved in her career, making frequent visits to Eckerd College engaging students as a lecturer.  Her teaching and administrative career experience included the roles of teacher, principal, district superintendent and assistant superintendent with Chicago Public Schools.  She died in 2008 at the age of 101.

Dr. Lewis is the person who saved my life.  Okay, I'll admit it.  Even though I was a good student I was pretty bad.  I liked to fight and caused trouble.  When Dr. Lewis "adopted" me instead of suspending me, (which surely would happen today) my entire present and future changed.  She got me out of gangs and put me in academic and athletic activities.  The only thing she could not change in me was my habit of cutting classes.  When I was in my 50s she told me that she used to follow me in the halls and could not understand how I cut so many classes.  I told her my secret.  I had a permanent hallway pass.
  • Before Dr. Lewis (BAL) I was an excellent student but after Dr. Lewis (ADL) I became ambitious.  I wanted to do something with my life.
  • BDL I didn't know much about college.  ADL I wanted to go to college.
  • BDL I took regular classes.  ADL I took honors classes.
  • BDL I thought of myself as ugly and unworthy.  ADL I thought I had possibilities.
  • BDL I was a gang leader.  ADL I was a school leader.
  • We had a college preparatory class where we learned social graces, how to study, how to take a test, and other things that weren't taught in regular classes.  The class was taught by Miss Hogan, a petite, white haired, white woman who terrified everyone in the school.  Best foundation I could have had for college. 
  • Dr. Lewis took me to restaurants so I could learn how to eat in a restaurant.
Our school was a nine period day. We had major regular subjects and minors, such as art, music, and physical education.  Our teachers were the cream of the crop because at that time it was hard for African Americans and women to get jobs in many fields.  The students reaped this benefit.

Our biggest rival in athletics, was DuSable High School.  We were the two premier Black high schools and we competed on and off the field.  

We had many clubs at Phillips, even a trigonometry club, service clubs, a school newspaper that everyone read for the latest gossip, and honor societies.  We had clubs and activities at the YMCA and the Lincoln Center.  We were as busy as students are today.  We also competed with other schools in debates and other intellectual pursuits.
Pictures tell a better story than words.

Elaine, Toots, Chris, and Elaine

Cheerleading Team

The Football Team - A Legend in its own time.

Phillips High School Students in Springfield, IL when students took over the government.

Chris as Director of Revenue in Springfield

Chris at Red Cross Camp in Lake Forest, IL

Prom in 1952 - Chris and Carl

Prom 1953 - Chris and Danny


No school buses in the city for us.  We walked to school.  My school was all Black, with a few exceptions.  The term that is now used is de facto segregation, that is in practice, not necessarily by law.  Chicago was called the most segregated city in the country and we went to school in our neighborhood, which was a Black neighborhood.  In the South, schools were segregated by law and public Black schools were very underfunded and underequipped.

Since many African Americans were migrating from the South our schools were crowded.  Unfortunately and wrongly, school officials thought that students from the South were not prepared for schools in the North and most of them were put back several grades.  It was not unusual to find a 16 year-old student in an eighth grade class.  This was another type of prejudice.
We had over 40 students in each class and 48 desks and seats were fixed to the floor.  Notice how each student is seated with hands folded.  You were expected to sit like this whenever you were not working on something.  We had an inkwell in each desk where we dipped our ink pens.  Most of the time we wrote with pencils.  Good students, and the students teachers wanted to keep an eye on were seated in the front.

We didn't dare talk back to a teacher because discipline problems were handled differently.  We were whipped in school or at least we were smacked on the hand.  If we were disciplined in the schools, our parents didn't want to sue the school, they brought the teacher a cake and thanks.

Rote learning was the rule: a focus on memorization and repetition.  Every morning, after The Pledge to the Flag, we would repeat (in rhythm) our multiplication tables in unison.   We didn't have to understand it, as students do today, we just repeated:  6X6 is 36,  8X3 is 24, etc.  It worked.  Have you ever been to McDonald's and the cash register was broken?  You have to tell them how much you owe them and how much change to give you because without a calculator or computer they don't know what to do.  Whatever you tell them they believe.

Spelling tests every Friday... naming the Great Lakes...listing the continents...knowing the capital of each state(48 states then)...diagramming a sentence...singing the Negro National Anthem at assemblies, Lift Every Voice and Sing...memorizing poems and still knowing them today,  Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary...knowing the Latin Names of plants, this and more.  We read, read, read.  Book reports were due every week.  We didn't buy many books but we all had library cards and we used them.

We were very patriotic. We learned a lot about World War II and the places where our soldiers were fighting.  We recycled at school and, even though we didn't have much money, we bought savings bond stamps.  Whens we completed a book with ten cents stamps, we received a $25.00 savings bond. Air raid drills were common.

During recess we played ball games and had swings, slides and a pole with a rope hanging off of it for kids to swing around. We also played hopscotch, jump rope, or marbles.

We wore gym uniforms:  ugly green short jumpsuits and you had better polish your white gym shoes, even though girls only played half-court basketball.

Graduation from 8th grade was a big event because many students didn't finish high school.  Notice the graduation ribbon.  We received those about a month before graduation and you wore it everywhere you went.  Everyone needed to know that you were graduating to high school.  There was a party and flowers celebrating this achievement.

Monday, August 24, 2009



When I was growing up most of my life was spent outdoors.  We didn’t have computers or television, but we did have radio.  Our home was small and crowded, over 10 people in a one bedroom apartment, but outside we had lots of space.  We were poor, but didn’t know it.  Everyone we knew was poor, after all it was the late 30s and early 40s.
Our entire neighborhood in Chicago was our playground.  We knew everyone and they knew us.  If we did something bad, any neighbor who saw us felt comfortable enough to confront us and insist that we change our behavior.  Our favorite place was the vacant lot across the street from our home.  We could play baseball in the spring and football in the fall.  Boys and girls played together; we didn’t care.  In the winter the lot became a skating rink or a place to build a snowman.  Sometimes we would go to the playground at Fuller Elementary School.  It had real swings and a jungle gym.
There were so many games to play:  Red Rover, Little Sally Walker, Jacks, Come and Get It, etc., and we even had cussing contests.  If we had cliques, I don’t remember them.  We played with whoever was outside and it was safe.  We had to be home “when the street lights” came on but we didn’t have to go into the house.   We could stay outside after the lights came on as long as we were on our block.  We would sit on the porch and tell stories, especially ghost stories.
During WWII, the lot became a victory garden.  Anyone could plant fruits or vegetables without permission.  I don’t know who owned that lot, but it was a common practice.  We also had rations during this time.  With the ration stamps we received our allotment of necessities like sugar and shoes.   Since you couldn’t buy shoes as needed, you bought sensible shoes that you knew would last.  Women wore make-up on their legs to simulate stockings and with an eyebrow pencil someone would draw a line up the back of their leg to mimic the seam.  Everyone knew it was fake but looks mattered.  Sugar was at a premium along with stockings and elastic waist panties.  (Our panties were tied together with a string and sometimes that string broke!  Yes, your panties fell down.)

Nothing was wasted.  We saved grease from cooking, flattened every can we opened, had meatless Tuesday, and took our hangers to the cleaners if we wanted our clothes returned on hangers.  We listened to President Roosevelt on the radio and took part in air raid drills.  When the sirens blew you didn’t take chances. Chicago was a big railroad stop and most soldiers traveled by train.  There would be a knock on the door and an African American soldier would appear, asking for a place to stay overnight.  There was always room for another person and of course,this added income to our home.  It was especially exciting when a soldier came by that we knew.  He would jingle his pockets, like he had a lot of money, and allow us children to put our hands in to see how much we could grab.  Sometimes they had souvenirs from faraway places and stories of exotic locations.  Homes had banners with stars, announcing their sons’ participation in the war.
My favorite time was the first snow.  No matter what time it was, all of the children in the neighborhood would run outside to throw snowballs or ride their sleds.  Our parents would bundle us up in snowsuits.  Do children still wear snowsuits? It was exhilarating, letting the snow touch your tongue, or building your first snowman.  It was cold–we called the wind, The Hawk.
Another favorite time was after a rainfall and the street would flood.  Then the street became our swimming pool.  We didn’t know or care about dirty water because we weren’t that clean to begin with.  We were lucky if we got a bath on Saturday night.  We did have to be clean for Church and if you had any morals your family went to Church.
The two most important things in our lives were Family and Church.  Almost everyone in our family, extended and otherwise, went to West Point Baptist Church for Sunday service and during the week for meetings and choir rehearsal.  

We would walk to 36th and Cottage Grove and it was difficult staying clean that long.  Adults had service upstairs and we had a children’s church downstairs.  My sister and I would listen for our mother getting “happy.”  When the choir sang certain songs or the minister preached moving sermons, some of the parishioners would become moved and “feel” the Holy Spirit.  They would shout, dance, throw their hands in the air, and need the help of the ushers who would fan and try to get them quiet.
We weren’t allowed to go the movies on Sunday.  This was the Lord’s Day and after dinner we would visit and talk.  We always made extra food because somebody would drop by.  If they did, you had to have something to offer.  I never remember anyone turning down my mother’s food.  My mother was 41 when I was born and already a grandmother.  She was known for her good cooking.

My mother was a terrible disciplinarian.  In those days, everyone whipped children if they did something wrong.  My mother couldn’t bring herself to hit us and would cry if we did something wrong because she knew it meant a whipping and she just wasn’t up to it.  Sometimes she would ask Uncle William to come and whip us but he was as bad as my Mother was.  He would look at us and tell us to be good and then say to my mother that he couldn’t whip those children.  We were amazed at their utter dislike for whipping children. 

My nemesis was another student named Margaret.  For some reason, she got a big kick out of taunting and teasing me.  It meant many fights and many punishments.  No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get her to leave me alone. I never did discover why she had it in for me.  One day, when I was in seventh grade, she disappeared.  I didn’t know what had happened to her and frankly, I didn’t care.  Soon we were told that she was dead.  I felt so much relief.  At last I could walk to school and get home safely.  But I thought I had better check.  I went to the neighborhood funeral home when her body was ready for viewing.  I looked into the casket, and thought to myself that it was true, she was dead.  

My older sisters and their husbands lived a totally different life.  They went to real parties and clubs like the Club De Lisa.  They would put on their best clothes and men would look fine in their double-breasted suits and highly polished shoes.  They would tell us about the famous people they saw and heard.  Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, etc.

A big night in the neighborhood was a Joe Louis fight.  We would gather around the radio, listen to the announcer, and “see” the fight in our heads.   People left their windows open so people who didn’t own a radio could hear the commentary. He was the biggest hero in our world—Joe Louis, Heavyweight Champion of the World.  There was no one we admired more.  If he won a fight, we all won.  After a victory, everyone would run out of his or her home and we would literally dance in the street.  An even bigger thrill was hearing when he was in town and trying to get a glimpse of him and his beautiful wife. 
My mother did daywork; in other words she cleaned homes.  During the summers and on Saturday, I would accompany her and help.  My sister, Ruby,  cleaned houses sometimes, while Susie, another sister,  and Lee, my brother-in-law, worked in a laundry.  After the war, Delawerence, Ruby's husband,  was hired as a mailman.  A number of family members had jobs in the stockyards and made what we thought was real money.  No one had a professional job but everyone worked.  



In all of our lives, certain events provide an electric moment of clarity. They are unexpected, yet the power they contain keep us grounded and wondering what does it all mean. While I have had several, one moment that never leaves me is the first one I remember in my married life. I had always been a spiritual person so I was not surprised when it happened.

In 1955, we were living in the Panama Canal Zone on the post at Ft. Davis. We had only been married a few months.  I was 18, an officer's wife, and ready for whatever the world offered.  It was an extraordinary life for a welfare child to all of a sudden be living in a large home with a maid in a foreign country. My husband was in the army and since he was training to be a jungle expert, it meant I was alone a lot. That was not a problem for me for you feel very safe on an army base and officers wives stick together. (It's funny I should say that because I was stalked during our time there by a soldier I didn't know.)

Everything was new and there was an adventure everyday. I had to learn to cook, after my husband complained about the maid's cooking, but at least I didn't have to clean the house or do laundry. The women had bridge clubs, trips to close countries, bowling leagues, sewing clubs, teas, and parties. I even took classes at a branch of Louisiana State University as I had only finished two years of college and had promised my mother that I would finish college as no one in our family had a college degree.  I was to be the first.

Anyway, this was before a/c and our home on the base had screens that allowed a cool breeze to circulate throughout the space. It was late evening, I had finished dinner, and went to look out before going to bed.  I was standing by the screen, looking at the bright stars against a deep black night, thinking how peaceful I felt. I heard music from the NCO club and I could "see" people dancing to the music. I still remember the song I heard just before my moment.
Isn't it romantic?
Music in the night, a dream that can be heard.
Isn't it romantic?
Moving shadows write the oldest magic word.

I hear the breezes playing in the trees above
While all the world is saying you were meant for love.
Isn't it romantic?
Every note that's sung is like a lovers' kiss.
Sweet symbols in the moonlight,
Do you mean that I will fall in lover perchance?
Isn't it romantic?
I rocked to the music feeling serene, thinking how beautiful it all was, when all of a sudden a presence came to me and "told" me I was going to have a great life. It startled me but it didn't frighten me. It could only have happened if I were alone, yet I felt as if someone had wrapped his arms around me and held me close.   Whenever I hear that song, and I hear it in my mind everyday, I feel grateful that someone is watching over me.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


This will be a blog of my memories and thoughts after living over 70 years.  Looking back, I hope, it will help me make sense of where I've been.  I hope that older people can relate to the blog, and I hope that younger people will see that we are really not that different.

Our generation lived through more cultural and technological changes than any other generation. We lived through WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We participated in the Civil Rights Revolution, going from the back of the bus to the Presidency of the United States of America.  It is been some ride.