“My dad died when I was nine, but that nine years was enough to last me a lifetime. He was Superman. He died of a massive heart attack when he was 49 years old. He had a lot on him. My father spent 13 months in federal penitentiary for civil rights activities. The charge was extortion and income tax evasion. He was exonerated from a murder charge. The second time was for dealing heroin and extortion and income tax evasion. Why a man who owned a chain of drug stores for 20 years would resort to selling heroin was beyond anybody. So that charge didn’t stick. The extortion charge was around civil rights activities. My father also owned a production company and the charge was that he had gone to major acts and said if they didn’t use his production company, people were going to boycott and picket their concerts and nobody was going to show. That was when acts like James Brown, The Jackson Five, and Isaac Hayes came to the Mobile Municipal Auditorium (now the Mobile Civic Center). James Brown testified in my dad’s trial and said he never extorted anything. The last charge was income tax evasion. They said he did not pay taxes on our housekeeper and paid her under the table. My father repented. He got out of jail and died six months later. He was making too much change in Mobile. When my father and his associates started out in the Neighborhood Organized Workers organization, there were no African American tellers in banks. There were no African American clerks in department stores or grocery stores. There was a long list of positions that had no black presence. But there were African American consumers, and he began to educate the masses by saying if a business didn’t have someone working or in a position of decision-making who looks you, don’t shop there. That started hurting pockets and when you start hurting pockets, people want you out of the way. There was no African American representation at the Mobile Municipal Auditorium, but the acts that made the most money were African American. Under pressure, the city promoted several African Americans into managerial positions there.
My sister Dora and my mother also went to jail in 1968. Those are the people who created my sense of self worth and my sense of understanding there is no one greater or less than I. There was a dichotomy between my mom and dad. My mom was a rich kid because my grandfather was a physician. They never wanted for anything. My father was born a block from the Hickory Street dump. They would get an apple or an orange for Christmas. In a good year, they got a piece of peppermint to put in it. After we opened our toys on Christmas, dad took us to the dump and let us know that by the grace of God we were born into this family and not a family living in the dump. There were people in that dump living off what everyone else threw away. There was a dump king and a dump queen and they were the only ones who had a house. It was a shanty house of wood and cardboard. A whole society lived on the dump, only a block from my father’s house. There he told us to grow up, be somebody, and help somebody. That is what his mother told him, and the lesson has always stuck with me. It is all about giving. I am blessed. My kids are blessed. I have to make sure they understand the same thing.
My grandfather was born in a log cabin in Tennessee and graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1914. He was also a veteran of World War l. His uncle started Swift Memorial College in Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of the first African American colleges in the country, so the seed was planted that education will take you anywhere you want to go. My grandfather came to Evergreen, Alabama and healed a woman of the flu. The townspeople wanted to kill him because she was white. No matter what, a black man could not touch a white woman. He ended up in Mobile and opened an office in Africatown to serve the needs of Africans from the Clotilda and their descendants. Then he moved to Mobile and opened an office on the corner of Cleveland and Davis Avenue. It was the first brick two-story building on that street. It was also my father’s first drugstore that he started with my Uncle John who was a pharmacist. John L. LeFlore’s first Non-Partisan Voting League and Vernon’s Crawford’s first law office were also in that building. I have vague memories of that.
Back in my grandfather’s days, no matter how famous you were or what you did, you could not stay in a hotel or motel throughout the south if you were black. There were houses on the circuit for them to stay in and my grandfather’s house was the house in Mobile. There is a guest book in the Mobile Museum of History with signatures of Dorothy Dandridge, Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Paul Robeson, and Marian Anderson. All of the famous people of the era passing through Mobile stayed in my grandfather’s house.
My mother and father were equal partners. They met in the seventh grade. My father fell for my mother when they were doing Sleeping Beauty and he wanted to be Prince Charming because she was Sleeping Beauty. He couldn’t sing, so somebody else woke up Sleeping Beauty with a kiss. He knew he had to do something exceptional to catch her eye and he became committed to his education. At home, his mother told him to grow up and be somebody. My uncle John caught the eye of my Aunt Esther, my mother’s sister, so I have double first cousins. My parents married at 18. My father worked at the post office and put my mother though school at Clark Atlanta. She became a school teacher. He went back to school to be a pharmacist and she put him through school. My father opened the first chain of African American drugstores in Alabama.
After my father died, my mother couldn’t stay here with the memories and moved us to Cedar Rapids, Iowa because my brother-in-laws had jobs there. The environment couldn’t be more different from what I grew up in. I didn’t know any white people in Mobile. In Iowa, I was the only black child in the entire school from kindergarten to 12th grade. We only stayed there for six months because my mom needed a little time away. She woke up out of the haze and realized Iowa wasn’t the place for us. We moved to Belleville, Michigan where my brother lived. It was a little more diverse and we stayed there. It gave me a chance to live where nobody knew where I was. I couldn’t travel on who my parents and grandparents were, and I was not a little prince. I realized I could meet and know people on my own. That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I also learned there were different ways of doing things and it was good to be exposed to new ideas. I think we suffer from that in Mobile.
From an early age, I had a sense of purpose. Be somebody and help somebody whatever you chose to do. You have been given all of this, so you owe society and to pass it on. My mother told me I could be anything as long as I was the best at it. She gave me the freedom to explore, but the discipline not to quit. My mama would rather see you fail than quit. She raised adults. We can’t go through life being scared. You have to be prepared for anything to happen. I love creating opportunities. What is something positive I can create?
We have a racial divide in Mobile that must be bridged if we are going to recognize the greatness of our city. People are afraid of what they don’t know. Get to know people and see their colors for the beauty they are. Folks are just folks. We are far more alike than we are different. Smile and speak to somebody and see what happens. It is as simple as that.”