By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
One of the great growth industries in America in recent years has been the study, research and discovery of one’s ancestry and family heritage then paying homage to those ancestors who did so much to ensure our well-being and success in life.
The reopening of a window into one’s ancestry and family past can reveal much about who we are, where we are and how we got here. In short, it’s an important measure of our lives.
Noted columnist, political analyst and author Earl Ofari Hutchinson spent several of his childhood summers living with his maternal grandmother, Althea Brown in Quincy, Illinois. As the 60th anniversary of her passing approaches next year, he pays homage in a tribute to her and his fond remembrances of Quincy in the era of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He recently endowed a $1,000.00 annual Althea Brown Academic Achievement Award in her memory to John Wood Community College in Quincy, Illinois. It is to be awarded to a needy, academically achieving student. It is a 10-year annual endowment.
For years, I longed to reopen that window regarding my maternal grandmother, Althea Brown. Her life (born in 1879 in Pike County, Missouri) in many ways embodied the essence of Americana. Her genealogy encompassed several Americana genealogies with her blend of Native-American, African American and Euro-American ancestry.
She lived for many years in a city that typified, mid-20th century America, Quincy, Illinois.
It is a small Midwestern city nestled on the banks of the Mississippi River in a region famously known as Mark Twain country. Abraham Lincoln often frequented Quincy. Today it is one of six cities designated the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area.
Reaching back six decades in remembrance of my grandmother was not simply a nostalgic longing to rekindle the fond childhood memories of her and the summers I spent with her in Quincy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nor is it to romanticize a by-gone idyllic past.
It is a remembrance of the unconditional love, warmth and kindness she bestowed on me and the importance that played in shaping my life.
The Quincy of that era was a near textbook small town, where neighbors knew each other, never locked their doors and sat nightly in the era before air conditioning was widespread on their front porches sipping lemonade and fanning themselves furiously to ward off the sultry heat and humidity of an August night.
They often sat there late into the night chatting. All the while they kept a watchful eye on me and other neighborhood children. Then we could stay outdoors into the night, playing all kinds of make-up games and catching lightning bugs with no fear of harm.
It was a modest, low-income working-class neighborhood. Nearly all the houses on that and the surrounding blocks were tiny one- or two-bedroom houses that we fondly called shotgun houses. You could stand on the front of one and look straight through it to the backyard.
Grandma Brown, as she was affectionately known by the neighbors, was a true community nurturer and caregiver. The home on Chestnut Street that she shared with one of her brothers, Uncle Phil, was always open to anyone who had a problem or issue and needed a receptive ear and helpful advice.
Like many in that era, she was intensely devout. There were three things I recall on the small nightstand by her bed: a small bowl with a pair of dentures and the Bible, which she read every night. The other item was a Mason jar. She wouldd drop her spare coins into it.
I was fascinated seeing the pennies and nickels fill up. That was in a sense my first lesson in saving, money management and even wealth building.
Family, to her, meant everything. I was proof of that in her love. Many of her children, dozens of grandchildren as well as her great- and great-great-grandchildren experienced that same love and warmth. They are part of her remarkable legacy that enriches and spans the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and that will endure for decades to come.
So, reopening a window on a by-gone but never forgotten and always cherished past is more than just a personal labor of love. It’s a reminder that to know your past can serve as a crucial life guide to the present and future. One’s knowledge of their ancestry will always serve that vital need.
Finally, it’s another reminder that our ancestors are our giants whose shoulders we stand on. For that we owe them an eternal debt of thanks.
So, thank you, Grandma Brown and the countless other Grandma Browns who made me and us what we are.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He also is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show at 9 a.m. Saturday on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.