The pilgrimage was the idea of Uncle Theodore. He alone engineered the plan that would include my father and the three youngsters, me and two cousins. The enthusiasm for this trip was not equally shared by the designated passengers, but it came as no surprise. From the moment Uncle Theodore purchased the 1950 Buick, he spoke of nothing but the trip home with the youngsters. For me, as well as my cousins, the only home we knew was Brooklyn.
The eyes of a child miss nothing. I could see the polite resistance my father offered, buying time from my uncle’s persuasive arguments on the responsibility of the Negro father to familiarize his children with their roots. My uncle cut a very imposing figure. Ebony in color, he stood six feet in height in a frame chiseled out of muscle acquired from years of hard work as a brick mason. As was common during that time, Uncle Theodore was typically chauvinistic with an unflinching ego; his wife artfully supported this delusion to her great advantage. My father, Harold Scott, although taller than my uncle, took on a very different posture. His complexion was characterized as “white”, “high yeller”, or “red bone”, depending from what part of the country you came. His dialogue was soft but convincing. To see the two men in the same room was to see two extremes of the color spectrum, which was representative of the family tree. However, in a debate, it was only a matter of time. My father was no match for Uncle Theodore’s uncompromising obsession.
It was the summer of 1951 when we began that long motor trip south. Uncle Theodore was in control. He choreographed everything from travelling clothes to the routes of travel. Our destination: the neighboring towns of Danville and Chatham, Virginia. Estimated time to arrival in Danville was 11 hours, give or take. Rest stops were not included in the itinerary except for gasoline and biological needs. This point of fact justified the large box of sandwiches and fried chicken that occupied a prominent position inside the Buick.
The trip began without incident. Laughter rebounded within the vehicle as my cousins and I exchanged jokes and sampled packed lunches in the back seat. Up front, Uncle Theodore started the trip as driver with my father as shotgun conversation. The first few hours of travel were filled with the novelty of watching our urban existence disintegrate into flowing countryside, an experience that slowed a growing discomfort with our confined quarters. Then the announcement –“Gas Stop.” Thank God that Buick required gas! As the four doors opened, the race began for the restrooms and the soda machine. My father and Uncle Theodore assumed a reserved position alongside the auto, in conversation with the attendant, while placing private bets as to who would be first with a cold coke - the only soda in the Coke inscribed cooler. Upon re-entering the Buick, there were two noticeable changes. My father was now the driver (a position he would hold for the remainder of the trip), and Uncle Theodore’s behavior transformed into a more concerned partner.
Within minutes it appeared - The Mason/Dixon Line. I had heard of this namesake from eavesdropping on adult conversation. I had also absorbed the intensity with which it was used. The intensity became real when measured with Uncle Theodore’s concern. His only remark was “here it is”, stated in an uncharacteristic soft tone unbecoming the man. In my subsequent years, I learned that this visible demarcation was attributed to two indigenous surveyors of the region. My father drove on without comment. It was then I knew my uncle had travelled this road many times before. The road map was just a prop. At just the right moment, he would instruct my dad to make a turn off the highway onto what appeared to be a dusty road; and then, another deviation which eventually led us back to a main thoroughfare. All passengers instinctively knew that our navigator was steering a secure route. But why?
The youngsters were now fitted with a new sense of anxiety. This was certainly unlike my few trips to the Catskills! It seemed as if that Buick would never need gas again in spite of our collective need to relieve ourselves. Finally, the Buick’s needs had to be met. With the needle solidly on empty, my father steered the car into the next gas station. The attendant was seated in a chair outside, adjacent to the office, motionless. He appeared to be enjoying the heat. Not even a menacing horsefly hovering about his arms could alter his blind stare. Uncle Theodore approached him and asked his permission to fuel the car. I thought that strange of my uncle, but my biological needs were more demanding at the moment. I moved straight for the restroom. A firm grip fell upon my shoulder.
“Wait a minute, son. Wait for Theodore.”
My uncle made a casual turn from the attendant and gave an affirmative nod. Oh how I relished my uncle’s persuasiveness! My father then led the youngsters to the restroom. He passed the door labeled “Restroom”. There was another door - not labeled or closed. That was ours.
As I returned to the car, I could see Uncle Theodore pumping gas into the Buick. The attendant had yet to move from his initial position in that chair. The stillness of that service attendant was matched only by the chiseled grin worn by my uncle. Having satisfied the Buick, Uncle Theodore returned to the attendant to pay him. At that moment I noticed the first sign of movement in that chair. The chair’s occupant flinched a grin. Then came the words, “Niggra, you’re a good boy. You know how to pump gas.” I felt an emotion that I could not control swell from the very depths of my being; not from the words just spoken, but from the anguish displayed on what was the sculptured face of my uncle. Here was a man, black by birth, skilled mason by trade, infused with the pride of self accomplishment, humiliated by words that pierce a soul. In a child’s eye.
My father quickly moved to grasp control of the situation by accelerating Buick and passengers at a pace that I will never forget. His were the only words spoken for several miles. He cautioned the youngsters to remember this experience, not as the deed of one man, but as a culture of ignorance. There are more from whence he came, and we can be assured of encountering more of the same during our lifetimes. Then he expertly refocused Uncle Theodore, et al, by reminding us that our destination is near. However, in spite of dad’s commendable effort, the damage was done. The emotion of seeing our captain visibly shaken by such a lesser man fostered a sense of doubt as to my own self confidence. But why?
Then it appeared - Welcome to Danville. The reincarnation of my uncle’s former self was immediate. In a gust of emotion, he motioned to my father. “Stop the car, Harold. We are going to take some pictures!” The camera rotated among all passengers to insure that each would be on record for this momentous occasion. The excitement was contagious if for no other reason than the anticipated closure of a long trip. From this point, the Buick negotiated a series of dusty roads into remote countryside until a solitary gas station came into view, almost as an obstruction to our destination. With the Buick functioning on a healthy tank, Uncle Theodore exclaimed, “We’ll fill up here!” The looks were unanimous - what’s he doing now?
My uncle exited the Buick in quick step. Made for the “high test” pump and started filling the car without hesitation. The attendant slowly disengaged himself from his office and broke into a sprint heading straight for my uncle. In a flash, the attendant was upon Theodore - but in place of violence, laughter! The two men embraced each other in what could be considered a dance.
“Chauncy, it’s been a long time, I thought I might fool you!”
“Teddy, you could never fool me. I would think you’d know that by now.”
“Youngsters and Harold, I want you to meet family, Chauncy.”
Chauncy was the proprietor of this gas station that stood in the middle of nowhere. His features were unique to my family experience: Native American, broad shoulders atop a lean body, long black hair woven with steel gray strands, and a face that bore tracks of history. This stop added an additional hour to our trip as he insisted on catching up on old times. When you are family, there are no strangers. Regardless of the delay, I started to feel at home. As dad and uncle motioned to resume the final leg of our trip, Chauncy said, “I’ll see you at ‘the house’ ”, knowing instinctively our destination.
“The house” was the home of Uncle George, the patriarch of the White family, and testament to a family dynasty that included 350 acres of farmed tobacco and an assortment of livestock. The vastness of this real estate exceeded my comprehension. I would come to learn that large farm holdings, even of people of color, were not uncommon in Virginia. However, as a result of his shrewd negotiating skills with the American Tobacco Company, Uncle George became one of the most powerful men in the region, notwithstanding the color of his skin.
“The house” became a place of constant activity. Every relative and neighbor in the county made their way to “the house” before our departure. We were given special treatment at every visit; but more importantly, the youngsters became witness to a social experience that was beyond our years. Our family is more than black and white. Our family is more than Brooklyn. Our family is a rainbow of color.
I can still remember the sadness on that day of departure from a family that was mine. It was a day prolonged by the collective goodbyes of family that I never knew existed. The Buick was resupplied in a manner that barely left room for passengers. In my heart I feared the loss of that euphoria. But why?
The trip back “home” to New York was less boisterous than our original journey. I think now that maybe we were sharing the same loss. Will we see each other again?
The next trip south was in the summer of 1963. I was preparing to enter my junior year of college, more than ten years removed from that ride in the Buick. On this excursion, my father was the instigator and the passengers were all strangers. Uncle Theodore had passed away, the victim of a one and only heart attack. And my cousin supporters were unable to attend. My father and I were on a school bus bound for Washington D.C. The heat was unbearable and the ride was bumpy - but there was something familiar. A sense of comradely permeated the bus. I remember song, laughter, and a sense of purpose, punctuated by prayer appropriately led by a traveler of the cloth. We were strangers no more.
We entered Washington D.C. in a mass of humanity. With each arriving bus, the mass became larger and the crowd moved in one unified direction. My father and I moved accordingly with the mass, as if there was no other choice, not really sure of our destination. Public address speakers were sporadically placed along the avenue as series of what seemed to be endless speeches cascaded into our ears. Suddenly, an eerie calm overtook the streets. The speakers were quiet and the crowd stop moving. The words came softly.
“… I have a dream... I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up
and live out the true meaning of its creed. ‘We hold these truths to
be self evident; that all men are created equal.’ ... I have a dream
that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will
not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their
As the words continued to flow, the mass became one. We inhaled when He inhaled. We paused when He paused. I was no longer an observer. I was an integral part of this humanity. The euphoria had returned. My eyes were filled with emotion as I realized that all of us had shared the same journey. Uncle Theodore’s dream now took on a new substance. In 1951, a black family travelled south fueled with a determination of family unification and an awareness of risk. My self doubt, however, can be attributed to nothing more than the inherited awareness of the double standard - a fact of black life in the great United States that remains to be dismissed. The dream is our dream, and that summer of 1963 convinced me that this family will always meet again. But Why is not the question. It is the mission.