They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed —
I, too, am America. –– Langston Hughes
George was missing from Manna House. For the last six months there was no sign of him. No one knew why he had stopped coming. Was he dead? Sick? Imprisoned? Did he move away? He had been such a regular guest. Every day that we were open he would arrive in his beat up SUV. He would slowly get out, and leaning heavily on his cane walk up to the front door. His dreadlocks and ready smile were well known by both guests and volunteers. Then he disappeared.
Until Tuesday, when he showed back up at Manna House.
“Where have you been George?”
“Had a flat tire and my vehicle wouldn’t start. Didn’t have the money to get that all fixed. Until now.”
“We missed you. We were worried about you.”
“Nothing to worry about. I am fine.”
And to underscore that George is fine, he showed up at Manna House again today. But now he came bearing a book.
“I have my family history here. One of my aunties wrote it. Thought you might want to have a look. You can order it on Amazon. It’s a real book.”
He handed me the book, “Pillars of Strength: Our Ancestors’ Stories,” by Hazel Alice Moore. I started to look through it as I stood on the front porch. Usually our guests give small bits and pieces of their family histories. A story is told one day, then another maybe a few months later. Memories get shared. Favorite times or tragic times are recalled, maybe embellished a little bit or straightened out to be more acceptable. With this book, George was offering me much more.
On the opening page was a long quotation from Sojourner Truth which explained how she got her name. “When I left house of bondage I left everything behind. I wasn’t going to keep nothing of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked him to give me a new name. And he gave me Sojourner because I was to travel up and down the land showing the people their sins and bein’ a sign upon them. I told the Lord I wanted two names ‘cause everybody else had two, and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people.”
I turned the page and there was a family tree. “George” I said, “you have ancestors that were born into slavery.”
“Still true today,” he said, “We’re still born into slavery.”
I kept reading. What unfolded before me was a tour of that slavery. George had an ancestor who fought with the Union Army. The author observed laconically, “He served on the side that promised him freedom which made joining the army less difficult.” That he received less wages than white soldiers was duly noted.
George had ancestors sentenced to jail who ended up enslaved in the coal mines around Birmingham. See the book, “Slavery by Another Name.”
George had an ancestor who was part of the infamous Tuskegee Study that left rural Black men untreated for syphilis while claiming to give them free health care. He died of syphilis.
George had several ancestors who were bootleggers. “Officers who knew the family were not too interested in stopping the distribution because they were supplied with the product themselves.”
Then the stories of George’s ancestors connected with Manna House. George’s relatives in recent years have lived in Atoka and Munford, and they worship at St. Mark African American Episcopal Church. A long-time volunteer and supporter of Manna House, Rev. Dave Adams pastors that church.
“Thanks George,” I said, “You have a long and beautiful history.”
“Yes, I do. Don’t I?”