The Igbo and Yoruba proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” exists in many different African languages. It reflects the belief in African cultures that the responsibility of raising a child lies not only with the parents but also the extended family; and, in some cases, the entire community. My Village never included my parents, who divorced when I was 2. It consisted of my father’s mother and one of his brothers, with whom I lived in Memphis. Later, when I moved to Peoria to attend Bradley University, my village expanded to include, “Auntie” (aka Nellie Polk, one of my father’s sisters), her husband Uncle Charlie, and their sons Sam and James.
I first met Auntie when she came to Memphis to visit her siblings. Somehow, I got an invitation to spend the next two summers, in Peoria. As a 16-year-old, I’d never been any place outside of my neighborhood, except the family’s CME church, in Nesbit, MS, off Route 51. Those two summers – 1962 and 1963 – completely changed the trajectory of my life’s journey.
An entirely different subculture greeted me in Peoria: Not one Black radio station. Judy Stokes (Page) and her sisters Noni and Patsy helped me get adjusted to Midwestern protocol. I was told not to say ‘orange or grape drink’; the correct term was ‘sodie.’ Judy said if I used the word drink, it meant I wanted an alcoholic beverage, and I was underage.
It was here that I became immersed in the civil rights movement with my cousins and local hero, Mr. John Gwynn. His kids told me at his funeral that they’d thought we were cousins since I was always around. Our NAACP Youth Group picketed and did sit-ins with the adults. We even got arrested once but were let go. We rode the bus to Washington, D.C. in 1963, to march and hear Dr. King speak. Unable to afford hotel rooms, we headed straight back to Peoria.
Before high school graduation in 1964, I had decided to attend Bradley on an academic scholarship, supplemented by United Negro College Scholarship Funds because Black students were helping to integrate predominantly white colleges. It was my first time interacting with white students because Memphis was still segregated. My Peoria Village People coalesced to assist me with this transition by providing off-campus housing, food, and adult supervision.
Since Bradley was so ‘white,’ BU Black basketball players would come down the hill to mingle with the locals and shoot hoops in State Park. I got to meet notables Eddie Jackson, Alex McNutt, Joe Allen, Tom Campbell, Ernie Thompson, and even Chet Walker. The Park was where D. J. Pete Hardy, spun records. It became my weekday ritual to hang out there.
Auntie saved money to take my cousin Evelyn and me to California on the greyhound bus. There, James drove us to Yosemite National Park in his Volkswagen Beetle. After his return to Peoria, he introduced me to politics and formed the Black Republicans. As a member, I helped with his first campaign for Peoria City Council in the 1st District. He lost on his first try but won the next time.
Sam exposed me to jazz, which he played Friday and Saturday nights, before going out on the town. He and Uncle Charlie gave me talks on life, mostly about guys. My love for that music genre was cemented during those weekly life chats. He took me to Chicago and instructed me not to gaze up at the tall buildings like I’d never seen them before. (I did, anyway) There, he introduced me to more cousins and jumbo shrimp, another first.
When I became a permanent resident of Peoria, my first job was at Commercial National Bank, as a proof machine operator; later, I became a teller. Auntie taught me how to make Parker House Rolls with yeast, which took a lot longer than making buttermilk biscuits with Crisco, but they were a special creation for me. I proudly made Hawaiian pork chops, using a recipe from the Sunday Parade Magazine. And Uncle Charlie let me sample his Mogen David Wine. It was syrupy sweet, but I still liked Kool-Aid, better.
At 73.5 years, I proudly and humbly pay homage to all the ‘Village People’ who etched my path via trips, food, and civil rights. They even babysat when I had to finish my Bachelor’s degree at night. Most of them didn’t have degrees, yet they invested themselves and their resources in a naïve relative from the Mid-South; who, to this day, remains indebted to them. The impact they made shaped my philosophy, enhanced my education, and helped me to become a woman. The results, though permanent, are immeasurable. I can only replicate to a small degree their success to instill in me a sense of responsibility to value being of service to someone other than oneself. It’s what keeps our legacy flourishing!