How Jim Crow, Black Church, Great Migration and Civil Rights Shaped Our Ancestors By Mae Catherine Godhigh

During this Juneteenth celebration, we envision the sights, sounds and smells of the 1865 emancipated slaves dancing in the streets of Galveston, Texas. Juneteenth is both sorrow and joy. It is delayed freedom and triumph.

Our ancestors stepped upon the shores of the unknown. What they brought with them was a plan of survival and their stories. The same plan and stories are passed on to us today. Yes, we are responsible to be the torch-bearers of their struggles and stories.

The Black Church has always been the center of spiritual, economic and political power. In Savannah Georgia, the First African Baptist Church was organized in 1773 by Rev. George Leile. It is the oldest Black Church in America. The black church even predates the United States of America.

Mae Catherine Godhigh pictured in front of her grandparent’s home in 1963

Through isolation, the independent black church was birthed and began to elect its own leaders and build their communities. This act of self-reliance posed a threat to white supremacists. They convinced themselves that black churches were meeting places for conspiracies. Since then, we have witnessed domestic terrorism through the forms of hate crimes, arson, mass murders and bombings up to the writing of this article.

The resiliency of the black church gave birth to freedom and movements. It was faith, continued prayers, the songs of Zion, its leaders and undying hope that kept us. Our churches and communities were burnt to the ground and we kept rebuilding. Such was the devout faith of enslaved black people and their descendants.

Forty-four years after Juneteenth my sainted grandfather, Willie Gordon was born in the mouth of the Jim Crow South. Little had changed since his birth. Black people were no longer called slaves but given the superficial title of sharecropper. It was like saying the same thing twice. My ancestors were sharecroppers who were trapped in a system of slavery. I share with you a few notes taken from an interview with him before he passed away in 2002.

My Eyes Have Seen…

Willie Gordon 1903-2002

1903 -The year I was born there was a large man sitting in the oval office. His name was President Teddy Roosevelt.

In 1909 the NAACP was formed.

I grew up and I survived the Ku Klux Klan lynchings and the night raids.

I remember, when sharecropping was a way of life; the endless cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. Yes Suh, it was hard work.

I lived through World I, II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. I watched the Desert Storm War on my t.v. set.

I saw the Mississippi chain gangs and Klu Klux Klan crosses burning in yards and in the fields.

One day, we were working in the field. The KKK came and took one of the workers. They said he was stealing food and killed him right before our eyes. We couldn’t do nothing about it so we returned to the fields and kept right on working. During that time, I seen a lot of folk go missing.

I’ve been a Negro, Colored, Black and African-American.

My rock stars were Jackie Robinson, the Negro Baseball League, Mahalia Jackson, the Canton Spirituals, Cassius Clay and the Los Angeles Lakers.

There was a colored man who had fists made out of steel. His name was Joe Louis. He was the champion of us colored people.

I remember when “equal rights” was only a dream and no “rights” were our portion. Colored folks only had the right to be silent.

My eyes saw O Jim Crow every day. I saw signs that read: For whites only! Colored Drinking Fountain! No Blacks Allowed! Whites enter here! Blacks enter back door. Up in Greenwood, Ms. we had to step off the sidewalk and into the road so white folk could pass on the sidewalk.

I heard a lot of talk about ending segregation. They say things would get better for us. Wasn’t sure about that. I heard things were way betta up north. Now I believed that.

1950- I saved up enough money to buy a green 1949 Pontiac, from Mr. Arthur Killebrew. He owned the plantation where I worked. I had a plan. The day arrived when I put the plantations in my rearview mirror and said goodbye to the state of Mississippi. I moved our family to Illinois. I went straight to work. I was determined to beat that old sayin, the last hired and the first fired. The Lawd blessed me to work until I retired.

1955 – I remember folk talkin about Emmett Till. He was up from Chicago way. I heard he was only 14 years old. He was on vacation from Chicago visiting his kin folk ova in Money, Ms. They say he whistled at a white woman in a store. Them Klu Klux-folk went to his people’s house and took that boy away. They beat him and killed him so bad. He ended up at the bottom of a river. I guess them white folk felt they needed to “teach him a lesson.”

Up in Memphis, I remember Miss Rosa Parks. She refused to move to the back of the bus so whites could take her seat. I guess she was tired of being tired. A man by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. started talkin’ about civil rights. They tell me, he’s a preacher. Lots of white folks mad with him and want to kill him. They say he is a trouble-maker. The man is a smart leader and he made a good point. How can you have civil rights without human rights?

1961 – So, they bombed the marchers and the buses. Lots of folk lost their lives, tryin to be equal, tryin to be free.

1962 – My eyes have seen a time when us colored folk couldn’t VOTE. Fannie Lou Hamer was a tiger-cat! Now that lady could sing! She was right up the road and out of Ruleville, Ms. She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and she wasn’t afraid of the white man. She died fighting for us to have a voice and a vote.

In 1963, I watched the March on Washington, D.C. You talkin’ about some people, just one big ocean of folk. My eyes never saw anything like that before. Colored and white folk marching together. They were holding up signs; tryin’ to help us.

Commissioner Bull Connor over there in “Bombingham” Alabama was a hot mess! He turned the dogs, water hoses and even a small tank loose on dem poor colored people and children. They had a good reason to be marching. The people wanted justice. He should have been shame of himself. He didn’t know that television would expose him and his works to the world. That man died and never said he was sorry for all the wrong he done.

Lawd, it’s hard for me to talk about those 4 little girls who died in that bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church. They were in the church, at Sunday school. They weren’t bothering nobody but the white folk killed them anyway.

They went ahead and killed President John F Kennedy that same year. On t.v. I saw him get gunned down. They killed him just like he was a colored man. I said, Lawd, what is the world coming to?

1964 – The Freedom Riders came and went. Then came the ballot box; me and Curley registered to vote!

It is 1968, and it would not be long before they killed Dr. Martin Luther King. They killed anybody black or white, who stood with our race. Dr. King was a good preacher man. I really do believe the Lawd was with that fella.

1970s – I never knew what Black Power was all about. Guess I wasn’t supposed to. I’m going to leave that up to you and the young people.

1986 – Never thought I’d live to see this. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. done got a national holiday!

2001 – On 9/11, I watched airplanes fly straight into buildings in New York City. Now they tell me, these people did this on purpose! I watched it on my t.v. and it looked like the end of the world to me. All around there was death. My mother used to say, “Well I guess I done messed around and lived too long. I figure I’ve done the same.

Well, I lived through 25 terms of US Presidents; 2 Roosevelts and 2 Bush- wackers. My eyes have seen 5 generations of Gordons; each one stronger, wiser and better than the last one.

2002 – (Yawn) You know, this past summer I had to watch out for the West Nile mosquito, but he didn’t get me. I am 93 years old. The Lawd has been mighty good to me. On November 29th my grandfather looked at me and said, Shugafoot I think I’m gonna take me a nap. Somehow in my soul, I knew it would be the last time I would hear those words. His tired eyes had seen enough; more than any human being should be allowed to see.

At his homegoing celebration, as he laid in notable splendor, I leaned over and gave him a forehead kiss. It was the same forehead kiss he had given me all of my life. I whispered; granddaddy thank you for sharing your amazing journey with me. I promise you I will pass it down. I will continue to fan our ancestral flame so that its light and truth shall never know the darkness.

I am a product of Jim Crow, the Black Church, the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement. As my ancestors paved the pathway for me, I continue to stand in their strength and upon their stories. Even though they belong to the ages; today their stories belong to us.

Kings and Queens, here’s wishing you and yours a very Happy Juneteenth!

President Biden Signed Juneteenth National Independence Day Act Into Law on June 17, 2021

Ninety-four-year-old activist and retired educator Opal Lee, known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth, speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Juneteenth holiday marks the end of slavery in the United States and the Juneteenth National Independence Day is the 12th legal federal holiday — the first new one since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law in 1983. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)