I was walking between my bedroom and office and passed a table housing multiple photos of friends and relatives. One of the framed 5x7 photos was of my maternal grandmother and grandfather. I was fortunate enough to have them in my life well into adulthood. My biggest regret is that I never inquired about their experiences: What was it like surviving Jim Crow and an America that didn't fully appreciate them?
My grandfather, William Helm, was once a railroad porter. He never talked about those days, nor did I ask. I have read since his passing about what porters experienced. Pullman was once the largest single employer of Black men, with Blacks making up 44 percent of their workforce. My grandfather likely traveled the country; imagine the stories he could tell.
My grandmother was a registered nurse when I knew her. I am curious to know what previous jobs she held and if it was hard to get into nursing school. Did she face segregation? What insults did she endure? They were considered middle-class; they owned their own home. How could they accomplish that when FHA wasn't giving loans to Black people?
I grew up in Minneapolis, but an old photo in their home showed they once lived in Chicago. My grandparents were dressed to the nines, and my adult mother was with them before my mother had children. My grandfather's brother—who later passed for white—was in the picture. My mother told me not to ask about Paul but I might've thought to ask her about my grandparents' lives. That chance is now gone.
I attended Fisk University, an HBCU in Nashville, TN. Fisk was founded in 1866, and many Black historical figures had ties to Fisk. W.E.B. Du Bois was there before becoming the first Black man to receive a doctoral degree from Harvard. Fisk was home to the Jubilee Singers, of whom I knew little until years after leaving Fisk. The community was full of figures who were instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement. I knew the children of Rev. Kelly Miller Smith and attended his church without knowing of his role in civil rights.
I never knew the foremost artist of the Harlem Renaissance was still on the faculty when I arrived at Fisk and that famous murals of his covered the second-floor walls and ceilings of Cravath Hall, a building I passed through frequently.
My favorite English professor, Dr. L. M. Collins, was a conduit to information about the Harlem Renaissance and had met several figures only known to me in English and history books. Of all the conversations we had, it's those that we didn't have that I regret.
I've been in the same room as Maynard Jackson; I worked on his re-election campaign without ever getting to speak to him. I walked the same sidewalks as Nikki Giovanni and Diane Nash. Historian John Hope Franklin told stories of the Wall Street Massacre, where his father, Buck, was a new lawyer in town. Fortunately, John wrote his stories down, and we don't have to rely on the answers to questions I never asked.
There are many people once in my life that could have started me on my journey to learn history long before I began. If I had to do it again, I'd never stop asking questions. I'd get first-hand accounts of that which I've only read about.
It's possible their experiences were too painful, and they wouldn't want to discuss them. It's more likely that I would have benefitted from their answers, as would my readers, due to my enlightenment. If you have elders in your life, talk to them about their lives and experiences. I'm making a note to myself to speak to my grandchildren about things I've learned, lest one day they wish they had talked to me.