Chapter 1: "The Feeling Was Just There"
Iwas only four years old when Roots aired on national television in January 1977. Surprisingly, I recalled my family being glued to the television as if they were watching something they had never seen. In reality, it was.
Despite my youth, I still ascertained that Roots was something phenomenal, something that would have long-lasting effects, not only for my family but for many African-American families. The twelve-hour television miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s best-selling novel Roots, followed seven generations in the lives of an enslaved family. The saga began with Kunta Kinte, a West African youth from the Gambia who was captured by slave raiders and shipped to Annapolis, Maryland in 1767.
My parents were among the nearly 130 million Americans who were galvanized by the story, one that has since been deemed a work of fiction. Regardless of its validity, Roots opened the eyes of many to the inhumanities of chattel slavery in America, and it piqued the interest of many African Americans concerning their own family history.
Ten years later, while sitting at the kitchen table, Mom observed that I had something on my mind. I was in deep thought. For Black History Month, my ninth grade history teacher, Mrs. Bertha Howard, had shown an episode of Roots to the class earlier that day, so I was thinking about my own roots that night. All of Mom’s grandparents died before she was born, but fortunately she knew their names.
With curiosity, I peppered her with questions. “What was your grandfather’s name, your Dad’s father,” I asked.
Relieved that I didn’t have any bad news, Mom shared, “His name was Bill Reed. He died before I was born, but my father and Aunt John would tell us about him.” Aunt John Ella Reed Bobo was one of my grandfather’s younger sisters.
I continued, “Was he a slave?”
“Yes, he and Momma Sarah were both born during those times. I believe Daddy said that he was originally from the Carolinas.”
Fascinated by this oral history, I questioned further, “North Carolina or South Carolina?”
“I believe it was South Carolina. I’ll have to ask Eartha to be sure. Aunt John talked about him quite often, and she would tell us that he had been a slave,” Mom shared. Aunt Eartha, my mother’s sister, verified that their grandfather had come from South Carolina.
I was a young teenager in 1987, and I was the great-grandson of former slaves. Moreover, I had not fathomed that I had roots outside of Mississippi, other than the distant Motherland. Those facts captivated me. Some of my friends, classmates, and many teenagers my age had great-grandparents still living. However, Mom’s paternal grandparents were long gone; if they had been living when I was born, they would have been well over a hundred years old.
Mom’s father, Simpson A. Reed, came into the world on Valentine’s Day in 1881 in Tate County, Mississippi. No one knows for sure what the “A” in his middle name stood for, but he signed “S. A. Reed” on his last marriage license, dated February 17, 1936. At the age of fifty-five, he married my much-younger grandmother, Minnie Lee Davis, who was twenty-seven years younger. Her father, John Hector Davis, who died months before her marriage, had approved of her courtship with Granddaddy Simpson, who was just ten years younger than “Poppa John.” Their family blossomed to six children, four boys and two girls. My grandparents’ youngest daughter was my nurturing mother. Granddaddy Simpson was the reason why I was only three generations from slavery. He was an active, hardworking elderly man during his children’s teenage years. He was also a loving father and his children adored him. In their eyes, he was a saint.
According to his children, Granddaddy Simpson was not a big talker, a trait that was passed on to my mother and ultimately to me. However, when he spoke, people listened, especially members of Beulah Baptist Church near Como, Mississippi, where he was an esteemed deacon. Mom shared, “When it came to making decisions regarding certain issues involving the congregation, the members seem to have thought that his words were both ‘law and gospel.’ His mannerism was that of calmness, patience, gentleness, and his soft spoken words often captured the attention of people who didn't really know him.”
She further reminisced, “I remember on many Sunday afternoons, my father's church friends, especially the deacons, would come by and share a Sunday dinner. After dinner, they would do Bible study. Usually, my mother would do the reading and the group would discuss the scriptures. When questions regarding interpretation of certain scriptures were needed, they would depend on him to give the interpretation. He was always alert and had a great understanding of the scriptures.”
My uncles often share with pride the day their father stood up to a white man in the 1950s – something that was rarely and cautiously done in Mississippi, especially during that time. Many African Americans had been killed, lynched, or ran out of the state for this and for many false allegations. Between the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of the Great Depression, 2,018 separate incidents of lynching occurred in which at least 2,462 African-American men, women, and children met their deaths at the hand of southern mobs. Of the ten southern states, Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings; the lynching rate surpassed its neighbors, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and Arkansas, by more than forty percent.
Uncle Leon, Uncle Sonny, and Uncle Melvin were young boys who were helping their father clear some of his acreage. Granddaddy Simpson owned and farmed nearly two hundred acres of land. My young uncles were given the audacious task of burning some of the trees and bushes that had been cut. To their misfortune, the fire got a little out of hand and spread onto their neighbor Paul White’s property.
Paul White was not a happy camper. He came out in anger and shouted to my uncles, “Look at this damn fire! I ought to give you boys a good whipping for this!”
They recalled their father’s courageous response, “Oh, no you won’t! I do not mind paying you for any damage that was done, but you ain’t gonna lay one finger on them. These are my boys, and I speak for them!” That episode continues to be my uncles’ favorite memory of their father’s unbreakable strength.
Granddaddy Simpson wanted to become a medical doctor, according to his children, but that opportunity was infrequent during the 1910s, when he was a young man in Mississippi. However, he loved and stressed education and ultimately married schoolteachers. My grandmother Minnie was his second wife. Like so many other African-American men during that time frame, he made a living in agriculture. He benefitted greatly by having his own land rather than sharecropping, which was essentially neo-slavery in many forms. Granddaddy Simpson had inherited some of his land from his father and purchased adjacent tracts from the Moores. Apparently, he prospered as a farmer because he often loaned money to family members and friends. Although he was a quiet-natured man, people knew not to double-cross him and promptly paid him back if they wanted his trust in loaning money to them again.
Mom expressed, “Daddy was a very gentle man, but don't push him to the curb. If you did, he would calmly let you know how he felt about whatever the situation was, especially if he felt that you had dealt unfairly with him.”
Mom talked about her father with so much love and pride that I would often ask her, “Who look like him the most?” There are no pictures of Granddaddy Simpson. The only one he was known to have taken was of him sitting on his horse. That once-treasured picture has not been located, so I have always felt this void of being oblivious to how my maternal grandfather looked. Mom and her brother, Uncle Sonny, bear a striking resemblance to my grandmother, so I glance at Aunt Eartha and their baby brother, Uncle Ed, and speculate that my grandfather probably resembled them.
However, this void did not deter my interest in hearing more about Granddaddy Simpson and uncovering the roots of his family. Even as a teenager, I garnered that there was something special about being a Reed. Sure, my last name is Collier, but I am also a Reed. I felt that being the grandson of Simpson Reed was even more honorable. Furthermore, I sensed that there was something historically mysterious about the Reed Family. I could not explain it at the time. The feeling was just there. It never went away.