I’ve never been known as a “potted palm” — that is, a passive observer — so, it was no surprise to anybody that as soon as we moved to Savannah, I immersed myself in the community. I became just as active here as I had been in Maryland. I was still trying to change our crazy world.
I was twice elected to leadership positions in our church. The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia asked me to take on a couple of special assignments. I became an active member of the Port City Bar Association, Savannah’s Black lawyers association. Most importantly, I became increasingly active in the youth mentoring programs of the 100 Black Men of Savannah.
So much for my well-intentioned plans to chill-out in Savannah.
A little-known fact about me is that I’m a citizen (by descent) of Jamaica, honoring my parents’ native country. I’m the family genealogist and have identified over 2,500 family members, traced my maternal great-grandfather back to about 1640 in South Leith, Midlothian, Scotland and the bloodline of my enslaved ancestors to Benin, in western Africa.
In 1996, Connie and I organized our first family reunion and we held it in the mother country, Jamaica. Imagine our surprise when over 200 family members from six different countries attended. Our history came to life when we visited our ancestors’ graves at St. Andrew’s Church in Albert Town located in the remote mountains of Jamaica’s Cockpit Country.
THE “FISH RULE”
At home in Savannah, our now-adult children, Scott and Alison; her daughter Troi; and Marvin, Connie’s son from her earlier marriage, were regular visitors. We rarely visited our timeshare unit in nearby Hilton Head, South Carolina. After all, we joked, “Why bring a sandwich to a banquet?”
Other than our children, we have an unwritten rule for house guests — the “fish rule.” House guests, just like fish, can become objectionable after three days.
There were two notable exceptions to our standing fish rule: my sister, Eleanor, and my Spartan buddy, Richie Roye.
Eleanor and I hadn’t shared a Thanksgiving dinner together since she relocated from New York to Los Angeles in 1966. So, in 2008, in celebration of her 80th birthday, we “convinced” Eleanor to put aside her reservations about ever putting a foot in the racist South and spend that Thanksgiving with us. She gleefully accepted our invitation.
I had called Eleanor “Sis” since our childhood, and I get a warm feeling now as I think about that special Thanksgiving with Sis. During her Savannah visit, I made it a point to introduce Sis to as many of our friends as possible, I always referred to her as my “big sister.” I was so proud of her; we were proud of each other.
Remember Eleanor’s aversion to white Southerners? Well, one evening, after attending a play at a downtown theater, we left Sis alone to wait for us in the theatre lobby while Connie and I went to retrieve our car. When we returned to pick her up, there she was, my big sister, engaged in a warm, animated conversation with a white woman.
Later, settling into her seat in the car, Sis said simply, “Well, they’re not all so bad.” I resisted the temptation to lecture and simply said, “Yup.”
This visit was our last Thanksgiving together, but no matter. We’d had our special time together. I continued afterwards to visit her regularly in Los Angeles.
Sis passed away quietly on March 30, 2015. She was 86 years old.
Sis, through that chance encounter with that white woman in a theatre lobby, taught me about reconciliation.
Richie Roye – remember my Spartan buddy? – was another exception to our fish rule. Richie and I had been really close friends since we were 13 years old. He was a linchpin of the Spartans well into our adulthood.
I was devastated to learn in 2010 that he had pancreatic cancer. Never one to give up easily, Richie accepted our invitation to visit us in Savannah, but then postponed his visit several times. Why? He was too busy. A social worker, Richie was an active volunteer in retirement at a Roxbury vets counselling center. As always, Richie put others before himself.
Richie finally arrived at our home in the summer of 2010 for a ten-day visit. Other than his cane and somewhat reduced mobility, there were no outward signs of his advanced disease. Connie treated him like royalty and seemed to know instinctively when to give the two of us time alone.
In many long conversations, Richie and I shared our joys and disappointments. Mostly, however, we celebrated all that we had, our lasting friendship.
Richie’s return to Boston was bittersweet for both of us. As we hugged at the airport and said our goodbyes, we both knew this was not “so long,” but “Good bye.” It was truly our farewell. I returned to our car and wept.
Richie returned to our original Roxbury community and continued counselling vets until he simply couldn’t do so any longer. Richard Harrison Roye died on June 25, 2011. His gift to me? Friendship. Loyalty. Commitment. Service to others. Afterward, Richie’s brother, Milton, told me how much his Savannah visit had meant to Richie. It was mutual, I assured him.
LOSING A CHILD
Many times over my life, I have heard about a parent’s special pain in losing a child. The loss of a child is contrary to the natural order of life. Children are expected to bury their parents, not the other way around.
I knew that my son, Scott, had sundry health issues and that I might outlive him. He had been hospitalized many times for serious infectious disease-related illnesses.
Once, Scott confided in me his greatest fear — dying alone. I promised him that, as long as I was on the scene, that wouldn’t happen. I kept that private father/son conversation to myself.
Scott was bright and effervescent as a kid. He graduated from the University of Maryland and had seemingly unlimited potential. He became a flight attendant with a major airline, but in the 1990s, he retired on disability.
Early in the 1980s, while attending Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Scott was diagnosed as HIV-positive — a virtual death sentence at the time. He used mood-altering drugs to ease his pain. He was devastated by the death of his life partner from AIDS in 1996; that death accelerated Scott’s physical and emotional decline.
It wasn’t a pretty picture for anyone, especially his loving parents and sister, Alison who, with our focus on Scott’s self-destructive behavior and illnesses, received nowhere near the attention that she needed and deserved. The similarities of the Scott/Alison relationship to my relationship with my older brother is inescapable. We’ve talked about it countless times since then.
Scott’s health declined precipitously in September 2010. While living with his mom in Silver Spring, Maryland, he was hospitalized for the last time. His mom was an almost daily visitor and Alison, now living in Atlanta, married, raising Troi, and employed, visited as often as possible.
Connie and I settled into a regular routine of driving 1,600-mile round-trips between Savannah and Silver Spring. These were trips of love, unlike the shorter, duty-bound visits to my brother in prison decades earlier. Yet these trips to visit Scott had their own special agony for me. Remembering my promise that he wouldn’t die alone, I feared that I had made a promise I couldn’t keep.
We watched helplessly as the increasingly invasive treatments took their toll on Scott’s weakened body. One quiet Sunday morning, Scott and I — alone — shared some deeply personal feelings. It hurt deeply to hear him say, “I can’t take it any longer, Dad.” I understood.
We had discussed his end-of-life wishes in some detail in the abstract. But this was real. He was asking permission to take control of his destiny. I would not deny him that.
Connie and I were supported in our commute by one of Scott’s best childhood friends, Kris Hunigan. Kris made his home available to us on our trips north, provided moral support to all of us, and often read Scripture to Scott during his final days.
Scott died on December 10, 2010, surrounded by his mom, Connie, and me. We held his hands and said the Lord’s Prayer, as he took his final breath. We complied with his wish to be cremated. He was 48 years old.
TOWARD SERVANT LEADERSHIP
In 2006, soon after Connie and I retired to Savannah, I was recruited to join the Savannah chapter of 100 Black Men of America, a national youth mentoring organization.
Membership is composed of 50-odd Black men, all with a shared commitment to the betterment of Savannah’s youth. My involvement started with the chapter’s Health and Wellness Committee. I headed it with Cliff Broadnax, a good friend, neighbor, and health insurance broker. Cliff led an after-school health program for kids, involving them in exercise and the virtues of healthy snacks. I led a community education program “Unnatural Causes,” focused on the many ways that inequality contributes to the overall poor health of Black people. Our spouses — Connie and Di Broadnax — also became deeply involved in raising funds for the chapter; they brought in over $4,500 in a 2008 silent auction.
In late 2009, the year I received my kidney transplant, I was humbled and challenged to be elected president of the 100 Black Men of Savannah. Here I was, a relative newcomer to Savannah — I’d been here only four years — and my colleagues had entrusted me with the leadership of Savannah’s premier youth mentoring organization.
As always, the self-doubts of my childhood nagged at me, and I wondered whether I could meet the responsibilities of the position. So, just like when I was preparing for trial as a prosecutor, I dealt with my anxiety by preparation, preparation, and more preparation – meeting people, engaging our mentees’ parents, and seeking hitherto untapped sources of financial support. I treated my presidency as if it were a full-time job.
I spoke out on issues of social inequality and by the end of my two-year term as president, we had heightened the chapter’s media presence, engaged a broader cross-section of Savannah’s business and community organizations, increased our membership by 30 percent, and improved our financial underpinning.
In June 2010, we instituted a free two-week summer camp program for our mentees and other neighborhood teens. Under the leadership of my good friend, Chatham County Superior Court Judge James F. Bass, we instituted a half-day law session, introducing mentees to the legal profession.
Eventually, that half-day legal segment evolved into the two-week 100 Summer Law Camp, reaching about 35 middle and high school students. Again Judge Bass led the program along with another close Savannah friend, Charles Golphin. Black attorneys and judges volunteered for the law camp. The young people went on field trips and participated in mock trials and job shadowing.
SAVANNAH 100 FOUNDATION, INC.
Soon after I was elected president of Savannah‘s 100 Black Men, I saw a growing need to not simply prepare youth to cope with the challenges of the Black experience, but to address the underlying institutional conditions of injustice and inequality that kids had to cope with each day of their lives.
Several of us, perhaps by virtue of our legal background, determined to use the law as a vehicle to achieve social justice and to support students who aimed to become attorneys and shared these values.
And so in late 2010, the Savannah 100 Foundation, Inc., an IRS 501(c)(3) not-for-profit charitable organization was born with me as president.
The Foundation’s signature program is the Judge Eugene H. Gadsden Memorial Scholarship; it memorializes the legal acumen and civic leadership of Chatham County’s first Black Superior Court judge, who also mentored countless attorneys.
The Gadsden scholarship program aims to create a future of decency and equality by community education and identifying and nurturing future leaders among Savannah and Low Country students who want to become lawyers and make a difference in their communities. Fifteen scholarships have been awarded to date. The four-year, undergraduate college scholarship also provides each Gadsden Scholar with networking support and prepares him or her for the rigorous law school admission process.
They’re are often reminded that lasting social change – school desegregation, juvenile right to counsel, women’s right to privacy, for example — take place through the law.
Testing the contours of public policy, we challenge mentees not to accept blindly what is, but to ask, “How come?”
Almost every landmark civil rights case resulted from little-known people who speak truth to power through the law Think of 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns (1935-1991), a little known plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education (school desegregation) and my equally little-known Brooklyn neighbor, Sidney Street, who in Street v. New York established that flag-burning is a Constitutionally-protected form of expression.
Looking back on my ten years as president of the Savannah 100 Foundation, two events stand out from my many meetings with mentees.
The Foundation uses real life to teach our mentees. We conducted a student essay contest on whether Georgia’s requirement that a voter attach a postage stamp to an absentee ballot before mailing in, constitutes a prohibited poll tax. The winner of the $100 prize was decided on the strength of the reasoning, not whether the writer agreed or disagreed that the postage stamp was a poll tax.
We are seeing concrete results with our investment with our Gadsden Scholars.
- In December 2020, our first Gadsden Scholar graduated a semester early from the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. I attended her virtual graduation and was filled with emotion as I watched her. Now she is steadfast in preparing for law school.
- Another Gadsden Scholar, a junior at Mercer University, was admitted to the Law School Admission Council’s Prelaw Undergraduate Scholar (PLUS) program.
- Another scholar, undocumented but with a high school GPA of 3.96, was denied access to federal financial aid or attendance at any Georgia public college because of her immigration status. She received a merit scholarship to Oglethorpe University, a private Georgia college.
- Others will follow.
My most personally rewarding moment came a year or so ago in a private moment with a legal mentee.. The young woman, like many people, was apprehensive about her ability to cope with a particular personal challenge. I listened, as a mentor should. After all, a mentor is a trusted teacher and guide, not a director. Together, we worked out what seemed like an actionable plan to resolve her mini-crisis.
A while later, during a quiet moment, seemingly out of nowhere, she said to me softly, “Thank you.”
“For believing in me.”
I was speechless. Did she feel devalued by someone in her life, as I had with that trusted dramatics coach during my senior year in high school? I didn’t know.
But I did know her thanks echoed the gratitude expressed some thirty years earlier by that devalued young Maryland woman whose attacker was found not guilty.
She had said the same thing – “Thank you for believing me.”
In December 2020, the legal mentee cast her first vote in Georgia’s runoff election for two U. S. senators.
Tags: Eleanor Redway, Maurice Edwards, Richard Roye, Scott Johnson
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