Saturday, October 24, 2015

Finding Flora

There is an African proverb that says "when an elder passes on, a library closes its doors."

This is tremendously true and is something my family just experienced, again.

My father's elder sister passed away this week and the news has reverberated across the country as family members were calling, messaging, texting, and facebooking on what this loss means to our generations.

Like many black families with traces of heritage in the United States, my father's family origins include the American South. They were in Tennessee and in Arkansas. It was in Arkansas where my father and his siblings were born, it was also in Forrest City, Arkansas where they met discrimination and escaped for opportunity.

The Great Migration is my Brent Family story.

Flora, being the third oldest sister, made her way from Arkansas up to Michigan.  Like many of the early 1940s, she followed the opportunity. Arkansas was agregarian, so it was a natural fit to find a way to another agregarian community away from the Jim Crow South. Just like other places noted in Isabel Wilkerson's book, The Warmth of Other Suns, families sent word back to their communities that it was a safe place, a place where opportunity flowed like a stream. It was also where employers in the North sought out black people in the South to come and fill the openings left by either picketing whites or whites who didn't want to do the harvest.

My father's family found themselves in the berry and canning spaces along the lush land of Southwest Michigan. They settled in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

Once Flora came and married, the rest followed, my late father was two years behind her and was in high school. He had high aspirations and would be among the first of his siblings to obtain a college diploma, his younger brother was the second.  All his siblings obtained a high school diploma and many went on to obtain training in a trade. His next-youngest-sister was a tailor who learned from the Jewish tailors how to be a millery, she ended up becoming a very wealthy woman tailoring men's suits and making hats. The baby sister went on to get her degree and moved to Chicago to work for Avis in the early 1970s, moving up the ladder and buying real estate in the Chicago suburbs. Again, another wealthy woman.  All the siblings made sure that their children were educated. They are now seeing generation after generation of doctors, engineers, educators, and entrepreneurs.

The 1940s and 50s presented many opportunities for hard working black migrant families to find an enclave and create a life. They were all homeowners of large estates along the soil rich shores of Lake Michigan. Town Line Road was and remains a starting spot for the Brent Family. Many of the blacks who came up from Arkansas settled along this dirt path with acres of vegetation growing in every back yard. Family estates remain that would make many of those in my St. Louis suburb salivate over the land, the sweet corn, the apples, the peaches, and the blueberries that are feeding a nation.

Flora was a proud wife and mother, she nurtered, in a quiet and gentle manner, all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She lived for 88 years and in that time, was able to see the fruit of the migration pay off, she was the reason they all left Arkansas. She came and encouraged her parents to come with the rest of the siblings. While her father passed away a year after the move, her mother was able to live into the 1960s to see her children launch.

The Brent Family became known as hard working, well educated, close knit, and deeply spiritual. The were the founding members of an historic church that remains in Benton Harbor. They all owned their large homes and encouraged their children to hold onto the land. The land remains in family hands to this day.

In hearing about the passing of Aunt Flora, I paused to realize that this quiet woman effected the change for multiple generations. She did not have a plaque on a wall or medals around her neck, but her triumphant decision to move changed the trajectory of an entire heritage.

There will be a part of me that is forever Finding Flora. May she rest in beautiful peace from all her labors.

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