“I graduated from Indiana State University in nineteen sixty… eight? Something like that. And I was the first black teacher hired out in Alsip, Illinois.”
We’re sipping sugared green tea in a kitchen in a house filled with photos of family.
Barbara had shown me the photos, shown me her uncle’s pictures from the Tuskeegee Airmen, shots of her parents handsome and smiling at military galas, showed me a collage she was working on from her grandkids all the way back to her great great great great great (five greats) grandparents, who they think were slaves-turned-sharecroppers in South Carolina.
In a future story for this site, I’ll tell about why I was there. Since the 1980s, Barbara has run a black history tour company. It’s amazing. But that will be later.
Right now, I’m transcribing the unedited and verbatim story Barbara told me over tea, memories and gospel music in a kitchen in Auburn Gresham.
Do not read it. Instead, listen along here.
It starts with the oil crisis of 1973.
When they had a gas freeze, I never knew if I was going to have enough gas to get to work or enough gas to get back home. And I spent most of my day in lines to get gas. And sometimes you was getting in line and by the time you get there, they were out of gas, you know? So then I came into the city.
At that time, I needed to get a master’s to continue to be a speech therapist. And so I decided to go into the army so I could get educational benefits. Because, you know, my dad and all of his brothers had gone in and everything.
But when I went in for my physical, the doctor told me, “Not only can you not get into the army, but you better run — not walk — somewhere and get your legs fixed.”
When I was born, I had slipped epiphysis of the femur bone, which means that the ball part of the joint did not form and then it didn’t fit into the socket. And I had a fall. And I had to have four pins put in each hip.
So everybody thought I was going to be a cripple. My grandfather was looking at wheelchairs, he was going to buy me an electric wheelchair, and people on my block said, “Well you can come out and play with us. You can watch us play hopscotch.”
But my grandmother?
Well, I had two praying grandmothers. Everybody in my family prayed, but my grandmothers — you didn’t want them to be praying on you for nothing.
If they were telling you, getting on you about something, you just went ahead and did it because they were going to be kneeling and the next thing you knew, you know?
But my paternal grandmother told me, “Baby, I’m not going to be able to get out to the hospital to see you, but I will send my prayers.”
And so I went through with flying colors, but I could not have a pair of skates. I could not have a bike. I could ride my sister’s bike, but they wouldn’t get me a bike.
One day my cousin that lived around the corner from us got a new bike. And so I went over there to get a ride because I didn’t want my parents to see me riding a bike. And he was scared.
They were playing hopscotch and red light and they were jumping double dutch and he said, “Aw naw, if you fall, I’ll get in trouble.”
I said, “I can ride a bike.” And I got on the bike. I remember the wind blowing through my hair and I was just like, oh I was like on Route 66.
But when I got back to the front of the house, I slid on some gravel and I actually remember being up in the air looking down on the ground where I was going to fall.
When I fell, everything stopped — the double dutch, the red light. And I turned over and looked dead in my grandmother’s mouth.
I said, “Oh, I’m going to get a whipping for riding that bike.”
I jumped up, I went home, I took a bath, I rubbed on the Ben-Gay and alcohol.
The next Sunday was Easter Sunday. I cornered my grandmother in the room, I said, “Whycome you never called my daddy and tell him I was riding that bike?”
“Oh baby, when I saw you fall like you fell and get up and run like you ran, I knew my prayers had been answered.”
She said, “Your legs. Will be. All right.”
OK, fast-forward 10 years later, trying to get into the army? I found out that one of the pins was slipping and picking away at the joint. So back I went to Illinois Research, the famous Dr. Fox, who eventually became the surgeon for the Chicago Bears.
They had taken all these X-rays and had me doing all these exercises. And then he was in the process of training other doctors. So they were all in this room, a bunch of people all in white, and they had all these X-rays and stuff like that. While he was explaining to them, he was also explaining to me.
And then he said, “And what we’re going to do is we’re going to do this and such and then you’ve got to do thus and so and then we’re going to do the other leg.”
I kind of fogged out. It’s almost like things kind of went dim, you know?
And I heard my grandmother say “Your legs. Will be. All right.”
And when I came back to myself, I just said, “You know, that’s OK. That’s OK. I don’t want you to do all of that. Just take the pins out.”
“Well, I’ve had much success with this. Are you afraid? We will be following you-”
I said, “My grandmother prayed for my legs. I’ll leave here with what I got.” And he looked at me and he said, “All right.”
I’ll be 70 years old next year and I’m still walking on my grandmother’s prayers.