The gift that keeps on giving

Published 4:46 pm Monday, December 12, 2022

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People often ask me, “how do you find so much to write about for your column? You have a great memory to remember so much.”  I most often reply, “I was given the gift of stories.”   Growing up and listening to the older people in my family, and those who lived in our community, share the stories of their lives enabled me to develop a love of storytelling.  My grandmother would often entertain our neighbors on our front porch, and they’d share lots of stories about how they grew up, the people they knew, the events that happened in town, and their knowledge of the lineage of various families.

So many times, as a child, I saw a person walk by our house, then watched and heard the elders on the porch do in a few minutes what Henry Louis Gates couldn’t do in an hour-long episode of PBS’ ‘Finding Your Roots.’

For example, one of the elders or my grandmother would say about a woman walking by, “now that’s Mahala Harrison’s granddaughter. Mahala’s folks were from Tarboro. They came to Washington in 1840, long before the Civil War and brought a farm in Keysville.”  Then they would trace Mahala Harrison’s ancestry so far back, I with my seven-year-old mind, was waiting to hear if she was Adam and Eve’s great, great granddaughter.

My grandmother’s generation were mental ‘record keepers.’  It was so important for them to keep track of the ancestry of family and friends.  As North Carolina (except for Raleigh and Wilmington) did not issue official Birth Records until 1913, most births were recorded in a family Bible or written down and kept in a secure place. Often the secure place was also in the memories of those who were heads of their families.

Not only did they keep account of families, but the stories they told were time capsules of special events or happenings in the town. Those elders were ‘walking libraries’. The stories and accounts they told were full of godly wisdom, past and present history and how people were doing in their everyday lives.

My grandparents owned a restaurant, the ‘Tuxedo Restaurant’ that was on Gladden Street between Third and MLK Jr. Drive, which was formerly known as Fourth Street. Their restaurant was just one of many businesses in the heart of what was then known as ‘Prosperity Row’ because of all the Black owned prosperous businesses on Gladden Street.

I loved hearing them talk about how this part of the Black Community was also called ‘Little Harlem’ because of all the New York City jazz music greats who played there in local venues. A few doors down from the Tuxedo Restaurant was the ‘The Starlight Club’ which was listed in the Green Book.

Listening to all those wonderful stories and putting years of research to prove their validity, has given me a treasure trove of things to write about.  This Christmas, one of the most precious things you may be able to give your family and friends are the memories and stories you’ve heard growing up. Stories of family members of long ago, the simple but wonderful ways you enjoyed your childhood and the memory of foods and games that bring a smile to your face even now.

These memories are gifts that keep on giving.  As the holiday season is also gathering time for so many families, it’s a great time to share memories and stories that might be lost in a generation or two if not passed on.

In my family this holiday season, the electronic toys, games, iPads, cell phones etc. will give way, at least for a time, so the elders can give our younger generations the gift that keeps on giving.

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-founder and co-executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.