One of my prized possessions is a tattered and yellowed book by the American historian, Carter G. Woodson. The book always sits in my living room. It’s a reminder of many things. The title is Negro Makers of History, first published in 1928.
The book originally belonged to my mother, Mrs. Lillian Williams, who grew up during the Jim Crow era of the Deep South. She often recounts how her teachers in Tuscaloosa, Ala., emphasized the study of history–including the history of African Americans in the United States. Therefore, as a child she read books like Negro Makers of History.
Today my mother firmly believes that a sense of history-including her own family’s history–propelled her to success. She learned from the missteps, as well as the successes, of others. She married (her husband was a lawyer and civic leader); she became a public school teacher with a master’s degree in science education; her five children attained undergraduate and advanced degrees. Her grandchildren are following in her footsteps.
But here’s the deal: So many other everyday African Americans have equally compelling stories too. Their names never make national headlines. You won’t hear about them during annual Black History Month celebrations in February. And yet, they do extraordinary things, often against great odds. (No matter what your heritage, I’m sure that you, too, know similar uncelebrated people.) Their quiet deeds make our blocks, neighborhoods, and local environments stronger. They contribute to a healthier global society.
So, in celebration of Black History month this year, I want to introduce you to another extraordinary African American–the late Mrs. Emma L. Wilson King who died on November 20, 2004. Born in Starksville, Miss., in 1922, Mrs. King married her friend and lifelong partner, Willie Francis King, at the age of eighteen. She was a homemaker.
What made Mrs. Emma L. Wilson King special? So many things.
She and her husband raised 12 (read that, twelve) children in the tough urban environment of East St. Louis, a river town in downstate Illinois. (That’s also my hometown.) By most economic standards, the family was poor. But her children didn’t know that. Growing up, they noted the wealth of their mother’s moral character, the richness of her spirit. She encouraged them to attend college, and to make a difference in the lives of others. But more importantly, she made each child feel special. After her death, daughter Lois Blackmon wrote in an online memorial:
“Ma, you always told me that because I was the seventh child, that meant I was lucky to have been born from you. I often would think how you would tell us, that you would hear other mothers shouting and telling their children ‘You get on my nerves;” You would then tell us, that thought never entered your mind.”
“After, a Sunday family dinner or a holiday celebration, I can still see you sitting back and smiling, looking at all of us and saying ‘You know what, I feel as though my arms could stretch long enough to wrap around all twelve of my children at one time.”
Another daughter, Renee King-Jacobs of North Hollywood, Calif., wrote in that online memorial: “She was such a strong woman, yet a gentle person. She never made anyone feel small. If anything, she made you feel like you were the most important person around. When you came in contact with Ma, you walked away with a warm feeling.”
And folks in the neighborhood felt that connection, too. Wrote Lester (“Prettyboy”) Lewis, who now lives in Renton, Wash.: “In our little neighborhood you always knew who a person’s family was by look, behavior and attitude; you just knew one of Miss Emma’s kids when you saw one in public. I guess you could say, you can always tell a King.”
Now here’s the question: How did Mrs. King’s legacy of love translate into concrete action even today? How is she still making a difference in East St. Louis?
U.S. Census figures show that the town has a median income of $19,278, compared to a statewide median income of $56,853. Nearly 44 percent of its citizens live below the poverty level. A majority of children are eligible for free, or reduced-price lunch. Elevated lead levels have been found in the bloodstreams of many children, according to a research project supported by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
So, here’s how Mrs. King’s legacy lives on, how she still makes a difference among those who need help.
Ten days after her death, her daughter, Bernice King-Sanders, decided to start a scholarship in honor of her mother. She talked over the idea with sisters Ernestine and Delores. In written reminiscences, Bernice noted, “We decided to have a family meeting on December 25th, 2004, and introduce our plans to the remainder of the family members. I decided to compose a letter outlining our purpose for the scholarship, means for financing it and other details.”
To date, the family has awarded over $15,000 in scholarships to children in East St. Louis, according to Mrs. King’s son, Jerome.
“We wanted to give something back to the community,” Bernice King-Sanders said. “This contribution is in honor of our mother who gave so much for others.”
And the living legacy of Mrs. King flourishes in other ways. Now her children are working to restore the historic Lily Pond Fountain in East St. Louis. The eighty-year-old fountain is the largest in the St. Louis region with a lily pond system. According to Jerome King, at one time African Americans were not allowed in the park that houses the pond. The restoration symbolizes an era of unity among persons in the region, King said.
Finally, Mrs. King’s legacy lives on in yet another way: Each year the family’s foundation distributes winter coats to children in both East St. Louis and nearby Brooklyn, Illinois.
As Carter G. Woodson exhorted in his 1928 book, we must record and replay the accomplishments of those who make a difference. Mrs. King, and her family, certainly merit mention during this annual history observance.
The author of this article, Lillian Williams, is a journalist and a college educator. The article also appears in the author’s blog, E-Learning (A Digital Education Forum). For more information about the Emma L. Wilson Foundation, visit http://emmalkingfoundation.org/home/