My mother and I have been extremely close since my father passed, but it took some time to obtain the relationship we have today. The first couple of years after my father died, I thought I was the reason for most of her grief; I was a handful for her. But nothing I ever thought I knew about my mother compares to her life as revealed to me during a recent Celebration of Life ceremony that friends and family arranged for her.
Bro. Olitunji, as we call him, was the first to stand and offer words of tribute to my mother, Mary E. Spencer. He explained the formation of the Black and Proud School, which my father opened in Jackson during the early 1960s. It wasn't just Bro. Howard who ran the Black and Proud School, he said, but Sis. Mary was vital to its success as well. She taught sewing classes to students. She was the primary cook until the school could afford to pay one. She designed and sewed the school's uniform that students were required to wear at every school function.
I remember wearing those uniforms to the annual African Liberation Day rallies sponsored by the school. We marched with our heads high from the school on Erie Street all the way to the King Hiram Grand Lodge on Martin Luther King Street where the rally was held. I still remember the steam from the streets burning against the dark green uniform with its red and black trima tribute to the African flag. We'd walk hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm, chanting, "Black Power, Every Hour!"
From the depths of our souls we sang out: "Ain't gonna let nobody, turn me around, turn me around, turn me around; Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, I'm gonna keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking, marchin' to the freedom land."
People sat in their yards and on their porches eager to see this small but vibrant group of students singing songs of strength through their neighborhoods. The sense of pride was so powerful in those days. BPS students often went to area nursing homes to perform a play or skit we'd written in our creative writing class, or just to sing to the residents.
The mood shifted to shock and awe as Bro. Olitunji began speaking about how the FBI and local authorities harassed my parents as they tried to educate young black boys and girls on their culture, heritage, math, science, social studies and more. It wasn't long before Mama had to chime in. She had listened to him as long as she could without interrupting.
"Bro. Olitunji, I just gotta jump in here, if you don't mind," she stated emphatically. She spoke of white men watching our home and following my father in an attempt to intimidate him into closing the school and end his efforts. My mother would grab the broom and go out onto the porch and stare at them just to let them know that she knew she was being watched and wasn't afraid.
"We made a decision to follow this school through the good and the bad, and that's what we did," she said. "I stayed right by his side. I was scared to go to sleep at night, but I never left my kids, and I never left my husband."
I've always known that my father had a direct influence on the Civil Rights Movement in Jackson. I remember a lot of it, and what I don't remember first hand, people around me discussed so frequently that it easily became my reality. However, I didn't know the extent to which my mother was involved. I didn't know she possessed such strength. I always thought she'd have to be a significantly strong woman to stay with my father, who was very stern and complicated, but I had no idea of the magnitude to which her strength soared.
Many other former teachers of the Black and Proud School stood to give kudos and accolades to Mama. Papa Tee, the arts and crafts instructor, reminisced about the Mary Spencer who was a hell of a softball player. I've never seen my mother run or pick up a bat. But Papa Tee insisted that she was very athletic back in the day. She could run faster than any of the men on the team, he claimed. I've always thought of my mother as a very refined woman who wouldn't be interested in playing sports.
Now I know the real Mary Spencer. Although she has always been just "Mama" to me, she hasjust as much as my fathercontributed enormously to the city of Jackson. My mother (and father) changed the lives of every student who attended the Black and Proud School, including mine. In celebrating my mother's 70 years of life, I have been born again; I have found a new fire within. I have new reason to dedicate myself to continuing their work.
After all these years, I have finally learned who Mary E. Spencer is: the woman, the activist, the voice, the sister, the counselor. She's not just my mother; she's a mother to Jackson as well.