On Jan. 19, my church, the Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown, held its third Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. This included a luncheon, a fashion show and a speech by state Sen. Anthony “Hardy” Williams. The food was good; the fashion show was outstanding; and Williams spoke meaningful and purposeful words.
I especially liked it when he referred to King by his birth name, Michael, and not Martin. His name change is a fact unknown by many. Williams eventually focused on something dear to me and basic to the survival of Black people in the past. So today I will look at how our sacrifices back in the day that allowed us to endure, survive, and advance.
When growing up, I did not have friends or associates who grew up with silver spoons in their mouths. Yes, there was a handful a little better off, as their fathers worked in the post office and their mothers taught in one of the neighborhood elementary schools. The vast majority of our parents, however, struggled. While we were poor, we did not know we were poor. Our neighborhoods were modest, but yet, clean and crime-free. Owning an automobile was a luxury most people could not afford. Clothing was usually handed down or created on the home sewing machine. Almost everyone went to church, because prayer was the cornerstone of our upbringing and survival. We did have good schools, segregated as they were. Probably more important than anything were the loving, strong families that nurtured us through challenging times; times created under a veil of segregation and Jim Crow laws. I doubt any of us understood or appreciated the significance of the sacrifices our parents and guardians made back in the day; sacrifices that helped to make us responsible and productive human beings today.
Thoughts about making ends meet through sacrifices surface when I think about my parents’ actions to make certain our family had a roof over their heads; a place they owned not rented. The first place I lived in as a child was a row home with but two bedrooms for more than seven people. Thus, other rooms in our rental property had to become bedrooms at night. When I was age five we moved to a large semi-detached home that had room for all of us. The move was not easy. My father, like many Black men during the mid-’40s, worked as a laborer for the Philadelphia Transportation Co. (PTC), which eventually became SEPTA. Even though I was just a child, I saw and heard stories about my father’s determination for our family to have a place of our own. I learned of the many other jobs that my father took on, sacrifices that helped to make a home a reality. My mother pitched in to make this effort a reality. Newspapers and rags did not go in the trash when I was growing up. These and other household items that were no longer used were saved for the junkyard. “Junking” was a Saturday routine carried out by my father because these items were easily converted into cash. This was just one of many things my father did at that time so there would be better times in the future.
As I piece together my family structure, it appeared to be one without the educational acumen or financial resources to make it a candidate for home ownership. My parents’ sacrifices were enormous; my father often talked about the $1.50 in his pocket when he and my mother left the settlement table after purchasing their home. This kind of sacrifice was not unique to my parents; many families back then made huge sacrifices. There was no new or decent pre-owned automobile, some furniture came from thrift stores or from families that were discarding items, and the clothes worn by my siblings and me were often hand-me-downs or homemade. We were not ashamed that we did not have new or nice things. We had clean clothing and clean homes. If you go back to those families that lived next door or down the street from where you grew up, you will recall how making sacrifices was something families just did, especially for home ownership. Such behavior was expected, and because it was so transparent, it was taken for granted, back in the day.
One of the more telling things about parents’ loving care for their young ones was how their children were attired. If anyone had new clothing, it was usually the children. It was no big deal for mothers and fathers to wear outfits over and over again, but their children were usually smartly dressed. When children had new clothing, it came from the layaway system that enabled parents to spread their limited funds over an extended period of time. Parents often borrowed clothing for themselves for special occasions. Memories of those times are captured in photographs that adorn the walls, mantles, fireplaces and coffee tables in many homes today. These were taken many years ago, so what may not be evident today are the sacrifices made by our parents for us to look good, back then.
For those of us that were fortunate to go on to further our education, there is little doubt that but for our parents, additional schooling would not have occurred. While summer employment, part-time jobs, work-study programs and even scholarships may have helped get some through higher education programs, basic to getting into these institutions and ultimately receiving a degree or certificate was the help from our parents. I have already commented on the struggles they had in providing housing, clothing, and food, so having some resources left over for educational purposes was tough — real tough. It did not start with college, business school or trade school; we had significant needs from elementary through high school. We did not go on some of those out-of-state class trips without the support of our parents. Graduation from high school had expenses that only they could provide, as few of us had part-time jobs. But it was the move to business school, trade school or college where parents made the biggest sacrifices in order for us to accomplish the one thing they were determined for us to do. You heard these words from a parent on many occasions: “I want my children to live a better life than I did and I will do anything to enable them to reach that goal.”
I do not know how it was possible for those fortunate enough to go on to college. For me, the road was not easy. I did not attend college immediately after graduating from high school. I worked a year and saved a few dollars, but not enough for tuition, room and board, books and incidentals. I did what many children did back then. I turned to my father. Looking back, I know he did not have the financial means to fork over large sums for college. I cannot tell you where the monies came from; but they came, and my expenses were met on time. I suspect it was all possible because of his determination to make certain that at least one of his children acquired a college education. He acted as many parents did; to insure I had a chance to become a responsible young man; he made monumental sacrifices.
The days of parents making sacrifices for their children are not gone. The situation, however, has become problematic. Many of us today are the beneficiaries, of our parents’ sacrifices. While many of us have managed to go on to do important and significant things, have well-paying jobs and big homes, we may have given our children too much. A colleague told me her daughter never said “thank you” for sacrifices she made to do the things she had done for her during the Christmas holidays. When she confronted her daughter about it, her daughter told her she was obligated, as her mother, to do what she had done. My colleague said she was so angry that she and her daughter had not communicated since this incident. So, she was going to make a point by sending her daughter an unsigned check for her gift for her upcoming birthday. She felt that perhaps something like this would touch her daughter’s conscience and make her recognize that there are no such obligations on the part of any parent. In most cases where there is help provided, sacrifices still must be made. It would bode well for our families and communities if we all made sacrifices today just as most parents used to make sacrifices back in the day.