February is designated as black history month, and my contribution is my family’s story in small bites.
A bite is a bit, a morsel, a small piece of something. In this case, it is a piece of my past, morsels of my family’s chronicles that are nuggets to be shared.
In 2016 the movie adaptation of Margot Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures was released. I was stunned at the details of the lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, mathematicians, human computers during NASA’s space race. Astounded that these events were untold, I was sure there were many more stories about our unsung heroes and sheroes.
It is imperative that we tell our stories. And since I have already been walking down memory lane, I will continue with black history bits about my family. Will they become a movie or a book? I don’t know but things like that happen to me all the time.
When we give witness to our past, generations can learn from them. We have read and heard the repeated stories about civil rights greats, inventors, scientists, etc. But what about those unseen figures in our own families. Well, this is my story.
My first nugget is about my great-great-grandfather, Joe Owens, 1834-1912. As told to me, Joe, a slave, was freed by his owners and given land, a new horse and buggy. He subsequently purchased additional land and this land is still owned by my family today. I find this an honorable gesture of the owners to gift land and transportation. But I find even more remarkable that he had the aptitude to buy additional acreage and pass down to his heirs. The fact that he did it all during the social climate of unrest in the post-slavery south is amazing.
Fast forwarding to more recent history, is my hero, my Daddy, Morrell Noel, 1927-2008. Daddy was born and raised in the Collierville/Fisherville area of Shelby County. He began working at MLGW as a young man and commuted from Collierville to Memphis daily until he and Momma moved to Memphis. On one of the first days of work, the company announced that the next day they were going to climb trees. Fear struck many of the workers and they did not return. Daddy said he was afraid, but he went back. Pushing through the anxiety began 30+ years with the company and 50+ years of a career as an entrepreneur, a professional tree trimmer. He employed and taught skills to hundreds of workers during his lifetime. Etched on his headstone in the Owens Family Cemetery, is Expert Tree Surgeon because that was who he was.
Last in this list of nuggets, but certainly not least is my shero, my 87-year-old Momma, Juanita Owens Noel. As a licensed cosmetologist in the 50’s and a stay at home Mom, she did hair on Friday’s and Saturdays in our house. Many of our relatives and neighbors were beautified by her impeccable skills and my hair was always done with perfection. She, just like Daddy was an entrepreneur and touched and blessed many during her career. But one of the stories I like about Momma surrounds her civil rights activist spirit. Once when she was on the bus with my brothers, all the seats were filled. In that era, blacks, already assigned to the back of the bus, had to give up their seats to whites when filled. That being the case, she gave her seat to a white woman but refused to give up my brothers’ seats. Y’all, she could have taken the role of Rosa Parks in Memphis.
There are many other accounts of my relatives’ journey that have been told to me and that I experienced. Feats of courage, tenacity, fortitude in the face of violence, rage, retribution have impacted me and need to be told. I am sure you have many too. Make a practice of giving testimony by telling them, writing them, recording them so that they are not hidden. That is how we overcome.
Harriet Noel Jones