Unsung: Channeling My Mother
MARCH, 2021 — As another Black History Month came to a close and Women’s History Month began, my thoughts turned to my mother. Alberta Frazier Willis. This is not unusual. I think of her every day, and I still miss her very much, even though she left this life almost 30 years ago at the age of 82 . But this year, the celebratory milieu heralding women’s achievements seized and captured my attention in a much more compelling way. Numerous print publications and social media platforms highlighted and praised trailblazing women of color. Revealing “First woman ever to” achievements, and for me, stirring memories of my mother and my family’s life in post-World War-II, pre-civil rights movement Montgomery Alabama that I had not considered for years. Images of her as a young woman, a devoted wife and mother, and coming to the realization that she too was a woman of achievement, even while living under the shadow of systemic racism, Jim Crow laws, sexism and labor exploitation.
My mother had a strong sense of history, and a deeply felt obligation to instill that trait in her five children. Which, I am happy to say, she accomplished successfully. A specific case in point: I have known and can bear witness to the fact that before President Harry Truman issued his Executive Order desegregating the armed forces in 1948, Mother was already in position at Maxwell Field (now Maxwell Air Force Base) as hostess-event planner at the officers’ club. She had been hired upon the recommendation of her brother, Lumpkin Frazier, a prominent Montgomery businessman who owned and operated several dry cleaners around the city as well as one on the base, where he had over a dozen Black employees. There came a time when the members of the Air Force hierarchy on the base, the majors and the generals, were in need of an individual to plan and organize social events. Holiday parties, luncheons, as well as formal military dinners. Various occasions for military members to meet socially. Public relations management for the base would also be part of the job. So, with an enthusiastic recommendation from her brother, years of entertaining experience and a ‘hostess-with-the-mostest’ reputation in her community Mother was hired for the job.
Looking at my 38-year-old mother’s youthful face on her Maxwell Field civilian employee ID badge, I am reminded that in those days, prior to reporting for work, she had already had a full day in our home, preparing breakfast for Daddy and the five of us, getting us off to school, completing household chores, and then preparing a full-course dinner to be ready for us when we came home from school and in time for when Daddy arrived home from work. Her second shift began at 3:00 p.m. when she was smartly and stylishly dressed and then whisked off to Maxwell Field in a military jeep driven by an Air Force MP. A military escort to her office in the exclusive officers’ club, where she regularly navigated her way through the white male military corporate power base.
At the time, at around the age of 5, I was too young to appreciate the significance of her position, but my memories of visiting her at work are plentiful and vivid. Today, as an adult with today’s sensibilities, and with so many advantages that my mother did not have, I now have tremendous appreciation for all that she accomplished and was able to achieve. Memories of visiting Mother at work come flooding back with images of her in her office, planning events, interacting with generals and majors and other Air Force personnel, and conducting interviews with the local press. These memories also include her preparing my siblings and I for special occasions at the base, in our squeaky clean, white-gloved Sunday best to be introduced to her bosses. Air Force hierarchy such as Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. In retrospect, even though mother always insisted on informing us that we were in the presence of “great men”, how could we have been aware as children that we were encountering some of the greatest military minds in history?
Among numerous events we attended on the base, the best-remembered are holiday parties, Christmas tree lighting ceremonies, Easter egg hunts, Halloween costume parties and the careful advance planning that always took place. In a recent article celebrating women, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower was hugely credited with inviting previously barred “Negro children” to join in the White House Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn in 1954. My memory was jogged immediately because in the 1940s, in her official capacity, Mother hosted annual Easter Egg Hunts on Maxwell Field Air Force Base, and in addition to her own children, she invited groups of Black children from our neighborhood and all around the city. When one of her bosses questioned her about the identity of the little guests, Mother replied: “Well, some of them are mine. And the rest are children from the community. All future good citizens of Montgomery, I can assure you.”
Mother was very proud of her family’s heritage and the life they created in Montgomery after the Reconstruction. Montgomery, the so-called “cradle of the Confederacy” was in many ways a typical Southern town in those days. Segregation was the law of the land and Black people in southern states lived under legalized systemic racial terrorism. The shadow of Jim Crow was omnipresent. But our community on the outskirts of town, far from the dictates of our white racist oppressors, was a thriving self-sufficient Black enclave of verdant greenery that maintained its own reality and self-worth. This was a thriving neighborhood of proud, hard-working, church-going and honorable Black citizens. My father, Clarence Willis, was one of these proud, hard-working, honorable men, whose years of experience in the floor-covering trade ensured steady employment at the Montgomery Fair department store. Although some of our neighbors worked farms and raised livestock or ventured outside of the neighborhood to labor in white households as domestics, education was paramount for most of them, and many excelled in academia and went on to become educators and lawyers and doctors, and community leaders. Among its prominent residents was my mother’s family, the Fraziers. The off-spring of four ambitious and enterprising brothers. The descendants of slaves and the Creek-Seminole Indian tribe. All landowners and farmers and businessmen who took pride in their business acumen, hard-won autonomy, and self-employment, and who reveled in the distinction of bowing to no man and being their own boss. The large family-owned compound situated on the outskirts of Montgomery included four houses on roughly several acres of residential and rural property. With well-tended homes and grounds, the tight-knit neighborhood was home to four large extended families and was a welcoming hub for nearby neighbors and friends.
Being born into this bountiful environment, surrounded by loving family members and caring neighbors, my parents protected and sheltered us from the outrages of the Jim Crow era as best as they could. But they also did not hide the fact that under this system, which was buttressed by strongly enforced racial restrictions and state-sanctioned violence, we were not guaranteed full citizenship rights as stated in the United States Constitution. Legal barriers were in place forbidding Black people from going certain places, receiving certain services, or enjoying certain entertainments. Access to public libraries was non-existent for the Black community, but we were allowed free reign at the base library and were allowed to check out books. This was truly a treat for us, and we made use of it often. Vile, forbidding “whites only” signs were ubiquitous throughout the city, but even in the face of the unrelenting racial oppression and injustice outside of our small hamlet, we children were being raised by strong, loving and devoted parents who refused to allow judicially enforced racism to negatively impact their children’s psyches. They identified the bigotry and social inequality as exactly what it was. “The traditional ignorance of these, resentful white folks.” With daily reminders that “…No human being on this earth is better than you are…No matter what color they are…You are not less than anybody. You are just as good, and you can achieve whatever you want to achieve…” our parents sent us off to school with this mantra each day, in pursuit of academic excellence and bright futures.
Mother was the youngest of the five children of Elijah and Carrie Frazier, with all of the advantages that accompanies such birth order placement. Her identity as a young Black southern girl was shaped by strict, loving and religious parents and a strong sense of family honor. With three older brothers and one older sister who was already married with children of her own, Mother’s parents recognized the benefits of enrolling Alberta in Miss White’s Industrial School for Girls where one of her classmates was Rosa Parks, with whom she developed a life-long friendship. The school’s principal, Miss Alice White was also very influential in her students’ lives, and for many years after the school closed, she maintained contact with my mother, corresponding through cards and letters.
When it came to the education of her own children, Mother was singularly focused. She had been greatly influenced by the educational experience at Miss White’s School, and several members of her family were teachers and college professors. It all connected when a seminal event in the city’s history occurred in 1934. A Catholic priest, Father Harold Purcell established the very first Catholic ministry for Black people in the state of Alabama and founded the City of St. Jude. And by 1946, the 36-acre campus had been expanded to include an elementary school, a high school, a hospital, a convent and a Catholic Church.
The school was named St. Jude’s Educational Institute for Coloreds and although my parents had been raised Methodist and Baptist, they perceived the educational opportunities being offered as tremendously beneficial, so my siblings and I were enrolled at St. Jude’s from 1946 until 1954, when our family joined in the Great Migration and settled in Detroit.
In a recent conversation with my older sister, who was in high school when our mother worked at Maxwell Field, she shared some of her own memories, which included the iconic annual Thanksgiving Day parade through downtown Montgomery. My own memories were revived and intersected with hers as we recalled the pageantry and the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, the roar of the crowd, and the music of the marching bands. Maxwell Field was always a featured presence in the parade with crisply uniformed marching soldiers and our mother on one of the floats seated among several members of the Air Force hierarchy. I remembered standing in the cold with our father and my siblings, carefully observing the parade route as it began at the state capitol building and proceeded down Dexter Avenue. Watching for signs of the float on which my mother was riding. It always seemed to take forever, but when her float began to approach and I caught a glimpse of her, it was always worth the wait. She would wave royally and smile politely to the crowd, but inevitably, she always saved her biggest smile and most vigorous waves for us after she spotted us. And the vibrance and emotion in her demeanor always spoke volumes. We were her real pride and joy, and she wanted the world to know it.
“oh antic God
return to me
my mother in her thirties…”. — Lucille Clifton, from Mercy