Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, is quoted as saying "Without an education, a people will perish." From the moment "The Great Emancipator" set America on the path of the abolishment of slavery, black families have struggled to keep their race from perishing, even when faced with the harshness of the segregated South. The education system was definitely separate, but it was never equal. Nor was it meant to be.
Toward the end of my real estate career, I had the pleasure of representing a couple in the selling of their property in Rubidioux, then a suburb of Riverside, California. Both were African-American, the husband being in his eighties. Somehow, we got on the subject of education and he discussed the school he attended as a child.
It was Fellowship Community Church and School, located in Lillie, Louisiana. Formed in the early 1900s, the first teacher was David Thornton, Sr. Mr. Thornton was the descendant of former slave Silas Thornton, who was taught to read by the son of former slave owner Wiley Thornton. Over the years, I've known quite a few people who've attended this school, including the parents of my mother.
I listened to my client as he discussed the limited number of schools for African-Americans back then. Usually you had to walk great distances every day to get there. If you lived too far to make the daily journey, one alternative was to stay with family or friends during the week -- doing chores to earn your keep -- and go home on the weekends.
Another alternative was to miss out of an education altogether. For this man's parents, that was not an option. Their children would get an education, no matter what.
The name of the man who told me this story was my grandfather's first cousin. However, most folks knew him as "Sugar Meat." In fact, you might find quite a few people who never knew his real first name.
There were many theories as to how he acquired this nickname. But it wasn't until recent years that I learned the origins from the man himself. It was given to him by his older sister Vivian due to his fondness of eating sugar and meat. Thus was born this most unforgettable of monikers.
Sugar Meat lead a rather interesting life. He served in the United States Army during WWII, fighting for the freedoms of other people, which his own had yet to fully achieve as American citizens. After completing his military service, he graduated from Southern University. He would later go on to have a successful 35-year career with the United States Postal Service.
In addition, he was a skilled mechanic who could often be found wearing a pair of coveralls in his free time. He worked on a lot of cars in his day. In fact, he worked on my first mode of transportation: a 1966 Chevy Chevelle. Without his help, I could never have afforded a car of my own.
I recently spent two and half years in Germany, returning in November of 2013. While there, I called from time to time, just to let him know he wasn't forgotten. His mind was still sharp and full of stories to tell. We often spent an hour or more on the phone as I became mesmerized by his tales.
"Man," he would tell me, "if I'm still here when you get back, we'll sit down and I'll really tell you some stories."
When I returned, he was still here, yet he wasn't doing so well. I sat with this great man and broke bread. He talked, but not much. He mostly listened as I shared a few of my stories. It was an honor, indeed.
On March 27, 2014, Sugar Meat made his final journey home. He was 89 years old. He passed away just one day shy of the 44th anniversary of the day he and his wife, Barbara, were united in marriage.
It wouldn't be a shock if you mention the name Sugar Meat in Louisiana or throughout San Diego, where he resided for over 50 years, and people would know of whom you were speaking. He was always someone who would lend a helping hand to those in need.
And don't be surprised if you mention his name in some remote part of Germany and if someone turned to look at you as if he knew the man. You see, he just might have heard a story or two about this man known as Sugar Meat.