It takes but a few stoplights to roll through the entirety of downtown Bessemer, Alabama. Today, its population hovers around 27,000, only 16,000 or so more than its 1910 U.S. Census count. The buildings are low and the homes are politely quaint, though many façades crumble, overburdened with existence. Visitors may squint and transport themselves a century into the past. These blocks have evaded gentrification.
In front of the Bessemer Hall of History, I cut power to my borrowed BMW F850 GS Rallye. Beyond an empty lot with a chained-up German shepherd, a Bessemer Police Department Motor Unit is parked before The Back Porch. The soul food spot’s front door opens and the moto officer, a Black man, exits, rubs an emerged belly, and slips on a white open-faced helmet. He cranks his police bike to life and shoves off, ambling down 1st Avenue and turning right onto 19th Street. I lose sight as he passes by the Bright Star Restaurant, in operation since 1907.
When the Bright Star first opened for business, a young man named Joseph worked at an iron works not far from the Bessemer rail yard. Joseph and his colleagues endured working conditions that would bring Jeff Bezos to perpetual tumescence. Labor unions were granted no southern hospitality. Relentless hours, verbal abuse, and grievous bodily harm were rules, not exceptions. The wages? Laughable, not livable. Nevertheless and without fail, Joseph rose before the sun and put in a proper shift. In this nook of the Deep South, employment opportunities were limited by his inability to “pass.” For those unaware, “passing” means being able to hide one’s true racial identity to escape the often dire consequences of not being white. Joseph was Black and navigated each day with a deftness of care known only to us.
He kept his head down, minded when and how he addressed his boss, and got on with it. He could not respond to the slurs. He could not speak simple truths or advocate for his colleagues. He could not resist. There was no other choice until, one day, what simmered finally boiled. Verbal jousting with his boss devolved into physical combat and Joseph released a lifetime of frustration. Between Joseph and his racist, small-minded boss, there could only be one outcome.
Joseph read the proverbial writing on the wall and, prudently, absquatulated. When the felled regained his faculties, the man summoned a collection of tapioca-minded good ol’ boys to exact assuredly grisly revenge. Taking time to dress the part, the white-hooded mob knuckle-dragged their way to Joseph’s home, torches and noose in-hands. They found footprints.
Young Joseph had already returned, said a tearful goodbye to his kinfolk, and escaped via “the first thing smoking.” Days later, he arrived safely in Chicago with a bag over his shoulder and a fistful of dollars in his pocket.
Only a few generations following the American Civil War, the U.S. Government’s attempt to progress the country hadn’t quite taken root. The Equal Justice Initiative notes that Americans perpetrated more than 4,400 lynchings upon their fellow Americans between Reconstruction and World War II. To us, those 4,400 or more lynchings were brothers, sisters, moms, dads, family, and friends. These horrific and systemic acts of terror were just another day in the Deep South. With the buffer of time, these 4,400 victims of extrajudicial violence threaten to become statistics.
Joseph I went on to settle in New York City to become a successful businessman and entrepreneur. He eventually married his sweetheart, Georgianna, with whom he had two children, Joseph II and Carole. Joseph II (“Ed”) grew up, married Mae, had a son, David, and a daughter, Donna, while rising through the ranks of State Farm, ultimately managing their Long Island, New York, auto claims office. Having had his fill of corporate life, Ed quit his job to become a professional photographer. Mae survived Ed. Donna is an executive and raised three, brilliant children. David became a lawyer and had two daughters and a son, Lance.
Pop-Pop was a good man. He was also one stumble from becoming a statistic. I, and his progeny, were a sturdy branch from non-existence.
Riding in, I have a helmeted realization — there were no Africans named “Jones” in my bloodline. Bessemer is located in the lower section of Alabama’s Jones Valley. My ancestors were taken from West Africa, chained, transported across the Atlantic Ocean, and enslaved by the Jones family and branded with our surname.
I was a teenager when my great-grandfather, Joseph Edward Jones I, passed away. He was 98. I knew him well and can attest to his character. Pop-Pop was a good man. He was also one stumble from becoming a statistic. I, and his progeny, were a sturdy branch from non-existence.
More than 100 years after Pop-Pop’s brush with the definitive, I enter Bessemer’s city limits for the first time in my life; a generationally-triumphant return to a few roots of my family tree. Riding in, I have a helmeted realization — there were no Africans named “Jones” in my bloodline. Bessemer is located in the lower section of Alabama’s Jones Valley. My ancestors were taken from West Africa, chained, transported across the Atlantic Ocean, and enslaved by the Jones family and branded with our surname. Between then and my arrival in Bessemer, my family endured slavery, won freedom, escaped myriad snares, and built a lineage of success despite a system designed to render us flightless. A system we have yet to dismantle; an engrained bigotry we must abolish.
In 2020, America experienced an unprecedented social movement. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and sadly, et al catalyzed upwards of 26 million Americans to participate in protests and demonstrations; it was the largest socio-political movement in U.S. history. It was a reckoning. We called out racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic oppression for what they are. For a few short moments, it seemed like the powers-that-be might want to accept, learn, and take definitive action — instead, it seems the past is prologue.
White gaiters have replaced white hoods as yet another attempt to whitewash — this time the Insurrection of January 6 — swings fully and shamelessly. Meanwhile, the systemically-ingrained burdens of occupying a body with a shell of color remain. Whether asleep in one’s bed, jogging through coastal South Georgia, or rolling the dice during a supposedly-routine traffic stop, melanin matters. We can set Pop-Pop’s watch to cable news and social media hammering home the overt, but a lifetime of covert slights, hateful comments, and soul-sapping situations adds up. One hopeful weekday last summer, I found myself amidst such a moment. On a day of solidarity recognizing the brutal, inescapable truths for so many Americans, my employer’s actions made their positioning clear. With Pop-Pop’s subversion in mind, I quit my job on the spot. The tears threatened as I cleaned out my desk, emerged in the parking lot, and freely flowed behind the tinted face shield as my then-parallel-twin shepherded me home.
Last summer, I joined 26 million others in speaking our truths-to-power. We must meet the moment and finally do right by all Americans. I balance on the very railroad tracks that Pop-Pop used to escape a hateful death. My head remains high. My spine is unbowed. I will continue to thoughtfully resist and actively persist until the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness applies to everyone.
This summer, I completed my fourth journey across this beautiful, challenged country to start work with Summer Search, a non-profit organization empowering young BIPOC and First-Generation Individuals to carve their paths and thrive. I departed my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, home to Civil Rights luminaries Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis. I passed through Pop-Pop’s Alabama and Emmett Till’s Mississippi. In Arkansas, I considered the bravery, sacrifices, and generational ripples of the Little Rock Nine. My tires hit Oklahoma to commemorate the century of past time since the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the extraordinarily impactful lives of Olivia Juliet Hooker and Maxine Horner, and the light reclaimed from two days of terror. I continued West through territories once stewarded by America’s Indigenous, systemically displaced and exterminated under the guise of progress. In Oakland, my new home and birthplace of the Black Panthers, I will not stop because of an inescapable truth:
We must do better.