Havana Sundaes: Finding Virginia

To look at me my skin is quite fair and any child I may have may be even more racially obscure.  I have never denied my heritage and find it quite important to express both lines of my heritage though it gets murky as time rolls on and my resources become increasingly limited.

Of four sets of grandparents, I was only fortunate to meet one set in my lifetime.  These were my mother’s paternal grandparents E.G. Bass and Louise Bass.  My great grandfather was very white and of Cherokee and Welsh descent.  My grandmother was of Scottish descent if memory serves and were highly fascinating people and a testament about the strange humor of life.  I will tell you briefly only what I know.

My great grandfather was a pioneer in civil rights.  He helped employ the black community in Fort Lauderdale Florida and opened up one of the first grocery stores in a black neighborhood called Bass Brothers Market.  His accolades are included in a Civil Rights museum just up the street from the site of his now boarded up store which still stands with the eternally faded painted moniker scrolled across the city facing side of the building.  If I understand it is now a historic site.  What you will not find in any of that information is the reason a self made white businessman chose to help out a black community in a trying time.  Apparently my great grandfather felt the need to give back to a community his own father had played a part in plaguing that he had bore witness to.  That’s right folks, my great, great, grandfather was a Grand Pu bah in a Georgia chapter of the KKK and sheriff of a hiccup of a town there.  I can not imagine the role he played or how traumatizing it was to his son to donate his life and accumulated wealth to helping these same people but I am personally thankful to him.  Bass Brothers Market is where my father and mother met.  He was a stocker/bag boy and my mother a cashier. I do wonder when E. G. Bass interviewed Jeffrey Gwyn, what did he see?  Did he have any idea the cataclysm of change he would set into motion with that one stroke of fate?  Thank you Ernest Guyton Bass.

My great grandmother Louise I know much less about.  I know her heritage only because my mother researched it on Ancestry.com.  She was always kind to me and I do say that my paternal great grandparents were beautiful people.  She too was badly beaten as a child for walking home with a black little girl.  It gave her a distance and reserve with dealing with minorities and made her a lot more standoffish but I tell people often:  With arthritic hands and deteriorating memory my great grandmother Louise always remembered mine and my brothers name.  She wrote Christmas cards every year until my grandfather’s death which seemed to accelerate her Alzheimer’s disease.  She never wrote “the kids”.  She wrote “Tish, Bubba, and Shawn” as if by point.  Even in her last days in a nursing home in Fort Lauderdale she knew my name.  I had decided not to visit as I had heard she was sometimes prone to racist tangents and I did not want to upset her or myself.  My mother wanted nothing more than to see her grandmother so I dropped her off and waited for a call to pick her up again.  When my mother returned she was amazed to report that Great Grandma Louise had asked specifically, “Where’s Tish?”.  I do regret not seeing her one last time since she passed within the year after that visit.  I would have love to hear her stories.

Then there is my mother’s maternal grandparents.  John and Jane Winters.  John Winters was an Irish Golden Glove Boxing Champion who died in a motor vehicle accident when my grandmother was only an infant.  I believe my sandy red afro as a child and hot headedness may be his contribution.  That is all I know of him as my grandmother Julie was private.   Her half brother is equally close lipped about their past and I sense my grandmother Jane was of the same ideology.  I know Great Grandma Jane committed suicide when my mother was thirteen.  My mother saved the last card she received and brought it with her to her open heart surgery just this year.  When I was born it was a difficult delivery and my mother said she saw her Grandma Jane then telling her she had more to do.  I also know that my Great Grandma Jane dated high profile men and celebrity.  She was once queen of the New Orleans Mardi Gras and I have the photo proof of her with my grandparents on a balcony with the then New Orleans mayor.  I know that she was at one point addicted to prescription pain medication and that it was the means she took her own life.  I know that her oldest granddaughter was her favorite and her name sake.  I also have learned that the Winters were an affluent family in Michigan while Jane’s family was very strict.  My grandmother Julie’s upbringing was a somber one.  This information is very confusing as it seems that my Great Grandma Jane was anything but somber or strict in her own life but was rather a woman that lived out loud.

Now I come to my Grandparents on my father’s side and this is where my journey truly begins.  First there is Noble and Williebelle Gwyn.  Honestly, despite the fact my largest ties to family is on this side I am amazingly ignorant of these people.  I didn’t even know my grandfather was a junior until I was a full grown adult.  What I believe is that my Great Grandfather was struck down by lightning at a young age leaving Great Grandma Williebelle a single mother with, from my own account, eight children.  I have heard other versions of this and Noble Gwyn Sr.’s contribution but honestly I do not My grandfather died when I was only four and Grandma Williebelle when my own father was only four years of age so any information is second hand.  You could tell me my grandparents were olden day Bonnie and Clyde and I can not refute you.  I do not know.  There are family historians and I avidly follow their efforts but now my Grandfather’s siblings are all either deceased, not of right mind to recall, or were too young to give an accurate account.  I fear despite our efforts information is lost.

Lastly, there is Great Grandma Virginia Grant Aiken and James Aiken better known as “Tonk”.  I met my Great Grandfather Tonk and he actually outlived my father but I had a distaste for him that I ould not over ride even in my curiosity to better understand my past.  In the year 1949, when my Grandmother Mary was only 14 years of age her mother got dressed to go to work, what work I do not know but as she was leaving my Great Grandfather was returning home from a night of rabble rousing, jumped off the work truck in a blind drunken rage and brutally stabbed my grandmother with a service knife until dead.  She was the mother of 11 children and at the tender age of 42 she was dead, leaving my grandmother as the oldest girl to raise her infant brother and toddler sister, relying on the good graces of an uncle in Georgia.  This uncle lived right up the street from my Great Grandmother WillieBelle and my grandparents attended the same church.  St. James Missionary Baptist Church on Augusta Avenue were where my grandparents met.  My grandmother was 19 and my grandfather was 32 when they married.  If my Great Grandmother had not been murdered, her husband not imprisoned for the crime, my grandparents would have never met.  My Great Grandmother was Geechee, she would have had to start fairly young to have so many children, her older boys already in the military at the time she was murdered and one of her sons already dead from drowning.  My grandmother also had a twin sister, Martha that passed when she was barely a year old.  I know she did field work but my grandmother was also taught housework and given James penchant for drinking I believe Great Grandma was all but a single parent.  She gave her children all beautiful unique names but her life has all but faded into obscurity with all but her two youngest being deceased and only Tonk’s memory to paint the picture.  She is the one I am most fascinated with because my grandmother is my hero, she is my mother’s hero, and many others hold her in high regard.  She loved Elvis Presley and never drank or wore pants.  I also know she loved her mother very much but told me also she never knew either of her grandparents.  Over the years I have become obsessed with knowing Virginia Grant.  Who was she?  How did she come to be in Allendale, South Carolina married to a monster?

This is what I know of my origins and what I crave to know still.  We all know it is harder to trace anything in our African American heritage and all records end in initial sale from the slave trade but I don’t believe my Geechee roots that display when I sing my words started as so and the story is one I’ve always longed to tell.

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