by Joyce Dinkins
Most people are amazed when I tell them my grandfather was a slave.
I was discussing my granddad’s generation with a co-worker. “I can’t imagine how slaves, sharecroppers . . . could endure everything that happened to them. How do people in horrible, degrading, dehumanizing situations retain the will to live?” were her questions. My answer comes from a lifetime of learning to look back, understand, and appreciate from where we’ve come.
I’ve never seen Millard F. Wheeler’s face but remember this description: he was a smaller, broken-toothed and quiet, humble man with special gifts. My dad characterized him, “one of the most honest of poor folks, even when it hurt. He was really hurt by slavery because he had such free desires he never got to exercise.” One favorite recollection is that granddad was in charge of tending the fireplaces that warmed his brother’s church before Sunday School (some of those churches are refurbished historical sites in northern Georgia).
Pondering our oral history since childhood has ingrained granddad in my memory. Though, much African-American history has been acknowledged broadly only recently with February commemorations. Some want to forget; I don’t. Knowing about and understanding people who have survived degradation yields rich answers.
Their lives speak precious truth to answer that “How?” The power my granddad and others had—faith—to survive, thrive, and encourage others with hope is a miracle from God. Longing to know them and understand their lifestyle, times, and endurance has been a catalyst for me to consider Him, in whom they trusted to deliver us.
When the Civil War officially began 150 years ago, in the spring, my grandfather and his brothers and sisters were youth longing for freedom. George Washington Wheeler (GW), the oldest of my grandfather’s siblings was an abolitionist, preacher, and a church planter. He stole his masters’ horses to carry the message of faith in a free future above bowed-down heads in Georgia’s cotton fields where he, his parents, brothers, sisters, and extended family of slaves toiled.
Not quite 40 years after emancipation, the US 12th census lists my grandfather, his wife, and nine of his children, tied to the land as sharecroppers. My father, born at the turn of the 20th century, became one of three more children working the fields. Dad also labored as a saddle maker, cook, chauffeur, butler, babysitter, and killer of wild dogs. Until he hitchhiked north to domestic work in the Chicago suburbs along with my mother. That’s where I was born a Negro, the youngest of my father’s eight offspring, far from yet close to their Georgian servitude.
I’m quite removed from much of what my great grandparents, grandparents, and parents survived. But their lives tell me what they discovered and retained about how to overcome. My experiences—and their stories—provoke me to faith. Nothing but the grace of God gives us our exceptional testimony.
Joyce Dinkins is the managing editor of New Hope Publishers, Birmingham, Alabama.