Song for My Father: Memoir of an All-American Family

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9780743474054: Song for My Father: Memoir of an All-American Family
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Song for My Father is a daughter's memoir of her father, Charles M. Stokes, a prominent African-American member of the National Republican Party. Known as "Stokey," he was born just forty years after the abolition of slavery. But by the time he became a pioneer in the fields of law, legislation, and politics -- during the turbulent and transformative 1960s and 70s -- contemporary associations of the GOP with the "party of Lincoln" had faded. Stokes's choice to remain a Republican against the tide of black Democratic political loyalty took courage. He would live to become Seattle's first black state legislator and serve as Washington State's first African-American district court judge.
With Song for My Father, Ms. Stokes pays tribute to a man whose love for his country, his family, and his people made a world of difference for generations to come. Stokes's life is a compelling example of what American Dreams are made of.

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About the Author:

Stephanie Stokes Oliver is the author of Daily Cornbread: 365 Secrets for a Healthy Mind, Body, and Spirit; Seven Soulful Secrets for Finding Your Purpose & Minding Your Mission; and Song for My Father: Memoir of an All-American Family. Formerly the editor of Essence, and founding editor-in-chief of Heart & Soul, she started her magazine career at Glamour. For more information, see StephanieStokesOliver.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Born in the U.S.A.

1903

In August of 1986, Mary Turner Henry, a middle-school librarian who had taken on an oral-history project for Seattle's Black Heritage Society, asked a longtime friend to sit down with her to tell his life story.

It was a typical sunny summer day. Contrary to popular belief, Seattle's clouds make way for beautiful July and August afternoons that Seattleites spend at the lake beaches and the waterfront on Puget Sound. On clear days when one can see the snowcapped tip of Mount Rainier, the city is covered with the lush, green grass and trees that exemplify its nickname, The Emerald City. Whenever there was no fog cover over Mount Rainier, Stokey would always notice from our home's picture window that held a magnificent view of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains to the east, Mount Baker to the north, and Mount Rainier looking south. "Look! The mountain's out!" he frequently exclaimed, as if he'd never said it before.

On this early Thursday afternoon, Mary arrived at Stokey's law office. It was a spacious two-office suite with a receiving area in the front and a hidden kitchen in the back. Apropos of his life as a retired judge, now just taking business from friends who might have elder law or estate questions, this place on the edge of the black community, near Seattle University, was comfortable and welcoming. In fact, when Mary arrived, she says that Stokey was holding court with some buddies who had stopped by to chat. "Now, it's time for you to leave," Mary says he told them. "I've got something to do."

The building was just a few miles from the slick, downtown law offices of his past, in the days when he had a great view of Puget Sound from his skyscraper window and a secretary to call in to take dictation. The wooden sign over the door, carved with the words on two lines, CHARLES M. STOKES/ATTORNEY AT LAW, attracted rich, poor, and in-between. The modest storefront location was a contrast to his sophisticated judge's chambers in the King County District Court downtown. Yet it was just right.

Seated in an upright red leather chair under the dulling oil portrait of Abraham Lincoln that was one of Stokey's prized possessions, Mary set up her tape recorder on the desk that Stokey had had since the beginning of his Seattle career. She sat near the electric typewriter that he was known for using, which had a ball he could insert to make the typeface look like exquisite script. He loved these gadgets that gave people the impression that he was ahead of his time.

After catching up on their friendship, begun in 1956 when Mary and her husband, Dr. John Henry, one of the first black surgeons of Seattle, had moved from Nashville, Mary asked the questions that made the life of Charles M. Stokes unfold on two cassette tapes.

STOKEY'S STORY: IN HIS OWN WORDS

My full name is Charles Moorehead Stokes, retired Judge Charles M. Stokes. I was named for my grandfather, who was Charles Garner. His middle name was Moorehead, so I was named for him.

My birthdate is February the first, nineteen-three. I was born in Fredonia, Kansas. My father was Reverend Norris J. Stokes -- J. meaning Jefferson. And my mother was Myrtle Garner, before she married. But my mother died when I was about three. I don't remember one thing about her.

But then my father remarried. I had a stepmother -- Josephine Stokes. And that's now my wife's name too. I tell my wife that my stepmother was such a lovely woman, I thought I'd get me a Josephine, too, like my dad did. She was a graduate of Baker College in Kansas, which was an astounding accomplishment for her, and for blacks, to graduate from college at that time.

My father was born somewhere in Kentucky. He got to Kansas, I suppose, by being a preacher. I understand he went to Macon, Georgia, to some sort of school they had down there. I don't know where my mother was born. I suppose there in Kansas.

You know, in those days they never did talk about things like that -- where they were born, what schools they went to, that kind of information Alex Haley got in Roots. And if you didn't happen to catch what your parents happened to drop sometime, you just never thought about it, and you never got it for posterity.

I don't know how my father happened to become a preacher, with the possible exception that it was the thing to be at that time. That was before the turn of the century -- it wasn't long after Emancipation -- when black folks were just evolving from the cotton fields and the plantations. And I suppose one of the few professions available was being a preacher, and it was the easiest profession to obtain because you didn't need a license, you just started preaching. If he had gone to school, I'm sure he had some reason other than just saying he was going to preach, because he wouldn't have taken school as lightly as that.

I had one brother, and one half-brother. I had a brother by my father and my natural mother. Named Norris, he was nearly two years older than I. I also had a half-brother by my father and my stepmother; his name is Maurice. I am eight years older than him. There were three of us. I -- being the middle one -- never got anything new. [Laughs]

My younger brother just left Seattle, after coming to visit me here for the first time. He had been to twenty-one countries, traveling around the world, but never had been here to see me. He'd been as near as San Francisco and never came to see me. Maurice is a retired professor of history at Savannah State College. He taught at Alabama State College before that. He now lives in our family's home in Pratt, Kansas.

My other brother is a singer, and led quartets. Norris aspired to be a Wings over Jordan-type. He traveled with the Jackson Jubilee Singers, which were of quite some notoriety in Kansas. Have you heard of the Jackson Jubilee Singers? Etta Moten [Etta Moten Barnett; an actress and singer, the first to play Bess in "Porgy and Bess"] was in that. Well, he was connected with them -- if not, of that same type of gospel group. He also had his own quartet, and would go to high schools, and sing in Canada, places like that.

Norris didn't get married until he was seventy-five years old. I told him at the time, "Why bother?" But he married a nice lady named Louise, and stopped traveling and settled down in Beckley, West Virginia. He's eighty-five now.

Maurice never did get married. And neither one of them had children.

My first schooling was in Paola, Kansas. My father was pastoring at a church there. My first school was a black school, as I remember it. When you got to the third grade, then you transferred to the other school, the north school, where the white and black went, in Pratt, Kansas. We were living there then.

I went through the elementary school grades very well. Then I got a little older, and I had other ideas. I started shooting craps, and chasing the women, and not doing a doggone thing. I was seventeen or nineteen, when I messed up. It was during high school -- an integrated school -- and my older brother had gone on to college.

I was in a place all by myself, not staying at home, but in one of my dad's houses in which there was a kitchen shack. You know what a kitchen shack is, where they have a thrashing machine outfit, and they have a kitchen? Well, in Pratt, the shacks are box cars, and I had one of those on a lot that Dad owned in Pratt.

I had quit school, because I went one year and flunked everything I took. I think the teachers ganged up on me. They knew that I could do better work and that I wasn't doing it. And I just didn't much care. I would go there unprepared, so they said, "We ought to cure his slothfulness." So every one of the teachers flunked me.

Then I said, "Well, if I'm going to flunk, I may as well quit."

So I quit and laid out of school three years -- gambling, running around, kicking around, doing nothing. [Laughs] Then I went back and finished high school.

But I didn't go back to the high school in Pratt right away. Dad came over one day and asked me, "What are you going to do -- to make of yourself?"

There was a colored school in Topeka called, at that time, Kansas Vocational School. It was run by Baptists. So Dad asked, "If I send you up there, would you go?" I said, "Yes."

Well, I thought that indicated he was going to pay for everything. He sent me up there and never paid a dime after that! [Laughs]

Well, I had to carry big rocks -- to help build what they called the Trade Building. I had to carry milk from the Agricultural Department over to the cottages where the teachers were. I had to sweep out the Administration Building -- all to stay in school. Then they took me out of school entirely. And I was still doing this work.

I did that, oh, about two or three weeks, and someone came to me and said, "Stokes, you're a fool. You're sitting here working, getting beans and syrup, whatever they're feeding you, and a place to sleep, and that's all. If you're not going to school, you can go out and work and get some money, and get paid for it."

So I called my brother Norris, who was then at Ottawa University. He was working at a barber shop or something. And he sent me four dollars -- two dollars of which was my fare to come to where he was in Ottawa, Kansas. The other two dollars was just for incidentals or getting there, that sort of thing.

But there was a commandant named Winston there, who later went to Tuskegee Institute, and was the commandant of ROTC at Tuskegee. He heard I was leaving. And he must have thought there was some good in me, or something he wanted the school to have. So he says, "Oh, what's the matter?"

I said, "Well, I came up here to go to school. I didn't come up here to work free, like a slave or something."

He says, "Is that all?"

I said, "Yeah."

He said, "If you were in school, would you stay?"

I said, "Yes, I'll stay."

That was on a Friday. He said, "Unpack your things. I'll seat you in school Monday."

I...

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