I only met Sullivan Wilson once many years ago, but he taught me something about a man who died in 1931. When I was a kid, every summer, the family would drive from Ohio to Kansas to visit our maternal grandmother, then down to Northeastern Arkansas to see the paternal side. Since most of those visits took place in the 1960s, I got quite an insight into what the Jim Crow South had been like. One evening, we got to meet a gentleman named Sullivan. He had been an employee of my paternal grandfather, delivering goods for his drug store.
He had been a grown man when my father was still quite young. My father’s father died in 1931, when Dad was only eleven, so my best guess is that when we met, Sullivan was about sixty. Dad had told us that Sullivan had worked in my grandfather’s drug store and I seem to remember that Sullivan was an orderly in Osceola’s modest hospital. I remember him greeting my father very warmly and he was delighted to see us. I guess the prospect of meeting four pre-teenage boys jumping with excitement could put a smile on an old man’s face.
At the time, it did not occur to me that teenage boys referring to an elderly man by his first name could be wrong. That was just the way things were back then: black men were referred to by their first names. Today, I would never dream of addressing a sixty-year-old man that way.
Sullivan told us that his daughter had become a nurse. I hope she had much better prospects than her parents ever did. Years later, my father told me that, after his father had died, Sullivan and his wife once invited them to a chicken dinner along with my brother Terry. At least one person in the neighborhood advised them not to have dinner with a black man.
My father weighed the possible social ostracism against an outstanding chicken dinner, and decided they would take the chicken.
My father tends to describe his father as wearing a bit of a halo. Sullivan only spoke with us briefly, but I remember him saying something to the effect of, “Your grandfather was a good man.” Today, I think it’s kinda neat when the hired help says nice things about you thirty-five years after you’re gone.
The other thing that stays with me about that meeting is that when Sullivan took his leave of us, he walked back across a parking lot toward his job, I thought that I had never seen anyone walk so fast. About every four years, I usually catch a glimpse of the Olympic racewalking competitions. When I do, I think of Sullivan. Even though he was sixty years old, he would smoke those guys.