Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I Got The Call From W.W. Law

There are times in our lives when we have a brush with greatness, but most of the time we are just not aware. We encounter this excellence from time to time, but remain oblivious. These individuals (some of them may be you) may not get national or international recognition, but they are “great” in the eyesight of those who are aware of their contributions. For me, it was 1992 and my sophomore year as a student at Savannah State College. My English professor decided to take our class on a field trip to Savannah’s historic Beach Institute. Beach Institute began as a school for African American students before integration. It now functions as a museum and archive of African American history. It is also connected with The King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation of Savannah.


The professor told us that we were going to see and meet a very important Savannah native. He was also a graduate of Georgia State College (Now Savannah State University). Who was this man? Well, he was born Westley Wallace Law on January 1, 1923, but he was known around Savannah as W.W. Law. This is a person? When I first heard his name he sounded more like an organization or law office. Our instructor told us how he was a retired postal worker and former president of the NAACP (1950-1976) in Savannah. In fact, W.W. Law once led an 18 month boycott in 1960 of downtown merchants which forced Savannah’s leadership to listen and compromise on the civil rights issues of the day. He was a living, historical icon. I learned back then that he had dedicated the rest of his life to the preservation and dissemination of African and African American history. He took particular pride in the rich history and culture of his hometown, Savannah (The Low Country).



We arrived at Beach Institute and were immediately seated in a room where W.W. Law was already waiting. My first impression of him when I saw him was that of a grandfather -- a village elder. He was brown in complexion and he had a smooth, brown bald head (that bald head would be a part of my look in another 5 years). He was comfortably fitted in khaki pants and a flannel shirt with suspenders. He sat in his chair quietly and watched us as we quietly walked in. We had a small class of around 15 students and he looked at each of us carefully. As we were sitting and getting situated, Mr. Law blurted out, “young man, where are you from?” He addressed a tall, slender, dark brown young man who was also a student in the course. “I’m from South Carolina, Mr. Law,” he said with a polite look of bewilderment. Mr. Law continued, “Judging from your features and overall statue your ancestors were likely from Senegal.” The young man was speechless as he nervously smiled. W.W. Law glanced around the room and told others where their ancestors were likely from.
Most of the students there were from Georgia and South Carolina. Many of them displayed features that most likely resembled their ancestors a great deal. Mr. Law mentioned different countries in West Africa as he looked upon each of our faces.
Mr. Law went on to tell us about Savannah’s African American past and how we should arm ourselves with knowledge of the Diaspora. He urged us to visit our local libraries and to read all that we could about who we are as a people. In the end, I was impressed and inspired by is acumen and fervor for African culture and history. It awakened in me an insatiable thirst to find out more about our black history here in America. In 2007, I still have that thirst for information and history thanks to W.W. Law. I graduated college in June of 1994 with a degree in English Literature and Language. On July 28, 2002, W.W. Law died quietly in his home in Savannah just months after I had received my MAT in English. He was 79 years old. In July of 2002, I had completed a year of teaching rambunctious 9th and 10th graders. I was 35 years old and my head was smooth, brown and bald like W.W. Law. Still is!

Click post title to find out more about Mr. Law
Sources: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/, http://www.pbs.org/ and http://www.wwlawdocumentary.com/, http://www.savannahgetaways.net/poi/PoiImages

24 comments:

Dancewithme2 said...

Welcome Back!!! What a great story. You met someone GREAT and you allowed him to influence you. More of us need that experience (or to recognize when that experience happens). There are so many great elders around us, but instead of sitting down with them and learning from the - we honk at them, speed around them, and occasionally flip "grandma or grandpa" off on the highway. I'm really glad that you chose to learn from W.W. Law.
When I went to Benin - a man from Nigeria told my mom that she looked like the decendent of an Ethiopian. Interesting - my grandmother is 1/4th Native American.. I guess its true what Ivan Van Sertima says - "They Came Before Columbus."
~Dance

Stephen Bess said...

Dance-
Beautiful and thanks for sharing! It's good to see you too. It feels like I've been gone to long. :)
Yes, I take every oportunity to learn from the elders. I can sit all day and listen to their stories. Mr. Law was truly inspirational. He was just one of many great individuals i've met on my path. I try to receive a little from them all so that I can inspire someone as well. Ethiopia, huh...my paternal side is Nigerian Ibo. We also have that European and Native American mixture. I think the Negro got the best of me though because I couldn't get a comb through my nappy head when I had hair. :)

Dancewithme2 said...

HAHA. Well I guess its better for all of us that you decided to be bald.... :-O
Ethiopia - thats just a guess. It may be that when European, Native American and various African genes all get together they make someone who looks Ethiopian. My mom has also been cussed out in Cuba for acting like she was too good to speak spanish even thought it was "OBVIOUS" that she is latina. So - who knows. Unfortuanately for the decendents of slaves - we may never "really" know where we come from. I guess that just gives us more motivation to embrace EVERYTHING. ;)

Dawson said...

My Sociology class took a trip to the museum that spring quarter; we went in and began to look around at the exhibits. Mr. Law eased in behind us without anyone noticing, carefully observing our behavior. When we finished our self-guided tour Mr. Law began to ask individuals questions about various exhibits; however no one was able to answer his questions. He then shifted into “Village Elder” mode and exclaimed “those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. So I want everyone to turn around, go back to the door and pay attention to what you’re looking at. This is YOUR history on these walls and in these boxes, its not a good history and you don’t want to repeat it again. You are college students and future teachers and leaders, pay attention!”

He then asked me “where are you from son?” The usual answer to that question is “Philadelphia” because that is where I was born, maybe “New Jersey” because that’s where I graduated High School. But he asked again, “no young man, where are your folks from.” After a while we got to the root of his query, and his point is that most Blacks in America don’t really know where they are from nor do they ever thing think about it. Though it was mostly harsh, the conversation with Mr. Law was enlightening, and as a freshman it really shaped my thinking and made me take my studies in sociology much more seriously. Today, when I am asked “where are you from?” I can say “Egypt and America” because as I grew older I have spoken to my family elders (as instructed by Mr. Law) and discovered the lineage of my family through my sir name.

Your article was great, thanks for the memory.

Dawson said...

This is an odd experience reading your comments because I had almost the same exact experience with the same exact man in the same exact year.

Guyana-Gyal said...

Interesting that you say 'elders' too...here we say 'we must respect the elders'. A Jamaican co-worker told me he's never heard that, he sounded half-amused, half-fascinated.

Only this morning my mother said to me, old people are so very entertaining and there's so much we can learn from them.

Stephen Bess said...

Dance-
I try to embrace everything. I try. Still trying. :)

Stephen Bess said...

Dawson-
This is great! Thank you for sharing this! This is a great addition to this post. I happy to hear that someone was directly affected by his greatness. Are you from Savannah?

GG-
The first time that I heard the word "elder" was in church as a young boy in Carolina. Otherwise, it referred to the older folks in that community. I'm surprised at the Jamaican gentleman. Your mother's so right. So much wisdom. :)It's good to see you!

Dawson said...

I have lived here since 1991.

urban butterfly said...

I love those professors that encourage you to go beyond your textbooks and school lessons to learn about your history and heritage. I used to attend North Carolina A&T State University, in Greensboro, NC. I learned so much while I was there, with Greensboro being the place where the sit-in movement started at Woolworth's restaurant by 4 NC A&T freshman boys. That school is so rich in history and my professors were like living history books.

I could probably learn alot from you!!! I'm an English major and I plan on teaching (probably elementary or junior high). Any advice!?! =)

Stephen Bess said...

Dawson-
That's cool. Savannah is like home, but I only lived there 5 years. I got to know the place and the people a great deal.

UB-
Well, if you are going to teach Junior High just get prepared for the dramatics. They curse you and want to be babies all at once. :) I enjoyed High School. They were more tolerable and a little bit more mature. I put stress on "little." :) It may be a different experience for you though. So, best of wishes.

Geoffrey Philp's Blog Spot said...

Dear Stephen,
Thanks for this. Whenever I see these young men who come into my office with their pants around their ankles, already practicing the jail house shuffle, I know they haven't had soomeone like WW law in their lives, so they could have an example of style, stature and gravitas.

Blessings,
Geoffrey

Stephen Bess said...

Geoffrey-
Yes, the older I get the more I want to pull some of them by their shirt tails or just pull up their pants! Ahh...it makes me so angry sometime. I'll come up with a safe and nourishing way to approach. Otherwise, I may get myself into some trouble if it's a group of them or one with a "roscoe." :)

Dancewithme2 said...

BTW - You've been tagged. Check out my blog. This one should be short and easy - you can even just leave your answer in the comment section. ;-D

Professor Zero said...

Philp: "style, stature and gravitas"

This really does describe Law! Impressive. Very.

Now I want to visit Savannah.

Dancewithme2 said...

Stephen -
That was SO good. I like, I like. Now all we need is a beat.

Lyrically speaking said...

This was beautifully written, I enjoyed it. Mr. W.W. Law would have been proud of this post, such inspiration is a wonderful gift for the soul

getzapped said...

This is a touching story. I loved your descriptions - they led me to the faces in Africa, sitting in that room in Georgia. Thank you for sharing this moving story. It's nice to hear from you again. Peace.

barbie said...

welcome back

NML said...

Welcome back Bro Bess! This was a nice story and it's good that you remember who inspires you. Have a good weekend :-)

Stephen Bess said...

Profzero-
I think that you would love Savannah. It's a beautiful and historic place.

Dance-
That was a fun tag! :)

Cathy-
Yes, and it stays with you forever more. Thank you!

Getzapped-
Thank you! It is still so fresh in my mind. It's going on 15 years now. Wow! :)

Barbie-
Thank you for having me. :)

NML-
Thank you so much! Have a great weekend as well and take care of yourself and the "Bambino." :)

Guyana-Gyal said...

It's not the young men's fault, I think. It's the shortage of elders who can be with them when they were little boys. Where are our older folks today, by the way?

Mr. Law died too young. I wish the media would make more heroes of our elders.

black feline said...

hope u dont mind me asking? which is worst...loneliness or death?

Stephen Bess said...

Blkfeline-
I imagine that true and complete loneliness could be worst than death. However, I haven't experienced either so what do I know? :)

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