CHAPTER 15. TODAY
We established a group called the Piedmont Jazz. The Lynchburg based quartet has been performing for over 20 years. I am the pianist in the group. Sometimes the newspapers flatter me by saying I probably know a thousand tunes. Fellow band member, North Carolinian Richard Satterfield, after studying at the prestigious Berklee School of Music, drummed for Sara Vaughan, Amad Jamal Trio, and Joe Gordon. Since returning to the South, he played with Tidewater's Dick Morgan Trio and others before joining Piedmont Jazz. Bassist Lester Seay is a busy rock-pop-jazz player and Ernest Deane on the trumpet. A native of Lynchburg, Deane began his musical training at Dunbar High School, continued his studies in college and over the years has played with many of the best jazz ensembles in the region.
Bassist Allen "Binky" Pannell has also played with the group. Pannell produced an album of his own compositions. He toured with the Roy Seay band and Lloyd Rich's Jazz Caravan. Vocalist Marcia Allar developed a devoted following in the Lynchburg and Charlottesville area. Her style is frequently compared to the legendary Sarah Vaughan.
Our ensemble is well known throughout Central Virginia for our performance of jazz standards. Our group does a really nice mix of jazz standards. The group has played together for about 20 years but has been in its current form for five. All part-time musicians, the four of us spend our weekend nights performing at area colleges, country clubs and the Ellington Fellowship Playhouse. We also play often at Wintergreen and in Charlottesville and Farmville. Other places include Staunton's Historic Gypsy Hill Park and the Landmark Steakhouse and Lounge, 6113 Fort Avenue, Lynchburg.
The distance of our drummer and conflicting work schedules during the day prevent us from practicing together, as much as we would like. Instead we have to rely a lot on improvisation. If Pannell does not know a certain song, he watches my left hand at the piano for clues.
All of us are concerned about the limited exposure of the younger generation to jazz. Lynchburg has not been exposed to jazz, there just aren't any radio stations that play jazz in the area, and because of this they are not responsive to jazz. It is tragic that so few black youngsters know about this contribution we've made to American music.
My brother Rowland called me yesterday morning to say: "We lost Tracy last night." Tracy was my brother's oldest daughter. About eighteen years ago, when she was in her last year in college, she was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis. Over the next two or three years her condition worsened to the point that she could not walk. Her vision became blurred and her speech deteriorated to the point that she could only utter sounds, not comprehensible words. She spent the last ten years of her life as a bed-ridden invalid, little more than a vegetable.
If there is such a thing as hell on earth, then that is an apt description of what life must have been for this beautiful young woman struck down at the threshold of womanhood. Imagine what it must have been like to be fully aware of her surroundings and all that went on around her and yet to be unable to move or even speak. And consider that this continued for ten agonizingly long years! How she must have wished for death!
There were many indications that Tracy was fully alert mentally. When I visited her, such a beautiful smile greeted me! She obviously knew who I was and she gave every indication of her delight at seeing me. But for me, it was a heart-wrenching experience to see her in her helpless condition, knowing that there was nothing that I, or anyone else, could do to relieve her suffering, even momentarily. How she must have wished for death!
More than once I have heard my brother say: "Sometimes people ask why I don't put Tracy in a home or in a hospital. But I have vowed that as long as I have a roof over my head, she will live with me. I'll take care of her." Taking care of Tracy became infinitely more difficult when my brother's wife, Barbara, passed seven years ago. Especially so, since it became almost impossible to find reliable, honest help who could be depended on to relieve my brother. The situation severely restricted his freedom of mobility to those brief times when he could find someone to shoulder the responsibility and give him a chance to get away for a day or two.
One of my brother's major concerns in recent years was: "What will happen to Tracy if I pass while she still lives? Who will take care of her?" Now that concern has been relieved.
My brother suffered in his lifetime what seems to be an unfair share of tragedies: the tragic loss of his only son; a daughter who planned to become a doctor, but who was injured in a fire with the result that she underwent a complete change in personality and abandoned her studies; the untimely loss of his wife, who discovered in an examination following an automobile accident that she had an advanced cancer which snuffed out her life shortly after.
Remarkably, my brother bore it all with admirable calm. He was cheerful throughout his ordeals, never once exhibiting the sour, pessimistic cynicism that is so typical of his brother (that's me). A devout Christian, my brother continued to believe in his God with an unwavering steadfastness. Needless to say, I have a great admiration and love for my brother.
My father said that he was living in Pittsburgh when he got word that his father had passed at the family home down in Tidewater Virginia. The trip home, transportation being what it was in those days, took the better part of two days, and involved travel on a train and then on a steamer. (My father used to tell us that his home was forty miles from the nearest railroad station, so his home was really in the boondocks.)
When he got home, worn out to the point of exhaustion after the long, tedious trip, he found that a wake for the deceased was in progress. (A wake in those days was an assemblage of friends, neighbors, church members, and others, who gathered to sing hymns and offer prayers for the departed.)
My father went into the dimly lit living room where the wake was being held, and took a seat in a corner. He was so tired that he put his coat over his head in order to catch forty winks, but just as he was at that point of delicious drowsiness on the threshold of sleep, he was jerked back into full wakefulness by a "hymn" that someone had begun to sing. The leader began by singing alone, then the others joined in the song which was based on the children's song that goes "one little, two little, three little Indians," but the singer had substituted the words "one little, two little, three little angels."
My father said it was the most ridiculous hymn he had ever heard, and, in spite of the gravity of the occasion, he began to laugh. He said that he knew that his coat was shaking from his laughter and he imagined that the other mourners thought that he was overcome by grief and was crying.
"It wouldn't have been so bad," he said, "but they kept on and on, and by the time they reached fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three little angels,' I rose from my seat and went outside down into the woods nearby and laughed until I could hardly stand."
My own father died in 1976 and his funeral in Philadelphia, where he made his home, was held at night, to make it possible for folks to attend without losing time from work. The funeral was a very different kind of funeral. In fact, it was in some ways the strangest, most unusual funeral of which I have ever heard. But then I haven't been to very many funerals in my life -- not more than five or six. So maybe I don't have a real solid basis for comparison. All I know about funerals is that I won't mind very much if I miss my own, but I have the feeling that I will be there, even though I would rather not attend.
The first odd circumstance in my father's death and funeral was the way in which he died. My father told his family that it had been revealed to him that he would not die as a result of illness, but that he would die in his sleep.
On the day of his death, he got up that morning, ate his breakfast, then had someone drive him to Crewe, Virginia where he paid the electric bill. On the way back to the farm (in Prince Edward County, where he lived in the summer) he stopped in Farmville and paid some bills. He returned to the farm in time for lunch, ate, and then, what was most uncharacteristic for him, decided to take a nap. (I can't remember my father ever taking a nap in the daytime, except on one or two occasions when he was ill.) He never awoke from his nap, thus fulfilling, with uncanny accuracy the prediction he had made.
My father was a spiritual man, a devout Christian, and he lived a Christian life. Such people, I believe, sometimes have insights and understanding that are totally incomprehensible to those of a worldly mind.
The next unusual occurrence relating to his death happened the night before his funeral when several family members went for a private viewing at the undertaking establishment which was diagonally across the street from the church where the funeral would be held the next night.
The undertakers (two brothers) in expressing their condolences to the family, wept unashamedly. I never heard of undertakers becoming emotional at the passage of a client, but these two, with tear-streaked cheeks were hardly able to express themselves coherently.
By way of explanation, these undertakers had known my father well for most of their adult lives. They had conducted dozens of funerals at the church of which my father was pastor and over the years had developed a close, warm relationship with him. I think it not amiss to say that they loved my father and his passing for them had very nearly the same impact as the passing of a member of their own family.
Now about the funeral. Rev. William Banks, who had grown up in my father's church and who was himself a pastor, conducted the funeral service. He set the tone for the funeral with his opening remarks. He said: "Dr. Powell told me to tell you that he doesn't want any sad hymns or doleful reflections. Save your tears for the living. This is a glorious occasion for he has gone to meet his Maker. Remember only the great good times we've had and the great things we've accomplished. Make this an occasion for rejoicing, not sadness."
There were many ministers and other church people on the program, so many in fact that they were asked to limit their expressions to three minutes each. Of course, some paid no attention to the time restrictions and exceeded by several minutes the three minute limit. In fact, one minister had to be forcibly dragged away from the microphone. I guess he felt "I've traveled all the way from Virginia to Philadelphia for this and I am going to say what I came here to say."
At any rate, the atmosphere took a very different slant from most funerals. The parishioners went along with their beloved pastor's final wishes, as did the visitors and guests, and the service became gay, almost festive. Throughout the service, peals of laughter were frequently heard. I don't mean polite titters, but uninhibited guffaws of unbridled merriment. Many of the guest speakers seemed almost to be in competition to tell the most humorous anecdotes, the most hilarious incidents that they had experienced in their long association with my father, so that gales of laughter frequently punctuated the service.
Then there was another aspect of the funeral that was mystifying to me, although I learned later that what I saw and noted was by no means uncommon among our people. I noticed that many of the people passing the coffin for a final view reached over into the casket and touched my father's hands. When I spoke about this to my brother, who is more knowledgeable about such things, he told me that there was a superstition among some people that unless they touched the corpse, they would dream about the deceased that night. ( I have heard that some Italians also follow this custom.)
The burial took place the next day at Spring Hill Cemetery and was attended by a large number of friends and members of the church my father had pastored for so long. When family and friends gathered around the burial plot, I found myself standing facing members of the family on the other side of the plot. As the coffin was being lowered, I happened to glance into the faces of those on the other side, and I saw that they were struggling to keep from laughing. They seemed to be looking at something behind me, and I turned just in time to see a lady rising from a nearby grave. There was nothing ghostly or spirit-like about this woman. She was no apparition. She was a real live flesh-and-blood person.
As I looked, she fell back into the grave, and then a second later, two hands and one leg, and then her head appeared over the rim of the grave. The expression on the lady's face was one of grim, earnest determination. No one could doubt that she very definitely meant to get out of that hole, and as quickly as possible.
The handfuls of grass by which she was attempting to haul herself up weren't strong enough, and down she went again. They say you could hear her down there mumbling something about God -- "God this" and "God that." I guess she was praying.
Finally, a couple of men ran over, reached down and pulled her out of her premature grave. Funeral occasion or no, I had to laugh. Dad was going in and she was coming out, or, as Dad went down, she was coming up. I admit that I felt a little twinge of guilt about laughing at such a solemn moment, but I was consoled by the conviction that if my father had witnessed the scene, he would have laughed just as heartily as I did. I learned later that the lady had been taking pictures of the burial and, as she stepped back to get the perspective she wanted, she fell into a grave that had been prepared for its next occupant.
I almost hope that something hilarious happens at my funeral, thereby keeping the tradition alive. And if it should, and if someone should laugh, I'll be the last to complain.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from a Reverend John O. Peterson, pastor of Alfred Street Church in Alexandria, Virginia. The letter announced that the church was celebrating its 184th anniversary (the fifth oldest black church in the nation) on Sunday, November 8, 1987.
Each year in connection with the anniversary celebration, the church honors one of the seven pastors who had served the congregation. This year, W. H. R. Powell (my father) was the honoree as the fourth pastor (1914-1920) and the church invited his family to attend the services in his honor.
The 100 year old Hayes Hall, the former men's dormitory and a historic landmark, fell to the wrecking ball on March 31, 1988. Since a fire gutted the building nearly 15 years ago, the hall stood unused. Several unsuccessful fund raisers tried to fan some interest in saving the building, but none gained momentum. The cost of restoring would have been at least $4 million dollars.
Most of the roof had already caved in. Plywood covered the door and windows. The school graduated 18 students last spring.
Several months ago I had a brief interview with Dr. Elijah Hall, present president of Virginia Seminary. Our talk centered not so much on the present as on the future of the school. In November 1996 the name of the school was changed to Virginia University of Lynchburg, Inc. The school can now claim university status in that it has been divided into three separate autonomous entities: a college of Arts and Sciences; a college of Business and Technology; and the M. C. Allen School of Religion.
With the change in the school's name, certain funding may become available to the colleges. When all basic requirements are met, the college will be accredited by the Southern Agency of Crediting Colleges and Universities. At present, the junior college is accredited by the State Council of Higher Education.
The number one priority at this time is to get all three schools fully accredited. Accreditation will be granted by two agencies -- the Transcontinental Agency for Accrediting Colleges and Universities and Seminaries, and the Southern Agency for Accrediting Colleges and Universities. And then there are other priorities: bringing living quarters up to date and putting the library in condition to meet modern standards for colleges and universities. The school plans scholarship drives so as to make loan and grant programs more widely available for student aid.
President Hall envisions the erection of a multi-purpose building to house a gym and to provide classroom space. A long term goal is a new administration building. President Hall views the future with hopeful optimism. The same optimism seems to infect others involved in the operation, for in my brief conversation with them, they all seem hopeful that the dark past is behind them and they can look forward to a great new day just over the horizon.
A miracle occurred on another hill in Lynchburg. I'm referring to Liberty University which has existed in its present location just over ten years. Visit Liberty University some time. Look at the splendid up-to-date buildings. Notice the hundreds of students from every state and from foreign countries. Look at the lawns and walkways, notice how carefully everything is maintained and preserved.
Read the catalogue of the school. Notice what an abundance of courses is offered. Notice the impeccable credentials of those who teach there. You will be compelled to conclude, as I have, that whether we favor Dr. Falwell, the founder of Liberty and his policies, or whether we detest him and all that he stands for, no one can deny that Liberty is graduating each year scores of bright, eager, Christian young men and women to carry God's word to the world.
(I have met Dr. Falwell several times while playing at various places around the area. I find him to be a very personable man who may not agree with me on many issues, but who would never hold a grudge or show any animosity toward me. One day I gave him a copy of a small booklet dealing with my father's struggles at Virginia Seminary. Since he, like my father, is a man of God, I was very interested in getting his reaction. But later I thought to myself that he would be too busy to read the work. When I next saw him I told him that I felt I had inconvenienced him. I was shocked when he told me that he had indeed reviewed the manuscript; that, in fact, he had his wife read the entire booklet aloud to him.)
It is puzzling to ponder the questions that arise. Both Seminary and Liberty are Christian institutions. Both serve the same God. How then can we understand why God has apparently lavished His love and attention on Liberty, causing it to grow and flourish like the Biblical "green bay tree," and at the same time He has apparently turned a deaf ear to Seminary and withheld His blessings from that institution?
What the future holds for Seminary, I can't say. I have talked with administrative personnel at Seminary and have found them to be up-beat and optimistic, expressing the belief that Seminary will continue. Well, maybe so. Frankly, I have grave doubts, but I wish them well. If the school should continue, it will only be because of the wisdom and kindness of God.
After twenty years of teaching, I retired from teaching about 1984. My mother died December 19, 1991. Mallory did not retire until she had put in twenty-nine years of teaching, retiring in 1995.
I never really planned my retirement from the field of education. It happened unexpectedly because of my disgust with a bureaucratic rule. The office informed me that my credits needed to be updated and that I had to take more courses. Since my job was going to the homes of parents and talking to them about the problems with their children, I thought it ridiculous that I had to take courses in subjects that I was not even teaching. It was just so ridiculous that I spoke with the superintendent. Being unable to reach an acceptable compromise, I resigned.
My retirement left me with lots of extra time. This extra time led me to an entirely new and more productive career in writing. I knew of a local lawyer named Magnum through close friends. We had spoken on several occasions. When I heard that he was starting a black newspaper (back in 1986), I thought it was a great idea. I wanted to help out with the new venture. It was something the local area needed.
Writing has proven a great outlet for me. It has brought me greater knowledge of black history and black people. It has given me great satisfaction because others have told me that they enjoy reading what I write. This in turn has led to a number of public speaking engagement, which I have enjoyed immensely. I especially like talking to black children about the importance of black history. It has also brought me to a greater appreciation of those who have been so important in my personal life: my own father and Vernon Johns.
The paper has now become my home away from home. I often go over to the newspaper office (on the Virginia Seminary campus) and talk with a gang of friends that drop in from time to time to discuss personal and other news.
I had always been interested in writing and would often talk to my wife about the subject. Malloy would become impatient with me and say "When are you going to start?" But I did not begin writing as a deliberate decision, but as sort of an accident.
I had been retired for about two years. It was 1986. Then I heard about the starting of a black newspaper in the area.
No, I'm not a writer. I just sort of slid sideways into writing this column. You see, I went to see Mr. Mangum shortly after I learned that he had launched a newspaper to express my support and to offer whatever help I could give.
I'm deeply grateful to Mr. Mangum for publishing the Lynchburg Area Journal (now the Piedmont Area Journal). I have long felt that black people in this area needed a vehicle for expression, a means by which we could communicate with each other. As a matter of fact, I toyed with the idea of starting a newspaper myself, but I could never quite convince myself that such a project would get the support it must have to survive. While I was thinking about it, Mr. Mangum took the plunge, and produced a newspaper of which we can be justly proud.
Somehow, out of that meeting, I wound up writing a column, and now, ten years later, I'm still trying.
I think I would have given it up long ago, were it not for the fact that so many people have told me that they enjoy what I write. It's funny, but although only five people have responded in writing, almost everywhere I go, someone tells me that they were impressed with something that I wrote, and I guess that's what keeps me going.
It's gratifying how many other newspapers have used my column. I got a call from Greensboro a couple of weeks ago. The caller told me that he planned to publish in full a lengthy article that I had written. Furthermore, he said that he would make the article available to ten other Black North Carolina newspapers.
Looking over the articles I have written in the ten years of my involvement with the PAJ, I find that I have written an awful lot about education, about black on black crime, and about blacks killing blacks, and quite a few columns have dealt with drugs. And I find that sometimes maybe I've gone overboard in dealing with the history of black people in America.
I must be doing something right because at Court Street Baptist Church the parishioners often ask Malloy about her husband's column. Especially so if I have not written anything recently. They also tell her how much they enjoy the column. And they usually want Malloy to tell me to get on the ball and write something.
Henry died of stomach cancer in a hospital in Lynchburg, Virginia. His funeral was held Friday, December 15, 2000 at the Triumph Baptist Church in Darlington Heights, Virginia. He is buried in the church graveyard.
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