Kinfolk Soup; Potter-Campbell Family Reunion


The John Wesley Potter Sr.-Matilda Campbell Family Reunion

Dignity Style And Respect

The weekend of July 10th 2009, I was invited to be a guest speaker at the John Wesley Potter Sr. and Matilda (nee Campbell) Potter family reunion in Chipley, Florida. I was to speak about my latest novel The Chicken Who Came Home To Roost, and for those who wanted to purchase one I was asked to bring along several copies for a book signing. Initially I had balked at the idea because I wasn’t too sure if a family reunion was the proper venue to promote it. I didn’t want anyone feeling obliged to buy it, since personal tastes varies in what we like to read. After mulling it over I came to the conclusion it would do no harm. After all I could think of no better place doing my first book tour than in front of homefolk.

Though we’re from a small African American community with various name located in the south end of the county, Chipley was the logical choice. There were motels and restaurants as well as it had an agricultural center that was large enough to house the guest and the festivities.

My invitation happened quite by chance. Let me digress. In January of this year, I attended the funeral of the aunt of one of my best friends, Cecil Phelts. During the repast I bumped into a dear old friend that I had known almost all of my life, Ola Potter (nee Andrews) Brown. (It should be noted the names that are mentioned subsequently are not used in such context, however to show their family connection I feel this is appropriate.) Perhaps she had forgotten it was she and her childhood sweetheart who had seen me off on my lifelong journey in December of 1962.

In exchanging pleasantries, I mentioned my novel and gave her information on how or where it could be purchased along with my e-mail. I left it at that and thought little about afterwards. Though I’m just beginning to realize, she is as I’ve always thought her to be a very serious minded individual, (if I may refer to her as such).

In May, I decided that I would visit my brothers who resides in Minneapolis, and began making plans for a July trip. I was halfway excited about it, because it was where I discover my inner voice as a writer, and became citified (sic). I lived there for the better part of 15 years, and it had been more than thirteen since I’d last visited.

Perhaps I would’ve been a bit more excited were it not for that most I knew were dead or had moved away.

In June, while rumbling through my junk mail there was an e-mail from Ola. With my ISP if I receive an e-mail from anyone not in my address book it is automatically diverted there. The e-mail explained her frustration with trying to order the book through one of her local booksellers. She also extended the invitation to do a book showing as well. In my reply I agreed to send a spare copy I had around and mailed it, while I acknowledged it I did not commit to the speaking engagement.

From the time I agreed to speak until two weeks prior to the engagement, I wrote and rehearsed a dozen speeches. What could I possibly say about me, that most of the older heads didn’t already know. While I knew what I wanted to say, it didn’t seem right to stand in front of those who had known me all of my life and give a canned speech. Therefore they went into the round file. The it hit me, I wasn’t there to talk about the me rather my book which they didn’t know.

I’m currently residing in Jacksonville Florida, which is slightly more than 250 miles, or about a three and a half hour drive. I packed and left mid-morning on the 10th. I knew there was no hurry since I wasn’t schedule on until 7pm. Yet, on the way over I kept thinking of what I wanted to say about the book without giving the plot away. After all that community was the basis for my fictitious setting. Finally about two hours into the trip, I decided I would speak straight from the heart.

When I arrived early the crowd was sparse as I checked in with her brother Eli Potter (nee Andrews) Jr. who was the host, coordinator, chairperson and emcee. We chatted very briefly as he was preoccupied with guest registrations. Later I spied Veloria (nee Lee) Preyer great niece twice removed of Matilda Campbell Potter. She was accompanied by her spouse Wayne who I joined at their table. Also I had a copy of my novel that Cecil, her brother had purchased.

Like clock work at 7 they were ready to begin, Eli took the mike and announced that I would be the featured speaker, however, the lighting man was late so it began about 15 minutes later. I’d spoken in public several times before, but for me in front of homefolk it was a bit unnerving to say the least as I sensed the warmth of those in attendance. When the time came and I took the mike most of my nervousness went away and I was able to speak freely about the book and me.

What followed later was a bit unnerving so much to the point I actually stumbled my way through it.

The main attraction for the evening was a play. A local playwright named Johnny Mae Potter (nee Bell) Peterson great grand daughter once removed of Mister Potter Sr. was the star. She had written, produced, acted, and directed a one-act play. ‘Just Gotta Have That Man’ was the featured event of the evening. The play within itself though Tyler Perryesque was between good and very good. She is to be commended for that work. I met her afterwards and we chatted at great lengths about it and about some of her other works in general. I learned she did other plays in the community and they were well received. We agreed to communicate at some future date. I did happen to have a copy of a play I’d written in the car and gave it to her, of which she agreed to share the following night one of her works, but the following night she became leery about sharing her works for valid reasons. Not only did she not know me but it hadn‘t been copyrighted. She related to me in one of Mister Perry‘s plays there was prayer used that was quite similar to one she‘d written. I was okay with her explantion, took no offense and left it at that.

The awkward moment came for me during the intermission of the play when Ola suggested I read from the book. That was fine but the chapter she chose was one of my favorites yet, because of the contents I was not comfortable reading. It would’ve been, save for there were children in the audience and I desperately tried to substitute certain words omitted others on the fly, which at times left me babbling.

I really wanted to recite a poem I'd written for her cousin the late Pauline Potter (nee Brown) Green. It's why I chose to include it in this blog.

Pauline was a very dear friend of mine that died tragically too early.

The poem is titled

For Pauline Who Were A Friend

We are fashioned by the love of our friends

From the time life begins, until the very end

This beautiful sister, a daughter and mother

Pauline may have thought only God loved her

If she could have seen herself through my eyes

Wouldn’t she have been wonderfully surprised

Black and beautiful, with an infectious smile

The right combination of substance and style.

Much to my chagrin, this sister I call friend

Came to be exploited by a most selfish man

In a natural moment, that happens in life

She was doomed to a future of grief and strife

In an instant she was no longer around

She’d slipped away without making a sound

Amidst my heartbreak I asked God why

He took her before I could even say goodbye

This wonderful daughter, sister and mother

Left without me telling how much I loved her.

All in all the evening turned out good as I sold all my books except two.

I felt Saturday night was going to be even better, because it would provide me knowledge I desperately crave and that was oral history. Not wanting to miss out on a single word I brought along my pocket recorder, and capture every second of it.

The evening started with a brain cramp on my part as I arrived an hour early’ It seemed I had completely forgotten the time difference between that part of the state. I arrived an hour too early, but it did give me a chance to meet a relative I never knew I had.

Again like clockwork the evening festivities started on time. Rather than Eli being the emcee Trina Potter Andrews Campbell (nee Jackson) was designated. Trina was the daughter of Celeste Potter (nee Andrews) Jackson.

Celeste is the sister to both Eli and Ola. What followed was a wealth of knowledge and entertainment. Though unrelated I felt a certain kinship with Potters and the Campbells. Listening to their stories was as though I was listening to my own, and I basked in the glory of their oral history.

The first speaker was my cousin Mattie Potter (nee Peterson) Brown who offer the welcome address, after the invocation the state of the family address was delivered by Audrey Potter (nee Smith) Leeks daughter of Bessie (nee Potter) Smith who was the grand daughter of John Wesley Potter Sr.

Prior to the evening’s festival there was the buffet styled banquet that was catered in by a local caterer. In an orderly manner every one passed through returning the their seats. Tickets were passed out for door prizes then they had put together a great souvenir take away package. It included a genealogy tree, a family directory, a program outline, a cookbook and program guide. What was impressive is there was trivia session on family history, it allowed the young to hear family stories and traditions. Most impressive was Ola Christine Potter Peterson, not to be confused with the Ola I grew up with but her aunt by the same name; she recited a poem written by her father who was called Sugar Doll but whose given name was Leslie Potter Sr. As a teen in the late 1800s he had written that poem and passed it down to his children. Having grown up when he was an old man, I was very impressed by how resolute he was, (though at the times I didn’t know what the word resolute meant). Another way of putting it was he marched to the beat of a different drummer. I recall in the mid 50s he won a piano as a door prize at the annual Bonifay Florida rodeo. He recited a poem I never forgot.

Here I am Black and dirty

If the white folk kiss me

I’ll run like a turkey

Which is far from what he stood for. He was a man who could not be intimidated by the local White land owner James Russell Moody senior and junior. They constantly badgered him to acquire land in a place called Spring Run. What ever tactic they used short of violence he used it too. He used legal maneuvers to combat legal maneuvers. Today I’m happy to say that same property still remains in his family. He understood the importance of land ownership, and it was the only thing that he could leave to his decedents that would never perish from the face of the earth. His resoluteness became sort of his family epitaph. Stand up and fight for what’s yours regardless to who the opponent might be. In retrospect most of his children grew up with his family resolve. Yet that resolve must have come from his father Wesley Potter Sr. as most of his sisters and brothers had the same.

While the evening seemed to be slanted heavily toward Leslie (Sugar Doll) Potter’s descendants it was all inclusive of the other Potter siblings although they didn’t go quite into the details. Unfortunately there were no one there from neither James (Doany) or General Grant’s families. I supposed it wouldn’t have been to far out of line to represent uncle Doany as he was the husband of my maternal Aunt Effie.

John Wesley Potter Jr. descendants was there in attendance in numbers as they were descendants mainly of Valdee (nee Potter) Jackson. Her daughter Viola Potter (nee Jackson) and I spoke with briefly and we discussed perhaps in 2011 maybe having a community reunion for that part of the county where most of us grew up. To recap the evening there was a lot of love for self and each others in attendance. One of the things I took special note of and saw it as a proud family tradition and a sign of respect in that family given names that was passed down, or across from generation to generation I.e, John Wesley, Matilda, Isaiah, James, Ola, Elsie Savannah, Annie.

For me one of the more interesting meetings of the evening came after it was all over. I was approached by a former educator Dr. Thelma Wood. She was in attendance to bridge her family connection. Running into Dr. Wood was like finding a vein of gold when I was mining for silver. She taught in the public school systems beginning my elementary years. While I never had her for a teacher, I was very aware of who she was. Like most of my teachers during that time, I had huge crush on her as she was beautiful. Even today she is still strikingly beautiful, as the years have been more than kind. Our meeting was quite by chance as I was outside exchanging pleasantries with my Cousin and mentor growing up. He was Alvin Brown husband of Annie (nee Potter) Andrews Brown daughter of Leslie Potter. What started as a casual inquiry about my book turned out to be a history lesson as well as a lecture on education in the Washington County public schools systems. Ms Woods knew her stuff. Her credentials read like who’s who in the field of education as well as being a two term member of the school board. We became so involved, that long after the evening was over we were still outside engaged in this passionate topic. While our conversation will be a part of a future piece ‘South Of Vernon’. I will share this now that she confirmed many of my subsequent suspicions about the biases within the Black educators community toward those of us who lived in our part of the county. I gave her an earful, including lamenting about an entry my ninth grade homeroom teacher Mrs. McAllister included in my student evaluation. She entered, “ Norman will never be able to learn..” Unfortunately, I didn’t discover this until after needing it for the University of Minnesota. Initially I was angered by it then it served as the hot air for my balloon as I soared from that point until through my own undoing in the late 70s I settled back into ordinary. I am particularly happy I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to learn as I graduated an honor student from the Roulhac High!

In retrospect I’m thrilled that I accepted the invitation not just because I was able to promote my book but be a part of the warmth and camaraderie not felt in big cities and towns. Much of my thanks goes to Ola, who invited me and the rest to those who welcomed me into the family gathering, for which I’m eternally grateful. I came away both impressed and sadden that so few of our African American young know our oral history. I always revert back to what I’ve always believed about our history, if it has to be denied by White America, then there must be some truth in it, and for the doubters just because it isn’t written down in a book someplace doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

The next issue I will feature excerpts from ‘South Of Vernon’ a scathing indictment of Black teachers of the 40s and 50s.