Jasmyn Morris (JM): The last few weeks have brought a profound heaviness to an already heavy year—from the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis, to the news of other Black lives taken too soon.
In times like these, StoryCorps can’t pretend to have the answers. But we can listen, and we can share stories.
So in this episode, we’re doing exactly that; spotlighting stories from our Griot Initiative, honoring the experiences of Black people across the country.
First, we’ll hear from Albert Sykes and his nine-year-old son, Aidan. They sat down together at StoryCorps in Jackson, Mississippi back in 2015.
Aidan Sykes (AS): Do you remember what was going through your head when you first saw me?
Albert Sykes (AbS): I remember when the doctor pulled you out, the first thing I thought was that he was being too rough with you. And he actually held you like a little Sprite bottle and he was like, “Here’s your baby.” That was the most proud moment of my life. Don’t tell your brothers, ’cause there’s three of y’all. But it was like looking at a blank canvas, and just imagining what you want that painting to look like at the end, but also knowing you can’t control the paint strokes.
You know, the fear was just, I gotta bring up a Black boy in Mississippi, which is a tough place to bring up kids period, but there are statistics that say Black boys born after the year 2002 have a one-in-three chance of going to prison. And all three of my sons were born after the year 2002.
AS: So dad, why do you take me to protests so much?
AbS: [Laughs] I think I take you for a bunch of reasons. One is that I want you to see what it looks like when people come together, but also that you understand that it’s not just about people that are familiar to you. It’s about everybody. Did you know the work that Martin Luther King was doing was for everybody and not just for Black people?
AS: Yes, I understand that.
AbS: Yeah, so that’s how you gotta think. If you decide that you wanna be a cab driver, then you gotta be the most impactful cab driver that you can possibly be.
AS: Are you proud of me?
AbS: Of course. You my man! Your spirit, your personality. I—I just love everything about you. Period.
AS: The thing I love about you, you never give up on me. That’s one of the things I will always remember about my dad.
AbS: Wow, you said it like I’m on my way out of here …
AbS: …or like I’m already gone.
AS: So Dad, what are your dreams for me?
AbS: My dream is for you to live out your dreams. There’s a old proverb that talks about when children are born, children come out with their fists closed because that’s where they keep all their gifts. And as you grow, your hands learn to unfold, because you’re learning to release your gifts to the world. And so, for the rest of your life, I wanna see you live with your hands unfolded.
JM: That’s Albert Sykes with his 9-year-old son, Aidan, back in 2015.
Next, we’ll hear from Frank Scott who grew up idolizing his father, Wendell Scott. Wendell was a NASCAR driver who began his racing career during the Jim Crow era in the South.
At StoryCorps, Frank sat down with his son, Warrick, to remember the man behind the steering wheel.
Frank Scott (FS): He started racing in 1952. And you know, it was like Picasso. Like a great artist doing his work. And he was in that car, and he was doing his work.
And as children we didn’t have that leisure time, you know, we couldn’t go to the playground. He said to us, ’I need you at the garage.’ I can remember him getting injured and he’d just take axle grease and put it in the cut and keep working.
But he wasn’t allowed to race at certain speedways. He had death threats not to come to Atlanta. And Daddy said, ’Look. If I leave in a pine box, that’s what I gotta do but I’m gonna race.’
I can remember him racing in Jacksonville and he beat them all. But they wouldn’t drop the checkered flag. And then when they did drop the checkered flag, they had my father in 3rd place. One of the main reasons that they gave was there was a white beauty queen and they always kissed the driver.
Warrick Scott (WS): Did he ever consider not racing anymore?
FS: Never. That was one of my daddy’s sayings, ’When it’s too tough for everybody else, it’s just right for me.’ Like I can remember one time when we were racing the Atlanta 500 and, um, he was sick. He needed an operation. And I said, ’Daddy, we don’t have to race today.’ He whispered to me and said, ’Lift my legs up and put me in the car.’ So, I took my arms and put behind his legs and I kind of acted like I was hugging him and helped him into the car. He drove 500 miles that day.
WS: How did his racing career officially end?
FS: Well, finances. You know, he couldn’t get the support. Where other drivers that we were competing against had major sponsorships, providing them engineers, as many cars as they needed, he did everything that he did out of his own pocket.
He always felt like someday he’s gonna get his big break. But, uh, for twenty years nobody mentioned Wendell Scott–at one point it was like he never existed. But he didn’t let it drive him crazy. I think that’s what made him so great. He chose to be a race car driver and he was going to race until he couldn’t race no more.
JM: That’s Frank Scott remembering his father, Wendell Scott, who died in 1990. In 2015, Wendell became the first Black driver inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
More after this short break. Stay with us.
JM: Our next conversation comes from James Ransom and his cousin, Cherie Johnson.
As children, they spent many weekends at their local United Methodist Church in Bradenton, Florida, learning lessons they would remember forever from their larger than life Sunday school teacher.
James Ransom (JR): Let’s talk about Miss Devine.
Cherie Johnson (CJ): Miss Lizzy Devine.
JR: Miss Devine was a wiry lady. She wore summer dresses; she had a bandana and a straw hat, and she was the only person I knew that had more power than my grandmother.
CJ: She wasn’t a mean person; she was stern —
JR: Stern, yes, very stern.
CJ: — and you knew when she said something she meant exactly what she said. In fact, she was our Sunday school teacher. The only thing that would keep you from going to Sunday school, you had to have one foot on the banana peel and the other in the grave.
CJ: That’s the only thing.
JR: There’s no excuse.
CJ: You had to go.
JR: Had to go.
CJ: One of the things that you prayed for when you were in Miss Devine’s class was, ’Lord, please let me get old enough to get out of this class.’ She did the catechism: ’Who made you? God. Where is God? Everywhere.’ She went through and, Lord have mercy please.
JR: This Miss Devine would come in on Sunday mornings to take us to Sunday School. And when I saw her come, Cherie, I thought the leaves would be blowing off the trees, and the sky would go black and the clouds would come in.
And she come in the house one morning and say, ’Children, good morning, children.’ And everybody from my mother on down said, ’Good morning, Miss Devine.’ And she says, ’It’s time to go to Sunday school this morning, children.’ I said, ’Miss Devine, I can’t go to Sunday school today.’ She said, ’No?’ I said, ’No, ma’am.’ She said, ’Why not?’ I said, ’My mother didn’t bring enough clothes for me to go to Sunday school this morning.’ She said, ’Oh, no?’ I said, ’No, ma’am.’ She said, ’Well, what do you have, what kind of clothes do you have?’ I said, ’All I have, Miss Devine, are my pajamas and my tennis shoes.’ She said, ’Well, that’s OK, honey, put your tennis shoes on; we’ll go to Sunday school.’ I looked at my mother and she looked away, Cherie.
Miss Devine made me walk two blocks in my pajamas and my tennis shoes. I had to sit in church with my friends during Sunday School in my pajamas and my tennis shoes. I’m gonna tell you, Cherie, I never lied again.
CJ: Miss Devine was always there to take care of us. But when Miss Devine braided your hair your eyes went up like this. You had to sleep on soft pillows because I mean, boy she had it tight.
And Miss Devine had mango trees all over her yard but Miss Devine never brought you a mango until it was rotten. It would smell like liquor. That’s when she brought you the mango.
JR: But you know what? That’s the kind of stuff that we got growing up. And I’ll never forget that.
JM: James Ransom with his cousin Cherie Johnson at StoryCorps in 2006.
And lastly, we want to leave you with the voice of Dr. William Lynn Weaver who, as a young teenager, was one of the Black students who integrated his high school in Knoxville, Tennessee back in 1964.
He also integrated his school’s previously all-white football team, which he did alongside several other Black players, including his older brother, Stanley.
At StoryCorps he described what it was like playing for the West High School Rebels.
William Lynn Weaver (WLW): The school’s mascot was a Confederate colonel and at football games, when you came out on the field, the crowd would be hollering and the Dixie would be playing and they’d hold the paper flag up and the team would burst out through the Confederate flag. The Black players made a decision to run around the flag.
We had teams who refused to play us because we had Black players. There were always racial comments, uh, banners with the n-word, and, at one point in time, there was even a dummy with a noose around its neck hanging from the goal posts.
I remember we played an all-white school. The game was maybe only in the second quarter. My brother tackled their tight end and broke his collarbone. And when they had to take him off the field with his arm in a sling, that’s when the crowd really got ugly.
We were on the visitors’ sideline and they were coming across the field; so we backed up against the fence. I remember the coach saying, ”Keep your helmet on,” so I was pretty afraid. And then a hand reaches through the fence and grabs my shoulder pads. I look around and it’s my father. And I turned to my brother, I said, “It’s okay; Dad’s here.”
The state police came and escorted us to the buses. The crowd is still chanting and throwing things at the bus and, as the bus drives off, I look back and I see my father standing there and all these angry white people. And I said to my brother, ”How’s Daddy going to get out of here? They might kill him.”
We get to the high school and the most incredible feeling I think I’ve ever had was when my father walked through the door of the locker room and said, “Are you ready to go?” As if nothing had happened. And I wanted to tell him, ”Dad, don’t come to any more games,” but selfishly I couldn’t. I needed him there for me to feel safe.
Normally when you’re with a team you feel like everybody’s going to stand together; and I never got that feeling that the team would stand with me if things got bad. I think a number of the white students who were there with me would say now, If I could have did something different, I would’ve said something. But that’s what evil depends on, good people to be quiet.
JM: That’s Dr. Lynn Weaver in 2017. Over the years, Lynn recorded with us so many times, he became one of the most beloved voices in the StoryCorps archive.
To hear more about his experiences integrating West high school, listen to season one of our podcast—High School Reunion Parts I and II.
That’s all for this week’s episode of the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. For credits and to see what music we used in this episode, go to www.storycorps.org.
We’re gonna keep listening; we hope you will too.