A Little Piece of History

It was 11:30 pm on November 4, 2008, and I was standing in my kitchen when a wave of laughter and tears washed over me with such an unexpected force that I almost fell to the floor. Barack Hussein Obama had just been elected President of the United States of America, and the world that I had lived in for just short of 40 years had changed forever. I stood there, in the kitchen, shaking uncontrollably, afraid to go to sleep for fear that this was all some dream, and that if I woke up in the morning, none of it would be real. But when I woke up the next morning, Barack Obama was still the president-elect, and I knew that I was witnessing history.

Most people think of history as single moments—the fall of the Berlin Wall, Neal Armstrong walking on the moon, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But history is really a collection of moments—every single moment, in fact—that leads from one place to another. Something like the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the end of apartheid in South Africa were all momentous occasions, but there where countless events and occurrences in the days and weeks and months and decades and centuries that lead to these iconic moments. The events, actions, ideologies and individuals that lead to great moments in history are so numerous that it is impossible for many people to wrap their mind around how history really works.

Last night, as I talked to my cousin Sean—the person who is my oldest and dearest friend, and more like a brother than he could ever imagine—I asked him to make sure that his daughters understood the importance of President Obama’s election. I then asked him to tell them about our grandparents, two of the greatest human beings who ever lived. It is important for me that his daughters, Nandi and Harlem, understand the role that their family has played in history.

This is the abbreviated history of part of my family, which in turn is an even more abbreviated history of this country. It is a very important chapter in the story of who I am, and much of it relates to who Nandi and Harlem are, and all of it relates to the election of President Obama. (To those people whose names don’t make it into this narrative, please forgive me.)

Marshall Lewis Walker was born in southern Virginia on April 19, 1917. My grandfather (in the above photo with my grandmother) was the oldest of seven children born to Marshall and Elizabeth Banks Walker. As near as I can tell, Marshall Walker (my great grandfather), was the son of Reuben Hill and Catherine Collins Hill, who were slaves owned by a man named Mr. Walker. Elizabeth Banks Walker (my great grandmother) was one of eight children born to Shadrack Banks and Pauline Gaines Banks, the daughter of Mariah Gaines, all of whom were slaves. (The photo to the left is of my grandfather and great grandfather.)

Nannie Hancock Walker was born September 9, 1917, also in southern Virginia. My grandmother was the fifth of eight children born to Charles Huron Hancock and Nannie Venable Hancock. Charles Hancock (my great grandfather) was born on August 5, 1878, thirteen years after the end of the Civil War, and fifteen years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Charles was the second of 14 children born to James Nelson Hancock (known as Nelson) and Laura Vaughters, both slaves born in 1855, who were married on June 2, 1877. Nelson Hancock was the son of Leila Moore, a slave owned by John Douglas Hancock in Charlotte Court House, Virginia. Leila was sold to another plantation when Nelson was five years old. Laura Vaughters was the daughter of William Henry and Mary Jane Vaughters, and was born on Wallace Creek Plantation in Virginia.

Nannie Venable Hancock (my great grandmother) was born April 15, 1883. Her family can be traced back to James Venable, a Virginia slave owner, who in 1790 owned 35 slaves—13 of which were white, and 22 of which were black. In 1804, a slave named Samuel Venable was born, who went on to marry another slave named Katy. They had two children, Samuel Jr., who was born in 1835 and Roshie, whose birth date is not known. When Samuel Jr. was 35 years-old, he married 21 year-old Nannie Jackson, daughter of Isaac and Susan Brown. Samuel and Nannie Venable had ten children, with my great grandmother Nannie being the fifth. It was the younger Nannie who married Charles Hancock and had eight children, one of which was my grandmother, also named Nannie. (Pictured below is my great grandfather Charles Hancock with his five daughters, left to right, Marjorie, Mabel, Gail, Nannie (my grandmother), and Rosa.)

My paternal grandparents met in Charlotte Court House Virginia, while they were both still in high school. Although Marshall was older than Nannie, he was two years behind her in school, because he had been forced to support his family after the death of his father in either 1930 or 31 (which would have made my grandfather approximately 13 years-old when he assumed the responsibility as man of the house). To hear my grandfather tell the story, he fell in love with my grandmother the moment he saw her, when they were both teenagers. Marshall professed his love to Nannie, who did not believe him, even though he swore that they would one day be married.

Some time after the death of his wife Nannie in 1938, Charles Hancock and his family migrated to the north, settling in the small town of New Canaan, Connecticut. I’m not sure how the Hancocks came to chose New Canaan, a town known for being one of the richest and whitest in the country, but it may have had something to do with the fact that the eldest daughter, Marjorie, married George Nash, whose family is historically believed to be the first black family in New Canaan.

Whatever the reason, most of the Hancocks settled in and around New Canaan, with great grandfather Charles making a name for himself in the shoe business. Marshall Walker eventually moved up north as well, to pursue Nannie. My grandfather took work as a domestic, and lived in New York as he courted my grandmother. Eventually, he won her heart, and they were married. They settled down in New Canaan, bought a house and in 1943, Jacqueline (Jacquie) the first of their four children was born, followed by Marshall Jr. (Mark) in 1944, David (my father in 1948) and Thomas (Tommy) in 1952.

Both Marshall and Nannie were born in the segregated south, and both were only one generation removed from slavery. They had moved to the north in search of a better life for themselves, their family, and eventually their children. In 1946, my grandfather started a business with his younger brother, David William (Bill) Walker. Walker & Walker was a household services company that started out cleaning homes and doing gardening. When my Uncle Bill left the company, Walker & Walker focused its energy on cleaning homes and businesses. But Walker & Walker was more than a janitorial service, it was a new beginning for many black families that relocated from Virginia looking for a better way of life. Over the thirty-plus years that Walker & Walker was in business, it employed many men from “back home” who had come to Connecticut and New York to escape the segregated south.

One of my greatest memories was taking my grandfather to get his hair cut back in 1995 (at this time, as he was pushing 80 years-old and was legally blind). As we were leaving the barbershop in South Norwalk, a man from across the street started yelling my grandfather’s name. The man, whose name I have since forgotten (but I’ll call him Joe Jones), came running across the street up to my grandfather. “Mr. Walker! Mr. Walker! It’s me!” he yelled.

“I can’t see that well these days,” my grandfather said. “Who are you?”

“It’s me! Joe Jones!” yelled the other man. “Mr. Walker, I can’t believe it’s you!”

Joe Jones went on to tell the story of how he had moved to Connecticut from Virginia, but before he came, someone told him, “Go see Marshall Walker, he’ll take care of you.” When he got to Connecticut, my grandfather gave him a job, which according to Joe Jones, saved his life. He told me this story, tears in his eyes, and one of the things that struck me was that Joe Jones was very close in age to my grandfather, yet he still called him “Mr. Walker.” It was at that moment that I began to realize the impact that my grandfather (and grandmother) had had on the lives of so many people.

Both Marshall and Nannie Walker were very active in the Civil Rights movement. My grandfather was a founding member of the local chapter of the NAACP, and served as both president and vice president. He and my grandmother were part of a massive demonstration in Boston in 1975 to end de facto segregation in public schools. They were both extrememly committed to the improvement of life for all people, especially black people. But what is interesting is that in looking back on my childhood, it wasn’t filled with political discussions or my grandparents preaching to me, it was simply them leading by example. They were good people, who worked hard and treated others with respect.

My father was born on December 2, 1948. Segregation was still very much a reality in those days, especially in the south, where my grandparents came from. I often wonder what it was like for my father and his generation. He was seven years younger than Emmett Till was, when the Chicago teen was brutally murdered while spending his summer with relatives in Mississippi, the same way my father spent his summers with relatives in Virginia. The lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 was one of those defining moments in U.S. history, and helped to galvanize the Civil Rights movement. My mother would tell me about being a child, and seeing the horrifying photos of Till’s corpse in Life magazine. Those pictures shocked and sickened much of the nation into action, the results of which would be the Civil Rights movement that ended segregation in this country. My father was among the generation of black youth that was born during the time of segregation, but came of age in a desegregated nation.

People seldom talk about these things, but there must have been tremendous pressure on all of those black boys and girls who were the first generation to integrate the schools and playgrounds of America. Even for young people like my father, who lived in the desegregated north, there was pressure that this new generation was going to be the one that helped usher in a new era for black America—one of equality and justice. But the promise of equality and justice was as intangible and hollow as the reality of inequality and injustice was heavy and oppressive. These were kids who were born in a country that told them they were inferior and treated them as such, only to be then told that they were equal in every way shape and form to white people, while still being treated like garbage. For all the hope and promise that was foisted onto the backs of young black people, creating a load so heavy that is shattered many spines; it is amazing that my father and all the other young black people in America didn’t become known as the Doomed Generation. Many, my father included, did not survive to see the realization that all their parents and grandparents struggled for, the election President Obama.

My father and mother met when they were both freshman in college—still children really—and too stupid to think about the consequences that any sort of romantic entanglements might result in. But in the heat of the moment, the privileged son of a working class black family and the middle class daughter of a Jewish family from upstate New York shared a little passion, the result of which would grow up to be a cynical, neurotic being plagued by overwhelming alienation from, and disdain towards, much of the human race.

I was born on December 1, 1968, the day before my own father turned twenty years-old. Before I reached the age of two, my father had died, leaving Bonnie Feldman, the daughter of Jack and Edith Feldman, alone to raise a child in a country that had just passed the Civil Rights Act into law six years earlier.

My mother struggled during those early years. Her own family had, for all intents and purposes, disowned her. The extent of my mother’s parent’s racial tolerance extended to watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but ended right there. I can just imagine my maternal grandmother taking my mom to see Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967, and feeling so progressive for watching such a movie, only to have her liberal nature severely tested one year later when one of “them” got her daughter pregnant.

When my mother called my father’s parents and told them who she was, they thought it was a sick joke. Even though he had told them about me, they didn’t believe him. And here was some woman claiming to be the mother of their dead son’s son. She didn’t want anything from them; she just felt they should know they had a grandson. Despite their doubts, my grandparents reluctantly agreed to meet my mother, sending her the money for train tickets.

Whatever doubts my grandparents may have had about me being the son of their son were dispelled the moment they saw me. Having seen pictures of my father from the time he was a baby until shortly before he died, there was no denying that I was my father’s son. From the time I was a baby until about the time I was twelve, we looked exactly alike. As incredible as it may seem, I remember seeing my grandparents for the first time, even though I was not quite two years old. I remember a crazy looking black woman running hysterically towards me at the train station. It wasn’t until much later that I realized her emotional outburst was at seeing a small child that looked exactly like her son, who had died so recently.

Shortly after that first visit, my mother and I moved in with my father’s parents. With their help, my mother was able to find some stability in her life, go back to school, and get her nursing degree. Though my parents had not been married, at some point my grandparents suggested that my mother and I legally change our names. In the minds of my grandparents, it was an acknowledgement that we were both part of the family. In a way, they adopted my mother, and they certainly looked out for her during a time when her parents would have nothing to do with her.

I was raised by my white mother and my black grandparents. I was surrounded by a family that included my cousins Sean and Cassandra, the children of my father’s sister. I hesitate to speak for Sean or Cassandra, but I firmly believe that the adults we are today is a direct result of our grandparents, especially our grandmother, the most loving human being I have ever known. (Sean and I in 1970).

My grandparents and my mother loved me more than any child could ever hope to be loved, and provided for me emotional and intellectual support that has shaped who I am. To whatever extent I have been able to avoid being the sort of stereotype or statistic so many of those I knew growing up have become, it is because of the three people who raised me. But it wasn’t just them, it was the aunts, uncles, cousins and the extended family that surrounded me for so many years, and helped raise me. I am the culmination of every moment in every life of all the people around me, and all of the people around them, and all of the people around them, on and on and on until the beginning of time.

Last night, as I watched the results of the presidential election—seeing something I never thought I would see in my life time—I thought of all the history that had led to that moment. I thought of all the Walkers, Hancocks, Venables and Vaughters who came before me, who fought and sacrificed so much so that black people could vote, and ride in the front of the bus, and own homes and have a shot at a decent education, and maybe even some day grow up to be President of the United States. When I woke up on Tuesday morning, everything I had been told about being an American was based on the exclusionary and discriminatory reality that has permeated this country. As a child, I was told that maybe someday I could grow up to be president; but up until last night, it was a lie. And that’s what makes the election of President Obama so special. This is the culmination of an incredible history of violence and hatred tempered by love and hope that has taken a promise that for so long was not valid to millions of Americans, and made it real. It was the first time that the words of the Constitution were truly validated. And more important, it was proof that everything my family went through was not in vain, and even if most of them are no longer alive to witness it, they are witnessing it through me. And that’s enough to make a grown man cry.


5 Responses to “A Little Piece of History”

  1. wone Says:


    It’s more than enough to not just to make a grown man cry but to make a grown man fly across all barriers and boundaries (which still may be set everywhere else except in Washington this term lol).

    Your story is ours.

    Telling it by verbally knitting a genealogical thread connecting the patchwork which began from direct descendants of slavery to the imminent freedom from restriction, repression and restraint that’s taken an irreparable toll on our confidence and cultural esteem for so long.

    Parents can take fuller breaths in the probability of the aspirations of their offspring now with the knowledge of who leads this country into extreme challenges ahead.

    Maybe it won’t set in until January 20, the first State Of The Union address, the press conferences on the lawn, the building of the full court in the backyard……..

    Come to think of it, why don’t we never let it “set in” and just go to work to make this mark indelible since the road is long and winding?

    We better had been on the course for readiness because we are on notice to make good on our word, abilities and strengths and to defeat the struggles with the enduring faith and hope of our “forefamilies”.

    Excellent post, Walker

    Love you & Bonnie

  2. hancockfamily Says:

    I am the great grand daughter of James Nelson Hancock and Laura Vaughter Hancock. Like yourself I was raised by my grandparents, Alexander Hancock and Maggie Dunnaville Hancock. I meet most of my grandfather’s brothers in New York and Connecticut. I also have visited Charlotte Court House,Virginia. My grandmother was also from that area. They moved to Roanoke, Va. and raise their family. My uncle who lives in Philadelphia, Pa. really want to find out more about our familes. my e-mail address is scartha17@yahoo.com. Please use it.

  3. laurav Says:

    Hello… I was bored and decided to google my name tonight and see what I could come up with… I came upon this post to find my uncommon name (with an S on the end). Then a saw Obama…the wonderful man I voted for.
    Reading your personal history is amazing…and its pretty coincidental to my name/me.
    I am a white woman from the south and the love of my life is black.
    I am so thankful for people like your family for paving the ways for
    interacial couples and familys. I am so glad that I do not have to go through the struggles your mother went through…don’t get me wrong though..we still have to deal with ignorant people on a regular basis…but I know our struggles are nothing like the struggles of interacial couples before me.
    Thank your post it brought tears to my eyes.


  4. uvsc27 Says:

    I know my comments are over 13 months late, but I was recently doing some ancestry research and landed on this article. I too have great grandparents from Charlotte Courthouse, Virginia. David Dunnaville was my great-grandfather. I was astounded to find that one of the other reader’s is related to a Dunnavile.
    You are so right about the bridges of our community, when you go back and research the history you will find that our ancestors paved a magnificent path for us considering the obstacles they faced.
    I also wanted to share a little knowledge with you…I think your ancestors the Hancock’s and Venable’s are very well Revolutionary war veterans, and some records indicate that the Hancock’s and Venable’s were free people of color as early as the nineteenth century. I thought it was a little something I would share..you may already know, but I found exciting.
    Thanks for this article it was wonderful…

  5. WilderHancock Says:

    Okay Walker this is weird. How long have we known each other? And now I see that your great grandfather and my grandfather were BROTHERS! Trippy. Hey Cuz, how’s things?

    Also apparently related to a couple of other posters here as well. Who is hancockfamily? We are first cousins so I must know you. And you were apparently raised by my grandparents. Hope your email address still works.

    Nice piece you wrote here. Definitely puts some perspective on current events.

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