Emma Akalonu and Marquita James

Recorded April 11, 2011 Archived April 11, 2011 40:40 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: MBY007707

Description

Emma Estella Person Akalomu (Bobbe) (77) talks with facilitator Marquita James (25) about her cousin Daisy’s hat, which to her is like a symbol of strength and resilience.

Subject Log / Time Code

Bobbe describes a picture of a woman in a hat with a large ostrich plume. It is a photo of her cousin, who cam to LA in 1912.
Daisy decided to purchase a hat for her trip to California. When the department store wouldn’t let her try on a hat, she insisted on buying on anyway.
Their family bought a stained glass family window for St. Paul’s AME church. They dedicated it to Daisy.
Bobbe married a Nigerian man and lived in Nigeria for much of her life.
Cousin Daisy laid the foundation for the rest of the family to persevere and thrive.
They told this story at a recent family reunion.

Participants

  • Emma Akalonu
  • Marquita James

Recording Location

MobileBooth West

Partnership Type

Outreach

Initiatives


Transcript

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00:01 My name is Marquita James. I'm 25 today is April 10th 2011. I'm here in Los Angeles with Bobby whom I just met a few moments ago, but I'm really looking forward to getting it all better.

00:15 My name is Bobby.

00:18 That's a nickname.

00:20 My legal name is Emma Estella person Colonial.

00:27 And I am 76 years old. I was born October 10th 1934 in Los Angeles, California.

00:38 And I'm delighted to meet you. Thank you so much for coming first.

00:44 That nickname

00:46 That nickname according to my parents. They had a childhood friend whose name was Bob.

00:55 And apparently when I was born my hair grew in the same pattern as Bob's hair and they called me Bobby it has nothing to do with Emma Stella.

01:08 Person or akalonu

01:12 But it's a it's a it's a hair pattern.

01:18 Why didn't you?

01:20 Come here today. I came to tell the story of cousin Daisy Maurice McNeely.

01:27 Who is the first of our ancestors to come from Mississippi to Los Angeles she travelled here in 1912 and

01:41 The reason I want to tell her story that I had spent approximately 10 years in West Africa.

01:49 My husband and I live there in Lagos, Nigeria.

01:53 And when we returned I just went around to various family members just to reconnect and I sat and cousin Daisy's living room on Hooper Avenue in Los Angeles. And there was this picture under a globe type glass which was already intriguing because it wasn't the usual kind of a frame and I asked cousin Daisy about this picture. She was handsomely dressed and had a hat with a huge ostrich plume on head.

02:34 And I said cousin Daisy. What is the story behind that hat?

02:41 And she told me and it has subsequently been an inspiration for our family for the installation of a stained glass window in first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles the oldest African-American church in Los Angeles, California.

03:03 And an inspiration for several of our

03:08 Nieces and nephews who decided to go to graduate school one just graduated from Harvard and that picture sat in her lab to motivate her until 2009 when she graduated from Harvard. So it's a very significant story and I just wanted to share that with you.

03:37 Well, let me back up a bit. Like I said, my name is Emma Estella person akalonu.

03:45 I'm the daughter of William Thomas person senior and Mary Estella Wilkins person. They were both from Clarksdale and Pirates, Mississippi.

04:00 On my mother's side of the family. I'm a granddaughter of John Wesley Wilkins and Leanna Fowler Wilkins of Pine Ridge and an area in the Mississippi Delta called new Africa.

04:17 I am a great-granddaughter of Reverend Albert Matthew Fowler.

04:24 And Charlotte Travis Fowler of Pine Ridge, Mississippi

04:30 And a great-granddaughter of Strother Wilkins and Lucinda Harris Smith Wilkins of Adams and Jefferson County, Mississippi.

04:43 And a great great granddaughter of Leah Travis of Virginia.

04:51 And the slave owner

04:53 Thomas ready

04:55 Of Ireland, Maryland and Natchez, Mississippi

05:02 On my father's side.

05:04 I am a granddaughter of Adam person.

05:08 Of New Hope, Mississippi and Emma Bessie Webb of Webb, Mississippi, and as far back as our research reveals.

05:21 A great great great great granddaughter of Adam person and Annie person of South Carolina

05:31 And a great great granddaughter of Frank Webb and Lucinda.

05:37 Kirby

05:39 And way down the line a great great great great granddaughter of Jay Taylor Webb of Tallahatchie County, Mississippi.

05:49 I'm giving you all of this background because it's it figures significantly in cousin. Daisy's Hat story.

06:00 The stained glass window that we installed in First AME Church

06:09 And it also points out the significance of doing your DNA.

06:16 Finding out who you are and being exceptionally proud of Who You Are.

06:25 I'm the great-great-granddaughter.

06:29 I should say great great great great granddaughter.

06:34 Of the West African Coast

06:40 I have Fulani I have men day I have mandinka.

06:48 Balanta Fula routes

06:52 From guinea-bissau Sierra Leone Senegal and Asia those

07:01 Blood run through my veins. Were you surprised to learn any of that? I was surprised in 2007 when my brother followed through with documenting this information through African ancestry and

07:19 Even more significantly I had spent those years in Nigeria and I remember stepping off the plane in 1960-61 right after Nigerian Independence.

07:35 And looking around and seeing people who reminded me of my aunt.

07:41 My uncle.

07:44 Even my grandparents.

07:47 And it started me thinking that we had to have come from the west coast of Africa, but I didn't have the documentation at that time. So when that was revealed to us in 2007, I felt that it was extremely important. It was something that I cherished and I will always love my brother for pursuing this Obsession after he retired he and his wife have done a significant job of documenting our family history.

08:25 To sum all of this up in Africa. I am America.

08:31 And in America I am Africa.

08:36 I proudly claim my Mississippi roots.

08:41 And

08:43 The culture that refined my sensibilities

08:51 And California

08:54 I acknowledge his contribution because it gave me wings to fly.

09:02 This is all I have to say about my background.

09:07 I'll move forward to cousin daisies hat since we're talking about flight. Let's hear about that that feather plume.

09:16 Cousin Daisy told me that she was preparing to come to California. She had married Sunday McNeely and they thought that this would be a time to move to California where there were opportunities.

09:34 And she decided she would travel to Memphis Tennessee and she would purchase a hat. They were coming out on the train.

09:45 And

09:48 When she arrived in Memphis, she went to I suppose the biggest department store.

09:55 And was greeted with

09:57 What we have known over the years was racism, but she was greeted with a salesperson saying oh you can't try on any hats.

10:09 And cousin Daisy said in her very quiet manner. I didn't come to try on a hat. I came to buy a hat.

10:21 And that was the hat that is the Hat in that picture that she bought.

10:28 And she immediately went out and had her photograph taken at at

10:34 Her action is so significant in the Fowler family. There were eighteen children and she was though.

10:45 Daughter of the oldest of 18 children, so she had the spunk and she have the ability to carry this off. And in my lifetime. I knew her to be a very determined woman. She was significant and in terms of the the building of Ethan town. She was a wonderful fundraiser when you think of

11:14 Of your cousin Daisy what?

11:18 What image do you see in your head?

11:22 The same image that's portrayed on that picture. And what does it look like determined?

11:28 I'm not afraid of anything to take on any challenge not a confrontational kind of a person but someone who knew the Dynamics of getting things done. I did in my childhood and of course as a young adult as well women in our family live until they're 90-95 some as

12:03 Cousin Ella Simpson in Pasadena lived until she was a hundred and seven.

12:14 That strain of determination runs in the family, especially in the women. So what was she like

12:22 Actually, can you just tell me one of

12:25 Cousin Daisy

12:27 Oh, my best memory was at 8th and Tower cousin. Daisy was committed to Packard cars. She never bought anything other than a Packard.

12:36 And cousin Daisy would pick up all of our

12:43 Cousins who had mothers who weren't that involved with a church, but that she would pick them up and she would come to church every Sunday at 8th and Towne a Packard full of children and they always knew that cousin Daisy if she said something to them

13:06 They did not challenge it cuz that was a different are of no children challenge their their Elders. What do you think? It was the Packard that she liked some significance Because cousin cousin Sunny also her husband also had they had a one of those packets with a very long front on it. I have a picture of them and there was something about that car you described

13:34 For someone who's never seen it. I might never see it that picture that picture is of cousin Sunny driving driving this car and was almost like Driving Miss Daisy.

13:46 No pun intended.

13:48 But definitely. Driving Miss Daisy, he was in the front seat and she and her cousin Florence Brown. We're in the back seat of the first years that they were in California. It was very important for them to travel back to Mississippi in the summertime. And even I can remember as a child that my parents had that same pattern. We always traveled not necessarily to Mississippi, but we did travel to Mississippi in 1941. And that was just a part of our enriched childhood.

14:29 What were summers in Mississippi like?

14:32 I remember thinking because we were going to Mississippi that there was snow now. This was in July and as a child, I thought Mississippi always had snow. That's just Dave, you know by Childish fantasy and what I remember significantly was that my grandmother and grandfather on my father's side in Clarksdale, Mississippi Had a Farm.

15:01 And they had horses and we we felt that there was so much about the farm life the cotton fields and what have you that we were just going to conquer this as as children I'm saying we because I have a younger brother and an older sister and we all traveled with with our parents in the summer.

15:26 We felt.

15:30 That farm life was so so different from our Urban upbringing that there had to be snow in Mississippi in July. So once we got there, we I probably picked up a few pieces of cotton and ran into those little worms that hang off of the cotton Bolls and that was the end of our cotton picking their worm crabapple trees.

16:02 And guinea fowl. Now if you've never seen a guinea fowl, it's a very dumb bird, but it there like chickens I suppose and they run under the houses and they run around in packs. So those are the things that I remember and the Mississippi Mud because in July it rains and our car did get stuck in that, Mississippi Mud.

16:33 I want to go back back to this image of cousin Daisy that you brought so she she bought her hat and she went and had her picture taken and then what happened she and her husband Sonny McNeely her cousin.

16:54 Charles Alexander Harris

16:57 And his wife Ella Simpson

17:03 Harris

17:05 Travel by train they came out together cousin Ella and her husband were in the ministry and they figure significantly in the development of churches and Mission churches in the 5th District of the AME Church.

17:28 Cousin Daisy and her husband acquired property.

17:34 I recall several families coming here and a part of the pattern was that they would stay in cousin Daisy's properties until they got on their feet.

17:46 I'm between Avalon and I believe that would be Central Avenue on the east side. They had quite a bit of property and that has stayed in the family or in the descendants of a Fowler's.

18:06 To my knowledge because they did not have children. They took it upon themselves to have a significant influence with the children of

18:25 Her cousins, and she didn't have siblings here in Los Angeles.

18:32 But it was she just played a very significant role. I can tell you one funny story that one of those siblings shared with me and she said it was not until she was 14 years old that she realized that everyone didn't go.

18:50 To the mortuary on Sunday afternoons to visit the people the people meaning those who were there waiting to for their burial services to just

19:05 Visit with them before they passed on because that was a requirement that cousin Daisy had that these families who had loved ones in the mortuary and at that time but significant Morton Mortuary was Angeles on Jefferson Angelus funeral home or Mortuary and

19:27 So

19:29 She said that they would go there and then she would insist on them going to the Seminary Cemetery.

19:36 And placing flowers

19:39 When my cousin told me this story I said, how could you reach the age of 14 and not know that that was just a requirement that cousin Daisy was making of you. She said was not she just told us that that was something you had to do after church service.

19:57 And we just did it because cousin Daisy told us to do it.

20:04 Did that she wanted to do that?

20:07 I believe she did it because cousin Daisy always.

20:12 Understood the importance of family and establishing certain respectful and dignified guidelines and these children if they didn't have it from a parent they were going to get it from cousin Daisy and if you ever go or if you ever had an opportunity to go to Pine Ridge, Mississippi, there's a church in Pine Ridge call Saint Paul AME Church. Our relatives are back in 1848 was significant in building that church and the cemetery next door to it has all of these headstones that relate to our favorite family. So family was extremely important to Daisy.

21:02 Maurice McNeely

21:05 Here's just a little so family was important to her and to you but you left for 10 years to to spend time in West Africa. Why did you do that?

21:17 First of all, I fell in love with a Nigerian and he was a student at USC. I was a student UCLA.

21:31 We had mutual friends.

21:33 Who were attending Pepperdine and he did his undergraduate work at Pepperdine and we met actually on a blind date.

21:44 And remember about the day.

21:47 I thought he was very interesting. I believe I've always been attracted to Accents and it wasn't just that he was very much chicken in control of his.

22:05 What he thought he wanted for his life.

22:09 Do you have your first blind date and then?

22:13 And we had a second and a third and he was very he was very a very interesting young man.

22:19 And when we did decide to marry it was at First AME church, and I felt it was a blending of cultures. We both had interest in international Affairs and

22:38 He was president of the African students union in Los Angeles. So there was there was a lot of foundation there and when we did I return to his country. I found his family very receptive. His father was in politics and so the family had been involved with

23:05 Not only local politics but in

23:11 An understanding of international affairs

23:15 That bodes well for

23:18 How well I was able to integrate into their their culture.

23:28 Just their customs and traditions.

23:33 My husband was ebo.

23:36 And

23:38 They play some an awful lot of importance on education.

23:44 We lived in the western region of Nigeria at that time, which was which included Legos at that time Legos was the capital and subsequent years. It's been moved to Abuja.

24:00 And I had no reason to feel uncomfortable.

24:07 There may have been other individuals who went to Nigeria and other parts of Africa who felt unwelcome but that wasn't my case. I had a very positive experience.

24:20 What it what were you doing there?

24:23 Aside from being married and getting used to the culture. My husband had a six-year-old daughter. And so I was Mommy to her and one of the things that happens when you move abroad is that you meet Americans on various levels. You become a part of an expatriate Community. You become a part of a local community and

24:54 I met someone who was a vice president of an architectural and urban planning firm and they were looking for an executive assistant.

25:10 Someone who could manage the local employees and

25:16 I worked in that capacity.

25:19 We were responsible for developing the University of Lagos and several other projects that were tied in with your Nesco. So my my interests and activities were broad. Did you miss home?

25:36 Not really. It was always very intriguing. My mother took her first ever flight from Los Angeles to Paris to leg up and spent time there.

25:52 I had friends who were coming from various parts of the world actually who we would always meet.

26:01 In Lagos, and that was so you really didn't have an opportunity to miss home and I knew home was just a phone call away.

26:12 And what was it like to become an instant mother to a 6 year old?

26:17 What it was fascinating to me, I used to design and make very special clothes for both of us. So we dressed alike. When we she went to the American International School and two Secondary School in Nigeria. And it was it was not a difficult transition certainly no more difficult than it would have been if I had lived here in the United States and having a young lady reach the age of 12 or 13. That's always a little challenging but we're good friends. So, how did you come to leave Nigeria?

27:04 The Nigerian biafran war Civil War

27:10 Eyewear

27:13 Imo's in particular we were living in the western region and evos in particular became a targets, I believe there were

27:26 Experiences that I wouldn't

27:30 Want to pass on to anyone during those times when you couldn't trust neighbors, but

27:40 My husband did have to travel to the Eastern region and as a result.

27:48 I continue to work in Lagos. We thought this would blow over and I'm short. Of time, but it lasted much longer than we thought and

28:01 Once he was able to get word to me that I should return to the United States and he would join me here then that was what we did.

28:11 But he was injured injured during that war and I had to spend some time in.

28:21 Switzerland recovering

28:26 So what was it like for you to come back after so much time away? Well, I

28:32 I really really didn't feel that I had lost a whole lot. I had gained game quite a bit just by The Experience not unique to anyone else who may have lived abroad when there might be civil Strife but to see them those things that happen as a result of

28:58 Neighbor being put against neighbor

29:01 Made me a little leery of some of the things that you see happening even today. Where are you there? There's so much distrust.

29:15 About time we did return here. My husband joined me here, and he went into education.

29:24 I went into Human Resources never thinking that I had graduated from UCLA and that I would work for UCLA eventually.

29:33 My husband joined the faculty at Cal State Los Angeles and became the first chairman of the Department of Pan African studies.

29:48 So we just continue pick picked up our lives here in in the United States.

29:54 And so back to cousin Daisy. So you said you found yourself at her house soon after you returned from Nigeria.

30:06 Were you able to spend much time with her after that?

30:10 Oh I did because as she got older she

30:15 Moved to my mother and father's home and they were her caregivers until she passed on So within our family we can to take care of each other and we're involved in each other's lives. And so I saw her quite frequently.

30:38 And we have pictures of her with her her brother who was in his 90s when he traveled from Chicago to visit his actually wasn't her brother have we called him uncle uncle man and he was like a brother to her, but he was actually her her cousin.

31:04 And

31:07 We have pictures with with her that were taken at a family gathering at First AME Church.

31:15 I have to question. It sounds like your life physically after collagen going to Nigeria at so many interesting things. I'm sure you met hundreds of really interesting people. Why do you think it is that cousin Daisy is the person that kind of stands out and that you want to talk about today?

31:38 Because she she forged to head she left in 1912 coming to a place where she knew no one and she came to Southern California made a significant contribution here and that her Legacy is in our staying yet stained glass window.

32:03 Can you say a little more about that window?

32:06 In 19

32:09 70 our family has come together. This is the use of the descendants of Churchill Pine Ridge Natchez the delta, Mississippi.

32:23 We had already always considered ourselves cousin, but we have never understood because our mothers and fathers and grandparents have never said to a these are your cousins who are connected in this way. So when we started doing the research in 1986,

32:47 For our first family reunions in California. That was our objective was a find out how we were connected. So actually in 1970 when we dedicated the stained glass window in First AME Church. These were people who just came together. We have a picture. They just came together and they felt that the person they wanted to honor was cousin Daisy. So to sort of backtrack we

33:22 We went through a process of collecting money working with the designers of the stained-glass windows having an actual.

33:33 Family Day At First AME Church at that time. It was under the tenure of

33:42 Hartford H Hartford Brookins, he bit later became a bishop of the church and

33:50 We had a family day on the day that we dedicate that window and there is a significant image in that window of cousin Daisy in another hat.

34:03 An image of 8th and Towne or First AME Church

34:09 That was the tie and it was the motivation for what subsequently happened within our family and has happened in several subsequent reunions that we've had. We rededicated that family window.

34:27 Cousin Daisy was there for the first year for the first when she was sitting at the altar and we took a family picture that represents all of those families that came from Mississippi subsequently involved with the M E Church.

34:48 How is she reacting that day do you remember? How did she feel she was very proud. She was sitting there with her mink stole around her shoulders and she had another hat. She insisted on wearing has as to why she was delighted and the travel companion from 1912 cousin Ellis Simpson is also on that picture.

35:16 So it's a very significant piece of history. And what is it about hat?

35:21 You find some meaningful and hasn't dated did.

35:25 We have a picture that was taken in 1939 at my cousin Donald brunson's christening.

35:36 And if you ever saw that picture you would know why hats are important. Everyone had a hat on the picture was taken in in front of his family home on 5th Street in Santa Monica, California before that property was taken over by the city of Santa Monica and they built Santa Monica High School in the Doubletree Hotel.

36:05 Everyone my mother my aunt my grandmother. Everyone had a hat on and I suppose it's just something in my jeans at this point. I just love hat.

36:31 Well, it was the scenario around the Hat. I believe that motivated her the fact that she

36:41 Went to buy a to follow through with a very innocent activity a lady goes into a house into a shop and she's dressed beautifully. She certainly didn't look like she didn't belong there or that she was a threatening one.

37:01 And she's confronted with you. Can't try on any half.

37:08 So I guess that got her dander up.

37:11 And she bought the Hat even if she may not have even have wanted that hat, but she bought it.

37:19 And patter picture taken in it.

37:22 That's the significance of it. It's a very simple little Act.

37:35 In the early 19's, absolutely.

37:46 Just that this is the beginning of a story.

37:49 We have so many stories in our family and this is been a motivation for me to put them on.

37:58 To record them

38:00 And I'm hoping that are seventh generation of Wilkins children will listen to this I'll give them a copy of this tape will listen to this and think in terms of following the tradition because there will be several additional recordings.

38:20 Do you remember when you first heard the story about the Hat?

38:28 Well, it had to have been.

38:32 Sometime in 1970.

38:37 That would have been after I had returned from West Africa and was sitting with her. She told me this story.

38:46 I have the actual pictures at the end of our conversation. She gave me that picture. I have that in that little but bulb glass cover. And at first I thought it was an actual photograph.

39:04 But it's a photograph that is on a metal button.

39:10 And I have never seen a photograph done on a metal button that large so that's what I have in my possession. And how did other people in the family? How did the story get from cousin Daisy from the Walter? Cousin Daisy to you to everyone else. I repeated the story at our family reunions. It's on the cover of whenever we have a rededication of the window at First AME Church. It's on the cover of the program.

39:46 And can I ask just one more question how then does it feel you mentioned that I think it was your niece who had the same photo up and college. Was it in a graduate program?

40:06 It makes me very proud. And I know the significance of of that photograph for my niece. She was in a PhD program, which is very rigorous at Harvard.

40:24 And just one last question for me Bobby if you could say anything else to cousin Daisy, what would you say? Thank you.

40:35 Thank you.