Tribute to a Former Slave
by G. Elliott Nations
Everyone called him Uncle Henry. His full name was William Henry McCoy. No one, not even Uncle Henry himself, knew his exact age. He said that he thought he was eight or nine years old at the beginning of the Civil War.
Uncle Henry was born into slavery. A wealthy farmer who had moved to Texas, bringing all of his slaves shortly after statehood, owned his parents. His parents were sold to another slave owner near the end of the Civil War.
Slavery in Texas was declared officially over on June 19, 1865. Uncle Henry, being a teenage colored boy, having nowhere to go, decided to stay with his former owner working mostly for his food and a place to sleep.
During the reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War, many schools were established for young colored people. Uncle Henry had been taught to read, write, and do some simple arithmetic by the daughter of his former owner. When the school for colored students was opened, he enrolled and was not only able to complete high school, but also get a few years of college.
Uncle Henry served as pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal church, the only church for colored folk in the community, for over forty years. He also served for many years as principal and teacher at the school for colored children. When he retired, he devoted his time to making tonics and ointments. Using herbs, plants, and who knows what else, he mixed up all kinds of concoctions that were believed to help cure many ailments. His sassafras tea, made from boiling sassafras roots, was believed to be the best cure for digestive problems.
I knew about Uncle Henry, but did not really get to know him until I was about ten or eleven years old. He lived in a small house a short distance down a dirt road that went by the side of our house. His house was located on a small plot of land that had been given to him by a descendant of his former owner when he was a slave.
Even though he was nearing ninety years old, Uncle Henry planted a garden every year. He raised all kinds of vegetables and even grew his own tobacco, curing and crushing it to be smoked in his corncob pipe.
My brother and I spent a lot of time sitting on Uncle Henry’s front porch with our legs dangling over the edge listening to him tell stories. He was a master storyteller. He had a deep voice that resonated clearly, making it easy to understand every word. His stories were from his life experiences mixed in with stories about Bible characters.
Like most southern boys, my brother and I had no qualms about harassing colored folk. It was just the thing to do when the opportunity presented itself. There was an old colored man who passed our house every day in his buggy on his way to the post office in the back of the general store. One day we followed him, and while he was inside the store, we tied the back wheels of his buggy together with bailing wire. When he started to drive off, the wire came up under the bed of the buggy, raising it, pitching it forward, and almost causing the old colored man to fall off. We had a good laugh along with several white adults who had seen what happened. No one chided or scolded us for playing such a dirty trick on an old colored man
One day, while playing around our barn with our slingshots, my brother and I saw some colored children coming down the road behind the barn. When the colored children got within firing range, my brother and I let loose with a volley of rocks from our slingshots. I don’t think we hit anyone, but it was sure fun to see them colored children run.
I don’t think Uncle Henry ever heard about the incident with the buggy. However, the next time we visited him we learned very quickly that he had heard about the shooting. He simply announced that he had heard about what we had done and wanted to know if it was true. I really wanted to lie, but I was not about to lie to a preacher; even a colored preacher.
Uncle Henry said he was disappointed in us, but he understood. We were just young innocent white boys who were expressing the attitude toward colored folks that we had learned from white adults. I noticed that his voice had become much more serious as he began to talk about God’s purpose for the human race. He said that all of us, regardless of the color of our skin, were a part of a common humanity, that we were all the children of God, and that each of us deserved to be treated with respect and dignity. He said God has placed each of us here to make the world a better place for our fellow human beings.
He told us about how the colored folks had suffered for years under the oppressive rule of white government officials, about the Ku Klux Klan scaring and threatening colored folk, sometimes burning their homes and barns and even lynching a young colored boy who was accused of saying something inappropriate to a white girl.
He spoke about what we know today as the “Jim Crow” laws. These laws were enacted after the Civil War to keep the colored folks from enjoying the full benefits of their freedom. These laws were common in every southern state. They made the colored people into second-class citizens, depriving them of the opportunity of participating fully in an open and free society.
Uncle Henry said he hoped that we would grow up into young men with strong convictions about right and wrong, that as young white men we would do everything we could to make the lives of colored folk better.
I thought about Uncle Henry quite often during the Civil Rights movement that swept though the southern states during the 1950s and 60s. I know the leadership that came from the colored community would have pleased him. I think he believed, as we all found to be true several years later, that racial prejudice was so embedded in the psyche of most southern whites that the only hope of ever making life better for colored folks would have to come from leadership within the colored community.
All Texas public schools were ordered by the court to integrate in 1963. As a high school teacher I was, for the first time, faced with having colored students in my classes. As the new school year approached, I kept thinking about the words of Uncle Henry. “We are all, regardless of the color of our skin, the children of God. All of us deserve to be treated with respect as a person of worth and dignity.”
Uncle Henry died when he was at least 100 years old. His funeral was at the little African Methodist Episcopal church he had served for many years. So many people attended, both colored and white, that the little church soon filled and many stood outside in the churchyard. He was buried in the little cemetery across the road from the church.
A few years ago, I returned to this small community in east Texas where I had lived all of my childhood and most of my teenage years. I wanted to visit Uncle Henry’s gravesite. As I drove down the road toward the cemetery I passed where Uncle Henry’s house had once stood, recognizing the location only by the big oak tree in the front yard. I reached the cemetery and parked my car in what was once the churchyard. Both the church and the school had been demolished many years earlier.
I walked across the road to the cemetery. It did not take me long to find Uncle Henry’s grave. A large tombstone marked it. At the top of the tombstone were the words “UNCLE HENRY” and below that was his full name WILLIAM HENRY MCCOY. Inscribed near the bottom was a most fitting epitaph. It read:
“A BRIGHT AND SHINING LIGHT IN A WORLD OF DARKNESS”
As I stood beside his grave, I thanked Uncle Henry for his words of wisdom, for his patience toward two white boys who really did not deserve it. I told him that his dream of better days for colored people was now becoming a reality.
As I turned to walk away, I took one last look at the words, “A bright and shining light in a world of darkness.” and hoped that I had lived my life in a way that those who remembered me would inscribe a similar epitaph on my tombstone.
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