Culture and Trends ›

Black History, and All History, Is Really About Regular People

Getty Images / WHL

Never mind the celebrities — every real historical moment ultimately comes down to people and their families

If there's one thing we at Legacy have learned by reading the nation's obituaries every morning for the past 20 years, it's this: History is happening all around us, every single day.

It's not just about the most famous people. It's about all the extraordinarily ordinary lives unfolding in our homes, our towns, our workplaces and our churches and our schools.

February, of course, has been Black History Month. One thing we've all noticed over the years is that the mainstream American media sometimes spends Black History Month offering up the same familiar stories about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and the Harlem Renaissance over and over again. 

While those cultural figures are important, it might be even more important to make sure we remember all the amazing stories of our own communities. Because history isn't an abstract concept. History is "the story of tonight," as that one song says.

And in every town, every night and every day, we see real history written in the obituaries, where regular families preserve the stories of their loved ones.

So, as 2019's Black History Month draws to a close, we stand and salute the lives of the people who have been making history, as seen by those around them — not just in the distant past, but in the past that just happened five minutes ago. Here are some of their stories, in their families' own words. (Each one links through to the full obituary so you can read more.)

"Major General Marcelite Jordan Harris passed September 7, 2018 at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Miami, FL.... General Harris, fierce military leader, devoted wife, loving mother and nurturing grandmother, touched the lives of many throughout her illustrious career. She was married to Lt. Col. Maurice Harris, USAF (deceased) and raised two children — Steven and Tenecia, during her years of active service. Being a mother, wife, and Air Force officer were roles that defined who she was, she told Ebony in 1995.... 

She made history in 1991 when she became the first African American female Brigadier General in the Air Force. Soon after, again, General Harris overcame all odds when she was named the first female director of maintenance and deputy chief of staff for logistics at the U.S. Air Force Headquarters, Washington, D.C. in 1994. It was here at the Pentagon where she managed a work force of more than 125,000 technicians and managers and maintained the $260 billion Global Reach-Global Power aerospace weapons system inventory that she was promoted to Major General. Not only did this make her the highest-ranking woman in the Air Force, but also the highest-ranking African American woman in the entire Department of Defense.... 

After her distinguished military career, she joined the United Space Alliance, Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fl.... For her accomplishments, commitment to excellence and courageous journey, General Harris received many medals and decorations: Bronze Star, Legion of Merit with oak leaf clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal with oak leaf clusters, Presidential Unit Citation and Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, among others...." (Read her obituary)

“Dorothy Lee White Smith of Goldsboro, NC, passed away surrounded by her family on Wednesday, January 10, 2018. She was 89 years old…. 

While at the State Department, Dorothy had many notable experiences... she met the Italian Prime Minister, shook hands with former President and Mrs. Nixon, and was host to many other guests and dignitaries.

In the 1970's, she traveled to Los Angeles, California to testify at a trial involving the brother of Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of the late Robert F. Kennedy....” (Read her obituary)

“Elsie M. Wilson, wife of Lawrence E. Wilson Jr. — patriarch of the oldest African American/Native American family in this part of southeastern New England – passed away peacefully last Saturday evening, Dec. 30, 2017, at the Groton Regency Center in Groton. She was a vibrant 101 years of age.  

Married to her husband for 59 years prior to his death, Elsie was born in the same cabin her grandparents called "home" as slaves on a cotton plantation at Edisto Island, a sea island, known for its cotton production, 40 miles south of Charleston, S.C….  

Elsie was part of the audience the afternoon that Ella Fitzgerald won the Apollo Amateur Hour contest and until recent years, rivaled Ella in Elsie's rendition of ‘Pennies from Heaven!’..." (Read her obituary)

“Roy Lake, age 93, passed away peacefully on Tuesday, January 2, 2018 at his home in Silver Spring, MD. He was born on May 6, 1923 in Jefferson, South Carolina to William and Sadie Lake and was their only child...

Roy served his country admirably from 1942 - 1946 as a Musician/Second Class in the U.S. Navy and was recruited on May 27, 1942, by the Governor of North Carolina, J. Melville Broughton, to participate as a clarinetist with 43 other young African-Americans in the ‘first’ African-American Navy Band, known as the U.S. Navy B-1 Band.  

He attended A&T State University graduating cum laude with a degree in Electrical Engineering. In 1951 he began his exceptional career at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to become the Chief of the Semi-conductor and Space Discharge Systems and Devices Division - the first time in the Patent Office's 125-year history a person of color served in that capacity....” (Read his obituary)

“Viola Davis Brown, 81, widow of Percy Hunter Brown, was born April 8, 1936 and went home to be with the Lord Friday, December 22, 2017. A native of Lexington, KY, she was a daughter of the late Donnie Davis, Sr. and Mable Davis….

Her nursing career began in 1955 when she became the first African-American admitted to a school of professional nursing in Lexington, KY, and culminated in the appointment to Executive Director of the State Office of Public Health Nursing by Governor John Y. Brown, Jr.

[Brown was] the first African-American State Director of Public Health Nursing in the United States; during her administration the number of nurses practicing across Kentucky's 120 health departments grew from 350 to 1,400.” (Read her obituary)

“Wilburn Harold Weddington Sr., 93, was called to heavenly service on Tuesday, December 26, 2017. Born September 21, 1924 to Earl and Anna Mae Weddington in Hiram, Georgia, he was the oldest of two boys…. Wilburn became the first African-American physician to belong to the Cobb County Medical Society in Marietta, GA….  

Dr. Wilburn Weddington was a distinguished teacher, practitioner, and the administrator most directly responsible for increasing minority recruitment for the Ohio State University Medical Center. He became the first black physician to be promoted to full professor in the Medical School and eventually became associate Dean….  

He was a worldwide traveler, enjoyed his countryside cabin home in Georgia, loved to cook breakfast and bbq ribs, Sunday school class and church was a priority, and visits with his grandchildren made him smile and laugh.” (Read his obituary)

“Dr. Anita Myrtle Williams Christopher was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on October 27, 1928 to William Danforth (WD) Williams and Mary Sneed Robinson Williams.... On January 4, 2019, God called this faithful servant home.  

In 1945, Anita graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and attended Hampton Institute in Virginia, receiving a BS degree in mathematics.... With dreams of becoming an optometrist, Anita moved to Chicago and attended Northern Illinois College of Optometry. She graduated with a Doctorate in Optometry and was one of the first five African-American women in the United States to do so.... As an optometrist, Dr Anita specialized in visual therapy and assisted hundreds of children in overcoming problems affecting their vision and improving their quality of life. 

Anita’s grandparents, John and Loula Williams, owned businesses on Tulsa’s historic Black Wall Street. The Dreamland Theater, Williams’s Confectionary Store and the Williams’s Garage were all destroyed in the 1921 race riot. In 2011, Paul Gardullo, a curator from the Smithsonian, approached Anita and her brother David about the possibility of collecting family heirlooms and artifacts remaining after the destruction and also any recollections that were passed down from their father, WD. Their contributions are now on exhibit as part of the Tulsa Riot collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.” (Read her obituary)

"Barbara Brooks Jackson, a native Washingtonian, passed away peacefully shortly before her 92nd birthday on Wednesday, October 17, 2018, at her home in Rock Creek Park. Predeceased by her beloved sisters, Betty and Beverly, Barbara was the oldest of three daughters born to the late Thomas and Florence Young Brooks.

She was a pioneering black female scientist who contributed to foundational work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and at the National Institutes of Health. An independent spirit, she was an avid antique dealer, art collector and orchard aficionado.

Barbara had friends and connections across the country and gave selflessly of her time and service to others. She leaves her beloved cats, Tiger and Jetta." (Read her obituary)

"Feltus Sterling entered eternal rest on December 9, 2018 at the age of 95... Mr. Sterling served in the United States Marine Corps from 1942 to 1946. He was one of the first African American recruits to enlist and attend training at Camp Montford Point, North Carolina during World War II.

His devotion and dedicated service as one of the first African American Marines, earned him... in March of 2014, the United States Congress Congressional Gold Medal of Honor that recognized and was presented to all of the Original Montford Point Marines for their pioneering spirit, outstanding service on and off the battlefield that inspired social change in the United States.

Mr. Sterling was employed as a longshoreman and foreman at United Fruit Company for over 30 years up to his retirement. Mr. Sterling was an active member of St. Joan of Arc Church for over 50 years. He was a dedicated member of the Holy Name Society where he served as the Co-Chair and Chairman of the Annual Family and Friends Day Celebration." (Read his obituary)

"Earlene McKissick Smith entered into eternal rest on Monday, Dec. 24, 2018, at the age of 67.... She was a friend to all and possessed that "never met a stranger" personality.

Earlene was a fearless pioneer, as she was the first African-American female to run for St. Francis County Treasurer, and the first African American female owner/operator in the insurance industry in the Forrest City area. She loved her community and always thought of helping others. Earlene served on the St. Francis County Quorum Court, board president for Forrest City's Boys and Girls Club, and served on the Indigent Care Board of St. Francis County....

Earlene displayed a wonderful knack to solving problems. She had an uncanny ability to reach people in a deep and positive way. She loved life to the fullest through simple chatting and spending time with family and friends." (Read her obituary)

"Vondell Carter, or 'Henry' to his family members, was born on July 1, 1936 in Vienna, VA., the youngest and sixth child of Lillian Brandt and William McKinley Carter. On November 24, 2018, the world lost a gentle man and a proud American. He had an outstanding civilian career with the U.S. Army as a federal manager for 52 years and a military career for 30 years, retiring as a Colonel with the U.S. Air Force Reserves. He served as Commander of Air Maintenance at Andrews Air Force Base and deployed to Japan for two years during this military career.

Vondell Carter's family has a long and illustrious history in the integration of Vienna, VA.... The Carters started the first library for black and white children in their home, when their children were refused books in the local library. Today, Vondell's parents' portraits are hanging in the meeting room in the Vienna library.... 

With this background, the precocious Henry entered college at 15 years of age at the St. Louis University where he majored in Aerospace Engineering and was inducted into the Pi Mu Epsilon, Honorary Mathematics Fraternity. He was also a Distinguished Air Force ROTC Military Student and graduated from the USAF Aircraft Maintenance Engineering School ranking first in his class.... He holds a U.S. patent in fluidics.... His decorations include the Air Force Legion of Merit, the DC NG Exceptional and Meritorious Service Award, the Army Commendation Medal and the Presidential Unit Citation and numerous civilian service awards.... 

He was the epitome of a Renaissance man — cultured and sophisticated, intelligent, knowledgeable, educated and proficient in a wide range of fields.... He married his wife Susan in 1997 at the Windows on the World in NYC after dating for many years between Washington, D.C. and N.J. They had a wonderful marriage that many do not achieve in their lifetimes." (Read his obituary)