Opinion: Lessons from a family’s long line of fathers

George Covington Oglesby
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George Covington Oglesby

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FATHER’S DAY

How do we approach Father’s Day this year? Is it different from other years?

Perhaps the pandemic which has driven us into our homes and away from normal social interaction has also let us see our lives and the lives of our fathers and forefathers in a more generous light.

The racial, social, economic and even religious divisions that some of us are working hard to heal were present in the past too, even more lethally, if possible. North and South, Union and Confederacy, Black and white, rich and poor, educated and not educated were alive then, as they sadly remain so today.

Mary James Dean
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Mary James Dean

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Credit: contributed

Through the lens of some of my ancestors’ pictures and writings, I offer this tribute. I hope it speaks to your compassionate thoughts of your fathers and forefathers also.

We are all part of a continuum of good and evil, strength and weakness; let us try to make it a continuum for human good.

George Covington Oglesby
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George Covington Oglesby

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Credit: contributed

George Covington Oglesby was my maternal grandfather. His father Steven, and great grandfather Moses, and great great grandfather William came from Wales, to the area around Natchez, Miss., around 1773. The story goes that William Oglesby went to what is now Franklin County before Mississippi was a state and bought a vast territory from Spain. One hundred acres of this land was eventually handed down to my grandfather “Cove” Oglesby. Steven Oglesby’s grave was the first one in Providence cemetery, in the ground where his house was. That cemetery of well-marked graves remains there to this day, and all of my ancestors on my mother’s side are buried there too, including my mother and father. My sisters, cousins and I spent many a day with my grandfather “Papa Cove”, hunting for squirrels, swimming in the creek, riding on the buckboard and eating ice cream. I still own 27 acres of this pine-forested land, which I will keep as a tribute to the five generations that cultivated this land.

My Papa was poor and uneducated, but he was smart and kind. He was an advocate for education and served on the county school board for many years. A picture from 1960 shows the school board “making history in Franklin County.” I take this to mean that they guided the first school integration there. Probably, I also had relatives in Franklin County in those years who were Klansmen and fighters for white supremacy, for the area close to Natchez was known to be very racist and violent.

Albert Uriah James
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Albert Uriah James

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Credit: contributed

Albert Uriah James was my paternal grandfather. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, with his ancestral family coming from England to New York and then moving west. I have a New Testament that was given to him by his older brother who fought in the Civil War for the Union. Other medals, “three- year volunteer for the Union,1861-1865”, shells from the war, badges and notebooks were kept in a Bayou Philadelphia Perfecto cigar box, all of which I have. This grandfather was a policeman in Cincinnati.

The story goes that, after a stroke, Albert Uriah James crawled down to the train station to welcome his three sons home when World War I was over. After this stroke, he tried to drive a streetcar. My father remembers riding with him and how hard it was for him to manage the controls. My father spoke of wanting to help him, but he was too young. The family of seven children and parents soon moved to Ridgeland, Miss., where Albert’s sister lived. Ridgeland and Jackson, Miss., are where my grandfather and my father lived until after my father graduated from high school. Albert Uriah James died when my father was 13.

Fred Bundy James
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Fred Bundy James

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Credit: contributed

Fred Bundy James was my father. As the next to youngest of seven children, it must have been hard for him, with his father dying when he was only 13. His family was all from Cincinnati, Ohio, and he remembers as a first-grader, after school, his classmates would throw rocks at him and say, “Yankee, Go Home.” My father was kind, wise, religious, and conservative in politics. He put himself through Mississippi State University: then he worked as an engineer for Southern Bell, South Central Bell, Bell South and then AT&T for almost 45 years. I grew up in Atlanta and in Hattiesburg, Miss. My father was respected by all, and there was not a kinder man. As a child growing up, he was always present and attentive to any need I had. I could not have asked for a better father.

In 1967, when I chose to marry a Baptist minister, who was also an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, as Director of the Mississippi Council on Human Relations, my father chose not to integrate the church with our wedding. This large Southern Baptist church in Hattiesburg had not been integrated, and John Lewis was my husband’s best man. There were other Blacks on my husband Ken’s board who would also be invited as well. While this was most painful for me at the time, later I saw my father grow remarkably in understanding his social prejudice. He loved and supported my husband in his work in civil rights, and he grew to have a strong acceptance for integration and racial equality.

George Robert James
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George Robert James

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Credit: contributed

Lt. Col. George Robert James was my brother, 13 years my senior. I have few memories of him before he graduated from high school and went to Emory University. As I became an adult, his family with wife and 4 children were moving frequently, as Bob was a navigator in the U.S. Air Force. He served as a navigator on the B-52′s in Vietnam. To me, he was the gentlest, and most thoughtful of men. As adults, we had mature conversations about war; and when I asked him, he acknowledged that he had killed people from the air. He was a very good father to his four children, as well as a deeply patriotic and brave man. Growing up, he was my idol, and I was so proud of his loyalty to our country. Bob died of cancer at age 63 — too young.

Kenneth Leon Dean Sr.
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Kenneth Leon Dean Sr.

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Kenneth Leon Dean Sr., my husband of 52 years, died at age 83 two and a half years ago, of a massive stroke. Ken was a Baptist minister -- a big, strong football player in college, a social justice activist, a politician, a journalist, and a phenomenal father. Ken and John Lewis were close friends, as well as allies in many social activist endeavors. John was best man at our wedding, and Ken served in John’s wedding as well. Both of these fathers were brave men who lived out the good in a violent time. They showed the way to combine bravery for human rights and responsibility as fathers.

Ken went on to pastor Baptist and Congregational churches in Memphis, Tenn., and Rochester, N.Y., as he continued to actively speak out for racial and interfaith collaboration. My grown children and grandchildren would not be the wonderful people they are today if their father Ken had not had such an active role in their upbringing. They saw from him what it takes to stand up for racial and religious freedom and equality. He was always there for the snuggling, the rocking, the candy, the stories, the warm love that all children thrive on. Later, as they grew, he provided love and wisdom, support and caring that their adult lives needed. He would be proud of all our adult children’s active voices for racial and social justice.

Dr. Kenneth Dean Jr
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Dr. Kenneth Dean Jr

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Credit: contributed

Dr. Kenneth Leon Dean Jr. is my son. He brings us back full circle to perhaps combining his history, his ancestry, his smart mind and his boldness to create a father of the future. Kenneth is an Ob-Gyn robotic surgeon, living in Ithaca, N.Y., and the father of 4 marvelous children. He and his wife Brittany work hard to provide a very healthy, natural environment for their family. They have a small farm with horses, goats, chickens, rabbits, dogs, and they love it. Brittany takes care of the children, with baby in tow, while doing all the farm chores. Kenneth delivers babies, performs surgeries, comes home, cooks dinner, and works in the house. He always takes time to help, hold and read to each child before bedtime. He and Brittany are a beautiful team of mutual respect.

Ken is truly a liberated father, who has come back to the farm of his ancestry, and advocates for natural, conservationist approaches to life. Kenneth folds together the best of his father’s bravery and activism, with a genuine paternal love for family, and for all the families he saves through his caring skills.

The themes of racial discrimination, class struggle, rural and urban, conservative and liberal are all still with us today. Some fathers may have stood up for the right; others may have had to bend to the pressures of the times. But there is a connecting line for all of our fathers that hopefully leads us to a future of forgiveness, love, and commitment to shape a better world.

Dr. Mary J. Dean is a family therapist in Carrollton.