It has to be more than coincidence that so many clues and links to my family history just keep being placed in my path.
Last Saturday I was at a Columbia University alumni luncheon, leaving late, as usual, because I had lingered to talk to just one more person! I found myself in line at the coat check behind three people who seemed to be together. As it turned out the group included a very stylish older black woman and a younger couple who were dressed in matching navy blue jackets with white piping. And as black people usually do when we’ve just spent the day in a setting where we are in the distinct minority, we exchanged pleasantries while waiting for our belongings.
Because they seemed friendly, I was inclined to keep the conversation going. “Were you here for the luncheon?” I asked.
“We were here for the alumni book fair,” the man answered.
As we shook hands and exchanged names, the older woman—who by now I’d surmised was the mother of the younger woman and the mother-in-law of the man—said, “A’Lelia Bundles? You’re kidding!”
“No really!” I smiled.
“I knew your mother,” she said. “And your Uncle Walker!”
So what are the chances of this? Coincidence? Serendipity? Or the universe working its magic? Yvonne Foster Southerland indeed had known my mother’s older brother, Walker Perry, who was born in 1926, and who was a student at Lincoln University from 1944 to 1948, when her father Dr. Laurence Foster, was chairman of the sociology department. I learned that Yvonne, who was born in 1937, and her younger brother considered my uncle as their “adopted big brother.”
A few days ago when I received a copy of her book, Legacy: Seven Generations of a Family, I read the following paragraphs:
“Never was there a student at Lincoln who was as close to us as he was. He became involved in every aspect of our daily lives,
having dinner with us several times a week, often driving our parents to appointments and taking us on Saturday mornings to Oxford for ice cream and comics.”
“When our weekly pay for household chores was insufficient (and it usually was due to fines imposed by our father), Walker would take pity on us and chip in for the ice cream and comics.”
About my mother, she wrote: “He had a very charming sister named A’Lelia Perry, who was a student at Howard University. When she came to Lincoln for dances, we were thrilled that she stayed with us, as we had the same affection for her as we had for Walker.”
“When Walker graduated from Lincoln in May of 1948, his father Marion Perry stayed with us, so we became close to his whole family.”
My uncle’s graduation marked the third generation of Perry men to attend Lincoln. My great-grandfather, Marion R. Perry, Sr, was valedictorian of his class in 1883. His sons, Marion, Jr. and Henderson, graduated in 1912.
Yvonne told me of subsequent reunions and visits through the years and of how she still cherishes the hostess gifts my late mother always sent after her visits.
And then there was the bonus of meeting Yvonne’s accomplished daughter Alexis Southerland Anekwe, a graduate of Spelman and of Union Theological Seminary, and her son-in-law Obiora Anekwe, an educator and artist, who received his masters in bioethics from Columbia in 2014.
He had been at the Columbia Alumni Book Fair that day to present Ancestral Voices Rising Up: A Collage Series on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a book of art and essays chronicling the tragedy of one of the most unethical medical experiments ever conducted in America. His work is stunning.