N.J. sat at the head of the table and led the conversations. He would tuck his big white cloth napkin into his collar to keep sweet potatoes and collard greens off his shirt and tie. He said grace only after Vera sat down next to him and received his thanks for preparing the meal. It didn't matter how powerful the politicians at the table were; they all waited for my grandmother. My grandfather stood before she took her seat. When politicians and candidates came to N.J.'s home for Sunday dinners, he grilled, dazzled, and charmed them all at once. N.J.'s influence was local, but his political interests were broader than Memphis and Tennessee. His involvement and leadership in the national association of black funeral directors provided him a large and substantive business platform to discuss politics. My grandfather didn't hesitate to ask politicians about their families and personal lives while also measuring their political beliefs and agendas against his own.
I sat at the kids' table in the kitchen along with my brothers and a dozen or so cousins. (When I was elected to Congress, I finally got to sit at the adults' table.) When we finished eating, long before the adults, we would pile into a guest bedroom in the house and watch Hee Haw, a Southern favorite. I loved spending time with my cousins. My uncles Joe and John and my aunts Ophelia and Joyce came to dinner with their children almost every Sunday. Aunt Joyce's daughters, Bilene, Pam, Vicki, and Jeannie, and Aunt Ophelia's daughter, Sophia, were like sisters to my brothers and me. My father's older siblings lived in New York and California, and they came with their kids on holidays and during the summer. Smart and sophisticated, my out-of-town cousins were great role models for the younger cousins. I remember when my cousin Lewis accepted a football scholarship to Stanford. My cousin Teresa graduated from Harvard Business School, and another cousin, Debbie, graduated from Harvard Law School. Debbie's sister, Shelly, graduated from Columbia School of Journalism. It was the first time I'd heard of these schools. Most of my dad's family, including my dad, were graduates of Tennessee State University in Nashville, a prestigious and historically black school. My father's educational journey continued at mortuary school in Nashville and later at Howard University's School of Ford Business. My dad entered Howard's program shortly after we moved to Washington in 1979. It was clear to me that my mother wanted her boys to follow the college paths of their out-of-town cousins.
In December 1863, two slaves named Jackson and Essex Geeter escaped from a Mississippi plantation. The men were brothers. They made their way to a Union Army camp in La Grange, Tennessee, where they enlisted. For the next two years, they served with distinction; Essex rose to the rank of corporal. After being honorably discharged in 1866, they settled in southwest Shelby County—now South Memphis—and bought property. By the time Essex decided to run for a seat on the county school board many years later, he had become a widely respected member of the community. He won the seat and initiated my family's tradition of public service.