Essex's brother Jackson also prospered. When he passed away in the summer of 1920, his widow, Sallie Geeter, deeded land to Shelby County for the establishment of an elementary school. Geeter School, which still stands, has educated thousands of kids from South Memphis, including my father and his siblings.
Albert Ford, another former slave some years older than Essex and Jackson, settled near the Geeters in Shelby County. Albert's son, Newton F. Ford, ran for a seat on the Shelby County Court at the same time Essex Geeter ran for a seat on the county school board. On August 2, 1888, they both won their races.
The Geeter and Ford families were formally united when Newton's son, Lewie C. Ford, married Ophelia Edna Geeter, daughter of Jackson and Sallie Geeter. Ophelia gave birth to my grandfather, Newton Jackson Ford (N.J.).
N.J. carried on the family tradition of public service. Although he lost a bid for the Tennessee state legislature in 1965, he was elected as a delegate to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention in 1977. It was an influential position in Tennessee politics. N.J.'s public service wasn't limited to running for and serving in public office. He helped fund children's education and sports programs and was an active supporter of the Boy Scouts of America. He was a lifetime member of the NAACP. As the founder and owner of a successful funeral home in South Memphis, he considered it his duty to give back to the community. I remember looking through photo albums dedicated to N.J.'s philanthropic work; in many of the photos, he was being honored for his contributions to local causes and organizations.
Although my grandmother Vera Ford never ran for or was appointed to any office, she was a dynamic political force. She was voted Tennessee Mother of the Year and continually honored by the state for her service to her community.
November 4, 1974, was a historic night for the Ford family. My father won his congressional seat, and two of my uncles, John and Emmitt, prevailed in their respective races for state senate and state house. It was the first time in American history that three brothers had been on the same ballot on the same day and all won.
My father became the first African American elected to Congress from Tennessee. He was the first—and is still the only—African American Democrat to unseat an incumbent Republican congressman, and he won despite the fact that the federal government had not required Tennessee to redraw congressional districts after the 1970 census to guarantee minority representation. The district was predominantly white.
Fortunately for my father, his opponent, Dan Kuykendall, had lost touch with the voters. Although Kuykendall had been in office for several terms, he fell victim to a strong anti- Republican political current fueled by Watergate and a young, dynamic, tireless, and fearless challenger—my dad.
Presumably to deny my father both publicity and equal status, Kuykendall refused to debate him throughout the campaign. Kuykendall believed that sharing a platform with Harold Ford was beneath him. He never imagined that a state representative with a big afro from South Memphis could beat him.