My lineage consists of Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen and civil rights protesters. Six years ago, when I first met my biological father, I didn’t know this. A few weeks ago, one of my Christmas gifts was a DVD documentary that chronicled the 1958 Dockum’s Drugstore sit-in, which took place in Wichita, Kan., and unbeknownst to most, was one of the first sit-ins, occurring two years before the historic one in Greensboro. My uncle, Dr. Ronald W. Walters, was one of the participants in that Wichita sit-in.
Among his many achievementsthat day, for instance, and his latest book, The Price of Racial Reconciliationhe’s also our unofficial family historian. But on Christmas Day, as I sat watching the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers dueling on my father’s big-screen TVonly 3 feet away from my uncle, one of the most distinguished thinkers I’ve ever metI wondered why I was the one chosen that day to proofread and rewrite the eulogy for an accomplished, honored family member whom I had never met: my Great Uncle William Arthur Walters, who had died the week before.
At 92, he was the oldest member of the family. In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Uncle Willie (that’s what we called him) and about 350 surviving Tuskegee Airmen with Congressional Gold Medals for their service to the country. Soon afterward, as I was told, it was almost impossible to find Uncle Willie walking around without his medal in his pocket. He’d both brag and complain about how heavy it was, but it was certainly with him. In those same pockets, he probably had a couple of two-dollar bills, too. He’d hand those out to the younger relatives. See, when Uncle Willie came around, he was handing out money. That’s just how he rolled.
His brother, Gilmar Walters, was my grandfather. While I never had the chance to meet either of them, many of their stories were passed down. Oral histories, they became mine. Uncle Ronnie has written nearly a dozen books, but he never wrote the story of when my grandfather, known for writing weekly letters to the editor of The Wichita Eagle, once received a return letter from the Ku Klux Klan. According to Aunt Sharon, he simply wiped his behind with the letter and returned to sender. And there’s the one about how Obama once called Ronnie’s home to speak with him about a condescending column my uncle had written about him. At the time, my uncle wasn’t available. Aunt Pat, though, is still thrilled that she was able to take that call, condescending column or no. She plans to frame the Christmas card the Obamas sent, too, and hang it among the other hundred pieces of African-American art. From original Henry O. Tanner pieces to Elizabeth Catlett sculptures, it’s quite the collection. So I worked on the eulogy. Uncle Terry read it aloud to those who were fond of that flying Tuskegee Man.
Before I left Silver Springs, Md., Uncle Ronnie told me that my next step in life should be to write a book. And maybe I’ll do it, and maybe it’ll be about my courageous uncles and theirand mystories.