This past weekend during my Uncle Leon “Big Mac” McDonald’s funeral, his grand-nephew, Leverne “Vern” Douglas, described him perfectly.

“He was a tough piece of old leather,” Vern said. “Well-made.”

Uncle Mac died January 24 from COVID-19. 

He was 92.

Uncle Mac was born June 24, 1929, four months before Wall Street’s stock market crash.

Uncle Mac may not have been a part of Rockingham’s blueprint when the town was born, but he was certainly part of its foundation, especially in the Black community.

Uncle Mac witnessed the birth of modern America during a lifetime that straddled two centuries. He grew up during the Great Depression to sharecropper parents in tiny Hoffman, a town of less than 1,000 just about 15 miles north of Rockingham.  

Uncle Mac was the youngest of Andrew and Eliza McDonald’s six children. Family lore holds that from the time Uncle Mac was three, he would accompany his mother to work in the cotton fields. The child traveled with her at eight years old, when she followed work to the Northeast to harvest apples.

Vern recounted how Uncle Mac spoke of traveling with his mother as a seasonal migrant worker. It was in Bennettsville where mother and son would hear the loud blaring of a siren that signaled Black people had to be out of the cotton fields and the city limits before Sunday.

“Whenever someone [younger] would allude to how things were back then and what they had heard about, Uncle Mac would say that it was ten times worse,” Vern said. 

Eliza McDonald saved the wages she earned from sharecropping and taking in other people’s laundry and purchased a home in Rockingham’s Black community. She wanted a home for her children. Soon after the home was built, GrandMa Eliza purchased some of the furniture for the new dwelling. Eliza McDonald never spent a night in the home she built in the 200 block of Grove Avenue. She died suddenly from a heart attack. The dwelling has served as a homestead for generations of McDonald children and their offspring.

Uncle Mac came of age during FDR’s New Deal. Two days before his ninth birthday on June 22, 1938 Joe Louis, America’s second Black heavyweight boxing champion, nearly tore the head off the German Max Schmeling and the Nazi Party’s assertions of Aryan superiority.

Less than a decade later, in 1947, Uncle Mac was 17 when Jackie Robinson stepped into history by crossing major league baseball’s color line. Uncle Mac was among the cadre of unsung Black men who enlisted in the Army in 1951, three years after President S. Truman signed an executive order that ended segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces. He left college after one year, and served in the Army during the Korean War. He was honorably discharged in 1953.

Jackie Robinson’s bravery and exploits on the baseball diamond with the Brooklyn Dodgers doubtlessly influenced Uncle Mac. By the late 1940s, he was creating his own unique brand of athletic history at the old Rockingham Colored High School, which later became the Leak Street High. He was a three-sport athlete who starred on the football, baseball, and basketball teams. He competed against the likes of future NBA Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor and Sam Jones, who honed his hoop skills less than 30 miles away from Rockingham at the Laurinburg Institute.

Uncle Mac’s athletic prowess caught the attention of a young Clarence “Big House” Gaines, who was just five years older than Uncle Mac and in his third year of coaching the football and basketball teams at Winston-Salem State University. Gaines would go on to serve as basketball coach at WSSU for 47 years and retire as the second winningest coach in NCAA college basketball history.

One of Uncle Mac’s proudest sports moments occurred while playing for the semi-pro Rockingham Giants baseball team, who often competed against Negro National Leaguers, including Willie Mays.

“He rubbed elbows with athletic greats and talked about it so leisurely,” Vern told me. “I was like, ‘Willie Mays? Willie Mays who?’”

His nephew Darrell Barr this week remembered a moment in the early 1970s. It was more than 20  years after Uncle Mac’s playing days had ended. Uncle Mac was a big dude by then—the muscle had given way to fat—when he showed Darrell the Ali Shuffle. 

“I have never seen feet move that quick,” Darrell says. “I thought to myself, ‘ain’t no way.’ Big as he was. I would have loved to have seen him back in the day. But at that time only white folks had videos.”

Uncle Mac was in his mid-twenties when two seminal events across the anatomy of the American South ignited the Civil Rights Movement. He had just turned 26 in the summer of 1955 when 14-year-old Emmett Till was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman and lynched by white men in Mississippi. One year later a young Baptist pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. led a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, when Rosa Parks, a seamstress and secretary of a local NAACP chapter, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a public bus.  

During Uncle Mac’s lifetime, Black Americans went from being lynched and run out of town before sundown to seeing the end of Jim Crow, gaining the right to vote, and electing Black candidates, including a Black president.

Sadly, he also witnessed the birth of the Black Lives Matter Movement following the police murders of George Floyd and too many other Black men, boys, and even women, along with the ongoing attempts to disenfranchise Black voters by a political party that has opted for the tyranny of the minority, and the retrenchment of Jim Crow because it is unable to sway people of color with its ideas on how to govern.

Uncle Mac was a community pillar during Rockingham’s Golden Age, when the city blossomed as a result of integration and a robust economy. His 25-year career as a counselor at the former Cameron Morrison Training School in Hoffman coincided with the boom of the town’s textile mill industries. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the textile mills accounted for more than 35,000 jobs across Richmond County. Jobs were so plentiful in Rockingham, a television dance show out of South Carolina, The Job Man Caravan, would feature Luther Ingram singing If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Wanna Be Right), and then announce job openings for welders. Host Bill Terrell would  play O.V. Wright’s Eight Men, Four Women before advertising that pipe fitters were wanted.  

Time moves on. To paraphrase the poet Lamont Steptoe, we are trapped in these bodies of flesh that lose their youthful beauty so soon. Too soon, these bodies age and sag and wrinkle and smell and become homes for tumors and cancer. These bodies become addicted to the substances of living, to fuel our journey back to the Sun, and the Son. These bodies fall like ruined temples in the dust shattered by the earthquakes of life.

Uncle Mac had his own struggles and personal demons. He became addicted to crack cocaine. He beat the addiction monkey off of his back soon after his older sister and the family matriarch, Lucy Mae Brown, died in 2013.

“He said he wanted to be there for his family,” Alexander Herring, the pastor at Providence Baptist Church, said.

This global pandemic has tested the planet, and certainly the McDonald family. Two days after Uncle Mac’s funeral, the family gathered again to honor my niece, Constance Victoria “Pixie” Rhodes. In November, my cousin Michael Lynn McDonald was found dead in his mother’s home. One year before, cousin Donna Marie Barr, the family’s spiritual light, passed away. My older brother, Charles “Chan” McDonald has struggled with Parkinson’s that is seemingly attacking every system in his body.

Uncle Mac didn’t want to die, but he knew his time here was winding down. On New Year’s Day, Uncle Mac asked another family member, Vincent Terry, pastor of the Mount Peace Baptist Church in Raleigh to preach the eulogy at his funeral.

Time will tell the story. As the years passed, the strength and sweetness of Uncle Mac’s spirit became all the more evident. A rugged calmness and grace were a part of his aura, and those qualities—so rare today—leavened his sensibility with humility and humbleness.

“My own grandfather was 94 and he couldn’t read or write, so he would try to shield me from the truth,” says Vern, who married into the McDonald family 21 years ago. “Uncle Mac has been around all of this time and I never knew I was around royalty. It was like having my grandfather back.”

Medical providers at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital told family members on Friday that Big Mac would live no more than four hours without the oxygen he was being supplied with. He died nearly three days later at 4:50 a.m.

A tough piece of old leather, well-made; Uncle Mac was a treasure.

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