Pick Out Your Peak and Climb (Thoughts with Black History on My Mind)

by on February 5, 2021 · 13 comments

in Civil Rights, From the Soul

by Ernie McCray

Black History Month is in the eye of the beholder it seems, with some saying that it’s too short of a month or that it’s an excuse to give Black folks a cold shoulder the rest of the year.

But to me it’s a month to reminisce about heroes in my personal Black history, people I hold dear.

Like my grandfather who lived the first fourteen years of his life on a sharecropping plantation in Hawkinsville, Georgia, late in the 19th Century, until the attacks on his dignity and his sanity and humanity became more than he could bear to any degree.

Sometimes I can see him in my mind on the day when he decided he had enough, squaring his broad powerful shoulders before snatching a sadistic foreman off his horse and pounding him into the ground unmercifully while his colleagues in the sweltering fields, stood between rows of cotton, looking on in amazement, buzzing with hidden glee, and, at the same time, perhaps, thinking this would be the last day that they would see Charlie Chatman alive.

But he fled, running from his life of pain and misery, having no idea what his new life would be, that he would soon, after hiding on a boat in Gulfport, Mississippi, become a deckhand on ships that sailed the seas.

He loved that life of traveling around the world, seeing other ways of being. He could have lived like that forever but on a trip back to where his adventurous life began he caught the eye and heart of Alma, my granny, with whom he brought into the world my mother, a woman who, like them, was a person of extraordinary creativity and wit and relentless grit.

They, being proud Black folks in a state where such could find them swinging as “strange fruit” from a magnolia tree as their last breath takes in the sweet and fresh aroma of magnolia flowers, joined “The Great Migration” like so many Black families, separating themselves from living hard scrabble lives below the Mason Dixon line, moving to Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, “The Keystone State.”

Life for them there, relatively speaking, was great, giving them the space, to entertain hopeful dreams, and they sent my mother off to earn a college degree at Howard, an historically Black university in Washington D.C. in 1931, seven years before she gave birth to me.

And she passed on to me the value of an education, taking me on summer vacations by bus and train to various locations where we would stay with classmates who were her close lifelong friends, proud Black men and women who struggled, despite their scholarly minds, to get past America’s rigid class and color lines, and every time I look at “The Bison,” her yearbook, my mind reflects on the words under her photo:

“Pick out your peak and climb” and that defined Mary Almittie Chatman just fine.

Oh, I can see her like it was just yesterday at the bottom of the mountain she had to climb, having to overcome tuberculosis that came upon her right after her graduation, destroying one of her lungs. In Tucson, a Jim Crow town featuring an unforgiving searing spirit destroying sun.

But that’s where they sent “lungers” in those days, to desert states away from the humidity in cities they came from and she met my dad who also had problems breathing, a piano playing man in honky talk bands who didn’t have what it takes to head a family, leaving her to manage on her own – in a town with limited opportunities for people of color.

I learned so much from her about a little of everything, watching her plugging away, her body sometimes covered with sweat and her eyes filled with tears for so many years, so determined to make a life for us during the most trying of times during the 40’s and the 50’s.

I watched and helped her sweep and mop floors and empty waste baskets and empty and clean ash trays and dust desks at the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company.

I marveled at her herculean effort selling Avon products door-to-door, how she related to people and built her base of clientele practically at each stop.

She did taxes and cut hair and spelled vacationing friends of her’s at their jobs cleaning and cooking for rich white folks.

It wasn’t until I was grown and a graduate of the University of Arizona that she got a job in the business office at MST&T after so many years of keeping the place fresh and clean, all the while modeling for me a solid work ethic and how to maintain one’s dignity with nary a “Yassa, boss” or “Yassum, Miss Ann” at any time during the journey.

She was a leader in our part of town through example and made it seem natural for me to follow her “Pick out your peak and climb” philosophy diligently and proudly for the welfare of my progeny and my community, understanding that at the mountain’s peak and beyond there exists a promising destiny for African American human beings, a belief that has sustained me for parts of two centuries.

So, every year I look forward to February if for no other reason than it teases my memories of my own little corner of Black History – a history that lives each month of the year in reality.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie February 5, 2021 at 10:30 am

We’re so fortunate to have Ernie as a regular columnist and for him to share some incredible history.


Ernie McCray February 5, 2021 at 12:41 pm

I agree (smile).


Jeff Light February 8, 2021 at 8:15 pm

As do I!


Frank Gormlie February 9, 2021 at 7:35 am

Jeff Light – welcome, welcome. I know the U-T occasionally prints Ernie’s remarks (just not enough of them). And I know we disparage the U-T often enough but we also quote from it more often – it’s a dynamic dialectic.


sealintheSelkirks February 5, 2021 at 1:18 pm

I’m a member of Thin Air Community Radio up here, all volunteer non-commercial listener-supported radio, and every Sunday at 1pm for the month starting Feb. 7 they are putting on a show about slavery. As they don’t pull punches or censor reality about anything it should be intelligent and thoughtful and REAL. Streaming online at kyrs.org



Ernie McCray February 5, 2021 at 2:07 pm

As I look over my mother’s yearbook I recognize clearly that so much of Howard University’s emphasis was on “doing good in the world” as the president of her graduating class highlighted in his message to his peers with sentiments like:
“No greater good can come to the world than for every individual to contribute to humanity a complete life of service.”
That’s what historically Black universities and colleges have been about and my mother lived in that spirit right before my very eyes. Religiously.


Barbara Lewis February 5, 2021 at 2:31 pm

I so loved this….your speaks to me as a towering example of empathy and endurance….her spirit definitely lives in you.


Thomas Gayton February 8, 2021 at 7:57 pm

i too am the grandson of a grandfather, John Thomas Gayton, who escaped from sharecropping Mississippi in 1888 and settled in Seattle before Washington became a state. BLACK HISTORY MONTH reminds us of how our ancestors survived and succeeded in giving us the opportunity to live our dreams.


Frank Gormlie February 9, 2021 at 7:31 am

Awesome story Thomas. Thanks so much for making this Black history real for us.


Lamont Strong February 8, 2021 at 10:51 pm

I enjoy your column. I especially enjoyed this story because it not only showed that your mother
is a smart woman and mother, it also showed a black woman’s path from the Mass Migration to a College degree and work that led her into the Corporate World. I hurry to read your column, you always tell a good and interesting story.


Shirley Sprinkles February 9, 2021 at 8:55 am

From one sharecropper’s grandchild to another; your lips (pen), to my eyes. This is a deeply resonate story; so serendipitous that we both ended up in Tucson as travelers in “The Great Migration.” I love how intimately you speak of your lovely mother. It was my good fortune to have known her. She raised a “giant”—both literally and figuratively. You do her proud! Keep climbing—the beanstalk or the mountain— they’re yours to conquer and possess!


Jerry Wallingford February 9, 2021 at 1:01 pm

Thank you Ernie!


sealintheSelkirks February 11, 2021 at 5:07 am

Heard the interview on DemocracyNow yesterday about this new book edited by two top black Historians. 80 writers contributed to it. Sounds like another one of those books that should be taught in all school history classes like Historian Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.

400 Souls
1629 to 2019

Why is every kid in America taught about the Mayflower (a vicious group of white invaders) but not the White Lion one of the first slave ships to hit the continent? Deliberately obliterated or seriously hidden history.

The Sunday 1pm black history month show on my local KYRS community radio was disturbing last weekend. Things I didn’t know that made me sick to hear. But the show is based on Kentucky the ‘internal slave trade state’ and will continue this coming Sunday for anyone interested. Worth listening to real history instead of slave owner propaganda that permeates US schools… kyrs.org

How many white people know that reading and writing was ILLEGAL to teach to slaves? How many know that in 1820 that the slave rebellion that was organized would have slaughtered the slavers and ended slavery except for one informant that told on the 9,000 slaves that were about to start the war against it?

That’s why there is so little written documentation on slavery except from the lying sacks of sh*t slave owners. And we’ve got how many people waving confederate flags in this country, how many cops shooting unarmed black people because they can? Why does it feel like the f**king South won the Civil War?



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