by BaBa Willie Thompson, for whom Wo’Se and Ile Omode named a scholarship
“Greatness is born out of the grind. Embrace the grind.” – Robert F. Smith, the billionaire technology investor, in his speech to the 2019 graduating class at Morehouse University on May 20, 2019
My experience with and observation of Wo’Se Church and Ile Omode School persuade me to believe that the students are encouraged by their teachers, administrators, parents, volunteers, church members and community to aspire toward “greatness.” This is the essence of the statement in Mary McLeod Bethune’s “Last Will and Testament,” cited by Ile Omode’s uniquely distinguished school director, Jahi Awakoaiye. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was an educator, philanthropist and civil rights activist.
Robert F. Smith, the technology investor who is paying off the student loans of 396 Morehouse graduates, returned to this theme of greatness and grind in his announcement. Muhammad Ali’s “I’m the greatest” will resonate throughout the world forever, I believe.
My experience with and observation of the school and religious program, its implementation and those who implement it convinced me to support it financially and ask others to do the same. The church and school recall for me the value my own maternal family, both nuclear and extended, placed on education: their formation of structured and functioning nuclear and extended families – villages – schools, churches and businesses and their participation in the nation’s military.
Their deeper struggle was for the development of autonomous will and consciousness at the beginning of their struggle to defeat those who conceive of and treat them as “a conveyable possession with no more autonomy of will and consciousness than a domestic animal,” as historian David Brion Davis is quoted as having said in his obituary published in the New York Times on April 18, 2019.
It’s true that I’m not completely whole. But I’m sufficiently committed and successful to support the children of Ile Omode, our family, our community, our nation and our world in our aspirations toward greatness.
I am among the second generation of my maternal family born under horrific conditions of race oppression and race supremacy. These conditions were made more horrific by the courts, by the formal sanction and celebration of lynch mobs and the dominant group’s individual and institutional indifference to its true history of perceiving of us as “conveyable possession(s) with no more autonomy of will and consciousness than a domestic animal.”
I lived under these conditions. My family made our own history according to the conditions we inherited and the innovations required for greatness. My family continued to believe in basic institutions and themselves after 400 years of enslavement and instilled them in me. I applied them to my own life and passed them on to my son and others, including my students during my 24 years as an instructor in sociology at City College of San Francisco.
My extensive achievements in education, travel, languages, writings, art, sports, social activism and social consciousness are due fundamentally to my family and community, which I continue to fully honor and embrace. I have a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley; I’m one of the founders of the National Association of Black Social Workers; I designed the South African Peace Stamp to fight apartheid in South Africa; the city of Berkeley, California, continues to honor, after 36 years, my 3.0 team, The San Pablo Tennis Club, for its USTA tennis championship in Seabrook, South Carolina, in 1987.
I’ve traveled and organized in most of the Spanish speaking countries in the Western Hemisphere and speak, write and translate the Spanish language. I’ve designed, with architects and decorators, two homes – in Oakland, California, and Columbus, Georgia.
The house in Georgia is built less than a mile from the house my family lived in as sharecroppers from 1938 to 1943. I was born in 1935 in Cataula, Georgia where my maternal family had been conceived of as conveyable possessions with no more autonomy of will or consciousness than a domestic animal for almost 400 years, 20 generations.
Willie Thompson, president of the Organization of African North Americans, is professor emeritus of sociology, City College of San Francisco. Email him at email@example.com.