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Faith of A Mustard Seed

by Barbara Woods-Washington
Barbara Woods-Washington, M. Div.

While serving as Associate Pastor to Salem Church, Harlem NYC, I became positioned as a team teacher to Ollie Jewell Sims Okala for the Dorcas Sunday School Bible study class.  She called one day and invited me to her home for lunch. Crossing her threshold, I was immediately transported into preservation of the earthly life of James Weldon Johnson.  At first glance, I became attracted to a portrait of Dr. Johnson hanging on the wall.  She told me that it was the work of Aaron Douglas.  I felt, so I knew it to be a holy Grail.

Over a very ‘high tea’ styled lunch setting, she shared her story.  Born in Arkansas, she went to Nashville as a student at the Meharry Medical College School of Nursing.  On Graduation day she was packing to return home to Arkansas when she was summoned to the Dean’s Office.  He said to her that there is a patient over at the hospital who was in an accident and is now comatose that I need you to attend.  She said that when he finally awoke it was James Weldon Johnson.  As she continued this autobiographical ‘oral’ history, he asked her to join him in his home in Great Barrington as his Private Duty Nurse where she cared for him and Mrs. Grace Nail Johnson until his demise.  She spoke of the move that she and Grace made to this Lenox Terrace Condo after shutting down the home in Great Barrington.  So Here I sat among the finest of furnishings… that was once the home of James & Grace Johnson… and Jewell Okala!  The women kept his Ashes in an Urn until the passing of Grace; at which time Jewell was charged with the burial of both sets… together.

On another occasion, I received a call from Jewell inviting me to take the train with her up to Yale University to deliver some things to the Archivist who administered the James Weldon Johnson Collection.  On the train ride to New Haven, she told me that She and Grace had first looked at the Fisk and Atlanta University Libraries, then on to several other HBCUs in quest of housing for the JWJ Collection.  They saw no HBCU Library built, maintained, and secure enough to house the collection and decided on Yale.  I must admit to my feeling some type of way overhearing… out loud… this shameful TRUTH.

When I entered the “Beinecke Rare Book Library”, my first time stepping foot on the campus of Yale University, all eyes, mind and heart FIXED on the Wall behind the Librarian’s high-raised Desk that spanned the length of the room.  Once invited to sit while we await our appointed time,  uh, NO.  In the vestibule is a series if glass cases and my first step was towards an original Gutenberg Bible!  OMG.  I heard nothing more until the Bronze Wall opened up and we were ushered into the Collections.

Emory University, Atlanta, identifies their “Carter Godwin Woodson Collection, 1875-1950″ as “Papers of Carter Godwin Woodson, an African American author, historian and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).”  “In Emory’s holdings are books and pamphlets formerly owned by Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.”  “Purchased from Irena L. Webster in 2006.  Additions: Purchase from Jack Evans in 2007, purchase from Swann Auction Galleries in 2009, purchase from William R. Day in 2011, and gift from Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 2011.”

On my initial viewing of the ‘James Weldon Johnson by Aaron Douglas’ Artwork, I actually attempted to convince Jewell that Clark, Atlanta would be a befitting place to put this very valuable to Black education work.  I told her that I knew President Thomas Cole (from Central Church) who was, at that moment in history merging the two HBCUs.  And did I say that among the “Collection” as I viewed it at Yale were scores, and I mean mind blowing scores of “hand written” music by both James and Rosamond that had yet to be seen nor published?  She said that upon her passing it, and the final artifacts in her possessions were committed to the Yale Beinecke Rare Book Library.

 “Education is bought and sold”.  (Me)

by email: myfathersmansionpress@gmail.com

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