THE HOWARD THURMAN HOUSE
By Ethan Coble
The Trackers and I were excited that Niki was driving us to back to see the Thurman House. On the way, she explained that we were going to meet the Reverenc Jefferson Rogers and his wife, Mary Grace, who are the building’s caretakers. Actually, “caretaker” is too simple a word. Rev. and Mrs. Rogers have invested over $150,000 of their own money to but and preserve the house, and they spend hours and hours each year educating people about its importance.
The porch creaked as we crossed it to reach the front door. Niki knocked gently on a glass pane. We all held our breaths as we heard approaching footsteps across the bare floor. An elderly gentleman, tall and thin, turned the handle and pulled the door open for us to come in. It was Rev. Rogers. He turned and introduced us to his wife.
Ally was immediately taken by the bright, airy rooms, warm hardwood floors, and dark beadboard paneling running halfway up the white plaster walls. I was able to get a better look at the black and white photos mounted on each of the walls chronicling events in Mr. Thurman’s life.
Just inside the entry was a staircase leading upstairs. Zack couldn’t resist it. He asked Rev. Rogers if he could check out the second floor.
Rev. Rogers gave his permission and stayed downstairs with Lauren since there was no elevator.
The rest of us made a quick inspection of the three upstairs rooms. Ally paused and took a long look through the rippled glass into the yard. I joined her. “I still think that’d be a great tree to sit in and read a book,” I said, pointing to the big oak I had noticed on our first visit.
Rev. Rogers laughed softly from downstairs—he had heard that comment before.
When we rejoined him, he explained that Mr. Thurman had written about that tree in one of his books.
Niki asked if Rev. Rogers had ever met Howard Thurman, and our host’s face lit up into a big smile. Rev. Rogers explained that he had been one of Mr. Thurman’s students at Florida A&M University.
We learned from Mrs. Rogers that Mr. Thurman’s father had died when Howard was just a child. His mother, having no place else to go, moved her young family into this house where Howard’s grandmother lived. Howard’s grandmother had been born a slave, and could neither read nor write, but she was the one who insisted on the importance of an education.
Mrs. Rogers led us into the front parlor and, pointing to a spot in front of the fireplace, said that it was where Howard’s grandmother had sat while he read to her each night from the Bible.
Rev. Rogers picked up the story. He told us that by the time Howard was in the eighth grade, he was working at a dry-cleaners to help supplement the family income.
This bothered me. I asked how he was able to keep up with his school assignments.
Rev. Rogers explained that Howard recited his lessons—said them aloud—to an understanding school principal on his lunch hour. As a result, Howard was the first Negro child in the town to receive an eighth grade graduation certificate from the public school.
When Ally asked which high school Mr. Thurman went to, Mrs. Rogers shook her head and explained that he couldn’t go to one locally back them because those were the years of Segregation—when people of different races were not allowed to attend the same schools or places of worship. The nearest high school that would allow African-American students was all the way in Jacksonville. But that was just part of the problem. Howard’s family was poor. Where would he live in Jacksonville while he went to school? How would he pay for food?
We absorbed this in silence. We had never had to worry about those things.
Mrs. Rogers then told us how a cousin in Jacksonville offered to take Howard in and give him one meal a day. Then a friend gave him an old-timey trunk to pack his belongings in. The problem with this trunk—and this turned out to be very important—was that it had no lock or handles on it.
When the morning came for Howard to leave, he roped his trunk together so nothing would fall out of it, and started for the railroad station with $5 in his pocket. Just as he was walking to the street, his grandmother called to him back to the steps. “I want to tell you something,” she said, “and you remember it all your life: Look up always; down never. Look forward always; backwards never. And always remember that everything you get you have to work for.”
It looked as though Howard’s grandmother’s advice would be put into action almost immediately because the stationmaster could see no way to ship the trunk—with no locks or handles on it, there was nothing to attach the tag to. Howard could send it by express, but that would cost all the money he had. Realizing this, the boy began to cry.
Fortunately, an old man in overalls was sitting on the steps watching all this with interest. He ambled over to Howard and said, “If you’re trying to get out of this place to get an education, and the only thing standing in your way is money to ship that trunk, I’ll pay the express.” He then took out a rawhide money bag, counted out the money, and Howard was on his way.
It was a lesson in kindness Mr. Thurman never forgot, and while he never got to thank that man again, he spent the rest of his life making a difference in other people’s lives.