by Pia Hargrove, LMSW
As we kick off Black History Month and the month specially dedicated to the power of L-O-V-E-, love. I immediately think of my Black History Hero, Syl Williamson. Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1934, my Uncle Syl embodied the love and wisdom of his Afro-indigenous ancestors and was intentional about sharing with all whom he encountered. Orphaned at three years old when pneumonia claimed his parents’ lives, Syl was raised by “Big Ma” and “Little Ma,” his grandmother and great-grandmother. Gleaning knowledge from these gifted griots, he left Jim Crow South in 1951 and journeyed to Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Syl’s buckskin shoes, with the heel cut off and his Southern drawl, inspired his New York kinfolk to coin him “Country Boy.”
In the following decade, Syl, rooted and grounded in love, planted his feet firmly in a post-World War II New York City. The Great Migration inspired Syl to enter New York’s booming economy as a machine and metal tradesman who worked on the Apollo 11 with Grumman Aircraft Engineering Company.
By the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement demanded dignity and inclusion for Black people in America into every socio-political-cultural and economic sphere. With Jackie Robinson as the first African American to play major league baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Syl was energized by Robinson’s impact and prowess.
Jackie Robinson, the Ebbets Field phenomenon, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. Inspired by Jackie Robinson and his spectacular sportsmanship, in 1963, Syl Williamson opened an award and sporting goods store in the Crown Heights, Brooklyn community, blocks from where Robinson broke barriers. Syl wanted to be the place to outfit people with all the uniforms and equipment needed to pursue the diversity of sports experiences. More importantly, my Uncle Syl was clear that we must celebrate and award the contributions and accomplishments of people of African descent across the diaspora. By engraving our names on plaques, trophies, medals, and gifts, Syl created an archive for perpetuity.
Crowned with his trademarked afro and beard, Syl’s sagacious spirit permeated his presence at the cornerstone of Nostrand Avenue and Park Place. He commissioned artist Floyd Sapp to paint a mural and the expansive walls of the establishment to depict the African journey from the ancient city of ON, believed to be the cradle of civilization and the center of science, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, to modernity. Syl taught the community to love and respect SELF. The mural depicted the portraits of Jackie Robinson, Mahalia Jackson, Hailie Selassie, Shirley Chisholm, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Dr. King, and Moms Mabley, to name a few. Special attention was given to children, families, and community members passing by who would find themselves in an impromptu pose, where artist Floyd Sapp would artistically paint them on the terrific tableau.
Again, the power of archiving community splendor through art and skilled craftsmanship was how my Uncle Syl demonstrated his love from his heart and hands. Strength and fortitude stretched from his palms as he would firmly squeeze young men’s hands and command that they look him in the eye and harness their character, integrity, and intellect, “Respect yourSELF, Love YourSELF,” Syl would assert to all those he encountered and the entrepreneurial epithet, “Own Your Own.”
For forty years, Syl would love not only me as if I was his child but generations of other young people who embraced him as a father figure. While he joined the ancestors in 2004, Syl’s legacy of love, the command for respect, and the example of entrepreneurship live on in the lives and descendants of all he touched.
Syl was always teaching us about our history as people of African descent in America and emphasizing the power we have to understand and share our past to inform the present and inspire what is yet to come.
Uncle Syl is my Black History Hero, and I am grateful for the guidance of our forebearers as we continue to BE history in the making.