Wellsprings of Faith: Mrs. Jane Lee Weatherspoon Green
1925 was a very good year for milestones in music, inventions and human rights activism. The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing; Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington made their first recordings; the first working television was produced; civil rights icons Malcolm X and Medgar Evers were born; the first potato chip factory opened thanks to the invention of African American, George Crum; A. Philip Randolph organized the Sleeping Car Porters;and the popular song “Sweet Georgia Brown” was written. December 16 of that year also enjoyed the births of Alma Carroll and Jane Lee Weatherspoon.
Janie’s Story is rooted in a rich past populated by iconoclasts, activists, farmers, strong village warriors, gardeners, athletes, craftspeople and nurturers.
She grew up in a six-room house with a porch swing at 611 Fourth Avenue, SW, Cairo, Ga. Family members and neighbors built it from hand-hewn oak and pinewoods. It sat amidst the tall pines, moss-hung live oaks and sky sweeping pecan trees of the southwest Georgia town, famed for its lush foliage and flowers, peanuts and Roddenbery syrup. Her relatives still reside there and “land is still in the family”.
Her father Arch Weatherspoon Sr. and mother Grace Anne Smith Weatherspoon, a housewife, seamstress and devout Christian, raised their 12 children plus Grace’s six brothers and sisters.
Among his other skills, Arch Sr. was a gardener for Wight Nurseries (founded in 1887), working in the Tung Oil Tree groves, supporting agriculturists and scientists in the growing of one of the largest trees from whose oil World War II ammunition was coated and battleships painted. He and his friends masterminded a bloodless ambush of the Ku Klux Klan when they threatened harm.
The family worshipped at Cairo’s Bethlehem AME Church, where Janie ushered as a young girl, and where the name of Arch Sr. who could not read nor write is still engraved after more than 70 years: the structure’s exterior stone wall bears the carved inscription by Janie’s brother Joseph of the church’s dedicated caretakers, a list which memorializes Arch’s name as a Trustee.
Janie traces her ancestral roots to the early 1800’s in the coastal plains of mainland Georgia, South Carolina and Florida and the Gullah Sea Islands.
Bloodline kinships reveal she earned her spitfire, “can do” hellraiser spirit honestly. Weatherspoon/Walker/Smith family ties connect to baseball great Jackie Robinson, Olympic basketball star Teresa Weatherspoon, actor Wesley Snipes and the late Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. (as reported by the late “Miss Alice,” Cairo’s village griot).
Janie’s maternal geechie-speaking grandfather, Joe Smith, just a hair over 5 feet tall, was religiously outspoken and never feared reprisal from racists or anyone else. At a very young age, he changed his name from Walker to Smith following banishment, reason undisclosed, from Ridgefield, South Carolina, at an early age. He also lived – or hid out — alone for an extended period in the peat-filled, alligator and snake-infested blackwaters of Okefenokee Swamp. Family lore says that at one point in his boyhood years he stowed on a ship heading for West Africa that returned months later with their feisty, courageous young charge in tow.
It is also reported by the elders that he escaped his situation by walking through South Carolina and Georgia, then meeting Susie King, Janie’s grandmother, a gardener, possibly in Valdosta, Lowndes County, Georgia on his way to Thomas County.
From paternal grandparents Hannah and George Weatherspoon, and the Smiths, she picked up the special knowledge that only comes from West Africa and the South’s backwoods culture, learning to survive through good humor, mother wit, common sense and sharp thinking. At Washington High School, Janie excelled effortlessly in the academics and as a champion basketball athlete competing in nearby towns, including Thomasville and Quincy. She graduated in 1942, but not before being asked to leave school during her senior year for insulting the principal. She could only return and graduate if she apologized. Janie was out of school for five months before her May graduation. In later years, Janie enrolled in field sociology courses at Brooklyn’s NYC Community College.
In the 1940’s, she says she reluctantly boarded the Atlantic Coastal Line train heading North, leaving her beloved pines, oaks, pecan trees to seek opportunity in bigger places — New York’s Port Chester and White Plains joining her maternal aunts and uncles who her mother had raised.
Her skills at community organizing skills were first revealed in White Plains; she formed a Bicycle Club for sister domestic workers “to give us something to do on Thursdays off, and learn about where we worked (throughout Westchester County) on bikes we rented.” No wallflower, she cut loose at the Harlem Savoy Ballroom – home of the happy feet, Thursday evenings, dancing with her friends to the Tempeh-drum-sounding rhythms of Chick Webb’s swing band. “Those were the days,” she says.
Some years later, after settling in Bedford Stuyvesant on Halsey Street, then Marcy Avenue, Greene Avenue, and finally DeKalb Avenue, she was “discovered” by educator Almira Coursey, who was part of a community organizer team seeking “real voices” and eventual active participants for the community’s emerging anti-poverty programs, including Youth In Action, Inc.
Bedford Stuyvesant replaced Cairo, and for nearly 40 years afterward, she served her village through work in a number of organizations and affiliations. Her achievements include but are not limited to being a proactive and outspoken member of the Eleanor Roosevelt Advisory Council, Board member of Bedford Stuyvesant Youth In Action, PTA president of several public schools, including Boys & Girls H.S. and JHS 57, a member of the Marcy Pool Committee, Tompkins Park Beautification Committee, 79th Precinct Council and Women’s Unit of the Salvation Army. She was honorary Chair of the Brooklyn Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, led the Eleanor Roosevelt Tenants Association, representing some 3,000 families and was instrumental in changing the name of Tompkins Park to Herbert Von King Park in honor of the powerful community leader. Appointed by then Borough President Howard Golden to Community Board Member #3, she served as dedicated community advocate 18 years.
She was the architect of the Education Action Outreach program, housed at the 400 Hart Street Community Center for a number of years. A social workers social worker, she knew every one to call on every level of city and state government as she ran the Eleanor Roosevelt Housing Community Center, worked with all the PTA’s in the surrounding public schools, and linked teens, adolescents and adults to 100,000 jobs over a period of 12 years. Said one admirer: “She knew the hooks, and she could drop a jewel (giving advice) that would help to save people’s jobs, their apartments and homes; schoolchildren from being expelled; principals control their schools and young people to get into college. A letter from Janie Green was gold, a passport to the future.
She was at the forefront of voter registration, and has been credited by numerous political representatives, some still in office today, for helping them win elections. Many nights were interrupted by calls CouncilmanVictor Robles, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Sen. Thomas Bartosiewicz, then City Councilwoman Annette Robinson, Congressman Ed Towns and Assemblyman Al Vann, Community Board #3 Lew Watkins, Howard Golden, Rev. Al Sharpton, Sonny Carson and many others for advice and direction on how to move on campaign or community issues. Her family was an entire campaign mechanism for protests, fighting for more community policing and housing police. One instance of her successful leadership was her organization of the tenants of Roosevelt Houses to demand more police Roosevelt housing. She rallied the neighborhood to block the intersection of Lewis and DeKalb for three hours demanding police protection. It resulted in increased police presence and enhanced relationship with such popular law enforcers as Costello and the famous law team of “Batman and Robin.”
Her citations, honors, proclamations and certificates of appreciation, merit and leadership achievement reach into the hundreds. Among them are awards from nearly every public school in her North Brooklyn district; every major politician in Central Brooklyn, every major Brooklyn-based grassroots group, agency and local chapters of various national organizations.
She also was the subject of an award-winning documentary short, “…and Call Her Blessed: A Portrait of Janie,” which won several festival awards and special recognition by the American Women in Radio and Television and Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden.
While she raised a family which includes more than 60 grandchildren, great grands and great great grands (plus the neighborhood), she still found time for craftwork –sewing, crocheting, knitting, cooking, doll collecting and quiltmaking (she’s created a quilt heirloom for each of her children as a legacy gift). On occasion, she recalls entire selections of Langston Hughes poetry learned in her youth.
Now, her greatest concern is that the those in positions of power continue the work begun by her and her colleagues, including Elsie Richardson, Joanne Atiles, Earl Jones, Alma Carroll, Janice Johnson, Muriel Drakes, Dorothy Orr, Almira Coursey, Lucille Rose, Ruby Brent Ford, Narcissus Frett, Madge Ford, Robert Hunter, Richard Taylor, Tom Fortune, major Owens, Al Vann and so many, many others. Last year, she told us, “”Bedford Stuyvesant today would benefit from the wisdom of the people who fought the fight and worked for change. Always make demands and always keep going. Don’t give up! Stand up!”