LEGACY: LEARNING YOUR HISTORY TO BUILD FOR THE FUTURE PART 6

The goal of these blog posts is to provide information that gets the reader to think about their own story and perhaps provide some food for thought along the way. June is a wonderful time of year, but it has been tinged with sadness for me for the last 34 years and the sadness continues because of the current events happening in our country.  On June 2,1996, my sister died and the next day June 3, 1996, my father died.

My sister, Phyllis Stacey Thomas 1957-1996
My father, Edward Thomas, served in the Army and Air Force 1930-1996

On June 23, 1986, my mother died.    This is a part of my story, the trauma that my family must deal with over their loss but also the joy we experienced because they existed.   This June is the season of protests.  We are reliving the continuous results of police brutality against the African American community which in the age of video cameras is less able to be hidden.  The murder of George Floyd, who died after 8 minutes and 46 seconds where his neck was compressed by the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, has raised a level of consciousness that has not been seen in recent years. People who did not feel or understand the extent of racism in this country, watched a man die while pleading for his life and are now woke.  People who continuously feel the extent of racism in this country are not willing to chalk this death up to business as usual but have vowed this time to make change happen.  So. I am looking for a miracle in the name of George Floyd. 

One way to make change is to go back and look at what you are doing to secure your legacy in the world.  There are many ways to leave a legacy.  One is to ensure that you transmit your values not only to your children but your grandchildren.  My daughter bought me a book in which I can write down information to leave to my new granddaughter.  You can show support for what you believe in either by active protest, volunteering, donating, etc.  Another is to provide financial support so that others coming behind you, will not have to struggle so hard including your own family. 

In this blog, I am advocating that each person reading this evaluate where you spend your money.  One way to protest injustice is to change our dependency on the systems we find unjust. Where do you spend your money?  Is it to support community businesses, African American owned businesses, other businesses owned by people of color, women owned businesses, businesses that give ex-offenders a chance or support the differently abled or LGBTQ+ community or does your money support the corporations who as Michael Jackson said, “Don’t care about us”.  You might spend a little more, but you will do a greater good.  Do we save our money so that when something like COVID 19 happens, we are not dependent upon the system that we are fighting against but can survive if the system does not come to our rescue?  Changing political institutions also means controlling what we do with our money.  One of the reasons that the walls of apartheid fell in South African is because companies around the world were pushed to disinvest in South African companies.  If we control where we spend our money, we can push the system to make substantive change.  The Black Panthers gave us an example of taking care of the community through the free breakfast program for children which served as an example for such current feeding programs for children.

Grow your own food.  Even if you harvest one tomato, it is one less product that you buy from a store that we do not own.  Generational wealth is not built by keeping up with the latest fashion but by being prudent with our resources.  What institutions can we build and control?   Again, we must begin to pool our resources so that we can challenge the systems we are protesting.  Resources, are time, resources are talent, resources are treasure so unite to support what we believe in.  Corporations and social institutions right now are saying the right things, but this will not continue if they think we will let them go back to business as usual.  We must be the change.

Legacy: Learning Your History To Build For The Future Part 5

While this blog maintains the theme of legacy building, it recognizes the times that we are in with the COVID 19 virus.  I have been in New Jersey because my sister was hospitalized with this virus and I am her durable power of attorney, so I had to be close to the hospital.  She also has cats (I am not a cat person) and enough plants to fill a jungle (just figuratively speaking).  It speaks to why you should consider pairing down external things.  A story for another day.  She is now out of the hospital but still has a cough and is now on oxygen.  She is not ready to go back to living on her own. 

This experience points to what I have talked about before and that is making sure that your legal documents are up to date.  That also means that if you have been in a hospital, make sure that the hospital has up to date information.  We found out the hard way when I tried to find out information on my sister and was informed that her ex-husband was listed as the contact person.  She has been divorced for a long time.  While she is friendly with her ex husband and so am I, he called several times when she was hospitalized, he should not be making decisions for her and no longer even lives in the area.  Luckily, my sister could call the records department and get this information changed, once we found this out.   I had the durable power of attorney paperwork with me in case it was needed but it was scary to think that the hospital would have contacted an ex-husband for medical decisions on my sister. This is the problem when family cannot be with patients in the hospital which is the case with this virus.

Also, I saw a news story that if you have an advanced directive, you should probably review it because of the COVID 19 virus.  Ventilator care has been a standard treatment for many people who have been hospitalized but many advanced directives specifically state that they don’t want to be placed on a ventilator.  It was also recommended that these revisions be done with an attorney so that the language is crafted correctly. 

Now on to legacy building.  I was just informed of the name of the person who received my scholarship this year at California University of Pennsylvania.  It is always wonderful to know that someone is benefiting from my efforts at legacy building. 

One of my passions is looking into the African American history of the region where I am from, Fayette County, Pa.  I have only captured a small amount of the history, but I want people to know our story and how African Americans have contributed to the region.  I have been working with a local church which was a station on the Underground Railroad to house my collection permanently.  Until that can happen, I developed a traveling museum of Fayette County Pennsylvania African American history.  A few of the pictures are noted below. 

History of Slavery in Fayette County, PA
African American churces in Uniontown, PA

I also would encourage any of you that are senior citizens and have children to pass on their baby pictures and other pictures you have of them.  We hold on to these pictures and then when we pass away, many times those pictures are lost.  I have perhaps two pictures of me as a baby and even then I was several months old.  There are no baby pictures of my mother that I have found.  The youngest picture was her as a teenager.  I have no such pictures of my dad.  In these days we take pictures digitally so in many ways they are easier to pass on as you can just send them to your children.  My birthday gift to my grandson is going to be to make a photo album of the pictures I have of him from when he was hours old until his second birthday.  I want him to know how much his Bibi (granmother in Swahili) loves him.  I am in some of those pictures so I want him to see me as part of my legacy to him.  It is clear that I want to be remembered. 

Famous African Americans in from Fayette County, PA

Legacy: Learning Your History To Build For The Future, Part 4

April 9, 2020: The purpose of this blog post is to plant a seed to get each reader to take care of their legacy by getting their business affairs in order.  When I have asked rooms full of people, regardless of their incomes, if they have prepared a will, advanced directive or other important documents, the answer is the same.  Most people have not.  We can look to examples like Prince and Aretha Franklin to see what happens when there is no will. 

Even if you think you don’t have significant assets, if you have young children, you need to have a will that names a guardian for your children.  This is something that needs to be discussed with the potential guardian so that this is not a surprise if it needs to be put into effect.  If you have a spouse, talk to them about finances.  Are there insurance policies and who is the beneficiary?  Is there a pension and is the spouse clearly named on that pension document? Never assume anything. I can give you real life examples of pensions that were lost because the spouse was not listed to receive the pension.

There have been too many instances where African American families have lost property because after the death of the owner, the asset was not designated in a will and the property was never legally transferred to anyone.  Family members start arguing, nothing gets taken care of, taxes are not paid and property is lost. This is a major tragedy in the African American community and one of the contributors to the lack of wealth transfer from one generation to the next.

Historically, my family owned a lot of land.  In the end, the only thing that is left is the family cemetery.  The last pieces of property that had not been sold, were taken for taxes.  In my family, I discussed with my father leaving a will.  He fought this for years but finally relented and made me the executor.  The blessing was that when he died (my mother was already deceased), we discovered that he had collected the information on all of his policies, deeds to property, information on his cars, etc. safe deposit box keys and his will and had everything in a suitcase that was given to me by one of his friends who had the information for safe keeping.  Make sure your spouse knows where all the documents are located. If you live alone, hopefully there is a designated family member who has the information. As an aside, don’t keep the original will in a safe deposit box as it will take sometime to get access to this. Keep a copy in the safe deposit box. Because my father was organized, this made a difficult situation much easier.  My father was under the belief that he had nothing worth anything which is why he hesitated to do a will.  At the time of his death he had six surviving children.  Having  a will at least eliminated any possible disagreements, although as siblings, we always got along.  One of my sisters died 24 hours before my father.  Another story.  She did not have a will so I had myself named as her estate administrator in New York so I could take care of her financial affairs. 

So, if you don’t have a will, get one.  If you don’t have a living will or an advance directive, complete one.  This is important for young people as this is where the issues of end of life get raised.  Think about who you would want to designate as your power of attorney in case you needed someone to handle your affairs.  A power of attorney can be given and taken away.  A durable power of attorney allows someone to make both financial and medical decisions.  This lasts beyond the point that a person has mental capacity. Be very careful about who you give these powers to, which is why you need to think about this before this has to be done in an emergency.

Please review your policies including medical insurance. Consider long term care insurance while you are young as the older you get, the more expensive this becomes.   If you have been vested in a company for which you worked, make sure they have your current information so that you don’t lose out on your pension when it is time to retire.  Review your Social Security earnings statement annually as you only have a limited time to correct mistakes.  If your employer has a 401K, please invest in it and watch that investment.  Some companies provide a match to what you put in. It is important that spouses talk to each other about financial and legal information. 

African Americans have been guilty of not thinking about their final arrangements as well as leaving a financial legacy including having documents in order. I have heard the sayings over and over again that I am only leaving enough to bury me, or I got mine, they will have to get theirs. Please break this pattern, no matter to what community you belong.

A person wearing a suit and tie

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My parents, Queen Ester and Edward Thomas

Legacy: Learning Your History To Build For The Future (Part 3)

March 29, 2020: It is Sunday morning at a time when I would already be at church, singing in the choir. I joined the choir at my church several years ago in response to a request to the congregation to help with services leading up to Easter. This was supposed to be temporary but I never left. It feels strange to be home on Sunday morning as churches are closed due to the need to shelter in place in response to the Corona virus. One thing to note is that my high school choir director/music teacher sits next to me in the choir loft. He was always one of my favorite teachers so things come full circle.

Now on to the blog post. I am a believer that each of us has a duty to leave a positive legacy in some form. As the African proverb says, “we never die as long as someone speaks our name”. It has been called by some the second death when a person is no longer remembered by anyone. There are many ways to leave a legacy. One is telling the stories of those who have passed on. It can be done through pictures or other memorabilia. I am not a collector of things but I have kept as much “stuff” as I can find of my ancestors to keep their stories alive. This is being written in the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic so what I am about to say is something to consider in the future. If you have the means, another way to keep the legacy going is to establish either scholarship or other endowed funds in your name or the names of others. One of my past students at Widener University raised funds to begin a commencement award in my name at the Center for Social Work Education. I raised the rest of the money to get that award endowed. At the same time, my then organization, the Center on Ethnic & Minority Aging, Inc., raised funds to endow a commencement award in the name of Mr. Hobart C. Jackson, Jr., a pioneer in the study of Black Aging from Philadelphia.

I have since endowed a scholarship in my name at the School of Social Work at California University of Pennsylvania and also worked with the alumni to endow an alumni scholarship for the School. I have also endowed a fund at the Community Foundation of Fayette County in the name of Edward, Queen Ester and Phyllis Thomas (my parents and sister) for arts programming at the East End United Community Center.

So how did I do this? Let’s be clear. I have no more money than the average person so this was not done through my money alone. It was done through requests made to friends and families and special events. Instead of birthday and Christmas gifts, I requested donations be sent to one of the funds named above. I continue to do this. The person gets a tax write off but more importantly, they are part of legacy building. I sent out a “blessing letter” asking people to contribute based on how they had been blessed. I have also used Go Fund Me as well. If the cause is worthy, others will contribute. This is one way that your life can have meaning for someone long after you are gone. Some religious institutions also have scholarship funds so this is another place you can contribute. We all have a duty to pay it forward for those who are to come after us. In the African American community, because we have historically not had generational wealth, each of our generations starts out with nothing. Please do your part, while you can, to help someone else along the way, no matter who they are. “Let the works I have done, speak for me”.

MSW Dr. Norma D. Thomas Scholarship Recipient School of Social Work, California University of PA

Legacy: Learning Your History To Build For The Future (Part 2)

March 19, 2020: So continuing from the previous post, I am providing information from my most recent DNA results on ancestry.com. I submitted the matrilineal DNA and my brother submitted the patrilineal DNA. The results are as follows:

Mother’s Side
Father’s Side

Genealogists will tell you that in order to document your family history, start with yourself.  Get your birth certificate and other similar documents and note parent’s names and then get their information, birth certificate, death certificate if they are deceased, and note their parent’s information.  You can get copies of Social Security applications (if the person is deceased) which notes parent’s names.  Doing this research is getting more expensive and the information is getting harder to get because of the concerns about identity theft.  I regret not talking to my parents and grandparents more about family history when they were living.  While I did pay attention to the stories they told, I was remiss at the time in not putting down the details.  I am sure that when my father died there were probably old papers that I should have kept that might have filled in some blanks for me.  At one time he and my grandfather did a search to find more information on the Thomas land in Hopwood, but if this information was in my dad’s papers when he died, I did not keep it because I did not have the interest then, that I do now, about finding out my history. 

So, this is the lesson. If people are alive, talk to them and record the stories.  Get copies of documents like, birth and death certificates, obituaries, baptismal records, wills, Social Security applications, etc.  You can hire a genealogist but quite frankly my experience is that for the two times I used their expertise, they did not uncover any new information for me and were very expensive.  It may have just been my experience.  My plan is to go to Fauquier County, Virginia. My daughter, baby grandson and I did go to Columbia, Saluda, and other places in Newberry County, South Carolina back in December 2019 and discovered a wealth of information. 

I believe it is so very important to understand where you come from and how that shapes who you are.  For example, one of my uncles was a poet.  He died before I was born.  But I write poetry, and my daughter is a world famous poet and my brother and at least one of my sisters writes poetry as well.  It would have been great to know this information when I was younger because someone might have had copies of his poetry which are probably all now lost.  My daughter said she loved listening to the stories that I and my siblings would tell about our parents and grandparents and that we should write them down.  Maybe that is part of the impetus for this blog as well. 

My uncle, Francis Thomas, was not only a musician but a poet as well. He died in 1947 along with many others that year from tuberculosis.

Part of your legacy is to write your story.  I think I have led a relatively boring life but to someone else it sounds exciting, interesting and most importantly unique.  God put us all on this earth with our unique story which is the product of the stories of people who came before us.  If you are adopted and don’t know the story of your birth parents, then the stories of the parents who adopted you or the foster homes in which you lived or whoever influenced you good and bad make up who you are.  I will keep you posted if I make any breakthrough in getting back further in my family history and if I find any surprises along the way.  Also, during this journey I have uncovered many family “secrets”, so you may open doors that others wanted to remain closed so beware of this as you move forward.   Nothing stays hidden forever.  Would love to hear about your journey in finding your roots!

Legacy: Learning Your History To Build For The Future

March 15, 2020: For this first blog on Word Press, I wanted to talk about history.  I have always been a history buff, especially ancient history.  The first time I left the country (besides, Mexico, Canada and Puerto Rico) was for a three-week trip to Europe during the year I turned 50.  It also coincided with Raina’s (my daughter’s) graduation from Penn State.  We spent time in Italy and Greece.  I was in heaven with seeing the ruins in Rome and Athens. Raina pointed out to me recently that most of my major travel experiences around the world happened after I turned 50, so folks it is never too late to do anything!! We did Europe on the cheap, staying in hostels so we could buy and cook our own food.  We traveled light and washed our clothes and hung them in the room during the vacation. We were our own tour guides (but would get close to tours being conducted in English so we could hear what they were saying).  The most expensive times on the trip were when I would rebel and insist on eating out or paying to get our clothes done at a laundry or paying for a one night tour in Athens.  My rationale to my daughter was that I worked every day so should be able to splurge.  Quite frankly, doing Italy and Greece on the cheap was way more fun and informative than through the cruise I took of the Mediterranean.  The bus trips from the ship were too expensive, too short, and not fun at all. 

Graduation Day Penn State University 1974

I have also over the years taken it upon myself to make sure that historical documents of organizations to which I was affiliated were pulled together and accessible.  For example, when I left Widener University Center for Social Work Education, I pulled together many photo albums to capture the rich history of the Center and made sure that files and documents were labeled and accessible so that no one would have to go back and reinvent the wheel.  I did the same thing when I left California University of Pennsylvania.  All the old MSW accreditation documents are together, all the outcomes data is in its own binder and as many artifacts that I could find that document what happened while I was the MSW Program Director, along with the syllabi from past years, etc. were left in binders. I felt that this was important because almost no information existed to document the time that my predecessor had served in the position and he had been there for 7 years before I got there.  It was as though he never existed even though he was the first person in that position, the trail blazer upon whose shoulders I stood.  I pulled together historical information for the East End United Community Center where I have served on the board of directors since 2008.  I found old pictures and put them in albums, organized files, labeled and cataloged many of the Center artifacts. 

Egypt-2009

So, it should come as no surprise that I also began several years ago, to discover my family’s historical roots.  This is quite an interesting journey.  My original goal was to find out my “roots in Africa”.  Well, I achieved part of that goal.  Because of the history of slavery in this country, it has been difficult getting back beyond a certain point in my family’s tree.  On my mother’s side I do know that both of my great great grandfathers were born into slavery.  William Satterwhite (mother’s side) was one.  Satterwhite was probably the name of the slave owner in Saluda South Carolina. The other great great grandfather was Harry Logan (mother’s side). He founded a church in Saluda South Carolina on land that was deeded over to him by his former slave owner, whose last name was Richardson.  I did DNA testing many years ago through African Ancestry.  My mom’s people were at that time noted as descendants of the Tikar people of present day Cameroon.  Someone from Cameroon said that he would not put much stock in these results because of migration patterns over the years.  But, as I explained to him, this may be all I get in terms of being able to identify where my people originated from so I was holding on to this.  He had an identifiable origin point.  Up until I got those results, I had none.

On my Dad’s side the original Thomas male was European.  No surprises there, given the history of slavery but also because I just knew that from discussions over the years, his side of the family was African, European and American Indian.  The original DNA testing through African Ancestry confirmed that the original Thomas was European, probably from the Wales area.  There are a lot of Dutch names on my dad’s side in the genealogy records.  I recently found the name of a woman married to a Thomas who is either Dutch or German.  I can get back to my great, great great grandfather but nothing beyond that.  There is a name that I am trying to link and confirm and then everything falls in place to very early in European history.  My father’s ancestors were born free.   Josiah Thomas, who is my great, great, great grandfather, was born in Virginia and described as “hair a little inclined to red, high nose, black eyes, face freckled, bright mulatto, 5’9 1/2 inches and born free”.  This was noted in the Fauquier Register of Free Negroes, 1817-1865.  What I can’t discover is why he and, who I thought was his brother but may have been a cousin, came to the Hopwood Pennsylvania area. There are many folk tales but I can’t confirm any of them including a connection to a Jacob Thomas who owned property in Hopwood in the location of the land eventually owed by both Josiah and Henry Thomas.  The Thomas Cemetery (Bennington Road http://www.uscemeteryproj2.com/pennsylvania/fayette/thomascemhopwood/) in Hopwood is all that is left of the many acres once owned by the Thomas family.  The Jewish Cemetery in Hopwood (Holy Society-Bennington www.jewish-holy-society-cemetery) originally was part of the Thomas land.  I have that deed.  I believe Josiah Thomas’ father was European. 


My great grandfather Pickney Satterwhite on my mother’s side.  His father William was born into slavery. His wife was Anna Belle.   Her mother was described as American Indian. 

Stay tuned for more information on my family history, how you can start your own journey and build your legacy for the future.