Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential Figures: Family Members and Mentors

BOND: Who are the people who’ve been most significant in helping you become who you are — beginning with your parents but I want to ask about others, too.

JEALOUS: Sure. My grandmother tells great stories and she tells them over and over and over and over again, and they burn into your mind. And what that means is that you recall them sort of spontaneously. And her stories being the granddaughter of the man who in this state was born a slave and didn’t walk out of slavery until literally the end of the Battle of Appomattox — we actually have a newspaper when his wife turned 90 and did a story on her down in Petersburg. She talked about Senator Ed Bland. He was a born a slave in Petersburg or nearby and died a state senator here in Virginia. Co-founded Virginia State. And my grandmother would tell stories about his life that she’d gotten from him and from her grandmother. She would tell stories about her own experience challenging the white superintendent when she was a teacher to get a chalkboard that would actually retain the chalk so she could teach her kids. She would tell stories about going down to the jail in Baltimore where my father was one of the few white guys locked up for trying to desegregate the lunch counters and passing to pretend to be his mother and these stories —

And she would talk about the experience of walking down the street with my grandfather with the police officer assuming that she was white and knowing he was black and saying, “Ma’am, is this boy bothering you?” And her finally feeling comfortable enough to just sass back to the police officer, “Yes, but he’s my husband.” Tremendous impact on me and just sort of the dignity of being defiant — you know, seeing somebody who’s absolutely the most dignified person I knew, had been defiant her entire life and knowing that my family prospered.

I’ve also been really fortunate to have a lot of great teachers. One of the things my grandparents did, one of the biggest favors they did me, and my parents did the same, was to take me to dinner parties with them, you know, let me hang out in my grandfather’s bar downstairs while people passed through and talked about the issues of the day and to engage me in those conversations. There was a judge in Baltimore named Bob Watts. He was one of the early black judges in Baltimore. And he would come into my grandfather’s bar and predictably the first question he would ask me every summer, was, “Boy, what do you want to argue about?” And then you have at the age of five, having a six-foot black judge, you know, lean down and get in your face and say, “Well, what do you want to argue about?” pretty much scares the bejesus out of you. By the time I was seven, I was ready for him.

And the comfort I got in an early age with talking to people who are much older than me about my ideas, challenging their ideas, having conversations, is really what prepared me to lead at a young age because what you do become an organizer is just engage people in conversation and debate ideas with them and they’re often older or different or, you know — and so pulling me out of that comfort zone.

I think the other thing it did, and I had a conversation recently that sort of struck me. A man said to me, he said, “How many black male mentors have you had?” Just another black guy talking to me. I said, “About twenty.” He said — he said, “Wow.” I said, “How many have you had?” He said, “None.” And a part of that, I’m sure, in his mind it really was sort of an indictment of how we as black men treat younger men, thinking in his mind seeing somebody perhaps as competition and not — but I couldn’t help but think that it was — somebody had done a disservice to him when he was young in not teaching him how to learn from other people, how to engage them in conversation and how to help — you know, and how to get other people, frankly, to help you sort through the decisions that you have to make about the path that we all have to ultimately take by ourselves, you know, through life.

So, I’ve been very pleased, whether it was Charles Tisdale in Jackson, Mississippi, the publisher of The Jackson Advocate, whether it was Charles Hamilton who taught me poli sci at Columbia and co-authored Black Power with Stokely Carmichael, whether it’s Dr. [Ronald W.] Walters here with us today when I was twenty and kicked out of college. I went and just found him with some other students when he was at Howard University teaching poli sci, and he sat us down and explained to us what our responsibilities were, to lead. And to not wait until we were old and gray before we decided that we needed to lead, but what we needed to do right then. I’ve just been very fortunate in that respect.