"My mother's spirit is speaking through them": Anna G. Wilson in Life and Death

Anna Williams Wilson's granddaughter of the same name and grandson Russell at the 2014 ESPY Awards.
Anna G. Wilson's granddaughter and namesake, Anna, and grandson, Russell, at the 2014 ESPY awards. No images of Anna are currently publicly available.

"She made certain that we drank plenty of water before we left home": Raising a Young Family in the Deep South

Hailing from Frankfurt, Kentucky, Ben’s biological mother, Anna was also a renowned educator and community-builder. Born and bred in Kentucky, where she presumably met Harrison Wilson, Anna was equipped with the basic survival skills to navigate living while Black in the South. Ben clarified that while Kentucky was in the South, it had generally "milder" segregation than that of Mississippi, which had a set of rules all its own.

“And, I had to learn those rules. When my Mother would take us shopping downtown, you know, she made certain that we drank plenty of water before we left home, she didn't want us to drink from the segregated fountains and we pretty much stayed close to our neighborhoods. And when we did that, there weren't any instances of conflict.”

Ben vividly recalls the types of conflict that resulted from such violations, as well as his mother’s reactions.

“There was a bakery and I remember my mother would send me to get the bread, you could get a day old two loaves of bread for 25 cents. But one day there were students demonstrating there, and they were severely beaten, and I remember my mother was upset that I had gone to that bakery, but she was unaware that there was gonna be a demonstration, but the violence was on the television that evening. And so those were all very real things."

When asked how he felt about this divide, Ben stated that though there was a general sense of fear, it was less potent for those who stayed "behind the fence" and that he and his brothers understood their familys's protective intent. Staying behind the fence meant essentially achieving self-sufficiency within Jackson's Black community, to the point where Ben estimates that he “did not speak ten words to a white child” while growing up in Mississippi.

"She fostered that": A Generational Love of Learning

Supporters from JSU, Blackburn Laboratory Middle School, and the community gathering for the dedication of Blackburn’s community garden in 2016.

Like Harrison, Anna was a stalwart champion for education. Much like her sons would be, Anna was “at the top of her class” in high school and college, despite giving birth and taking on domestic duties in the interim. Anna taught nearby at the laboratory school on the campus of Jackson State before ascending to professorship within the college. Says Ben,

“But she taught me, she encouraged my reading, she bought me books, encyclopedias. I loved reading and she, she fostered that. And she and my father… wanted us to have the best education possible. And so my parents thought education was the great equalizer, and they felt you could never have too much of it and they encouraged us.”

Ben was encouraged to participate in spelling bees, operattas, band, Spanish instruction, the National Science Project, and various standardized tests at Jackson State’s lab school, where he was able to excel under the instruction of “very fine teachers”. His mother was among them. Ben remembers his mother as excited to push Ben past the expectations for his age. Despite being the youngest in his class, his mother made him write out an outline, practice, and field questions from students two years his senior during a book report presentation. Remarked Ben, “She wanted me to have that experience and I was grateful for it."

This experience was not without conflict. Anna's high expectations were exercised on her students, regardless of familial affiliation. When asked to speak generally on the experience of being taught by his mother, Ben states that it was,

“Not easy… At that point… you’re going through puberty… you’re liking girls for the first time, but, not, very awkward trying to figure out how to do that, handle that. And sometimes other children resented that, they felt like maybe I was getting special treatment. I was getting special treatment at home but not at school… There was a desire to perform, to live up to my mother’s expectation and not just be okay but to be the best… But I’m glad they … had high expectations for me … it became what I expected of myself.

"I was not a boy who noticed things": An Affective Absence

The combined family after Anna's death--including Harrison III, John, Harrison II, Dr. Lucy Wilson, son Richard, and daughter April. Ben is not pictured.

Anna tragically died of complications from surgery when Ben was still in high school. She first entered a coma while Ben was on spring break at Wilbraham, during which he had not originally planned to return home due to expenses. Ben spoke about processing her death during the interview, commenting that,

“And what I remember vividly the day I was told that my mother had died. I remember going outside. And and traffic was moving, the world did not stop. And I was disappointed that the world did not stop, didn’t they understand that my mother had died? But that was a powerful lesson, that the world doesn't stop for anyone ... even if it stops, it's only a pause. So that, that was, that was, you know, the great challenge of my life certainly up until that point.”

Ben states that significant personal transformation stemmed from his mother’s untimely death. The oldest of four and already showing great promise, Ben was pulled out of Wilbraham's bubble and his youthful, single-minded focus on self-improvement by his mother's death. In a particularly heart-wrenching moment, Ben recalls the first time he truly processed her absence.

“And I remember coming home that summer, and my brothers, my three younger brothers and my father were there to meet me at the airport. And my brothers had on their short pants, but they’d worn them a season too long. Their shoes were overwrought a little bit. My father had combed and brushed their hair. But for the first time I realized — I mean, I knew my mother was gone, but I realized her presence wasn't there. Because my father did as well as a man could do, but he, he couldn't do the things that my mother could do... And I was not a boy that noticed things, I took things for granted. You know, I — ’It's breakfast time, we're going to have breakfast’, ‘It's lunch time, we're going to have lunch!’, you know, ‘I gotta go to school, what are— where are my clothes?’ And — but now I understood that my mother had really been responsible for all those things moving so smoothly and so swimmingly.”

Anna’s legacy included a vital love for others. Ben spoke about Anna’s spirit of generosity throughout the interview as well as its influence on his vocation and personal pursuits.

For The History Makers full profile on Ben's stepmother, famed educational adminstrator Lucy R. Wilson, click on this link.