As Told by his grandson, Wilkie Sherard Frieson...
February, 2020 -- Black History Month
My grandfather, Wilkie Clark was born in “Jim Crow” Georgia, on March 8, 1920 -- a mere 55 years after the end of chattel slavery in this country.
But, his family arises from the Springfield Community, right here in Randolph County, Alabama. (THIS BEING THE YEAR 2020, Next month, he would be 100 years old).
About the time of his birth in 1920, the only thing a black boy growing up in Alabama could EVER hope for was to farm (by working somebody else’s land) or be a sharecropper like the millions of former black slaves in the United States at that time.
Blacks living in Alabama during this time period were not expected to achieve ANYTHING, or be anything or want anything including wanting to live a better life.
My grandfather grew up under a “Jim Crow Economy,” “Jim Crow Laws”, and a “climate of Lynching” across the United States. The intention of Jim Crow laws was to keep black folks enslaved by making them believe themselves to be INFERIOR in every way to whites. These “Jim Crow” laws forbade them from mingling with mainstream Americans. They were kept from voting; or exercising any rights to live and be free. They couldn’t even express themselves. Not even the desire to be free and equal; or to DESIRE to live better.
As a young boy, he chauffeured the well-known Dr. G.W. Bonner, who was a respected white doctor here in Roanoke. He became known as “Dr. Bonner’s Boy.” But by the time of his death in July of 1989, he would not be remembered as ANYBODY'S "Boy."
In his 20s, he got drafted into the Army. World War II was going on. He got a chance to travel overseas. He worked as a Surgical Tech, and earned Military Rank of Tech 5. His experiences away from Alabama taught him he could do more with his life and he could be more.
When he got out of the army at around age 24, he returned home to Alabama. His mother was very sick—and died almost as soon as he got back. He had to bury her. It was that experience of burying his mother at such a young age, that made him decide he wanted to be a funeral director and one day own his own funeral home.
But, because there were so many “Jim Crow” laws working against black people, (WORKING TO KEEP THEM POOR) he had no way to achieve that. He didn’t have anything. No education; he didn’t have money; he couldn’t BORROW the money. He had a few friends, but they didn’t have anything either.
BUT one thing he did realize was that he needed an education to advance in life. So he immediately went to COBB AVENUE HIGH SCHOOL IN ANNISTON, WHERE COMPLETED HIS HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA!
The OTHER thing he understood was that it was LARGELY the racism that was practiced all over the country, that prevented him from achieving his dream. So, he was so insightful that he somehow knew and accepted the fact that he HAD to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement, in order to progress in life. He HAD to become part of the solution to the greater problem that affected ALL BLACK PEOPLE.
The fact that he was just 0NE BLACK MAN struggling to live a decent life under the weight of racism, brought him to the realization that he had to become part of the movement to help ALL BLACK CITIZENS, before things could get better for him.
How could he expect to be prosperous in ANY business, when the people he expected to patronize his business were DESTITUTE? So, in the 1950s, he got involved in the NAACP. He started working very hard locally, in the field of Civil Rights, but he never lost sight of his goal to one day open and own a funeral home.
The NAACP was a national Civil Rights organization that thoroughly trained its leaders. So, he began to travel to NAACP meetings. He studied issues of racism and through his travels met many influencers and great legal minds who could help him acquire the knowledge he needed to improve himself.
He learned everything he could about business. He often attended seminars and workshops. Then as the laws began to change in favor of black people and black business ownership, the Small Business Administration was established.
Because of his connections through the NAACP, he learned about the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), which was an Agency formed in 1953. The SBA now has offices in every state in the United States. And, he started attending seminars and workshops to learn how to get an SBA Loan. He had to go to Birmingham, Alabama to apply for this loan. It was very hard, because the Agent (James Barksdale) didn’t want to approve the loan to start a funeral home. But, he persisted. They loaned him $13,500.00 – WHICH WAS NOT NEARLY ENOUGH TO SET IT UP ADEQUATELY! -- and gave him 6 years to pay it off. It was very very difficult but he eventually got it paid off.
So, IT ACTUALLY TOOK HIM 25 more years, (he had reached age 49) before he could get his business off the ground. But, finally in 1969, he started remodeling an old rent house that my grandmother gave him; It was located right down the street from where he lived.
He had the house fixed up real pretty; had poured pretty concrete porches; But, he had to petition the City of Roanoke to have it zoned for business. The neighbors -- many who were people that he went to church with -- protested. So, he was forced to pick the building up and have it moved to it’s present location. His beautifully remodeled rent house had to be cut in pieces in order to move it to the new location. He moved the funeral home to its present location, on a red clay hill, where people would get stuck in mud, when they would drive up to the funeral home, but eventually, he was able to pour a concrete driveway. Little by little over the years, he made improvements on it. It took 6 years to pay the loan off.
By the time he died in 1989, he had become a very well known and respected self-made man, who had devoted most of his life to his community, to helping others, serving the cause of Freedom, Justice and Equality for all people.
Along the way, he practiced the lessons all black people have had to learn. It’s not just enough to OWN the business. You’ve got to strive to be excellent and very GOOD – A MASTER at your craft. So he learned to consistently work on HIMSELF! WORKED TO MAKE HIMSELF AND HIS BUSINESS BETTER.
This is how we’ve managed to stay here for 51 long years. Being THE BEST AT EVERYTHING THAT WE DO. DOING IT BETTER THAN ANYBODY ELSE.
Learn More about the Life and Works Of Wilkie Clark:
Read Wilkie Clark's Biography