My Life, Part One: This Wasn’t the “Cosby Show”

Photo of a train bridge at dusk.

Train trestle next to the Y bridge in Zanesville, Ohio. Photo by Scott Teresi via Flickr.

We all have battles to fight and demons to slay, and we can be hurt and mangled from their ferocity. I can tell endless stories about the times I thought it was my time to die, only to wake up the next morning.  

However the hardest battle I am facing is baring my soul and telling people about the memories of my childhood with my brother.  

One of the toughest things about writing is deciding whether to print what actually happened. My life story is so powerful to me that I hope people who have been in my situation can speak out and let their pain go. This article will be my hardest to write, because for the first time all my family and friends will know what makes me go.  

I am 41 going on five, because that’s how long I’ve been on my own. I held this pain all my life because I was so ashamed to share. Because of this inner selfishness, I could never be the leader of my relatives that was my birthright, and I lost a relative that was brutally murdered. I have to bear this cross. I deprived myself of the inner beauty I had because of the lack of love my parents never gave me or understood.  

My parents weren’t bad people. They parented the way they were raised and tried to give me and my brother a good life.  

I grew up as a country boy who would rather be drinking my Icehouse beer, shooting ducks or fishing for catfish. My roots are in Zanesville, Ohio. I was born at Good Samaritan hospital on May 7, 1967. My father, Bishop T. McNeil, was a firstborn McNeil who had six siblings. My grandmother, whose name was Mary Massey, was the typical black woman of those days — she was old–school, from Kentucky, and the family was the centerpiece. In her young days she was very attractive.  

My paternal grandmother was the polar opposite from my mom’s side of the family. She didn’t spoil you but when she gave you praise you knew it meant something. She wasn’t a scolder or punisher. My memories of her were how she loved collards, beans, corn bread and oxtails, ham hocks and chitlins. Thank God they always had dogs, yuk yuk. I guess that’s why I am very skinny for I ended up liking calzones and strombolis 

I am just starting to learn my dad’s side of the family and I will see them soon at a family reunion in Philadelphia.  

My mom’s roots started with my grandfather, Frank Newsom, who was one of the first African–Americans to enlist in World War II. He traveled across the country and eventually met the woman would become his mother– in–law, my great–grandmother Wynona Scott, who ran a brothel in New Orleans. Her husband, my great–grandfather George Scott, was typical of the family structure in the South in those days. He was strict, abusive mentally and physically, and my great–grandma knew this was her lot in life.  

Wynona had a sixteen–year–old daughter named Gloria, who was a light–skinned Creole and very attractive. The New Orleans of the 1940’s was deep in Jim Crow and there weren’t many opportunities for black women besides prostitution and motherhood and domestic work. Wynona knew my grandpa was a good man and arranged for him and Gloria to be married. Frank and Gloria settled in a small town in Ohio called Barnesville, which was nothing but farming country, and eventually moved to Cambridge, Ohio. The couple eventually settled in a house which was part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.  

My mom, Gloria Jean, was born in 1946 shortly after World War II. Eventually my grandma gave birth to seven children in Cambridge. Cambridge was rough in those days; they weren’t big on integration and the many stories I’ve heard from my aunts tell the scars they felt from racism. In due course my dad, who was from Zanesville, Ohio, met my mother, who was from Cambridge. They got married and I was born in 1967 in Zanesville.  

My earliest memories were how proud my grandparents were of me. They loved to tickle me and squeeze my cheeks and I was their pride and joy. I was spoiled by Grandpa and Grandma.  

My grandpa taught us how to live off the land by hunting and fishing. He also taught us how to protect ourselves. There were many times we had to pick up a rifle to protect ourselves. I remember one time racists posted a sign on our house saying “Niggers Go Home.”  

We had a loving family but there was friction between my youngest uncle and me. We were only five years apart and he was extremely jealous of the attention I got. As early as I could remember when they left me unsupervised with my uncle, he was a total terror. He was huge and strong and he could hold me down and fart on me. It is funny now but when I was young I dreaded him.  

My brother, Virgil Todd, was born in 1971 and I wish I could say I was a good brother. But I became like my uncle and bullied my little brother. I hated him getting the attention I once got.  

My life became tragic in 1971. My grandpa was dying from leukemia and my mom was there until he eventually passed. That was my earliest memory about my mom’s character. She had a sense of loyalty and compassion I truly miss.  

The second tragedy was the death of my cousin T Anne. She died when I was four and I can’t help but wonder how life would have been if she stayed alive. I would have had a female cousin who I could talk to.  

Part Two will appear in the next issue of Street Sense: My family moves East, and my journey through life takes unexpected detours. I am seeking any further information about the whereabouts of my father Bishop T. McNeil, nicknamed Junior, and my brother, Virgil Todd.  

Jeffery McNeil regularly puts on a suit to sell Street Sense. E–mail him at [email protected]. 

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