Back in The Day–Family Memoir–1920’s–1950’s


My Grandparents, my father’s parents, were college sweethearts. They sung in the choir together in college. My Grandmother, Mary Turner sung & played the piano. Grandfather, John Turner, played the trombone & trumpet.

My grandfather went on to be a professional Jazz/trumpet/trombone player. He played all over Daytona & Florida. He also played the music at intermission at the Black Theatres.

They got married in 1923 and had one of the biggest black weddings in Orlando, FL. 

In 1925, they had my father. 1927 my Aunt.

Depression Times rolled around a few years later…getting harder and harder going on toward 1929. The hardest year in America hit 1929.

My grandfather, sometimes took his children to the theatres to see him play and watch the movies. Both my dad & aunt told me many times, how proud they were watching their Father play on stage. Say he had a trumpet of fire. After the show, he would take his children backstage to hangout, meet other performers, and just chill with their daddy.

But times were getting harder. My grandfather was a mechanic by day. But jazz musician by night.

Grandfather & Grandmother started having disagreements as times got harder. She felt like he should have gotten a second job that paid more. But he was not going to give up his passion. He had been in music since a very small boy. I have a very old photo of my grandfather in a sharp suit with his trombone at 13 years old.

My grandmother washed white people clothes, cleaned their houses, & cooked at their restaurants. The children stayed with my Great Grandmother, Carrie B. Turner while they both worked. She taught them to read before they started school.

One day in 1931, my grandfather played in a parade. His children & wife were there. He was on back of a float, just playing his trumpet like it was on fire. Had the crowd doing the latest dances of the day

In that thick crowd, on this Sunny Day in Daytona, FL…Something happened that would change everyone in the family’s life until this very day. Grandmother, my dad at 6 years old & aunt at 4 thought he was on going on the beachside, the other side of the river to play in some of the clubs over there. He was so good, white clubs would have him play very late some nights. Other night, he played in black clubs. The only black people that had any entrance to white places were musicians & entertainers. But they had to come in the back door.

Well, he was not on the way to the beachside. He was playing on back of a medicine show float that travel across the country selling medicine. They played in parades and advertised their product to towns across the country. He was on the way to California. My father told me many times,he could never get that image out his head of his father playing on that parade float. He would not see his father again, until he came back from fighing in WW II for 18 straight months in Italy, North Africa & the Phillipines. He was injured twice & won 2 purple hearts. Infantry/airborne/92 Div. Buffalo Soldiers/366th.

It was already hard times. Depression Times. It got even harder now. So hard my grandmother had to work day and night now. Husband gone. It got so hard, my aunt says she remember it used to be so cold in the winter. My grandmother used to hand wash white people clothes outside and her hands would be so cold, she could see them shaking. My daddy, as little boy had to walk the railroad tracks, picking coal off the tracks to come put in the heater & sold can & bottles he picked up in his little red wagon. Grandmother had to wind up selling the wedding ring to a old white man that went around buying jewelry. She pulled the ring off her finger with tears in her eyes. Hard Times.

One Night my grandmother went out with one of her friends to a party. She met this Tall, dark & handsome Man. Ben. He had just moved in town from Atlanta, GA. He sold insurance with Atlanta Life before moving. Went to Morehouse College. 

They started dating. They got married in 1936. By this time, Mary decided she wanted to make other moves in her life. She and Ben opened a Restaurant. She had enough experience cooking and cleaning and washing for white folks. Now, it’s time to do it for herself. She and Ben did just that. They place was the talk of the town. Good eats. In the 1940’s she brought the Army barracks. Opened a Motel.

She & Ben had businesses in the 1930-1950’s in Daytona Beach, FL. 

She was good friends with Mrs. Mary McCleod Bethune. Founder of Bethune Cookman College. Mrs. Bethune brought Army barracks and used them as some of the 1st building on Bethune Cookman’s Campus.

My grandmother did the same thing. Brought some. And built up the Daytona Black Business Community…off 2nd Ave. They had 7 successful businesses. Motel, Restaurant, Shoe shine business, schools, etc.

Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Robinson & his wife Rachael & many other Big Time Entertainers, Sports Stars, & Actors ate there. Local Community people ate their too. Prices were good. Food Good. Hospitality Good. They stayed at the Motels too. Because they could not eat or stay at motels on the other side of town. During that time, Black people wanted to patronize their own businesses. We were not sad & depressed about not eating at white people places. We wanted Soul Food. Not Hospital/bland tasting food.

My Aunt graduated in the Spring 1951. She was Charter Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta. 

A whole lot more to this story. Will tell more as time go on. Working on a Book & Screenplay. 

My Grandfather John Turner went on to California as stated earlier. He & grandmother kept going at it about his music. He was not going to give it up. He had good nights & bad nights. Life of musician, in many ways. Remember, we talking in the 1920’s & 30’s. He went on to California. He already played at Theatres. He played in Big Time White Clubs in Daytona on the Beachside too . So he figured the Medicine Show was his only chance to get to the other side of the country to play out in Hollywood. Free Ride, plus work across the country. He could not take his family. He knew his wife would not want to move. Felt it was to big of a risk.

They already were having disagreements about his music already. 

He was no dead beat dad. He loved his family. A whole lot. But they went back and forth on that music.

A whole lot to this story. This is just a window into a much larger work. Can take it back to Grandmother & Grandfathers childhood, on back to 1870. 

My grandmother was adopted & Raised by Rev. Hezikah Keith Tillinghast & his wife. That’s where I get the name Keith. He & his wife helped Bessie Coleman buy her plane after she got her license in France. The country was to racist to even let her in the school back in the early 1900’s. Abbot, founder of The Chicago Defender, helped her get to Paris to learn to fly. When she got back, she needed a plane. They helped her get it. They were one of the wealthiest black families in Orlando, FL.

Bessie Coleman came back to America and was a Star for Black People A Black Woman Aviator. The Tillinghast were one of her major backers and friends. 

She did stunts in the planes & everything. Well one day, she crashed. Broke a lot of bones. Pretty much crippled. But she was tough. Lost her plane. No plane. They helped her get another plane. 

Bessie Coleman gave many lectures of her experiences all over the country and when she was in the South, she stayed with them.

Unfortunately, Bessie had another crash, she and her co-pilot got killed. Bessie’s funeral was going to be in Chicago. But the Tillinghast family wanted give her a funeral in Orlando, FL. They had it in Orlando. Thousands of black people came to the funeral. Then they rode a train with her body to Chicago, and had and even bigger funeral in Chicago. 

This thing can go way back. Come forward like Roots that Alex Haley wrote. Got many hours of audio from interviewing the elders that go all the way back to the 1870 to present. Trust me. Hours and hours of audio from interviewing for years. I been on this since 1994.


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