Making Beautiful Music -- Together
By Brad McEwen
Retired educator and equal rights advocate W. Frank Wilson can easily point to several successes during his long and distinguished career working for the betterment of others and striving to create a more peaceful and connected world, but there is one fairly recent moment that truly fills his heart with joy.
Speaking to me during fascinating and timely Beyond the Bank interview—where we discussed a variety of topics, including growing up in segregated Southwest Georgia, his love of music and golf, and his powerful take on the current racial climate in the United States on the eve of a presidential election—Frank relished the chance to tell me a brief story about why he thinks the future is a bright one, despite the unprecedented turmoil that is currently gripping the country.
“One of the things that I did at ACRI (Albany Civil Rights Institute) is we did a black history concert every year,” said the man who served as the ACRI’s executive director from 2013 until his retirement in May of this year. “Those things were deliberately created to put people together so that we could get an understanding that at the end of the day we are all just people man.
“This thing we get so hung up on called skin color is going to cause a lot of people a heart attack.
“The kids we had, it was so beautiful, kids from Sherwood, Deerfield and from Dougherty and from Monroe and from Westover, and I mean they just got along beautifully. All they cared about was making beautiful music. It didn’t matter whether they were from private of public schools. And that never changed.
“Well one day we were rehearsing at Shiloh Baptist Church and one of my choir members was coming in early and she said, ‘what school is that?’ She saw one school; she heard one choir and I’m going like, ‘That’s the goal!’
“And so, at the concert all of us came out with different school colors on and then made just one beautiful sound. It was beautiful.”
That Frank would look back fondly on that moment says a lot about the man who up just down the road in Moultrie.
Number one, as an avowed music lover who parlayed his natural ability to play music by ear into a gig as the regular organist at Shiloh, the memory of the concert spoke to his belief that few things bring joy and folks together quite like music.
“I thing I know that brings people together more than anything else is good food and good music,” he told me with a laugh. “If you give people a good meal or you give them good music, they don’t (care) about who the music involved or what the food is. If you’re doing it right, they will come.”
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Franks memory of that concert speaks directly to an issue that’s been central to Frank his entire life—equality for all people, no matter their circumstances, faith or skin color.
Whether it be during his time at the ACRI, the Urban League in Columbus or Atlanta, Morris Brown College, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, the City of Dawson, Turner Job Corps, or Albany State University, Frank has dedicated his life to helping not just African Americans, but all people, find opportunity and forge a better future for themselves.
All because of the lessons he learned growing up in rural Georgia.
“Everything I do was re-enforced by my dad and by a gentleman who was a classroom teacher in Moultrie,” Frank recalled. “So, my dad first of all and then Mr. Willie Frank Ryce in Moultrie.
“Everything I saw about them I liked, because they never missed an opportunity to help people when they could, to open doors, to be a mentor, to change the trajectory of peoples’ lives.
“And I didn’t realize I was learning those things at the time, but as I step out and look back at my own life, I know that it was shaped by seeing what my daddy did and emulating him and emulating Mr. Wille Frank Ryce.
“And then, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that to those who much is given, much is expected. And so, I’ve been blessed to be in positions to make a difference in peoples’ lives and to me it just made sense to do so.”
While Frank is humbled that he’s had so many opportunities to help others, he also freely admits doing so hasn’t always been easy, especially considering that he came of age during one of the most tumultuous times in our nation’s history.
“I was born and raised in Moultrie, Georgia, graduated high school there in 1963,” Frank explained. “I was born in 1945, so you pretty much accepted things the way they were. Now, in 1963, ‘I Have a Dream’ had begun to have a nationwide impact. And of course, my eyes were opened to some of the realities, and the things that were going on over next door there in Albany [which included clashes between protestors and law enforcement and the mass arrests of hundreds of non-violent protestors, including those of area children, as well as Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr].”
“I led a protest in Moultrie with the high school students basically because all of our schools here had hand-me-down books,” he continued. “And so the whole protest was that we wanted some new books. We wanted new equipment for our chemistry and biology labs. Everything that we had gotten prior to that time had been passed down from Moultrie High School.”
Despite things like going to school with second hand books, and despite what was going on in Albany (and across most of the Jim Crow ear South), Frank said he was blessed to have had a slightly different perspective, given what he had experienced in Moultrie—much of which he attributes again to Willie Frank Ryce.
“In the 60s Mr. Ryce provided for us,” he said. “We had an unusual situation in Moultrie. We (the African Americans in the community) had a swimming pool, we had a youth center, we had little league baseball, football, with uniforms.
“We had a gymnasium, but most schools and most students in Southwest Georgia did not have a gym. We played basketball on the inside in a warm building and he did all of this by raising us all as his own.”
Frank said Mr. Ryce would even go so far as to gather up young black children on Saturdays and take them Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, to see “black college football” and to maybe inspire them to seek something outside of Moultrie.
“That influenced a lot of us to go to college,” Frank said. “So I look at the opportunity he provided for us in the 60s—and you’ve got to understand this is before there Civil Rights movement, before there was equal opportunity.
“This was a man who, just because he cared, went about making opportunities for us African American kids.
“And many of our young men did not have a jail record because if a kid got caught doing something and Mr. Ryce was going to vouch for us, that record was pretty much expunged. And so, having that experience of someone who was going out of their way to make a difference, that impacted my life tremendously.”
And not just Frank’s life either.
“Growing up in a segregated southern town, even at a disadvantaged position, we’ve had doctors, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists, chemists,” Frank said. “The first black pilot for Eastern Airlines was from Moultrie, Georgia, Willis Brown. The first black oceanographer for the oceanographic administration, Harry McManus was from, as you say, little old Moultrie, Georgia. The head of the (General Mills Foundation), Reatha Clark King, was a black woman from little old Moultrie, Georgia. And so, the list goes on and on. I was brought up in an environment that we did not make excuses for what we didn’t have.
“Whenever life gave you lemons you made lemonade and kept going.”
That notion of turning negatives into positives is not just an attitude that served Frank well during his younger days, it’s an attitude he continues to employ to this day.
Having been through the turmoil of coming of age during the Civil Rights era and essentially dedicating his life to educating and creating equal opportunities for those not as fortunate as he was growing up in Moultrie under the influence of his father and Mr. Ryce, it would be easy to assume our present national climate of racial unrest would frustrate and anger him.
But it turns out that isn’t really the case.
Certainly, he’s disheartened that our country is still dealing with many of the same issues that have plagued us for generations, but he’s also got a practical view of what he sees going on across the United States and the world.
“I’ve dealt in civil rights my whole life,” he said. “There’s no doubt that there has been progress. I never thought I would be able to see a black president, okay. I didn’t know what a black executive looked like until you know, until I was into my adulthood. And so yes, we have made progress.
“But it’s kind of surreal to have to step back and relive and refight some of the fights of the 60s.
“But see the thing about it, I don’t care how much legislation you put before people. You can legislate their lives but you cannot legislate their hearts. You can’t cannot change the heart of people with legislation. You can legislate and you can change their behavior. But you cannot legislate their heart.
“So, this has given an opportunity for a man to show you who he really is, or she is,” Frank continued. “They put that out there. A lot of people are beginning to show you that they went along with all the laws, but that’s not how they really felt. They’ve changed behavior.
“And, we have an administration that pretty much said it’s okay to be racist again; it’s okay to show folks the real colors again. And people are jumping on that bandwagon and riding it really well.
“In many ways the masquerade is over, the mask is off; now we know who you are and you’re out of the closet. And so that makes you really see things and see folks more succinctly, see folks for who they really are.”
Despite the positive he sees in peoples’ true feelings being revealed, Frank is quick to warn that even when presented with hatred and bigotry, it’s important to not let that dictate our behavior or attitudes—even when it can lead to personal sadness and disappointment.
“My take on that is, you cannot, I cannot, allow other folks to change who I am,” he said. “Let me see who they are, but absolutely remain who I am also. “And that means parting ways with some folks. And at the end of the day, that’s okay.
“I would never give any of them who act like haters the privilege or the satisfaction that how they act, or what they say, or how they treated me, changes me.
“Now I might come home and cuss like a sailor, and in some cases I have actually shed tears, but I would never, never, allow them to see that. I would not give them the satisfaction of thinking they broke me.”
Along those same lines, Frank offered some important words caution for the younger generation currently on the front lines of the battle he’s been fighting almost his whole life, pointing out that for any real, lasting change to occur, the discourse and the behavior have to be civil—lest the real message get lost in the noise.
“I think young folks have to understand that they do have a voice,” Frank shared. “But violence is not that voice because it’s just like screaming. When people are screaming, nobody hears you. There’s a better way to channel that.
“But perhaps more importantly, I tell them to become educated about the history. There is not a kid around today who at a certain age does not have a cellphone, or a tablet, or a notebook or an iPad, you know. If you are using the things at your disposal to entertain yourself, why not use them to educate yourself? Just Google things that would educate you about who you are, what the history is, what happened in our lives, so you can be where you are now, so that you can have an appreciation for the times in which you live.”
In addition to using modern technology to become better educated, Frank also stressed that he thinks the country as a whole could do a much better job caring for its elderly population and also gleaning important knowledge from those who came before.
“We Americans, for the most part, we have a problem with this; we’re the only ones who tend to want to stick our elderly away somewhere in a home,” he said. “Other ethnicities, they embrace their elders. They embrace them and they put their elderly in positions of honor. They talk to them, they learn from them, and consequently those families remain strong over the years. And we don’t do that as much.
“We take grandma and we take grandpa to a nursing home and we go to see them on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas and that’s pretty much it.”
Of course, Frank, who even in his 70s remains very active in the community, pointed out that intergenerational investment is a two-way street. As much as younger folks need to be willing to better care for and honor their elders, Frank thinks those elders need to make time for the younger generations as well, in order to connect and to pass on valuable life lessons.
“I mean, that’s one of the reasons I spend a lot of time with my grandchildren, as much as possible,” said the man whose seven children have produced 14 grandchildren and 5 “great-grands” (with a 6th currently on the way). “I’ve talked to them and I’ve shown them pictures. I just have to spend as much time with my grandchildren as possible, and now my great grands, because I think it’s important that that line not be broken, that they can connect the dots and that they all always feel comfortable spending time with old Granddad.”
Fortunately for Frank, his family remains in close proximity, with all living in Georgia with the exception of his daughter who lives in Washington, D.C.
“I get to see all of them because I visit with them very frequently, all of them very frequently,” he added. “I was in Atlanta (two weekends ago) with my youngest son who turned 50. We played golf together.”
And while Frank always cherishes time spent with his children and grandchildren, he said he also enjoys spending time with the person who prompted him to return to the Albany after years working in Atlanta—his wife Olivia Crawford Wilson—whom he’s as much enamored with today as he was when she first entered his life.
“We just celebrated our 15th anniversary back on July 9th,” Frank said proudly. “I’ve been married to Olivia Crawford Wilson, who for several years was a successful businessperson here. She owned the Ebony Beauty Lounge and that was one of the reasons I moved to Albany. She had a thriving business here and I felt that it would be much easier for me to find a job here than have her uproot herself to come to Atlanta.
“So, we’re just growing old together.”
But while Frank is content to “grow old” with his loving wife in the community he considers home, retirement has not stopped him from staying involved in the quest to create a better future for all.
He currently still serves on the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce board, serves as an advisor to the ACRI, and is looking forward to resuming his duties as organist at historic Shiloh Baptist Church once the church reopens for regular worship.
And, to the delight of many, he has also recently revived his popular “Frankly Speaking” column in Albany’s Southwest Georgian newspaper, which itself is celebrating its 82nd year of publication this year.
In short, wherever Frank feels he can make an impact, he’ll continue to serve.
“I’m looking into working with the 2020 Census,” he said. “I’m going to be doing a little work for the Southwest Georgian newspaper. I’ll be keeping busy.”
And when I asked for his final thoughts on the tenor of race relations in America, Frank remains optimistic that true change is coming for all, thanks to what he sees when analyzing nationwide protests and calls to end police brutality and systemic racism—two issues that simply must be reckoned with.
“I think the thing that has been most encouraging to me is that the last several months, several weeks, of demonstrations, there has been much more of a mixture,” he explained. “In the 60s there were demonstrations, especially by college students or whatever, but it was mostly black students. Fortunately, we had white students involved, but in these last Black Lives Matter kind of demonstrations, there is such a more diverse group of folks who are saying, ‘Enough is enough!’
“I’ve seen older white folks coming out here and saying, ‘Okay, I didn’t realize; now it makes sense what I’ve been hearing all this time. I’m now beginning to see. I’m looking through a different set of lenses at the thing now and I don’t like what I see.’
“And that gives me hope that people are beginning to see people at the people level and not the color level. I think that’s been a barrier for people for far too long, and I think people are beginning to look past color and see people as people. And that’s a good thing. That’s a very good thing.
“And so, to quote John Lewis, I see people beginning to, good folks, fight the good fight now.”
Of course, while it is encouraging to see some of the awakenings of people across the nation to the serious racial issues faces the country, there’s no denying that there’s a lot of work left to be done. And it will take time for real change to take root.
Thankfully, because of servant leaders like Frank, and because of people like his father and Mr. Ryce—who inspire others through their kindness and actions—I believe the Albany area has an opportunity to show the rest of the world what a connected, collaborative, caring and diverse community truly looks like.
And much like the “one beautiful voice” Frank witnessed at that recent Civil Rights concert featuring area students, I can see that brighter future in the children—be it Frank’s grands and great-grands, or my own children, who seem to naturally see the common traits they share with each other, instead of the supposed differences.
“The kids here in Albany are showing the way man,” Frank said. “Together they make beautiful music.”
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