They were lynched, run down on dirt roads, hidden in trunks and basements to keep safe from the white men come to kill them, and their people fled west, ever west, from Tennessee to Tulsa, from Sunflower County, Mississippi, to Calexico, California. Black men and women who spoke out, or who knew secrets, who wanted more money and a piece of land. The ancestors in our family died and their people moved again, ever west, raising four more generations of tall Black Americans. Our family gatherings in Southern California feature hundreds of people, and ranged along the back row of every photo for the last 60 years are Black men, six two, six four, six six, powerful men who work as correctional officers and club bouncers, union cement layers and landscapers, custodians and truck drivers.
These men—my father-in-law and his brothers and cousins, my ex-husband and his brothers and cousins, and now all of our nephews and sons-in-law—are the men white people love to talk to. At parties, at street gatherings, in bars and clubs, at museums and basketball games, my three daughters have laughed again and again at how white people gravitate toward their dad—my ex-husband, six four, 295 pounds. His brother Derrick, six six and 380, cousin Trent, six seven and 220. They are storytellers and jokers, the men who grin and remember the score of a Lakers game and all the rebounding stats, the men who show up to move a refrigerator and put it in a primer-painted Ranchero that moves as slowly as an ox down the alley.
And since I was 15, pulled over for the first time with my future husband, and 19, remembering a gun drawn by Los Angeles police officers, trained to his body, and 26, hearing that he went to get gas at dawn and was surrounded by patrol cars and drawn weapons because the station clerk pressed the silent alarm, I’ve felt terror for him. “We’re looking for a six four Black man,” law enforcement says, over and over.
George Floyd was a six seven Black man, the man everyone liked to see at the club where he was a bouncer, the man who smiled wide and told stories. The police officer who knelt on his neck kept his hand in his uniform pocket. Casually. George Floyd died under a knee bone, a patella as casual in its pressing as the cop—a man—who pressed it felt federally sanctioned to keep another man on the ground. George Floyd had moved from Houston to Minneapolis. There he had made a home, working security as a tall, athletic Black man like so many physical pillars of our communities, making sure white America knows that though they’re big, muscled men who once played sports, they are safe.
He died calling for his mother. In his new city. And our hearts broke and then went aflame. How many thousands of us have seen our loved ones, Black men, our husbands and fathers, sons and sons-in-law, nephews and grandsons, on the ground, cheek to asphalt? Against a wall, with a weapon pressed against his temple? A few feet from his back? Our uncles and great-uncles, grandfathers saw it, too.
My three daughters and their hundreds of cousins and relatives grew up hearing stories told by tall men. My father-in-law, General Roscoe Conklin Sims II, was six one, with hands like the gloves of a larger god, and his three brothers were all large, strong men who plowed fields with their own bodies from childhood, when their father, General I, died outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then the family mule died, too. Tulsa was the midpoint of their journey west.
In our family, the first man known to have been either killed or run off by vigilante federal troops was Henry Ely, descendant of African, Cherokee, and unknown other parentage. Born around 1840, he fell in love with an enslaved woman named Katherine, near McMinnville, Tennessee. They had five children together, including Saphina, born in 1869, just after the Civil War ended. After freedom, they rented a house and farmed. Untold free Black men and women were killed in the area during Reconstruction, and particularly attacked were Black husbands with families. Ely, a free man before the war, was targeted by federal troops and vigilantes. Saphina, known to her grandchildren as Fine, was told he was driven away. But in truth, no one ever saw him again, and like countless men, he could have been bones hidden in the woods anywhere from Tennessee to Texas. Shortly after that, Katherine died. Fine was six years old. All five children were given away—possibly for barter—by the former plantation owner to white families. The siblings never saw one another again.
Fine had three children by the time she was 18, and her own husband, Robert, disappeared. Again, he could have been killed or driven away. By 1889, Fine lived on the road, a migrant worker; she went to Denton, Texas, where she heard her father might have fled, but no one had heard of him. She married again, to an older man whose father had been a white slave owner and whose mother was enslaved. After his death, in 1911, Fine was threatened with violence by the white relatives, over her husband’s land, so she fled with the two children from that husband to the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where her oldest daughter, Jennie, lived.
Ninety-nine years ago, on the same June 1 when hundreds of American cities were filled with protesters chanting the name of George Floyd, Greenwood, in Tulsa, was burned and looted by mobs of white people. They killed Black men and women, burned houses, kept as souvenirs postcards of charred bodies. The Black Tulsans who survived were held at gunpoint by National Guard troops at the fairgrounds, for days. General Roscoe Conklin Sims I was outside the city, but his brother Lanier was hidden in a basement for safety by his white employer. His wife, Mozelle, was 17, and joined a group fleeing the city. She had her first baby on the roadside, among strangers, and was then rounded up and taken to the fairgrounds. She and Lanier couldn’t name their son for six days. Hundreds of Black residents were killed by federal troops, police, and vigilante white mobs, including innumerable Black veterans who had refused to stop wearing their World War I uniforms, who had their own military-issued weapons.
Jennie’s brother-in-law, Steve Stevenson, had been shot in the knee by police during the riot. Stevenson said he’d never stay in Tulsa, to kill or be killed, and went to South Los Angeles, where he ran a junkyard and towing business. In 1927, Jennie went to live with him. In the meantime, Fine’s daughter Callie had married General I, and when he died 10 years later, she began to send her six children to Los Angeles, where they could be safe, have food and a real home. An entire new generation would be from the promised land of California.
General II married Alberta Marie Morris in 1952. My mother-in-law’s family had come to California, too, because of violence. Since I was 15, hearing these stories in the driveways and living rooms and kitchens of my future in-laws, I’d look at the men and women telling them and imagine the faces of their ancestors. I remember Eddie Chandler II, Alberta’s cousin—a dapper man always wearing a hat, quiet, at a huge party he gave once at our local park. He said he wanted us all together not at his funeral but while he was alive. He talked that day about leaving Sunflower County, Mississippi. His father had been lynched. Eddie Chandler was sent at 12 to live with his Aunt Margaret, who with her husband and five kids were sharecropping. Margaret’s brother Hime was ambitious, secretly raising his own crops on a plot hidden from the landowner, selling the vegetables in Memphis. When white men heard this, they came to kill him. The shortest man in the family, he was hidden in a trunk and driven out of the county. He bought land in Calexico, and the next five generations were all native Californians.
When first cousins Eddie Chandler III and Eddie Chandler IV sit beside me in the driveway now, six two and six four, and nearby are General II and Alberta’s sons and grandsons and great-grandsons, tall Black men with tattoos bearing the names of departed ancestors and the address of General and Alberta’s house—4289 Michael Street—the weaving and braiding of stories of violence and movement is something replicated all over America, by people of millions of origins. But to be sitting in folding chairs when a patrol car cruises by and the officers study us, irregardless of our being in the driveway or at the park, as if deciding whether to pull over, is to know that this new generation, General III and General IV, have been at risk of death as often as their forebears.
In 1971, two Riverside police officers were ambushed at a house a few blocks from General II’s home, and for days, young Black men were arrested, jailed, and interrogated. General III and his brother Carnell were kept overnight in a cell, and my father-in-law never forgot his fear and anger.
I had been dating Dwayne, General II’s third son, since I was 15. The summer of 1979, before our sophomore year of college, Dwayne and I drove with a friend to L.A., to skate at Venice Beach for the first time. That night, while we walked in Westwood, LAPD squad cars pulled up and officers shoved Dwayne against a brick wall. A young Black man, six four, 180 pounds. A gun aimed at his back. His cowboy hat fell to the ground. The officers shouted that he looked like a suspect in an armed robbery. My teeth chattered. Other officers separated our friend, a Black football player, and me, a white girl. I thought Dwayne and our ballplayer friend would be shot. One officer shouted at me. I remember his teeth, but not his face. The all-white crowd passing on the sidewalk looked away—as if our crime were evident. After what seemed like forever, the gun was holstered. We were told to go back to Riverside. We drove back on the 10 freeway, which stretches the length of America, the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Freeway. I remember so vividly the silence in which we drove. I remember Dwayne’s creamy new cowboy hat on the floor of the car.
In 1982, two Riverside police officers were shot by a parolee, seven miles from our house, but my father-in-law, General II, knew what was coming. Dwayne and I, engaged by then, were watching TV with the family. General II was transformed, hearing the helicopters over his roof. I will never forget his pacing, his face, the way he shouted for me to call my parents, that we couldn’t leave. He wanted all his sons safe. We heard sirens and police aircraft for hours. In the morning, we heard about the other homes raided by police; an elderly father of a friend was beaten.
Dwayne and I married in 1983 and have lived in our hometown since. We raised three daughters, surrounded by four generations of family, numerous cousins and relatives. As is true for too many families of African American descent, we cannot even relate all the instances of terror, large and daily. There is not room. There have been police weapons pointed at Dwayne, even while he was a correctional officer himself. There are General III’s four sons, who have been threatened, shot at, misidentified, and mistakenly jailed. There was the sunny afternoon when one daughter’s boyfriend, a college football player from Florida, went to his car and brought out a Super Soaker water gun, and held it up in my front yard, and I ran out with my heart pounding and shouted at him to put it away. He looked confused, my daughters were appalled, and I had to lie down. When she later got a speeding ticket, I screamed at her for putting her boyfriend’s life in danger, in the passenger seat. She dated Black men who were six two, six six, athletes with muscles and dark skin. “He’s the one they want,” I said tearfully to her. “He’s the one they’re gonna shoot.”
And one evening six years ago, when six young people sat on my couch, two of our daughters, along with two of General III’s sons and their girlfriends—I was the one who got that telephone call. Dwayne said there had been a shooting, two blocks from the driveway, and he told me to pass on the words. I told the next generation: “Your dad and your uncles say nobody leaves here. Not until things quiet down. Find something to watch on TV.”
Then I sat in my bedroom, remembering my father-in-law’s fear, his pacing and listening. I didn’t want my daughters and nephews to see me cry.
My middle daughter married a former soccer player who works in the tech industry in the Bay Area. They drove the 450 miles to Riverside in April. My son-in-law, six two, 225 pounds, woke early for work and saw on his phone the video of George Floyd’s long passing. My daughter said she had never seen him so shaken. He was born in Ibadan, Nigeria. He has seen violence. He said he had never seen anything as casual and inhuman as that moment, when a uniformed man knelt on another man’s throat while his fellow citizens screamed in horror for nine minutes.
The officer’s hand was in his pocket. Performing casualness. He knew he was being filmed. He knew this, and he put his hand in his pocket. He was posing. I flashed back immediately to the grandiose and inhumane posing and performance of the LAPD officers surrounding Rodney King, in Lake View Terrace, and how my mother-in-law and I watched that grainy video together, her face crumpling and then impassive. She went to church with Rodney King’s mother, in Fontana.
My-son-in-law, 29, part of the sixth generation, sat in my kitchen, where every single man in our family has sat before him, and told me what he had seen. George Floyd called to his mother, who had passed away, who was home, in his last moment as an American. We are hundreds of years in this moment, thousands of voices of sorrow and anger, and millions of ancestors watching.