Interview with Black History Underground Railroad Historian Brother Sage of So. Bend, Ind.—Part one of two

| May 10, 2016
Eric Hackley

Eric Hackley

By Eric D. Hackley

Sometimes it is necessary to go far, far away to a distant land—or to South Bend—to gain insight, wisdom and intellectual perspective as to how to link early American history to today’s life challenges, experiences and behavioral conditioning.  

Ladies and gentlemen, please meet, listen to and explore the vision and perspective of Brother Sage of South Bend, Ind.:  

HACKLEY: Brother Sage, I appreciate your taking some time out of your schedule to do this impromptu interview with me.  As I begin, there’s one point where I need clarification.  What exactly is your capacity or your connection with Notre Dame University?

BROTHER SAGE: Well, my relationship with Notre Dame began back in 1990.  We started a program called the “Black Man Think Tank” where I met my wife, Charlotte, incidentally.  I’m still active with the Black Man Think Tank; I’ve spoken a couple of times; I do lectures out there.  I never taught at Notre Dame, but I have taught at Indiana University South Bend, Southwest Michigan College, and I’ve done a lot of work with St. Mary’s College.

So I’m a retired person, formerly with the Department of Transportation. Before that, as you know, I was Director of the South Bend Urban League. And before that, I worked with troubled youngsters and the juvenile justice system. So at 70 soon to be, I have been blessed with a lot of knowledge in skill development, but I’ve retired from nine-to-five.  I just do things now based on my interests, my love, and telling the story of the proud African experience.

The more I study about my ancestors and my past, as have you, the more I find out that these stories weren’t taught to me when I was a youngster. So, I have to teach them to myself and my young people, so my granddaughters, my grandbabies can carry on the tradition.

Brother Sage

Brother Sage

What stimulated my interest was, when you start hearing about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, you ask yourselves, where and how do I fit? Nobody could ever explain that to me, so I decided to explain it to myself. The only way I could do that is through learning history and doing research and delving into my family past. My mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents. I can take it all the way back to the Mother Continent. I am Ghanaian. I’m a cross between the Ashanti and the Akan. I speak the religion of the Tuihi.  So, you see how far back I go? And there’s a passion there and that love is important to me.

I want to continue telling that story as long as I possibly can, so my offspring can continue telling the story also. A person’s history is sort of like a tree. A tree can’t grow without roots. That’s our roots, and I want to make certain that my family tree continues to grow. And, the only way that can happen is the younger roots keep telling the story. I think that’s imperative. So when my granddaughter last February for Black History Month at her school in Atlanta, Ga.,, talked about the Civil War, well, she was able to grab members of my family that fought in the Civil War to tell the color aspect of the Civil War. You don’t find much about Civil War with African Americans, but had it not been for us, the North wouldn’t have won that war. My granddaughter was able to not only talk about Harriett Tubman and her role in the Underground Railroad and her role in being a military officer for the North but also about family ancestor Thomas Ampey, who died at the Battle of Fort Wagner. So, when you see the movie “Glory,” that’s my family story.

The boredom of history in the minds of many people stems from the fact that never do they ever study history about themselves, except for Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass and maybe a few other Black History icons. But, we’ve invented over 100,000 things in this country. There’s science, you know. We won the Revolutionary War. The first person killed in the Revolutionary War was Crispus Attucks, okay? You know, they don’t know that Crispus Attucks was a six-foot-four, 235-pound, 28-inch waist black man. As a matter of fact, the first person killed, the second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were all black men who told the British Redcoats “we ain’t going for that.” And they weren’t even free; they were slaves. Okay? They have no knowledge of the role we have played in this country, to be where we are today.  

When I share that with them, they’re surprised. They’ve never heard that before. We can’t fault the teachers because they’re white teachers who had never learned about the African American experience. So, what you and I and others like us have to do is tell the African American experience, because when we do, our children will listen.

We suffer from color consciousness. We suffer from cultural schizophrenia. We suffer from black racial self-hatred. What is cultural schizophrenia—cultural schizophrenia meaning that we’re maybe as Frantz Fanon talks about in “The Wretched of the Earth?” He also wrote another book called “Black Skin, White Masks,” Okay?  So, we had difficulty knowing who we are. I mean, some of us have to put on a white shirt with a red, white and blue flag as a tie.  Other people may wear a dashiki. We don’t know who we are. We subscribe to what I characterize as the popular culture. To me, you are a beautiful human being. Regardless of whether you wear a red, white and blue tie to go with your white shirt or a dashiki, the fact that you’re hungry to find out about yourself and to tell your story, there’s nothing wrong with you.

And, what I would do if kids were here, youngsters were here; I would say, “This is Eric Hackley, and I am Brother Sage. We want to tell our story. We would like for you to listen. Could you possibly provide us the courtesy of listening, and then give us feedback as to what you think?” That can easily be accomplished. And, I’m not saying anything is wrong with you and your work. As a matter of fact, you’re precious to me beyond recognition.  But, the bottom line is, our youngsters need to be motivated to listen to why they exist, who they are, and the purposes they represent. If we ever expect them to do anything in the future, that’s the approach that’s going to have to take.

It is true that once upon a time, we could say that the State of Indiana didn’t want black people here. Yeah, most definitely. As a matter of fact, it’s important to note that Indiana was a “Sundown State”—a “Sundown State,” meaning that if caught in Indiana after 6 o’clock p.m., you could be lynched.  A lot of us didn’t understand that. We knew Indiana was strange, was awkward, compared to a place like Ohio, where you had almost 75,000 people escaped from slavery desiring freedom in Canada or parts of Michigan, even parts of Indiana. But, Indiana was not user-friendly to us if we want to use today’s modern terms. If you came to Indiana back in 1830, 1840, 1850 and 1860, you were subject to get your head chopped off. So what we have to understand is Indiana wasn’t Indiana during that period. It was what was known as the Northwest Territory. But there were safe places for us. Ohio was one.  Indiana was not. Michigan was another one.  So what we have to do is show people how all that came about, and how there was a glorious future from our past.

Next week: Brother Sage discusses Indiana’s anti-black past, the Ku Klux Klan and race today.

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Category: Community, Features, History, People

About the Author ()

Eric Hackley is a veteran independent journalist, television show host and producer focusing largely on history, particularly family history in the black community. His award-winning public access television shows have featured a host of local and national icons. Hackley can be contacted at hackonomicstv@gmail.com.

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