The late Yellow Springs author Virginia Hamilton had a talent for channeling the voices of earlier African American storytellers in a way that breathed a magical, mythical spirit into her own tales.
Some of that voice survives in Jacqueline Gee Brewster as she tells the story of her late father, Barrett “Buck” Gee, making his tale seem the stuff of a Hamilton novel.
Like a bottle washing up on a beach, a piece of that story landed in the collection of the Clark County Historical Society.
“Normally, we don’t like to take photos that aren’t conclusively identified,” particularly when it’s in such poor condition, said Kasey Eichensehr, the historical society’s curator.
But Eichensehr said there was “something special” about the album that had been rescued from the trash: Glued to its brittle pages were rare candid photos of the early 20th century of an African-American family, apparently from Springfield.
“And on the very back page was the article about Barrett Gee,” Eichensehr said.
Published in an International Harvester employee publication of the 1940s, the article calls Gee “The Dancin’ Man,” and notes that even at “43 years young … there is spring in that step — and when he gets home and starts to shuffle along the memory road of vaudeville circuits from coast to coast, five pairs of tapping tootsies shuffle with him …. The five pairs of his rhythmic feet are those of his five dancin’ children.”
Of the children, Brewster is the third, and the one that others defer to to tell the family story. And, as she tells it, her father was the more volatile “pepper” to their mother Letha Cowens milder and more flavorful “salt.”
Both came north to Springfield during the “Great Migration” of poor blacks from the rural south to industrial north in the first half and beyond of the last century.
Their mother came when her sharecropper father William “Pie” Cowens and mother Katie Lucille Carrington “Moan” Cowens decided “things were getting kind of dicey” in Georgia.
They were living on Third Street and their 15-year-old daughter was blossoming into early womanhood when Buck Gee passed by one day expressed his interest in courting her.
Perhaps because he was already showing gray at 23, perhaps because Letha was only 15, “Pie let him know he was not welcome,” Brewster said.
The International Harvester publication hints as to why.
A janitors employee at the (IH) Works, it says, “he has been shaking his shoes (dancing)” for more than 29 years” and “first hit the boards as a gangling youngster of 14 years with the Rubin and Cherry carnival shows.”
Why was a boy of 14 dancing in a traveling show?
Looking for his father, Brewster said.
The earlier Barrett Gee had abandoned his son’s mother in the Alabama border town of South Pittsburg, Tenn., leaving Seely to die of a broken heart.
Two sisters “raised him up to a certain age,” Brewster said, until Buck started a quest to find his father, using the empty box cars of freight trains as his means of conveyance.
It was after he resumed his quest following service in World War I that Gee is supposed to have had a dream about the young woman he would married. As the legend goes, he spotted that woman after happening to Springfield with his cousin, Robert Burton.
And in what appears to be a candy-coated, if not sugar-coated version of their courtship, the older Gee lured his bride-to-be from her parents’ home with the offer of a Hershey’s bar, the long before prelude to trip to Cincinnati to elope.
“I told her, ‘Mother, you didn’t fall for a Hershey bar?’ ” Brewster recalls.
Losing their first child because Letha was mopping when she wasn’t supposed to be, the Gees had five more children, all of whom smile with their parents from the pages of the IH publication: Beulah, Anna Clara, Barrett, Jacquie, Billy and Robert.
With Letha singing church songs in the kitchen and Buck making sure they were exposed to the best musical talent in Springfield in the front room, the children learned song and dance. Anna Clara excelled at the piano, Beulah out-danced all comers, Barrett III played the drums and everyone took part.
To supplement his income, Buck taught dance lessons in his home to the children of other IH employees. He also performed, being well enough regarded here to earn a place on the playbill for a Springfield Rally Oct. 1, 1932, in a packed Memorial Hall.
Worrying that daughter Jacquie’s club feet may have been God’s punishment for his occasional man-about-town ways, Buck joined St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church and became a deacon.
The change did not take all the pepper out of Buck’s personality. The family remembers him sprinkling it liberally on Charles Fox, the legendary principal of Springfield High School, when Gee insisted that his daughters take the business courses in typing and shorthand, not the home economics courses he thought the school steered black girls in to create a steady supply of maids to the rich white folks on the north side.
When he died in 1966, his age was reported as 66, although no one knew for sure, because even he wasn’t sure.
Daughter Anna Clara Gee Blackwell was 84 on Dec. 29, when her daughters and sister gave her a surprise party at the Clifton Opera House. It was a dance concert choreographed by Blackwell’s daughter and Gee’s granddaughter, Valerie Blackwell Truitt.
“I tell people I come by it honestly,” said Truitt, who earned a degree in dance from Arizona State University, a master’s in sports studies from Miami University and has organized and led dance troupes.
Although the congratulatory letter from the White House was a highlight of the party, there were others. Much of the music had been written or recorded by Mrs. Blackwell, the birthday girl; and with Brewster’s help, Truitt included a couple of her grandfather’s dance steps in the choreography.
“They were such great steps,” said Truitt.
In Black History month, they also are reminders of the historic steps her grandparents and so many others took during the Great Migration.