“Same” A Tribute to James Gilliam Sr.

Written by MWUL   // September 16, 2015   // Comments Off

TonyAllen5260s (2)_0

Jim Gilliam was my best friend. A few weeks before he passed away, I went to visit him. As with many others throughout this community, it was a normal part of our routine for me to walk in, pull up a chair, pour some scotch and water, and begin what started out as two buddies chopping it up.

It always turned into a beautiful portrait of the many colorful facets of this lovely man. I always listened for the lesson in his words — and there were always lessons, but I could also see the color in the images and events he would describe, as if I were there myself: facing the dull gray pain of some enormous but typical discrimination of the early years in his life; smiling above the passionate reds in his first interaction with his Southern Belle and wife of 60 years, Louise; the deep purples of a promise not kept by someone else whom he could quite literally challenge and change with a stern look; the golden joy reflected from a recent triumph of his son, Jim, Jr., or daughter, Patti; the pastels that boomed from his love of jazz, Morgan State and the Urban League; the proud, self-effacing blacks and browns as he talked about hundreds of people from all walks of life for whom he opened first doors and insisted that they “get off their duffs” and “make a damn difference.”

On my canvas, Jim was multidimensional, both complex and parsimonious, and filled with authenticity. If I had only known him casually, watching him from afar would have had a profound impact on my life, but I was blessed to be up close for the last 20 years of his life and for what I can only presume are the middle 20 of mine.  I feel very fortunate that Jim — among many — chose me, a man who has only met his biological father five times and whose stepfather never finished the 11th grade. From 25 to 45, I could turn to Jim Gilliam, 50 years my senior, for anything — whether how to be a better public servant, a better professional or simply a better man.

That night when I left, I did my usual departing gestures: I gently caressed his silver hair, kissed him on his forehead and said, “I love you, Cap!”  His normal reply was always, “Take care of yourself,” but this time without hesitation, he said simply, “SAME.”

Later, I sat in my car crying, thinking about my life without Cap. In these last three weeks, SAME has stayed with me. SAME is what his mother, Pocahontas, demanded he expect from others, and SAME is

Dr. Tony Allen is the founding President of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, Chairman of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission and a 2003 Whitney M. Young Awardee for Advancing Racial Equality, the National Urban League’s highest honor. What Jim fought for on our behalf for 95 years — the SAME standards of fairness, the SAME prospects of opportunity, the SAME access to quality education and history and love and freedom. Jim Gilliam wanted the SAME. And if he were here, I know he would want me to be clear. SAME for Jim was not simple equality without recognizing the historic inequities that have defined a complex American history.  SAME was not a commitment to being a color-blind society or ensuring that you had a few friends of different backgrounds.

SAME was about the quest toward “a more perfect union” —

a point on which he became a decorated soldier in a segregated military; led a national movement for housing rights for two decades; oversaw the successful operation of the most important Court for children and families in our state; built the New Castle County Office of Housing and Real Estate; at 78, founded the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League; and served as the go-to senior advisor for any public servant worth his or her salt in our community. Regardless of what you looked like, where you came from, or who you loved, Jim Gilliam wanted the SAME things for you that you would want for yourself and for those you love the most. When he said SAME to me, I knew it meant, “I love you too, Tony.” It also meant the work is not done, the battle is not over, and ‘to whom much is given, much is required and expected.’  The SAME, Cap, the SAME!


Similar posts

Comments are closed.