Mustard Seed People are those who won’t listen when “life” says No. In spite of seemingly insurmountable odds, these men and women persist and press until they become the outcome of their own seed of faith. Mustard Seed People have been told they can’t be what they see because they’re not smart enough, not light enough, not bright enough; they’ve been told they’re too short, too large, too late or before their time. But they will not be deterred. They will not be discouraged. They just will not settle for less. Well maybe for a season. But in due time they come to themselves and get it done.
Mustard Seed People are my s/heroes as they provide encouragement for others as we overcome by the word of their testimony. I’ve read stories of such characters my entire life and been blessed by their chutzpah and their grace. Here’s hoping readers of these pages will be likewise blessed.
Susan Frances Booze Byrd Fuller
Her laugh was not the first thing you’d notice about her but once you’d heard it you’d be forever infected. She could throw her head back and give off a belly laugh that would make everyone within hearing join in without even having heard the punch line – a line she’d probably delivered with a straight face and a serious tone.
Her wit could be dry and understated. It could be sober and sedentary. It could be subversive, yet compelling. For example, the time she exited the city transit bus simultaneously with the entrance of a young Caucasian man. It had to have been around 1959 or so. As quickly as he called her a nigger, she with rapid fire speed returned, “If your Mammy had married the man she loved, you’d have been a nigger too.” The transaction was so quick that he had no idea what had hit him and she was already walking down Greenmount Avenue as the bus carried him up the same avenue before he could gather himself for a comeback.
Just a sampling of a woman so full of so much – a woman that life had dealt an interesting hand – she was born in 1900 one of 13 children, the last of which died in 1983. Her mother had been born a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, and yet most of Susan’s life was spent in an environment that belied real freedom.
It was during her lifetime that women received the right to vote. It was during her lifetime that the NAACP and the National Urban League were established, 1909 and 1910 respectively. It was in her early years that neighborhoods and work places were segregated by legislation.
It was also during her lifetime that violence against Blacks increased with the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, the East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917, the Houston Mutiny of 1917 resulting in the execution of 29 Black soldiers for their participation. Race riots continued in Philadelphia, 1918; and throughout the nation causing those months in 1919 to be designated Red Summer.
And she internalized it all. She was an avid reader of everything including the daily news papers and the AFRO American Newspaper that was published twice weekly in Baltimore, Washington D.C.; as far south as Richmond and as far north as New Jersey.
She died in 1970, less than 20 years after Brown v. Board of Education that legislated the integration of schools in 1954.
She lived long enough to witness the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Hadn’t she had enough horror in her life?
Yes! But she never let that keep her from doing the most she could do for the most people she possibly could for as long as she possibly could. She had grown into a woman of faith, having been taught from a child by a mother who loved the Lord. She wasn’t an openly demonstrative person in her faith. You’d never have caught her speaking in tongues – she’d have been horrified. You’d never have caught her dancing or shouting during a worship experience. You might have caught her napping during the sermon because she’d been up late preparing Sunday dinner because there was no work done on the Sabbath. Food was cooked; clothes were ironed; hair was done on Saturday. Her faith was shown in more subtle ways including that tear that would course down her face during worship, the one that could be so easily missed because it was all alone.
Her faith was shown in weekday ways. She sent me and the other children she raised to the homes of the elderly in the community to check on them – to see whether or not they were okay or needed something from the store. When she went to the market she purchased items to have on hand when neighbors might need them. When neighbors had questionable habits, rather than trust them with money, she’d have the milk on hand for the babies to drink. The sugar, the flour even tissue paper they might need. And there was no announcement about these things. I only knew them because I lived with her from the age of 6 until I got married at 18.
She held up a standard for education because she understood it was the only earthly thing that could make us truly free. She hadn’t gotten as much as she’d wanted but she went to night school alongside her only son, who was also in high school, and bested his grades with 97 in chemistry and 100 in German. Her numbers never dipped into the low 90s. When her granddaughter when to Germany with her new husband 40 years later, it was Susan who helped her with the language.
She held up a standard for the arts, making sure each child – and there were many – who lived in her house was at least exposed to piano lessons in addition to whatever arts and crafts were offered at the church. So into our house every week came Mr. Author Boardley, minister of music at Trinity AME Church in east Baltimore. He’d sit with whatever children lived there at the time and hear the pieces they’d practiced that week, while he sipped either hot tea in the winter or home made iced tea in the summer. And after a few minutes of sharing in the kitchen, he’d receive.25 per child and be on to his next lesson.
She must have raised or been influential in the lives of at least 50 children – not including those at the church where she served as superintendent of the Sunday School and musician for the Junior Choir. Nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and those, such as myself, who had no blood connection. And each was treated to the full court raising with a vengeance and an intention to bring out the best. Some became teachers and principals. Some became preachers and pastors. Some became singers and musicians. But each had a tremendous sendoff because they had been touched by a Mustard Seed person and her faith did them well.
Wilbur Francisco Fuller
He always had a story. An anecdote. A morality tale. And we always rolled our eyes and made faces to each other. As much as we could get away with back in the 1960s, which wasn’t much. We couldn’t talk back. We couldn’t sass with our faces. Sucking our teeth would have ensured our need for false teeth or having our jaws reconnected to our faces. It was a different time and children were to be seen and not heard. We couldn’t participate in grown up conversations. “Children get drunk on old folks’ breath.”
But children could be taught and taught we were. Constantly. What I realize now to be a perfect complement to public schooling. Discipline or discipling. Walking alongside to train the gait or step of another.
Anyway. Wilbur Francisco Fuller, in 1949, married Susan Frances Booze Byrd and became Wilbur to her children and Granddaddy Fuller to the grands, including this foster kid. He had apparently been a Pullman Porter until he retired and became a school custodian and general Mr. Fixit who was loved by all, especially the principal of the school, Miss Alfreda Pinkney.
He had been an only child of a Methodist minister and his wife, Rev. Joshua and Mrs. Elizabeth Fuller. They lived just a block away on Brentwood Avenue. They had been founding members of St. Matthews Methodist Church around the corner on 23rd Street. By the time we met, Rev Joshua was already in full blown dementia which might today be called Alzheimer’s. He was an altogether lovely gentleman who appreciated everything everyone did for him. On the day we buried his wife, his principal caregiver, his recollection on the way home was, “Well we’ve had a lovely ride in the country today,” totally oblivious to what the journey had actually meant.
This son of a preacher was a brown guy. Wore a lot of brown suits. But he was dapper. A sharp dresser often seen wearing a straw hat. Until he retired and sweaters replaced jackets and work boot replaced tie ups.
A funny thing about Wilbur Francisco Fuller. He founded a group of wonderfully talented young men who sang gospel music. They had the most vibrant voices I’d ever heard. The Gospel Comforters’ voices seemed to blend like butter even during the rehearsals that were thankfully held at our house. They were in demand on the East Coast and it was a good while before I realized Granddaddy Fuller wasn’t singing with them. He couldn’t sing. He was their founder and business manager. He couldn’t sing. Not even a little bit.
But he could tell stories. And he always had one. They usually began, “When I was working on the train.” Or “If you were working on a train.” But they always had a lesson about conducting yourself as a person of quality regardless of your circumstances. He recalled having to comport himself as a gentleman even in the face of outright racism and disrespect. Not all the lessons were so deep. Some were simple survival tips.
If someone says they fixed something especially for you, don’t eat it.
If you are at a gathering and put your drink down, leaving it unattended, don’t go back to it.
And then there were the instructions on table manners, which earned for him the monicker, Eddie Cut. I’ll just leave that there. Don’t drink during the meal. Place your knife and fork in a certain position to signal you’re finished eating. Don’t talk with a full mouth. Napkin laid gently in the lap.
And he made me love coffee until I actually tasted it years later. They wouldn’t give children coffee so I could only smell it as the grounds nestled with egg shells lit up the entire house when he made coffee in the mornings. He’d fry eggs and bacon and it was on. Imagine me disappointment when I finally tasted it, having erred by making my first purchase from a vending machine at TSU. But it’s okay now. Coffee and I’ve been friends for a long time now.
Granddaddy Fuller and his wife, Grandma Sue were friends, I guess showing as much intimacy as people showed back in the day. But he always seemed to be outnumbered and outvoted by the women- Grandma Sue and her daughter, Aunt Ruth. I really did like his stories and the energy he put into them. He seemed most alive during those times. Sometimes I’d ask questions just to get him to talk. He didn’t have children of his own so he seemed kind of lonely except for us grandchildren.
Two weeks before my junior prom in 1965, he got really sick. He was at home sick which was the habit back then. But eventually had to be taken out by ambulance. He died the day before the prom so I couldn’t go. Out of respect.
He was a nice warm man who all the children liked. But I think he never really got his due. It’s my pleasure to remember him and speak his name. Wilbur Francisco Fuller.