By Barney Blakeney
Too often the concept of Black History conjures thoughts of individuals cloaked in notoriety. But in reality some of the most notable figures of Black History stories are individuals closer to us who shape our present and future. One of those individuals, the late Mrs. Florence Chisolm Howard, was among them. She died Feb. 10 at age 97.
I never knew ‘Miss Florence’ as her daughter-in-law, the former Debra Williams, calls her. For about the past decade Miss Florence lived with her son, Percy ‘Danny’ Howard Jr. and his family in Radcliff, Ky. Originally from Sheldon, near Beaufort, Miss Florence spent most of her life in Charleston. She lived an obscure life, close to family members as a domestic worker, a wife and mother to two boys – one of whom was her brother’s child.
I grew up with two of her grandnephews, Gilbert ‘Frankie’ Howlett and Bernard Chisolm. Frankie and I went to elementary school together. I met Bernard through Frankie. They are like brothers to me. Frankie and Bernard’s grandfather, Mr. John ‘Joe’ Chisolm was Miss Florence’s older brother. He operated a neighborhood store at Amherst and America streets on Charleston’s Eastside during the 1960s. Miss Florence and her family lived nearby at 61 Amherst St.
Mr. Chisolm was a stern man. He raised his children and many of his grandchildren. His wife, Mrs. Louise Brown Chisolm was the nurturer. I never learned much about their history despite the many days I spent in their home and at their dinner table. As fate would have it, I’ve learned more from Miss Florence since her passing.
She and Mr. Chisolm were two of the 13 children born to the late Edward and Rosina Shepherd Chisolm in Sheldon. Miss Florence always called her mother ‘Kaduni’. I’m told Kaduna is the name of a village in northwestern Nigeria.
The youngest of the brood, Miss Florence followed her older siblings to Charleston while a young woman in her 20s. She left behind the land her family had settled since the Civil War. But she brought with her memories of stories told to her by her own grandmother who had witnessed Union soldiers march into the area freeing slaves. They were stories she oft repeated to her sons.
For Miss Florence, Black History was family. At first, she lived with an older sister Lottie and Lottie’s husband, a preacher, who lived upstairs over the church he served on South Street near Nassau Street. She met and married Percy ‘Sonny’ Howard Sr. and they moved to Hanover Street around the corner from her older sister. Eventually Miss Florence and another sibling, Mary Bryant who moved to Charleston from Beaufort, got a house together which the two families shared at 61 Amherst St. The Howards lived in the house until 1987. It was destroyed by fire in 2011.
Percy Jr., now a retired Army veteran brought his mother to live with him in Kentucky in 2011. By then she no longer could remember the stories of her history. He still remembers some of them. What sticks out most, he said, is the thought that the history of slavery is only four of five generations removed from his family. Howard says for him his mother’s story of Black History is one of sacrifice, family and survival and he marvels at the fact that most of the money from the allotment checks he sent her after joining the Army, she saved.