Celebrating Her Life

Shared on 30th April 2013


On behalf of our family, I would like to thank you all for joining us to Celebrate the Life of Maudelle Shirek. She is our sister, our aunt, and our cousin. For us, as for many of you, she was a defender and protector, a teacher, a leader who loved us so much that she devoted her life to creating a world in which we would be safe and have the opportunity to realize our true potential regardless of our gender or our color.

While we honor Maudelle as a beloved member of our family, we are mindful, that she was also a part of your family. We will be forever grateful to you for your loving embrace and support for one who was so dear to us.

Today I would like to share two stories that have helped me to better understand her passion and her journey in life:

In 1930’s when she was in her early twenties Maudelle, like her father before her, was a school teacher, in the small semi-rural town of Jefferson, AK. It was a one room schoolhouse with a wood burning stove and a cook stove in the cloak room. Maudelle would arrive early in the morning before the students and put a large pot of vegetable soup on the cook stove. Her students would always have a hot and healthy lunch.

One morning the kids came running into the school room frightened, but excited. It seems that on that morning while they were walking to school the bus that carried the white kids to their school had slowed down so that those students could taunt and sometimes spit at the colored kid. This had happened many times before. But on that morning something quite extraordinary had occurred. One of Maudelle’s students, a young boy, had picked up a branch and hit the side of the bus, catching a little white girl in the face, and this was 1935, in rural Arkansas.

It was not long before the local constable showed up demand to know who had done the deed, and demand he be turned over to him. But before anyone could say anything, Maudelle stepped forward and lit into him. She told him the bus driver was wrong to slow down so her kids could be taunted, and that she was the one who had told the children to fight back. So without hesitation she told him, “if you want to take anyone this morning, then take me!” In the face of her defiance and the truth of her words, the constable beat a hasty retreat. The children, who were in that classroom, though they are now in their eighties, still tell the story of the lesson that Miss Maudelle taught on that chilly Arkansas morning.  

The second story is about her journey and perhaps how she came set her roots in this community. While we were sorting through and organizing the artifacts of her seventy years in the bay area, I ran across a very old book that caught my attention. The book was entitled Maudelle: A Novel Founded On Facts. I didn’t know quite what to make of it, so I took it home to examine it more closely.

Well I brought it home, but this is how it typically goes in my house, with a little research, my wife Diane, found a complete history the book. Maudelle was written by James Henry Smith, a prominent Negro dentist, inventor and artist, in Little Rock, AK. According to the authors preface, this work of fiction, set in the days immediately following the Civil War, was based upon a true story, and explored race relations during that period. When it was published, in 1906 it created quite a stir.

It struck me that Maudelle’s father and my grandfather, Eddie Madison Miller, was working and attending Williams Industrial College in Little Rock, between 1906 and 1910. Having discovered the probable origins of her name I became even more interested in why she might have carried this book so long and what it have meant to her.

As I examined the book more closely, I found a single page with a folded corner. So I thought, let me see what this folded corner points to. I would like to share that single seemly prophetic paragraph with you.

“Come Maudelle dear; come with me to a country and a people where social rights are accorded to the worthy and pure irrespective of color or greed – a people who are true to what they profess.”

As most of you probably know Maudelle came West in 1943, right in the middle of what is often called the Great Migration of close to six million Black citizens who left from the South between 1915 and 1970, and moved Northern and Western cities. Maudelle led our family West in search of sanctuary and opportunity. We settled in Los Angeles, Oakland and Berkeley. It is my belief that she came looking for “a country and a people where social rights are accorded irrespective of color or creed.”  But for me, what set Maudelle apart, and defined her journey, is what she did next. When she did not find all that she sought, she set about the work of creating that place.

Today we have come together to celebrate her life. But in honoring her hopes and dreams, we honor the best in ourselves.  

Maudelle, our beloved sister and aunt and friend, was fierce and loving. She was fierce in her love for us. Her commitment was unwavering. And while she has risen and left behind the limits of her earthly form, she has not left us alone for her Spirit is still with us; still by our side.

If we listen with our heart, we can still hear her.  Maybe not in the booming voice that once filled this chamber, but in a whisper of an unstilled voice that calls to us to “educate and organize for the struggle must continue”. A voice that says,” when the path is rough and the way ahead is uncertain; when all seems lost, remember that you are not alone.” We can still hear her say as she did on the chilly Arkansas morning, “Take me with you; I will always be by your side.”

Ronald Bridgeforth - Nephew  
April 30, 2013