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Aunt Lil

June 28, 2015, after a service in honor of Aunt Lil at Wayland Baptist Church in Baltimore. First row middle: grandson Daryl, Aunt Lil with great-granddaughter Liberty,and granddaugther Katie.

I’m just holding, oh yes I am. I’m holding--I’m holding on and I won’t let go my faith!

I was seven years old the first time I heard Aunt Lil sing Holding On (Won’t Let Go My Faith) penned by legendary gospel singer and song writer Dorothy Love Coates. The Rosebud Charity Club which comprised seven sisters (Aunt Iola, Aunt Alethea, Aunt Mary, Aunt Lil, Aunt Rosalee, Aunt Margaret/Am Motts, and my grandmother Aunt Frances) and two nieces (Cousin Clara, and Cousin Mary Florence) had sponsored the annual third Sunday in June gospel celebration featuring the harmonizing, soul stirring Vashti Gospel Singers at Good Hope Baptist Church in King George County, Virginia. Good Hope, our family church, was the first colored church in the county, which was built on a parcel of land donated by former slave owners Thomas and Emma Baber of Spy Hill Plantation in 1868.

Aunt Lil

Aunt Lil original member of the Vashti Gospel Singers

Although my young mind could not grasp the meaning of the words she sang, I stood on the front row of the church balcony clapping my hands and tapping my feet with just enough swag to not get me in trouble for dancing. So I stood steady keeping the beat as Aunt Lil strutted up and down the aisle in that feminine (and dare I say sexy) manner of hers singing with all of her heart…

I’m just holding, oh yes I am. I’m holding--I’m holding on and I won’t let go my faith!

Aunt Lil was born just fifty-six years after her maternal grandparents Joshua and Eliza Stuart Thompson had been freed from slavery by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Joshua and Eliza had 10 children in which three daughters were named Mary. The first, Mary G. was born in 1877 but died of whooping cough 3 months later. The second, Mary E. was born in 1878; she too succumbed to whooping cough at 2 months. In 1879 Eliza gave birth to a third baby girl and named her Mary Frances. She was our matriarch whom everyone affectionately called Mama.

Mary Frances married George Allen Gray (Papa) whose Black/Rappahannock Indian parents, Cornelius and Alethea Garnett Gray, made their home in Westmoreland County, Virginia after fleeing Caroline County during the Yankee Invasion of 1863. George Allen born in 1872, was descended from free people of color; he had never worked for white folk and never intended to. George Allen built his own house on his own land in King George County; and he and Mary Frances started a family in 1899 with daughter Iola who joined the ancestors two months shy of her 104th birthday and concluded in 1923 with daughter Frances who is 95 years and 5 mos. and here with us today. Aunt Lil was the thirteenth child of what would be a total of fifteen offspring. She was born September 23, 1919.

I’m just holding, oh yes I am. I’m holding--I’m holding on and I won’t let go my faith!

Not that any year in these United States is ever a good year for black folk, but the year 1919 was a particularly ominous year to be born black in America. With black veterans returning home from World War I to a country still deeply entrenched in Jim Crow segregation and white anxieties over black displays of patriotism, which many interpreted as black folk forgetting “their place,” race riots broke out in urban and rural cities all over the country beginning on January 1st. By May, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois articulated the dire circumstances of the moment in an article published in the NAACP’s The Crisis Magazine titled “Returning Soldiers.” “But by

aunt lil

8 of the 15 Gray Siblings at Homestead in King George County Virginia: Alethea Nettles, Rosalee Hennigan, Clarence Gray, Lillian Martin, Margaret Valentine, Mary Jones, Frances James, and Silas Gray.

the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses,” he chided,” if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” Yet, the violence against black men, women, and children remained relentless as the bloodshed flowed into the summer months, now infamously dubbed “The Red Summer.” This violence continued unabated until September 14th, just nine days before Aunt Lil was born.

I’m just holding, oh yes I am. I’m holding--I’m holding on and I won’t let go my faith!

Aunt Lil and her siblings, having been born and raised in a large yellow house on forty acres of land with two entrepreneur parents, grew up in what would be considered a privilege life for a southern, rural colored family. Yet, she too learned very early from her parents’ Christian example that it was not material things and social prominence that sustained her family; but rather an adherence to the mantra “the just shall, indeed must “live by faith.” She brought that faith with her to Baltimore and to Wayland Baptist Church, a faith that was tested over and over again throughout her lifetime of almost a century.

Satan is busy stirring up the wrath,gathering stones to block my path. My enemies inflicting all the hurt they can by throwing their rocks and hiding their hands. You dig one ditch, you better dig two,for the trap you set just might be for you.God put it in my heart and you can't take it,my soul's on fire and your words can't harm me because . . .

I’m just holding, oh yes I am. I’m holding--I’m holding on and I won’t let go my faith!

When this country said a colored woman could not own her own catering business but could only be a domestic worker in white folk houses. . .

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I’m just holding on, oh yes I am. I’m holding--I’m holding on and I won’t let go my faith!

Aunt Lil was my aunt and she was also my second maternal grandmother. From the time I was a little girl until my last visit with her just a few hours before she made her transition, she always made me feel special. She never told me that I was special, or that I was her favorite or even that I mattered. It was by the way she smiled at me and by the way she treated me that let me know that I was all of those things. Aunt Lil loved me unconditionally. But isn’t that the way she was towards everyone: family, friend, and stranger? In her eyes we were all special, we were all her favorite, we all mattered.

When I visited Aunt Lil last Saturday I knew that she was not going to physically be with us much longer. I approached her bedside, took her by the hand and said “Hi Aunt Lil, it’s Arica.” She opened her eyes, looked at me and said “I Love You.” Those were her last words to me. I stayed with her for almost an hour, held her hand in mine and recited the Lord’s Prayer and Psalms 23 in her ear over and over. She perked up a bit but her attention was fixated on the right corner of the room. I said, “Aunt Lil, are you watching the football game?” She shook her no; “can you hear the game?” I asked.” She again shook her head no. “Then what you are looking at?” I asked her several times. She never answered but just faintly smiled.

I’m just holding, oh yes I am. I’m holding, I’m holding on and I won’t let go my faith!
No more Working
No more Toiling
I’m just holding on. . .
Hold on
Keep the faith
Just hold on . . .

Aunt Lil, I know now that “Holding Onto My Faith” was more than a song favorite, it was your mantra; a sacred creed you lived by and personified in your daily life for almost a century. Though I sorely miss you already, I will cherish your love and the faith you taught me. I am holding on to my faith Aunt Lil until the day I cross over the river Jordan and see you again. Love you always.--Ricky


Arica L. Coleman