August 15, 2012 10:32:53 AM
Sallie Mae Jones' legacy
In Columbus City Council's consideration of renaming the block of Fourth Street known as Catfish Alley to Catfish Alley Sallie Mae Jones, we have had an extraordinary opportunity to revisit the poignant history of The Alley (as we call it) and the entrepreneurial labors of its black business owners. It is an honor beyond measure to have my grandmother at the center of the discussion, regardless of the outcome.
I thank, trust and respect the judgment of the city's local officials. Whose mother is worthy of such historical consideration?
The current discourse about whether or not the legacy of Sallie Mae Jones warrants the inclusion of her name on the street signs of the historically black-owned business block of Columbus, where her business still resides, is a healthy one. It is a fair discussion that affectionately sheds light on part of the city's history that some read about and that others know intimately.
For the Jones Family, Catfish Alley is literally home. Our lives are deeply rooted in the spirit, vitality and work ethos that historically permeated The Alley. My grandmother's restaurant still stands as testament to our indigenous connection and the city's last remnant of Catfish Alley's classic identity.
Her participation in the history of Catfish Alley is only half of what makes Sallie Mae Jones extraordinary.
The overwhelming power of my grandmother's back story makes my heart swell with the kind of pride and resilience that transcends time and somatic boundaries. Her story lifts me time and again. What is beautiful about the story of Sallie Mae Jones is its message of triumph and fortitude that epitomizes the muted souls that were traumatized by times and circumstances; and that without titles, credentials or call to arms, history sometimes ignores or devalues.
Sallie Mae Jones was the embodiment of a knowing contingent of black women whose veiled stories might elicit great discomfort in the face of too much attention.
I am humbled by the notion that without a driver's license, without an education, without personal freedom, and most significantly, without the protection of childhood innocence, Sallie Mae Jones still rose to victory. With 11 half-white children, she emerged from of a life of emotional and domestic oppression to one where cooking and selling catfish would earn her personal independence and induct her into the legendary livelihood that was Catfish Alley.
She eventually purchased the restaurant from which she served the catfish, and later the very building that housed her own business and former offices of prominent black professionals.
Her model of heroism stems from her strength, courage and unequivocal resilience. While some stories are less challenging to our own sense of humanity, Sallie Mae Jones' story has inspired self-efficacy in those who may have otherwise conceded defeat. I know because I have told it several times in corporate and public venues. The gift of my grandmother's life story and triumph in Catfish Alley serves as tangible evidence that we absolutely can rise to our best selves in service to others; even when circumstances, attitudes and prohibitions would seem to dictate otherwise.
The highest level of contribution often comes from those who do not seek recognition or reward, but upon whom it is bestowed. The City of Columbus has been very gracious and respectful to my grandmother throughout the years and in the current debate. I am very thankful for that. Sallie Mae Jones was a significant and persistent contributor, among others, to the storied Catfish Alley that still, to this day, reflects her name and legacy.
Capt. Angela Wilson Cyrus, U.S. Navy, Ph.D.