Black History month is a time to remember the amazing men and women who laid their lives down to make a better future for my generation and yours, and those to come. It is also a time to remember those closer to home who also made a difference in the brutal fight against ignorance and racism. My family is blessed to have one of those unsung heroes who left a lasting legacy that has impacted this writer’s life forever.
My grandmother’s nephew, Francisco Rockwood is that man! As children, we respectfully called him Cousin Francisca, mostly because of our heavy New York dialects. My Mother considered him our families’ patriarch. From a child’s perspective, his was a strong tower of a man with sharp features. As I grew up I soon realized that he was also a highly intelligent man full of God’s grace and compassion. To truly understand our Cousin, we have to take a brief historical detour.
In 1902, Francisco Rockwood was born in Cuba. At the age of 18, his mother, Marie Antoinette Rockwood sent him to the United States to learn English. A progressive woman, she became involved in the largest Pan-African movement known in history, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). UNIA was established in 1917 by a powerful, charismatic man by the name of Marcus Garvey. The UNIA’s motto was, “One God, One Aim, One Destiny.” By 1919, UNIA had grown to a membership of 2 million people. By 1920, it doubled to 4 million. Around that same time, a new organization emerged out of it called the Black Cross Nurse. Similar to the Red Cross, they helped take care of soldiers and families during times of crisis. Marie Antoinette Rockwood (I love her name!) joined the Black Cross Nurse.
Garvey was a stout man from Jamaica who was considered the General of the UNIA and was always seen wearing a general’s uniform. He was a man who had accomplished something that had never been done before. He rallied the African Diaspora from all over the Americas; North, South, and Central, including the Caribbean. Just think of it, millions of people joining a movement that became popular by the power of word of mouth, print and a new invention called radio. Marcus Garvey was considered a real threat to the powers that governed the U.S. at that time. Eventually, a new recruit to the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, ‘found’ evidence to bring mail fraud charges against Garvey.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. I hope that you are encouraged to explore these incredible movements on your own. Now, back to Cousin Francisca!
Following in his mother’s footsteps, Francisco Rockwood joined the UNIA and I assume he probably joined as a young man in 1920s. Our Cousin faithfully served in the UNIA and worked his way up the ranks to that of a Colonel.
In 1968 a new public affairs show premiered on ABC called “Like It Is.” Our family, along with almost every Black family in New York City was glued to the television on Saturday mornings when it aired. Gil Noble is the host of that show and has interviewed prominent African-Americans including: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr, Louis Farrakhan, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Aretha Franklin, Sarah Vaughan, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson, Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe and the list goes on and on.
In the early 70s, camera crew at his side, Mr. Noble visited the Headquarters and offices of the UNIA. They were located 2395 8th Avenue. Mr. Noble had planned on interviewing the President of UNIA, but for some reason, was not available to do the show. Instead, a strong tower of a man with sharp features was in the office. You guessed it, that man was our beloved Cousin Francisca! Making the best out of the situation, Mr. Noble decided to interview Mr. Francisco Rockwood. I am certain, that shouts of joy were heard from the Bronx all the way to Harlem on that day as our family watched our beloved Cousin on TV! And my, my, he was brilliant. Mr. Noble was so impressed by our articulate and knowledgeable Cousin that he returned to the UNIA offices the following week for a second interview.
From his youth, our Cousin spent his entire life working to advance the vision of our people. He and his mother worked side by side with Marcus Garvey and shared a history that the early 20th Century and laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement. There is so much more to this story, our story. Perhaps at another time I’ll have the privilege of sharing more of it. For the time being, I’d like to sum up this chapter with a famous proclamation that Marcus Garvey wrote back in 1928. J. Edgar Hoover’s “evidence” of mail fraud enabled the U.S. government to sentenced Garvey to 5 years in prison. During that time Garvey penned his famous proclamation…
“Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life.”
May the memories of all the unsung heroes who committed their lives to the fight for liberty, freedom and life inspire and provoke us to nothing less!