My father, Thomas Melvin Batchelor was born on February 16, 1920 in Hamtramck, Michigan – a small city next to Detroit. He was two months premature and had head full of white hair that would soon turn into the flaming red hair he was know for in his youth along with a million freckles.
According to my grandmother, the doctor who delivered my dad said, “If he makes it through the night, he’s got a chance”. Fighter that he was, Dad not only made it through that night, but went on to survive a childhood of poverty during the Great Depression.
Even though he grew up without material things, Dad always remembered the best from those days. He used to tell us stories about those days and even laugh about wearing “welfare” plaid flannel shirts and having to eat chicken toes. I’ve always wondered if he was just pulling my leg about that.
When Dad was about 12, he injured his leg in a fall on the ice. Not having money for a doctor, Grandma took my father to a faith healer. He ended up with a bone infection that landed him in a convalescent home for a year. Remember, this was before penicillin or any other antibiotics. The treatment was grueling and Dad had to wear a built-up shoe for years after.
My father’s disability never kept him from being a straight “A” student and graduating from high school with honors. Many years later, I recall Dad’s extreme interest in every report card I brought home and his annual display of every one of his report cards from 1st-12th grade. All “A”s and one “B”!!! Truly a tough act to follow.
Dad went on to major in art at Wayne State University (WSU) with a full scholarship and according to him – 2 pairs of pants which he wore all 4 years until they were shiny and paper-thin from being ironed so much.
During the time he was in undergrad, my grandmother was the “help” for the dean of WSU’s med school. One day the dean asked Gram if my dad would consider becoming a doctor because it was a better career path for a “colored boy” instead of art.
Dad apparently thought so too and applied to medical school. He had to wait a year to get in because back then, the Wayne State University med school only took two African American and two Jewish students in a class. While he waited, Dad got his masters in pathology. Once he was admitted to med school, his life was full steam ahead. During that time though, racial tensions were heating up in Detroit.
One summer night in 1943, Dad was on a date on Belle Isle. Belle Isle is a small island and public park in the middle of the river between Detroit and Windsor, Canada. There are a myriad of stories about how the riots started – depending on who you heard it from. All involved a young Black child and the Belle Isle bridge – where my father was walking with his date.
Dad ended up being right in the middle of what became a violent race riot and his leg was injured again. I was an adult before he would ever share any details of that night with me. Even then he wouldn’t talk much about the horrors he saw that night as one of the first victims of the Detroit’s 1943 race riots.
Despite yet another injury, Dad went on to excel in medical school. And he met and fell in love with Alice Vivian Dickinson, a smart and beautiful young woman from Cleveland, Ohio – my mom. While my father finished med school, Mom taught school. They had great plans that were soon derailed by an unexpected roadblock.
Dad developed another infection in his leg and the doctors recommended yet another year in a convalescent home. Here he was in his last year of school with a coveted internship waiting, a new wife – and someone was telling him to sit on the sidelines. Dad said “no way” and told the doctors to amputate his leg at the knee. Nothing was going to stand in the way of my father achieving his goals – not even his own leg!
Dad sped through recovery and graduated with honors in the top 10% of his class – or so he thought. It wasn’t until he retired from the practice of medicine 54 years later, that my father learned he had graduated first in his class – an honor we believe was denied him because of his race. But that was the special thing about my father. He never let anything get in the way – race, illness, adversity and especially not lack of confidence.
The 83 years of my father’s life weren’t easy. But he lived a life filled with amazing goals and achievements, laughter and inspiration that never seems to end even though Dad passed away on October 24, 2002.
My father left a legacy of wonderful memories, family history and lessons, the most important one – that anything is possible. His faith in possibilities was passed down to me and continues to be the beacon that lights my way through life and the ups and downs of doing Black genealogy.
Love you, Dad. Always, always.
At the time I started researching my family back in 1976, my goals were simple – find all my great grandparents. Of course, I was hoping their information would lead me back yet another and that would have been the icing on the cake. But after only a few months of family history research, I was staring at the name of William Hood, my 4th great grandfather. He is still one of the biggest surprises in all my years of doing Black genealogy.
William Hood was a White man born about 1757 in Ireland who immigrated to Pennsylvania before the American Revolution. By the time the war began, history finds William living on the frontier in Northumberland County near the western branch of the Susquehanna River.
This area was extremely volatile during the Revolutionary War because it was the farthest edge of the frontier where there were frequent attacks on the colonists by the British army, American loyalists and Native American tribes aligned with the British. Beyond this point, there was no colonial government and no protection. It was truly the wild, wild west.
There were several small forts in this area, most notably Fort Freeland. In late June, 1779 after repeated attacks by the British, a number of colonial families moved from their homes to live behind the walls of Fort Freeland.
Although there were rumblings of a pending attack, the colonists were completely unprepared when more than 300 British soldiers and supporters stormed the fort early on the morning of July 28, 1779. With all the able-bodied men already off to war, there were only 21 boys and old men to defend the fort. Seeing the hopelessness of their situation, the colonists soon negotiated a surrender.
News of the attack — but not the surrender – spread to a nearby fort and a relief party including my ancestor William Hood rushed to defend Fort Freeland. The battle that followed was one of the bloodiest of the American Revolution and pivotal because the fall of Fort Freeland left the colonial American frontier defenseless.
Although many people died that day, William Hood lived to tell about the battle in his own words which were written down many years later in support of the pension application of a fellow soldier’s widow. I found this record at the National Archives and discovered other first-hand accounts of the battle of Fort Freeland in records at the Northumberland County (PA) Historical Society.
William went on to marry Rebecca Lee. Her father, Sergeant Edward Lee was another of my Revolutionary War ancestors but more about him another time. My 4th great grandparents moved to Erie County, Pennsylvania where they settled in the little town of Waterford. I have visited the house they built in 1810 and the cemetery where they are both buried. William Hood died in 1840. Here’s the burial record:
Finding my patriot ancestor, William Hood led to my applying for membership in the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). In 1977, I became DAR’s first African American member – an amazing conclusion to a genealogy research project that seemed relatively simple in the beginning. It was an important lesson to me as a genealogist: always be prepared for the unexpected – and the extreme!