Don Wycliff

My father, a library

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

We buried my father last month. Buried his ashes, actually, in the same grave in the same little East Texas cemetery where we buried my mother, his wife of 71 years, back in 2013.

“When an old man dies,” an African proverb goes, “a library burns to the ground.” If ever there was an illustration of that wisdom, Wilbert Wycliff was it.

He died on Jan. 5, just over two months after celebrating his 99th birthday. He was born the day before Halloween in 1918, about two weeks before the armistice that ended World War I. He was born into the segregated Jim Crow South, but lived to see the nation elect a black man president.

In his last years he spent most of his time praying, reading the Bible and telling and retelling the story of his life to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He liked to say that he had three occupations in his lifetime: soldier, civil servant and permanent deacon of the Catholic church.

The grandkids seemed especially fond of the stories about his service in World War II. He was drafted into the Army in 1941 and, after Pearl Harbor, became an officer and part of the all-black 92nd Division — the Buffalo division — that served in Italy.

When I and my eight siblings were children he didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences. But in the 1990s, when the nation began celebrating various 50th anniversaries associated with the war, especially D-Day, he grew outspoken about its failure to acknowledge the contributions of the black service members who fought in the war.

My favorite stories were about his growing-up years in the 1920s and 1930s, especially the three years when his parents sent him from their home in rural East Texas to live with an aunt in Washington, D.C. The idea was to take advantage of the better, albeit still segregated, schooling available there.

The nation’s capital was his playground, he said. He roller-skated everywhere and saw everything, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inauguration in 1933. He recalled that he stepped on a lady’s foot with one of his roller skates. “She was not a happy Democrat.”

He became a civil servant in 1954, teaching industrial arts and other vocational skills to inmates in federal prisons. During his 24 years in the prison system, he and his family moved half a dozen times throughout the American heartland, but finally returned to Texas.

Daddy was a convert to Catholicism. He was baptized after marrying Mother, a cradle Catholic with roots among the Creole Catholics of Louisiana. It would be hard to say which of them ultimately was the more devout.

In the mid-1970s, while the family was living in Dallas and Daddy was preparing to retire, he and Mother decided he should study for the permanent diaconate. He was ordained in 1978.

He served first in the diocese of Dallas. Then, after he and mother and the youngest children moved to Houston, he served in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Finally, after moving back to his hometown of Dayton, Texas, he served in the new Diocese of Beaumont.

Daddy’s story is full of ironies. His Mass of Christian burial was held at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic church in Dayton. It began in the 1940s as an African-American mission parish, served by the Josephite Fathers. In the 1970s, the church was combined with a nearby white parish, after integration came to the South and to Catholicism. 

Today, the parish is predominantly Hispanic. One of the church secretaries told me a couple of years ago that many of the current parishioners had been surprised to learn of the church’s African-American roots.

Another irony: The celebrant at Wilbert’s Mass was Bishop Curtis Guillory of the Diocese of Beaumont, one of the few African-American bishops in the Catholic Church.

Yet another irony: The rosary before Wilbert’s Mass was led by five white men, members of the Knights of Columbus. Wilbert had been a member of the K. of C. since the 1950s, when two of his white colleagues at the federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky, took the initiative to sponsor him for membership in the group, which had had a reputation as not welcoming to blacks.

In his own quiet way, Daddy was a barrier-breaker. Now he rests among the ancestors, each of whom in his or her own way also broke barriers, so that we who live now would not have to.