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Making History: The First Tuxedo Men Dinner

I'm trying to decide when I realized how important it was to listen to stories. My brain takes me all the way back to high school when my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Reisig, had us read Arthur Miller's The Crucible and she brought it to life. There's nothing about the history of that in my own family that I know of, but it was a piece of American history so vividly brought to life by her that I could swear she was pumping its heart with her bare hands and I could feel the blood coursing through the veins of the books in our hands.

It was history, but it was storytelling, too.

When I was very little I remember watching a different kind of history take place anytime I went out in public with my father. As a baby I was blonde haired and blue eyed and didn't get color in my skin until later. I recall, on several occasions, when we were accosted by strangers who assumed we didn't belong together. To this day I have an irrational fear of a certain-looking White woman (they were always women) in her 50s because of this. It's probably not so much fear as it is distrust, but it created a sense of anxiety that I feel when I fear that a stranger might waylay me for something outside of my control. As a child, it actually made me consider that I didn't belong to my parents and that they kidnapped me. My therapist points to this as a prominent traumatic event that shaped me and I agree with her.

It's not a pretty story, but it's my history.

Storytellers get to do this. We have every opportunity to, since the gatekeepers have been removed with the introduction of blogs, to tell our stories and to tell the stories of others. When I consider the incredible stories I've already heard from the Tuxedo Men my heart feels as if it could burst with the excitement of sharing them. 

When they agreed to hear me out and listen to my proposal it gave this project a sense of just rightness that I am grateful to have. My friend, Edie, pointed out to me that I was making Black history of my own and, in this journey so far, it is a seminal realization and honor that isn't lost on me.


Listening to some pre-dinner storytelling from the men.


The hostess of this dinner set such a lovely table that I long for my own dishes and silver like this someday.


The host listens to some important stories and ponders their importance. This is Hump so nicknamed for his last name. He very much reminded me of my father.


The Tuxedo Men patiently allowed me to explain my project proposal. I shouldn't have worn heels since I stood so much during the evening.


Hump is telling me stories about the other men. He's a charmer, this one. (All of them, really.)


Years of capturing the attention of 7th graders prepared me to get 11 men to listen to me. I used my teacher voice while I spoke, but they told me they'd listen to a pretty lady any old time.


Dinner had some serious talk, but there was a lot of laughter. These men are a tight knit group.

While I decide just when I was so interested in storytelling I will be taking this journey and figuring some things out for myself. I truly hope people will want to come along for the ride. I think I'll learn some things about them, about American History, about the Great Migration, and I want to tell it all.

History-making and story-telling are my new favorite things along with all 11 of the Tuxedo Men.

All photography courtesy of Raquita Henderson of Pinxit Photography. All rights reserved.

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Reader Comments (17)

This narrative is so important to me because it's a story that needs to be told for so many people, especially my own students who are in dire need of a rich narrative from strong role models like these men and yourself. I can't wait to see this project unfold... And to beg you to come out to Jersey during your book tour and touch the lives of my students like you've touched the lives of yours!

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKailynn

Oh, Kelly, ohKellyohKellyohKelly. This is just beyond wonderful. Those photos are evocative, beautiful, and allow me to spin my own stories of these amazing men while I wait to read their *real* stories that I know you will carefully and lovingly shepherd to the page.

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKjirsten

Kailynn, I hadn't even considered a book tour that includes SCHOOLS. Of course! I plan on writing it in mind of teachers using it in the classroom now that you say that!

Kjirsten, I KNOW. IKNOWIKNOW. Raquita is so talented and gave me photos in color and B&W, but these were so much more powerful. She is a master.

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMocha

The pictures are awesome! I can't wait to hear more.

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGrandeMocha

I am so glad you used the black and white... Some people don't appreciate the power of a b&w photo.. I forgot who I was sending these too though... #kindred

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRaquita


My sweet friend, I've followed story since your first tweet about the men at the restaurant.

I cried while looking at these photos tonight. I am so incredibly proud of you, and so excited for you and all the potential this has.

I don't actually have the words to express all the emotions I feel right now reading this, and looking at those photos....

It's just so incredible.

It is truly all about the story, and the teller of the story.

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterrachel

So very cool and awesome for you. Gotta admit the fact that it looks like The Muppets are on the TV makes me smile even more!

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

If there's one thing I get all churchy about, it's the power of storytelling. I gave a presentation earlier this year where I beseeched a room full of health care executives to tell stories, not just give facts, in their presentations. Stories matter.

I'm so proud of you and love that you can feel that this is so right. Because it is. I can't wait to see the final form it takes.

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuebob

You'll hear distant applause and whistling every time you post about these men. That's me all the way from Canada.

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterElan Morgan

Hey Kelly,
You are doing an awesome job. My parents and grandparents always told me that it is wise to sit at the feet of our elders. I knew that it meant to learn about our history, culture and family. It was to me, just good to be in their company. I have relatives and friends that are past 100. That's a blessing right?! These pictures capture the moment and I could just feel the atmosphere that must have been present there. Continue your work. We all can't wait to hear about your journey with them!

It must have been a thing with some people back when we were growing up because I often had the same thing happen to me when I was out with my mother. They would wait until she passed and because we were walking behind her we would see people swiftly turn around with a question mark on their faces. Shaking my head!

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAngie Washington

Oh, and your legs look great!

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAngie Washington

I'm so excited for this project! I can't wait to see how you help shape these stories into a narrative that other people can feel, who otherwise would never know them. So proud to call you my friend. xoxo

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeahpeah

I. Can't. Wait.

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSherry Carr-Smith

I. Can't. Wait.

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSherry Carr-Smith

This sounds awesome. I'm so excited for you to go on this journey. Kudos on being amazeballs. =)

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGrace Sandra

Kelly, I'm just so thrilled for you. This feels important - really really important - on many levels. So happy and grateful that you are following your gut and diving in here. I can't wait to BUY THE BOOK!!!

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterporter

hi there! The Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History here in Baltimore MD is about to do a storyteller/oral history's in conjunction with the exhibit "For Whom It Stands." The director and writer of the show, Harriet Lynn, basically encouraged and led us through writing our stories and telling them, then wove it into a stage show that's pretty powerful account of African Americans and includes lots of civil rights history.

There is a strong storytellers community in the Baltimore-DC area, from African griot groups to enactors to plain old storytellers like me. There are public radio show on NPR affiliate, WYPR, that profiles arts and often includes storytelling, called The Signal.

I bet the museum would be glad to have you give a talk, as would the local library (the Enoch Pratt Free Library here is the oldest public library in the US, and has a big writers/speakers program).

If you're interested, please feel free to contact me to follow up and I'll be happy to connect you with people.

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa

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