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A Sense of Place, a Sense of Belonging

AMERICAN FAMILY / On the road with the Sipchens.


LANGSTON, Okla. — A gospel choir on the radio wails a soul-shaking version of "Amazing Grace" as we pull out of Red Rock Canyon State Park. This Sunday, I figure, may hold some inspiration.

An hour later, we pick up Currie Ballard at his home out in the sticks and head for church. Ballard and I have stayed in touch by phone since he called me a few years back about I story I'd written. Neither of us can remember what it was about. But when my wife and kids and I hit the road for the summer to examine the state of American families, I gave Ballard a call.

Pam is driving. Robert, who has been malingering, slips into the back of the RV to finish struggling into his dress clothes. A shy 7-year-old, he modestly pulls the curtain separating the rear "bedroom" from the front of the RV.

Then Pam hits a little bump and the girls shriek with a glee that only kids who are supposed to be on their best behavior ever muster. Ballard and I spin around in time to see Robert sprawled on the linoleum floor, with only his head now hidden behind the curtain.

Robert picks himself up and we all get back to getting acquainted.

Ballard was born in South-Central Los Angeles and grew up near Central and Imperial, with four brothers and three sisters. At age 8, he says, he watched the 1965 Watts riots in awe but without a shred of context. He had, he says, little notion of who he was or where he came from.

"Like the vast majority of African American males then, I had an image problem. All I'd seen on TV was 'Amos and Andy' or Rochester on 'Jack Benny.' It definitely had its effect."

History, he says, was a big part of his salvation.

"The bug hit me when I was 10. My aunt was taking a class at Southwestern College, and I remember her coming home one night and getting in a debate with my grandmother. My aunt said James Brown was the greatest living black American of the past 10 years. . . . And my grandmother said, 'No, no. Martin Luther King is the greatest.' "

That kitchen table conversation eventually meandered into family accomplishments. Ballard's grandmother, who was working as a cook for Julie Andrews at the time, told him his great-grandfather had been a schoolteacher and butcher in Muskogee, Okla. She also introduced him to a little-known piece of history: That many Native American tribes had owned black slaves. His great-great grandmother, he discovered, had been the slave of Choctaws, who brought her with them to Oklahoma from Mississippi.

"Most of my friends didn't have any idea about their family history," Ballard says. So just knowing he had ancestors who had overcome massive hardships gave his self-esteem an uncommon boost.

Over the years, Ballard's family trickled slowly to California. In 1976, his mother and stepfather led the clan back the other way.

"My first night here, when I saw all those stars, I said, 'Oh my!' " Ballard recalls. "That was a true revelation."

Two years later, he moved to this rural part of the state, just north of Oklahoma City, to attend Langston University, a historically black college founded in 1897 at the height of segregationist Jim Crow laws.


In Oklahoma, his fascination with history deepened. He learned that when the Emancipation Proclamation freed his ancestors, the law deemed them Native Americans, so they received acreage from the government. They turned it into a prosperous farm and established themselves in their small Oklahoma community.

In the racially tense days before World War I, however, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups flourished. One morning a group of Ballard's ancestors awoke to find a recently married young brother hanging from a tree. They abandoned their land the next day and moved to Muskogee.

"I don't think they ever did reach the same level of prominence," Ballard says. "They just went ahead and took blue collar jobs."

Today, Ballard is historian in residence at Langston, a position that comes with a remote house overlooking a lake of the same name. We do most of our talking here, while Ashley sits in the RV out front taking an algebra final she'll Fed Ex to her teacher, and Emily and Robert bicycle down to the lake to fish.

Ballard and I, meanwhile, move through rooms filled with black history, from artifacts about such heroes as the Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen to demeaning Aunt Jemima-style bric-a-brac.

What catches my eye--and gets Ballard to rummaging through a room brimming with unsorted boxes--are his old black-and-white portraits of African American families. These studies in dignity, love and solidity take me back to the theme of the morning's church service.


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