A Life Well Spent

By Elinor Davis

“My grandfather was born a slave,” says Unav Wade, 80 years old. She is reminiscing with fellow participants at the Center for Elders’ Independence (CEI) located at Oakland’s Eastmont Town Center. “His parents died when he was young and he grew up in a white household. A horse once kicked him and broke his leg,” but it didn’t break his spirit. Wade remembers him limping while plowing his field. “Grandpa Tom was kind and gentle and a good worker,” despite the lifelong limp.

Wade’s grandparents raised 15 children in the Tennessee mountains near Thorn Hill where Wade grew up as the oldest of five siblings. “We were poor but we ate well! We walked down the hill to school and on the way back home we’d pick wild berries, apples, pears and poke salad. We had a garden, a cow for milk and butter…a horse and pigs and chickens” on land they farmed as sharecroppers.

She married at 16 and moved to Jasper, Texas, with her husband, a bricklayer and contractor. Wade went to secretarial school so she could do the “book work” and their seven children all helped with the family business and at home.

As a young mother in her 20s, Wade joined the NAACP and became the first woman president of her chapter’s board. She was 24 when the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision paved the way for desegregation of the nation’s schools. After integration started, Wade heard reports of black children being mistreated, so she intervened.

“I was very short, so I picked the tallest, blackest, strongest men I could find because I knew there would be a lot of hard work to do,” she says of her visits to the public school to defuse racial tensions. “I was small but I did all the talking. Addressing what’s really wrong can be done in a nice way.”

“It was a long struggle but a good struggle…I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind to make things better.” She smiles proudly when she says that later children would whisper “Thanks, Mrs. Wade, for helping us out.”

After a stint in Alabama, the family moved again to Oakland where they continued to work in construction. “All the kids did well, got an education and good jobs. All my sons became bricklayers and one of my daughters is a teacher.” She even took in and raised several neighbor children who had lost their parents.

Now enjoying a well-deserved retirement, she gets around using a wheeled walker and the assistance of CEI geriatric aides and drivers. CEI’s Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) makes it possible for her to get comprehensive medical care and social services while retaining the independence and freedom she values. No doubt her Grandpa Tom would be proud of the life she made for herself and her family on her journey from the Tennessee mountains to the Oakland hills. Unav Wade’s story is not only Black History, it is an integral part of America’s history.