Denise E. Fore

© Copyright 2020 by Denise E. Fore

Image of DNA.

I was born the sixth and last child of my parents’ marriage. My parents were divorced a few years later and I spent my childhood visiting my father during school breaks and holidays. I can still feel the joy and nervous anticipation of waiting eagerly for his big gold Chrysler to pull up in our driveway at the end of his five-hundred mile drive to come visit his children. I was his baby girl and like little girls do--I loved my daddy. In 1978 I flew to his home in southern California so he could meet my three-month old daughter, Thea, before he flew off to the Phillipine Islands in pursuit of his business dream. He adored her and laughter rolled from his belly as she gurgled and flashed her toothless grin at her grandpa. After that visit I never saw him again--just a sealed casket that contained his burnt remains that was shipped back home to us two years later. Some say he died over a business deal that went awry. Some say he hit his third wife one time too many, as he did with my mom, and her Islander family wasn’t having it-only God knows. I was devastated. Fourteen years later as my mother lay dying she pondered aloud of whether God could forgive her for that nasty divorce so many years ago. It took us awhile to convince her that it was okay and she could leave it all behind. On her death bed she admonished me to remember that it’s not what you do in life, but how you do a thing that matters so that you don’t have to live with regrets. She died of cancer in 1994. I was devastated.

April 1, 2018 was both Easter Sunday and April fool’s Day. In the wee hours of the morning I leaned over and grabbed my phone and called my sister Belinda who lives across country. She was up with her morning cup of coffee preparing to keep her promise to go to church with her daughter. After exchanging our good mornings I hit her with “I believe mom might’ve had a brother.” Our mother was orphaned at five when her father left her on a street corner in New York City and she was forever disconnected from her paternal roots. On the phone call that morning I shared with Belinda that as a family project my daughter and her kids submitted DNA testing to Ancestry.com to learn more about their ethnic roots. The results revealed some random close relative matches on their DNA profiles. One in particular was a 78-year old blues singer from Mississippi who lives in Cleveland, the city where my siblings and I were born. I searched and found his picture on Facebook and he had bright green eyes just like my mom. I left him a message telling him who I was, who my parents were and fiercely questioning him about why his DNA traits showed up in my family members’ profiles.

As I rattled on and on to Belinda about other relatives who showed up in the DNA profiles and how the process works her mind was stuck on that mystery person from Cleveland. She persistently kept repeating on the other end of the phone line, “What’s the name?” I kept rambling until she sternly blurted out, “Denise what is the name?” I cavalierly grunted, “Some random man in Cleveland named Charles Bevel.” The silence from the other side of the phone was thick and tangible and lingered until Belinda said in a low whisper “I know the Bevels” and then went silent again. I demanded to how did she knew these Bevel people. She slowly began, “When we lived in the housing projects in Cleveland Mary Bevel’s apartment was upstairs over ours and she had brothers who would pass through on their life journeys and mom had an affair with the one named James.” We chatted a bit about Cleveland and life in the public housing projects and dad and mom’s arguments and then it hit my mind like a Tsunami –there was Bevel DNA residing in my offspring. I jumped out of my bed and began to pace rapidly back and forth in my hallway and screamed, “You mean Dad is not my dad!” Tears poured down my cheeks as I sobbed uncontrollably. My always protector big sister gently beckoned me from the other side of the nation, “Calm down baby and breath.” She later shared that she never expected to hear that name again in this life and suddenly sixty years of tucked-away, locked-down truth came rumbling straight toward her like a high speed runaway freight train. Belinda’s body was trembling as her hands tightly gripped her kitchen table. Unable to move to get up or get dressed Belinda didn’t keep her promise and missed Easter Sunday Service.

When I hung up from Belinda I quickly called my daughter who usually doesn’t answer her phone so early but did this time because she thought I was calling with condolences for her grandmother who’d passed away earlier that morning. Upon answering the phone she was met by labored breathing, “Thea my father is not my father.” and in between tears I poured out the story while ensuring her that this was no April fool’s joke. Her reaction caused my son-in-law to get up and turn on the lights and try to figure out what all the commotion was about. After Thea hung up she immediately called her Aunt Belinda. Belinda confessed to her what she knew about the bad patch in my parents’ marriage and my mother’s secret that she helped to keep safe all those years. “Google him—his name is James Bevel. He was a civil rights leader” Belinda encouraged her. Thea googled him and pulled up his picture and was stunned by how much I looked like him. As the day went on Thea kept calling me to share amazing things she was learning about James Bevel online, including the fact that he has seventeen living children by nine different mothers and I was most likely the oldest.

The following weeks were a blur. My emotions were shot and jumped all over the place. I went from grief of knowing the man I always knew as my father was not; to feeling lost and displaced; to feeling like my whole life was a lie; to being angry at him and my mother for never telling me; to trying to figure who knew what; to feeling like the extended Fore family would now disown me. This news was difficult to share with my family. My brother Ike listened quietly and responded graciously concerning our deceased parents and to comfort me. Belinda asked permission to be the one to break it to my second oldest sister and our father’s only sister. My brother Billy slammed down the phone and hung up in my face after he accused me of digging up dirt on our mother and dishonoring our dad. I had a falling out with my niece for thinking the whole matter was funny and being insensitive by running ahead and telling my deceased sister’s son before I could.
I googled and devoured every newspaper and magazine article, historical journal and records I could get my hands on. I also heard and saw live recordings of Mr. Bevel. Rev. James Luther Bevel, now deceased, was best known as a strategist in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was his organized march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 that ultimately secured voting rights for African Americans by contributing to the passage of Voting Rights Acts, a landmark federal achievement of the Civil Rights Movement. He was also the architect of the 1965 Children’s March to Birmingham, Alabama and other pivotal moments of the movement. James Bevel also co-organized and hosted the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. in 1995.

I was excited as I learned the great things he accomplished. I was astonished that I had such genetic close ties to the Civil Rights Movement and was proud. As I dug and devoured everything from the Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s I begin to stumble across things that were not easy to hear or digest. I learned of James Bevel’s pivotal role in history and then of his plunge from grace and his tarnished and lost legacy.

The week of the DNA discovery was also the same week of the 50th year anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968 and there were lots of Civil Rights history being televised. My family intensely watched all the television specials and documentaries looking and listening and hungry for any bit of information regarding the Rev. James Bevel. There was little if anything ever said about Mr. Bevel but we could clearly point him out in all the film and photos with Dr. King, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and John Lewis.

In a few days I’d digested that the father I adored was not my father, that my biological father was the Father of Voters Rights and the architect of the historical Million Man March but had died a fallen and disgraced Civil Rights leader. Unlike Dr. King and the others renowned leaders he would never have a street, a park or library named after him robbing his children of this honor and their place in history.

My short-lived pride had come plundering to the ground when I pulled back the curtains and learned that James began to display irrational behavior after the death of Dr. King. The SCLC quickly cut ties and distanced themselves from him. He fell into a long association with fringe movements and formed a cult-like following that embraced his ideologies. He was the 1992 vice presidential running mate of independent candidate Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., who was then in a federal prison serving a sentence for mail fraud and income tax evasion. James also had dealings with Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The ultimate kick in the gut is when I heard terrible sexual abuse allegations and then read his daughter’s court testimony during the trial in which he was convicted of incest. He was released from jail awaiting to appeal his conviction. He died of pancreatic cancer six weeks later. Again, I was devastated. I wished my mother’s secret had never been unearthed. Why couldn’t he had just been a Civil Rights hero and that be his legacy plain and simple.
About six weeks after the initial revelation of this truth I couldn’t quiet the curiosity or the nagging pull to make a pilgrimage to Cleveland with my daughter and granddaughter in tow. We were met at the airport by my Uncle Charles Bevel who had confirmed the story and remembered when my mother and a bunch of small children lived downstairs from his sister Mary in the public housing complex on 55th & Quincy. During that trip, I met my Aunt Evelyn and other extended Bevel family. We spent several wonderfully sweet days in Cleveland the land where my mother’s children were born and her secret was once buried and safe. I knew I had to go back for a full circle moment to deal with stuff my mama left undone.
James Bevel’s first marriage was to Civil Rights Leader Diane Nash and she and their children live in Chicago. While riding around Cleveland I spontaneously suggested, “Uncle Charles, I think you need to go on a road trip with us to Chicago so I can see my brother Doug and my sister Sherri and I would love to meet Miss Diane Nash.” In his slow Mississippi accent he replied “Well Bay-bee I don’t know, I got to see what I got going.” Uncle Charles aka “Mississippi Charles Bevel” is a blues singer, actor who was nominated for a Tony Award for his stage play Nothing but the Blues. Uncle Charles chewed on the road trip idea for a day or so until he agreed and we traded in our car rental for a passenger van and hit the road.

Driving and talking nonstop I pulled out of Uncle Charles all of the family, history, secrets and civil rights stories that I could. On the way we stopped in Gary, Indiana right outside of Chicago to see my father’s sister Janice who was just a teenager when my parents were married. She would come to visit them in Cleveland and remembered Uncle Charles and the Bevel family vividly. She actually had in her possession a picture of a young Uncle Charles and her standing in front of the apartment building in 1956 before he left for the navy. Aunt Janice served up a country style feast of fried fish, fried chicken and all the trimmings when we arrived. We spent the afternoon with her laughing and reminiscing. Aunt Janice assured me that when she’d heard the news that her brother was not my biological father nothing changed for her. She grabbed me looked me in the eyes and firmly told me. “You were my niece the day you were born and you will be my niece to the day I die. That’s from my heart baby—you got to believe that.”

We continued on our journey to the windy city and went directly to my brother Doug’s house in Hyde Park. We were greeted on the sidewalk by my cousins Vera and Jimmy from St. Louis who had driven to Chicago just to meet us. I instantly fell in fall in love with my brother Doug when he opened the door and I saw my face mirrored in his expression. We hung out for days and soaked in each other’s presence. I met my sister Sherri and was honored to meet the now eighty-something Diane Nash. She spent hours sharing stories about the movement and other history with the young people who were there at Doug’s house. The following month I met my youngest sister when she came to California to see what all the fuss was about. I was blown away as she’s forty years younger than I am but looks exactly like me when I was her age. Later on, during the Christmas season I was invited to fly to Alabama to join two of my brothers on a visit to James Bevel’s burial site for the tenth anniversary of his death. It was moving to watch my brothers clean and lovingly place flowers on his grave. James, Jr. played the guitar as they both sang folk and freedom songs at the graveside as I videotaped them on my cell phone. We left there and took a short road trip to Atlanta so I could meet yet another sister from another mother.
The following year in May we made our way to Baltimore to my brother’s Law School graduation and during the ceremony and many festivities that followed I encountered many Bevel siblings and nieces and nephews for the first time. I‘ve met fourteen of my new siblings face to face and have spoken to the others over the phone.

Sometime after returning home, I decided to clean out an old funky footlocker that had moved around with me for years. Resisting my former husband’s pleas to dump it down through the years, I kept it because I knew that my prized possession, the letter my daddy wrote and sent me from the Philippines just days before his demise was buried among the piles of old papers and stuff in that old trunk. I found my birth certificate and there on it was his typed name and his signature forever recorded as my “Father.” After much digging and sorting I finally found that now almost unrecognizable treasure—the letter. Tears ran down my face. I weep as I slowly savored each word and read again the love letter my father had sent me so many years ago.

Despite the hurt caused by the revelation of my mother’s affair and my paternity, the reliving of pain and the light shed on our parent’s broken marriage, the grief of giving up what I held as truth for sixty years, the simultaneous emotions of amazement and disgust of my biological’s father legacy I began to see the good. It was good I had not died before the truth came out so that my grandchildren can know their true heritage and bloodline relatives. I now have an amazing loving eccentric musical Uncle and a huge extended family throughout this entire land. I absolutely fell in love with my beautiful brothers and adore all my new brilliant creative sisters. We call, text, facetime and now are logging into a weekly Zoom calls where Uncle Charles is telling stories about our family history to the entire Bevel clan.

I have tangible evident that my relationship with my dad was real. He brought me home from the hospital, he gave me his name, and he signed my birth certificate and he supported me financially. Looking back I was never treated differently. When he picked up the gang I was right in the midst. When they got ice cream, I did too. He was always good to me. He did love me. He left proof of it in writing for me to unearth it in an old tattered footlocker at a time when I would be reeling and I’d desperately need to hear his affirming words. I’m able to stand on the sure foundation that every little girl longs for—my daddy loved me and I matter. Standing on that solid ground of knowing who I am my heart is open to freely love and explore and know my ever expanding tribe that was unearthed for such a time in my life.

I work as an affordable housing Property Manager in San Francisco, working with many community  partners to rebuild and revitalize neglected neighborhoods and to bring hope and healing to our residents and our community at large.  I am the mother of a 42-year daughter and grandmother of three.  I am not a professional writer although I once had a story published in Guideposts and I write articles for some local newsletters and other miscellaneous opportunities.   

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