Kirk Quarterman, 3x Great-Grandson of Zeke Quarterman
I was born in Chatham County hospital in Savannah, Georgia on August 3, 1971. My parents were Andre’ (Andrew Jr.) and Cynthia Quarterman, who, at the time were married with a one-year old baby girl, my sister Kim. Andre’ is the 4x great-grandson of Zeke, and the son of Andrew Quarterman Sr., my grandfather. Zeke Quarterman was my 5x great-grandfather. Shortly after my birth, my parents, my sister and I relocated to Topeka, Kansas where I spent most of my life, and where I currently reside. My parents’ relationship was short lived following the cross country move. They endured each other long enough for my younger brother (Kristopher) to be conceived, but not much longer than that. From the one-sided stories I was told growing up, they were too different to coexist. My father left the family and returned to Savannah, and for the rest of my early childhood it was me, my mom, and my two siblings. Growing up with my mom as the sole parent in my life, the subject of my father was off limits, unless initiated by her, which was rarely. I was left to assume that as a result of numerous disagreements, and sometimes physical altercations, separation and divorce was the natural destination for the two of them.
Now I wonder: What role did the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow–the violence against Black communities in Georgia–play in contributing to this “natural destination” and the troubles my parents, and other Black parents, faced?
We had a decent childhood, with a close-knit, small family circle. My mom, being unemployed, got into a government assistance program that provided minimal income and tuition assistance in exchange for her earning college credits to help her with her education and future employment endeavors. We moved into the New-town housing projects in North Topeka, where we resided until right before my tenth birthday. Shortly after moving to the projects, my mom was influenced by some of the veteran project dwellers to embrace the government assistance lifestyle full-fledged, to stop going to school and “enjoy the freedoms” of living off of the government via food stamps and section-eight housing. We were one of the few families that didn’t have grandparents in the household; mine lived in an adjacent circle. That’s how we distinguished what part of the complex you belonged in, by the color of your circle. The housing complex was a group of four connected units arranged in three sets that formed a cul-de-sac style, or a horseshoe of apartment groups with a long road going through the middle of them, a YMCA at one end, and a community center at the other. My mom and her circle of friends spent their days going to and from each other’s apartments drinking coffee, gossiping, and smoking weed, while we, the project kids, had free rein on all that the neighborhood had to offer. We ran around unsupervised, seeking out adventures to consume our days until the streetlights came on, because it was universally understood by all of us that streetlights coming on was the curfew. It did feel like freedom then, to me.
Now I wonder: Were these “freedoms” misconceived, both by me and by my mother? How did the legacy of oppression and dehumanization of Black communities result in varying levels of depression that may have begged for self-medication, and produced a hopelessness for one’s future? Was this really freedom?
Early on, I didn’t realize the level of poverty that we were immersed in because everyone around us was experiencing the same economic status, so we had what felt like a happy existence. The parents out there, my mom in particular, were magicians in the way they balanced meager finances, because like I said earlier, I never realized how little we actually had. A normal day in those times would consist of us waking up, going downstairs for cereal and cartoons, followed by going outside to play with the neighborhood kids. Diversity was scarce in the projects, with an occasional White family transitioning in and out of the complex for short periods of time. I say transitioning, because for them it seemed to only be temporary residency, whereas for many of the Black families, it was long-term, with multiple generations residing in each unit. The temporary residents, White families, usually had the advantage of two parents in the home, and looking back, that aided in them moving on more rapidly than the majority of us.
Now I wonder: What systemic forces contributed to the single parent household, and was a two-parent household really the only, or even the main, structural advantage those temporary White families enjoyed?
We didn’t really spend a lot of time with my grandmother, and great-grandmother, who lived in an adjacent circle, even though proximity was within walking distance. I’m not sure if there was a rift between the two of them and my mom, but I wasn’t included in the information of every situation. All I knew was that there were these two older kids that lived with them. I noticed that they started coming around a lot, for dinner, then to spend the night, and soon after to live with us. They were my older brothers Kevin and Keith, which was strange, because I knew them, but I didn’t know how we were related. They were my mom’s two sons from relationships prior to her and my father’s marriage. Once they moved in with us permanently, we moved to a three-bedroom unit. Once the move was complete, we saw less and less of my mom. With Kevin and Keith in the house, mom had full time sitters for me, Kim, and Kris, so she went out what seemed like almost every weekend. Kevin, as a teenager, represented a father-figure in the household, as he was left in-charge of the house, which included disciplining as necessary. I guess we were fortunate to have Kevin in that role, because a father in any capacity in the projects was rare. Some of the other kids that I played with back then also had older siblings that fell into similar roles, and if not a sibling, a live-in uncle or aunt was present. We had a strong sense of community growing up in the projects, because everyone knew everyone, so it was common practice for someone’s parent to discipline you, and look out for you along with their own children.
Kevin was a great role model, he was great in school, always kept a job, and would always bring us food home from his job, which we would eagerly anticipate. Kevin had a brother, and a sister on his father’s side that would come out and spend time with us during the summers. They would hang out with us in the evenings, but never overnight. I really looked up to Kevin, because of his strong work ethic, and the way he always seemed in control of any situation. To this day, Kevin is a great example of a brother’s love. He still calls at least once a month to check in and see how everyone is doing.
I looked up to my brother Keith for the way he’d get an idea, and nothing could deter him from executing his plan. I spent more one-on-one time with Keith, because he had more free time. Keith would spend time telling me about things like mythology and constellations. We would go for walks, and he’d talk about what he wanted his life to be like, and how you had to make things happen, you couldn’t sit back and wait on life. I admired them greatly for who they’ve become, and how influential they were in my becoming the man I am.
Now I wonder: What were the strongest positive forces that contributed to Keith and Kevin becoming the great role models they were?
I did not see my dad again until I was twenty-two, when in the summer of 1994, my dad came to town and convinced Kim and Kris to follow him back to Savannah. I was glad to see my dad, but at the same time I was internally suppressing feelings of abandonment with him being there in person for the first time that I could remember. My dad, who stayed with me during his visit, left without them while I was at work, without telling them, but that didn’t deter them. They were going anyway. After a while, I decided to give Savannah a try, though Kris had already returned to Topeka by the time I left for Savannah in December. When I arrived in Savannah, I called Kim, and she met me at a Burger King on MLK boulevard. She later told me that this one of the worst parts of town.
Now I wonder: How do we define the “worst” part of town? If by poverty levels or crime rates, then what societal and systemic factors might be contributing to the economic depression or high crime in those areas? If just by sight, then how many Black communities do we refer to as “dangerous” or “bad” vs. “good” or “safe” communities that are White?
I was amazed to see so many Black people. I had never experienced such density of Black people in one setting, other than sporting events or concerts. We didn’t have much family growing up, so I had never been to a family reunion, or any large gathering of family or Black people. When Kim came to meet me, I was excited to get to my family’s house, but I was told that I would have to wait until the next day, because I would have to get permission to stay. This was hard for me to understand, because we were family. I chalked it up to unfamiliar southern customs. The next day, we went out to the lake, which is what we call the family estate. That’s the first time that I could remember meeting my grandparents, and for the first time in my life, I met my grandfather. That to me was amazing, because I had never known a grandfather. We bonded instantly, but my grandmother told me to be patient with my father, because this will be a new experience for him too. I had never looked at the situation from his perspective, but she was right. I came there expecting to be welcomed with open arms, but it was a learning process, they didn’t know me either. As the day proceeded, I was reacquainted with my uncle and aunts one by one. It was great to be around family. My father and my relationship was somewhat strained at the beginning, because I came into the situation with the attitude that I wasn’t going to be treated like a child, and I didn’t know what he was expecting, but at the same time, I was looking forward to getting to know my dad. I was also disappointed with him for him leaving Kim and Kris after building their hopes up. I spent a lot of time getting to know my grandparents, because my dad was always working, so my first couple of weeks I hung out with them. My cousin Randy helped me get a job at the sugar refinery loading ships with sugar for overseas transport, so I would spend my days working, and evenings in town with my new girlfriend who I met at the mall. Her name was LaTarsha, and after dating for a year, she would become my wife.
After we married, Tarsha and I moved to more familiar surroundings for me, Topeka. After many years of working multiple jobs to support my family, in 2013, at forty-two years of age, I graduated from Washburn University with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree. My main motivation for finishing my college education was to show my children the importance of continued education, and how it plays a role in securing your future and enhancing your earning potential. I hope that is what they see when they look at my life path. It was always my mission to become the type of father and male role model that I had always longed for growing up, so I made it a priority to be present for any event that my children had, no matter how small. I was there whenever any of them needed me, and so I feel I have achieved my lifelong goal.
Now, Tarsha and I are approaching our 25th wedding anniversary, and our children, and our grandson are healthy and thriving. I’m still employed at Goodyear, and Tarsha is managing a cosmetic retail store. We make the trip back to Savannah to see family and friends at least once a year, but with today’s technology we FaceTime with family daily, so we’re very connected. Our plan is to move closer to Savannah, if not directly to Savannah within the next two years. We were just blessed again with news from my eldest son KJ, that he and his girlfriend are expecting a son early next year, so we’re excited about that.
I wonder: What more will I learn about my family–particularly my father–and the place that was originally my home, when I return? I am open to it all.