Minnesota senior credits Alex Haley for encouraging her to write
Dr. Thelma Battle-Buckner for most of her four-score-plus life has forged a “blessed path” from the South to Minnesota. “I just did what became natural for me to do,” she admits.
Born in Mississippi to Nathan and Bessie Battle, Battle-Buckner is one of 13 children. She graduated from high school in 1949, got married in 1950, and moved to Minnesota in 1952. She has split her years living in the area almost equally between both the Twin Cities.
However, a traumatic experience as a youngster back in the Deep South stuck with her into her adulthood. It was her 12th birthday, she recalls: “I was 12 years old, and these three White men drove up and wanted to see my mom. I was standing between my mother and father. These three guys threatened my parents — my mom in particular — and told her they wanted her land.”
Even though her sharecropper parents refused, the incident “made me afraid of White people,” continues Battle-Buckner, adding that the fear would intensify around the same time the following year, so much so that she “[did] not want to see age 13 because I thought something terrible would happen again. Every year [thereafter] coming up to my birthday, I would get this crazy feeling that something else was going to happen.”
She tried talking with family members, “but [they] would tell me to leave it alone,” notes Battle-Buckner. But her insistence eventually led her to start looking into her family history, similar to Alex Haley’s Roots.
“It wasn’t until my mom and dad went to heaven that I was able to go back and do the research,” says Battle-Buckner of her book The Battle of a Daytime Nightmare (2013), which traces her family history back to the 1830s.
While working on the book, Battle-Buckner twice met Haley. The first time was when Haley was in town for an appearance at a local television station.
“The producer asked me if I would like to meet with him and hang out with him,” says Battle-Buckner on spending time with the famed author in the “green room.” “It was just a wonderful time, just two of us. He wanted to know more about me. I told him I was working on a book but I was afraid I was taking too long.
“He [gave] me good instruction, good direction from his story and his book,” she continues. Haley told Battle-Buckner, ‘You are not taking too long. Sometimes it takes a long time to find the truth and then tell it.’ He encouraged me to keep on and finish the book.
“The next time I saw him, he came to speak for the Urban League breakfast for Martin Luther King Day, shortly before he passed away [in 1992]. I was standing in line with a friend of mine getting his autograph. But when [the line] got to me, he stopped and said, ‘I remember you… How’s the book going?’ Wow, he made me feel like a celebrity.”
Actually, Battle-Buckner is a celebrity as a member of the Prepriers Gospel Singers and lead vocalist for the Charlottes Gospel Singers as well as a regular on the Your Church of the Air for 35 years on KSTP-TV. She once performed her life story at the Ordway Theatre in 1996.
“Whenever a door of opportunity opened up, I just stepped in it,” says Battle-Buckner. “I don’t feel like it made me any different than anybody else. I am just a person who was blessed to be in certain positions at certain times. There were opportunities and I grabbed it.”
Battle-Buckner is now senior pastor emeritus at Gospel Temple COGIC Church in St. Paul — she handed over her pastoral duties to her son Dwight Buckner, a Luther College graduate, last year. “I feel real good about that,” she says proudly.
She offers advice to today’s generation that education is important “to prepare themselves to be in position when the door opens.” She advises parents to raise their children the right way. “Respect begins at home. If you say ‘no’ to a child, you shouldn’t let the child manipulate you in[to] [changing] your mind.”
Finally, “When [young people] begin to respect each other and respect the moral authority, we would be a better world,” predicts Battle-Buckner.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org