I think often about Tanese Wilson. I met her about twenty-five years ago on a visit to her parent’s dairy in the small community of Waco, North Carolina. At that time Doug Wilson, Tanese’s father, was one of three remaining black dairymen in the state. It was a small farm, milking fewer than 100 cows, with adjoining fields for hay, corn for silage, and a large garden. It was a family operation and, more than most small farmers, Doug depended on his family for help. His wife had developed multiple sclerosis some years earlier that left her unable to do any of the hard work of farming and then Doug lost his left arm to the PTO shaft on his tractor. Tanese, though still in high school, became his right-hand person, getting up long before daylight to help Doug milk, going to school, and then going back to the barn long after dark for the evening milking. She spoke to me about wanting to join the service after high school so she could learn a trade and help provide for the family she wanted to have.
She got pregnant her senior year. As determined as her father, she finished school and got a job as a secretary with a local business. After her child was born, the child’s father refused to provide any support and Tanese made it clear he would not see his child until he did. She continued living with her parents and went back to work, her mother and grandmother caring for her baby while she was on the job. One day, sitting behind her desk, surely with a photograph of her young daughter in front of her, he walked into the office, pulled out a handgun, and shot her. She died before the ambulance arrived.
I visited the Wilsons some months later. It had not been an easy time and it was difficult for Doug to talk about any of it. The man would be in jail for a long time, but Doug and Genevieve had had to fight his family for custody of the baby – a fight they won, but left them emotionally and financially drained. Despite all of this - his injury, his wife’s illness, his daughter’s death, their financial struggles – Doug remained humble, thankful for his granddaughter’s presence in their lives, and the memory she provided them of Tanese.