Struggles down South: Life lessons from true survivor Shelley Stewart
Think your life has been hard? Imagine growing up black in the legally segregated South and, at the age of five, seeing your father kill your mother with an ax. Imagine a relative with whom you've sought refuge stripping you naked, hanging you from the ceiling and whipping you until the blood runs then rubbing salt into the cuts. Imagine having to set out on your own into a terror-filled world when you're six years old. For Shelley Stewart, these were just the opening blows in a life that is all the more inspiring because of the horrors that set it in motion. He shares his experiences in a new memoir, The Road South, which he co-wrote with Nathan Hale Turner Jr.
Born in the Rosedale section of Birmingham, Alabama, Stewart had little going for him at first beyond the ability to read well and a sense of compassion that kept him from turning mean and bitter. Living where he could including a brief but idyllic residence with a white family Stewart managed to stay in school, reunite with the brothers from whom he had been separated following his mother's death and lay the foundation for a successful career in radio. In the pursuit of that career, Stewart became a vocal champion for civil rights and a friend of such musical up-and-comers as Otis Redding, Gladys Knight and Isaac Hayes. Now the owner of Birmingham radio station WATV and vice chairman of one of the largest marketing and public relations companies in the South, Stewart recently retired from half a century of being on the air. Except for a few eye-opening weeks in New York City after high school, a disheartening stint in the Air Force and brief professional forays into St. Louis and Nashville, Stewart has remained a resident in the city of his birth.
"I don't have any psychological residues from the past," Stewart says, speaking by phone from his office in Birmingham. But then he amends this assertion by admitting that he has developed an aversion to certain fashionable excuses for failure. "Abuse, race, homelessness," he says, ticking them off one by one. "I realized I had gone through every darn one of those categories." While he speaks with quiet confidence, his voice has none of that unctuous, overbearing tone that so often afflicts the self-made. In fact, there are moments when he seems truly astounded that his life has turned out so well.
Stewart says he began talking openly about his background in the early '90s after he was invited to speak at a Birmingham high school. On his way to the auditorium, he overheard a student remark, "Look at him. He's from a bigshot family, and he's come here to tell us something." Instead of giving his prepared speech, Stewart looked out at the skeptical faces and began talking about his past.
"I didn't write The Road South for anything more than to help and inspire others," he says. "If just sharing my experiences matters that you don't have to hate, that you don't have to give up, that you have to respect and love yourself, that you must be educated in order to communicate with others then maybe [the book] won't be in vain."
Stewart credits his first grade teacher, Mamie Foster, with endowing him with the self-worth that kept him going through the darkest times. "She pulled me to the side," he recalls, "and said, 'There's something different about you. You can do anything you want. Just continue learning.' " Despite doggedly following her advice, Stewart was heartbroken when his high school principal failed to recommend him for a college scholarship, even though he had top grades. Many years later, though, Miles College corrected this injustice by awarding him an honorary doctorate.
Even when the worst abuses were behind him, Stewart's road remained bumpy. Becoming a popular disc jockey with both white and black fan clubs did not shield him from the racism institutionalized in the radio stations where he worked. His marriages never lived up to his hopes. His brothers never put into practice the examples of thrift, hard work and self-improvement he set for them. Most disappointing, he confesses in the book, was his inability to create the kind of warm and close-knit family he longed for as a boy.
"I still drive back into Rosedale now and then," Stewart says. "As a matter of fact, I'll be doing a book signing in a store that's located 200 yards from where my mother was killed." Sixty-three years past that awful event, the author says he remains upbeat and committed to the benefits of interdependence. "I can't help myself without helping someone else," he insists. "That will be my belief as long as I live."