Nearly 400 people flocked to the legendary ballroom at Wilmer's Park in February to pay their final respects to the man who orchestrated so many good times there. Arthur Wilmer, who died at 86, was remembered for his kind spirit, his fun-loving heart--and his fly wardrobe.
There were aging divas in black furs and fancy top hats and men decked out in their finest suits. Friends and relatives took turns on the stage recounting decades-old memories of wild times at the park. The crowd howled at the memory of Jackie Wilson dancing so hard that he fell through the stage. (The audience just shrugged it off as part of his act.)
All those weepy recollections were almost enough to make one pine for the park's segregation-era heyday. But 20-year-old Gordon Parks III's turn on the stage planted the event firmly in the '90s.
Arthur Wilmer's grandson wore a shiny leather jacket and a crisp, white, button-down shirt. Parks clutched the microphone, bringing it close to his thin goatee and mustache.
"This place right here is a living black monument," Parks told the mourners. "And being that it is a black monument, that makes my grandfather a black monument. . . . That's why we're here to celebrate his life. Not to let that energy go. To keep it strong."
The days of the chitlin circuit are alien to Parks, who is a theater major at the University of Maryland at College Park and an aspiring rapper. His youth has been one of multihued classrooms and neighborhoods and a new kind of music pioneered by African Americans: rap.
It was fitting that Parks's tribute to Wilmer, a man who learned to embrace many musical styles, was performed in this new musical language. Parks stood on the stage and delivered a rap song he composed to honor his grandfather:
. . . He built his park,
a place where black people could escape the world's evil,
of the lie separate but equal.
The great musicians who played this park's stage,
to me, it's like the dark age.
But to the older, the older people,
it was the star days.
The chitlin circuit, underground railroads of musical olds.
When I look around at this hallowed place,
I'm refusing to go,
into a world where Arthur won't exist.
But he does exist.
And I feel his heart in the pit of my heart,
which feels ripped apart.
Wiping tears, fighting fears,
I sit here,
writing on this paper,
to savor this clear
memory of when I was a child.
He told me, "You can be whatever you want to be."
And then he smiled.
CAPTION: Leslie Parks, daughter of Wilmer's Park's founder, talks with her son Gordon Parks III at the park. "This place right here is a living black monument," Gordon Parks said.