Frank Crowder Jr., a third-grade elementary school student, would walk past impressive houses in a shady, tree-lined White neighborhood to get across the tracks to his home on the Black side of town in Grenada, Mississippi, daily. The year was 1977. Segregation was over but still in style.
“Back then we were impoverished,” Frank remarks. “You can imagine the living conditions for Black people in Mississippi during that time.” Every day, young Frankie envisioned living in the beautiful antebellum-style homes he’d never seen inside of. Taking note of elegant details like the Southern tradition of establishing the home with wrought-iron insignia—“GOLLADAY HOUSE est. 1850” or “THE BROWN HOUSE est. 1904”—the little boy vowed to himself, “One of these days, I will own one of these houses.”
Maggie Bell Hooper, Frank’s grandmother, worked in the Boyd House, built in 1946, as a maid for 11 years. She and her husband, Napoleon Hooper Sr., who worked for Illinois Central Railroad Company, had nine children. Due to his job, Napoleon Sr. was only home on the weekends. Maggie waited until her children were a little older before taking work outside the house.
Frank’s aunt, Mary Hooper Robinson (b. 1941), recalls, “My mom was hired to work there [in 1955] when I was a teenager. After I graduated high school, got married and had a couple of kids, I was hired as the cook in the evenings to prepare dinner. I worked for the Boyds from 1963-1966.” Although “the help” could not come to the front door, Mary remembers the Boyds as nice people who had elaborate parties and proved supportive of her family. “Working for them was sort of a status symbol,” Mary adds.
Minnie Hooper (b. 1944), also Frank’s aunt, worked for the Boyds during summers as a young girl, cleaning the pool with her sister Beatrice for extra money. “Their daughter’s bedroom was a fantasy to me. It was bigger than the parents’ room, and she had a walk-in closet. When we would eat lunch, they would allow my sister and me to eat inside at the breakfast nook.” This was unheard of in the 1950s Deep South. “I would look forward to that.”
Prominent in Grenada, John Boyd owned a construction and oil company. Several of Frank’s family members—including his uncle Joe Parks (b.1936)—married to Hooper matriarch and eldest of the nine, Vera Louise (née Hooper) Parks. Joe was 19 when he started working for Boyd Construction Company. “I worked in his mechanic shop as a trainee for four years,” he says. “We fixed machines used to build highways.” Joe repaired machines all winter to be ready for summer construction jobs. “[Mr. Boyd’s] machine operators and truck drivers were all White. The builders of the bridges, overpasses and roads were Black.”
Mr. Parks, who now lives in Saginaw, Michigan, continues: “That’s how it was, up until Dr. King came through in the 1960s and made the turnover.” Desegregation may have been a difficult notion for most southern Whites, but Mr. Boyd respected the law, and so would his employees.
“Mr. Boyd called all the mechanics in for a meeting,” he recalls. Joe was the only Black mechanic in the shop. “He said, ‘It’s a great change now. [Joe Parks] will be drinking from the same fountain and using the bathroom just like anybody else in here. Anybody who can’t handle it, I will pay you off today.” Mr. Boyd made that clear once more to a mechanic using racial slurs and threatening Joe. “I didn’t have any more racial issues after that.” He worked at the company for 10 years.
Frank, who is a retired chief master sergeant of Air Force and CEO of Defense Consulting Services, now lives in San Antonio, Texas, with his wife Pam and daughter, Paige. Confiding his dream of owning “one of those houses, one of these days” only to his wife, he set his sights on the Boyd House. For years, he and Pam had a ritual. When they would visit Grenada, “My wife would say, ‘We have to go by and take a picture of your house.’ ”
In 2014, Frank, 47, revealed his now 40-year-old dream to his cousins at a family reunion. Three weeks later, he traveled to Grenada. On his way to see an aunt, he made his way to take his routine photo of the house. As he prepared to take the picture from his car, a White couple walked out of the front door. Without pretext of Mississippi culture or race, Frank asked, “Hey, is this your house?”
Introducing himself, his attraction to the house and its history, the driven dreamer stated, “My relatives worked for the Boyds. My relatives served in this house.” The couple, Harvey and Lauren Leslie, explained that they’d bought the house at auction. They lived in another home in the same community. Lauren says to Frank, “I could not stand to see one of Grenada’s finest, oldest properties fall into disrepair.” The Leslies purchased the home with the intent of restoring it. Beyond that, they had no plans. The couple offered Frank a tour.
“I had never been inside!” he says. Touring the house, the couple pointed out the changes they’d made and efforts to keep original fixtures. All Maggie Bell’s grandson could think was, “Wow, my grandmother used to open those cabinets. My grandmother used to clean these original fixtures. I was blown away, totally tripping that I had this opportunity.” As Frankie was leaving, they asked him for a business card. When he returned from the car with his card, “Harvey says, ‘Frank, would you like to buy the Boyd House?” Frank and Harvey shook on it.
The purchase was made in January 2015. The Hoopers’ ribbon-cutting ceremony is set for August 1. “My grandmother’s brother will bless the house. My cousin will do spoken word based on my aunt’s memories of working in the Boyd House. In the interior, the elders will hang the photographs of Maggie Bell and Napoleon Sr.” Frankie’s renaming of the Boyd House is a nod to his grandmother and perhaps a wink of validation to a little boy’s dream. The wrought-iron sign will read THE HOOPER HOUSE, EST. 2015.
“After that, it’s a good ol’ country gathering—it’s delta blues, food, dancing, fun! Everybody on the front lawn!” There are no coincidences; the stars aligned perfectly for the Hoopers. Frank’s childhood vision was destined from the door, where his family may now cakewalk through the front.
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn’t always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Joicelyn Dingle travels to find the Coolest Black Family in America exclusively for EBONY.com. She splits her time between Savannah and Brooklyn. She is currently completing a documentary on the making of Honey magazine and the 1990s urban publishing era. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @editorialgenius.