'See You on the Other Side!' My Family, 2 Presidents, and the African American Dream

I was born 10 miles from the Seneca Quarry and spent my earliest years in the D.C. suburb of Gaithersburg, where my parents worked for IBM. As it happens, my great-grandfather Will Johnson -- the same one who gave our family the 26th president's name -- was a biracial child, half-Irish and half-black. To this day, over a hundred years later, African Americans with hazel-green eyes and strawberry-blondish hair can be spotted among my uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, whenever my family gathers.

Passing the Castle, I made a left on Jefferson Drive and proceeded along the National Mall towards the Washington Monument. In taking this route, I most likely covered the same steps that chain gangs of slaves for sale once walked as they were paraded through downtown Washington, a routine occurrence in the 1840s.

Turning right on 15th Street, I headed north towards the White House. Not far along, on the right-hand side, is a memorial for the famed Union general William Tecumseh Sherman. He was unapologetic in his view that black people were inferior to whites. But as his military campaigns marched through the South, he freed all the blacks he encountered. Contemplating what to do with these newly freed men, he met with black Baptist ministers. In the end, he decided to issue Special Field Order 15, which provided each freed family with a 40-acre plot in a swath of coastal land from South Carolina to Florida.

My grandfather Theodore Roosevelt Johnson Sr. was also a Baptist minister. He grew up in the tobacco and cotton country of rural South Carolina, the grandson of an Irish man and a black woman. He went on to marry my grandmother Louisa, the child of a Trinidadian immigrant. The American melting pot was brewing, even then.

I never met that grandfather, the man whose named was passed down to me. Two years before I was born, he gave the eulogy for a recently deceased member of his congregation. As he concluded, he stood tall in his church, raised his hand to the sky, and said these haunting last words: "I'll see you on the other side." He then promptly sat down in his chair and died, right there in his very own bully pulpit.

Soon after passing the Sherman monument, I arrived at the White House grounds for the meeting with President Obama and the other White House Fellows. We began in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and moved on through the West Wing of the White House to the Oval Office. While there, he discussed some of the office's artifacts and history, and then led us to the door in the Oval Office that opens to his private study.

On the other side of the door was a picture of President Theodore Roosevelt. After Obama explained how the picture was sent to him, a classmate mentioned that I had been named after our 26th President. I shared my family's story and spoke my great-grandparents' names as proudly as I could, there in the Oval Office, believing they watched from the heavens.

Our visit came to an end and I left the Oval Office, pausing just outside the door. On the other side of the hallway, I stared into the Roosevelt Room - at another picture of Theodore Roosevelt. It was there, on the other side of the hallway from the president's office that I thought back to my grandfather's final words, and they took on the chilling quality of a prophecy: "I'll see you on the other side."

I walked out of the White House, conscious that I was wearing the uniform of the same Navy where Teddy Roosevelt served as an Assistant Secretary, and that I was a graduate of the alma maters of Booker T. Washington and Roosevelt -- Hampton and Harvard Universities.

In one spring afternoon, I'd retraced my family's entire American journey. Beginning at Independence Avenue, I'd glimpsed our African past, moved through our history of slavery and segregation, and ended at the White House, where I fulfilled my great-grandparents' American dream - the one encapsulated in the name they passed down to me. It was a dream that the offspring of slaves would one day enjoy the full benefits of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Here I was, Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III -- the family name emancipated at last.

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Theodore R. Johnson is a writer and naval officer. He has served as a military professor at the Naval War College and as a 2011 – 2012 White House Fellow. 

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