I remember the day I met her, a Tuesday afternoon in 1976 at her 10th floor apartment in the Riverton Houses in Harlem. I went there to enlist her participation in a health education program I was developing for a hospital in the community. She welcomed me with a warm smile and big, brown, twinkling eyes that illuminated her caramel-colored face. With a gentle wave of her hand she offered me a seat on a couch in the living room and after adjusting her head-tie, which matched her orange and red African dress, and sat beside me.
We talked like old friends, first about the numerous plaques decorating the living room walls, then about the program, in which she readily agreed to participate. Needless to say I was delighted, but what made me even happier was her accepting me as a member of The Family which, for her, included every one of African descent. For Alma Vessells John was the quintessential community mother who dedicated her life to serving her people, most of whom, she said, “Are God-fearing, hardworking and upstanding citizens. And there isn’t anything wrong with the other five percent that more love, more understanding and more opportunity wouldn’t help.” Sister John, as she insisted on being called, helped people.
I remember those Saturday mornings when she would share a wealth of information with actors, students, entrepreneurs who came to her place seeking assistance in starting a career, developing a business, or on locating grants to finance a college education. She would also share her credo “If you know, teach. If you don’t, learn. Each one, reach one. Each one, teach one.”
I remember her visiting schools and telling the children “any people who could build the pyramids and the Sphinx in the middle of the Sahara Desert in Africa can do anything.” And, I remember how she would promote me at social affairs, or whenever we went to the theater. At the end of the play, she would grab my hand, march me backstage and take me right up to the producer or director “This is Estelle Whiting. She’s a writer, so take her card. And you (turning to me) take his!”
Sister John was born on September 27, 1906, and grew up in South Philadelphia in a shotgun house as the eldest of nine children. After her mother’s death in 1927, she did domestic work and other menial jobs to help her carpenter father support the family. Despite hard times, “Many good things happened to us during our upbringing,” she said. “A neighbor gave my father a copy of Marcus Garvey’s newspaper The Negro World, and Dad made us all read it. It instilled in us racial pride and a desire to make our own employment. My brothers collected wooden crates, chopped them up and sold the pieces for 25 cents. After school, I worked as a vegetable peeler making $3 an hour. We were a happy family. ” But Sister John wanted more than a vegetable-peeling career. So she came to New York and studied nursing at New York University and Harlem Hospital School of nursing. After working at Harlem Hospital for ten years, she went on to achieve many lofty goals.
She founded a school for practical nurses, and established a radio program called Brown Women in White which aired on 69 NBC stations. Later on, she created the Alma John Shoppers’ Guide on radio station WWRL, and Black Pride, the biweekly talk show she produced and hosted on WPIX Channel 11. At some point in her busy life she married C. Lisley John, with whom she had no children, but enjoyed 40 years of happiness.
A few years before her death she established the Alma John Workshops Association, Inc., an organization dedicated to community service. Sister John died on April 8, 1986, the year she was celebrating what she called a silver anniversary in radio and television, a golden anniversary in nursing and a diamond anniversary on the planet earth. What a life. And when my gaze falls upon the the gray and white candy dish she gave me, I remember.
The Alma John archives are housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York City.