I received a call early yesterday morning informing me that Joyce Jefferson Bearden, one of my first “Detroit” friends had died. I met Joyce in the fall of 1959. I was eight years old and had just moved with my family from New Orleans to Detroit, Michigan. My family lived on Fullerton Street. Joyce and her family lived around the corner on the same block, but on Sturtevant Street. We were in the same class at Winterhalter Elementary School and later at Chrysler Elementary School. We met in the third grade and were in the same class all the way through the eighth grade.
In the third grade there was not a lot of difference in play between boys and girls. All the kids on the block and much of our neighborhood rode bikes together, we played in the street together and we played in the alley together.
I remember Joyce as an incredibly nice person whom I never heard her say a cross word about another person. The closest she got to saying something negative was once at Winterhalter Elementary Joyce told me not to look to closely at another girl because she felt the girl needed to wear a bra. I was so dumb and out of it I never saw what Joyce did not want me to see.
At Chrysler Elementary Joyce and her brother, Melvin, my brother Emory and I were in a car pool that brought us from the west side to the Layette Park neighborhood. Karen Batchelor and the Varner family (James, Aquito, Henri and Twinkle) were also in the car pool. There were also two polish bothers, Peter and I can’t remember his brother’s name, who also rode to school with us. Obviously this was before seat belt safety laws. While at Chrysler, Joyce and I were often partners during square dance time during gym class.
Our fathers were very good friends. Her dad, Melvin Sr. was a very successful business man. He ran what was probably the largest African American owned beauty and barber supply store in Detroit, Superior Beauty and Barber Supply. The whole family worked in the store. Mr. Jefferson was the CEO. Joyce and her mother often worked behind the counters and young Mel helped with the distribution of goods. During my junior and senior year of high school I led a band that played R&B and often played cabarets and high school dances on Friday and Saturday evenings. In the beginning our first job payed $5 per person, it was at the Book Cadillac Hotel, which is now the Westin. By the end of high school we often might make $100 each. If my band played a party on Friday evenings, at 9 AM on Saturday mornings I would go to the Superior Beauty and Barber Supply and Mr. Jefferson would cash the check for my band. To this day I think about how incredible it was that a black man running a business could and would cash checks for my band that were written from total strangers for up to $700 – at 9 AM! I cannot think of many business people today would could or would do such a thing! Often, when I would show up on Saturday mornings, waiting for her father to cash the check for the band, Joyce would be behind the counter alongside of her mother, and simply would smile at me.
Joyce attended Kingswood High School, which is a female counterpart of the prestigious Cranbrook Academy, in Birmingham, Michigan. Because I attended Cass Technical High School which is in the city of Detroit, Joyce and I did not see much of each other during that period. However, I did go to visit her couple of times while she attended the high school and lived on campus. Looking out for her friend from the old neighborhood, Joyce arranged for my band to play a major social event at her school.
The “Riot”, or “Civil Disturbance” that took place in July of 1967 brought our families closer together. Mr. Jefferson’s business was burned to the ground, I think by accident, but it was a total loss. He called my dad early on the morning of the “Riot” and they went to check things out. By then, my father was on the only African American elected and seated on the Detroit City Council. Mr. Jefferson was his campaign finance director. Detroit had had two African Americans elected to the City Council prior to my dad – one in 1958 , William Patrick, who served only one term, and one in the late 1800’s. My dad received some threats the first night of the “Riot.” Our family spent the first night at a hotel. We spent the second night of the riot at the home of Bob and Linda Williams in an area that seemed so far away, it seems like a joke today, but it was the neighborhood near Mumford High School. Joyce and I stayed up all night talking and laughing like we did not have a care in the world. Our younger brothers, Melvin Jr. and Emory, did the same thing. The city was on fire, neighborhoods were burning, but we were having a ball!
Joyce and I both went to college in Boston. She attended Tufts and I attended Boston University. Even though we were in the same city, we did not see much of each other. After that our lives went in different directions. Joyce became an on air news anchor in Baltimore, Md. I went on to Divinity School and returned to work with my father in Detroit.
Joyce eventually married James Bearden, who also lived in our neighborhood, but a few blocks over. James and Joyce built a wonderful life together. They have one daughter, Emily. I cannot say enough good things about James because he was such a great husband to Joyce. Even when Joyce became afflicted with memory loss, James stood by Joyce to the end. I saw Joyce about two years ago when he brought her back from Miami to Detroit for a brief visit. Joyce did not know who I was. She looked me straight in the face and asked me, “Who are you?” It broke my heart to realize that she did not recognize me. Just when I thought all hope was lost, she looked at me, smiled and said, “Mischievous.” I fell out laughing when I realized that even in her dementia; she remembered what I was like as a boy.
Joyce Jefferson Bearden is survived by her husband, Atty. James Bearden, her daughter, Emily, grandaughters Vivean and Vera, her father and mother, Melvin and Helen Jefferson, Sr, her brother, Atty. Melvin Jefferson and his wife, Judge Patricia Jefferson and their children.
The memorial service for Joyce will take place on Saturday, September 12, 2015 the Plymouth United Church of Christ, 600 E. Warren Ave., Detroit, Michigan 48201 with a family hour at 2 PM and the memorial service at 3 PM. I will preside over the final homecoming service for my childhood friend.
written by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Hood III
Additional Prayers, Photos and Meditations from Rev. Hood at https://nicholashoodiiiministries.wordpress.com/