The Living Histories of Athens: Dr. Walter Allen, Sr.

Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stairway.

Dr. Walter Allen Sr. remembers this poem, “Mother and Son”, by Langston Hughes quite vividly as a common phrase his mother told him.

She used to sing and hum to him as a kid which first exposed him to his love for music and words.

He was born and raised in the small town of Allendale, South Carolina. His family was very poor with not very much, but he still “grew up like other children playing, dancing, clowning, never realizing what tomorrow would bring and enjoying every moment.”

After his father died, he remembered growing up over night. “One morning I was a member of the family, the next, I was helping to make the family.”

His mother did the best she could. She took the role of mother and father, working both as a parent and doing jobs such as laundry for White families for only a dollar and a quarter a week.

When Dr. Allen graduated early from high school at the age of sixteen to study music at Claflin college in Orangeburg South Carolina, he questioned himself on whether he would be able to stay. His mother said, “Walter, there’s always a way. You have a music scholarship, there is always a way out of no ways.”

But to every man there openeth a high way and a low; And every man decideth the way his soul shall go.

Dr. Allen remembers this poem by John Oxenham as it coincides with his decision to go the highway. According to an interview with the ACCA for Older Americans month, he achieved a doctorate from UGA, five master’s degrees, and countless certificates. He also took his music career overseas. Serving in the military after college, he was a musician during the Korean War and later in the 1990s, he taught musicat the U.S. International University in Nairobi, Kenya.

He found refuge in music and poetry, a safe space, a saving grace. When he had nothing, it served as self contentment. Through this love, he learned to play countless instruments and can recite poems from the top of his head. One of his favorites by Frank L. Stanton:

If you strike a thorn or rose,

Keep a-goin’!

If it hails or if it snows,

Keep a-goin’!

‘Taint no use to sit an’ whine

When the fish ain’t on your line;

Bait your hook an’ keep a-tryin’–

Keep a-goin’!

“Keep a goin” his mother would say to all his siblings. “That is what your dad, Lonnie, would have wanted.” Dr. Allen used that quote when faced with hardships growing up, and finds himself using it even today during COVID times.

Due to COVID-19, Dr. Allen has missed the in person Center of Active Living activities, however he “keeps a goin,” by attending all of the virtual social hour calls. When speaking about the ACCA, he says, “I never knew of a community that was so caring of the unknown. There is care, love, and I enjoy seeing tomorrow come because there is always to be a new experience, new love with them.”

And that is a message he wants to share with future generations as well, “you have to generate feelings and love for other peoples and it will come back to you… it is the only thing that has kept me going.”  And through happy and hard times, “keep a goin”… just as he does.

– Interviewed by Richelle Matarazzo 

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