This morning, I learned of the death of Alton Booker Sr., at age 56. I met Alton a few years ago, when I was working on a documentary called “The Long Black Line” – a multi-generational story of a family in East Texas. Alton was a great grandson of Benjamin Wright, one of the earliest settlers of Jasper County. I know this because he had thoroughly researched his family’s genealogy, and discovered that Benjamin was a common ancestor for most members of the present-day communities of Mount Union and Magnolia Springs. These communities literally grew up around Benjamin’s ranch house, built in the late 1860s, and around the Methodist and Baptist churches that were founded soon after. When Benjamin died in 1899, he was buried on the hill at Magnolia Springs Community Cemetery – a cemetery that Alton helped to maintain.
Alton was determined to preserve and share the history of his family and his community, because he believed that the voices of the past were what truly made a community. He helped his cousin, Herman Wright, make and promote the film “The Long Black Line,” which has found its way into Jasper schools. More recently, he oversaw the restoration of Benjamin’s ranch house, as well as the revitalization of the ranch itself, which is currently thriving. He served as a church pastor, a member of the local school board, and an organizer of annual family reunions. Most importantly, he was a loving husband, father and grandfather.
In an interview for “The Long Black Line,” Alton spoke about growing up in Magnolia Springs: “The people here in our community, my cousins and families that grew up here had a lot of pride in this community. They were good God-fearing people. They set examples for us kids coming up…. I think that still goes on today if you ride around this community and look around. That continues to be a solid fixture here: pride in community, pride in who you are and where you came from. I don’t see it going away any time soon.” He also spoke about his love for the rural piney woods, where his ancestors lived and died: “To experience the country life to me is to experience God’s goodness. Because when He says He provides, you know... there was never a want for anything.”
I read an article recently, which reinforced the idea that death creates communities by continually reminding us that we are merely a link to the past and the future: “The significance of life derives from the presence of the future, while the richness of life derives from the presence of the past. How we live is important only if we see the consequential future flowing toward us - beginning, always, with the fact that we will die and must prepare our children to assume the burdens of culture. How we live is thick and meaningful only if we see the momentous past, the ancient ghosts, dwelling among us - beginning, always, with the fact that our parents have died and left their corpses' care to us. Death is the anchor for every human association, from the family all the way up to the nation-state. It provides a reason for association; it keeps us from drifting by tying us to a temporal reality larger - richer and more significant - than our individual present.”
Alton knew that, like his ancestors, he would live on in his community, even after death. It’s hard for me to imagine that he won’t find peace there.