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On Their Shoulders: Honoring the African American Contributions to Patrick Henry and America
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Mr. Syid Abdullah (Father of Mr. Yusuf Abdullah) sailing on the USS Providence during the Vietnam War

We're trying to make Black History Month stretch over an entire year. We invite all staff and students to take a moment and write the answers to these simple questions:

  • Who in your family, community, and our country has inspired, motivated, and lifted your spirits to help you become a better person? 
  • What actions did they take that made you and the world a better place to live? 
  • As you stand on their shoulders what will YOU do to inspire others and also make the world a better place to live?

A great place to look for community and national leaders is at the African American Registry

Mr. Yusuf Abdullah Recognizes Those Who Raised Him Up to Do Great Things

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I was born at St Luke’s Hospital in Racine, Wisconsin on August 30, 1976. The year when a gallon of milk sold for $1.42, a loaf of bread sold for $.30, a new car sold for $4,100.00, a gallon of gas sold for $.59, and a new house sold for $54,750.00. The year when the thrilling movie, “Rocky”, came to the big screen with co-stars Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers as Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. The year when Jimmy Earl Carter Jr. (Democrat) beat out Gerald R. Ford (Republican) in the election for President of the United States of America. 

My full name is Yusuf Adil Abdullah. Currently, I am the Achieve!Career and College Center Coordinator at Patrick Henry High School, the assistant varsity coach for the boy’s basketball team, and the founder and coach of the electrifying Flyers Tumbling Program. I received my Masters and Bachelors degree in education from the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). My wife, Nneka, and I are four years happily married and have two lovely sons Yusuf (6) and Karon (4). 

My position as the Achieve! Career and College Center Coordinator allows me to coordinate college and career events, educate and guide young people about the college admissions process. I often help students set goals and objectives, and encourage them get involved with extracurricular activities. I am very passionate about the work that I do because if it were not for others encouraging me as a youth and still as an adult to do my best and to use education as the key for success, I would not be in the position I am in today. One of my life philosophies is to not go through life without giving back to others what was given to them. 

As a youth, I grew up in a poor neighborhood challenged with crime, drugs, death, and “came of age” in the 1980s at the height of the crack epidemic. I have witnessed large street fights, shootings, and a number of drug raids. I have seen drug dealers riding down the street with their fancy car as well as the “crack heads” searching for their next hit. There were no doctors or lawyers walking the streets of our community. There was one politician that everyone hated and called a “sellout.” Where I lived, hustlers reigned, and it was easy to follow their example. Many youth landed in juveniledetention centers before their eighteenth birthday. As a result, these young people had difficulty getting back into the mainstream of society, even during their adult lives. I remember one of my elementary classmates jokingly called me a “school boy” because I was bringing homework home. I challenged him and convinced him that I was not a “school boy” so he would not continue to call me that in front of people. He was always the one who got into trouble in school, but in the streets, he was popular and smart as a whip. He was smooth and became cool with the girls. He always called himself a “pimp.” 

Now, he is constantly avoiding the police. He since has served a number of sentences due to drug charges. 

So why me? Why was I able to escape a life of trouble with the law? What makes me so special or capable? What did I have that others did not have? Many of the people in my neighborhood that I knew and hung around with had some of the same opportunities that I did; some even had more. What led me to my successes as a youth, and as a result leads me to experience success as an adult? These are some questions that I ponder and I will attempt to discover the answers as I reflect back on my life. 

My Dad
On December 29, 1948, my father, Edgar Towels, was born in Tennessee and lived in Racine, Wisconsin the majority of his life. He was the second oldest and took on a lot of the responsibility around the house. He often hung around the older crowd that led him to grow up very fast. He challenged many people to fight him, as he wanted the image of being the toughest kid in the area. Without graduating from high school, on May 12, 1966, at the age of 17 ½, he enlisted in the US Navy to avoid the draft. At that time, the war was grabbing young men like my father, and sent them to fight in the Vietnam War. There he was able to put his fighting skills to work, as he became a boxer in the Navy. After three and half years aboard the USS Providence CLG6, on October 10, 1969, he was discharged. He enrolled at Racine Technical Institute and entered the field of electronics. After graduating with an Associates Degree in Electronics he went to work for one of his instructors. Sadly, after one week, he was not able to make a living wage so he had to leave. As a result, his dream sizzled until he discovered the art of photography. Photography fascinated and stimulated him again. Suddenly, photography created the opportunity to specialize in weddings, make money for his work, and evolving into expressing himself. Over the years he has photographed thousands of people of all ages and nationalities. Necessity forced my father to continue to work many jobs as a machinist and leaving good paying ones due to layoffs. Since 1986 he has been working at Interlake Packaging Company and has continued his love of photography. 

My Mom
On December 1, 1951, My Mother, Willie May Chambers, was born in Mississippi, but moved to Racine, Wisconsin when she was very young. She was raised by her mother and stepfather. Her stepfather was the breadwinner for the family, but often spent the money on alcohol, which left the family scrambling for meals. Her mother (my grandmother)was the disciplinarian and was very tough with the rules. My mother was the oldest child and was responsible for many duties household duties which included cooking, cleaning, and sewing. 

She never complained about the duties, in fact, she liked them. As a teenager, my mother would help her grandmother clean other people’s homes and iron their cloths for money. She also made her own cloths for school. My mom grew up in a Baptist household, but life quickly changed as my grandmother converted to Islam when my mom was five years old. A Muslim man from Milwaukee made a couple of visits to their home and introduced my grandparents to the religion. 

It was important to my grandparents that they raised their children in a structured, safe, and healthy environment and for the most part, Islam was able to help them do that. My mother and her siblings were laughed at because they were different, which was partly due to their appearance. They stood out like a sore thumb. There wore long dresses that were six inches above their ankles while the other girls wore mini skirts. They were laughed at for eating wheat bread when everyone else ate white bread. My mom was very shy and did not intentionally draw attention to her. By the time she got to high school things got a lot better because long dresses were back in style. At the age of sixteen she started working at St Luke’s Hospital as a ward clerk while maintaining her academic studies. She was considering attending college and becoming a nurse. After graduating from Park High School she soon found out she was pregnant, which changed her original life goals. She went on to marry my father and was determined to successfully take care of the family. Early in the marriage she worked at a few odd jobs, but was soon hired back at St Luke’s Hospital and has continued to work there for over thirty years Influenced by my mother’s side of the family, my father converted to Islam. After changing their names from Edgar Towels and Willie May Chambers to Syid Talib Abdullah and Sakinah Abdullah, their new focus on life begins.  From that point on it was expected that our family would have discipline and structure. Until all the children were in school my mom and dad planned that one of them would always be home with the kids. Either my mom would work first shift as my dad worked second, or vice versa. 

Once everyone was in school my mom and dad both were able to hold first shift jobs.

Family Values
My parents focused on raising a “good” family. They read about successful people and it became evident to them that structure was important in life. Disorder, screaming or disrespect couldn’t survive in our house. They believed the “proper” education for our family was a must. It included our connection with both the immediate and human family. Even though most of the people in the neighborhood resembled us, we knew a larger family of millions lived in Africa. They educated us about the historical slave trade and its inhumane treatment and reminded us that others had also suffered. We were taught about the special qualities of all human beings and our innate nature, unless suppressed, that wants to strive for excellence. They worked to stimulate that kind of thinking in our minds by making our home an inviting and encouraging place to learn. Books were always readily available for whoever needed one. My father was always reading something. For example, there was this one book on the human anatomy that I saw before I was able to understand the content. It freaked me out, but made me curious. 

My parents would also take us on weekly visits to the library or the museums. It was very exciting for us to travel to Chicago to visit the Field Museum of Science and Industry. We often visited the Racine and Milwaukee Zoos, and on occasion the Chicago Zoos. We spent a lot of time in the parks playing on the swings or running around in one of the state parks. One great family experience I remember clearly was our camping trip. It was memorable because it was different than anything else we had experienced. 

We slept out doors in a tent, went swimming, and grilled hotdogs and burgers. It was a good time filled with excitement and fear. All of the kids were frightened of being attacked by wild animals.

My parents also led by example of what to do and what not to do. They were hard working people that were drug and alcohol free. They were well respected in the community and by their peers. They could have a conversation with anyone. They had a lot of pride and character. They both were the backbones of their family and were called upon to help resolve many issues. On one of the walls in our house was a picture of our mom and dad in the center and the children around them. It served as a reminder of the importance of family and responsibility, and what was expected of us.

I respected and honored my parents, but at times it was very difficult. Due to the religion and our family structure there were a lot of rule s that needed to be followed. Disorder, screaming or disrespect could not survive in our residence. As a young teen I did not understand why my parents were so hard on us. It was tough to swallow when my best friends’ parents were very flexible in their rules and my parents were not. Everything that I wanted to do had some restrictions.  

Academically, my parents constantly reminded my siblings and me of the importance of school and education. We did not get highly rewarded for doing well in school, it was expected. Report card day was very stressful when you knew what your grades were going to be. My mom used to say, “You know what D’s stand for… Dummies!” School didn’t come easy, but I knew how to pass. This was frustrating to me, because I received some D’s and my effort was there. At that time, my cousin Jamel made the honor roll and I felt that my parents used that against me. I don’t think that was intended to hurt me, but it did. College was never talked about in my family. My parents focused most of their attention on making sure that we made it through high school. My parents were never encouraged to go to college, which I believe had a direct effect on what was expected of us. Plus, in our community graduating from high school was a big accomplishment alone.

I was always amazed by the birth order of my siblings: girl-boy-girl-boy, with me being the youngest. I thought some day when I have kids the same would happen to my family. Like most siblings we fought on an occasion, but overall we were very loving and supportive of each other’s struggles and accomplishments. My parents had a lot to do with that. They showed us what it means to be a family. 

As I reflect back on my past, it was understood that when I was away from home it was important that I surrounded myself with positive adults. Adults that was not only able to lead by example but also assist in guiding me in the right direction.  Two people came to mind Coach Hayes my high school basketball coach, and Harry Oden, the one who recruited me to play basketball for UMD.

Our coach, Bob Hayes, stood behind his players 100%. He told us when we were wrong and he praised us when we were right. He was very tough on us and spent a lot of time talking about life and making good decisions. He would spend extra time with the Black players and talk more about our purpose in life and how to get over certain obstacles. He did not care what others thought of him and he was not going to let anyone tell him how to do his job. As a consequence, he butted heads with many people, but people who understood and knew what he fought for supported him. My freshmen year I did not care who the head coach was but at this time it made a lot of sense to have Coach Hayes.

I remember a Black man, Harry Oden, a representative of UMD, talking to me a half a dozen times after the game. He played basketball and graduated from UMD, and was currently a principal for a high school in Milwaukee. He loved watching basketball and continues to support UMD athletic s. Eventually, he came to my house and pushed for me Coach Bob Hayesto visit UMD. My family and I took Harry up on his offer and decided to visit UMD. After the visit, I made up my mind and decided to Attend UMD. That was the beginning of a life long relationship with whom I call my mentor Harry Oden. 

Harry stepped up to the plate and took me under his wing. He made sure that I was taken care of because he promised my parents. Harry and I would have great conversations on the issues of being an African American student athlete on a predominantly white campus, the importance of graduating from college, and life after college. Harry played a very important role in my life as a young adult and continues to inspire me now.

Coming from a neighborhood with several success stories, but far too many tragedies made it nearly impossible for me to get to where I am at without the support of my family, coaches, counselors, community members, friends, mentors and many others. It was extremely important from birth that my parents were very disciplined and focused in their faith and lifestyle. From there, I was able to internalize the morals and values I learned as a young child and use that to guide me though life. Many times I made the wrong choice and dealt with the consequences, but more often I was surrounded by positive people and programs that became more attractive than the negativity around me.

Being a career and college center coordinator, high school basketball coach, manager and coach ofthe Flyers  Tumbling Program, and being a family man, all gel  well together. My life seems to flow. I believe in education and what it can do for a person regardless of what their background is. As a college and career center coordinator I continuously spread the word around about college and education. As a coach I can create an educational environment that allowed young people to grow academically and physically, which could potentially prepare students for higher education. In addition, family is a beautiful thing when each member contributes. As I often told the Flyers, your family should be your most important team. If each member contributes toward the well being of the family, life becomes much easier.