The first thing you notice about Philippa and Lloyd Wilson is how authentically Jamaican they still are, despite having lived overseas for more than half of their lives. Their wonderfully unpretentious demeanor reminds you of a time long ago in Jamaica, when you spent Sunday afternoons on the verandah with close relatives or friends, talking about life and sharing a laugh or two. I still have vivid memories of many Thanksgivings spent at their home in Huntsville, Alabama that included good food and fellowship; often ending with either an Oliver video, or an impromptu dance party with vintage reggae and calypso.
The fact that I was fortunate enough to encounter this bit of Jamaican spirit in Huntsville, Alabama was for me a welcome surprise; the improbability of meeting Mrs. Wilson, as I did at an ice rink, where both our daughters were taking skating lessons, was a source of great humor to us both. Jamaicans with ice skating daughters in the Deep South sounded almost too much like the storyline for a situation comedy, but then nothing has ever been predictable about Jamaican immigrants and the same holds true for the Wilsons.
Lloyd Wilson originally from Bluefields, Westmoreland, was a young teacher supplementing his teacher’s salary by working at the General Post Office when he met Philippa Grant. A gifted student, Phil had graduated from Alpha Academy but was too young to enter UWI then called (UC) so she had taken a job at the Post Office in the interim. Romance blossomed between the two young people and they became engaged, but wedding plans were put on hold as Lloyd got the break of his life, a scholarship to The New Brunswick Institute of Technology in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.
Upon reaching an acceptable age for enrollment, Phil eventually entered university and successfully completed the nursing program graduating with Batch 48, after which she joined her mother in New York. Wedding plans resumed, albeit long distance, with Lloyd visiting frequently from Canada. Eventually the couple married in New York and moved to Canada where they lived for 2 years before returning to New York.
Life in New York was satisfactory but the Wilson family was growing and Lloyd was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of life and the cost of living. He had dreams of owning a home that was not connected to his neighbors and a yard with grass where his kids could play.
About that time Phil ran into an old friend from Jamaica who, was a member of the 7th Day Adventist Church and was planning to move to Huntsville, Alabama the site of Oakwood College, a well known Adventist institution. After the friend relocated to Huntsville, Phil and Lloyd visited and the rest was as they say history. Both fell in love with the city that was surrounded by hills and had a topography that reminded them greatly of Jamaica. The year was 1973 and the Wilson’s were moving south.
While the decision was easy for them, Phil admits she was not prepared for the reaction of friends and family. “Most of our friends were speechless” Phil remembers, “At the very least they thought we had lost our minds. Don’t you know they kill black people there?” was a common question. Teachers warned them that Alabama was at the bottom of the educational pile and that their children would lag behind. Those concerns did not deter the Wilsons and the fact that their children Collette, Dale and Heather have all graduated from Princeton, Georgia Tech and Xavier, respectively, provided them with the validation they needed that they had indeed made the right decision.
Upon arriving in Huntsville, Lloyd returned to school where he graduated with honors in engineering from Alabama A&M University. Phil, a nurse was tired of working nights especially after having kids, so she accepted a position at a dialysis clinic. It was a challenge since she had never worked in that particular specialty before. Today she is the Director of Huntsville Dialysis. After 28 years at Chrysler, Lloyd has retired and spends his days working in the garden, or on one of the 6 cars he owns. Vintage cars are his passion and together with his son, they spend many hours under the hood.
Asked what they would like other Jamaicans to know about living in the south, the Wilson’s are both eager to answer. “There are challenges wherever you live” Lloyd volunteers, “When I started looking for jobs in Huntsville I did not get a call back for any of the positions for which I applied. “I could have chalked it up to racism but that would have been very shortsighted.” “My wife had a patient whose husband worked at Chrysler, she told her patient about me and the woman took a copy of my resume to her husband, the rest is history, I worked at Chrysler for 28 years.” “It’s not always about race” Phil adds “It’s more about being prepared to take advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves.” “Huntsville is no different from any other city, it’s all in how you apply yourself, how willing you are to work hard and how you present yourself.” “People don’t always have to like you, but if you come to the table with your qualifications and something to offer, it makes it harder for someone to deny you and that applies anywhere.”
And what do the Wilsons miss the most living in Huntsville; Lloyd is quick to answer with a laugh “definitely the food.” “We really could use a good restaurant where people could meet and socialize,” Phil adds. According to the Wilsons, a few restaurants have opened but none have lasted, they think this might be mainly because the restaurants have been marketed to the few Caribbean people who live in the city, instead of to the community at large. And although they do have a few Jamaican friends in Huntsville, at times they miss the familiarity of having a Jamaican community close by especially during the holidays. Phil is especially thankful for her friend in New York who regularly sends her a “duck bread” at Thanksgiving. “It really is just not Thanksgiving until it arrives,” she laughs. “One year Lloyd even managed to find a goat somewhere so we had curried goat along with our Turkey, it just did not get any better.”