FOCUS ON HISTORY: He will understand and say well done


National Football League quarterback Russell Wilson, now with the Denver Broncos, has ancestors who lived in Amsterdam. 

Russell Wilson’s great grandfather, Harrison Wilson Sr., was born in Falmouth, Kentucky, relocating to Amsterdam in 1910.

Harrison Sr. and his wife Marguerite Ayers Wilson raised eight children. Marguerite’s grandmother had taught at a one room school in Kentucky.

Harrison Sr. was a plasterer, although racial discrimination kept him out of the union. He later was the maintenance man for Amsterdam builder and landlord Thomas McGibbon.

The Wilson children all pursued substantial careers in education, law, health care, industry, media and sports.

Harrison Sr.’s son, Harrison Wilson Jr., shined shoes and delivered newspapers as a seven-year-old. His mother told him he looked like his grandfather and that instilled pride in the young man. 

He was the only Black player on Amsterdam High School’s championship basketball team during the 1942-43 season. Coach Ed Cionek called him the team’s “key player.”

Harrison Jr/ and his siblings were childhood friends of the late restaurateur Sam Pepe Jr. when both families lived on West Main Street. Pepe recalled going to YMCA summer camp with Harrison Junior and Wilson’s brother Willis. 

Pepe said he could always find Harrison Jr. in a crowd because of his distinctive walk and a small gray spot on the back of his head.

Harrison Sr. heroically saved the lives of two female pin setters working at a bowling alley in an East Main Street building owned by McGibbon which was destroyed by fire in April 1943. 

McGibbon died later that year and left a private parking lot in busy downtown Amsterdam to the Wilsons. The lot was on Federal Street between Church and Chuctanunda streets. 

A Wilson family member kept watch on the cars from inside a small shed. They would brush the snow off your car and back it out for you if necessary.

Harrison Jr. played every sport he could in high school, even speed skating. After graduation in 1943, he entered the U.S. Navy and was tops in his class at basic training. He was a hospital corpsman.

When World War II ended, he became a student and basketball star at Kentucky State, then basketball coach at Jackson State in Mississippi. He taught at Jackson State and earned a doctorate at Indiana University.

He frequently visited his parents in Amsterdam and provided help to Black youths who wanted to pursue higher education. 

He spoke at a 1957 vesper service at St. Paul’s AME Zion Church then on Cedar Street. The church was torn down when the Amsterdam elderly high rise and townhouse apartments were built. 

Marguerite Wilson died in 1960. Soloist Marilyn Lyons sang “He Will Understand and Say Well Done” at Marguerite’s funeral. 

Harrison Jr. became president of Norfolk State University in Virginia in 1975 and led that historically Black institution until his retirement in 1997.

Harrison Sr. died in 1982 at 94. Harrison Jr. was guest speaker at an Amsterdam High School graduation in the 1990s.

One of Harrison Jr.’s six children, Harrison Wilson III, was a Dartmouth graduate and attorney who almost got into playing professional football with the San Diego Chargers. Harrison III died from complications from diabetes in 2010. Harrison Junior passed away in 2019 at age 94.

NFL quarterback Russell Wilson is the son of Harrison Wilson III, grandson of Harrison Jr. and great grandson of Harrison Sr.

When Russell Wilson was quarterback with the Seattle Seahawks, he led the team to victory in Super Bowl 48 on Feb. 2, 2014. The Seahawks lost to New England in the 2015 Super Bowl. 

Categories: Opinion

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