By Wallis Hamm Tinnie, Ph.D.
He was the third child of eight children born to the union of Lauza and Marion C. Hamm, Sr., early pioneers of South Florida.
Charles left Ft. Lauderdale in 1945 after finishing Dillard high school to attend Clark College of Atlanta, Georgia, a tenure interrupted by the Draft notice that sent him to Korea. He had not completed his tour of duty in the war effort when he was called to return to the family homestead as the official military escort for the flag-draped casket carrying the body of his brother, Albert, who had given his life in the Korean War effort.
Always a trailblazer, Charles completed a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at Clark College but found no teaching vacancies available to him in the South Florida segregated school system in 1952. He applied for a position with the Federal Government and was accepted by the United States Post Office in Broward County as one of its first Black mailmen.
With job in hand, he proposed to Virginia Anderson. Their marriage produced two daughters, Kimberly Walls and Karyl Zackery whom he leaves to mourn along with a sister, Helen Hamm, a brother, Robert Hamm, and a host of grandchildren, other relatives and friends.
The African proverb, “A Tree Cannot Stand Without its Roots,” speaks volumes about the life and legacy of Charles E. Coffee Hamm whose parents were natives of South Carolina. His father was from Timmonsville. His mother’s ancestors were straight out of the beautiful Sea Island low Country that defines the land of the Gullah/Geechee people.
The Gullah are known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States. They speak an English-based Creole language containing many African loanwords and significant influences in grammar and sentence structure from African languages. Gullah storytelling, cuisine, music, folk beliefs, crafts, farming and fishing traditions, all exhibit strong influences from West and Central African cultures.
At the start of the Civil War, when Union forces arrived on the Sea Islands in 1861, they found the Gullah people eager for their freedom, and eager as well to fight and defend it. Many Gullahs served with distinction in the Union Army’s First South Carolina Volunteers, a fighting unit of Black soldiers. The Sea Islands of South Carolina were the first place in the South where enslaved people got their freedom.
It was also fertile ground for education. Penn Center, now a Gullah community organization on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, began as the very first school for African American Freedmen.
In fact, the late JFK, Jr., himself, loved Charles’s Mother’s Sea Islands so much that he and his wife, the late Carolyn Bessette, were married there at the First African Baptist Church, a small clapboard Chapel on Cumberland Island. The Church, its altar a simple wooden stand, and its cross consisting of two sticks held together by string, was decorated with wild flowers.
These are the roots of Charles E. Coffee Hamm, called Coffee, he said, because his grinds are so fine, a man who went off to Korea to fight in the tradition of his Sea Island ancestors.
When he stood his ground for freedom on the bus ride through the racist South of the 1950’s, he did so in the tradition of the First South Carolina Volunteers, a Black fighting unit of the Civil War who were eager to fight for their freedom.
When he went away to study Chemistry at Clark College in Atlanta, he was following the tradition started in his mother’s Sea Island homestead where the first school for African Freedmen was established.
Indeed, his Mother, the daughter of a well-to-do landowner from the Sea Island area, had instilled in each of the children the idea that each sibling had to help the brother or sister following him or her to complete his education. These are Charles Hamm’s roots.
In 1942, when the members of Charles’s class entered high school, the film, Casablanca, hit the movie screen. It was a film about love and war in the Moroccan City of Northern Africa, In it, Humphrey Bogart, the Hollywood screen idol of that time, in a so-called noble gesture, gave up his married lover, played by Ingrid Bergman, allowing her to leave Morocco with her husband. And then, he took his bitterness out on Sam, the Black musician.
“I said, Play it Again” he demanded angrily after Sam had said he was tired and wanted to leave. This very bitter scene has been romanticized so that Bogart is remembered as making a gentle request, “Play it again, Sam.” This falsely-remembered interaction epitomizes much of what Charles and his generation experienced in America. Black pain was romanticized, exoticized and/or ignored and repackaged as “Soul.”
In Charles E. “Coffee” Hamm, we have an African American man who knew the contradictions of his time but would not acquiesce to conformity. Some say he was a man who did everything “his way.” But, in fact, what really characterized the elegant Charles Hamm were his strong, unassailable roots, roots that nurtured and sustained what Alice Walker calls “racial health,” the sense of Black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings.
There just is no substitute for growing up in a family and community of Black people who have enormous respect for themselves and for their own ability to govern themselves. For Charles E. “Coffee” Hamm it was a community which affirmed his right to exist and one that loved him as an absolute extension of itself.
Funeral services have been held.