Tribute to Max

Posted 1/11/23

On January 10, 1924, a Black woman, 60-ish, travels by mule cart from her Newland, NC family farm on the rim of the Great Dismal Swamp to the Pasquotank County seat in Elizabeth City.

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Tribute to Max


On January 10, 1924, a Black woman, 60-ish, travels by mule cart from her Newland, NC family farm on the rim of the Great Dismal Swamp to the Pasquotank County seat in Elizabeth City. 

The 20-mile trip will take her from total obscurity and relative safety along rural routes to that place beyond sanctuary where White family picnics serve up the “strange fruit” of oppression just often enough to keep colored folk in their place. 

She is on a mission. She is grandmother to the newborn child whose birth she travels to record. Entering the county clerk’s office, she gives his name, Maxwell Lemuel Roach, and date of birth, January 8, 1924. She gets, in return, a birth notice for Maxwell Leonard Roach born January 10. 

But the child’s middle name, Lemuel, is a family name dating back a century, and she herself is the midwife who “pulled him out” two days earlier. That is what she tells the clerk, muting her protest into prayer. In response, the clerk gives a look that adds volumes in the record of those Jim Crow days, when the town lynched two Black men within days of each other, and that place where terror is daily fare.   

The woman is of that first post-Emancipation generation born during Reconstruction when promise was on the rise.  Now, though a taxpayer, she stands helpless and mute. This despite—or, perhaps, because of—her having lived to see her generation elect its first (and soon enough, last) Black officials.

Those who lost the war for their “Lost Cause” have won the peace between North and South. UnReconstructed, they now exact vengeance on justice, conscience, simple decency; on her and her kin.

Her grandson will grow up to be the internationally renowned master percussionist-composer, MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” fellow, Max Roach, whose papers have been acquired by the Library of Congress and preserved for posterity.  In the months before his death in 2007, he will live to hear the future first African American president announce his candidacy. 

I know this story because Max was my husband. He made sure I knew it; made sure his children knew it. His mother and father confirmed his account.

I also know the story as symbolic and symptomatic of an American experience that likes its “progress” doled out in measured drips across 400 years and still counting. 

Because of the barriers to correcting state records―however wrong, malingering and malicious―like his grandmother before him, Max let stand his “official” birth date. But, much the way immigrant families speak one language in public while keeping their original language and customs alive at home, Max’s family and friends sang “Happy Birthday” on one day only: January 8.  

Despite efforts to oppress him—just one, symbolically, among millions of people of color—when Max died, for his music and his international human rights stand, he received international applause. His funeral at New York’s Riverside Church was attended by thousands and viewed on television by millions worldwide.

“I am an American and the drum set is one of the few instruments native to this country,” said Max. “This is a democratic nation and jazz is a democratic music in which we all express ourselves as individuals and cooperate for the overall good. That’s good enough for the bandstand and it is good enough for the world. In music, you can make a dream come to life as a reality of design and feeling. Democracy is a dream of being able to do it better someday. I have never stopped dreaming.”

Janus Adams hosts “The Janus Adams Show” on Saturdays at 12 noon on Radio Catskill, 90.5 FM.  The January 14 show is a tribute replay of “The Dreamer and The Drummer”—which was first aired in 2017, the 10th anniversary of Max’s death. Learn more at

maxwell lemuel roach, story, progress, change, reconstruction era


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