Marin Arts & Culture MAC_JUNE_upload - Page 34

Escape, Survive and Flourish: A Family’s Tale of Resilience By Janet Gallin I t has been generations of escaping, surviving and flourishing for the family of Bay Area artist Joseph Mack Branchcomb, whose maternal great great-grandfather Frank Wanzer escaped from the Virginia plantation where he was brought from Africa as a slave. Not satisfied with just his own release, at the age of 30, and with his whole life ahead of him as a free man, he returned to that plantation 19 times to free other slaves. But even with the help of the Underground Railroad and the Blackfoot tribe, this bolt for freedom was no slam-dunk. As a fugitive slave, he had to shoot his way past posse after posse of vicious slave-catchers that chased him through New Jersey up to Oswego and all the way to Canada, where Branchcomb’s descendants, thanks to Frank Wanzer’s three marriages and many children, live to this day, flourishing as professional people in higher education, law and medicine. Along with his maternal ancestry, and its large helping of genetic power and diligence, the other side of Branchcomb’s family has its own history of strength, success and escape. After the Civil War, when Virginia was a free state for African-Americans, in the late 1920s his paternal grandfather opened Branchcomb and Sons Movers, a company that, because they knew how to pack valuables, boasted clients such as the Rockefellers. The family was thriving, but when Branchcomb’s father developed a new business selling cosmetics to 34 MARIN ARTS & CULTURE Joseph Mack Branchcomb black businesses, a different family was displeased with the family’s success—the Mafia. So when they were told to get out of Manhattan, Branchcomb’s grandpa knew they meant business, so he packed up lock, stock and barrel and moved to the Bronx. Branchcomb’s father, an engineer in school, was hit with a new brand of forced labor once he joined the army. Because he was black, his only choice was to take care of the horses and the stables. Despite this treatment, his father had such a strong sense of patriotism that he went to Canada to be able to fight in World War I on the side of the United States.