by Jean Redstone
You could not know upon meeting Dr. Cornelius Elbert Gaither, formerly of Swedesboro, that his gentle demeanor belies a heritage of war upon war survived by his ancestors.
There is a kindness in his face and a quiet in his voice that does not hint at the military, the social, the cultural turmoil hidden in his bloodline. His sharp intellect is not edged with irony or anger or, for that matter, with triumph or joy, despite a right by history to all of those attitudes.
Like the founder of his line, a young pilgrim who, seen from the advantage of hindsight, passed on attributes designed for success, Gaither understands best the practicalities of not just surviving, but of thriving.
Now 87 and retired from dentistry, he discovered his personal lineage about a dozen or so years ago, when he learned about the “Gaither Clan,” he said. There are three Gaither groups researching and sharing genealogy, one white and two black groups.
Gaither was president of the white group, The Society of John Gaither Descendants, in 2006 to 2007. He said he believes he is the only black Gaither in the group, which formed in 1984. “All (American) Gaithers,” he said, citing DNA evidence, “are descended from one man.”
The history of the Gaither family in America predates America itself and participates in the country‘s growing pains. According to their genealogical research, the Gaither Society concludes that one John Gaither, born in the somnolent village of Lamberhurst in Kent, England, about 1599, braved the months-long ocean trip to Jamestown in Virginia when he was a mere 20. (Gaither means watchman – keeper of the gate – and is also spelled Gator, Gattor, Geater, and so on.)
The lad arrived at the first English colony in the New World in 1620, a few months before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth. He did well for himself and eventually owned an 800-acre tract of land (now straddled by the city of Norfolk).
But John I, as he’s known in the records, left his home for Maryland, at the suggestion of Lord Baltimore.
It turned out to be fortuitous for the Gaithers then and now. The name is prominent in war records beginning with the Revolutionary War and Henry Gaither of Maryland. For his service, Henry was nominated by President George Washington in 1792 to be appointed a Major in the first United States Army. Henry was later appointed a Lt. Col. in 1793.
A large number of Gaithers became plantation owners and some of those plantations survive as historical sites, such as the Gaither Plantation in Covington, GA. When the Civil War broke families apart, most Gaithers appear to have migrated west and south and their names are found among Rebel war records.
Through the years, Gaithers are noted as state senators and representatives, as judges and generals, doctors and lawyers, entrepreneurs and educators, soldiers in all the nation’s wars, land barons and businessmen. And slave owners.
Antebellum history for the family is largely a record of white men practicing politics, fighting wars and building empires of business or property. But in the years during World Wars I and II the record begins to include Gaithers, still successful and prominent, but no longer only white.
Now, present day, there is a Gaither listed with the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen. Dr. Gaither joined the Air Force in 1956 or 57, as the Korean Conflict was winding down and the Tuskegee contingent was being retired. Sent to Ramstein Air Base as an oral surgeon, Gaither served three years in Germany with the 12th Air Force, as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen.
He was assigned to Ramstein, he said, “because there was still segregation in the forces and the white men went to Landstuhl (a sister base.)” Gaither was at Ramstein at the same time Gen. Chuck Yeager, the ‘fastest man in the world’ was there, testing planes for nuclear missile transport.
Though Gaither was sent to a black unit, the base was headed by Gen. Benjamin Davis, Chief of Staff. He was the first African-American general in the U.S. Air Force and he was tasked with implementing President Truman’s Order 9981. That 1948 executive order required the country’s military to end segregation in the ranks. “Well, it just didn’t happen all that fast,” Gaither commented. “We were still pretty segregated.”
Known to his friends as “Doc”, Gaither was a well-liked, well-respected dentist in Swedesboro until his retirement a dozen or so years ago. Now 87 and living just outside of the area in a charming, book-laden West Deptford apartment, Gaither continues a pattern of community involvement that is obviously inherent to his personality.
Born in Philadelphia, Gaither’s parents moved to West Chester, PA, a year after he was born. “That was home to me, West Chester,” he said. “Where we lived there was an elementary school right across the street. But I couldn’t go to it. It was for the white students. I had to go all the way across town to the black school.
“But I’d come home from school and go outside and play with all the white kids I couldn’t go to school with. No parent ever said I couldn’t play with their kids.” Gaither smiled at old memories. “They nicknamed me ‘Corny’. That’s what I was called.”
His West Chester friendships were lasting, he said. “I knew Bill Kauffman there, whose family had a furniture store. And his cousin had one in Coatesville, Bill Chertok. He (Chertok) and I used to double-date frequently and we remained friends for 79 years, until he died.”
Gaither’s (pronounced ‘gay-thur’) father, born in North Carolina, was a dentist with a busy practice in West Chester. His mother was an East Orange, NJ girl. Their son followed the family business, graduating from Lincoln University near West Chester and Maharry Medical and Dental College of Nashville, TN.
But the young dentist found his father’s patients did not want to trade familiar and experienced for young and untried so the son took his family to Penns Grove, “across the river where there’d be only one Gaither dentist.”
Gaither had married Anna Whittaker, whose grandfather was the first chaplain at Tuskegee University in Alabama. The Tuskegee institution gave its name to the cadre of ‘Red Tails’, named for the color painted on their aircraft that trained there.
(The Tuskegee airmen, which includes pilots, their support staff and medical personnel, became famous for their exploits and prowess. They were the first black war pilots and the group resoundingly answered the nay-sayers who predicted disaster for any military that let black men fly. Instead, the Tuskegee airmen paved the way for full integration of the armed services.)
Eager to start his future, Gaither was met instead with a refusal by Penns Grove sellers to sell him a house or office. This was in the mid-1950s when segregation was still the norm. “But Dr. Timmins, he was a dentist in Swedesboro who was retiring, he heard about me and offered me his place,” Gaither said. “He had some influence and he just said, ‘To hell with’em’ when people objected.
“We got to be good friends,” he said, adding, “I’ve been helped by many people.”
Such discrimination was accepted and expected in many mid-century neighborhoods. Gaither recounts instances of being stopped by police while driving with his wife, who was light-skinned. “That’s all it took,” he said, without rancor. “I was seen as out of place being with her.”
The new Swedesboro resident faced further discrimination in his desire to join the Swedesboro Presbyterian church. A Presbyterian all his life, the refusal was upsetting.
“But the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Paulsboro came to me and said, “We’d like to have you join with us. I heard what happened and we’d like to have you worship with us.’ And that’s what I did. I’m still with the church, though it’s relocated now to Gibbstown.”
In his lifetime in Swedesboro and Gloucester County, Gaither has become a valuable asset to his communities. He helped found the Greater Swedesboro Kiwanis Club and is a Life Member of the national Kiwanis organization – the first African-American to join (1962).
He was a founder and is still a member of the Greater Swedesboro Business Association and sits, or sat, on the boards of many community and education groups. “I’ve been on practically every board of directors for the groups I’ve joined,” he said. It’s the closest he came to bragging except when noting he has been the first Black accepted to many of the groups he‘s entered.
Active through the years in his church and in medical and educational organizations (Mullica Hill Friends School, Visiting Nurse Association of Gloucester County, Swedesboro Board of Health, veterans groups — the list is very long), Gaither is especially loyal to the Tuskegee Airmen chapter in Philadelphia, his hometown chapter, and to veteran causes.
He was in the Air Force for 31 years, becoming a reservist after his active duty ended. He retired in 1979 as a Lt. Col., 187 years after President Washington promoted an ancestor, Henry, to that rank in the Army.
Gaither has negotiated the shoals of segregation and the more subtle currents of discrimination. He followed the Civil Rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King’s journey.
“How could I not,” he asked, quietly. His wife was at high school in Atlanta with King and the families were friends.
But he will not admit to anger. “You can’t get anywhere by being angry,” he said.
He does, however, have the story of a luncheon last year where veterans were honored. One Army guy kept bragging how he was the highest ranking vet there. He was a sergeant. I got tired of it and I told him he needed to shut up. ‘I’m a Lt. Col. and I outrank you!’ He was shocked to find out this black guy outranked him. But he shut up.”
Gaither was in Washington with other Tuskegee veterans to accept the Congressional Gold Medal in 2006, given the group as a whole. (The medal resides at the Smithsonian Institute.) He is proud of his service.
His is an American story of success. He recognizes he shares a Gaither family heritage of intelligence linked to drive and a desire for community service. It is a heritage that dove into and survived the wars and cultural upheaval of a maturing country. But he attributes the success of his own family branch to more than genetics or circumstance.
“We have a tradition of education,” he said. “My father and mother both went to college and my grandkids are the fourth generation on my side to go to college. On my wife’s side, the grandkids are the fifth generation. People don’t believe me when I tell them this. They don’t believe a black family can have such a history of higher education. Education is a key.”
While his personal history reflects the sweeping story of the nation itself, there is one story Gaither does not know. It is the story of a man who shared a first name with Gaither’s founding ancestor, John I.
John Gaither lived in Jamestown at the same time as John Punch (later known as Bunch or Bunche). John Punch, brought to the colony from Africa or the West Indies, was the first slave, as recognized by law, in the country. The two Johns may well have known each other, though probably not as friends.
Like John Gaither, John Punch also founded a line of descendants. The most famous of which, according to genealogists who did research on this, is President Barack Obama.
Dr. Gaither, “a Republican all my life,” voted for Obama. “I voted for him, yes,” he said, “though I was surprised he won.”
This month is Black History Month. It seems a fitting denouement, the closing of a timeline circle in Dr. Gaither’s personal history that 400 years later a child of slavery could freely vote to the highest office in the country, another child of slavery.