The Gills Family : Eastport Annapolis Multigenerational Family Film & Photography

Late last year, my friend Amani reached out wanting to a Legacy Session with her mom, grandmother, and her extended family.  The shoot was to take place at her grandmother’s home in the Eastport section of Annapolis where her mother, Kendra, grew up with her four siblings.  Once a thriving black community of servicemen and women and their families, Eastport, with its easy access to the marinas and the water, has over the past two decades experienced gentrification.  Many of the black families have since moved, selling older and/or abandoned properties to white investors.  

The house on the corner of Chesapeake Ave and 5th Street has remained in Amani’s family, with Amani’s grandmother, Arneice (or “Nanny” as she’s affectionately called) at the helm.  There, she built a life with her late husband Otis Gills who worked as a cook at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Says Amani, “My grandmother is the matriarch.  She’s been there in the center.  There’s a legacy of black people in Annapolis.  [Our family]  lived in Eastport and are part of the central families of black people who lived there. Over the past 10-15 years people have died and moved.  Really, the only black people left in Eastport are my grandmother and her sister, Janet (she doesn’t live there but she’s holding on to the house). Eastport was the undesirable section of the city.  My grandmother’s house is a block and a half off the water.  My aunt Janet is half a block off the water.  When that became the “in thing” to live on the water, white folks wanted to move there. Around 15 years ago, you really started to see folks leave.”

The center of this waterfront community’s social life was Peerless Rens, an athletic team turned social club formed by a dozen black families in the late 1940s.  At the time, local athletic associations and clubs were segregated.  “Peerless” as called by the locals, is an unassuming brown brick building on Chester Avenue, and is still in operation.  It hosts social events, receptions, baby showers, etc. and is a familiar place for those who grew up in the neighborhood.  Amani’s mother, Kendra, held her wedding reception there.  So when Amani reached out to gather her family for a photo shoot, she wanted to highlight Peerless because of not only what it meant to her family, but also the black community in Eastport. 

Amani wanted to recreate a classic image of Peerless Rens Club members, circa the 1950s. Photo: Peerless Rens Website

I’ve known Amani since our days at high school AND we have the same maiden name.  After going our separate ways for college (she attended Spelman while I headed to Washington and Lee), we reunited in Philadelphia, where we became Teach For America corps members and taught at the same K-8 school. She basically helped me get my first professional job. We even lived on the same street our first few years in Philly and on many mornings, would make the trek from South Philly to the Northeast.  It was my honor to do this for her family.  

Ayana & Amani. The Coker Sisters. We’ve come a long way since our all-girl Catholic school days.

Her session was originally scheduled for early November 2021, but the night before, she informed me that we had to postpone. That week, her mother, Kendra, had become ill and was in the hospital.  When we finally reconvened in February 2022, her family gathered for photos wearing white tops and denim bottoms.  We crammed into Nanny’s sitting room for different combinations- cousins, grandkids, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews…even the dogs.  It was bittersweet- Kendra was physically weak and needed assistance walking.  We planned to take photos down by Peerless, but wound up staying in the family’s home.  I had only planned to take photos, but every now and then, I switched my camera into video mode and captured a few video clips when a moment was too good to be missed. I used the footage to put together in this short video which aired at Nanny’s 90th birthday celebration at – you guessed it – Peerless.  Great granddaughter greeting Nanny.  Cousins playing joyfully in the backyard.  Amani pulling out custom plates of her mother’s siblings, Terry, Ricky, Greg, and Tyra.  Cousins combing through photo books and recalling memories.  I wish I could have captured more. 

Kendra Coker passed away last month.  She was a dedicated wife, mother, daughter, nurse, and by all accounts, was a light to those around her.  I knew her in passing only as “Amani’s Mom”, but you know a tree by its fruit.  I take a look at her daughters, her most evident fruit, and see the evidence of the seeds sown and cultivated over many years of mothering.  I have been struggling to share this video and these images because I don’t really know what to say in moments of grief.  Is there ever the right thing to say?  I’ve never been the best at processing my own emotions, so I often shy away from being in spaces where others are processing theirs.  So I hope the work speaks from my heart.

Amani and Ayana-  I don’t know if I have the right words, but this is my love offering to you and your family.  I hope I was able to capture your family beautifully and this session gave your family the opportunity to come together, enjoy each other’s presence, and remember times that weren’t so bittersweet.  I pray that you are comforted by the sweet memories you have of your mother and the legacy of love and family that you will continue to pass down to your own children. 

Love,

YS

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Kalu Ndukwe Kalu

The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy.