Upon Sherman Hemsley’s Death, Remembering George Jefferson

I was so saddened to hear of the death of Sherman Hemsley, who died of natural causes at his home in El Paso, Texas. The actor had many roles in life, but he was most remembered as the mad who made George Jefferson a part of American television history.  He, of course, was more than just the strutting New York character who loved Weezy and tolerated Florence, but the way he played George Jefferson stole our hearts.

Every day after school, I would turn on the television before doing my homework.  While watching television, I saw my first interracial couple (the Willis family who lived in the same building as the Jeffersons).  From my small, southern, rural vantage point, The Jeffersons –  set on Manhattan island — was just as exotic as Gilligan’s Island. George talked about places like “Harlem” and “the upper East Side” and had a balcony on which he’d get lock out during rainstorms. Looking back, I’m not sure the content of the show was appropriate for a kid coming home from school, procrastinating  homework.  However, it took me to a place that seemed like there was limitless opportunity: New York. It was the first television show to capture city life for me.

After I got married, my heart was set on living in Manhattan. I lived in Gramercy Park, but I never heard the phrase “East Side” without thinking of Sherman Hemsley’s character.  In fact, I’m certain that I — at least mentally — hummed a few bars of The Jefferson’s theme song every time too.  Eventually, I even had my own interracial family, though I hope my daughter never refers to me as a “honky.”

Jermaine Spradley, of the Huffington Post wrote this obituary for the beloved character:

George Jefferson, entrepreneur, pillar of the Upper East Side community and legendary example of black American financial ascendency has died.

George Jefferson was born in Harlem in 1929. Having lost his father at the tender age of ten years old, George was forced to drop out of high school and take care of his mother. He left home to serve in the US Navy as a cook during the Korean War and upon returning to Harlem, promptly married his long time sweetheart, Louise (affectionately known as Weezy). While making his career as a janitor and living with his wife in a rundown Harlem apartment, George used his entrepreneurial spirt, and $3200.00 gained from an insurance claim after a car accident to start Jefferson’s Cleaners — the business that facilitated his moving on up to the east side of Manhattan.

George spent much of the 1970′s working through the anger and frustration many black men felt, having had to spend most of their lives fighting against the direct, overt racism prevalent in this country during the first half of the century. That anger often expressed itself through hilariously bigoted tirades and hair brained get-richer-quick schemes. It also showed itself in his frequent arguments with his white neighbors — firstly the equally bigoted, Archie Bunker and then later — Tom Willis. Over time, as he grew closer to his maid Florence, his stance on race evolved — to the point that he eventually considered Tom one of his closest friends. And as his wealth grew George set his sights on more; he expanded his dry cleaning empire and even considered buying a posh home in Bel Air … from none other than Phillip and Vivian Banks.

But George Jefferson was a New Yorker through and through and so there he remained till his last days. In death he joins his beloved wife Louise, his son, Lionel, his neighbors, Helen and Tom Willis and he leaves behind his longtime maid and friend, Florence Johnston.

I don’t know anything about Sherman Hemsley’s faith, but I hope that his soul has, in deed, moved on up, “to a de-luxe apartment in the sky.”

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About Nancy French

Nancy French is a three time New York Times Best Selling Author.


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