Local skaters started to volunteer memorabilia, from photos of historic rinks to glittery old costumes. As word spread to skaters elsewhere, the collection went national. Style skating memorabilia began arriving by mail almost daily.
Once a week or so, Klusmann brings a box or two to Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. Items from the archive were recently displayed at the California African American Museum. The archive is also featured in the 2006 National Geographic book “Legacy: Treasures of Black History.”
Klusmann has recorded more than 100 interviews with style skaters—all on her own time, at her own expense. She has become accustomed to raised eyebrows and dismissive glances when she talks about the project, especially at black-history events.
“People don’t think of it as being significant or relevant,” Klusmann says. “But when you point out that generations and generations of people are preserving a community that came out of segregation, that says something important about our country’s social history, people say, ‘Wow. Now I see it.’”
The importance of gathering such information is heightened by the fact that style-skating’s “elders,” who remember when skating represented an affirmation of their culture and community, aren’t going to be around forever. Honey Boy died of heart disease in 2006. At about every skate party, there seems to be a table memorializing another legendary skater’s passing.
“People talk about how oral history is big within the black community,” Klusmann says. “But when oral history is all you’ve got, and you’re not recording the memories, what happens when people pass is that you lose their first-person story. That’s what we’re trying to save.”
It’s about 3:30 a.m. when Big Willis and Jim receive their own “pioneers of style skating” award—and, of course, their first-place trophy from the dual-trick competition. Then they treat the crowd to another quick performance before taking off their skates and heading home.
The ride home on the Master Rollers bus is quiet. Some skaters sleep. Others, like Big Willis, sit quietly. Most will arrive home around 6 a.m., nap for a couple hours, then wake up and start their days. Tasha and Norbert will be up in time to make breakfast for Nyasha and their 15-year-old son, Norbert Jr., before church.
“When I was coming up, the rule was, if you slept all day and let something go after a skate party, you couldn’t go anymore,” Tasha says. “That’s still my rule today.”
Gigi Thomas, who arrives home in Lanham around 6:30 a.m., takes a shower, then rounds up her three kids, aged 5, 8, and 10, to head to her niece’s baptism in Woodbridge. “My sisters and my mom knew I went to a late skate the night before, and my nieces and nephews had a lot of fun knowing their 48-year-old aunt stayed out ’til 5 a.m., as if she was 18 again.”
Big Willis will spend most of Sunday working. But he’ll be on skates again by Thursday, when he and Lil’ Willis meet at Branch Avenue to skate with the third generation, Willis III, Lil’ Willis’ 15-year-old son. “It goes from generation to generation,” Big Willis says. “After I finish, my son will take over. After he finishes, his son will take it over.”
Willis III isn’t into competitions, formal or informal, and it’s unclear how far he’ll go in the sport. But for now, people say he’s the spitting image of his father and his grandfather on skates, fluid and smooth whether he’s making casual revolutions or dropping into a shoot-the-duck that would make his grandfather proud.
“I’ll be watching him when I can’t skate anymore,” Big Willis says. “But that will be a while.”