My maternal grandmother, Ruth, was born in North Carolina. She was light skinned black – “High Yellow” in the parlance. Right on her birth certificate it said “Black”. She was the youngest of six
At the age of four something happened. I suspect that it was one of the many flu outbreaks, against which there was at the time no defense. Ruth’s parents died. One of her siblings may also have died – nobody is sure. Ruth and her siblings were parceled out to what people at the time called orphanages and what we today would call work houses. I don’t know what kind of work she did there. I do know that she got virtually no education, never learned to read above at best a fourth grade level, could not do even basic arithmetic, and was never exposed to any other sort of education whatsoever. Until the day she died she could do little more than puzzle over bank statements and slowly sound out passages of the Bible.
At age 17 she became pregnant. According to my mother’s original birth certificate the father was white. They weren’t married. He was a sailor. Because Ruth was from an orphanage, it was apparently impossible to trace her records back any further than her birth certificate. And in North Carolina, at least back then, people were not really given the benefit of the doubt. Despite Ruth being light skinned, and her infant daughter being even lighter, my mother was labeled “black” on her birth certificate.
Prospects for a black, unwed mother were pretty bleak then. They’re pretty bleak now, but this was even worse. “Prostitute” was considered a fortunate outcome. “Whore” was much more likely. But Ruth was lucky. The Episcopal Church stepped in and offered to relocate Ruth and her infant daughter Sibyl to somewhere far away and find Ruth a job. She could start a new life. It must have seemed like a miracle straight out of the Bible to Ruth – it was probably the single best thing that had ever happened to her in her life up to that point. At any rate she was an Episcopalian from that point on, loyal and unflagging, and attended services every Sunday of her life that she wasn’t too sick to get out of bed.
So off she went to Buffalo, New York – a city she lived in, and a house she lived in for the rest of her life. She got a job as a scullery maid at a boarding house owned by brother and sister Frank Carter and Marietta Hershey. Frank was a WWI veteran of the CEF with damaged lungs and PTSD (what they called “shell shock” back then), who worked as a pullman-porter for the railroad. Marietta was a socialite widow who had all the money. They were white. Ruth got a small shack behind the boarding house to live in and raise her daughter, in exchange for 16 or so hours of labor every day.
Then disaster struck. Sibyl developed type I diabetes at age 4. Insulin was an absolute requirement if she was to live for more than a year. GETTING insulin as a black scullery maid for a black daughter was a problem, even moreso for uneducated illiterate Ruth who must have found it next to impossible to navigate the medical system of the time. Frank went to bat for her and helped her navigate the system of the time and get Ruth the insulin she needed for her daughter. The local pharmacy across the street started stocking it for her, and in doing so earned her undying loyalty and patronage. She would go nowhere else for the rest of her life.
I like to think that this is when she and Frank fell in love. I don’t actually know the circumstances, Frank died when I was 6, and no one ever got around to talking about it. So I’ll go with the romantic version. In any event Ruth and Frank fell in love and my Aunt Marietta was scandalized.
Marietta was a socialite. She had money. She owned a car and according to stories by my mother’s friends used to drive around Buffalo like a demon and eventually lost her right to drive after plowing into a building. Marietta was very conscious of her position in society and very keen to keep it. She didn’t take any shit from anyone, and most of the stories I know about her depict her as an absolute terror. So when it got out that her brother Frank was having a romantic relationship with the black unwed scullery maid, that they were contemplating marriage, that they were making PLANS, she was apoplectic with horror. Nobody really talked about those times much, and obviously nobody wanted to speak ill or a relative, but from the little bit of information that I heard from my mother’s Buffalo friends this was one of those internal feuds that can tear families apart and smash relationships forever. It takes little imagination to picture it I suppose. In the end though, family bonds held. Frank married Ruth in the Episcopal Church and she moved into the house from the shack (which got torn down eventually to build a couple of convenience apartments in the back). She moved from scullery maid to wife of the owner (and probably did much the same work, but for better income and benefits).
Ruth was still black. Sibyl was still black. Marietta was still horrified.
Everything I have heard, primarily from Sibyl’s school friends, tells me that Marietta treated Ruth and Sibyl abominably. They were an embarrassment, and she spared no opportunity to tell them so. The wound that the marriage caused between Frank and Marietta was not a fatal one, but it would continue to bleed until their deaths. She would order Ruth around like the hired help, spare no opportunity to snub her or treat her with contempt, and utterly rejected any idea that she was family. She held Sibyl to exceptionally strict discipline – of particular note was the curfew. Several of my mother’s friends mentioned that Sibyl had a curfew. If she wasn’t in at the curfew – the very minute of the curfew – the doors would be locked and she would not be allowed in until the next morning when the doors were opened. This was true even in the middle of Buffalo winter, even in the midst of snow storms, and my mother had to seek shelter at the houses of her friends.
But there is another thing that my mother’s friends mentioned. Everyone in the neighborhood who knew them at the time said, usually after revealing some horrible story about Marietta treating Ruth or Sibyl badly, that despite everything they believed that Marietta honestly and truly loved my mother. Not liked. Not tolerated. Every one of them used the word “loved”. “She really loved your mother,” they would say, “she just didn’t know how to show it.” My mother would never speak ill of her.
Eventually Sibyl grew up, and it was time for her to go off to college. When she turned 18, Frank adopted her.
The adoption process was different then. When you adopted someone it essentially erased their past completely. Previous father? Never existed. By adopting her Frank retroactively became her father from birth. So now Sibyl Crickmore suddenly became Sibyl Carter. With a white father. And a light skinned mother. And on her NEW birth certificate – the one that listed her birthplace as Buffalo and her parents as Frank and Ruth Carter, came a miraculous change – under the space for “race” appeared the blessed and privileged word “Caucasian”.
It was like someone had waved a wand. Just like that, college opportunities and job opportunities suddenly opened up. Abra cadabra!
Sibyl went off to college, but we’ll pick up her story later. For now lets continue to follow Ruth. She lived with Frank and they seemed happy, though Frank’s health went into decline and his PTSD got worse. They ran the boarding house, and from what I can tell aside from grief from Marietta (which subsided into a simmering anger that only occasionally bubbled up), things seemed to go pretty well for them.
Then Frank died on Christmas eve one year. And his will, when executed, transferred his half of the boarding house to Marietta.
I can only guess why he did things that way. It’s true that Ruth was extremely uneducated, and the best I can come up with is that Frank didn’t think that Ruth was capable of running things herself. Or maybe Marietta browbeat him into it. Or maybe Frank made a will before he met Ruth and just never changed it.
As soon as Marietta had the boarding house, Ruth – Ruth who was by now a grandmother – was back to being a maid. She got one room in the house to call her own and got paid a salary rather than a portion of the profits. Marietta made her do all the work, and took the lion’s share of the money. In the house where she had married and raised a daughter, she was now once again the help. My mother flew into a rage periodically, but of course there was nothing she could do.
That lasted five years until Marietta died. And left everything to Ruth.
I never knew Marietta well but I remember being afraid of her. I think perhaps my mother’s friends were right. I think that Marietta honestly loved my mother, and honestly loved my grandmother too. Otherwise, why give her the house? Otherwise, why not throw her into the street the instant the probate was settled? Marietta could not bridge the gap between “servants and blacks are inherently inferior and black servants even more so” and “I genuinely care about these people and they are an important and meaningful part of my life”. It was a disconnect in her brain, and was never resolved. This doesn’t excuse her – by any standard she was a villain, her behavior shameful, and I never met anyone who said anything good about her without it being appended after listing some horrible behavior. She was white, and privileged, and wealthy, and believed that part of that privilege was the ability – perhaps even the requirement – that she treat her social inferiors like dirt.
Back to Ruth. She now had a boarding house, and money. Along with Frank’s railroad pension she was pretty well set up.
She flushed it all through horrible mismanagement. She never raised the rent. She actually lowered it in some cases. She didn’t charge for utilities, paid them out of pocket. She was terrible at maintenance and often let small problems balloon into huge ones. She couldn’t manage money, couldn’t even really keep track of it. She couldn’t read contracts. She couldn’t read ANYTHING (though she probably kept every single piece of mail that came into the house after Marietta died). By the time she died, there was little left but the base value of the property, minus cost of repairs to bring things up to code.
And then the final irony.
I flew out to help get Ruth into the hospital after a call from a friend. It took us three days of going through the house to find proof of medical insurance so we could get her into a hospital. She had terminal colon cancer that had metastasized into cancer of the everything. It was amazing that she wasn’t dead already, but she was in and out of a coma and not much aware of what was going on. She died after a couple of weeks without ever recognizing me (she thought I was Sibyl). I made funeral arrangements – at the Episcopal Church of course. And in the course of things I got a death certificate from the hospital.
The coroner had no access to records or birth certificates or anything similar. Instead, they had to go by what my grandmother looked like. So there, under “race” was the word “Caucasian”..
What if someone had actually decided to write my grandmother’s birth certificate all those years ago according to what the color of her skin was? What opportunities might have opened up for her? How might her life have been different? And more importantly, why did her life need to be the way it was because of her skin color or the skin color of her parents? How farcical, how ludicrous, how monstrous – not only to set up a system of discrimination, not only to base that discrimination on one’s skin (an organ that exists primarily for the purpose of keeping all our organs from puddling around our feet), but to judge decedents based on a discrimination criteria that they do not even meet. It shows up the inherent fraud of discrimination. Its never about skin color. Or religion. Or nation of origin. Or gender It’s purely about power that one group covets over another. The rest is just window dressing and self-justification.
My grandmother was screwed from birth, and lets be clear that she was LUCKY. Lucky to have the Episcopal Church rescue her from prostitution and poverty. Lucky to have Frank Carter intervene to save her daughter, fall in love with her, and marry her. Lucky that Marietta, for all her bigotry and bias, in the end did the right thing. But because of a word on her birth certificate, she had an additional disadvantage to overcome, and that was living in a society that worked against her success.
My wife wears my grandmother’s wedding ring. I look at it often. Its a reminder of where I come from, and of those who fought to get me here. Courageous people who bucked the system – the Episcopal Church social worker, Frank Carter who gave her a job and a life, all the friends who supported her and my mother, and in the end even Marietta who, after a lifetime of being a terror and a monster, in the end was changed enough by coming to know my mother and my grandmother to do the right thing. And I think that for every person of color in my grandmother’s generation who managed a success story like my grandmother’s there are ten, one-hundred, a thousand others who didn’t, because of the obstacles put in their way by a biased society.
And I think of how much of my grandmother’s success was because of doors that she was lucky enough to have opened for her by the privileged, primarily by white man Frank Carter. Without the white man in the story Sibyl would likely have died. Without the white man in the story my grandmother would have died an impoverished maid living in a shack – at best. Without the white man in the story Sibyl could never have afforded to go to college, and likely would have had a hard time getting admitted. And while it is easy to say “Frank Carter was a great guy!” and pat ourselves on our white backs because, well, Frank was white and he did good on a racial issue, and we (meaning, in this case, I) are white and the story is rather inspiring, really the story is a sad one because what it really says is that, at least in my grandmother’s lifetime, a major force in deciding whether a black person could succeed or fail in life was still a white person. Yes, it’s a nice story. Ultimately it has a happy ending, but if you put it in a children’s book and illustrated it with friendly pictures, the moral would still be “Black woman you need a white man to help you.” And the truth is that she did. She would NEVER have gotten to live her last years in a house. Probably would never have lived to 83. Would have died in poverty. Except for that white guy who helped her.
That’s fucked up. It was fucked up in my grandmother’s time and it still occurs and is fucked up today. Ideally there shouldn’t be some overclass that aids the underclasses due to enlightenment or beneficence or altruism (or doesn’t) because there shouldn’t be an overclass and underclasses in the first place. That’s what we have to work for.