My mother was a young woman when she fled the south, from Alabama. It was the time of the
Great Migration. On her path north, she met my father in Tennessee, where he must have been stationed in the Army, because I have always been told that daddy was the first altar boy from St. Ann’s to fight in WWI.
While they were courting she became sick…caught malaria. Back then, black folks suffered
from non-existent health care. Hospitals wouldn’t accept us and unless there was a black doctor around, (fat chance) they went without medical care. My father nursed her the best he could, and they fell in love. He brought her to Cincinnati where they married and had children. She was always a sickly woman, though… dad took care of her, my brothers and sisters and me. Dad saw to it that we were baptized and went to church; Father McGarity baptized us at St. Anthony on Budd Street.
I remember one summer; the health department came to our house and quarantined us because of momma’s malaria. We stayed in the house all summer. Talk about cabin fever! Well, one day, my father had about as much as he could stand. He got all of us children ready and took us for ice cream, quarantine or no quarantine.
It was not long after that that my mother died. It was August 19, 1943. Looking back, I imagine
dad was so distraught, that he drank all of the time. I always say, “My momma died and my daddy got drunk.” He was not like that while momma was alive. Why, he taught us to read
before we started school. In any case, our lives sure did change after momma died. My father sent my sister and me to Girls Town in November 1943 around Thanksgiving. I was eight. The nuns were so mean. I was a bed wetter and they didn’t just whip me… I got whuppins! I guess it didn’t occur to anybody that I was in crisis. My mother was dead, my family torn apart and I was in a strange place, with strangers.
Girls Town had three buildings for colored girls. One was for little colored girls, called St. Peter
Claver House, a second building was for the older colored girls, and the third was for troubled
colored girls… we never saw them. The white girls were kept completely separated from us… a result of Jim Crowe laws. Well, not only did they live in a different building than we did: they
were fed differently than we were…we got the scraps… barely any meat at all. I used to cry
because the food was so nasty. One nun had been around black folks before and thought she knew
what we liked to eat. So at times she would pour gobs of bacon grease into our green beans. I would eat them because they tasted better than the bland food we were normally served, but it made me sick as a dog.
We lived just like the nuns did. We got up before the crack of dawn and attended Mass at 5:30
a.m., had breakfast and then went to classes. After school, there were tasks assigned to each of
us. My task was to clean the nun’s house. There was a great big stairway that I had to keep
spotless… I even cleaned their bathroom and was just a little girl. When I got a bit older, my task was to fold the garments that were made in our sewing factory.
When I left Girls Town in 1952 at 17 years old; the sisters placed me with a family in North
Avondale, on Beechwood Avenue as the mother’s helper. I was angry about it but didn’t have
anywhere else to go. My father died when I was 16. I rebelled: wouldn’t go to school. I discovered black folks downtown and would slip out of the house to hang out with them. I just loved Central Avenue and would go to stage shows at the State Theater to see acts like “The Brown Skin Mollies.” I had been so sheltered and restricted all of my life, that when I got a taste of freedom… it was on.
One day while I was tasting my freedom, a young man flirted with me and got my attention.
While we courted, he took me to meet his big family: his parents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles
and cousins. His family wrapped their arms around me and for the first time since I was eight
years old, I belonged to a family. I was more in love with the family than I was with him. I got
married at St. Joseph’s in 1953, which I had joined as soon as I left Girls Town… I have always
gone to church.
The Good Shepherd Sisters that raised me gave me everything that I am. While times were
hard, I knew that God saw everything. I always say: “God takes care of babies and fools.” I think
that if I had to do it again, I’d go that same route.
My favorite Scripture is Hebrews Chapter 11, where Paul writes:
1. Faith is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about
things we do not see. 2. Because of faith the men of old were approved by God. 3.
Through faith we perceive that the worlds were created by the word of God, and
that what is visible came into being through the invisible. 4. By faith Abel offered
God a sacrifice greater than Cain’s. Because of this he was attested to be just, God
himself having borne witness to him on account of his gifts; therefore, although
Abel is dead, he still speaks. 5. By faith Enoch was taken away without dying, and
“he was seen no more because God took him.” Scripture testifies that, before he
was taken up, he was pleasing to God. 6. But without faith, it is impossible to
please Him. Anyone who comes to God must believe that He exists, and that He
rewards those who seek Him. 7. By faith Noah, warned about things not yet seen,
revered God and built an ark that his household might be saved. He thereby condemned
the world and inherited the justice which comes through faith.
Please read it, the entire chapter.
I have always been encouraged to know that God sent Abraham to a foreign country and kept
His promise to make him the father of as many descendants as there are stars in the sky and
the sands of the seashore. I love the story of Joseph who was sold into slavery; God brought him
out. I think about how Moses’ parents sent him away in order to save his life. God parted the
Red Sea for the Israelites to cross, but the same sea swallowed the Egyptian army.
Right now there are four generations of my immediate family that are members of Mother of
Christ. I am the matriarch. I believe! That is what has helped me.