By Constance Garcia-Barrio
Some silences defy breaking. The hush around contributions of many Black women, especially poor ones, to Philadelphia’s past and present sink into such quiet. They sewed clothes, washed dishes, tended privies and kept the city running, but they rate not a word in most histories. Yet, how would President George Washington’s dinners for diplomats in his “big house on Market Street” have gone without enslaved Blacks to cook and serve them? How would Philadelphians have looked and smelled without Black wash mammies? This yearlong series on Black women, especially from the working class, will wrestle with the quiet that erases most of them from history and damns them to scant respect.
The series will quote from historical documents, if available. For example, some records of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society refer to its Black members. On the other hand, some women of African heritage never learned to read or write because they had no chance to attend school or, in the case of slavery, the law forbade it. Harriet Tubman never became literate because of Maryland laws. She sometimes did cleaning in Philadelphia to earn money to finance her trips to free slaves, but we’ll never know in her own words how she felt about the city since she left no written record beyond a few dictated letters.
Although Philly-centered, the series will occasionally refer to related sources in other places. For instance, Reminiscences of My Life, A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoir by South Carolina fugitive slave Susie King Taylor deserves mention, but the story will focus on Emilie Davis’s Civil War, the Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865.
Besides documents, the series will focus on museums, re-enactors, exhibitions, personalities, events, and experts. For example, Kali Gross, Ph.D., studied African-American women lawbreakers in the late 1800s, one of whom just about got away with murder.
The past provides a launching pad for the series, which will also look at the present. One feature will include a certain SEPTA bus driver who has a secret life as an artist.
Please stay tuned.
It seems fair, since I’m a native Philadelphian, to begin with some of my own family background. My oldest story reaches back to a maternal great-great-great grandmother, Hannah. It is said that she walked chained with a coffle of other slaves from Baltimore, where the trans-Atlantic slaver landed, to Spotsylvania County, Virginia. I’ve gleaned few details about her, but family lore has plenty to say about my maternal great-grandmother, Rose Wilson Ware, or Maw. Born into slavery about 1851, Maw saw soldiers retreating from the 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse during the Civil War. She died in 1964—yes, she lived 113 years—long enough to see the Civil Rights Movement.
A house servant in slavery time, Maw somehow learned to read and write, though it was prohibited. I speculate that Maw tended to her master’s children during their lessons and absorbed the knowledge. When freedom came at the end of the Civil War, she and her husband, Jacob, scrimped, sharecropped and bought land. A deep-chested, plain-spoken, chocolate-brown woman, Maw began each day with a prayer and a tot of gin. She was a seamstress, herbalist, and farmer. As a scribe for illiterate neighbors both Black and white in Partlow—the location of the Virginia plantation where Kunta Kinte, a character in Alex Haley’s book Roots was enslaved—Maw knew many people’s private business because they brought her letters to read to them. She had enough of a reputation as a sharpshooter to keep the Ku Klux Klan at bay. Widowed early, she took a lover in her sixties.
My mother would take us to Maw’s farm for a few weeks each summer. Around the time I had an inkling of what Maw’s life meant, she died. I do have a vivid memory of what happened the last time I saw her alive. Maw was 112 at that time. Her mind was clear, but she had so many grandchildren, great-grands, and more, that it took her a moment to place us in the horde of descendants. When she realized that I was her great-granddaughter through Cleoria, (my mother’s name) she asked me to come over to the sofa where she spent her days. Then she told me to lift my skirt. I was surprised, but how could I disobey someone so old? With gnarled hands she felt my calves, knees, and thighs, and then smiled. As soon as we left Maw’s rutted drive to return to Philly, I asked my mother why Maw had gone over me that way.
“Maw was a farmer,” my mother explained. “Before she bought a horse, cow, or mule, she would feel its legs for knots and things to know whether it was a strong animal. She was checking to see if you were healthy.”
My mother grew up, in large part, on Maw’s farm. “Maw kept me in the kitchen because the livestock scared me,” my mother used to say. “I knew how to judge the temperature of the stove, how much wood to add. Sis [her older sister Coletha] helped with the horses and cows.”
My mom came to Philadelphia with her parents and six siblings in the 1920s. My grandmother, Edna, kept house while my grandfather, Major, helped build the Broad Street Subway, ran a couple of whorehouses and sometimes sold his herbal concoctions in drug stores.
As a young woman, my mother worked as a maid and scraped up money to hire a speech therapist to help rid her of her southern accent. Brown skin and that accent would shackle her to low-wage work, she feared. She also earned her G.E.D. Rural Virginia had offered few schools for Black children, and my mom may have gone as far as fifth grade.
My parents married in 1938. My older brother and I were Baby Boomers. Ambitious and determined, my mother pushed us to pile up advanced degrees. And we did. However, those achievements didn’t make for happily ever after. Mom came to feel that we had outstripped her, left her behind, even though she had a successful catering business—I worked as one of her waitresses for years—and in winter she spent a few weeks in a spa in Mexico. Those feelings raised a barrier between us that love could barely squeeze past. When she lay dying she finally said, “I am delighted with you.”
The truth? Despite the jabs and pain, I miss her. Mom cooked and served thousands of meals, helped hundreds of people mark milestones in their lives. A Black working-class woman if ever there was one who will never have a line in a history book. I dedicate this series to her.
This is the first of a 12-part series chronicling the lives of Black women in Philadelphia.