The third installment in a series by Victoria Marin, an Educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Victoria has been blogging about her discoveries as she explores her surprising and complicated personal history.
Part 3: My Mother’s Mother
When I started this project, I suspected some sticky details and raw emotions would emerge at some point. The reality of my life, stubbornly planted in the grey area of American identity, was bound to make me consider the implications of race and class for the people who came before me. And since I began my exploration with my father’s mother, discovering deep family roots in Germany, Ireland and England, it seems natural that I continue the journey onward to the story of my mother’s mother, Jennie Anderson-Jenkins (nee Chambers), whose roots are vaguely traced to Africa. Because my memories of her are a fuzzy patchwork of childhood experiences and emotions, I turned to members of my family for stories to combine with my primary source research.
Very little is known about the environment that surrounded Jennie as a child. Her mother, Susie, died before my mother’s generation was born. I’ve only seen one photo of Susie, from 1916, a portrait in which she sat with her oldest child, Delores. Susie was born to Edward and Ella (nee Tucker) Gadley in 1893. Edward and Ella were born in the American south during the 1870s, and were perhaps the first free people born in their families. I’m unable to find any information about either of them beyond the 1910 census report, which details their ages (38 and 34), places of birth (Arkansas and Tennessee), and occupations (farmer and midwife). During this time Edward’s mother, Katie, who was born in 1850 (presumably into slavery), was living with the family–so at least I have her first name–but otherwise I have no information about the pre-Emancipation Proclamation generations of this side of my lineage (Katie’s husband was Thomas, who was a farm hand according to the 1880 census). On the other side, my grandmother’s father’s, I have found only limited information: surnames Chambers and Crawford (but only first initials), birth years going back to 1818 (but only on one side).
Susie, a literate midwife, was a teenager when she married Robert, an illiterate tenant farmer, who was at least a decade her senior. Susie and Robert had at least eight, possibly ten children. My grandmother, Jennie Chambers, was born in Arkansas in 1924, the youngest girl, to Robert and Susie. I remember her only vaguely, for crippling dementia took her spirit for a decade and a half before she finally succumbed to the illness in 2008.
Jennie was the daughter of a sharecropper, a child of the Depression, a black woman of the Civil Rights era, and a woman as insufferable as she was engaging. She was fiercely protective yet bitingly critical, loving yet unforgiving. She was a woman who both openly wore and carefully hid the painful history that made her who she was. When I asked one of my uncles if his parents were affectionate, he responded, “No. But [they] sure did let us know when we did something wrong.” Jennie was also able to successfully move seven children (including one who eventually died from asthma complications) from St. Louis to Los Angeles, with less than $10 to her name, and an alcoholic and unreliable husband with a gambling addiction.
It’s a stark, troubling contrast to the story I told last week, which was a triumphant foray into the 16th century. By rooting myself firmly in a family of colonial Americans who had settled in the new world 30 years before Shakespeare’s birth, I spent the last week excited about the sense of identity I was pursuing, only to return to the practice from an alternate perspective and find dead ends and more questions than answers. The United States stopped importing enslaved people from Africa (a little more than half of whom came from Angola) in the early 1800’s, which implies that my ancestors likely arrived sometime in the decades before that, from western Africa. But in a time when people were seen as property, and thus had no identity of their own, very few records were kept about their lives. The identities they were allowed to have were, by and large, created for them, and they explain so much about my enigmatic grandmother, who despite living longer than any of my other grandparents, is one that I know the least about.
– Posted by Victoria Marin.Victoria has lived in New York City for three years. She has worked in publishing, public relations and public education (she also fancies pubs…coincidence?). Victoria’s biracial background has been the subject of question and debate for as long as she can remember; this series is a self-guided exploration of her genealogical history. Her research sources have included public records, ancestry.com, memoirs, interviews and her own memories.