Thursday, October 15, 2020

Mother Hillery

Cherokee Roses in spring, on the road to Mother Hillery’s house.

When I’m home by myself overnight, I lock up like Mother Catherine Hillery. She was the thoughtful elderly church mother and dear cousin on Sapelo Island who wouldn’t answer the door after sunset — no exceptions. 

She’d call our house in the late afternoon and say “Come get a piece of this bread pudding before the sun go down.” 

The kids would scurry down the dirt road to beat that sun because the bread pudding was always warm and delicious, and she usually would slip them some pocket change. 

Sweet memories.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Elizabeth Elaine Lemon: Trailblazing Woman

Note: This was a speech I delivered on Feb. 29, 2020, as part of Trailblazing African American Women of Coastal Georgia, a program presented by The Ashantilly Center at St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church and Parish Hall. -- MNJ

In my former life, as a newspaper journalist, I wrote a Family column that was published weekly with my picture. So, when Black History Month rolled around, I was bombarded with calls to speak at churches, civic groups, and schools.

The schools were my favorite because I actually loved the challenge of trying to hold the attention of squirming elementary schoolchildren or engaging with middle or high school students who probably would rather be somewhere else.

Elizabeth Elaine Lemon
Elizabeth Elaine Lemon
I would often talk about family history, genealogy, one of my passions. And I would explain to them that we all have heroes within the branches of our family trees.

During Black History Month we often celebrate people who are larger than life household names – Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman … Malcolm X and George Washington Carver … and Frederick Douglass.

But many of the heroes in our families and in our communities are of the unsung variety, the ones who worked behind the scenes, and laid the foundation for others to build upon.

Elizabeth Elaine Lemon is one of those heroes.

She was born August 4, 1904, on Sapelo Island, Georgia, the daughter of Thomas Lemon and Lula Walker Lemon.

Her family – her parents and brothers and sisters -- called her “Bell.”

Bell’s early childhood, the early 1900s, was a time of changes on Sapelo Island. The land that was once dominated by the Spalding family, the island’s last major plantation owners, was purchased by Howard Coffin, a Detroit auto man. Coffin moved to the island and rebuilt the former Spalding “Big House,” transforming its tabby skeleton into a beautiful Mediterranean-style estate.

The black people on Sapelo included the formerly enslaved and their children and grandchildren. Many people on Sapelo worked for Howard Coffin performing the same tasks they or their ancestors had performed during slavery – cooking, cleaning, tending to the cows in the dairy or the flowers in the greenhouse.

Bell would have undoubtedly heard stories about her grandfather, James Lemon, who was born in 1828. He was one of several enslaved men on Sapelo who ran away and joined the Union Army during the Civil War. He served in Company A of the 33rd Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry.

His wife, Jane Cummings Lemon, ran away, too, along with other enslaved people, when the Spalding family evacuated Sapelo Island ahead of Union troops. According to James Lemon’s pension records, he was granted special permission to leave the war to return to Sapelo Island to check on his wife.

Young Bell would have no doubt heard these stories and many more, and probably would have been aware of and experienced the injustice of Jim Crow and the racism always present in black people’s lives long after slavery ended.

But she also would have witnessed what many little black girls and boys saw in the early 1900s all across America … black people making a way out of no way, creating opportunities for themselves, building communities, working together in churches, civic organizations, fraternal organizations, working as entrepreneurs and skilled craftsmen.

Bell would have known the value of education with the island school playing a vital role in developing strong minds and character in children who would grow up in a segregated world that did not value their worth.

Bell described her early education in an interview with genealogist Mae Ruth Green in the early 1980s.

“The children learned phonics and had to memorize poetry. In fact,” she said, “most of the poetry I know now, I learned on Sapelo Island.”

Bell attended grades one through five on Sapelo Island, and then continued her education at St. Athanasius Episcopal School in Brunswick. In the summers, she said she would scrape up bus fare to go to Savannah in search of work cleaning homes and doing other tasks for families.

“I would not spend more than a dime of my precious earnings for food,” she said. “A nickel glass of jelly and a five-cent loaf of bread made very good eating while I was looking for work. A couple of slices of bread and a glass of water made a good meal, and when the jelly was added, I had a party!”

In 1921, Bell – who called herself Elaine – graduated with honors from St. Athanasius, and then made her way north to study teaching at Atlanta University Normal School.

“When I was going to Atlanta University my shoes wore out … the soles went completely and the outer rim spread like a moccasin’s mouth,” she said. “When students made fun of my feet, I held my head high and craned my neck to peer into the distance to see what was giving them so much fun.”  

She graduated from Atlanta University, raggedy shoes and all, and was Salutatorian of her class.

Her early teaching career included six years (1923-1929) in the public schools of Winston-Salem, N.C. While teaching in North Carolina, she would go to New York City during the summers to work for a family. She made more money in the summer in New York than she did teaching school in North Carolina.

“I bought clothes, shoes, hats, luggage, and silk underwear, and sent money home to Sapelo, as much as $40 at a time,” she said. She paid for her sister Kate’s sewing lessons and began saving to buy a new home.

She went back to school, this time in Indiana, and in 1930 earned a Bachelor’s degree in English and Science from Ball State Teachers College (now known as Ball State University) in Muncie, Indiana. That same year, she returned to Atlanta to join the faculty of a groundbreaking experiment in education known as Atlanta University Laboratory School.

Atlanta University Laboratory School opened in September of 1930. The school combined the college preparatory programs of Spelman College, Morehouse College and Atlanta University.

The secondary school students took classes in Giles Hall on the Spelman campus.

Elementary school children attended classes at Oglethorpe School which was on the Atlanta University campus.

Elizabeth Elaine Lemon served as the Teaching Principal of the laboratory elementary school, from 1930-1943.

The philosophy of the progressive school included independent study with a social-problems approach, and the belief that students should have a role in choosing the topics to be studied and help plan class projects. The school was governed by collaboration or a democratic process amongst the faculty members, who met weekly, as well as the students.

The school attracted talented faculty and gifted students who often received state and national recognition in the areas of science and writing.

In an article published in The New York Age in 1931, Atlanta University president, John Hope, described the purpose of the laboratory school.

“It’s purpose is not primarily to give students in the Department of Education practice in teaching,” he said. Rather, it is to “provide them with an opportunity to observe good teaching and its results.”

One of the most distinguished teachers was artist and Harvard graduate Hale Woodruff, who was the chair of the Art Department

One of the most distinguished students – although he was only in the seventh grade at the time -- was an overachiever named Martin Luther King, Jr. (Young Martin, by the way, would ultimately skip ninth-grade and finish his high school years at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, before entering Morehouse College at age 15.)

Elaine Lemon, who was one of Martin Luther King’s teachers, had a personal teaching style that involved getting outside and going places. In addition to reading, she encouraged learning through experimentation and dramatization.

The Atlanta University Laboratory School had its critics. Renowned author, sociologist, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who was on the faculty of Atlanta University, viewed the program with some skepticism, primarily because he felt the school was understaffed and underfunded. In addition, the student population did not reflect the socioeconomic and educational diversity within the African American community. The students at the Laboratory School were the children of successful business owners and preachers, attorneys, doctors, and teachers.

An article published in The Atlanta Constitution in 1979 described the Laboratory School’s Oglethorpe Elementary as the first step on the road to entry in the “black society.” The next step was the Laboratory High School, and then Spelman or Morehouse, before going off to graduate school.

The story of experimentation in black high schools in the 1930s and ‘40s, and the history of the education of African Americans, is worth a Black History Month program all by itself. Elaine Lemon was part of a progressive movement known as the Secondary School Study or the Black High School Study. It included the Laboratory School and 17 other high schools throughout the South, and her participation in this experiment undoubtedly shaped her philosophy as she continued her career in education.

While teaching in Atlanta, Elaine Lemon continued going to school during the summers and during leaves of absence, she would take from teaching. She continued working other side-jobs to help pay her way through school, but she no longer had to clean houses.

She earned her Master’s degree in Social Science from Columbia University in New York in 1941, where she was elected Dean’s Scholar in the Advanced School of Education in the Teachers College. She taught religion at the historic Riverside Church also in New York not far from Columbia, as well as at Chautauqua Institution in New York, and Tufts College in Boston.

When the United States entered World War II, Elaine Lemon switched gears and became a USO director, coordinating services for American troops and helping to boost morale.

Following the war, she went back to Indiana and taught in a public school. In 1953 she was named the first African-American principal of the new $1 million Frederick Douglass School in Gary, Indiana, where she served until she retired.

Retirement for Elaine did not mean rest. She continued learning and teaching, with the whole world as her classroom. She traveled to five continents as a YMCA World Ambassador in the mid-1970s and into the 1980s.

In India, she met the prime minister, Indira Gandhi. In Ghana, she helped to build a school for preschoolers. She visited Tanzania, Nigeria, and Uganda, Greece, Italy, and the People’s Republic of China. She visited countries in Europe and Central America. In 1982 she visited the Soviet Union.

Back in Gary, Indiana, Elaine was active with the Urban League, the YWCA, the PTA, the United Way, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Friends of the Library. She was a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, a lifelong member of the NAACP, and an inspirational speaker. Her speaking topics included everything from the meaning of life to the role of women in the Space Age.

She was mentioned on the Society pages of Jet Magazine at least twice for her fundraising work with the United Negro College Fund and for her travels abroad.

When Elaine Lemon returned to Coastal Georgia, she made Savannah her home. She lived in the house she had bought many years earlier. (Yes, she did buy that house she was saving for all those years ago. It was a home where her mother lived out the last years of her life.)

In Savannah, she was an active member of St. Matthews Episcopal Church. She taught Sunday School and was a member of the St. Augustus Guild and served on the Day Care Center Board.

Elizabeth Elaine Lemon died on New Year’s Day in 1999, in Savannah.

The gifted teacher had touched lives and inspired so many halfway across the country and around the world. Her funeral program read: “Bell, our beloved sister, aunt, cousin, and friend.”

She was an extraordinary woman. At the same time, she was like so many African American men and women of her generation … the grandchildren of enslaved people who fought to be free and control their own destiny.

Black people who rode the wave of the Great Migration from the South to the North and West, running from Jim Crow, searching for opportunity, building new lives.

Elizabeth Elaine Lemon was the product of a family that loved her, and an island community of friends, teachers and a church-family that nurtured her and instilled in her the desire to succeed and to serve.

Looking back, when she had time to reflect on her life, she understood the odds she overcame and the hard work she did to reach her goals.

“Would you believe that it is just in later years that I realized that my going to school was a heroic undertaking?” she reflected in an interview with genealogist Mae Ruth Green.

“I was working to send myself to school since I was in the fifth grade. I lived with people who worked me morning, noon, and night. I ate sparingly hoping they would notice and lighten my work … but they did not see.”

We see you, Bell, and we thank you, and we honor you for your perseverance and commitment.

She left her island home all those years ago, but she took Sapelo with her. All the love and discipline and determination that was poured into her, she poured into the world, and into the people whose lives she touched.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Robert Sengstacke Abbott

I took my 3-year-old granddaughter for a ride the other day. She got mad when I told her we weren't really going anywhere...just riding. That made no sense to her, so she fell asleep.

I ended up at Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island, Georgia, and stood outside my car to take this picture of the obelisk erected by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, founder of The Chicago Defender newspaper.

Abbott was born in c.1868 on St. Simons Island, graduated from Hampton Institute, went to law school, and founded a paper that circulated throughout the country. It was a lifeline of information and a catalyst for activism and organizing for African-Americans in the Jim Crow era.

I look forward to the day my granddaughter stays awake long enough for me to bore her with these stories, and I hope I live long enough to see her grow to appreciate them.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Symbols of Oppression

A statue of Robert E. Lee is removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans in May 2017.
A Robert E. Lee statue is removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans, May 2017. By Abdazizar CC-BY-SA 4.0

Facts are freely available to people who want to know them. The facts about Confederate monuments are clear. The context in which they were erected is not debatable. So knowing the facts, people who still support Confederate monuments, are willfully supporting a false version of history. 


I’m obsessed with history and genealogy. I can read about and talk about American history all day. The Civil War is one of my favorite topics. But my obsession is for the truth ... the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have no interest in romanticizing the past and celebrating the Confederacy.

Trust me, when I dig through the wills of my ancestors whose descendants fought for the Confederacy, there is nothing there to make me feel proud. There is nothing to celebrate.

My Confederate ancestors descend from enslavers who listed my black ancestors in the inventories of their wills along with the wagons, kitchenware, horses, pigs, and cattle. Their monetary “values” are included. They leased them to neighbors, sold them off to raise money, and did whatever they wanted to with them or to them.

I’ve always found it interesting that the people who say African-Americans whine about slavery and racism too much are the same people who have the firmest grip on their Confederate flags and the tightest embrace of their monuments.

People who want to celebrate the Confederacy and honor their Confederate ancestors have the right to do that on their own land and with their own dime. I have lived all of my adult life in the South, so I see Confederate flags in yards and on vehicle bumpers every time I go out. It’s a part of the Southern landscape. I actually support the right to do that even if the fact is that that flag, like Confederate monuments, represents oppression, racism, Jim Crow, and a belief in white supremacy. 

However, the taxpaying public —- which includes me and other people of all races and backgrounds  —- shouldn’t have to pay for monuments that honor symbols of oppression.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

I Remember

By Dianne Campbell Johnson

Note: Our guest blogger is Dianne Campbell Johnson, my mother who passed away in 2011. She is in the photograph above seated on the right. The others, from left, are her brother, Harry Campbell Jr.; her mother Kate Irene Russell Campbell McCree; and standing, her sister, Geraldine Campbell Marshall. My mother began working on our family history as far back as 1970. I know this because I inherited all of her notes, and I was surprised to learn that way back then, she was digging up records and asking questions. I found this essay in her papers. - MNJ

I remember my shoes being tied by my Uncle Jim while standing on the marble shelf on the back porch on a Sunday morning while the church bells rang.

Pie school.

Rounding the corner just as Uncle Jim was throwing out his wash pan of water.

Being told the “chain gang” men would get hold of you and do bad things to you.

Saturday baths in the #2 tub beside the woodstove.

Having to eat after my step-grandmother fed my grandfather.

Charming “doodlebugs” out of their holes with branch stems.

Riding in my grandfather’s car, standing between persons in the front seat looking out the front window.

After I got so tall, I had to ride the middle front seat on my knees facing back looking at the back seat riders. Car rides were mainly to church. Cedar Grove on Sundays and rides on Sunday evenings.

Grandfather was a father figure. He was a loving grandfather. My father died when I was 18 months old. His name was Harry Alex Campbell.

We lived with my grandparents from my earliest memories.

I could lie in bed and hear the trucks on Highway 29 which was miles away.

We didn’t have an indoor toilet until I was 5 years old. The night “pot” or “chamber” was our bathroom placed in the bedroom at night and removed in the morning.

Mama cooked on a wood stove that was green and white with lids that lifted so wood and paper could be put in to make a fire to cook by.

Lights were turned on by a chain that hung from the middle of the room attached to the lightbulb holder. All electrical appliances ran from this outlet in the center of the room ceiling. Drop cords get their name from this.

Lace doilies adorned the furniture, armchairs, and backs. Embroidered pillowcases covered all pillows. Nothing was Perma press then. Grandmother boiled water and poured it into a pot outside with a fire around it and washed clothes.

Easter meant new clothes all the way to the skin. The Easter bunny left eggs, and our parents made it so real.

There was usually ice water for supper but it was a pleasant surprise to get fresh-squeezed lemonade instead.

Special occasions meant fresh green coconut cakes and homemade icing made of egg whites. My favorite kitchenware was a grayish-blue enamel pan that my mama served oatmeal in.

The serving table always had a linen cloth on it.

The house was well furnished with a blue velveteen living room set with a sofa and two chairs. A tiger-skinned rug with its head still attached once spread across the room in front of the big piano. The old mantle clock would chime away the time.

I remember the opossum tree in the Christmas parade and the dogs barking underneath. White men had a float with a tree and real possums with dogs jumping up trying to catch them. That’s the only time I got to see a possum.

I remember my granddaddy’s chicken yard. We weren’t allowed in there. A rooster jumped on me once and had me pinned to the ground. Everyone ran out the house and my granddaddy chopped off his head.

We made soup in a lye pot.

Mr. Dan started to appear. He later swooned Mama and they were married. Any reference to Daddy hereafter will be him because he is the only father I know.

We threatened to run away if Mama didn’t marry him. She got our approval before marrying him because we were a package deal. Geraldine, the oldest, then Harry, then James, and me.

Schools have been a part of my life since way back. I first went to a Lutheran school (Mount Calvary), then the Baptist Church school where my nickel rolled into the crack where they baptized people under water. I was afraid to walk across the trap door.

At the Lutheran preschool, Mr. and Mrs. Skinner were pastor and wife. They were real good to me. However, I decided I’d had enough school and wanted to stay home with my grandmother. I got a Dick Tracy baby doll just to make me go back to school. I took the doll and still stayed home, and my grandmother taught me to braid hair.

My first day of school, I sat across from my cousin, Alice, my daddy Harry’s brother’s baby. She had the biggest bow I’d ever seen on her top braid. It was so crisp and pretty.

We were all dressed up and our first-grade teacher was Nancy Miller. You didn’t have to go to kindergarten then, but it helped. I liked Nancy Miller so much that I told the school administrator that my first name was Nancy. I don’t even have a middle name.

These were the days of Spot the dog, and Dick and Jane. What would we have done without them?

These books had other people’s names in them that no one in the school knew. We later found out that we got the white school’s old books and they got new books.

I had other school experiences besides my time of school-hopping and my preschool drop-out record.

I went to school a lot with my sister, Geraldine who was five years older. Then it was allowed. I had a head start on the other kids because the teachers already knew me and I knew their routines.

Mrs. White was my second-grade teacher and that year was fairly uneventful. Third and fourth grade was spent with Effie Brown. The school was a little crowded, so my third-grade year was spent in the fourth-grade room along with about seven or eight other kids. 

Mrs. Brown wanted to skip me to the fifth grade, but Professor Reid thought I might suffer or lose something if I did. Back then you could skip kids.

In eighth grade, I was the “Grammar Grade Queen.” I was in spelling bees throughout, always a finalist but never winning. I was Les Amies’ first queen. Les Amies was a black women’s group. The name meant “let’s be friends.” There was a junior group with lots of social activities.

I walked barefoot home from the eighth-grade Valentine’s ball and gave my shoes to Betty Jean Horton.

I attended Bennett College for Scholastic Achievers in the 10th and 11th grades. Delores Morehead, Rogerlene Thompson, and Marilyn Gaither and I attended.