This is another memory from the December 1990 Ruff Draft, a family newsletter we put out for 5 years. My daughter Ayanna interviewed my Uncle Henry and wrote this from the interview. The photo was probably taken several years earlier than the memory. It was taken by the house on Scotten on the old west side of Detroit about 1925.
Henry Cleage remembers when his Aunt Gertrude won a nice new shiny bike. He just knew she would give it to him for Christmas. On Christmas Eve he was sitting in the living room with his father after the younger kids had gone to bed. His father said, “Henry, go over to your Aunt’s and get that bike … for Hugh.” Henry thought he would never enjoy Christmas again, but that after seeing Hugh so happy with the bike he decided it was all worth it. Even so he said that Christmas was never the same for him. It had lost some of the magic.
From 1990 until 1996 we put out a family newsletter called the Ruff Draft. In December of 1990 we solicited Christmas Memories from our readers, who were mostly relatives. On the days of the Advent Calendar series when I don’t have anything to say I’ve decided to run one of these memories. Here is the first one from my mother’s older sister. In the photo is my little mother Doris (1923-1982) and her sister Mary V. (1921-2009). It was taken in their backyard on Detroit’s east side.
I can remember Poppy waiting till Xmas Eve to go and get our tree. We (Doris and I) usually went with him…and bringing it home to decorate. He had a stand that he made himself. We went up to the attic to haul down boxes of decorations that had been carefully put away. Some very old. I can remember one little fat Santa that Mom always put in the window, he had a pipe in his mouth. Doris and I shared a bedroom which had the door to the attic in it. When we were at the “believe in Santa Claus stage” we thought that once we went to sleep he would tip down the attic stairs and put our toys, etc, under said tree. I think I laid awake waiting for the old boy to show up. Of course I never saw him ’cause I went to sleep, but the stuff was always under the tree. Mom was always busy in the kitchen getting stuff together for Xmas dinner and the house would be full of wonderful odors. If Xmas fell on a Sunday, we would go to church. And we used to have lots of snow. Although we came up during the depression, we always had something to eat and something under the ole tree even if it wasn’t what we asked for. It was a tradition that Xmas dinner was at our house and Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma Turner’s. Daddy cooked the ole turkey and made the most delicious stuffing. He could cook. Mom learned from him. She couldn’t boil water when they got married. Dad taught her cause he had worked in restaurants as a young man.
My Aunts both identified the woman in this photo as Mary Agnes Miller and the man as George Payne. He appeared in this blog earlier with his brother Paul and my uncle Hugh here. One of my aunts says that Mary Agnes was very striking, and a nice person. The guys fell over each other over her. She had beautiful skin and although Mary didn’t act like a diva, people treated her like one. My aunt attended Wayne State University with both Mary Agnes and George.
My other cousin wrote “Mom said that Mary Agnes married Ed Davis. He was the first black owner of a car dealership, Studabakers. So, you might be able to google some information on him. Mom also said that Mary was very active in the Delta sorority. Hope that lets you dig further. :).” You can see the type of reputation I have among family members – I ask questions and then google people. I did google him and came up with quite a few articles and photographs. His life was very interesting. The link under the photo will take you to one article as well as being the source of the photo.
George Payne was Paul’s brother. He was not cool, my aunt said, but was goofy and very nice. I tried googling George with no luck, but I did find his wedding photograph in the family photo box. I really need to scan the rest of those photos and mount them in an album. I remember his wife Velma who was a librarian at the Oakman branch library where I used to go as a child. The book I remember best from that library is “Bed knob and Broomstick: or How to be a Witch in 10 Easy Lessons.” Velma Payne died this year I found when I googled “Velma Payne Detroit Public Library” (without the quotes) and a Detroit Retired City Employees newsletter with deaths by month came up.
Both aunts agreed that the original photograph was not taken at the Meadows but do not recognize where it was taken.
When I was growing up in the 1950’s lights were rare in my neighborhood. I remember the first lights I saw. My family moved into the huge house above in 1952 after a church fight in which my father, a pastor, and 300 parishioners left St. Marks Presbyterian church to organize Central Congregational Church. During the time before a new church building was found and purchased the church met at Crossman School on Sundays while all other activities were held at the house above. We lived on the second floor, church activities were on the first floor and in the very large recreatuion room in the basement. My sister and I shared the bedroom marked with the red X. On the side was a window (marked Z) that we could look out of at night and see a house in the next block outlined in multicolored lights. We called it the gingerbread house and thought it was beautiful and unique. I don’t remember ever riding by when the lights were on. We lived on the westside of Detroit while one set of grandparents lived on the eastside. Driving from one house to the other we would be coming home after dark and I remember looking at people’s lit Christmas trees through the windows, I don’t remember any outdoor lights. In later years that changed. I think my west side grandparents eventually had lights and some carolers out in front. My youngest son always wanted to put lights outside our house but since we lived at the end of a dead end road in the middle of the Manistee National Forest at the time, it never happened.
Our tree was always real. My sister, my mother and I would go to a tree lot to pick it about a week before Christmas. This was Detroit and in my memory it is cold and there is snow on the ground. We picked short needled trees of medium height and (of course) well shaped. We used a mix of glass balls my mother had collected over the years. When we were old enough, I can’t remember when that was, we helped decorate the tree – after my mother put on the beads, the tinsel and the multicolored lights. We had the big lights but they were pointy. My grandparents had round lights. The icicles went on last and there was no tossing. It was put on a few pieces at a time up and down all the branches. I remember one year that my mother did not want to trim the tree and was pretty unpleasant about my sister and me doing it and doing it NOW, but usually it was a pleasant evening, either Christmas eve or close to it. My mother usually had on the CBC, the Canadian station and by that time they would be playing Christmas music. The tree was always beautiful.
My maternal grandparents, Nanny and Poppy, waited until Christmas eve to buy the tree and set it up. The tree was always scrawny and thin but that was how their tree was supposed to be. Their ornaments were very old. I wonder what happened to them. What I remember are some little Santas that went on the tree and a jolly Father Christmas looking Santa that stood in the window with his removable pipe. My paternal grandparents had a bigger house and a big, full, long needled tree that was in the corner of the living room next to the stairs. My uncles Louis and Hugh plus my aunt Barbara and cousin Ernie lived there in addition to my grandparents so there were always a lot of presents under the tree.
The black and white photographs are all from the same Christmas. I think it was about 1962. I was still in high school, about 15. My sister was two years younger. Unfortunately these were all taken with a polaroid and they show it. The colored photo is from 1968. We had moved into the flat we shared with my grandparents. They were downstairs and we were upstairs. I had just graduated from Wayne State University and was about to head out into the world to seek my fortune. But that’s another story.
My Aunt Gladys Cleage Evans drew this pencil sketch of me after dinner at my grandmother Cleage’s dining room table. I did a sketch of her at the same time. It has been (thankfully) lost. At some point I tore the picture out of my journal notebook and glued it into a scrapbook. This was before I knew what glue can do. I’ve cleaned it up some. Many lively political discussions took place around that table. Click for other Sepia Saturday offerings.
Edward Cleage was my grandfather, Albert Cleage’s brother. This post is a chapter of a memoir written by his daughter, Beatrice in 1990. This is a part of the SepiaSaturday postings.
Memories To Memoirs
Written in 1990
By Beatrice Cleage Johnson
Chapter 2 – Early Years of Life
1926 – I remember the early years of my life living at 216 Ridge Street. We used wood and coal stoves for heating and cooking. I will never forget the range stove that my mother cooked on. She made biscuits every morning for breakfast. There was a warmer at the top of the stove for left overs. I would always search the warmer for snacks. We had an outside toilet. Everyone that we knew had these, so we thought this was it. We never dreamed of ever having inside plumbing.
We had a water hydrant in the front yard and every night it was my job to fill the water buckets which had stainless steel dippers in them. My sister also helped with the chores. My other job was to clean the lamp chimneys. We used oil lamps. Momma always inspected them to see if they were clean. I decided then, if I ever made any money I would have electricity put in our house. And I did. I would babysit during the summers and save my money.
I have always loved poetry. I learned many poems and stories from my mother and sisters, such as “Little Boy Blue” and “Little Red Riding Hood”. I think my favorite food was any kind of fruit. I was always happy to see Summer, when the apples and peaches were plentiful. I always looked forward to Christmas. We never saw any oranges until then. I remember my first doll. It had a china head and straw body. I loved it so much. Momma always made a special white coconut cake for Christmas, which I looked forward to. She made other pies and cakes, but the coconut was my favorite. We didn’t get too many toys for Christmas, but my sisters and I enjoyed everything we got for Christmas.
My father became ill and my mother was to be the sole support of the five girls. I was six years of age when my father passed away in 1926. My youngest sister, Juanita, was three years of age and she didn’t remember him, but I did. After he died my uncles took the two older sisters, Helen and Alberta, to Detroit to live with them. Alberta stayed and finished high school there, but Helen came back home and helped Momma care for the three of us. Ola, Juanita and myself went to high school here.
We always celebrated the holidays. Thanksgiving was very special as my birthday would sometimes come on Thanksgiving Day. We always had special food on these days. Pies, cakes, chicken, rabbit. On Halloween we always dressed in our older sister’s and mother’s clothes. One of the main pranks the boys would do was to push the outside toilets over. We used to beg them not to push ours over. In those days, thre was no trick or treat. It was all tricks. Easter was also special. Momma would make us a new dress for Easter, and Helen always bought me black patent leather slipper.
Family and church members accompanied my father as he signed up to run for City Council in Detroit, MI in 1965. We all have on our Cleage for Council buttons. That’s him in the front with the bow tie. I am looking melancholy over on the left. My cousin Ernie is in the striped sweater. Rev. Hill’s ( assistant pastor) wife in the back with the hat. My grandmother (Pearl Cleage) looking happily proud on the right. This followed the Freedom Now Party loss in 1964 and the 3 + 1 campaign in 1963 and preceded the run for the 13th District congressional seat in 1966.
These campaigns were run as educational, not to win. Not that that wouldn’t have been a welcome surprise. My family talked politics morning noon and night. Not just talked, lived. Two of my uncles started a printing business and for years the family and friends put out The Illustrated News, an eight sheet pink paper where they wrote about the issues of the day, mostly local but as this was the time of the civil rights movement, bombs and demonstrations and riots, there was also some national news. I remember riding in sound cars, passing out information at the polls, silk screening posters, leafleting. The summer of 1966 I spent lots of time with Jim, who is now my husband, campaigning. We capped it off by attending a “Victory Party” for Ken Cockrel, who hadn’t won. Those were the days my friend…
I moved often while I was growing up because my father was a minister. When he changed churches, we moved. I have written stories about each house individually. There are links at the bottom of this story. This is an overview of all those houses, with memories.
I was born on August 30, 1946 at 10 PM in the middle of a thunderstorm. The first of the two daughters of Rev. Albert B. and Doris Graham Cleage. I was named Kristin after the heroine of the novel by Sigrid Unset, Kristin Lavransdatter. My father was pastor of the St. John’s Congregational church in Springfield, MA. We lived in the back of the church community house after my father convinced the church to sell the parsonage to pay debts.
I remember… Laying on a blanket in the yard looking up at the clouds with my mother. Holding my sister, Pearl, on the way home from the hospital. Sitting on the basement steps while my grandmother washed Pearl’s diapers. Making Halloween cupcakes. Looking at the clearing evening sky after rain. Going to the ice ream parlor with my sister and parents. Leafless trees against the winter sky. The huge statues in a religious procession going past the house. Fall trees, a stream and a dog in the park. Watching the milkman and his horse from my bedroom window. Ribbon candy at Christmas.
When I was four my father got a church in Detroit and we moved there. All of the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were there. We moved into a house down the street from my paternal grandparents a few aunts and uncles lived there too. I began kindergarten at Brady Elementary.
I remember… My grandfather picking up a baby bird and giving it little pieces of bacon. Not being allowed out of the yard. Being late for school all the time. A movie about white and red corpuscles fighting infection. Painting at the easel.
I attended first grade at Brady. During second grade I had pneumonia and missed the rest of that year my father was involved in a church fight and led a faction away to start another church. We moved. During the summer before we moved, my mother, sister and I stayed with my mother’s parents on the east side. My father stayed with his parents. My mother was taking classes in education at Wayne State University.
I remember… Playing “Sorry” at my grandparent’s kitchen table. Listening to the radio soaps. Going to meet my mother at the bus stop and collecting dropped flowers that we made into a slimy mud pie soup. Eating grated cheese and Ritz crackers. Going to the creamery with my grandfather to buy vanilla ice cream. Climbing up on the pile of logs against the wooden fence to look into the alley. The electrical storm when we sat in the living room, waiting for my mother to come home. Crying when she finally got there, telling of jumping over downed wires.
In the fall we all moved into a big stone house that would be mostly the church community house and incidentally we would live upstairs. The choir practiced downstairs, the youth group met in the basement rec room; they had card parties in the living room and piano lessons in the morning room. They all used the kitchen. It was kind of adventurous living in such a large mostly empty house with servant’s quarters in the attic and buttons that lit up on a numbered board in the kitchen when pressed in each room. At least my sister and I thought so. My mother didn’t feel that way. When I was eight my parent were divorced. It was a “friendly divorce”. We moved into a flat closer to Roosevelt elementary school that my sister and I attended and my mother was a beginning teacher. My sister and I went everyday to my father’s for lunch. He came by and visited. Neither one talked negatively about the other. My sister and I took piano lessons from Mr. Manderville and dance lessons at Toni’s School of Dance on Dexter.
I remember… Learning how to ride a bike. My great grandmother dying. Two more cousins being born. My aunt and three cousins staying with us while their family looked for a house. Saturdays my mother picked up her sister and three daughters and the seven of us drove over to the east side and spent the day at her parent’s. Vegetable and flower gardens, bird bath, swing, dirt, snowball tree, marigolds and a big brass bed we jumped up and down on
and slid through the bars of. Plays my older cousin Dee Dee wrote and we put on and on and on for the adults. My grandmother’s aunt who gave us rosaries and told us about cutting her mother’s mother’s (who she said was from Africa) toenails, while my cousin was cutting her toenails. Sundays after church at my other grandmothers where she had milk, tea and ice water on the table and the butter in little pats on a saucer and candles. The endless discussion of politics, race, church around that table. Getting my own room. Going to the fish house and the zoo and picnics at Belle Isle. Making dolls. Learning to roller-skate and ride a bike. Having a “best friend”. Reading, reading and reading. Roosevelt Elementary School changing from 99% Jewish to 99% Black.
When I was twelve I graduated from Roosevelt and went to Durfee Junior High School next door. Because of over crowding I was double promoted. A year later my mother bought a house on Oregon Street and we moved to the McMicheal school district. I transferred there while my sister continued at Roosevelt where she was a sixth grader. I was in the church youth group.
I remember… Going home after graduation with my best friend Deidre and having a snowball fight. Finding everybody else knew how to dance and I didn’t. How big Durfee seemed. My crazy seventh grade math teacher. Learning how to swim. Getting home before everybody. Never finding my way around McMicheal. Chaos during TV science classes. Learning how to sew. Making pineapple muffins and pineapple muffins and more pineapple muffins. My cousin growing out of playing ‘imaginary land” on Saturdays. Wishing I had enough money to get everybody a really good Christmas present. Arguing with my sister about who was supposed to do the dishes. Making doughnuts. Not getting “Chose” at youth group dances.
When I was 15 my mother remarried. She married my father’s brother, a lawyer, who was then a printer and started to put out a black paper, the illustrated news. I attended Northwestern High School. Favorite classes were Spanish and swimming. I was on the Swim Team. Worked at the Printing Plant one summer. Baby-sat another. My family bought an old farmhouse on two acres near Wixom, Michigan. We went there on weekend and longer in the summer.
I remember… Discovering Socialism, Revolution and Cuba. Telling an English teacher I certainly had nothing in common with Holden Caulfield. The freedom rides, school integration, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Kennedy’s assassination. The four little girls in Birmingham bombed at Sunday school. Being at the church Christmas bazaar while the Russian boats were headed for Cuba. Bare trees against the winter evening gray/peach sky. Not wanting to participate in graduation. Not going to the prom. Not wanting to. The green fields at the farm under a heavy grey, clearing sky after a summer. Not going on dates. Wanting to be able to say I had a boyfriend, but not wanting anyone I knew for one. Feeling like an outsider.
I attended Wayne State University from Sept 1964 until graduating in December 1968 with a Bachelors degree in Fine Arts. I worked in the cafeteria, in the school library, at the Center for the Application of Science and Technology, as the art director of the student newspaper, The South End. During Christmas vacations I worked as a saleslady in the Children’s only shop at downtown Hudson’s. One summer I worked in the pharmacy of the North Detroit General Hospital. I maintained a 3.0 average. Joined the Afro-American Action Committee and demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. Met my husband, Jim. My sister went off to study play writing at Howard University. My stepfather went back into law. We moved into a flat on Fairfield with my mother’s parents living downstairs. I did not attend my graduation.
I remember … Meetings. Meetings about the war in Vietnam, meetings about Black Student concerns, community meetings, political meetings, meetings about meetings. Seeing Jim from my writing class and running down four flights of stairs before realizing I need to be in that class. Both grandmothers saying that girl is in love. The Pentagon March against the war in Vietnam, Visiting my sister at Howard. Being tired of school and home and wanting to be on my own. Dropping a tray full of dishes in the cafeteria and the diners applauding. Reading Kristin Lavernsdatter. Hanging out at the Montieth Center. Putting out “A Happenin’. Malcolm X’s assassination. MLK’s assassination. The 1967 rebellion. Passing out campaign information at the polls. Bell Bottom jeans. Richard Grove Holmes, “Song for my Father.” Doing a two-color separation cover of the South End. Being hopelessly in love. Spending the night with Jim. Eating oranges in the snack bar. Hippies. Afros. Black pride. Black Power. Freedom Now. Graduating from Wayne and taking the bus west, to San Francisco. Leaving home. Grown.
Specific memories of each of the many childhood houses (including floor plans) I lived in can be found in the following posts:
I was reading a post over at Georgia Black Crackers about fried chicken and as I was getting into my third paragraph in the comment section I decided to just write about my chicken memories here.
Fried chicken used to be the main part of my favorite meal along with mashed potatoes and green beans. I grew up in Detroit, without chickens in the yard, but I remember going to the poultry market several times with my maternal grandmother, Nanny. Crates full of live chickens were piled around the walls. My grandmother would pick her chicken and they would kill it and dress it there. When she cooked chicken she always smothered it in gravy. Perhaps she bought the cheaper old birds that were too tough for frying. It was delicious.
Every Saturday my mother drove us all across town to my grandparent’s house. She and her sister would be in the front and the four, eventually five, of us cousins would be in the back. No seat belts in those days. We spent many happy hours playing in the backyard where our yard toys were kept in the old chicken house. Of course it was free of all signs of chickens. They were gone by the time we were there but I remember the story of the mean rooster that attacked my little uncle Howard and ended up as chicken dinner. And of chickens running around the yard with no heads after they’d been chopped off.
Nanny was a great cook. She didn’t know how to cook when she married at age 29, my grandfather taught her. Where he learned to cook so well I am not sure. Working in the dining car on the railroad? I’ll have to ask my cousin and see if she knows. He always cooked the turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
When my sister and I were very small someone gave us three chicks for Easter. We lived in a combination parsonage/community house. It was huge. We kept the chicks in a box in the basement and thinking back I don’t remember a heat light which may be the reason that, one by one, the chicks died. I remember my mother throwing their bodies into the basement incinerator.
My Uncle Henry told a story about chickens from the time that he and his brother Hugh were conscientious objectors during the 2nd world war had a farm near Avoka, Michigan where they raised chickens and milked cows. One day it rained and they hadn’t put the chickens up. He said they piled up in the yard with their mouths open, just sat there and drowned from the rain running down their throats.
When I was grown living with my husband and children in rural Simpson County, Mississippi keeping goats and chickens, I learned first hand about killing, plucking and cutting up chickens. From my yard to the table. I wasn’t really that good at the killing part. In fact, I only remember one time that I actually killed a chicken. My husband was a printer working in nearby Jackson, MS. It was time to fix dinner and there was not much food in the house. He had the car so no chance for a trip to the store in town. I decided to kill a chicken. With the help of my two oldest daughters, who must have been about 9 and 12 at the time, we did it. Each of them held a clothesline tied to either the chicken’s head or feet and I chopped off the head. I would have gotten better I’m sure, but luckily never had to do it again.
One last memory. It’s really my husband’s memory, but I’ve heard it so often I can see it as if it were mine. Once during the annual family trip back to Dermott, Arkansas a relative gave them a chicken to take back home. They were living in Carr Square Village in St. Louis, MO at the time. They kept the chicken in the newspaper wagon long enough for it to become big enough to eat. His name was Speckle because he was black and white. One day they came home and they had a real treat, chicken sandwiches. Nobody asked why chicken in the middle of the week, they were too busy eating it. Later they found it was poor Speckle.