In the late 1970’s after my grandmother Fannie died, I asked my mother, Doris Graham Cleage, to tell me what she remembered about her family. This is one of the first pieces she wrote me. Later she wrote about her grandmother and her grandmother’s sisters. My mother died in 1982 at 59 from uterine cancer so I never got to talk to her about what I found out. I am so glad she wrote her memories for me when she did. Because it makes such a long post, I have decided to break her story up into 2 parts.
Mother said she was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1888, but Daddy said she was born in Hayneville a small town not far from Montgomery. I think he was right from the way the above exchange went. She was the first child of Jennie Virginia Allen Turner and Howard Turner. Jennie T. must have been about twenty when Mother was born. I know nothing about the circumstances of the birth. I heard Jennie T. speak many times on how “no good all men are” but I never heard her say a word about childbirth. Mother never said anything about it either, although she had a very difficult time delivering Mary Vee.
Mother’s sister Daisy was born about two years later. I know very little about their childhood except that they spent most of it in their Grandfather Allen’s house (which was in Montgomery) because their father died when Mother was about four and Jennie T. had to work to support them. It was a big house, Mother said, with a big porch around two sides and pecan trees in the big backyard. She never used the words “happy” or “unhappy” to describe her childhood and I have the feeling that it was happy on the whole. She told several incidents:
Their Grandfather took care of them while Jennie T. worked and when they were bad, he told Jennie T., who would sometimes spank them. Mother said she told Daisy to cry loudly when Jennie T. spanked them and so make the spanking short and not too hard. She said this worked! (This always surprised me because I never thought of Mother as a person who ever consciously manipulated people. Whenever she told this…and she didn’t mention it until she was in her eighties…she looked very pleased with herself.)
Everyday her Grandfather swept the backyard “smooth as silk” (it was dirt) and told Mother and Daisy not to set foot on it. (I hope this was just part of the yard and they had some space left for play, but I don’t know.) They got spanked with the flat of his saw if they made footprints on it. Mother said they would play on it when he dozed off, not realizing their footprints would give them away.
On Sundays they could do absolutely no work at all. Dinner had to be cooked the day before and could be warmed up. They couldn’t even sew a button on. They all went to the Congregational Church (black, of course) every Sunday morning. In the afternoons, Mother had to read the Bible to her Grandfather who would often doze off during the reading. Mother would get up and play and watch and run back if he seemed to be waking up.(I don’t know if he still did carpenter work at this time. Mother said he was a good cabinetmaker and would make furniture for people. I don’t know if this is all he did or if he also built houses or what. But I do know he made cabinets, tables, chairs, beds and whatever. I don’t know if he had money enough…I doubt it…to just stay home at this time of if Grandmother supported them all.)
Jennie T.’s Grandmother, whom Mother called Nannie, lived in the house and Mother used to heat water and help her soak an arthritic foot. I don’t know if Jennie T.”s mother was still living then.
Mother had hair like mine. Daisy’s hair was thinner and more curly than wavy. Jennie T. liked to curl it and would get up early every morning to curl Daisy’s hair around a broomstick. I guess she braided Mother’s but I don’t really know. When Mother and Daisy walked through Montgomery to school, Daisy always stopped at the town pump and held her head under it while Mother pumped until the curls were gone. No one else at school had curls, so Daisy didn’t want them either. Mother said they were often frightened on their way to school by herds of cows being taken to pasture. (This was the Big Town?) They always liked school and did very well. They went to a private school staffed and run by good Congregational white folks from New England for black students. They never went to public school. Both graduated from Alabama State Normal (high school). Mother was second in her class. The school got her a scholarship to Fisk University, but she decided not to accept it and went to work to help Jennie T.
Continued here – Fannie Mae Turner Graham 1888 – 1974 Conclusion