Category Archives: Family History Through the Alphabet

“G” is for Grand River Avenue

This post continues the series using the Alphabet to go through streets that were significant in my life as part of the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge.  It was first published in June, 2012.

Grand River Avenue figured in my life in multiple ways.  I walked to both McMichael Junior High and Northwestern High Schools down Grand River. I took the Grand River bus home when I worked at J.L. Hudson’s Department store during several Christmas seasons.  In 1971 and 1972, the Black Conscience Library was located at 6505 Grand River and that is my focus in this post.

Grand River Avenue in 1967. The Black Conscience Library was at the far end of the block past the church on the right.

 In 1971 the Black Conscience Library relocated from temporary quarters to 6505 Grand River, the upstairs offices in a building right across the street from Northwestern High School. I continued as librarian for awhile.  This was around the time that the heroin epidemic hit inner city Detroit hard. Chimba, one of the active members of the Library, was from the North End community. I remember him saying that the year before they had a  baseball team, but that in 1971 there were so many heroin addicts in the community that they couldn’t get a team together.  It was Chimba’s idea to start a methadone program in the Black Conscience Library to help addicts get off drugs. This was before it was widely known that methadone was a powerful, addictive drug in it’s own right. Eventually, the drug program over shadowed all other Library programs. I spent less time there and eventually got a job as assistant teacher at Merrill Palmer preschool. I still came around but not everyday and not as librarian.  It was pretty depressing up there.

The scale is off. The “Doctor’s Office” was for Dr. Gerald, a lay doctor, not an MD.

There were lines of junkies waiting to collect their scripts, men and women. Some brought their children. In the beginning, I watched the kids while the parents went to the lectures. I remember one baby with a bottle full of milk so spoiled it was like cottage cheese.

We came to the Library one morning to find it had been broken into the night before.  All of the printing equipment and the tape recorder were securely locked up. There were no prescriptions laying around. Nothing was stolen, but we couldn’t figure out how they got in, until I noticed glass from the skylight on the table.  They had come through the skylight. One night someone was found hiding in the Men’s room hoping nobody would notice they were there so they could rob the place. Another man tried to break in one early morning. Luckily, he couldn’t get through the front chained door. I remember a junkie who nodded off and fell out of his seat during the planning session for a radio program.

There were a few non-drug related activities.  One I remember, was a panel discussion on the role of the father in parenting that was presented by several ex-members of SNCC (Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee). There were karate classes.  One night I had come back after a particularly trying day and a car crashed into the shop downstairs. I caught a plane to visit my sister in Atlanta the next day. Those were the days of cheap standby tickets. I remember The Last Poets record playing over and over and over.  The relief when the drug program ended.

The Black Conscience Library was in the dark part of the building on the far corner. There seem to be vertical blinds on the windows. The Lucky Strike Bowling Alley was next door. You can see part of the sign “…TRIKE”
This is a police memo from my husband Jim’s police file from October 23, 1970.
The poster in question.
Memo #2 about who rented the building.

This is one of a three page surveillance report from October 29, 1971 is from Jim’s police file.  We knew they were watching,  but when we got this report several years ago it was still creepy to see how much time they were actually spending watching, following, keeping track. “N/M” = Negro Male. “N/F”  = Negro Female.

Staff – Dr. Gerald, Sam, Miriam, Chimba, Me & Jilo, James Williams
The block where the Black Conscience Library once stood. That end is now a vacant lot.
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The New York Snow Storm of 1969

"Pearl and Kris Christmas 1968"
No photos of me in the blizzard but this one of my sister and me was taken before I left.  I’m the tall one with the blue scarf.  Nanny is peeking out the window behind us.

This is the 9th post in the February Photo Collage Festival and the Family History Writing Challenge, not to mention Sepia Saturday.

This weeks prompt is fittingly snow.  Forty four years ago today I was in the middle of the New York snowstorm of February 9, 1969.  I was nearing the end of my cross country after college trip during which I was looking for somewhere to be besides “home”. I had just about figured out that I could be in Detroit without moving back home. As soon as the planes were flying again, I caught one back to Detroit. As I was riding the bus in from the airport I thought Detroit was the dirtiest city I had seen during the whole trip.  Within a month I was out and on my own.  Here is a letter I wrote home while the snow fell.



February 11, 1969  Sunday 3:30PM  During a Blizzard

Dear Mommy and Henry,

I’m staying at the YWCA.  It’s O.K.  The room here is smaller then the one in San Francisco.  The address is      

YMCA Morgan Hall
132 E. 45th Street
 NYC, New York

Right now there’s a blizzard going on outside.  I was out earlier to wash and I got soaked.

You can’t hardly see a block and it’s already at least 5 inches (maybe 3) and giving no sign of stopping.  I talked to Pearl and she’s sending me a letter from you.  She’s o.k. in case she hasn’t written.  My job is o.k.  dull though.  I’m thinking of returning to Detroit in about a month but I’m not sure, I’ll let you know more about that as it happens.  I discovered I’m spending all my time figuring how to meet people like those I already know at home and that didn’t make sense.

I think housing here is worse than anywhere else and so expensive for a condemned bldg.  Even if I do come back to Detroit I’m glad I left and went all those places because now I know what they’re like and can quit wishing I was there and spend my time where I am.  It’s like getting my ears pierced.  For about 7 years I spent half my time wishing I could get them done then when I did, I didn’t have to think about it any more.  How’s school?  Write soon.  Don’t worry about me.  I’m not crazy or depressed.

Love,  Kris



For other photos and stories of blizzards, snow storms and other interesting topics…










Z is for Zamzeewillie

My last post in the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge. I am really scraping here. I never lived on or in Zamzeewillie. I’m not even sure that’s how you spell it. My daughter Ayanna was the only one who knew the particulars and she can’t remember. She made it up when we she was about 8 years old. It was around the same time that my then 3 or 4 year old son James became friends with the people only he could see. I was never sure if Nice Helmut, Mean Helmut, Nice Tommy and Mean Tommy lived in Zamzeewillie. They always seemed to be just out of sight in the other room.  Since there are no known photos of this town and none of the Nice and Mean boys I will have to make do with a photo of Ayanna and James with siblings, in our living room in Excelsior Springs.

L to R Tulani, James, Ayanna and in the back Jilo and Ife.

I can’t believe it’s really over! And that I found streets and places for all the letters of the alphabet. Mostly 😉  I really appreciate Gould for hosting the challenge. I don’t think I would have ever written so much about almost every street I ever lived on without it. You can find a list of the 39 blogs that participated here – Family History Through the Alphabet – the Finale.

Y is for Yates Township

Yates Township scenes from the past.
Yates Township scenes from the past.

We are up to Y on the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge. I have run out of streets that match the letters of the alphabet but I still have places that match. This week I chose Yates Township. I have already done Idlewild, which is in Yates Township but, there is more to Yates Township then Idlewild and so here we are.

I was the librarian of the Yates Township library for a short time. My husband ran for Yates township trustee. Unfortunately he lost. He served on the Yates Township Fire Department for a number of years. He ran a recreation program out of Yates Middle School gym for several years. My youngest son graduated from the alternative education program that ran out of the former Yates Middle school after several months of classes as a grand finale to his home schooling. Two of my daughters attended Yates Middle School before we began homeschooling and before the middle school moved to Baldwin. We had our own policeman for awhile. I could tell you stories of politics and intrigue about the Yates Township government, but I just don’t have the heart.  I did include a photo from the distant past of Lottie the Body, exotic dancer who entertained the crowds back in the heyday of entertainment.

X is for eXcelsior Springs

James, Ife and Tulani on swings at the playground down the street from our house.
The Minact Job Corps is located in the old
Veteran’s Hospital.
Recent photo of downtown.
Me, James, my husband Jim. next row: Ayanna, Tulani, Ife. Very back: Jilo.

We are up to X on the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge. I continue my trek through streets in my life. I admit that I had to cheat for this letter. I have never lived on a street or in a place or even visited one that started with an X. I did live for three years in eXcelsior Springs, Missouri though.   Today I will remember my time there. By happy coincidence, the theme for Sepia Saturday #149 is healing waters, which is what eXcelsior Springs was once famous for. It is still home to the longest water bar in the world.

In the fall of 1983 we moved to Excelsior Springs, Missouri from St. John Road, rural Mississippi.  My husband Jim had heard from a friend about an opening at a new Job Corps Center opening in eXcelsior Springs.  He had several siblings in nearby Kansas City and even more relatives in St. Louis, 4 hours away. He was hired as weekend residential supervisor and began work during the summer of 1983. Several more months passed before he found a house for us to move into. It was on the side of one of the many hills that made up the town and in the towns very small black community. Down the street was the empty former black school from back when schools were segregated in Missouri. There was no segregation in 1983.

The population of eXcelsior Springs was 10,000. Our house was within walking distance of the children’s schools, my husband’s job and downtown. Unfortunately downtown was moving store by store out to the edge of town to a strip mall across from the new Walmart store, which was not within walking distance. Still, there was a department store, a small grocery store, a drugstore and a florist that we could walk to.  Our only transportation, aside from our feet, was a pickup truck with a camper on it and a stick shift that we drove from Mississippi. Later my brother-in-law left us his Rabbit while he was overseas in the service. There was also a van that fell to pieces almost as soon as we bought it, very cheaply I must say.

Tulani and Ayanna sliding in front of the house.

Living on the side of a hill gave us a great view of the trees and houses during the changing seasons. In the winter, though, the roads were snowy and icy.  I had learned to drive in the south and was not used to winter driving. When the first heavy snow fell, I went out in the yard with the kids and played in it.  We couldn’t understand why none of the neighbors were out there.  After several more years, snow didn’t seem so glorious. Still nice though.

Sewing a soft sculpture doll.

I had learned to make soft sculptured dolls that were called “Adoption Dolls” in Mississippi. When these type of dolls began to be mass produced they became the “Cabbage Patch Dolls.”  The original dolls were 36 inches tall but I made a smaller pattern that turned out to be the same size as the “Cabbage Patch Dolls”. I also designed a small, 6 inch doll, that I soft sculptured using the same technique. This was very lucky because Christmas of 1983 was the year that there were not enough of the manufactured dolls to go around. I sold dolls  through several gift stores both in eXcelsior Springs and in Kansas City. I sold to individuals too. I was sewing dolls day and night. There were boxes of doll heads and arms and legs in the living room. The children helped stuff parts. My husband helped stuff. A sister-in-law came and helped stuff. I put an ad in the local paper and more people came to me through that. There were so many orders  I was up all night Christmas eve finishing up my own children’s dolls.  The money came in very handy to winterize our wardrobes – “Moon” boots, winter coats, scarves, cloves – we needed all of that.

The three oldest had jobs. Jilo baby sat the neighbor’s kids after school until their mother got home from work. Ife and Ayanna had paper routes. I still remember the icy time when I helped Ife deliver her papers and we were practically crawling down the icy slope to the house when a boy came up and offered to take it and just hopped down there like a young mountain goat. I remember the food co-op I belonged to and selling dolls at the Fishing River Festival.  I remember the wonderful Community Theater. Jilo and Ife were both in several of their productions. I remember walking to the evening elementary school Christmas Program with my kids and the neighbor kids. Jim was working 40 hours weekends so he missed it.  The audience sang Christmas carols at the end and we walked home in the dark. I remember walking for exercise on the path down by the Fishing River, sometimes with my friend Roberta. I remember our first Christmas when we waited until Christmas Eve to buy our tree and there were no trees to be had. I remember usually having several extra kids at the house and discovering “Prairie Home Companion” and Mercedes Sosa on NPR. I remember James imaginary friends “Nice” Tommy and “Mean” Tommy, “Nice” Helmut and “Mean” Helmut and Ayanna’s town of Zamziwillie.  I remember Ayanna losing one of her boots on the way home from school. The kids were sicker in this town than anywhere else we lived. Tulani had pneumonia, Ayanna had vomiting that wouldn’t stop, there were warts and ear aches. Doctors and hospitals.  One thing I don’t remember is the taste of the various waters from the healing springs because I never drank any.  What a wasted opportunity.

Dolls waiting for delivery.
Ayanna and Ife are front row, numbers 4 and 5 from the right.
Jim and James.
Jilo and Ife ready for “Peter Pan.”
Jilo at the Fishing River Festival

W is for Wilkins Street

We are up to W on the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge. This week we go back to Detroit to 556 Wilkins in Brewster Projects and the apartment I lived in during 1971/1972.

The Brewster – Douglas projects were the first government housing for black people built, not just in Detroit, but in the United States. According to Wikipedia, they were built between 1935 – 1955 and housed between 8,000 and 10,000 people. I lived there for a little over a year in 1971 – 1972 after moving from the house on Monterey. The apartment was large, bright with a view of the playground from my 5th floor window.  There were 6 apartments on my floor, one elevator and two stairwells. The stairs were filthy and seldom (never by me) used.

The Brewster/Douglass projects in the 1950s.
Google satellite picture of the projects as they stand today.

Notice how there are now only three high rises and multiple attached houses missing today, the surrounding community is practically empty of houses. Highways cut off two sides and much vacant land on the other two sides.

The building as it looked in 2006. It was still occupied.

Memories:  Walking to Eastern Market to collect food the farmers left at the end of the day rather than haul home.  The old folks who sat outside on the stoop during nice weather. They were probably younger than I am now. Sweets, my sixty year old neighbor telling me she had six children but would have had none if she could have figured out how to stop. Listening to  a woman curse a purse snatcher out down on the street.  Seeing one man shoot another on the playground below.  Watching the police running down the street, guns drawn, looking up at the windows, until they told us all to get back. The disoriented man wandering around my hall one night. Coming home to find someone had tried to break into my apartment. Only the safety chain stopped them. Pushing the desk in front of the door after that when I was home alone at night. The bunch of rough looking dudes hanging around the door when I came home with Jilo one evening asking if Rev. Cleage was my father.  Phil moving in with us and running up my phone bill calling the Black Panther party in Algiers. My sister coming to visit once and my mother being so angry I was living in the projects that she dropped her off in the parking lot and sped off.  How good it was to have my own place after living in various shared/borrowed spaces for over a year. Moving out and the old folks on the stoop asking if I was going back south. I said yes because I was moving to Atlanta but it wasn’t really “back south” because this was going to be my first time living there.

My apartment was between the lines on the right, 5th floor in this Google satellite photograph. From L to R the windows are for the Living room, Kitchen/dining area, bathroom (tiny window), small bedroom, large bedroom.  There was another window for the living and bedroom on each end.

And finally, they tore it all down. Video by Paul Lee, 2014

For more information click on the links below.

V is for Venetian Drive

This post continues a series using the Alphabet to go through streets that were significant in my life as part of the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge.  Venetian Drive is the street I now  live on. When my husband retired in 2007, we decided to move to Atlanta where most of our children and grandchildren lived. We had looked at several houses when the realtor took us to see this one. The solarium told us this was the right house for us. There was also the wild yard that reminded us of the real woods we were leaving behind in Idlewild.  Below is an article about the way the house is built. There was a studio with a kitchen and bathroom added later.  The plan was to use it for an actual studio for silkscreen, sewing and other projects, but so far it has housed various family members as they settle in Atlanta. The best thing about the house is that we are close to the family. I must admit, I do wish it was on a lake and had a sunny garden spot.

Scenes from Venetian Drive

U is for Union Street

Pearl, mother, Kris

This post continues a series using the Alphabet to go through streets that were significant in my life as part of the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge. Back to Springfield, Massachusetts for 643 Union Street.  During the first 4 years of my life, my father, Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr, was pastor of the St. John’s Congregational church in Springfield, Massachusetts.  After my father convinced the church to sell the parsonage to pay debts, we lived in the back of the church community house. Rooms upstairs were rented out. The church offices were in the front of the building down a long hall.  When I was 22 we went back to visit. Everything seemed so much smaller.

The house as it looks today on Google Maps.

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 newborn Pearl’s diapers.  Making Halloween cupcakes with orange icing.  Looking at the clearing evening sky after rain.  Going to the ice cream parlor down the street with my sister and parents.  Leafless trees against the winter sky.  Huge statues going past the house in a religious procession.  Yellow leaves on fall trees, a stream and a dog in the park.  Watching the milkman and his horse from my bedroom window.  Watching my mother being taken to the hospital on a stretcher down the long hall.  A friend of my mother cutting her hair. Ribbon candy at Christmas.

Cousins visit – Dee Dee, me, Barbara, Pearl.  Is Pearl holding a little book?
Me looking a lot like Pearl in the snow. I remember once the snow came to the top of the porch steps.
Pearl and Kris listening to a little plastic record.
Me in front of the house.

Other posts about life on Union street
The Thief of Baghdad and A Negative
Moving – Springfield to Detroit
Past is Present – Springfield, Massachusetts
Subject and Photographer
Wordless Wednesday – Christmas 1950
Sepia Saturday – Winter 1949

S is for Sixth Avenue, Mt. Pleasant, SC

This post continues a series using the Alphabet to go through streets that were significant in my life as part of the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge.  I am remembering living at 160 Sixth Avenue, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.  We lived there for one year, I was 29 and Jim was 30. We had two daughters –  Jilo, four and Ife, almost two.  Jim was hired as director of the South Carolina office of the Emergency Land Fund, a group trying to stem the lose of Black Land.  We moved from Atlanta, GA to Mt. Pleasant, SC. in October, 1974.  His office was in Charleston. We were less than ten minutes from the ocean.  For the first time, I was a “housewife”.  I was a volunteer teacher with the children’s art program at the Charleston Museum. I learned how to drive. Got pregnant with our third daughter, Ayanna. In early November of 1975 the office was closed and we moved to Simpson County, Mississippi.

Ife with puppies and cat. Jilo inside.

The man plowing the field next to our house with a mule.  Spanish moss in the oak trees.  The Angel Oak, over 1,000 years, with branches on the ground as big as tree trunks.  The local people’s way of talking.  Getting shrimp and flounder fresh off the fishing boats.  Swimming in the Atlantic.  Picking up a bucket of sand dollars.  Celebrating Kwanzaa.  The family with 5 daughters next door, and next to them, a family with 2 boys and 3 girls and all the children in the three houses playing together in spite of the age differences.  Buying day old chicks and all of them dying within a month. My great garden in that silt.  Having almost no outside of the house involvement.  Feeling outside of the ‘world”.  Jilo going to church with the kids next door.  Jilo and Ife going trick or treating in their jackets because it was so cold.  Taking the bus to Michigan to visit my family, with the kids.  Going to St. Louis in the VW bug for our first William’s family reunion.  Visitors from Atlanta and Detroit.  The end of the War in Vietnam.

The Angel Oak.

October 8, 1974
Hello Mommy and Henry,
Well, everything here is moving right along. Jim still likes his job.  The house is pretty well cleaned up and unpacked, but I’ll be glad when we get the furniture from Nanny and Poppy’s.  We would like the dining room stuff too, if it’s available.  I have enclosed a layout of our house and some postcards of our scenic view (smile)   The only bad part is – the car’s broken down. After Jim drove it from Atlanta, it broke down.  He is going to get a used transmission for it.  I hope that does it because nothing is within easy walking. There’s a bus into Charleston, but it’s a good walk.  I hope you all will be able to get down to visit this winter before we’re back to our normal living conditions. (smile).  I read this article in McCall’s telling parents not to worry about their weird kids because around 30 they settle down..  Can this be true???

I found where the people had their garden and plan to put some lettuce, greens etc. in next week.  I will be glad when we can meet some people!  More soon – WRITE!
A note from Ife (scribble scrabble)
P.S. I may come for a week early Nov. 21, more later.


A layout of the house I drew for my mother. The backyard is at the bottom and the front of the house and the road are at the top.
A view of 160 6th Avenue in 2012. When we lived there, there were only trees and bushes across the street and at the end of the road. The road was not paved, it was dirt. Where the small house to the right of our house is, there was only an okra field.
Kris and Jim on the beach. Isle of Palms
Jim and Kris at the beach.

For more about the Angel Oak, go to this post – Trip to Jekyll Island

R is for Route 1 Box 173 & 1/2

This post continues a series using the Alphabet to go through streets that were significant in my life as part of the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge.  This week I remember living on St. John Road in Simpson County, Mississippi. However, since I already have an “S” street coming up and I needed an “R” street, I am using our mailing address, Route 1, Box 173 1/2, Braxton, MS.  I don’t have a photo of our mailbox so I am using a return address from a letter I wrote back then.

We moved to Simpson County, Mississippi in the fall of 1975. I was pregnant with our third daughter who was born April 12, 1976 at the home of our midwife. We had never lived in the real country before this move.  Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, outside of Charleston, was the closest we had been.  My husband was working as an organizer with the Emergency Land Fund (E.L.F.), a group to help black farmers save their land, which was  being lost at an alarming rate.  We first lived at Rt. 1 Box 38 where the Emergency Land Fund had a model farm.  Maybe I should say we helped setting up a model farm, complete with rabbits in the pen and tomatoes in Green houses and our own milk goats and chickens. When the Emergency Land Fund wanted to move us to the Mississippi Delta to run a soy bean farm we opted to stay in Simpson County and Jim quit working for E.L.F. We had to move from the farm and so bought our first house and 5 acres several miles away.  The house was a Jim Walters House that had been built by former volunteers to the Voice of Calvary Church in Mendenhall. You can buy the house in various stages of completion and the more you finish yourself, the cheaper the cost.  It was from the plans in this picture. Unfortunately there was not a big lake in the yard and there was no danger of flooding. We were much more likely to have a tornado come through and that caused me many anxious nights as storms rolled through and we were 10 feet off the ground.  There was indoor water for the bath and the kitchen sink but there was no indoor toilet. There was an outhouse outback. There was electricity and my husband, Jim, hooked up the washing machine. It wasn’t too hard to run pipes since they were all exposed under the house. That caused problems when we forgot to drip the water when temperatures dropped. Eventually we did get an inside toilet but it was several years coming. Three of my six children were born in Mississippi.

A letter I wrote home from Mississippi not too long after we moved in.

January 19, 1977

Dear Mommy and Henry,

Here’s your late gift box.  I’m sending some books – not to keep but to read (smile). The Tatasaday book should be read with the Iks in mind.  I hope the hats fit and the cake is o.k.  It didn’t come out as god as the last but i figured i’d better send it on. 

It snowed here – about 2 1/2 inches and it’s still on the ground!  Boy oh boy – first time the temp went to 6 degrees here – ever and most snow since 1958.  Jilo’s schools been closed 2 days.  We went for a walk in the woods yesterday. it was nice.  Jim’s been going out with a neighbor down the road to cut pulpwood.  Do you have those big trucks up there?  He likes it fine. But it keeps him busy and working nights.

The goats are fine. 1 month until 3 more are due.  The chickens are giving us 6>9 eggs daily with 13 hens.  Still 4 aren’t laying i think.  The midwife’s parents came over and told me to keep them locked up until non and keep food and water there and they’d probably start up – and they did.  The garden isn’t started – luckily for it.

Ife cut her hair in places so i just gave her an afro.  She looks so grown up! It looks nice though. Ayanna has 4 teeth and crawls funny but gets wher she’s going and is still happy.  I braided her hair last week in the front where it was long enough.  it rounds her head up so she looks more like the other two round heads at that age.  The sun just went down and it sure droped the temp in here.  We have solar heat benefit of those 2 south facing double doors.

Jim’s fine and we both read and liked the book.  We had his other one – Welcome to Hard Times – have you read it?  I’m ok too. Not keeping a Betty Crocker house but at least keeping up with the dishes.  Jilo’s fine too, has had a sub(stitute teacher) since Christmas vacation and seems to make them work a bit harder – the teacher who had that grade before.

Write soon – Love Kris

P.S. Ife did the farm picture. She did it by looking as at a picture in Jilo’s cook book.  Isn’t that good perspective and stuff.  I told her we’ll start doing from life soon.

Also, the pigs still alive in this cold.  it’s a wonder.

Going to milk the goats.

For more about living in Mississippi, including goats, killing chickens, heating with a wood stove, midwives, friends and work shoes read these posts.