There were no photographs of the Grahams inside their home. There is this one of the children on the front steps.
My maternal grandparents, Mershell and Fannie Graham, bought their house on Theodore Street on the East Side of Detroit in 1922. My grandmother was pregnant with my mother Doris. They lived in the house on Theodore for 45 years until the neighborhood became increasingly violent. In 1968, after experiencing several home invasions and gun shots fired into the house, they bought a two family flat with my parents near the University of Detroit.
The Brass Bed
Poppy bought a brass bed soon after he married. He was, the story goes, walking down the street when he saw a brothel being evicted and the belongings being set out on the street. This wonderful brass bed was among the items and he bought it on the spot. Growing up we – sister and cousins – spent many happy hours playing in my grandfather’s room. We used to be able to slip between those brass bars at the foot of the bed. My sister Pearl has the big bed now.
My mother memories of growing up in this house.
Ilived at home until I finished college and married. Everyday when I got home from school the minute I opened the door I knew what we were having for dinner. The house would be full of the good smell of spaghetti or meat loaf or greens or salmon croquettes or pork chops and gravy or steak and onions. We had hot biscuits or muffins every day. My father did not like “store bought” bread. I hardly knew what it tasted like until I married. Our friends were welcome. The house was clean. Our clothes were clean and mended.
She also remembered being in the car with her father when their car got stuck on the railroad tracks down the street and the train hit them. I found an entry for that in my grandfather’s little notebook. Although it happened in 1935, I am going to copy it here. My mother was 12.
Car struck by M.C. (note: Michigan Central) engine Mar. 10th 1935 At 2:15 P.M. Doris in car with me. No one hurt very bad. Doris received small cut on left hand M.C. RR settled for $25.00 part cost on fixing car.
Here are two other posts about the house on Theodore
The Cleage family moved from 24th street to 6429 Scotten Ave. in 1920, between January and July 10. I visited this house once when I was about 22 months old. My parents and I traveled by train to Detroit for a visit. At that time my father was pastor of St. John’s Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. I remember nothing about that visit, unfortunately. I never asked my father or my aunts and uncles to describe the house for me. Luckily someone took a front and side view of the house and there were some photographs taken inside the house, not necessarily in the 1920s.
In 1930 the house was worth $10,500, according to the census. By 1940, it was only worth $5,000. Perhaps because they were just coming out of the depression in 1940? It was a large brick house and I’m sure they filled it up with seven children, two parents and a couple of dogs. I think that the boy’s rooms were in the attic. I will share some photographs of the house over the years. They lived there until 1948 when they moved to Atkinson Street.
In 1920 my great grandmother Celia Rice Cleage Sherman lived with her son Edward and his family in Athens, Tennessee. She was 64 years old and could read but not write. She was not working for pay. She was married but her husband was living in North Carolina with his daughter. By June he was dead of tuberculosis of the bowels, apparently a difficult disease to diagnose and treat.
Edward Cleage was the head of the household. He was 38 years old, literate, owned his own house and was a barber operating his own shop. Mattie Dotson, his wife, was 32 years old. She was literate and did not work outside of the home. They had four daughters, Alberta 11 and Helen 9 were attending school. Ola was 3 and a half and the baby, Gertrude Beatrice was only a month old.
Mattie’s brother Walter Dotson and his family lived next door. He was 39 and taught in the public school. He also owned his own home free of mortgage. His wife Flora did not work outside of the home. They had three children, Lincoln who was 6, Rosalia was 3 8/12 and Eugene was 4/12. Both households were described as “mulatto.
On this same census page there were seven older people who lived alone because of being widows or widowers. One of them was Amanda Cleage, a widow who at 73 was still supporting herself as a laundress from her home. She rented her place and was unable to read or write. I feel that I know Amanda quite well after doing an in depth investigation of her a year or so ago. It was like seeing an old friend to find her one of my great grandmother’s neighbors.
William Wilcox and his neighbor George Pinson were both identified as black. Both worked as hotel waiters for wages. Both were literate. George Pinson was a widower. William Wilcox’s wife, Vester did not work outside of the home.
Herbert Vanburen and his wife Annie rented their home. He worked as a far laborer on his own account and Annie Vanburen took in laundry. They had seven children. The oldest, Winnie was 19 and was a looper at a hosery mill. A looper was given a finished sock without the toe portion. She placed it into a machine that would attach the toe using several needles and thread, and it would come out looking as if the whole sock was one piece.
The next four children, ages 14 to 8 attended school. The youngest two were six year old twins and not yet in school. Everyone who was old enough was literate and everybody was described as mulatto.
Other single people were 67 year old Rosa Baker who was a widow, illiterate and did not have employment. Charles Reynolds owned his house free of mortgage, was literate and did general laboring on his own account. He was 54. Louise Wilds was 61, a widow and could read but not write. She took in laundry on her own account. They were all described as black.
Forty six year old Low and his wife Ida Lillard, forty three, lived on the other side of the Cleages. They rented their house. He could read but not write. She was literate. Low and his oldest son, twenty year old Clarence both worked as laborers on the railroad. The two youngest children were six and five, too young for school. The family was described as black.
Henry Lattimer was 41 and worked as a laborer in construction. His wife Vonnie was 32 and did not work outside of the home. They were both literate. He was described as black. Vonnie and the six children were described as mulatto. The oldest son, Leake, was 19 and like his father worked as a construction laborer. Sixteen year old Cleona had attended school in the past year was literate and worked as a knitter at a hosiery Mill. The 10 year old and 7 year old attended school. The two youngest were under three.
There were two white families living nearby. Both of them rented. Bose Gregary was literate, although his wife was not. He worked as a driver for a grocery store. His wife didn’t work outside of the home. Their oldest three children attended school. The younger two were too young.
Alfred Wilcox was also white. He and his wife were not literate. He also worked as a driver for a grocery store for wages. I wonder if the two families were connected, but I am running late here with no time to look into that. His wife didn’t work outside of the home. They had four children. The oldest were 8 and 7 and not yet in school. The youngest two were under three.
Hugh Clarence Cleage was born at home June 2, 1918 in the house on 24th Street. He was the fourth son and also the fourth child of the Cleages. Hugh was named after two of his mother’s brothers. He was 20 months old when 1920 started and almost 13 years old when the decade ended.
Like his siblings, Hugh attended Wingert elementary school, McMichael Junior High and Northwestern High School. But that was in the 1930s. I know he liked to fish and skate and play tennis and was kind and patient and could fix things. Some of these skills must have been practiced during his young years.
Strangely, I don’t know any stories about Hugh as a young child. He was the quiet one who was right there in all of the activities going on, but his siblings were just more forthcoming with stories and he probably couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Maybe some of my cousins will read this and share stories they may have about Hugh as a young boy.
Northern Congregationalists went south to Montgomery, Alabama after the Civil War. First Congregational Christian Church was founded in 1872. They also supported a school nearby. My grandmother, Fannie Turner, attended both the school and the church. She met her husband, Mershell Graham, in the church.
When Mershell Graham, my grandfather, migrated north to Detroit in 1918 many of his friends, who were also members of First Congregational Church, were also leaving segregated Montgomery. In 1919 a group of nine gathered together to form Plymouth Congregational Church. They first met in member’s houses and in borrowed space until they were able to purchase their own building, a former Synagogue, in 1927. They moved in, in May 15, 1927.
Plymouth had been in the building a little over a year when this photo was taken. My grandfather, Mershell C. Graham, is standing behind his daughters, Mary V. and Doris (my mother). Their cousin, Margaret McCall, is standing between them. They are in the front row, towards the left side of center. The minister, Rev. Laviscount, is standing behind Mary V. My grandmother, Fannie, had just given birth to their youngest son, Howard, so she was not able to be there.
Mary Virginia born April 3rd 1920 at 5:10 a.m. on Saturday. Detroit Mich at 1031 St. Jean Ave., 7 #
On April 3, 1920 Mary V. Graham was born at home with Dr. Ames attending. My mother, Doris Graham Cleage did not remember him fondly when she wrote her family memories in the 1970s. “It was a very difficult delivery, labor was several days long. The doctor, whose name was Ames, was a big time black society doctor, who poured too much ether on the gauze over Mother’s face when the time for delivery came. Mother’s face was so badly burned that everyone, including the doctor, thought she would be terribly scared over at least half of it. But she worked with it and prayed over it and all traces of it went away. Mary V’s foot was turned inward. I don’t know if this was the fault of the doctor or not, but she wore a brace for years.”
Mary Virginia Graham Elkins Remembers Her childhood
What do I remember about Mom & Dad’s early years? Well, I know they used to speak about when they first came up here in 1919 after they got married and stayed out on Mack Ave (which was real country then) for awhile – then roomed with Aunt Jean and Uncle Mose (who were my godparents) at 4513 St. Jean Ave (the house is still standing) Also Dad’s (adopted) brother, Cliff and his bride Gwen, roomed there too. I (Mary V) was born at the house April 3, 1920 and Aunt Gwen had Lewis the following May, 1920.
Aunt Jean became the first colored policewoman here. Uncle Mose worked for the government. They were both very fair.
Daddy got a job at Fords and they finally moved out (to Theodore, I think) He bought that house. Uncle Cliff and Aunt Gwen bought a house also, right down the street from where they were staying. In fact, Aunt Gwen is still living and must be 90 plus and still in the same house. My cousin, Lewis, is retired from the Post Office, I think. He should because he turned 71 in May, and lives with his Mom. Never married. A confirmed batch. I also know that Daddy worked through the big depression in the 30’s and we always had something on the table, clean clothes, etc. and Mama never worked a day in her life after she married. Dad wouldn’t let her. Said no wife of his was going to work, but stay home and keep his house and raise his children. Typical in those days. They got along and I am sure Doris and I had a happy childhood.
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.
Reprinted from family newsletter – Ruff Draft 1990s.
Howard Alexander Graham was my mother’s youngest brother. He was named after my grandmother Fannie’s father, Howard Turner. Howard was born September 7, 1928, in the year following his older brother Mershell’s death by trauma after being run over by a truck on the way back to school. My grandparents felt that Howard had been sent to fill the space left by Mershell. Unfortunately he died of Scarlet Fever, exacerbated by Diabetes in 1932.
A babyHoward A(lexander) Grahamwas born toMershell C. and Fannie Turner Graham – Woman’s Hospital.
On the7thday ofSeptember 1928at 5:10 o’clock P.M. Address6638 Theodore Street. Autograph of MotherFannie T. Graham Autograph of FatherMershell C. Graham Autograph of DoctorA.L. Turner M.D. Autograph of NurseAunt Abbie Allen Autograph of othersAunt Jean Walker presented this book to him.
Baby’s First Photograph
“Feb. 4, 1929 Dad snapped baby and me thru the dining room sun window not very good – sorry as now he has whooping cough? Weathers been too bad to take him out to have pictures made…“
From my Grandmother Fannie’s Bible pages of family records.
20 months old – On May 28th 1929 – Howard was ready for bed – (Dad’s working nights) Mary Virginia and Doris kneeling to say prayers – he said “Wait dirls” – “britches coming off” ie. (Diapers) – Never soils or wets bed after 1 year old. A most remarkable baby.
Our baby Howard was taken ill Nov 17th 1931 – Dr. Turner came and pronounced it Diabetes… cured — Jan 1932…
On Feb 20 1932, he developed Scarlet Fever – was sent to Herman Kiefer Hospital on account of his condition, died March 4th 1932 and was buried -sat March 5,
Private Funeral at Memorial Park Cemetery. 3 1/2 years old — born 9/7/28
Our loss is truest gai…. God fills the pla(ce) ..by our 2 bo(ys)…
Mershell Cunningham Graham Jr was born at 7:45 pm on June 10 in 1921, a Friday, He was the first son and second child of Mershell and Fannie (Turner) Graham. He was delivered at Dunbar Hospital by Dr. Turner. Mershell was a big baby, weighing 8 1/2 pounds. He joined older sister, 14 month old Mary Virginia. Twenty months later his younger sister, my mother Doris, was born.
Mershell was an active boy, falling down the clothes chute and breaking a window during a game of “who can hit their head against the window the hardest” with his younger sister, Doris. In family photographs, he shows no fear of the ferocious puppy or the family chickens.
On November 1, 1927, he was hit by a truck on his way back to school after lunch. He died just after midnight on November 2. My sister, cousins and I grew up with warnings to be careful crossing the street and to remember what happened to Mershell.
My mother wrote on the page of practice writing above “Mother teaching him to write his name.”
Louis Jacob Cleage was the third of Albert and Pearl Cleage’s seven children. He was born in Kalamazoo Michigan in 1913 before the family moved to Detroit. During the 1920s Louis went from age 7 to age 17. He attended Wingert Elementary school and Northwestern High School. Later he went on to Medical School and went into practice with his father.
Louis loved to tinker with things and build contraptions, some of which were used at the fairs they put on in the backyard. At one time he wanted to be an engineer but that was a difficult profession for a black man in those days and so he became a doctor.
In the book “Prophet of the Black Nation” (published byPilgrim Press, 1969) a biography of my father Albert B. Cleage, by Hiley Ward, wrote on page 77:
Louis-now the M.D. – could write short papers. Louis just put it down, but you can’t grade this son (note: she was talking about Albert) by his younger brother’s method.“
Mrs. Cleage, the 81 year old matriarch, watched me closely as I wrote down her words. “I feel sorry for parents raising colored children,” she said, “for so many don’t have the fight like I do.” Perhaps I grinned a little at this point, in admiration of the energy of this tremendous lady still full of the old vinegar for her sons. “You smile, but you don’t know,” she said. “You have to do something in a country like the United States.”
She did the same with all her youngsters. “Louis was brokenhearted when he got a C in chemistry. So I went to his counselor.’You come with me,’ I told him. ‘I’m taking him out of that class. I can’t have a child ruined by a man who hates colored people.’ I took him to another class, and the new teacher was amazed – he was an A student all along.”
On page 48 we read old family friend Oscar Hand describe “In the backyard we used to have a carnival, and all the Cleage brothers took part in it. Dr. (Louis) Cleage had a penny machine then; you paid to see how much shock you could take when you held on to a certain part of the car.”