It seems only fitting that my latest post for 52 Ancestors 52 Weeks be about my father, whose 94th birthday would have been this week. My father, Thomas Melvin Batchelor was born on February 16, 1920 in Hamtramck, Michigan – a small city next to Detroit.
He was two months premature and had head full of pale blonde hair that would soon turn into the flaming red hair he was known for in his youth – along with a million freckles.
According to my grandmother, the doctor who delivered my dad said, “If he makes it through the night, he’s got a chance”. Fighter that he was, Dad not only made it through that night, but went on to survive a childhood of poverty and illness during the Great Depression.
Even though he grew up without material things, Dad never talked about how bad things were. He always focused on the good from those days. His nickname back then was “Hamtramck Red” and boy did he have some great stories.
I remember how he used to tell us about wearing “welfare” plaid flannel shirts (the exact same shirt every other boy in school had too) and having to eat chicken toes so that no food went to waste. I’ve always wondered if he was just pulling my leg about that.
When Dad was about 12, he injured his leg in a fall on the ice. Not having money for a doctor, my grandmother took my father to a faith healer. Whatever the treatment was, Dad ended up with a serious bone infection.
Luckily for my father, one of their neighbors was a nurse and she intervened to make sure Dad got proper medical treatment. But it was grueling and landed him in a convalescent home for a year.
Remember, back then there were no antibiotics. The ongoing treatment required his doctors to cut his leg open to the bone and pack the wound with chlorine, as I recall. I can’t imagine what this must have been like but Dad recovered although he had to wear a built-up shoe because the infection stunted the growth in his leg.
My father’s disability never kept him from being a straight “A” student and graduating from high school with honors. Many years later, I recall Dad’s extreme interest in every report card I brought home and his annual display of every one of his own report cards from the first through the twelfth grades. All “A”s and one “B”! My father was truly a tough act to follow but we sure did try.
Dad went on to major in art at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan with a full scholarship and according to him – 2 pairs of pants he wore all through college until they were shiny and paper-thin from being ironed so much.
During the time my father was in undergrad, my grandmother was working as the “help” for the dean of the Wayne State medical school. One day the dean asked Grandma what her son was studying in college and she replied that he was an art major.
Then the dean asked how Dad’s grades were. My grandmother said, “Excellent.” And that’s when the dean said -
There’s not much money to be made by a young colored man in art. Do you think he’d be interested in medicine?
In fact, my father was interested. He applied, was accepted and offered a full scholarship – again. But there was just one little problem. At that time, the medical school had a rule. They only accepted two African-American students in a class. And the class was full.
So Dad waited a year for his “Black” slot. He continued his studies, received his masters in pathology and taught at the university. When he was finally admitted to medical school, my dad’s life was full steam ahead. During that time though, racial tensions were heating up in Detroit.
One summer afternoon in 1943 while he was in med school, Dad went out on a date to Belle Isle in Detroit. Belle Isle is a small island and public park in the middle of the river between Detroit and Windsor, Canada. It’s connected to Detroit by a bridge – the only way on and off the island.
That evening the racial tensions in Detroit reached a boiling point when a riot between Blacks and White sailors from the nearby naval armory broke out on the Belle Isle bridge. My father was still on the island when all of the riot started. (Here’s a separate post with more about his experience in the 1943 riots).
The sad news is that my father’s leg was injured again in the violence that night. But Dad got patched up and went back to his medical school studies. In 1944, he met my mother, Alice Vivian Dickinson at a picnic given by friends. These two brilliant and attractive people fell in love and married in 1945.
While my father finished medical school, Mom taught school. They had great plans for the future that were unfortunately derailed by an unexpected roadblock.
Dad was suffering from a persistent bone infection in his leg from his injury in the 1943 riots. Antibiotics still weren’t widely available and he’d have to do another year of treatment in the convalescent home. Here he was in his last year of medical school with a coveted internship waiting, a new wife – and someone was telling him to sit on the sidelines.
Well Dad’s response to this was -
Instead he made the decision to have the doctors amputate. Nothing was going to stand in the way of my father achieving his goals – not even his own leg!
Dad sped through his recovery and graduated with honors in the top 10% of his class – or so he thought. It wasn’t until he retired from the practice of medicine many years later, that my father learned he had actually graduated first in his class – an honor we believe was denied him because of his race.
After medical school, my father and two other Black physicians built their first clinic in Detroit. That was the beginning of my dad’s long career that would span 54 years of practice. Here’s a photo taken at the opening of the Conant Gardens Medical Clinic -
I was the eldest of my parent’s three children and I still claim to be my father’s favorite. I’m sure my sister, Paula and brother, Thomas would argue that point! The truth is that he loved and inspired us all.
The 83 years of my father’s life weren’t easy. But he never let anything get in the way – racism, illness, poverty or the lack of confidence that he could do what he set his mind to. Dad lived a life filled with a unique blend of amazing goals, great achievements, laughter and wisdom that never seems to end, even though he passed away on October 24, 2002.
My father wanted to be cremated and we honored his wishes. Dad’s ashes are interred next to my mother’s at the Historic Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan -
For those of us who knew him – and the generations to follow, my father left a rich legacy of wonderful memories, family history and life lessons; the most important one being that anything is possible. My dad’s faith in “possibilities” was passed down to me and continues to be the beacon that lights my way through life.
I love you, Dad. Always, always.
For my 52 Ancestors post this week, I’d like to introduce you to Hannah Littlefield Cloyes, a Puritan wife and mother and my 9th great-grandmother on my maternal line. As with many of my women ancestors, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, there is often no record of their lives beyond birth, marriage and death. That’s if you’re lucky (and persistent). I was – and I did discover these milestones for Hannah.
Hannah was born 10 July 1633 in Titchfield, Hampshire, England. She was the daughter of Edmund Littlefield and his wife, Annis Austin who immigrated to the American colonies, along with many other Puritans seeking to escape an increasingly Catholic England for religious freedom in America.
Hannah is listed as a 5-year-old passenger with her mother, five siblings and two servant men who sailed on the “Bevis”. They landed in Massachusetts in May 1638 and soon moved to Wells, Maine where Edmund Littlefield was one of the original settlers.
There is no record of Hannah’s early years in Maine. We do know that her father was well-to-do and as such, Hannah likely had a somewhat privileged lifestyle. As a young Puritan girl, Hannah (who was also known as “Anne”) would have been educated to read the Bible and write. Ultimately, the life goals for her were to marry, maintain a home, raise a family and be pious.
Hannah married Peter Cloyes (Clois, Clayes) around 1662. Peter was originally from Watertown, Massachusetts but had also moved northward into Maine. The couple settled there and had five children. I am descended from Hannah and Peter through their daughter, Sarah who married John Cunnabell (Cunibal).
Hannah died around 1680. There are no specifics about her death. She was, however, alive and mentioned as a beneficiary in her mother’s will in December, 1677. But by 1682, her husband, Peter Cloyes had remarried widow, Sarah Towne Bridges in Salem, Massachusetts who would later be accused of witchcraft.
Although there’s so much I’ll never know about Hannah Littlefield Cloyes, I’ve tried to understand who she was by reading about the lifestyle of Puritan women in 17th century New England. It’s given me a broader perspective on how my 9th great-grandmother might have lived.
 Colonial Times; part 2, pp. 45-207, lists passengers and the ships they arrived on (3,600 passengers on 213 ships). From the Custom House records of English ports. Much of the information is contained in nos. 7906 and 7907, Savage; nos. 1672 and 1674, Drake; and no. 3283, Hotten. Also Edmund West, comp.. Family Data Collection – Births [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2001.
 Pope, Charles Henry. The Pioneers of Maine and New Hampshire, 1623-1660. n.p., 1908.
 Torry, Clarence A. New England Marriages Prior to 1700. Baltimore, MD, USA: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2004.
 Maine Wills 1640-1760 by Wm M. Sargent; page 76: The Last Will and Testament of Annis (Austin) Littlefield.
Participating in the 52 Ancestors 52 Weeks blog challenge has forced me to face one of the biggest brick walls in my family research – my immigrant grandfather, Frederick William James Dickinson from Bermuda. Grandpa is an enigma because there’s so much I don’t know about his early years and his ancestry. My ancestry.
Because I have had a running streak of success researching other branches of my family tree, I’ve been guilty of putting Grandpa on the proverbial back burner instead of pushing forward to discover more about him.
Guilty as charged.
But as I started to list the 52 ancestors I want to profile this year and wrote down my grandfather’s name, it hit me that -
What I don’t know about Grandpa could fill an ocean.
And somehow I had missed the boat to get across. So enough’s enough! Blogging about 52 ancestors this year has now turned into a big call to action for me to create a game plan for researching my grandfather’s early years starting with:
- What I know
- What I don’t know and
- How I can fill in the gaps.
Of course, there are no guarantees I can break through this genealogy brick wall but clearly no barriers come down if I ignore the problem. So here goes!
What I Know
1. My grandfather was very secretive about his life in Bermuda before he immigrated to the United States on May 28, 1917.
My mother remembered that when she was little and living in their home in Cleveland, Ohio, her father would get letters from family back in Bermuda. But he never shared the content of those letters with her and her siblings. Because of this, his children knew very little about his life before them.
In fact, the mystery continued into my lifetime. Three years after Grandpa Dickinson died in 1958, we took a family trip to Bermuda. Our Aunt Hazel (my mother’s younger sister) came along with us. My mother and aunt had never been there and were pretty excited to see their father’s birthplace.
After we checked into the hotel, I distinctly remember Mom picking up a Bermuda phone book and flipping through the pages to see if she could find any people with the last name of Dickinson. She did – and imagine our shock when that impromptu phone book search led to my mom to her half-sister, Dorothy, who they didn’t know.
Aunt Dottie shared later that she had actually met my mother as an infant during a visit to New York City where Mom was born. According to Aunt Dottie, who was a little girl then, her father took her by the hand over to the crib where a baby was sitting and said -
This is your baby sister.
But for whatever reasons, Mom, Aunt Hazel and Aunt Dottie were never given the chance to get to know one another until all those many years later on our trip to Bermuda. Making up for lost time, it was wonderful to see the three sisters bond immediately.
Our vacation morphed into an enthusiastic family reunion where we got to know Aunt Dottie, her husband, Leon Eve, a host of new cousins and even my grandfather’s first wife – Mrs. Robinson.
2. My grandfather was born on December 12, 1889 in Hamilton, Bermuda, an island in the north Atlantic Ocean that has been part of British territory since 1609.
When I visited the island in the 1970′s, I made a trip to the Registry office and easily found Grandpa’s birth record. The man known to my family as “Frederick Dickinson” was actually Frederick William James Dickinson, born six years earlier than my mother had always believed.
No father was listed but the birth registration showed Grandpa’s mother as “Alice Dickinson”, a Black woman. I don’t know if Dickinson was her maiden name. As we got to know our Bermuda family better, I was intrigued to learn that my grandfather named both of his eldest daughters after his mother – Alice Dorothy (my aunt) and Alice Vivian (my mother).
Oral family tradition is that Grandpa’s father or maternal grandfather was a “Dr. Tucker”, a White Bermudian. What “they” (my late aunt and older Bermuda cousins) revealed is that when the alleged Dr. Tucker died, he left land in his will to my grandfather and his sister. But for whatever reasons, these two heirs never got their inheritance and the land was taken from them.
Or so the story goes.
The family grapevine also has it that my grandfather had two sisters, but I don’t know if that’s true, what their names were or if they have descendants still living in Bermuda.
3. My grandfather spoke with a British accent and was a staunch British citizen to the day he died. Becoming a United States citizen was never on his agenda even though he lived here for over forty years. One of the stories my mother used to tell of her childhood is when Grandpa woke her and her siblings up very early on December 11, 1936 to listen to the radio. That infamous day was when King Edward VIII of England took to the airwaves to announce his abdication and how he:
Found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.
According to Mom, Grandpa was shocked that a king of England would give up the throne in favor for love. I guess my grandfather was not a big fan of Wallis Warfield Simpson, the woman Edward would soon marry and make the Duchess of Windsor.
4. Grandpa Dickinson was a life-long member of the Church of England.
5. He was married in Bermuda before he met my grandmother, Hazel Edna Weaver and had one daughter, Aunt Dottie.
What I Don’t Know (the short list)
- About his father – who was he? Was his last name Dickinson, Tucker or Swann (as I’ve also heard through the family grapevine)? Was he even a Bermudian? Did he marry my great-grandmother Alice? Who were his parents? Where was he born? Was he baptized? What was his race? Did he own property? Did he have any relationship with Grandpa? When did my great-grandfather die and where is he buried? Did he leave a will?
- About his mother – what was her maiden name? When was she born? Was she baptized? Who were her parents? Did she ever marry? Did she own property? When did she die and where is she buried?
- About Grandpa’s childhood and early years – where did he live? What kind of life did he have? Did he have siblings (those two sisters)? What kind of education did he have? When did he marry Mrs. Robinson?
How Do I Fill the Gaps
I wish I could say there’s a visit to Bermuda in my near future but there’s not. So all my research has to be done online or with help from someone there on the island. My first step is to research and find out if any of the pre-1917 records I need to review have been digitized in recent years and put into a database that I can get access to.
The second step, and this is an important one, is to partner with my Bermuda cousins to tackle this research problem. Together we can sift through the information we have and start to break down the brick wall that’s kept all of us from knowing more about Frederick William James Dickinson.
The Bermuda cousins are as eager as I am to discover more about Grandpa Dickinson’s genealogy. How do I know? Because I emailed my Bermuda cousin, Melvin Dickinson this week about the research we need to do and he’s ready to get going.
Melvin is the grandson of my Aunt Dottie and he and his sons are the last of the Dickinson line. So this a real opportunity to hopefully get documentation in the form of both records and DNA.
And maybe working together as a family team, we finally can answer the question we’ve all had for years because we all have this photo -
Who the heck is this woman hanging out with our grandfather?
Noun. A person who is from 90 to 99 years old.
My great-grandfather Francis Walton Batchelor lived into his nineties and is first nonagenarian I ever knew. Great-Grandpa was born in Harris County, Georgia in December 1869, the son of Luke Batchelor and Lucretia Lucky.
He grew up and lived in Georgia and lived there for many years before migrating up North to Michigan. Through the years Great-Grandpa appears in the US census records under several names:
- Francis Walton
- Waltern and
- Frank W.
I even think there might be another name he was referenced by because I haven’t yet found my great-grandfather in the 1920 census.
By 1910, Francis is listed in the census as 40 years old and living with his wife of 18 years – my grandmother, Florence Crawford and their nine children. The family included my grandfather, Eddie Walton who was 13 years old then. And except for the 3 youngest children in 1910, my great-grandfather and all of his family could read and write. In the 1940 census, I learned that his formal education went through the 6th grade.
All Great Grandpa’s family were described as “mulatto”. For years, I’ve heard that my great-grandfather was part Native American. This particular ancestry doesn’t show up in my recent genetic DNA results where I only have 2% Native American but that’s because it’s on my paternal line where I have no immediate family to test. Note to self -
Here’s an opportunity to reach out to male cousins descended from Francis to see if anyone would take a DNA test.
According to the earlier census records, my great-grandfather was a farmer who, I’m proud to say, owned and worked his own land. That was unique out in the country where Great Grandpa came from. Many Blacks around him rented land and farmed as “sharecroppers”. Although I haven’t been down to research in Georgia yet, I’m intrigued about my great-grandfather acquired his land, which may give me more clues to the family history.
By the 1930 census during the height of the Great Depression, Francis is shown as 60 years old living in Michigan with his second wife, Eveline (who I would call “Granny”). He was an unemployed carpenter but back then so many men were unable to find work.
During his years in Michigan, Great Grandpa owned his own house at 11446 Grand Haven in Hamtramck (a town surrounded by Detroit and known back then for its large population of immigrants from Poland). His house was valued at $3000. And he even had a radio – an interesting fact captured by the census taker. On the street where my great-grandfather lived, his was one of only five Black families. Many of the other neighbors were from Poland, Romania and Italy.
As I reviewed the 1930 census, I also found Uril Hollis, the man who became my step-grandfather. He was living on Grand Haven Street too with his first wife, Ethel. He married my paternal grandmother, Beatrice years later after Ethel died. You’ll read more about Uril and Beatrice in my future posts in the 52 Ancestors 52 Weeks blog challenge.
In the 1940 census, Great Grandpa was still living on in the same house on the same street when relatives of mine would continue to live for many years after he was gone. By now, he was 70 years old.
Fast forward to the 1950s when I came along. By then, my great-grandfather was in his eighties. My earliest memories of him are of visiting the house on Grand Haven where Great Grandpa would be sitting up on a day bed in the front room. Even then, he was still a handsome man, with white hair and a gentle manner who always seemed glad for the visits from his great-grandchildren. Sadly I was too young to know that there were hundreds of questions I would, one day, want to ask him about his life.
I was ten years old when my great-grandfather died in 1961 at 91 years of age. By then, he had lived through:
- Reconstruction after the Civil War
- The Jim Crow South
- The dawning of the Industrial age
- The Great Depression
- Two world wars and
- The beginning of the Civil Rights era.
I regret not having more time for conversations with this peaceful, gentle man who had lived through over 90 years of our country’s history. Some is recorded in census records and the like. But my great-grandfather’s personal experience with that history and how it played out in his life – well, that’s not written down anywhere.
The hard lesson I learned from not being able to tap into my great-grandfather’s treasure chest of memories is if you have older relatives who are up there in age, make time to spend with them now. Because when the history they know is gone,
It’s just plain gone.
It’s devastating when your mother moves on to become an ancestor. As a daughter, I journey through grief. As a genealogist, I tell her story.
My mother, Alice Vivian Dickinson was born in Harlem, New York, New York in June, 1919. She was the eldest daughter of Hazel Edna Weaver of Cleveland, Ohio and Frederick William James Dickinson of Hamilton, Bermuda. When my mom was a toddler, her parents moved to Cleveland to be near my grandmother’s family.
Soon joined by younger brother, Frederick and sister, Hazel, Mom grew up in the Great Depression when the family struggled to make ends meet. She was always proud that her parents owned their house and were able to keep it during those difficult and challenging times. Many years later, when her own children would complain about what was for dinner (because frankly, Mom wasn’t the best cook in the world), Mom would say -
You just don’t know what it’s like to be hungry.
A true product of the Depression, Mom always had a well-stocked pantry and a humongous freezer full of enough food to feed three families. We used to laugh about her stockpile, but to Mom it was insurance against her ever being hungry again.
My mother was always an excellent student. She graduated a year early from high school and followed in her mother’s footsteps to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. Mom graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish Literature. Throughout her life, she was passionate about Spanish and Hispanic culture and enjoyed practicing her language skills with a circle of bi-lingual friends here in Michigan and in Mexico, her self-acclaimed second home .
While in college, my mother experienced Jim Crow racism first-hand. It wasn’t that racism was new to her. She’d felt the sting of it in her own bi-racial family where they could only visit their White relatives at night in Cleveland, not even the deep South. But in Washington, there were separate facilities for “coloreds” and Mom used to tell us about how she had to sit in the balcony in the movies because that’s the only place they were allowed.
In 1944, Mom was invited to visit Detroit by former college roommate. She went to a picnic with friends and met Thomas Melvin Batchelor – a brilliant, red-headed, freckle-faced medical student who won her heart with his winning smile. My parents were married the next year in Cleveland, Ohio.
Mom and Dad settled down as newlyweds in Detroit. There Mom taught school at Spain Elementary and Dad finished medical school at Wayne State University. This good start to their life together, though, was shaken up by two tragic events.
In 1946, my Grandmother Hazel died after a 15 year battle with breast cancer. It was like she waited to see her eldest daughter married and happy before she made her transition. Mom never got over this loss and even in her nineties, would say how much she missed her mother.
Around that same time, my father had his leg amputated because of a bone infection that was caused by an injury he suffered in Detroit’s 1943 race riots. Nowadays, this would be something that could be cured but antibiotics hadn’t been invented yet.
Despite this rocky start, my parents moved on to raise a family and build a comfortable life together. Mom stayed home and raised us kids. I was the eldest of three.
My mother was devoted to my sister Paula, brother Thomas and me and committed to making sure we had a good education and exposure to a wide range of experiences from ballet lessons to scouting to art and music lessons. It is rumored, though, that she would leave the house while I screeched out songs on the violin and Paula plunked on the piano. At some point, I guess Mom gracefully accepted that hers was not a musical family. We still aren’t.
I remember my mom always telling me to be “tactful and subtle”. As an adult, I thought she was telling me not to rock the boat, to accept the status quo. But I came to understand that my mother was an activist in her own quiet way. What she was really saying was to stand up for myself, push the envelope when necessary and make change happen with my actions. These days, I translate my mother’s words “tactful and subtle” into -
Walk softly and carry a big stick.
As her children got older, my mother returned to school to get her Master’s Degree in Bi-Lingual education. She also studied at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. Mom loved learning about other cultures and traveled extensively. In midlife, she even expanded her studies to include Arabic and Transcendental Meditation. Boy, did we used to snicker when Mom went off to meditate. Now I snicker because I do the exact same thing!
My mother also had a love for the arts, music and fashion. As I think of her in my mind’s eye, I remember Mom as a petite and elegant woman who was a lifelong fan of the little black dress, pearls, great shoes, perfect eyebrows and her signature red lipstick. To this day, my sister and I kid each other about going out of the house without lipstick on.
As she described herself, Mom wasn’t a “joiner,” so her social life was less about organizations and more about family and close friends. But over the years, her affiliations included Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and the Cotillion Club Wives Auxiliary. Descended from seven Revolutionary War patriots, my mother became an active and enthusiastic member of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution after I became that organization’s first Black member.
When Dad passed away in 2002, we had to move my mother into assisted living because of dementia. In 2008, we found a wonderful group home called “Sierra House” in Warren, Michigan where Mom spent her last years in a loving environment with regular sessions of karaoke – her favorite activity.
On the last night of 2012, we had to rush Mom to the emergency room. She was diagnosed with pneumonia and a very contagious strain of the flu. After five days, she came home but never regained her strength.
On Sunday a week later, we were sitting with Mom trying to coax her to eat and she gave us one of her “looks”. Now back when we were kids, Mom’s looks were calculated to freeze us in our tracks when were doing something she didn’t approve of. And we did freeze. This time, though, my mother’s look had a different tone. It was a deep, loving and soulful look that said, without a single word -
Alright my darlings, it’s time.
There was no misunderstanding Mom’s look that day. She was telling us that she was ready to let go. So we called Hospice of Michigan, they came out and all of us together supported my mother during the week of her very deliberate and purposeful transition.
My mother passed away peacefully on January 20, 2013 – one year ago today. She was 93 years old.
On this day as I remember the wonderful woman my mother was, I think of Mom’s favorite Karaoke song that pretty accurately describes her philosophy of life. We had someone sing it at her funeral and it brings me a smile now through the tears that have flowed off and on as I’ve written this post. The song – Que Sera Sera. If you’ve never heard it, here it is in memory of Mom: