My grandmother was an amazing lady. She was born Beatrice Parker in Fortson, Harris County, Georgia – the grandchild of both former slaves and slave-owners in the neighborhood. Gram, as I called her, grew up as a tomboy who used her trusty slingshot to supplement the family groceries with the rabbit and squirrel running around in her rural neck of the woods.
Our family didn’t have much in those days. They were sharecroppers making a meager living growing cotton on someone else’s land. Life was simple. In fact, it was an accomplishment to get any kind of education since everyone who could work needed to help bring in the crop.
But my grandmother finished the 8th grade. She was pretty proud of that but sad that she never actually got her diploma. Gram refused to attend graduation because there was no money to buy fabric for the requisite white dress like the other girls would wear. Knowing how vain she was about clothes in her later years, I imagine this was where it all started.
When Gram was 15, she thought she was going to be an “old maid” because all the eligible guys in her town were related. But never one to give up on a challenge, Gram met and married a young man from a nearby town who wasn’t a cousin – my grandfather, Eddie Walton Batchelor. Grandpa was the first of her five husbands.
Shortly after the birth of their first child, my aunt Mary, my grandparents packed up and took the train to Michigan. The reason – a flyer posted by auto magnate, Henry Ford offering a job making cars for $5 a day. That kind of money was unheard of. So despite the fact that neither of my grandparents had ever been out of Georgia, they decided to make this move.
Many years later when Gram was about to move into a senior citizen’s building, I asked her about the old trunk in her attic. She told me that her father gave her the trunk for the journey to Detroit. Gram said she didn’t have anything to put in it, but brought the thing anyway because it reminded her of home.
Here are my grandparents captured in the lens of a wandering photographer on the day they arrived at the train station in Detroit:
My grandparents settled in Hamtramck, Michigan – right next to Detroit. After my father and uncle were born, my grandparents divorced and Gram helped provide for her young family by being the “help” – working as a domestic.
During the dry days of Prohibition – according to family stories, Gram supplemented her wages by making corn liquor in a still in her attic. Seems everyone loved her moonshine. Gram told me herself it was a successful business that never got raided by what she called the “Feds”.
But then there was that snowy day when she walked home down their street and the only rooftop without snow was hers! That was the day she decided to sell her attic still that was keeping things really warm upstairs.
Obviously I wasn’t around back then to taste Gram’s moonshine but I can testify that she also made the best peach cobbler this side of the Mason-Dixon line. I’ll be writing more about Gram on Extreme Ancestry – there’s just too much to share about her in one post.
You should know though that she was this strong, resourceful and incredibly wise woman who lived to be 97 years old (and lived in her own apartment right to the end). I loved her dearly and miss her peach cobbler, hugs, advice and great stories.
Boy would she be upset if she knew I told you about the moonshine!
My great aunt Clara was my maternal grandmother’s younger sister. She was born on December 1, 1894 in Cleveland, Ohio to my great grandparents, Prince Albert and Jennie Hood Weaver. Aunt Clara and Grandmother had a brother and sadly, 3 other sisters who didn’t survive childhood.
Aunt Clara was a “pistol” – outspoken and her own person in a time when women were struggling to even have the right to vote. Depending on who is telling the story, she was married 5 times although by the time I came along, I don’t remember any of the husbands being in the picture.
I would see Aunt Clara every summer through my childhood when we took our annual trip to visit my mother’s family in Cleveland. Every day, Aunt Clara would drive over in her big black car even though she was in her seventies by then. We kids would peek through the curtains as she marched very purposefully up the front walk to hold court with her grand nieces and nephews – always with her pearls on. It was a command performance that none of us dared miss.
As I reflect back on this time, I realize I missed a lot of opportunity to ask Aunt Clara about our history. But as fate would have it, I got the chance to make up for lost time some years later when I made New Year’s resolution in 1976 to start tracing my roots.
Aunt Clara was then the oldest member of my family so I reached out to her first. She was thrilled beyond belief! Even though she didn’t actually say this, I got the distinct impression Aunt Clara was thinking:
It’s about damn time!!
Over the next 8 months, we had the most amazing time together – phone calls and letters where Aunt Clara taught me as diligently as any of the college professors I ever had. And I was like a sponge. I soaked up all the facts and family stories about our mixed race family and used it to do further genealogy research.
But in September of that year, things turned upside down. Aunt Clara had a fall. I’m not sure how it happened but I got the call that she was in the hospital with a broken hip, but doing OK. Apparently she was even flirting with the ER doctor, something that made me giggle because it was so “classic” Aunt Clara. A few days later, though, she took a turn for the worst and passed away on September 19, 1976. I was devastated.
A few months after Aunt Clara died, I made the connection to our ancestor William Hood, a patriot in the Revolutionary War. She would have be thrilled beyond belief with this discovery. Through the 35+ years since then, the original research Aunt Clara started me on in Pennsylvania has branched out into Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut and Maine and “across the pond” to Germany, England and Scotland. Although I can’t share my discoveries with her, I always have the feeling Aunt Clara’s looking over my shoulder – smiling in approval.
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 white hair that would soon turn into the flaming red hair he was know 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 during the Great Depression.
Even though he grew up without material things, Dad always remembered the best from those days. He used to tell us stories about those days and even laugh about wearing “welfare” plaid flannel shirts and having to eat chicken toes. 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, Grandma took my father to a faith healer. He ended up with a bone infection that landed him in a convalescent home for a year. Remember, this was before penicillin or any other antibiotics. The treatment was grueling and Dad had to wear a built-up shoe for years after.
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 report cards from 1st-12th grade. All “A”s and one “B”!!! Truly a tough act to follow.
Dad went on to major in art at Wayne State University (WSU) with a full scholarship and according to him – 2 pairs of pants which he wore all 4 years until they were shiny and paper-thin from being ironed so much.
During the time he was in undergrad, my grandmother was the “help” for the dean of WSU’s med school. One day the dean asked Gram if my dad would consider becoming a doctor because it was a better career path for a “colored boy” instead of art.
Dad apparently thought so too and applied to medical school. He had to wait a year to get in because back then, the Wayne State University med school only took two African American and two Jewish students in a class. While he waited, Dad got his masters in pathology. Once he was admitted to med school, his life was full steam ahead. During that time though, racial tensions were heating up in Detroit.
One summer night in 1943, Dad was on a date on Belle Isle. Belle Isle is a small island and public park in the middle of the river between Detroit and Windsor, Canada. There are a myriad of stories about how the riots started – depending on who you heard it from. All involved a young Black child and the Belle Isle bridge – where my father was walking with his date.
Dad ended up being right in the middle of what became a violent race riot and his leg was injured again. I was an adult before he would ever share any details of that night with me. Even then he wouldn’t talk much about the horrors he saw that night as one of the first victims of the Detroit’s 1943 race riots.
Despite yet another injury, Dad went on to excel in medical school. And he met and fell in love with Alice Vivian Dickinson, a smart and beautiful young woman from Cleveland, Ohio – my mom. While my father finished med school, Mom taught school. They had great plans that were soon derailed by an unexpected roadblock.
Dad developed another infection in his leg and the doctors recommended yet another year in a convalescent home. Here he was in his last year of school with a coveted internship waiting, a new wife – and someone was telling him to sit on the sidelines. Dad said “no way” and told the doctors to amputate his leg at the knee. Nothing was going to stand in the way of my father achieving his goals – not even his own leg!
Dad sped through 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 54 years later, that my father learned he had graduated first in his class – an honor we believe was denied him because of his race. But that was the special thing about my father. He never let anything get in the way – race, illness, adversity and especially not lack of confidence.
The 83 years of my father’s life weren’t easy. But he lived a life filled with amazing goals and achievements, laughter and inspiration that never seems to end even though Dad passed away on October 24, 2002.
My father left a legacy of wonderful memories, family history and lessons, the most important one – that anything is possible. His faith in possibilities was passed down to me and continues to be the beacon that lights my way through life and the ups and downs of doing Black genealogy.
Love you, Dad. Always, always.