Although I have searched for male African-American ancestors who gave military service in America, I have yet to discover any who did. But my maternal grandmother, Hazel Edna Weaver stepped up during World War I to give service by answering the call to work for the Red Cross.
The first Black woman to become a Red Cross nurse was Frances Reed Elliot Davis from Knoxville, Tennessee. She was initially rejected by the Red Cross but was later accepted into nursing service in 1918. African-American women weren’t allowed to become military nurses until after that war was over, so joining the Red Cross was as close as Frances Davis could get to giving service during WWI.
After Mrs. Davis paved the way, my grandmother volunteered for the Red Cross too. At the time of the photo below, taken around 1918, Grandma would have been in her late twenties. I’m proud that, as a young Black woman who did not even have the right to vote yet, my grandmother was still willing to help the war effort by serving her country back home.
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!