My Grandmother’s Legacy of Courage
By Lea Michelle Cash
Famed poet Langston Hughes asked in his legendary poem what happens to a dream deferred. (a) Does it dry up? (b) like a raisin in the sun? (c) Or fester like a sore- (d) And then run? (c) Does it stink like rotten meat? (e) Or crust and sugar over- like a syrupy sweet? (e) Maybe it just sags (f) like a heavy load. (g) Or does it explode? Family lore regarding my grandmother’s extraordinary cultural contribution as an early political cartoonist is often over shadowed by her image as a mother, housewife and woman whose private life was beset in personal hardships and tragedy.
For two decades, I have researched both my maternal grandparents’ acts of courage. In my development as a human being and as a writer, it seems to me that I am extremely blessed being nurtured by many to tell their stories about their dreams. I have pieced together information from valued documents given to me by my mother and three of her sisters (my aunts), who have long since passed from living on earth. Many documents I have located through genealogical findings and personally visiting on several occasions to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Little Rock, Arkansas’ genealogical societies, libraries, and African American museums. Including the cities of Everett, Massachusetts and Jacksonville, Florida, these are the areas in America where my maternal ancestors and their descendants settled.
Famed author Alice Walker has labeled it—In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. It has been her undertaking and desire to write about the Black woman’s experience that inspired me to dig deeper into understanding my grandmother and mother’s journey in life. Walker makes this statement regarding a story she wrote about her mother. “In that story I gathered up the historical and psychological threads of the life my ancestors lived, and in the writing of it I felt joy and strength and my own continuity. I had the wonderful feeling writers get sometimes, not very often, of being with a great many people, ancient spirits, all very happy to see me consulting and acknowledging them and eager to let me know, through the joy of their presence, that, indeed, I am not alone.” I feel my aging mother’s presence when I write of her mother. And at times, I have felt my grandmother’s presence through my research and historical findings, and in writing this piece for the public. I do feel strengthen, my own continuity and joy for them both. Walker says, “It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about. We do it because we care. We care because we know this: the life we save is our own.” My grandmother had a dream deferred. The oral stories that I have heard my entire life regarding my grandparents are coming to life. Their information and dreams have turned into five large heavy duty, extra ring binders of historical knowledge. In search of my mother’s garden, has led me to a dream deferred. So what does happen to a dream deferred? Langston Hughes simply got it all right.
My grandmother, Daisy Levester Dickson (Dixon) was born on Sunday, October 24, 1897 in Blevins, Arkansas a small town located in northern Arkansas, Hempstead County, located 93 miles west of Pine Buff, and 200 miles east of Dallas, Texas to Julia Miller and Lem Dickson. Hempstead County’s seat is the town of Hope, where former President William Jefferson Clinton was born and reared. The 2010 Federal census reports the population of Blevins to be 365 residences to date. From the day of Daisy’s birth, over 50 years earlier, on January 6, 1842, posters painted the entire County of Hempstead regarding Negroes for Sale. The poster stated: Negroes will be sold at public auction, at Spring Hill, in the County of Hempstead, on a credit of twelve months, 15 young and valuable slaves, consisting of 9 superior men and boys, between 12 and 27 years of age. One woman about 43 who is a good washer and a cook, one woman about 27, and one very likely young woman with three children. Bond with two or more approved securities will be required. Sale to commence at 10 o’clock. Amidst attitudes and ugly remnants of this deplorable era, my grandmother, a Negro was born.
Julia and Lem’s marriage was not successful. Therefore, at a very young age, Daisy was given to her great aunt, Josephine (Fellows) Hurst. My great-grandmother, Julia Miller comes from a long line of McGills and Fellows. Her mother, my great, great-grandmother’s name is Kate Fellows. She married Fred Miller. Josephine was Kate’s sister. She married William Peter Hurst and settled in Little Rock, Arkansas. According to their marriage license, they married on Jan 23, 1884. Therefore, my grandmother grew up in Little Rock residing on 1510 Pulaski Street until the age of 20 when she met and married in 1917, Julius Warren Wiggins, a welterweight fighter who later changed his name professionally to Jack Ramsey Scott. They moved and settled in Oklahoma and became highly noted, active citizens in the bustling segregated “Greenwood District” of Tulsa.
All her life, my grandmother wanted to be an artist, particularly a cartoonist. In 1917 she met the legendary Black publisher Andrew Jackson (A.J.) Smitherman of The Tulsa Star. Ahead of his time, he gave Daisy, the opportunity at her dream and she became the front page, Tulsa Star cartoonist. Smitherman was known for organizing Black resistance again mob violence. In the Tulsa Star, he would publish his blatant democratic views to the Black community. According to the Oklahoma historical society, Smitherman would preach self-resistance and militant action to protect against the tide of racial violence occurring in an era when Republicans dominated the American landscape.
I located my grandparents on the 1920 census—Daisy’s listed occupation—cartoonist—they had one daughter at the time, my aunt Juanita. My grandmother remained in that occupation until the $15,000.00 news plant was destroyed in racial violence—The Tulsa 1921 Race Riot. Along with the entire segregated “Greenwood District,” The Tulsa Star was burned to the ground. My grandfather, twice with a group of Black World War I veterans, stood on the Tulsa Courtyard stairs to prevent a young Black, Dick Rowland, 19 accused of trying to rape a White woman from being lynched. He was riding in an elevator, and when the elevator jerked, he accidentally fell upon 17-year-old White Sarah, the elevator operator. She screamed and White men came to her rescue painting the incident into something it was not. Hate spread like wild fire and before long, a huge White terrorist mob demanded the Sheriff to turn over Rowland.
While turning away the angry mob of White men, a White man tried to disarm one of the Black veterans. A shot was fired. The result was total chaos. Angry that they could not do a lynching, overnight the mob mobilized and turned on every living Negro. By early dawn with great force, they attacked the segregated “Greenwood District,” looting, burning homes, and businesses. Blacks fought for their lives. By 9:15 AM, the entire “Greenwood District,” thirty-five city blocks was up in smoke and gone. The “Greenwood District” had every imaginable kind of business. Oklahoma was considered the promise land, a sort of Black paradise in all Black segregated communities and towns.
My grandfather performed a courageous act putting his life in harms ways. Along with A. J. Smitherman, and prominent Black business man, J. B. Stradford, Jack was one of the fifty-five Black men indicted for unlawfully, knowingly, willingly, riotously, and feloniously assembling together, armed with rifles, shotguns, pistols, razors and other deadly weapons to disturb the peace and quiet serenity of the citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma. A. J. Smitherman posted bail and fled with his family, first to Massachusetts, then on to Buffalo, New York. Eighty-six years later, on December 11, 2007, Tulsa’s District Judge, the Honorable Jesse Harris, after District Attorney Tim Harris researched the cases and recommended that the indictments, which are more than eight decades old, be dropped. The historic case was dropped and the men indicted became instant real riot heroes for saving a young Black man’s life. THIS IS PART 2 FOR THE APRIL 12, 2012 PAPER
Nonetheless, after the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot is when my grandmother’s dream begins to become deferred. Her dream went up in smoke and her life was never the same. She was pregnant at the time with my uncle Julius. After the riot, my grandfather also became a different man. Historians have stated, something snapped in the hearts of many Black men directly after the riot. Many Black families lost loved ones and their minds due to the hardship that was precipitated on the Black community after the riot. My grandfather had saved over $45,000 from his boxing earnings, and now it was gone. In 1919, my grandmother was featured on the front page of The Tulsa Star, recognizing colored women. The cutline mentioned her as one of our popular ladies who recently fell heir to an estate of valuable property worth $10,000 from her Aunt Josephine Hurst who recently died in Little Rock. The cutline also mentioned my grandmother was an expert Milliner and Seamstress, having a large trade that she built in Tulsa among her people.
Making injustice even worse after the riot claims filed by Blacks for damages and losses were never honored. Lives were further destroyed as Black families scattered to points South, North, East and West. For almost two years, the Black families who stayed in Tulsa living in tents and campgrounds started slowly to rebuild their lives. My grandparents remained in Tulsa.
Daisy’s political cartoons on the front page of The Tulsa Star had played a huge part in making angry the White folks from 1918-1921. With Smitherman gone, the newspaper gone, and now living with a dominating angry husband, she was forced to become a homemaker, sewing, cooking, cleaning, and giving birth to a child every year. Her dream deferred begins to fester like a sore and my grandfather begins to beat the dream out of her. They are the parents of twelve children—one died as an infant leaving eleven all born and raised in Tulsa. My mother Altamese Marion Scott, the historian of her family is their ninth child. It is unimaginable at times for me to understand what it was like to live under those circumstances with a dream so bright in your heart. As they rebuilt their lives, purchasing land minutes away from what is known now, as the historic “Greenwood District” (Little Black Wall Street), my grandfather built three small framed houses and a small general store. The family lived in one and the other two houses were rented to others. He placed a boxing ring in the yard where he openly trained young boxers.
Many years later, Daisy grabbed the kids and fled from her husband several times. One time, she made it to St Louis, where her mother (Julia Miller) now lived with her second husband, William Young and their daughter Jettie. My grandfather followed her—bringing her back home to Tulsa with the promises of becoming a better man. He never did. To Daisy’s dream, he provided the crust and sugar over- like a syrupy sweet. In time, his children grew up to hate him as they watched their mother suffer in silence at the domination of an angry Black man. A man larger than life in their world, who had cigars shipped to him from Cuba, idolized heavy weight boxer, Jack Johnson, was always well dressed, top hat, and spoke like a self-taught professor, since he had seen the world in all his boxing glory, and was highly respected in Black circles as a businessman. Some census reports listed his occupation as laborer and/or janitor.
In 1934, my grandmother saw an advertisement in the White daily newspaper from Federal Schools Inc. The Ad encouraged artists to send in their artwork and take the road to bigger things, describing how success may be won through illustrating & cartooning as taught by a master course. This instruction was being taught by over one hundred of the world’s greatest illustrators and cartoonists conducted at Federal Schools, Inc. Daisy sent in her artwork. She receives a long beautiful letter filled with encouragement, praise and confidence that she possess enough talent to justify following a course of technical training and enjoying a high salary paid in this most agreeable profession. The letter mentions that only those having the talent like hers, ambition, energy, persistency and determination to succeed can ever acquire the proficiency necessary to enter this profession. This is verified because, I have the letter and through historical searches and EBay, I stumbled on an antique dealer selling a 1934 Federal Schools Inc. legendary “A Road to Bigger Things” literature booklet. I purchased the treasured booklet.
My grandmother was sent that booklet which featured numerous stories about White illustrators and cartoonists.
She had also received an award certificate for the presence of artistic ability and a good understanding of the elements of drawing. It was signed by the President of the school. On the first page of the booklet was titled: The Realization of a Dream. My grandmother was dreaming bigger than big. She could do these because the classes were mail ordered and the school was in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They did not know the color of her skin and Jim Crow’s law had no hold on her through mail order. She had only one enemy—a husband who continued to beat the dream out of her—time and again, to him she would surrendered. Most women did in that era and time of women’s suffrage. Their voices were marginalized and silenced. For this reason, historically, a Black woman’s life has been one of long-suffering and severe oppression as a member of two powerless and exploited classes making her double a victim.
On Sunday evening, August 4, 1946, the five children living at home returned home from 7:00 PM Benediction. They went into the kitchen, and ate most of the rice pudding and the lemon sauce to go over it. Their father asked Daisy, “Where is my dessert? Has everyone eaten it all from me?” She replied, “No Jack, there is some left for you.” She did not know the kids had eaten it. My grandfather gave the kids a beaten that night with the razor strap—it was the strap he used to sharpen his razor for shaving. He would hold their heads between his knees and strike the razor at their backsides.
The following morning, Monday, he was still fussing, but this time it was about his breakfast oatmeal. He headed off to work. My grandmother stayed seated in her favorite yellow and brown sewing chair. My mother says that her mother was very quiet. She was fully dressed and sitting in the chair straight up like a lady, with her hand folded in a prayerful position. The kids began their day without disturbing her. It was Monday, washday. They knew what their mother’s routine would be, while they played outside all day.
In their front yard, was a playground with a sandbox and see saw. There was an open area large enough to play baseball, and ride their bikes. There were four big trees and one had a tire swing. They played hide and seek, and red light green light. In the back yard, was a lot of land. They had three out houses, two vegetable gardens, chickens and a rooster running around. Three peach trees, grape vines and two round brick kennels to burn rubbish and garbage. There were two blessings to the landscape, a hill to slide down on a cardboard boxes and a neighbor with a farm nearby who had plenty of horses to ride.
By late afternoon, sunset, my grandmother had not moved from her chair. My aunt Jonetta, their tenth child, age 13, begins to get scared. She finds my mother outside playing. The sisters checked on their mother. The two conclude that it was odd that mom had not prepared the supper for them and their dad. Daisy did not respond to their voices. They girls were frightened. They decided to call their parish priest Father Lyndon, the assistant pastor to Father Daniel Bradley, a catholic priest that the entire Black community of Greenwood’s Catholics dearly loved from St Monica Church in Tulsa. St Monica Catholic Church was built in 1930 off Greenwood Ave to serve the Black catholic community. My mother and her siblings attended school there.
Father Lyndon came promptly in his automobile. He put his ear to Daisy’s mouth and said that she was praying. He told the girls to pull back the covers on the bed in the livingroom, and he carried her there, and placed her in the bed. Father Lyndon instructed the girls to make sure their mother did not move, while he went to get Father Bradley. Shortly after Father Bradley arrives, he is going to take, Daisy to St John’s Hospital. He asks, “Where is your father? At that moment, my grandfather walks in the door.
My grandfather asked, “What’s going on? What are you doing here? ” The priest explains. Jack replies, “We don’t need any charity. I can take care of things here.” He orders, Father Bradley and Father Lyndon out of his house. Father Bradley states, “Daisy is sick and needs to go to the hospital.” The priests leave. My aunt Jo starts crying and just before, my mother places a cloth, soaked in the ice box water, to put on their mother’s forehead, my grandfather begins hitting her, about why she called Father Bradley.
The frightened children tend to their mother over night. It’s Tuesday, early dawn, my grandfather takes his wife to Moton Memorial Hospital. Moton is the first African American hospital in Tulsa. The hospital operated as a segregated medical facility until 1956.
Today it is known as the Morton Health Center. The children wanted their mother to go to St John’s, the White people hospital—not Moton, where people always died there.
On Thursday, the kids visited their mother. She was awake and told them to be good and listen to their father. That night she slipped back in a coma. Two days later, on Saturday, August 10, 1946, at 2:40 pm, the day before my mother’s 14th birthday, (the eldest girl living at home), while outside washing clothes, her father told her that their mother had passed. The lives of Daisy’s remaining five children, Guy age 15, Altamese age 14, Jonetta age 13, Benjamin age 11 and Toussaint age 8, had forever changed. The older siblings, grown had left or run away from home always with the hope of rescuing their Mom and younger siblings. They were Juanita, Julius, Eloise, Panchita, Sidney and Pauline. The cause of death, a cerebral hemorrhage, and heat exhaustion. My grandmother had died at age, 48. Although, many people came to the funeral, and my grandmother’s obituary and picture was published in the Black newspaper, The Oklahoma Eagle. No one rescued the five younger children. They remained with their father who at times showed compassion and continued to beat them.
Overtime my grandfather’s anger turned into depression and sadness, then bitterness. He begins to withdraw, and dry up like a raisin in the sun. Although he had women, he never remarried, or brought another woman near his children. Instead, he would tell people, “My wife was a pearl.” Today, at the “Greenwood District” Cultural Center is a Black Wall Street Memorial Dedication. My grandfather name is inscribed on the granite cenotaph and his losses in the 1921 race riot’s destruction. My grandmother’s dream was deferred, but it lives on in her legacy of courage, in artifacts found in libraries featuring early Black newspaper publications.