#52Ancestors – (#20-Mother’s Day) I remember Mama: Mary Louisa Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram

“I remember Mama” or simply, “Mama,” was the name of a weekly TV show that ran from 1949-1957, when I was very young.[1] Since there was only one TV set in the house, typical for the times, we watched the show as a family. Mama, who I’m sure had some other name that I don’t remember, was the center of the family – warm, steady, understanding, loving, and supportive. She was the person family members of all ages turned to for advice and comfort; AND she was a great cook. An old family friend, after seeing my post of my mother’s picture in honor of Mother’s Day on Facebook, remarked,

“She set standards for herself and her family, in honor, respect, societal conformity, personal deportment, family relationships, upward mobility, community building, wifely and parental responsibilities. On the stage of human life, she performed exceptionally and deserves life’s golden globe award.” Felix McLymont, M.D., 14 May 2018

Mom and Uncle Sonny April 2004-2
Felix McLymont, M.D. and Margaret Lee Williams, April 2004, celebrating Margaret’s 90th Birthday.

That was my Mama. However, I called her “Mommy,” with an occasional “MAAA!!!” Mommy was a strong-willed woman who outlived two husbands and stayed in her home, alone, until she was 96. True to her maternal lineage, she was a force of nature. From the things she told me, she acquired her great qualities from the woman who reared her, the woman she called “Mama.”

My mother’s mother, Elinora Phillips Lee, died on Armistice Day, 1918, from complications due to the Flu,[2] when my mother was just four years old[3] and her baby sister, Vern, was just eight months old.[4] Twice a year my mother was likely to speak about her mother: 11 November, now called Veteran’s Day, and Mother’s Day. On those days especially, she would recount her memories of her mother and reflect how much she continued to miss her. Perhaps just as important as her reflections on her mother were her reflections on her grandmother, Louise (Mary Louisa Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram), originally called “Big Mama” by my mother, but now known simply as “Mama.” It was she who would take charge of my mother and her baby sister, Vern, after Elinora’s death.

Louse Smitherman Phillips and Elinora Phillips Lee circa 1915
Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram & Elinora Phillips Lee, circa 1916.

Exactly what happened to their father, Pinkney L. Lee, is not clear. He was apparently not a likable person. He reportedly drank and could be verbally abusive. Louise was adamant that he would not have custody of the children. A 1918 Greensboro, North Carolina City Directory entry was the last where he was noted living with the family.[5] Sometime after Elinora died he reportedly went to Baltimore. I have never found a record of him there, nor has any other researcher I’ve asked to help search for information on him. According to my mother, sometime after she, her sister and grandmother had moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, circa 1920, they were summoned to Baltimore because he had died in an explosion and fire at the dry cleaner’s where he worked. Louise was being asked to identify his body. Louise took the children to Baltimore, where her sister Roxanne lived with her family.[6] According to my mother when Louise got to the morgue to identify Pinkney’s body and theoretically take possession to bury it, she took one look and decided he had caused too much trouble for her daughter Elinora and the children. She refused to take custody and left him to the city of Baltimore to bury. I have never found a single record to corroborate this story, nor, as I said before, has any other researcher. I can only assume the city buried him as a John Doe in the Potter’s Field.

According to my mother, Louise was a stern but loving mother to her and her sister. She was a somewhat young grandmother at 36. Since my mother didn’t become a mother until she was 33, 36 must have seemed very young. My mother described Louise as a strong, independent woman, reportedly married three times. Her first husband, Samuel D. Phillips,[7] was the father of her five children (although I have reason to believe that may not be completely accurate).

Both Louise[8] and Sam[9] were from the Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina area. Sometime in the mid-1890s, Sam went to New York, supposedly to seek better employment opportunities promising to bring Louise and their children when he got established. My mother said that someone told Louise that Sam was not only busy establishing himself financially, he had also become established with another woman. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well with Louise. Uncharacteristic for the times, Louise sued for divorce from Sam, accusing him of abandonment and adultery. [10] Quite surprisingly, given the times, she prevailed, the divorce was granted in 1899. [11]  Supposedly Louise was met on the courthouse steps after being granted the divorce by someone who told her she would burn in hell for her sin (the divorce). She was not dismayed.

Doc 25A-Louise & Samuel Phillips Divorce-1a
Final Judgment, Divorce, Louise Phillips and Samuel Phillips, March 1899, Randolph County, NC

It was this strength of conviction and independence of spirit that Louise instilled in my mother and her sister. She taught them to believe “I am somebody,” long before the Rev. Jesse Jackson turned those words into a slogan for a movement. She instilled self-respect and self-esteem long before the feminist revolution. She was a stay-at-home mom with my mother and aunt only because she ran a boarding house. That was how she supported the family. There was never a hint that a woman could not be in charge of her own destiny. Louise believed in education, homeschooling my mother in her earliest years, after having sent her own daughters to obtain secondary education, again, not typical for the times. Both my mother and her sister would say she had standards and instilled values in them. She expected excellence, but not perfectionism.

I adored my mother, my Mommy. However, it was the spirit of Mama, and her lessons that I would learn from my mother and her sister. It was Mama’s guidance and wisdom that they would recount whenever they got together. Mama died in 1936,[12] long before I was born, but in many ways, through my mother and my aunt, I remember Mama.

Margaret & Verna Lee circa Xmas 1968
Margaret Lee Williams & Elverna “Vern” Lee Means, Christmas circa 1968, East Elmhurst, NY.

Endnotes

[1] Gabrielson, F., et al. Writers; Nelson, R. & Irwin, C. Producers (CBS Network). (1949-1957). “Mama,” (“I Remember Mama”), adapted from, Kathryn Forbes, Mama’s Bank Account. Retrieved from: Wikipedia

[2] North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [Database on-line]. Elnora Lee, 11 November 1918. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[3] New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Margaret Lee Williams, Certificate of Death #156-12-009318, 6 March 2012. Date of Birth: 20 April 1914, Lynchburg, Virginia. Original in the possession of the author.

[4] North Carolina, Birth Indexes, 1800-2000 [Database on-line]. Baby Girl Lee. 9 March 1918, Guilford County; father, Pinkney Lee. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[5] U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989. [Database on-line]. Pinkney Lee, 1918, 152 Dudley St., Greensboro, Guilford County, North Carolina. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[6] 1920 US Federal Census, Baltimore Ward 7, Baltimore (Independent City), Maryland. William Wilber, head; Roxanne Wilber, wife. NARA Roll: T625-661; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 83; Image: 102. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[7] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011. [Database on-line]. Samuel Phillips and Louisa Smitherman, 23 July 1885, Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[8] 1880 US Federal Census, New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Mon Ande Smither [sic– original says Ande Smitherman], head; Mary L. Smither [sic], daughter, age 13. NARA Roll: 978; Page: 185C; Enumeration District: 223. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[9] 1880 US Federal Census, Cedar Grove Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Lewis Phillips, head; Samuel D. Phillips, son, age 16. NARA Roll: 978; Family History Film: 1254978; Page: 155C; Enumeration District: 220; Image: 0602. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[10] Randolph County North Carolina Superior Court. Louisa Phillips vs. Samuel Phillips, Judgement [sic]. March Term 1899. Copy in the possession of the author.

[11] Randolph County North Carolina Superior Court. Louisa Phillips vs. Samuel Phillips, Judgement [sic]. March Term 1899. Copy in the possession of the author.

[12] New Jersey State Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. Louisa Ingram Certificate of Death #436, 11 April 1936, Elizabeth, Union County, New Jersey. Copy in the possession of the author.

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