My father, known as Herbie Williams (Herbert R. Williams), would say, when I asked how he went from working as a Postal “Letter Carrier” to work for the U. S. Customs Service, at the U. S. Custom House (now called the “Alexander Hamilton U. S. Custom House”), in Lower Manhattan (New York), that one of the men on the “stamping desk” went to lunch and he (my father) was asked to fill in. Then he would add, “That was the longest lunchbreak he ever had!” Then he would say it was “___ years long” (fill in the appropriate number of years depending on when he was asked).
My father retired from “Customs” after 42 years of service. In that time, he went from the stamping desk as a clerk, to being a “Deputy Collector” and “Import Specialist.” Upon retirement, he was awarded the Gallatin Award from the U. S. Treasury Department. His job vacancy notice indicated that the successful applicant needed to have a law degree. Not bad for a man who had only completed the ninth grade. I would love to continue writing about my father, how really smart he was, how he was a walking calculator and what an amazing career he had, or the wonderful person he was, but that’s not the story I want to share in this blog. It’s that “longest lunchbreak” I want to write about.
Frankly, it never occurred to me to question my father’s account of his rise from Letter Carrier to Deputy Collector and Import Specialist. Since he died in 1982, I no longer have the opportunity to ask questions. However, recently, I have had occasion to go through some old documents of my father’s. Some of these documents go back to his young adult years, back to the time when he was working for the Post Office, before going to Customs. In reading those documents, I discovered that his “Lunchbreak” story didn’t occur exactly the way he had told it.
As part of the background to this story, I must explain that he was originally from Jersey City, New Jersey. In May 1929, while still in his twenties, he was a co-founder and Vice President of the Colored Men’s Regular Republican Association of Hudson County, New Jersey. I knew he had been active politically as a young man, but I did not realize just how active. Moreover, I did not know how well he understood how to leverage that position to his advantage.
In August 1929, a letter was written by the Republican Association president, C. Bion Jones, on behalf of my father and Raymond Alleyne, another young man working at the same postal station (located in the U.S. Custom House), to Senator Walter Edge, from New Jersey. In it, Mr. Jones indicates that my father and Mr. Alleyne were two of a group of young men, all members of the Hudson County Republican Association, who were experiencing “unfairness” by the Post Office Superintendent, F. A. Kaemffe. Mr. Jones was asking Senator Edge to intervene in the matter. I assume it was this “unfairness” that prompted my father’s interest in moving to the Customs Service.
In October (illegible) 1929, there was a draft letter to Colonel Arthur Fran, Comptroller of Customs, drawn up by my father, on his own behalf, but the intended signatory was not indicated. In it, he noted that he desired to transfer to Customs. He stated that the clerical pool in the Customs Service was “shorthanded.” He explained that he had taken the general clerical test in April and had made a formal application. He said that those chosen were generally chosen from those who had completed such steps. He also wanted the Colonel to know that he was “an active Republican and was V. President of one of our militant Rep. organizations.” (Did he say “militant?” I never heard that before!) As noted, he did not indicate whose signature was intended for this, possibly Mr. Bion Jones, the association president.
In November 1929, he wrote a letter to Bion Jones. In it, he noted that he had not heard anything regarding his application for transfer. I mentioned that he had taken the clerical test in April” and that, providing that I pass this and have the right person in back of me will entitle me to a clerk’s position in the Customs Service quicker than a transfer as there must be a vacancy at the time of my recommendation by the Coll of Cust and since to fulfill the necessary papers for transferring me would take 3 months and the help being so short handed they cannot hold a position open that long, so until I receive my report I guess the matter will have to stand. However, he did not let it rest.
In May 1930, my father wrote to Congressman Fred Hartley. Hartley was apparently someone with whom he had some relationship, since he opened his letter saying, It has been some time since you have heard from me for which I wish to apologize but knowing how busy you have been with the tariff bill, I did not think you would have time to bother with such small matters as reading letters from me. But as you have about finished with the tariff bill, I wish you would look into the enclosed matter as it has been hanging free (?) for some time and the only results are a big promise so knowing you are one for the party, I know you will do your best to get me more than a promise.
About ten days later, my father wrote Bion Jones, saying that, “Some time ago, I filed an application for transfer from the Post office Department to the Customs Service as a clerk. It has been some time since I have received any word as to whether such a feat could be accomplished and I feel as though something should have been done by this time.”
On 6 June, Congressman Hartley responded to my father saying that he had heard from the Collector of Customs. The letter was attached. In it the Collector indicated there were still no vacancies but would contact the Congressman as soon as an opening became available. Congressman Hartley assured my father that he would “continue to follow this case, and do everything possible to obtain a transfer” for him.
There is another letter, that seems to be from the same time period, but was not dated. It was written from my father to the “Hon. Robt. S. O. Lawson, Pres Puretan Repu A,” In the letter, my father indicated that he had written to the Hon. Ham. F. Kean, the Hon. Philip Eltinger, Collector of Customs, Col. Arthur Fran, comptroller of Customs and Judge Thos H. Brown and all I can get is as soon as an opportunity of an opening comes, I will get 1st chance. This is all I received for an answer for two years although since then I have even passed their 1st grade examination which entitles me to 1st preference but, I am waiting. So, hoping you can get me some sort of answer as to whether it can be accomplished.
That was the last of the letters preserved regarding this matter. However, another document compiled around 1939, which listed his work and education history, noted that he got a long-awaited birthday gift. On 10 August 1930, his birthday, he reported to the Post Office for the last time. On 11 August 1930, he reported for work with the Customs Service as a clerk on the Stamping desk, thus beginning his forty-two-year career in Customs.
So, that cute story about how he filled in for someone but never left, was really a hard-fought political strategy to advocate for himself and his future. It was quite amazing and rewarding to read about how he used his political acumen and leveraged his many contacts to finally land the job of his dreams. He loved his work with Customs. I don’t think there was ever a day that he didn’t look forward to going to work. On retirement, he was immensely proud of all that he had accomplished – so were my mother and I.
My parents met around January 1934, based on a letter written by my mother, Margaret (Margaret Lilly Lee), called “Peggy,” at the time, to my father, Herbert (Herbert Randell Williams), called “Herbie” by everyone. My parents met on the New York Subway. Although my father lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, he worked in Manhattan at the U. S. Customs House (not far from “Ground Zero” in 2011). My mother technically lived with her grandmother (Mary Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram), her sister (Elverna Elizabeth Lee), and her uncle (Percy Walter Phillips) in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but she worked for a dressmaker, Charlotte Dietz, in Corona, Queens, New York, with whom she stayed. I’m not sure who was headed where at the time they met. I was always struck by the fact that my mother spoke to a strange man despite always admonishing me strongly to never, ever speak to strangers! I took every opportunity (in jest, of course) to remind her of that.
I don’t think either of them had a private telephone. My father had access to one at his office and I believe my mother had access to the one belonging to Mrs. Dietz when absolutely necessary, but I’m sure my mother was not allowed to “chat” with gentlemen for social reasons. However, my parents did exchange contact information. I asked why she was willing to give a strange man her contact information. She said that they had mutual friends who vouched for him when she checked. I imagine the conversation went something like, “You live in Jersey City? Do you know ‘So and So’?” In this case the answer was “Yes.”
My mother told me she doublechecked with her friend, who told her that my father was 30 (my mother was a couple months shy of 20), worked for U. S. Customs, lived with his sister in Jersey City, and had two young sons from a previous marriage. I’m not sure what facts persuaded my mother to return a letter of overture from my father, but in February of 1934, she wrote a letter to him at his office in the Customs House. As referenced therein, he had contacted her first, but she was slow to respond.
My dear Herbert,
I suppose you’ve given up hopes of my answering your letter. I was at a loss as to whether I should answer your letter.
As for coming to see me, not until I know more about you. I work in a Jewish dress shop and I live with the people I work for so that is why I have to be very careful about visitors. My home is really in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I came out here so as to be near the city as I am seeking a musical career.
I don’t make a habit of speaking to strangers, but I’ll take a chance this once. However, I can see you sometime in the city. I remain –
Taking a chance “this once” apparently worked out. After a strong campaign of letters by my father (you can read more about those in #52Ancestors-Favorite Discovery), they eloped to Greenwich, Connecticut, where they were married by a Baptist minister on 1 April 1935, just 19 days before my mother turned 21. With that, the musical career was ended before it ever began.
It was, however, a strong beginning. My parents were married 47 years and one day when my father died from complications due to Congestive Heart Failure, on 2 April 1982. It was a profound loss for my mother. As she explained, she had spent more of her life with him than without him.
I didn’t know anything about the home property where my maternal ancestors lived in North Carolina until I started doing my genealogy research in 1976. Although my mother had spent her early years in North Carolina, it was not on those lands, nor had she ever seen them until we took a trip together to meet our newly discovered cousins in 1982. Neither had I nor my father ever visited the town where his family was from in Florida. “Home,” for most of my life meant the home where I grew up in Queens, New York, a neighborhood called East Elmhurst, now affectionately called the “Double-E” on one of our Facebook group pages. It is a neighborhood that has boasted many African American notables, including Malcom X, Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Mays, and former Attorney General Eric “Ricky” Holder.
My parents had been living in the Bronx before buying the 1920 two-story, Dutch colonial on Ditmars Boulevard, overlooking Flushing Bay and LaGuardia Airport, in March of 1946. In those days it was a primarily German and Italian community. Those homes on Ditmars that faced the bay originally were actual bay-front homes, complete with the ability to bring small boats up to the backs of their homes to anchor them there. Some of those homes still had the mooring fixtures embedded in their back yards. The area in those days was known as North Beach, and included, besides an actual beach with beach house, a large and popular amusement park, called North Beach or Bowery Bay Gala Amusement Park.
By the time my parents bought all that had changed. The beach and amusement park had been turned into LaGuardia Airport. There was a waterfront park with tree lined walkway, benches for relaxing, and sand boxes for children to play. Further down going towards what is today Citi Field, was a marina popular with various celebrities. Between the airport, bay, park and Ditmars Boulevard, cutting off the former beachfront properties from the waterfront was Grand Central Parkway, dotted with overpass walkways so that neighborhood residents could access the bay front park. The beach house was eventually converted to a community center where many a late-night party was held. Although our house was on the opposite side of the street from the Bayfront, we still had beautiful views from the Master bedroom whose windows faced the Bayfront. Memories of what the area looked like then are readily accessible to me not only in family pictures, but in a scene in the original movie “Sabrina,” with Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden, which features a scene driving along Grand Central Parkway right through this community.
I wasn’t born yet. My parents had been married twelve years when they bought the house with no children in sight. They believed there would be no natural children and they had begun to grapple with whether to adopt or not. A year later I was born. I like to think the house had something to do with it. The house was on a 40X100 square foot lot. There was a large maple tree in front along the curb. The house had a nice grassy front with garden border. The driveway led to a two-car garage with an upper floor storage area. There was a good sized back yard with both patio area and grassy area, large enough for entertaining as well as the swing set with slide. I spent many hours playing on the swings, glider, slide, or hanging from the cross bars.
Inside was a six-room house with wrap around, enclosed porch, unfinished basement, and storage area in the attic. There were three bedrooms and one and half bathrooms. There was an eat-in kitchen, formal dining room and living room with bay window and a lovely stained-glass window high up on one wall. That house was my world.
I started my life in that house in the rear bedroom which was then called the nursery. It was a bright, west-facing room. It looked out over the back yard. By the time I was about three and half I was moved into the larger middle bedroom, with big-girl furniture. That room was on the side of the house and faced a balcony of the neighbors. It could be fun talking with various people over the years as they stood on the balcony and I leaned into the window, which was screened. I always speculated about being able to pull off such acrobatic feats as swinging from my window on something akin to a zip-line across to the balcony to save myself from some imaginary threat. I lived in the middle room even after college when I decided to stay in New York to attend graduate school. Regardless of where I lived it was always referred to as my room. Even in my absence most things in the room stayed as they were when I last lived there. It was the room where I would always stay when visiting, married or single. In later years, after my mother moved to assisted living and then died I came home for various occasions, some work-related, some not, but I almost always stayed in “my room.” It helped me feel anchored, rooted, in a good way, as if somehow, no matter what else was happening, all was right with the world.
My world in that house had been, for me, idyllic. Summers meant bike-riding, shooting the basketball at the hoop (I didn’t get it in often), playing on the swings or skating with the kind of skates that required keys and attached to your shoes. For a few years when I was very young there was also an inflatable pool my parents erected in the back yard. If the weather was not cooperative, there was always the porch which was large enough to at least skate on, and comfy enough for playing with dolls or reading books. We also walked across the street and across the overpass to the park along Flushing Bay to watch “warm=ups and take-offs” from LaGuardia Airport, skip stones across the water, or walk to the marina to see which celebrity yachts were tied up there.
Winter had just as many pleasures. When I was growing up, before the increased heat in the atmosphere from increased car usage, plane traffic, and homes and hotels built on previously open land, there was significant snowfall in the winter. Snows of five or six inches were not uncommon. Snowfalls would have to approach eight or ten inches or more before anyone thought to call a snow event a storm. For me, snow was a welcome sight. It rarely meant missing school, but what it did mean was the opportunity to build snowmen, snow forts or tunnels, and sledding! My father and I would go across the street to sled down the steep hill that led to the steps that climbed to the overpass to the bay front park. We would sled literally for hours, until neither of us could feel our hands, feet or lips. Finally, my mother would start yelling across the street that we had been out there long enough, and we were going to get sick, stating emphatically that we had no good sense. Probably not, but we sure did love every minute of it.
I also loved ice skating. Our home was near Flushing Park where the 1935 World’s Fair (and the 1965 Fair) took place. Some of the structures were still in use. One of those was the pavilion used for skating. One side of the building was for ice skating the other for roller skating. I took some lessons and frequently went on Saturday mornings with friends. I liked it enough that I was able to persuade my father to acquire a backyard skating rink that I used many afternoons after school, before dark, practicing what were called school figures.
I loved the outdoor life. I loved mowing the lawn, planting flowers, and having backyard barbeques. I liked sitting with the neighbors on summer nights watching the passing traffic, listening to stories, and catching lightening bugs/fireflies (we used both terms interchangeably). It is true that if playing with friends around the corner and it became dark enough for the street lights to turn on, it was time to go home. It wouldn’t be more than five or ten minutes before you would hear mothers begin yelling out windows or standing at backyard fences for us to come home. Needless to say, when we did get home we would be questioned about why we didn’t come promptly before being called. If we were too late, we knew we would be punished, grounded, for at least one or two nights.
Despite being a small family, I was an only child with only one cousin my age, our home was always filled with happy loving family friends. My mother loved entertaining. We had formal dinner parties, as well as more informal events. Almost every week various friends dropped in on Saturday evenings or Sunday afternoons to enjoy dessert and conversation. Holidays, however, were a different matter. They were occasions for grand dinners (no pot-lucks) of at least three and sometimes as many as five courses, accompanied by the appropriate wines. Since my birthday was during the Christmas holidays, my birthday parties took on a heightened sense of festivity that included my own formal luncheons when I was older.
My mother was a wonderful cook. She made everything “from scratch.” We had fresh vegetables homemade cakes, breads, pies, and cookies. She was an adventurous cook, willing to try foods that many others were too timid to cook. Christmas dinners were not limited to Turkey, ham, or roast beef. We had duck or goose as well. She made mincemeat pies and homemade fruitcake. Easter usually meant a leg of lamb. Her menus were varied and eclectic. She cooked tongue and kidneys along with the traditional meat loaf. We had dandelion and beet tops as well as turnip or mustard greens, kale and spinach. We not only ate watermelon and cantaloupe, we also ate cassava melon, ugly fruit, persimmons and pomegranate. Although our daily meals were eaten at our kitchen dining area, the meals were no less sumptuous. Sunday dinner was often in the dining room and usually marked by one of her scrumptious, homemade desserts.
Unfortunately, nothing ever stays the same. As the years passed, all was no longer right with the world. My aging mother began slipping deeper and deeper into a dementia that left her lucid but not always rational. Her own decline meant she was less and less able to cope with her second husband who had Alzheimer’s. Her once meticulous home began to show signs of decline as well. Simple repairs were ignored, real cleaning stopped, only her penchant for being tidy saved the day. She stopped paying bills or she payed them three times over. Most frustrating was her unwillingness to allow anyone, including myself, to help her. One saving grace was that we maintained a joint account set up after my father died in 1982. It made it possible for me to pay her bills without her even realizing it. In her mind, all was right with the world. I attempted to help her clean or cook on visits, but she was less and less tolerant of anyone touching her things. Eventually, I had to insist that she move to an assisted living facility. She was 96. She had been in our home nearly 65 years.
I continued to come home to visit and look after the home. I had the building painted outside, the roof replaced, the furnace replaced, the water leaks repaired, including replacing bathroom fixtures. I put up the small artificial Christmas tree at the appropriate time. It was a far cry from the large eight-foot, live Christmas trees we had traditionally, but it maintained the spirit. I arranged all the Christmas china and glass ware in the buffet, put the Christmas tablecloth on the Dining Room table, and red candles in the candlesticks. Even though I might not be there for Christmas Day, it made me feel good, still grounded. I still had my home. However, more changes would come.
In 2012, just short of her 98th birthday, my mother died. I continued coming to the house and paying to have the yard maintained. In July 2015, I gave my last party. It was a barbeque with my niece and her family, my daughter and some of her friends, and my boyfriend and me. I had wanted to have another Christmas celebration in the home, but the Flu put an end to those plans. By the summer of 2016, I began packing the contents and making some renovations with an eye to selling. There was no way I could continue maintaining the home and paying New York real estate taxes. My daughter wanted desperately for me to keep the house, as did I, but there really was no feasible way that I could do that.
I was determined to sell the house to a private family. I did not like what I saw happening when homes were sold to developers. They were destroying the community, destroying its history. I was lucky, I was able to hold out long enough for a wonderful family with two children to buy the house. They have continued to renovate the home (it needed a lot of work). They have family over and have barbeques in the backyard while children run and play. It was the best I could do to preserve the community I loved.
On the other hand, Although I own my own home in Maryland, I now feel homeless. I feel displaced. I’m not of course, but it’s how I feel. Since the home in North Carolina which my cousins call the “home place” is now rented out, I feel alienated from that land as well. I still enjoy visiting the community, but I feel like a visitor now.
I like living where I live in Maryland. I live near my only daughter. I’m active in the community and at church, but it’s not home. This is not my homestead. I’m an alien in a strange land. I’m still a New Yorker, but now I’m a homeless one. I haven’t been back since selling the house. Really, there’s nothing to go back to. Although I’m sure I will visit one day soon, it’s just not not home any longer.
Aunt Lutie, as we called her, was my father’s sister. She was ten years older than he. I adored her. It really made her happy that I was interested in the family history. She said she was just like me, asking her (paternal) grandmother questions all the time. When I was still very young, maybe nine or ten years old, she wrote out much of the family history, complete with biblical “begats.” Much of what she told me I have been able to verify. It’s safe to say that I got the genealogy bug from her.
Aunt Lutie, herself, was born on 25 August 1894, in Live Oak, Suwannee, Florida. She was the first-born child of William Gainer Williams and his wife Lela Virginia Farnell Williams. They had married on 12 February 1893, in Live Oak. Live Oak is the county seat of Suwannee County and in the early 1900s was being considered for the state capital. Although in the northern part of the state, it is halfway between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, but more importantly, it was a railroad hub with rail lines from throughout the state all converging there, in Live Oak. Live Oak was also on the Suwannee river, with so many sulfur springs nearby that tourists flocked to the many hotels and resorts erected specifically to accommodate them. Alas, political machinations outmaneuvered those in support of Live Oak, thus making Tallahassee the final choice. Live Oak was also the original home of a state legislated normal school for students of color, that later moved to Miami and is now Florida Memorial University, and the original home of the AME Church sponsored school that would become Edward Waters College, now in Jacksonville.
Live Oak would become notorious for two dark events. One was the trial of Ruby McCollum for the murder of a white doctor. Her trial was covered by Zora Neale Hurston for the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally distributed and heralded African American newspaper. Her story has been the subject of boks and documentaries, including a PBS special. The second event had a more immediate family impact. In 1944, a 15-year-old, African American boy, Willie James Howard was lynched for sending a Christmas card to a white girl. That event spurred our cousin and her husband, LouDavis Farnell Randolph and James Randolph to send their teenage son Clark away for his safety.
Aunt Lutie was surrounded by family in her early years. She lived near both her maternal and paternal grandparents. Her mother was the daughter of Randel Farnell and Sallie Jacobs Farnell. They had four children together: Maryland, William, Jack and Lela. Sallie had also had two other children: Anna (“Sis”) and Richard (“Dick”). Thus, there were aunts and uncles and cousins living nearby. Although a few had moved to Jacksonville, they came home often to visit. Lutie did not know her paternal grandfather, Joshua W. Williams. He had died 31 May 1893, a year before she was born, but her paternal grandmother, Ellin Wilson (aka Gainer) Williams, along with her father’s siblings all lived nearby. In addition, Ellin’s sister, Carry Manker and her family also lived close by. However, when Lutie was about 5 years old, family life changed.
She was never quite sure of the details, but apparently her father, my grandfather, William, got into some sort of altercation (possibly related to a woman, wouldn’t you know) and the entire family, Ellin, Williams, and all the siblings moved to New York City. They never returned to Florida to live, although Lutie at least, returned to visit her maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Once in New York, they settled into life in walk-up apartments instead of the single-family homes they had known in Florida. Still, they were near each other. Lutie said that they lived in a small apartment, along with some cousins, “Tunk” and “Moore,” and as she put it, “they even had the nerve to have a boarder.” “Tunk” was possibly the “T. Davis,” nephew, living with Carry Manker, Ellin Williams’ sister on the 1885 Florida State census. I’ve not been able to find him beyond that. “Moore” was probably Walter Moore, the husband of Ellin’s niece, Christina Manker.
In 1900, according to the census, William, Lela, Lutie, and younger brothers Charleton (“Jimmy”), and William Jr. lived on West 134th St., in New York City. My father wasn’t born yet. However, a Joshua Jackson, “cousin,” was living in the home. According to the census he was born in Arkansas, but his parents were born in “SC” as were William’s. I remember telling Aunt Lutie about this and asking her about him. She said she had no idea because, in fact, he was not living there. I tried to insist, but she said the apartment was tiny and cramped and she knew perfectly well who was, and who was not, living there, and he was not living there. She was adamant, and I did not pursue it further. I did ask if she remembered him at all, but she said no. I would find information after many years searching that potentially identified him, but his exact relationship to the family is still unclear.
In the 1905 New Jersey state census, Lutie is found living with her grandmother, Ellin, and aunts and uncles: Calvin, Joshua, Edward, Jessie (called “Missy”), and May (Iva Mae, or “Babe”), and a boarder, Thomas Manns, on Woodward Street. in Jersey City. Noticeable was the absence of her mother, father, brother Charleton (“Jimmy”), and baby brother, Herbert (“Herbie”), my father. Her brother William Jr. had died in 1902, while still a baby. So where might they have been?
My grandfather, William, was a waiter on the railroad, primarily the New York Central and New Haven lines. His absence does not seem unusual. He could easily have been “on the road” when the census taker came around, but where were the others? It seemed logical that wherever Lela was, “Jimmy” and “Herbie” were because they were still young. Jimmy would have been eight years old, but Herbie would have been a baby, only about a year old. Why was Lutie left behind? No idea. She was school age, maybe Lela felt she needed to stay and attend school. Then why wasn’t Jimmy left behind to attend school? Again, no idea. In fact, I have yet to locate them in a document, but I do have an idea where they may have been.
Aunt Lutie told me that her maternal grandmother, Sallie Jacobs Farnell, died from tuberculosis when my father, Herbie, was still in arms, in other words, less than two years old. I also knew that her maternal grandfather, Sallie’s husband, Randel Farnell, remarried 26 December1907 (Priscilla Vickers). Thus, I believe that Lela, Jimmy, and Herbie had gone to Florida because Lela’s mother was dying or had died. For whatever reason, Lutie was left behind with her paternal grandmother, aunts and uncles.
Lutie and her brother Jimmy would be sent to attend Joseph Keasbey Brick Agricultural, Industrial, and Normal School, a two-year college run by the American Missionary Association in Enfield, North Carolina. Today it is known as the Franklinton Center. Lela was a strong proponent of education. She had attended Florida Normal and Industrial School, in Tallahassee, Florida, today known as Florida A&M University. Their father, William, attended Edward Waters College, associated with the AME Church. Lutie was not happy. She said she couldn’t relate to southern culture and did not get along with her classmates who were from the South primarily. On the other hand, her brother, Jimmy, was comfortable and stayed longer, although I have not determined whether he graduated. Back home in New Jersey, Lutie worked in her mother’s dressmaking business, but decided what she really wanted was to become a nurse. She was planning to attend the Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing when, sadly, her mother, Lela died on Palm Sunday, 28 March 1914. According to Lela’s death certificate she had polycystic kidneys. Lutie remembered that her mother was in excruciating pain before her death. Lela was buried in New York Bay Cemetery, in Jersey City. Lutie’s nursing school plans were finished. She was now the de facto head of the family. Her father moved to Manhattan where he pursued his own interests.
Lutie went to work as a waitress to help support her younger brothers. Soon Jimmy joined his father in the railroad dining cars, leaving just Lutie and Herbie. Herbie remembered her being a tough taskmaster, using a souvenir circus whip to “spank” him when he was defiant. He said that one day when he had had enough, so while she was at work, he took the whip and buried it where she was not likely to find it. As she recounted to me that she had on one occasion reached for the whip in its usual place to discipline my father, but found it missing, my father suddenly began chuckling. Then, he said, “I buried it.” She was shocked. Then laughing she said she always wondered what happened to it. He retorted that he was sick of her hitting him, so he buried it. She just shrugged her shoulders and smiled.
Aunt Lutie would say that she had to be tough since she grew up with two brothers and their friends. She loved playing baseball with them, hiking up her long skirts so that she could run the bases efficiently. My father admitted also that she was the one person he had never been able to beat in a fight. Even as an older woman, getting off the bus wearing her high heels, she was not afraid to face down anyone who attempted to accost her. In fact, she kept a small knife in a special pocket she had sewn into the lining of each of her coats. She was in her eighties the last time someone attempted to take her purse as she got off the bus. “Come on,” she taunted. “Come on, I got something for ya,” she said as she planted her feet in a wide, but clearly solid stance. Apparently, her would-be assailant was stunned by her brazen confrontation and he took off. Disaster averted. She was just as prepared for intruders at home as assailants on the street. She slept with a machete, given to her by a friend who brought it back from the Philippines. When reflecting on the law that said one couldn’t kill a potential intruder unless they were inside your home and posing an imminent threat, she announced, “Don’t worry, he’ll be inside the house by the time the police get here,” … and “if anyone tries to come through my (bedroom) window, I’ve got something for him,” referring to the machete.
After the death of their mother, Lutie and her brothers had continued to live in the home at 246 Van Horne St. However, she couldn’t keep up the expenses of home ownership alone, on a waitress’ salary. Lutie said that the family that bought the home soon left themselves. She said that the new owners complained that there was a woman who appeared on the stairs and kept reaching for their (the new owners’) son. Lutie surmised that it was Lela, trying to reach for Herbie, her favorite and youngest child. The owners decided they could not stay and thus sold the house, moving elsewhere, away from the ghostly woman.
Lutie was invited to work at a clothing Factory, in New York. However, she did not like the working conditions and she refused to return. Instead, she worked in restaurants and finally landed a very good job working for a private family. Eventually, she would become the head housekeeper and companion to a “spinster lady,” Helen Graff. Miss Graff, or “Miss Helen” as we called her, was independently wealthy. Typical of many wealthy women of her time, she had no career, but spent her time involved with volunteer work or traveling. Aunt Lutie ran the household that included about three in regular staff, including a chauffeur, but also hired additional personnel when needed. She had her own bedroom there, which she used primarily for her scheduled afternoon naps (I suspect those didn’t come about until later years), but stayed over if holiday or other entertaining lasted too late in the evening to travel across town to her own home. As her companion, she traveled with “Miss Helen” on her many motor trips in the US and Canada. On the other hand, Aunt Lutie didn’t like boats, so no cruises, nor would she fly, so no trips to Europe. If Miss Helen took any of those trips, Aunt Lutie stayed behind taking this vacation time to travel to Florida to visit family. Miss Helen was kind to me as well. She often invited my parents and me to special events, and even to come visit when there were no events. I liked her. She and Aunt Lutie remained together until Miss Helen died in August of 1969. At that time, Aunt Lutie retired to baseball games and cooking the fresh fish caught by her friend Bill on his fishing trips.
Lutie married Guy Mann on 22 Oct 1919, in New York. They were compatible in the beginning, or so she thought, but slowly there was a wedge between them. Guy became controlling and jealous. He insisted all her money should be turned over to him. She disagreed. Ever resourceful, she had hidden some of her earnings in a separate bank account – and a gun under the stairway runner. So, when he became abusive and threatening, she reached for that gun and dared him to stop her. She told him she had had enough, and he needed to go. This time, he did. She never married again. I knew she had a long-time companion, Jimmy Tate. Jimmy wanted to marry her, and he maintained hope right to his death, but she never relented. I believe he died in the 60s or possibly 70s, but I haven’t been able to identify with certainty his date of death. I asked her one time why she never married Jimmy. She said that she prayed to God to rescue her from her marriage to Guy Mann, promising that if he did, she would never marry again. She said she planned to keep that vow. She did. Some years after Jimmy was dead, her friend Bill found himself without family or assistance as he recovered from a hospitalization. She offered for him to come stay at her house where she could help him with some every day tasks and home health aides and visiting nurses would help with his medical needs. They were good friends and even after he regained his health, she allowed him to stay on, giving each of them the gift of companionship so many elders miss.
Aunt Lutie outlived both of her brothers. Jimmy died in 1977, and Herbie died in 1982. In late 1984, early 1985, now 90 years of age, Aunt Lutie began to have increased problems with her health. By mid-May she was hospitalized. The doctors determined that she had major vascular blockages in one of her legs and recommended amputation. True to her spunky style she began talking about learning to walk again with a prosthesis with enthusiasm. Then the doctors decided that the other leg was also a problem. Perhaps they would need to amputate that one as well. She was less enthusiastic about that prospect, but still optimistic. However, by early June, the doctors came back to say they would not be amputating the other leg because her overall cardiovascular health was so bad they did not feel there was anything they really could do to help her. This was a terrible blow. I made my regular bi-weekly visit, but did not find her to be despondent. I believe she may have had more candid conversations with my mother on her private visits. Still, I believe we both knew my visit around 8th or 9th of June would be our last. I wanted to hold on to a slim hope that I would see her again, but on the morning of the 14th, my mother called me at my home in Maryland to tell me Aunt Lutie was gone and that I should come home immediately. My mother told me that a neighbor and good friend had been with her all day the day before (the 13th) and that Aunt Lutie seemed to be praying earnestly for God to take her home. Sometime in the early to mid-evening he did just that. A few days later we had a simple funeral, presided over by the minister at Salem Baptist Church, the church her mother had considered her home congregation. She was buried with her parents, William G. William and Lela V. Farnell Williams in New York Bay Cemetery, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, in Jersey City. Bill continued to live in the home until he died two years later. He was buried in New York Bay Cemetery as well.
There has not been a day that I have not missed Aunt Lutie. Her spunk and independence provided great examples for me. She was my buddy. She was window into the past. I miss her. I wish she was here to share my genealogy discoveries and to hear her insights. I know she is looking down, but I surely would love to talk with her.
 Williams, M. (1990). Lela Virginia Farnell Williams (1876-1914): An Early Student at the State Normal College for Colored Students, Tallahassee, Florida, Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, volume 11, number 4.