Essays on memoir, music, and more from Beatrice M. Hogg

Archive for the tag “Hallie Q. Brown Clubs”

Growing Up Republican

I still remember the day that I found out I was a Republican. It was November, and in school we were learning about the electoral process. It was very basic, so I think I was in the third grade. Mrs. Spellman told us to find out tonight whether our parents were Republican or Democrat. We would share our family affiliation in class tomorrow. Finally, I had a homework assignment that I could share with my parents. Momma only had a fourth grade education and my schoolwork was starting to get too advanced for her to assist me. Daddy couldn’t read nor write, so I never asked for his assistance. But today I could!

“Daddy, are we Republican or Democrat?” It was 1964 and Daddy had recently retired from the Montour 4 coal mine. Even though he was retired, he remained active in our small community. On Election Day, Daddy had mimeographed sheets of paper with the names of all of the registered voters in Hills Station. I had glanced at the list of my neighbors and the parents of my friends, with an “R” or a “D” after each name. I knew that my parents were on the list, but I didn’t recall which letter followed their names.

Some of the names had notes next to them, indicating the voters who needed a ride to the polling place on Georgetown Road, the main street in town. Momma wrote the notes for Daddy, her contribution to his Election Day assignment. Even though I considered Momma unconcerned with community work, I knew that she had been very active in the past. In the forties and fifties, she had been President of the local Hallie Q. Brown Club, a civic organization of African American women. She had even been featured in The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important “colored” newspapers in the country. I had also seen the clippings describing her political fundraising efforts for local candidates.

I waited for Daddy’s reply. “We are Republican; just like Abraham Lincoln,” he said proudly. I couldn’t wait to share this information with my classmates.

At school the next day, Mrs. Spellman asked for the results of her parental survey. It didn’t take me long to notice a pattern – all of the other black kids were Democrats. My heart sank. I was already adopted, left-handed and Catholic; I didn’t need another attribute to separate me from my black friends and classmates. But Momma and Daddy taught me not to lie. When my turn came, I told the truth.

“Republican.” I heard the other black students start to laugh. I wondered if I could run all of the way home after school without encountering any of them. I lived across the street, so if I could get past the schoolyard, I’d be safe.

No such luck. “Marvella, why are you a Republican? You trying to be white?”

“Why you always gotta be different?”

After a few days of teasing, the survey was forgotten, but I wanted to know more. Why were my parents Republican? Like most things in my young life, it had to do with their age. Years later I learned that after the Civil War, many emancipated African Americans registered as Republican, the party of Lincoln. To my adopted parents, who were born in the South in the1890s, Lincoln wasn’t a historical figure. He was the good President who was assassinated less than thirty years before their births. Former slaves raised both of them – my mother by her grandparents, Isaac and Amanda Harper, and my father by his mother, Sally Hogg. My parents grew up believing in the promise of the Republican Party and moved north to escape the Reconstruction backlash of white Southern Democrats. Around the time of the New Deal, the demographics and ideals of the parties switched, but my parents remained party loyalists.

My mother died during the first Nixon administration. Even though I didn’t talk much about politics with my father as a teenager, I knew that he liked Johnson, disliked Nixon and was ambivalent about Ford. He died in December 1975, so he never got a chance to vote for Carter or Ford. I wondered if he changed his party affiliation in his later years. I doubt that my strong, obstinate Daddy ever strayed from the Republican rolls, even though the Republican values strayed away from him.

I can honestly say that I have no idea who my father would have voted for in the most recent presidential election. He might have been enamored of the Republican candidate’s promise to bring coalmines back, or he might have seen through the empty rhetoric. He might have been disgusted at the ways of a noted philanderer or he might have overlooked them, having made a few indiscretions in his own marriage. He might have agreed with the ideas of the Democratic candidate, but his misogynist beliefs might have deterred him from voting for a woman Commander-in-Chief.

But I’m proud that my parents were active in their community. Besides his Election Day activities, Daddy was also a volunteer fireman and auxiliary policeman. In her church, Momma had been a Worthy Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star. Even though I registered as a Democrat, I wouldn’t have become an involved, aware, and civic-minded person without the guidance, love, and support of two Republicans.


Beatrice Means Making Happy

Momma and Me ColorMy mother died on July 19, 1970. A longer version of this letter was published in Celebrations: Notes to My Mother in 2003.

Dear Momma,

We only had thirteen years together, but those precious years made me the woman that I am today. Your kindness, your humor, your pride, and your love are your lasting legacy. Thanks to you, I can declare to the world that I was “raised right.”

You adopted me when I was a baby, bringing me from North Carolina to your home in Pennsylvania. After years of being president of the Hallie Q. Brown Club and the Worthy Matron of the Eastern Stars, you were ready to be a mother. You brought me home on the train, a tiny five-pound baby who was “no bigger than a bread box,” as you liked to say. You brought me home to Lawrence, a small town where Daddy worked in the Montour 4 coal mine.

I always loved to hear your voice. Your studied, clipped speech was sometimes punctuated with a glimpse of that western North Carolina drawl that you tried to hide. You were very concerned with speech, always correcting Daddy and me when we said “ain’t” or mumbled. Proper English was very important to you.

And you loved to talk. You were always telling me stories about your life as a little girl in Lenoir. I wish that I could remember more of your stories, those tales that you told me each night at bedtime. Your grandparents, the Rev, Isaac Harper and his wife Amanda, raised you. Isaac had been a preacher during slavery and preached under a barrel to muffle the sound so that the masters never heard.

I learned that your mother, Rose, died during your birth. You never really knew your father, a Catholic mulatto, but you admired his Catholic faith. You grew up with your big sister Joyce and your beloved brother Frank and your youthful aunts and uncles But you were always the different one, the lighter one, the one who took Rose away from the family. Your stories of how you survived inspired me when I faced my own childhood ridicule.

I was laughed at for being funny looking, for being adopted, for being the only black Catholic in town. Other black kids said that I was trying to be white when I got good grades. White kids couldn’t understand why I didn’t do well in sports like the other black kids. There was nowhere that I could fit in. But once I was home, everything was fine. I knew that you would praise my grades, give me a big hug and kiss, and tell me that I was just fine the way that I was. You told me that I was special, that you knew when you adopted me as a baby that I would be special. Then you would tickle me until I couldn’t help but smile again.

Even though you only had a fourth grade education, you encouraged me to read and learn about the world. You convinced Daddy to let me subscribe to Highlights, My Weekly Reader, and the Happy Hollister Book Club. I collected books on geography, science and history, and I shared each page with you. You and Daddy attended every open house and school event, and sometimes you were the only black parents in attendance. Your smiling faces showed the world that you loved me.

You had a magic way with plants and flowers, and neighbors marveled at your talent for bringing them back to life. A walk through the woods or a visit to a friend’s house always ended with a new seedling or plant. Our house was filled with growing things, plants that flourished with your love and care. I knew that I was just like those plants, lucky to be nourished by your love and affection.

After your beloved brother died in 1968, you were never the same. A small stroke and dementia took away most of your memories, and sometimes you couldn’t even remember me. In 1969, you and Daddy celebrated fifty years of life together and we made our last family trip to North Carolina. Somewhere between Greensboro and Lenoir, I got my first period. Thankfully, you were lucid and we were able to share this final rite of passage together.

In July 1970, you went to the hospital and lapsed into a coma. On the morning of July 19, at the start of a bright, sunny summer day, Daddy and I came to the hospital to say goodbye. That morning was the first and last time that I ever saw Daddy cry. His body shook with great, heaving sobs that frightened me. I realized how much he had loved you.

You used to say, “When I die, I want to be covered in flowers.” Your coffin was covered in blossoms and your friends and family crowded the funeral home. No one had a bad word to say about Miss Bea.

I know that you are still with me, Momma. I have made many mistakes in my life, but I know that in spite of everything, I have your love in my heart. I know that you are watching over me, giving me the strength to go on.

The name “Beatrice” means “making happy.” You have made me happy all of my life. I’m glad that you picked me to be your daughter.

Your daughter,

Little Bee

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