The title of this post is inspired by one of my favorite books, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It tells the story of the Great Migration, the period between 1916 and 1970 when black Americans left the South in droves in search of better opportunities in cities north and west. It’s a beautifully written book, and each of the lives she chronicled were courageous and extraordinary.
Like most black Americans with Southern roots, my relatives were among those who left their rural homes to forge new lives in the big city. On my mom’s side of the family, one of my great-grandfather’s sisters, Francis, left southwest Georgia as a teenage newlywed and by 1920 ended up in the Bronzeville section of Chicago, but not before living in Birmingham, Ala. for a few years.
On my dad’s side, several of my grandfather’s first cousins left Alabama for the Midwest– specifically Michigan and Ohio. In fact, five of Henrietta Nance Clark’s nine children left Alabama, and one of them, Namon Clarke (1919-2000) was a trailblazer in Detroit. (Henrietta Nance Clark was one of my great-grandfather’s older sisters; her children were my grandfather’s first cousins.)
Namon Clarke left Ozark as a teenager and spent time in Washington, D.C., Boston and New York City before settling down in Detroit after serving in World War II. He was working in hospitality services at an athletic club frequented by a Mr. Weber, who was on the board of directors of Hudson’s Department Store, Detroit’s largest department store. At the time, the store’s only black employees were the black women who operated the elevators. Namon Clarke was made supervisor of the department in 1949, becoming the store’s first black supervisor. By the 1960s, he had helped to integrate the women into the sales department. Here’s a video of him talking about his experiences:
Here’s what happened to Namon’s other siblings
- Mary Lou Clark Taylor (b. 1919)– Namon’s twin, Mary Lou moved to Detroit at age 19, right after graduating from high school in Alabama. She owned and operated a barbershop for 30 years and still lives in Detroit.
- Arvel Clark McKinnon (1907-2005)– Arvel lived in Dayton, Ohio, owned a beauty shop and did women’s hair. She moved back to Ozark when she was in her 70s.
- Paul Clarke (1912-before 2003 ) Paul spent time in Miami, and was working at the Sea Isle Hotel when he registered for the World War II draft in 1942.
- Johnnie Clark Merritt (1910–2000)– Johnnie lived in Ozark and worked for many years in the cafeteria at D.A. Smith High School. Some of the men who helped build Fort Rucker were boarders in her home.
- Henry N. Clark (1915-1963)– lived in Ozark
- Catherine Clark Larkins (1914-2003)–lived in Cincinnati and eventually moved back to Alabama. She was known for her homemade rolls and pound cake
- Noah V. Clark (1922-2000)– lived in Dothan, but also New Orleans and California.
- Abraham B. Clark (1924-2010)– lived in Union Springs, but also pastored churches in Indiana and Kentucky. Rev. Clark was responsible for bringing Head Start to Bullock County, Ala. and also served on the Bullock County Board of Education in the 1970s.
UNION SPRINGS, Ala. — Summer 1964 was a busy time in the home of Y.C. and Ruth Nance, my paternal grandparents. Their only daughter, Sue, had just graduated from Alabama A&M and their oldest son, Tyrone, freshly graduated from Carver High School, was preparing to enter Florida A&M University to become a member of the Marching 100. Their youngest son, Roscoe, had just finished his freshman year at Carver, and was looking forward to a fun summer with friends.
But it was also a summer of change. A few months earlier, a few black families had gotten together and decided to sue the Bullock County (Ala.) school system. (The lawsuit, Harris v. Bullock County Board of Education, is here). With the assistance of famed civil
rights attorney Fred Gray, James Ralph Harris, his brother George and Patricia Tarver would become Union Springs trailblazers. It was decided that this trio would integrate the white high school that fall.
“I wondered why they would want to go over there,” my dad recalled. “I didn’t think it was all that important at the time. All the people they knew and all their friends were over at Carver. . . We didn’t think about the significance of it and the big picture in terms of them getting access to better facilities.”
Scenes like this were happening all across Alabama, the result of Gray’s work. Gray, who had defended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks in the 1950s, had successfully represented Vivian Malone and James Hood when they integrated the University of Alabama. (Malone went to Alabama A&M with my Aunt Sue before she left for Alabama). By the mid-1960s Gray was concentrating on challenging the Jim Crow laws in Alabama’s public school systems. By the end of the decade, Gray’s efforts had resulted in more than 100 Alabama school systems desegregating.
My dad’s history and civics teacher, Mr. Ramon Harris, fully understood the gravity of the moment. He set up a news conference for my dad’s class and encouraged them to ask questions about what was going to take place.
That summer, rumors swirled that a group of white people were planning to bomb Carver High School. My grandfather, a highly respected Union Springs resident, was often sought after for guidance and advice, and this time was no different. Faced with the threat of potential violence, Union Springs’ black residents decided to mobilize. Every night, for about two or three weeks in August, my dad recalled, my grandfather and two of his friends got their shotguns and guarded the school. (Ironically, my grandfather was a teenager when his school, the Coffee County Training School in Enterprise, Ala., burned down. His parents– my great-grandparents J.E. and Mamie Gilley Nance sold the school board some of their land so the school could be rebuilt).
Fortunately, nothing came of the rumors and the Harris brothers and Pat Tarver enrolled in the school that fall without major incident, my dad said. A few more black students enrolled the following school year, and the Bullock County school system integrated by law in 1970. However, the three students who led the way didn’t really talk about their experiences, at least not until years later.
“It was not a good experience,” he said.
It was almost 100 years ago to the date that Pvt. Marlin Nance boarded the USS Suwannee from a port in St. Nazaire, France and headed home to his native Alabama. It was July 1919, and the Treaty of Versailles had been signed just one month earlier, formally ending World War I. Marlin Nance had spent the past year overseas defending the United States a year at war, one of 350,000 black troops who served during World War I. But whatever he saw, whatever he felt, remained cloaked in silence. He never discussed his service, and dodged questions about it, according to his widow, Ethel Gardner Nance Butler (1915-2014).
Marlin Nance was one of my great-grandfather’s younger brothers, and one of two of his brothers who served in World War I. The other brother was Mackie Nance. George Nance and Oliver “Bud” Nance registered for the draft, but claimed exemption. My great-grandafther J.E. Nance, apparently, didn’t register for the draft, and the youngest brother, Daniel, was just 12 years old.
Neither Mackie nor Marlin talked about the war, but their service
records have helped uncover bits of this chapter of their lives. Marlin Nance was 21 when he registered for the draft, and listed his older sister Lovie Nance Britt as his next of kin. A part of the 528th Company, he served in a support role, though it’s unclear exactly what the regiment was responsible for doing. On July 9, 1918, they departed from Hoboken, N.J. on the USS Mount Vernon, bound for France.
Uncle Mackie’s service is a little less clear. He was 18 when he registered for the draft, and working on his father’s farm in Coffee County, Ala. After training at Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Ala., Mackie Nance departed on the USS Logan, though the record didn’t indicate the departure location nor the ship’s destination.
Both Marlin and Mackie returned to Alabama after the war, though Mackie lived in Ohio for a while. Uncle Marlin died in 1943 and Uncle Mackie died in 1969.
Death certificates have proven to be valuable sources of information for me in my research, especially when it comes to figuring out the maiden names of my female ancestors. Based on information from a death certificate, I recently discovered one more set of my fourth great-grandparents.
I was trying to find out more information about the Brown relatives on the paternal side of my family when I happened upon a death certificate for Harriet Brown, my third-great-grandmother. (Harriet married Edmond Brown, and they had five children, including a daughter named Flora. Flora went on to marry a man named Frank Gilley (formerly Frank Tindall) and their only daughter, Mamie, is my great-grandmother. She was married to J.E. Nance.)
According to the certificate, Harriet’s parents were William Watt and P. Watt. And that’s it. That’s all the document contained.
This is where the sleuthing begins. According the 1880 U.S. Census, Harriet Brown’s parents were both born in North Carolina. Harriet, however, was born in Alabama. Those few clues are what I’ll use to start fleshing out this new generation of ancestors I’ve found.
Ancestry.com has several yearbooks uploaded to its site, and I stumbled upon the 1966 yearbook of Coppinville High School, which is located in Enterprise, Ala. Coppinville is also the community where the Nances have lived for more than 150 years, and this page from the yearbook, a dedication to my great-grandmother Mamie Gilley Nance (1892-1959) explains part of Nance legacy in Coppinville.
One of the branches that had grown cold was that of Dovie Nance Ardis, one of my great-grandfather’s younger sisters. I knew her birthdate (Jan. 7, 1902), that she married and had three children and lived in Dale County, Ala. Up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t even have a death date for her.
Last year, by happenstance, I found the gravesite of one of her sons, Obie. Then a few weeks ago, I came across an obituary for her daughter, Lola Bell Ardis Alexander (1923-2012). I started reading it and discovered information that truly intrigued me:
- I have a host of relatives in Salt Lake City
- Dovie Nance Ardis later became Dovie McKissick and spent her final days in Iowa. Waterloo, Iowa to be exact.
Iowa was one of the absolute last places that I expected the branches of my family tree to touch. I knew that several of my relatives left Alabama for Midwestern states, but to my knowledge it was Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio. Iowa was never mentioned. (Apparently Waterloo, Iowa became a destination for black railroad workers after white employees went on strike in the the early 1900s. The Illinois Central Railroad recruited black men from Southern states as strikebreakers. )
I did some more digging and this is what I was able to put together:
By the 1950s, the newly named Dovie McKissick was living in Dothan, Ala., with her husband, Charlie. According to city directories, the McKissicks lived in Dothan until Charlie’s death in 1963, which ruled out my theory that Dovie had followed her husband to Iowa. Nevertheless, sometime between 1963 and 1972, Dovie moved to Waterloo, Iowa.
Then I thought maybe she followed her daughter Lola there. According to the obituary, Lola Bell Alexander had been a “longtime resident” of Waterloo, Iowa. She and her husband had moved there from Minnesota, but it’s not clear when.
Right now, I’m researching what I can about Dovie and Lola’s spouses– Charlie McKissick and Peter Alexander– to see what else I can find out about the paths their lives took, and how and why they ended up in Iowa.
I got my AncestryDNA results back this week, expecting they would validate what I’ve known: I’m overwhelmingly, undeniably, irrefutably black with some Native American. And that’s pretty much what it showed.
But then I saw another result, and I was literally taken aback:
It was just 1 percent, but enough to show up, and something I was not expecting at all. I had– naively and now I’m finding out, incorrectly– assumed that I didn’t have any white forbears.
I was chatting with a friend about it who wasn’t surprised at all.
“Makes sense to me,” she said. “Alabama has a lot of Scotch-Irish.”
So I looked into it. She was right. Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee– the states where my family is from– have high populations and percentages of people with Scotch-Irish ancestry.
I really don’t know how to begin researching this. But in an effort to shed light into this discovery, I took an inventory of all the surnames in my family tree I’ve been able to find, and looked up the origins:
Brown– English, Scottish and Irish
Barnes– English and Irish
Pinkard– (I’m not really sure… one search said German, another said French, another said English, and yet another said Scottish…)
Hamilton: Scottish and Irish
Going by surnames alone, things seem to add up. But there are a lot of theories and what-ifs to consider. There might not be a document I can connect this to. I also don’t have pictures of anyone in my family who was born before 1865. (On my mom’s side, I only have a few pictures of my grandparents, but no one earlier than that).
It’s all very interesting, but I’m really not quite sure what to do with it.
A few years ago, I discovered that Frances Pinkard Johnson (c.1874-1924), one of my great-grandfather’s older sisters, was among the first of my ancestors to leave the South for a better opportunity. I did some more digging and began to piece together more details of her story. Her path to Chicago wasn’t a direct one– in fact, she made a stop in Birmingham.
Frances Pinkard, the daughter of Ike and Narcis Pinkard, married her husband, Ben Johnson, at age 15. By age 23, she was a mother. The year was 1900 and Frances, her husband and their six-year-old daughter Corine were living in Chattahoochee County, Georgia. From there, the family moved to Birmingham, Ala., and in 1910, Ben was working as a railroad laborer and Frances was a laundress. The family lived in Birmingham’s Ensley neighborhood– this is important to note because of Ensley’s background. (Interestingly enough, I used to live in Birmingham, and I know exactly where this is).
Now a part of the city of Birmimgham, Ensley was one of the Birmingham-area towns owned by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, a major steel producer. The company built communities of homes for its employees, and while I don’t know if the Johnsons lived in one of these homes, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Ben Johnson also likely worked on the Birmingham Southern railroad, which was owned by Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad. (According to the railroad’s Wikipedia page, it underwent an expansion in 1910, the year the Johnsons appear in the Census).
By 1920, the Johnsons, like many other black families from the South, are living in Chicago. They’ve made it to Bronzeville, a section on the city’s South Side often called the Black Metropolis. (This piece does a good job of explaining its vibrancy). Their home on 36th Street is a far cry from Birmingham, and a world away from their rural Georgia beginnings.
The Johnsons were part of the Great Migration, the shift of millions of black Americans out of the Deep South to points north, east and west that happened between 1916 and 1970. A scan of their neighbors in Chicago shows they were surrounded by others who had made similar trips from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. They’ve found work as laborers in stock yards and foundries, and as porters and cooks, too.
Frances Pinkard Johnson died in 1924. I’m not sure what became of Ben, but Corrine remained in Chicago and after completing a year of high school, she eventually found work as a laundress. She married Samuel Greene, a stock yard laborer from Mississippi, and they had two children, Samuel Jr. and Birdie.