Bearing Witness, Migration

A Tale of 2 Grandmothers (Part 1 – Mary)

My maternal grandmother, Mary. My uncle carried this picture with him every day in his wallet.

Neither of my grandmothers are alive, yet I carry them with me in my heart wherever I go. One I grew up with and was very close to, while the other I just saw a picture of for the first time within the last 5 years (my paternal grandmother passed away long before I was born). My parents, as different as they both may be, are very similar in the way that they adored their mothers, an adoration and love that I have adopted.

I research my family’s history with both grandmothers in mind. As I pore through census records and other documents, I wonder about their experiences migrating from their hometowns of Upper Marlboro, Maryland and Saluda, Virginia to Baltimore City. One came to Baltimore as a young adult to stay with her cousin, while the other came as a child with her entire family.

Because their stories became too long to fit into one post, I broke them down into two. This first post is about my maternal grandmother, Mary, who I grew up with, and Part 2 will feature my paternal grandmother, Edna, and I will post it in days to come.


My uncle (who is deceased) carried with him in his wallet a picture of his mother, my grandmother, Mary. As we were collecting pictures to celebrate the life of his son, one of my uncle’s daughters pulled out this picture of our grandmother and said, “Here’s the picture of Grandmother that my father carried with him in his wallet every day.” First, I was struck by my uncle’s sincere love for his mother, which was undeniable in the way that he took care of her. Then, I was struck by the youthful look in my grandmother’s face; this is, indeed, the youngest image of her that I have ever seen.

This picture is special because, to our estimate, it must have been taken within her first years of living in the city. We guess that she must have been in her early 20s. I often wonder what it must have been like for her to have left her family in Upper Marlboro to move to Baltimore to live with her cousin, Margaret, and Margaret’s mother. The two cousins remained close for the rest of their lives.

Still, I wonder what my grandmother was leaving when she left home and what did this country girl run into in the big city? Although she is not here for me to ask these questions, my grandmother did leave us with some thoughts on what her life may have been like before her move to Baltimore.

Well, this is what I know from my research: By census record account, my grandmother’s mother, Effie, had given birth about 14 times, though some did not survive to be adolescents. She had at least 3 sets of multiples, but it is difficult to determine how many for sure. My grandmother said that she, too, was born a twin, but her twin died at birth. My grandmother often remarked on how many children her mother had and kept having, and as one of the oldest girls, she was responsible for taking care of them. We all got the feeling that she wanted to get away from the responsibility of taking care of her siblings and that moving away from home was a relief for her.

There are also a number of accounts of how mean Effie was. There are many stories of Effie’s abrasiveness, in which she spoke terribly to people, and my grandmother in particular. One story my mother recounts is of Effie visiting my grandmother and how she made a horrible comment about one of my uncles. Effie died before my mother was born, but the mentioning of her name alone to my mother, seems to invoke my grandmother’s pain.

In addition to what must have felt like an oppressive home-life with Effie, there are other narratives of my grandmother’s experiences before moving to Baltimore. One story in particular that I heard numerous times is regarding my grandmother’s own experiences with racism and sexual assault in the home she worked as a domestic servant.

My grandmother worked as a domestic for a well-to-do and well known white family in the area. One day, while she was in their home alone, the fiancee of the family’s daughter came to visit. Upon noticing that my grandmother was home alone, he sexually assaulted her. My grandmother fought him off by stabbing him in the hand with her sewing shears. I am not certain all that happened next, but the family found out and she was fired from her place of employment despite the fact that they believed her story. That irony never escaped her, especially when he never did marry their daughter. I cannot imagine how terrifying this experience was for her.

I have heard these stories on a number of occasions, first from my grandmother and now my mother who still tells them to this day. My mother has remembered her mother’s stories to such a degree that they have become intwined with her own. And now I do my best to remember them.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons my grandmother left her family for the big city, it is fair to explore the circumstances in which she was living and to consider them as possible reasons for her migration to Baltimore.