Yesterday, I had the chance to celebrate my grandmother’s 95th birthday with my family. It was particularly sweet because the night before, we celebrated my daughter’s 8th birthday with a sleepover party. It’s not often that we get all five generations of our family under one roof, especially on such a momentous occasion.
My grandmother, Louise Jones Walton (nee Coleman) was born on March 26, 1916 in Oklahoma. The child of sharecroppers, she loved to learn but was only able to get through the 8th grade as her responsibility to the family farm came before studies. She married one of her classmates, Nathaniel Jones and they had one child, my mom, Betty. But Nathaniel died of diabetes in the early 1940s. My grandmother remarried Alonzo Walton, a child of sharecroppers like her, and an army man like her first husband. Together, she and Alonzo traveled through Europe, settled in New Jersey and went back to school to get their GEDs when they were in their 60s. Grandma even went on to take some college courses. She also learned how to swim around that time, became a certified lifeguard, and taught children how to swim as well.
I am inspired by my grandmother’s energy, loving spirit and unending curiosity. So far this year, she’s traveled to San Francisco, Atlanta and New Jersey from her home in Arkansas to visit with family. When we said we wanted to have a party to celebrate this milestone birthday, she reminded me to make sure to invite my mother-in-law, Claire, who my grandmother has grown increasingly close to since they both became widows. She also continues to share her stories.
During the party, she told us her favorite, about the first time she met her paternal grandmother, Christene Coleman. Granny Louise was less than ten years old when her mother brought her to a tee-pee on the bank of a creek in Ada, Oklahoma. Inside, Grandma remembers seeing her grandmother with long braided hair and beaded moccasins on her feet. I am so grateful that my grandmother has always shared her stories and that my children have the experience of knowing their great-grandmother, Louise.
When I read the New York Times article last week about Michelle Obama’s ancestry, the fact that her family lore had suspected a white relative for years underscored the importance of gathering oral history. For blacks, the paper trail often runs cold since many slave births and deaths weren’t documented. Even my grandmother, born in 1910 never had a birth certificate. This was the case for many poor people (not just blacks) as well as those born in very rural areas around the turn of the century.
It’s easy for family history in general, but the history of African Americans in particular to die with our ancestors. That’s why I’m so grateful for all the story tellers in my life like my grandfather Martin Ford, and my grandmothers, Lillie Mae Ford and Louise Coleman Walton. When Martin and Lillie Mae were alive, they were generous with their stories of their lives in segregated Mississippi and Louisiana, and Louise at 93 continues to regale me with her tales of picking cotton and potatoes as a sharecropper, first in Oklahoma and then in California often with my mother, then just a baby in tow.
I’ve inherited my grandparents’ storytelling genes and for the next two weeks, I have the privilege of spending uninterrupted time spinning tales at a beautiful hilltop artist’s colony in Amherst Virginia. While I’m here at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I hope to work on a fictionalized version of my maternal grandparents’ adventures. (No one would believe the true stories). So, I’ll turn this story over to my fourth cousin, Monique and let her tell you how we found each other in our parallel quests for our family’s history.