Mama Rhody

4 January 2014

Rhoda REEVES LESLIE (1850-1954)

Rhoda REEVES LESLIE (1850-1954)

This is my great grandmother, Rhoda Reeves Leslie. Tall, copper colored and handsome, she is a woman whose dreams I shall never know.

If I could have ONE DAY with someone who’s gone, it would be a day with THIS woman — who must have been SO STRONG that slavery could not diminish her, the bearing of nine children could not weaken her, and memory could not erase her.

After her husband died in 1938, Rhoda came to live in Chicago at the behest of her two sons — my grandfather Robert and his brother Tommie Joe. At age 88, she left behind the small house on Ripley Street in Montgomery that defied the Confederate capitol a few blocks away and ventured to the “promised land” of the north.

When I was born in 1951, Mama Rhody was 101 years old. She had already lived a full century and my thoughts can only beg to imagine what her eyes might have seen. At three years old, all I remember is her impressive stature. At six feet tall, her commanding presence exuded power even as her silent ways exuded mystery and love.

Because I was a mere child, I never had the opportunity to really talk to her. I don’t know what abominations her eyes were vision to, what thoughts swirled in her mind, what memories she held what dreams to which she aspired. ‘

Knowing her is something I would sooooo like to do — especially because my family who knew her always said that I was her mirror. If I could meet Mama Rhody today, there are SO MANY impertinent questions I would ask!

My father (her grandson) told me she left slavery with her husband and mother from Lowndes County, Alabama.

One story, reported by my father, is that the white wife of Rhoda’s father, enraged at her husband’s bastard/slave child, threw baby Rhoda against a wall when she was about two years old. The assault threw her into into convulsions.

Who was the father? Who was his vicious wife? Where did it happen? What transpired after? 

She said she was “Indian” but nobody knows for sure if that is true. If she was, she would likely have been Choctaw.  

Did her mother travel on the “Trail of Tears”?

All I have to substantiate the Indian claim comes from my first cousin/sister Francine (another bastard child in a different generation) who lived with Mama Rhody when she was a little girl. She is totally convinced that Rhody’s claim was true, but all she remembers is that she saw her smoke cigars – lighted with great ceremony — and spit tobacco into a cup.

Does that an “Indian” make?

In my continuing quest to know, I have culled every memory I could from Rhoda’s surviving descendants:

Her children’s death certificates variously state that she was born in Louisiana, North Carolina or Tennessee. Her surname was alternately reported as Reeves, Jones and Tolliver.

First cousin/uncle Lonnie recalls her consuming a shot of whiskey and an aspirin every day. As a small boy, he was dispatched on a daily daily run to the general store to fetch her supplies.

My grandmother Dora (second wife of Rhody’s son, Robert) said Mama Rhody, characteristically quiet, was a force to be reckoned with. She recounted Rhoda standing up to her son’s abuse by telling him not to hurt Dora in the throes of a drunken, angry diatribe. 

It was not until I was an adult and became a serious genealogist that I made my pilgrimage to Lowndes County and Montgomery.

In Lowndes I found the most impoverished community in America, built atop the rich black dirt that made cotton king when Rhoda was in her prime.  The Black Panthers conducted their first voter registration drive here. When impassioned people marched from Selma to Montgomery, Lowndes County was where they pitched their tents and defied the local order. 

In Montgomery, I walked Ripley Street where Rhody’s demolished house once stood. In Oakwood Cemetery, the graveyard a few blocks distant, I thumbed through burial cards and found many relatives I did not know. Tom Leslie (Rhody’s husband/my great grandfather) and my father’s mother Julia Williams are buried in “Scott’s free burying ground” — a place reserved for po’ folks.

Ahhhhhhh, Mama Rhody…

Where did you come from? Who were your mother and father? Did you have brothers and sisters? What was slavery like? Is that baby name I found in Scott’s free burying ground your child? Who am I? Where do I belong?

These questions weigh on my mind because whomever you were is a large part of who I am.

May God bless and keep you as I continue trying to unravel the mystery of your life.

Ashes to Ashes

3 June 2013

DSCF0182

As a genealogist, I tend to focus on researching/identifying ancestors who dwell in the deep, dark recesses of history — long before I was born. I attribute that inclination to a primeval calling to discover the earliest origins of who I am. As an African American, my ancestral roots lay in slavery; a research path shrouded in mystery.

But recently (probably in response to my mother’s birthday (May 28), I started thinking about contemporary ancestors = family members who lived and died within my own lifetime.

I am fortunate to not have experienced many deaths of immediate family members during the time in which I have lived (which is beginning to be a long time indeed). As I calculate the demise of my loved ones, I realize their deaths have been spaced over long periods of time. In my 60+ years, only seven really close family members have departed this world. (That number doesn’t include aunts, uncles and cousins, only the closest of close — the people who bore and raised me.) The result averages out to one loss per seven years, a period of time that should allow room for healing from profound grief that, no matter how many years pass, never goes away.

The first one to go was my paternal great grandmother; the woman who first inspired my interest in genealogy. Her name was Rhoda Reeves LESLIE (1850-1954). Born into slavery, she died at age of 104 when I was three years old. I can only remember seeing her but not talking to her. I knew nothing about her history until I was an adult and my father (after much resistance) finally told me some of her story, the essence of which propelled me on a genealogical journey that continues to this day.

Nine years later, in 1963, I lost my mother’s mother — Jeanette Waymoth NICHOLSON (1902-1963). Maw Maw dropped dead (at age 60) right before my 12 year old eyes. After drinking a refreshing glass of tap water from the sink in front of a kitchen window, she remarked “What a lovely day” and dropped to  the floor, dead of a massive heart attack. After my mother and aunt carried her to a nearby bed, we all heard her last gasp of breath, which made us think she was still with us. She was not.

A decade on (1973) my father’s father, Robert LESLIE (1893-1973) died at age 79. I never knew him well because my mother kept me away from my father’s people. Yet, when I attended Mr. Gentleman’s funeral, I cried inconsolably for the man I didn’t know, bruised to the core because I wasn’t even mentioned in his obituary with his other grandchildren.

The next year (1974), my mother’s father, Louis Bell NICHOLSON (1895-1974) died of old age at age 80. His heart just STOPPED. The rock of my existence, I remember changing Paw Paw’s diapers before the task became so overwhelming that my mother was forced to admit him to a nursing home.

In 1983 (nine years later), my father’s step (hate that word) grandmother, Mama Dora (Antonia Dora FEDERICO, 1902-1983) passed away at age 80. I refused to visit her in hospital for weeks because I knew she was waiting for me in order to be released. Once I overcame my fear, went to the hospital, held her hand and whispered “I love you” into her ear, she passed away peacefully. I shall forever regret my callous selfishness in not wanting to live in world without her. 

Traumatized by the loss of my most beloved, I eschewed attending funerals. I could not bear the pain of loss — either my own family members or those of friends. At every funeral invitation, my mind turned to how I had to be restrained from throwing myself into my grandfather’s grave and carried from the funeral service to my grandmother’s home, where I slept in her bed, crying in agony for days.

Eighteen years beyond that vow, my father died in 2001 (age 87); my mother in 2005 (age 76). When my father passed, I was living in Paris. Friends potted up the money to buy me a ticket home so I (his only child) could attend to his last rites (which I heralded with a display of Easter lilies). I returned home from Paris in 2003 and had the good fortune of spending the last two years of my mother’s life with her living in my home — a place I organized for the specific purpose of caring for her.

Where does all of this history lead me?

I have concluded that I don’t want to remember people in death… I prefer to recall them in LIFE…. AND I have no doubt whatsoever that their spirits continue to exist in another realm where they await me with open arms. 

My mother’s ashes are preserved in an urn that I keep on a bookshelf. My father is on another shelf — just above hers. (She told me before she died that they couldn’t be on the same shelf unless I wanted to find ashes spewed all over the floor :)

When I recently introduced my two young grandchildren to their great grandparents, they marvelled at the idea of the temporal body v. the everlasting life of the spirit.

I have no idea when my time will come, but I know it won’t be that much longer before it does. My only prayer is that someone will remember my name.

Mama Dora

4 March 2012

Dora & Robert LESLIE

I spent most of my day yesterday watching the 40th anniversary marathon of The Godfather saga on television. It is one of my all-time favorite films that has not lost one iota of relevance in the passage of time. As I watched, I could not help but think about my family history and the fascination with gangsters I share with so many others.

My interest in mafia movies (and other things Italian) is inspired by my beloved grandmother — Antonia Dora FEDERICHO. She is but one of the people in my family tree with connections to Italy, not merely as a birthplace but because of their service to Al Capone.

One relative (Joe JENNINGS) worked at Capone’s Marion Hotel in Chicago and was friendly with “the boss,” who once rewarded him with the promise of a Vicuna coat from his personal wardrobe. The police, on a hunt for Big Al, found the coat (sans Capone) with Joe’s name and address in the pocket. They arrested Joe and interrogated him about Capone’s whereabouts. A police captain came to Joe’s aid and authorized his release. Another relative (Robert GAVIN) took a kidnapping rap for Capone, a magnanimous (?) act that resulted in 16 years of incarceration at Pontiac State Prison in Illinois.

Then, there were my grandparents.

In 1922, when my grandfather (Robert LESLIE) married Antonia Dora FEDERICHO, he married into a family with connections. Dora’s mother (Filomena MAGLIONICA FEDERICHO) came from the same village in Italy as Capone’s mother Teresina and they were lifelong friends. Filomena owned a grocery store on Chicago’s Southside. Her husband (Antonio FEDERICHO) operated ice trucks, which their oldest son (John) drove. During Prohibition, these “hooch friendly” business enterprises had ties to the Capone organization. Dora and Bob sold hooch (which Dora attributed as the cause of my grandfather’s alcoholism and the associated violence that led to their divorce).

When Bob and Dora married, the 20 year old Dora was fresh from a stint in the House of the Good Shephard, a Catholic industrial school for girls. She soon adopted my seven year old father and his two brothers, who had been orphaned when their biological mother died in 1921. Dora was the only mother they ever knew. My middle name is an honorific to her, I spent my childhood summers in her care and, when she died in 1983, I locked myself in her bedroom for days, crying my eyes out.

My father told me that, when Dora’s family first met Bob, they thought he was a “dark Dago.” They were no doubt surprised when Bob’s darker skinned children arrived in Chicago, however, the LESLIE boys were accepted and grew up into the family business. I never met any of Dora’s relatives until her funeral, but was pleased to learn that they knew about me and how special I was to her.

There is whole lot more I could say about Dora, but I will let her rest. The intriguing historical angle is that my genealogical research into her family led me to some truly unexpected information about the history of Italians in America. Italians were never slaves, but suffered extreme prejudice and violence at the hands of white Anglo Saxon Protestants. They were restricted to low-income, low-class jobs and attacked for their Catholicism by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1891, eleven Italians were lynched in New Orleans in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history. Five shopkeepers were lynched in 1899 for giving equal status to black customers in Tallulah, Louisiana. During World War II, Italians thought to be loyal to Italy were incarcerated in internment camps, just like the Japanese.

When Dora’s father immigrated to the United States in 1878, his greatest wish was to become an American. That dream was accomplished in 1897, when he filed his petition for citizenship at Mount Vernon, New York. Like Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Antonio worked his way up from being a stone cutter in New York to being a businessman in Chicago. He died of unknown causes in 1914.

Now that I have connected with Dora’s ancestral spirits, I wonder if I can consider myself a “made” woman?!!

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