Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor --
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now --
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair. Mother to Son, Langston Hughes
I spent years searching for my grandmother, Carrie Carr Green. She was a mystery to me all my life. There aren't many people living who ever knew her, so the stories I’ve heard have been few and wispy thin, like some old tattered lace, not enough to wrap around and warm me like grandmothers should. Carrie's younger sister, Annie Melia Carr Winfield, talked about her when I was young. She reminisced about Carrie's long black hair, and how she loved to brush it for her. Despite my efforts, scraps of information here and there and a precious few documents were all I'd ever found.
My grandmother was born in the Ebenezer Township in Florence County, South Carolina in 1907. Ebenezer was as small and rural as it sounds. She is listed in the 1910 Census as a three year old, the fifth of six living children of Cal and Annie Carr. Her mother, Annie, about 31 at this point, had given birth to 3 other children, but non-existent prenatal care and a poor standard of living spelled an early death for too many babies. Carrie was one of the survivors. By 1920 she was a schoolgirl who, unlike her mother, could read and write. But she would not have the opportunity to stay in school long.
She became a domestic in the household of William Brooks Tyson as a young teen. At 16, she married 24-year-old Robert Green at the Florence County Courthouse. In 1925, Carrie and Robert welcomed Susannah, the first of eight children. Carrie was 18 years old. Mattie and Fannie followed quickly, but Fannie didn’t survive. Robert, Jr., their first son (known as Brother and later, as my father), was born in 1929. They lived in an area called Peaceful Valley.
Willie, Carrie Lee and John Edward followed over the next five years. Carrie continued to maintain the Tyson household, while everyone else old enough to work farmed for the same family. There was never quite enough money for anything but the basics. The older children enjoyed going to school during the colder months. There they played with friends and swapped stories of moving to big cities as soon as they were old enough. But when the weather turned, they and many of their friends dropped out to help their families with farming. Every able body had to earn his keep.
In 1935, Carrie got pregnant with her eighth child. Unfortunately, she also contracted tuberculosis, commonly known as consumption. Consumption was a highly contagious, frequently fatal disease that could impact any organ, but typically ravaged the lungs. Antibiotics were a couple of decades away. Isolated, breezy landscapes, particularly mountains, beachfronts and pine groves, were considered effective treatment to soothe patients and prevent the spread of the disease. Carrie’s long-time employer, Mr. Tyson, valued Carrie and her hard-working children. He built the Green family a little home in a pine grove on the edge of his property. It was a welcome structure, but there were no amenities. There was no indoor plumbing and no electricity; they were in the dark 12 to 15 hours a day. No one visited because, in addition to a reasonable fear of the consumption, the road was too narrow for a wagon to pass through.
It was there in the piney grove home that Carrie gave birth to Edna, her last child, in 1936. Tuberculosis took its toll on Edna in utero, and she lived less than two weeks. Weak, depressed and very sick, Carrie was removed from her home on a hot August morning, and taken to the segregated, separate and decidedly unequal Negro quarters of the Florence-Darlington Tuberculosis Sanatorium. Carrie’s mother, Annie Swinton Carr, helped her son-in-law, Robert, with her six grandchildren. But she, too, grew weak, possibly from consumption as well, and passed away a few months after Carrie entered the TB camp. Robert was overwhelmed; his parents, Warren and Susanna Capers Green, moved into the home to help.
Carrie’s salary had to be replaced. Robert, Sr. was frequently off spending his money and seeking solace elsewhere, but the younger children still had to be fed and clothed. Grandpa Warren's salary was not enough and Robert, Jr. was strong for a seven year old, so he began laboring on the Tyson Farm, too. My father’s younger brother and sister, Willie and Carrie Lee, remember the Sanatorium bringing their mother by car to visit a few times, but he was working and always missed her. On the first couple of home visits, Carrie was strong enough to get out and hug her children, and talk with them for a spell. The older children got to see her every other week, as they were required to get TB check-ups at the Sanatorium after school. Though none of them contracted TB, Carrie's health was not improving. The last time the Camp brought Carrie home for a visit, she was so too weak to get out of the car. She and the children peered sadly at each other through the car window.
Carrie died so young, at 31, on the morning of May 12, 1938, leaving a husband and six young children behind. She was predeceased by her two baby girls, Fannie and Edna. Carrie spent her last two years in the Florence-Darlington Tuberculosis Sanatorium suffering, in my mind, as much from heartbreak, fear and utter loneliness as from the disease. The eldest three children were allowed to join the adults at her funeral at Savannah Grove Baptist Church, and she was buried in an unmarked grave in the church cemetery.
Carrie appears in the 1910, 1920 and 1930 Federal Censuses. There is a fleeting notice, a line in a court ledger attesting her marriage to Robert Green, Sr. That was all. No obituary. No newspaper clippings. No school records. None of the things that fill and shade and color between and sometimes outside the lines. None of the things that inform a life. Her parents, siblings, spouse, and four of her eight children have passed. More than seventy-five years have passed since she died. We have never seen a picture of my grandmother. Nothing is left of the house in the piney woods except the crumbling chimney overrun with brush and vines. There was nothing else save those few, pitifully sad stories. Not even a death certificate, which I hunted for decades, to no avail.
Every once in awhile, Providence smiles. In November 2013, more than 65 years after my grandmother's death, I posted a lament in an internet genealogy group, African American Genealogy and Slave Ancestry Research, about my inability to find my grandmother’s death certificate. I’d been all over Florence County years before, and I’d put everything I knew about her into online searches, all to no avail. But Sonia Walker, a group member I’d never met, a sister who owed me no such kindness, took just three pieces of info, entered them into a search engine, found my Grandmother’s death certificate and sent me the link to it! Socks knocked off, I could not click through fast enough. When I finally laid eyes on that elusive document, I was paralyzed. I sat staring at the certificate on the screen. I touched the digital representation as if I could absorb her spirit from the story it told. I wept, which is rare for me. It meant so much; it broughtconfirmation and closure. My Grandmother had lived and learned and loved and birthed and died. Hopefully, though times were hard, she'd laughed. It all happened so quickly and much of it seemed fraught with pain. I pray her faith buoyed her with peace and joy, if not then, perhaps now as she looks at her legacy standing strong. I hope we make her happy and proud.
Originally published at http://legacythegift.blogspot.com/2013/12/no-crystal-stair.html?m=1
The photo in the heading depicts Carrie's six children. Front row: Carrie Lee, Mattie and Sue; back row: John Edward, Willie Warren and Robert.
Dedicated to Robert Green, Jr., my father and prime genealogy advocate.