Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sentimental Sunday - The Stuff I'm Made Of

I've been going through some ups and downs with my research of late, and regarding my maternal side, it's mostly been downs.  As is common for most researchers from time to time, I've found myself being rather, um.... quiet.  I think we all set out thinking (or at least, hoping) that we will discover the strengths of our ancestors, and perhaps uncover some of the positive contributions they made to society, but, that is not always going to be the case. 

When I first began my research 13 years ago, I did so in an attempt to discover who I am.  I didn't know anything at all about my ancestors, beyond my maternal and paternal grandmothers, both of whom I personally knew.  I didn't grow up hearing family stories.  As a matter of fact, I really didn't have any sense of there being a "history" of my family.  My maternal grandmother, Mary (Davis) Thomas, lived just 30 minutes away from us, in Norfolk, VA, but it was my paternal grandmother in Louisburg, NC, Anna (Green) Yarborough, with whom I was closest.  Both of these women were constants in my life, and my grandma Thomas even ended up living with us during  my last couple of years of high school.  Therefore, despite the fact that I knew little to nothing of my grandmothers' past, or of the ancestors who preceded them, they were both a part of the fabric of my life.

So today, on Sentimental Sunday I dedicate my post to my grandmothers, the women who raised my parents, and who each had a significant impact on my development into the person I am today.  And not only that, but when I look in the mirror, I see them both in my reflection - the body of one, and the face of the other.  As I've learned more about their lives, and the hardships they each faced, I beam with pride as I recognize what it had to take for each of them to have managed and sustained their households in the loss of their husbands and in the face of repeated financial blows and/or significant family stressors that would have brought many others down.  But, both of my grandmothers stood tall in the face of adversity and beat the odds of their time.  As single parents, they raised successful children and both managed to keep their homes, which are still in our family today.  Through hard work and faith in God, Mary Thomas and Anna Yarborough lived well, and left a legacy of self-sufficiency, perserverance, and good will towards others.  Many times I've been complimented on the way I've raised my children and managed to rise above the many hard times I've been faced with in my adult life, and I'm often asked the question, "How do you do it?"  Well, now I know, and I have the perfect answer:  "It's the 'stuff' I'm made of!"

Anna Green Yarborough

Anna Beatrice Green was born on January 18, 1891 to parents John Wesley and Susan Dunstan Green.  She was the daughter of Nathaniel Hawkins and Anna B. Green (who she was named for). Anna was born in Rolesville (Wake County), NC, but the family soon moved a few miles north to Louisburg, in Franklin County, but returned to Wake County when Anna was in her teens.  Little is known about Anna's early life, but in 1919, she married Calvin R Yarborough, Jr., a widower with three children.  Anna moved to into the Franklin County home that was built by her new husband and his brother, and became mother to Vida, Priscilla, and Frederick Yarborough.  Over the next five years, she gave birth to her own three children, Susie, Calvin III, and Arthur (my father).  Unfortunately, Calvin began to suffer with the symptoms of tuberculosis, the cause of his first wife's death.  He fell ill, and passed away in 1929, leaving Anna to raise six children alone.  Anna, who was, at the time, involved in the creation of a new church in Louisburg (Mt. Hebron United Holy Church) relied on her faith and worked hard keep the taxes paid on the house that her husband had built, and to keep her children fed, clothed, and educated.  She worked as a laundress, as well as for private families as a housekeeper and nanny.  She also took in sewing, all the while maintaining a leadership role in the church she'd helped to create. She had a sweet disposition and was known throughout the little town of Louisburg as, "Miss Anna".  Anna walked several miles each day to and from her jobs on the "white side" of town.  She never did learn to drive.
As Anna grew older, her three biological children helped to support her so that she no longer had to work.  (The older three died of various causes in their 30's and 40's.)  Her greatest joy was in spending time with her four grandchildren, all the children of her youngest son, Arthur.  She was an excellent cook, and was known for the wonderful cakes she baked.  She took pride in her house and her yard, and gave special care and attention to her "award-winning" rose bushes in her front yard.  She loved to sit out on her in her porch in her brown, wooden rocking chair and wave at all of the passers by, many of whom would stop for a chat.
In February, 1977, when I was 15 years old, my grandmother, Anna Yarborough, died of complications from colon cancer.  She is buried in the family plot on "the hill", which is the Louisburg City Cemetery (formerly, "for the Colored").

Mary Davis Thomas

Mary Davis was born December 26, 1897 in Littleton (Halifax County), NC to parents Walter and Minerva Brown Davis.  According to the 1900 Census, Mary had a brother, one year older, named Samuel, and in 1910, the Census states that her mother had actually born three children, but only one (Mary) was living.  It is likely that Mary never knew or remembered her two siblings, because she never mentioned them to my mother, or to either of her other two children.  Mary's maternal ancestors were her grandparents, Asa and Luvenia Ross Brown, and great-grandparents, Everett and Minerva Ross.  Her paternal grandparents were Lewis and Dollie Davis.  Mary's large extended family all lived in the Littleton and Roanoke Rapids areas of North Carolina.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, several members of the Davis family migrated to Norfolk, Virginia, seemingly to work as longshoremen.  Walter, Minerva and Mary were part of this migration.  By 1910, they, as well as several of their family members are living in the Lambert's Point section of Norfolk.  In 1915, a young Mary was wed to her first love, Allen Walker, at the St. Marks AZUA Church in Norfolk.  Allen worked as a brakeman on the Virginia Railroad.  He and Mary were quite in love and lived happily, sharing a home with her parents until his untimely death, which occured sometime early in their marriage. 
Mary, though heartbroken, had to go on with her life.  At some point, she began doing hair in the porch room of the home that she'd shared with Allen, and she petitioned the owner for it's purchase.  In 1924, the house in Lambert's Point was hers, and it is still in our family today.  Sometime later, Mary met Daniel Webster Hill, and they were married in 1929 in Philadelphia, PA, and in 1930, Daniel, had joined Mary and her parents in the home.  Mary began her family with Daniel; first giving birth to a son, Howell, and then, in 1934, to a daughter (my mother), Mary Anne.  In 1936, Mary's father, Walter, died, but she still had her mother, Minerva there to help her with the house and the chldren. Unfortunately, sometime around 1938, Daniel Hill abandoned his family for reasons unknown, and was never heard from again.
Once again, Mary was left on her own, but this time, with two children. Mary was able to carry on with her very successful hair-care business.  True love struck again, and she married Charlie Thomas, a railroad worker with whom she fell deeply in love.  Mary gave birth to her youngest daughter, Jane, in 1940.  Charlie was a loving and caring provider to his wife, daughter, and step-children.  It seemed that the family had finally found joy, but tragedy struck again, as Charlie was killed in a railroad accident, leaving Mary a widow, once again. 
Understandably, Mary lived the rest of her life without a spouse.  She continued to do hair, and also worked as a secretary and receptionist at the local YWCA.  Her mother, Minerva, who was her partner in raising the children, died in 1960, after they were all grown and gone.  Mary carried on, living alone in the home that she'd purchased in 1924.  At some point, she joined, and became a faithful and committed member of Jerusalem Baptist Church in Norfolk. In the mid-70's, when Mary's health began to fail, she moved in with her daughter Mary's family in Hampton, VA, and later into a nursing home in Chesapeake, close to where her son lived.  Mary Davis Walker Hill Thomas, who'd lived to see three generations of her descendants, died in June, 1986, at the age of 89.  She is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Norfolk, VA in a plot with several family members, including her parents, and her beloved last husband, Charlie.


  1. Oh, Renate,
    What good stuff it is!! I was thrilled to hear of the stuff your grandmothers were made --- and you too!

  2. Renate,

    Many times in life we question where we get the strength to carry on in the face of life's challenges. No doubt much of your strength comes from these two very strong women. I enjoyed reading about your grandmothers.

    Thanks for sharing.


  3. Really neat story, Renate.
    I am so happy for you that you were inspired to compose this story with the photos. If you should be down, again sometime, you can come back and relive this experience, to get you going again!

    Keep these ancestor stories coming!

    Bill ;-)

    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

  4. Renate,

    Excellent stories on your two grans. You brought them to life for us readers.

    Thinking about these two ladies must certainly lift your spirits!

    "Guided by the Ancestors"

  5. Wonderful tribute to your two grandmothers and I enjoyed reading about them.

  6. Thanks, everyone. It means so much to me to know that you're reading, and I really appreciate your comments!


  7. Renate, what a wonderful tribute to your grandmothers, a perfect article for Sentimental Sunday. Thank you for allowing me to read about their world. Excellent writing too.