Richmond is old. So old that it almost creaks under the weight of modernity as if catching up with the 21st century is just too much to bear after 400-some years.
The life blood of Virginia’s capitol city flowed steadily from the James River – English settlers, slaves, tobacco. The city and it’s inhabitants witnessed revolution, civil strife, deconstruction, and rebirth. Driving through Richmond provides a cheap tour of history in America – unwritten stories are featured in the massive statues of war heroes lining Monument Avenue, the nouveau-riche grandeur of Byrd Park and the West End, the remnants of Jim Crow segregation on the Southside, the long legacy of African American business and entrepreneurship in Jackson Ward, the recollection of bellowing steam engines and canal barges with their industrial cargo in Shockoe Bottom, and the possibility of new era that trails the students at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Richmond is easily one of those places where everyone knows everyone else and their business. Especially on the Southside. The Southside really started out as farmland in an area called Swansboro. My earliest ancestor, Rebecca Howlette, was a slave on the cusp of the Civil War. She was mother to 6 children and keeper of the “old place” for Mr. John Howlette – a wealthy landowner and father of Rebecca’s 6 mulatto children. We all trickled down out of her line like little tributaries from one, strong river – the Moons, the Martins, the Logans, the Howelettes, and so on.
According to Auntie Eva, Daddy came down to Decatur Street talking all proper after being born in New Jersey. They could practically smell the North on him. Auntarie – my grandmother Marie – ran a tight ship, though, and nothing pleased her more than knowing her home and her child were clean as a whistle. She had love enough for 4 or 5 children that she squeezed into her one and only. Grandma Marie stuffed him full of all the hopes and aspirations and dreams that she had had for herself but were dashed by racism and segregation. Her “angel baby” wouldn’t have everything snatched out from under him. She was a force to be reckoned with.
There used to be a grand house at 29th and Hull Steet where he lived with his parents and grandparents. It used to have a lovely porch. Grandma Marie surely thought that cleanliness was next to godliness as she mandated that daddy bathe in the deep metal tub on Saturday evenings. She used the left over water from boiling corn, strewn with husk silk and a large, scratchy bar of Octagon soap. When you were rubbed nice and raw, you were ready for starched Sunday clothes and the minister. Auntie Elaine says that Grandma Marie was a “fly chick” in her day with nary a heair out of place. She wore her thick, silky hair long, refusing anything resembling pickaninny braids. If you had any ounce of respect for yourself, you didn’t dare show your face to the public with a head full of curlers. She always longed for a daughter with whom she could share these lessons.
When Grandma Marie and I first had occasion to meet, I was a squirming infant and she, an old woman whose mind had been turned to swiss cheese by dementia. In pictures, she holds me stiffly, not seeming to understand what I am or from whence I came. Her greyed hair is cut short and leaves little trace of the glamourous woman she had always been. I arrived decades too late to be any sort of dream-come-true for her.
A squat carwash now occupies the lot where my daddy and his cousin used to mow the grass on Sundays for a quarter until they fought so much over splitting the money that Big Pa Howlette – my great grandfather – decided to give each boy 25 cents. The rest of the clan was spread out over 28th/29th Streets and Midlothian Pike – a veritable Howlette beehive. The clapboard shack on the corner of 28th Street and Midlothian Pike still stands with its lonely barber pole adorning one wall. So does one Howlette residence whose green awning bears a large, stenciled “H”.You could walk up any one of the major thoroughfares to the Five and Dime or Miller and Rhoads. On summer evenings, Big Pa would send daddy down to the corner store and pharmacy for nickel smokes.
Over in Newtown South, at Decatur and Pilkington, is the 2nd Baptist Church. Rebecca – being a fierce Christian and community advocate – pushed for the opening of a church that would be closer to her home. A stained glass window near the pulpit quietly honors her memory and contributions. Maybe if I stare through the fragile light filtering through the colored glass long enough, Rebecca just might appear, mother of our generations, like a vision of the Virgin Mary.
The memories, the stories – histories and herstories – triumphs, tragedies, and the germane goings-on of many a person are palapble here. Richmond is the wellspring from which many a black family poured out. Death seems to always be an event that leaves the living with more questions than answers. I’ve lost many years in learning these family intracacies, of knowing people who look like me, of being able to put an answer to the classic life questions: Where did I come from? Who am I?
Sometimes the answer is simple. It’s not wrapped up in all the superficial things we think distinguish us as individuals. You can’t really be defined without the “other”. So you realize that there has been a place for you all along, among these others that exsited and continue to exist: I am a Howlette; daughter of Bernett Logan, born through a long lineage of capable women – Rebecca, Fannie, and Marie.