Bessie Henderson has died, and her children remain.
Mamie Lee was the first child, and my grandmother was the second. And the second Hattie Mae. The first was Sarah Henderson Jacobs’ daughter.
That’s who they named me after. I asked them why they named me Hattie after a dead person. “What? You don’t like Hattie? Well, I just thought ’twas nice.” And after I looked at her picture, I said, “Well, she was pretty.” Since Jack knew her, and he wanted her picture, when I come up to Philadelphia, I give him the picture. ‘Cause they grew up together. And his children thought she was white, wanted to know what old white girl was that. Mama never talked about her. But A’nt Nina, she would tell everything. Mama got mad with her, said, “You always bringing up something. You don’t know what you talking ’bout.” And she never did say – well, if she said, I wouldn’t have known him, but I never did ask her – who Hattie’s daddy was. I figured he was white. Because she looked — her hair and features, you know, white.
Jack Henderson told my grandmother that he remembered “when she was got,” that he was nearby when it was happening, that Tom had Bessie over a barrel, literally. Bookish and soft, James Thomas Aldridge tended his mother and younger sisters and his ailing father’s dry goods store while dreaming of a bigger and better world faraway. He would have been a nerd if they’d had them then. Bessie’s pregnancy changed his life:
‘Cause his mama didn’t want her son to get married. ‘Cause he wanted to be a doctor, and so she was gon help him be one. And if he got married and started having children, he couldn’t be a doctor. And down there in a little town like Dudley, you had to go away from there ‘cause it wont no more than ‘bout sixth, seventh grade. And you had to go to a larger place if you wanted to go to school.
So the pregnancy stirred him, thrust him out toward his reveries, away from Dudley and the grey-eyed baby whose mother was soon to die. Tom, already 24 years old but claiming to be much younger, fled to Raleigh, where he entered Shaw University’s preparatory division and exited its college eight years later on his way to Meharry Medical School. He would become a doctor, indeed, a big-time, money-making, Cadillac-driving Saint Louis doctor, elected president of the National Medical Association in 1961. But it’s his daughter’s story we’re telling right now, the daughter who never got past sixth grade, who never met her father ‘til she was good and grown.
Let me back up. Sometime around 1905, Mama Sarah and her husband, a good man named Jesse A. Jacobs Jr., moved 40 miles north of Dudley to Wilson, a tobacco market bursting with new golden-leaf millionaires. Colored folks from all over coastal Carolina, drawn to the town’s bustling opportunity, built a vibrant community on the southeast side of the railroad that cleaved the town in two. Sarah took in washing and ironing, did seasonal work at tobacco factories, and reared Jesse’s brood, who turned out largely ungrateful. Her own daughter died in 1908, aged 14, and nobody knows why.
Meanwhile, down in Dudley, Lewis and Mag Henderson faded in their iron bedstead with only their teenaged granddaughter Bessie to manage the household. Lucian Henderson likely farmed his parents’ reduced acreage with his own, but it was left to Bessie to cook and clean and sew and launder and do all the other relentless drudgery that needed doing. Her mother was long dead, and there were no other close relatives nearby upon whom to rely. Did she resent her responsibilities? Did she chafe under the grind of pot-stirring and water-fetching and skillet-scouring and jar-slopping? What did she want? She was a chancey girl, a risk-taker, one who took her pleasure where she found it, even when it clamped the lid tighter on her trap. She was a beautiful girl, but nearly unmarriageable, as she dragged her heavy belly through the spring of 1910.
Bessie gave birth to my Hattie Mae on June 6, very likely attended by the child’s grandmother, a midwife named Louvicey Artis Aldridge. Though Vicey had forbidden a marriage between this girl and her special boy Tom, she was not altogether unmoved by her grandbaby, who looked much more Aldridge than Henderson. Vicey and her daughters played small intermittent roles in my grandmother’s early life, but there is no doubt: Sarah Henderson Jacobs was the family’s matriarch and matrix, though no children of her own lived even to adulthood. She reared Bessie’s children and kept them clothed and fed and sheltered, if not exactly loved.
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