Frances Beal: Voices of Feminism Oral History Project

When my cousin Gertie — Trudie, they call her now — started to date the man who eventually became her husband – my father, Les Green –, he was deemed too dark for the family.

One of my sisters discovered this March 18, 2005 interview with my mother’s first cousin, my first cousin once removed, Frances Beal this autumn, conducted by Loretta Ross. Fran is about 12 years younger than my mother and 13 years older than I am. Her kids are about a dozen years younger than my sisters and I. Her late mother, Charlotte Yates, was my beloved great aunt.

Her politics are far more liberal than mine. She, I suspect, would eschew the term “liberal” altogether, in favor of “radical”. What is truly interesting about the piece though, from my specific POV, is the retelling of her history, which invariably overlaps with mine.

Here’s a picture of Frances Beal.

The info in the italics is mine.

Frances Beal was born in Binghamton, NY, on January 13, 1940, the daughter of Ernest Yates [ my maternal grandmother’s brother- ] who was of African American and Native American ancestry, and Charlotte Berman Yates, of radical Russian Jewish immigrant roots. When Fran’s father died in 1954, her mother moved the family to St. Albans, an integrated neighborhood in Queens. In addition to observing her mother’s participation in left politics, Fran was profoundly affected by the murder of Emmett Till, as was I. After graduating from Andrew Jackson High School in 1958, she became involved in civil rights activities and socialist politics while attending the University of Wisconsin.

She married James Beal, and from 1959 to 1966, they lived in France, where they had two children and Fran became attuned to the internationalist/anti-imperialist politics of post-colonial African liberation struggles…

BEAL: OK. I was born in a relatively small city, upstate New York, called Binghamton, New York, as was I. In school they used to tell us, Bing bought a ham and it weighed a ton: that’s how to spell Binghamton…
ROSS: And your mother’s name was?
BEAL: Charlotte Berman. And she had eight brothers and sisters, and she was like the third oldest of the eight brothers and sisters. And then they went to Binghamton and —

So that’s how my parents met, actually, because my mother was working in the office of Berman’s Motor Express, the family business. My father was working for Canny’s – two blocks from the house I grew up in – … And they actually did a lot of shipping between Binghamton and New York City, whereas Berman’s used to be between Boston and Binghamton…

Well, they got married and then presented the family with the facts. And I think that happened basically because they knew. Now my father was 12 years older than my mom, so when my older brother was born, she was 24 and I think he was 36… And my brother Raymond, now deceased, was one of those seven-month babies, right? (laughs)…it was early in 1937. That’s when they got married. And then my brother, as I said, my brother was born in November 1937. And then I came along in January of 1940. And I had two other brothers, approximately three years apart: Donald, who was born in 1943; and my brother Robert, who’s just six years younger than I am, was born in 1946.

And on my father’s side, they were extremely poor, my father’s side of the family. On my dad’s side of the family there was Gertrude Yates [Williams] – my maternal grandmother, who died in 1983, she was the oldest. Then came Edward Yates, my Uncle Ed who died c 1970. Then came my father, Ernest Yates, and then Deana Yates, my father’s younger sister who died c 1965, one of the first people I knew to die.

And they lived — there again is an interesting story. My grandmother’s mother was part Indian, and when the white persons came to the Susquehanna Valley — that’s where the Susquehanna River and the Chenango River come together…cities grow up on rivers, and the Indians knew that, too, because that’s what they used as their mode of transportation. So the whites essentially pushed the native population out up into the hills. And they gave like a plot of land to the Indians, right? Now what’s interesting culturally here is that the Mohawk, or Iroquois Indian Confederacy, was matrilineal, so that meant that property and family was passed through the woman, the female, and not through the man. And that was a very, very powerful cultural tradition, that even though the whites, when they gave out the property, they gave it to my grandmother’s brother because he was the male. He turned around and gave it to Lillian, my grandmother – [my great-grandmother]- because that’s how you do things, in terms of being an Indian.

And that thing was so powerful, that that’s exactly what happened all down through when we sold the property. When my grandmother died, she died intestate, meaning no will. Therefore, all four of her children and these — there were about 16 people, really, that could have some say in this lot with a house, really more like a cabin, on it. And so they all got together. They decided they should give all of this property to Gert my grandmother, so again, [in] the second generation, it’s going to a female. And then my cousin Gertie – my mother –, who’s the oldest female, she gets the property. And when she gives it up — even though she has a son and two daughters, her son [me] is the oldest and two daughters — she turns that property over to my female cousin, Leslie Ellen Green, my sister. So I just thought that it’s a very powerful holding on to certain customs of how you do things…

A more funny story is that we used to go up and stay with my Aunt Gert on the hill, and down the street, there was another family and they [had] about four kids. And my Aunt always said to us, “You should not play with them because they are bad people and their mother is immoral.” Turns out — we didn’t know anything else like this, but when my Aunt Deana died, one of those kids came to the funeral and was talking to my mother. It turns out these are cousins of ours, that our Uncle Frederick had all these children with this Indian woman, but they never got married. So they were considered, you know…shameful. This characterization of my grandmother is absolutely accurate.

Now I have to say, my family on my father’s side was very much impacted by the racial notion of the time, so they liked it that my father married my mother because she was white. That was, you know, really acceptable. When my cousin Gertie — Trudy, they call her now — started to date the man who eventually became her husband, my father, Les Green, he was deemed too dark for the family. And I think my father and my Uncle Ed had to intervene and say, Listen, I’m not going to be able to ever speak to you again unless you stop this nonsense. But then the two of them, also — my Uncle Ed didn’t marry a white woman, but a woman who was very light-skinned, and she had quote “good hair,” you know, flowing hair. And so there was a lot of racial confusion in that family, from which, you know, my dad came.

But just to give you an idea of how this racial thing also worked, there’s many women who — I mean, I had gotten married and I had a couple kids, and like many, I didn’t know what I could do with the kids in the summertime. So I had my Aunt Gert take them for three weeks to, you know, partly look after the kids. And this was during the ’60s, right? And I was already heavily into an Afro and not putting a curling iron [in my hair]. And my kids had never even seen one. So I was at work and they were staying with their Aunt Gert, and I get this frantic phone call from my Aunt Gert, “Please, you have to speak to your elder daughter. She’s out in the street and she says she’s going to run away and she’s going to New York City, and I can’t get her to come back.”

So I had my Aunt Gert go into the back of the cabin, you know, the other room that was like a two-down, two-up cabin, type of thing. [I went to my grandmother’s house every day after school from kindergarten through 9th grade, and even lived there for a few months in 1975]. She came in and she started crying. The girls were five and four. They had never seen a curling iron in their life. And in this house, the heat, there was this big, big cast-iron stove that covered one whole length of the kitchen. And in it you had the wood-burning and coal-burning stove. So Gert had started the fire and put [in] these coal-burning things, and flames are leaping up when she takes the burner off. She sticks the comb in there. The elder one’s watching all of this, getting more horrified by the minute. And so then she takes it out, wipes it on the dish towel, right? And she says, “Come here.” “What are you going to do with that?” She said, “I’m going to straighten your hair. You look like the wild woman from Borneo.” And I was laughing, because that’s what my same Aunt Gert used to call me when my hair would get it: “You look like the wild woman from Borneo.” (laughs). The elder girl grabs her sister’s hand, runs out to the sidewalk, and bursts into tears. And she told me later, “I didn’t know which way to go!” (laughs). So this is, you know, three hundred miles [away], so of course, I’m in New York City, I have to jump into my car, drive madly three and a half hours up to Binghamton to kind of try to save the situation. [Our house was four or five blocks from my grandmother’s, so I heard this story at the time.].

My father died of cancer [when I was one year old], and then finally six months later we moved to New York City, into Queens. But it was into a house because my mother thought that with us kids coming from a town where there were big back yards and big houses — and you know, when we would get too noisy she would just put us in the back yard to run around — that we would be too much to move into an apartment. She just could not imagine living in an apartment. So we moved into St. Albans, a three-bedroom house and then she re-did the upstairs for me, so that I could have a bedroom up there… [We would visit that house several times a year when I was growing up; it seemed enormous at the time.]

Jimmy Beal! James Beal. And he’s the father of my children… And I think part of moving back to the United States after staying [in France] six years, was to set the basis for us to dissolve the marriage — which happened within months of us returning home, literally. Fran’s kids and their cousins were, despite the distance between New York City and Binghamton, and a nearly a decade in age between her kids and my parents’ kids, our closest relatives. Jimmy Beal died in October 2010.

There’s lots of other interesting stuff in there – it’s 50+ pages long – about people she had met in her journey, but I wanted to specifically excerpt what I did because it involved people I know or knew.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

5 thoughts on “Frances Beal: Voices of Feminism Oral History Project”

  1. Hey Roger,

    I have Google Alerts set to notify me whenever my name gets posted. This was a pleasant surprise! Funny stories, huh?

    Your Cousin

  2. Roger, thank you for sharing Frances Beal, your famous first cousin once removed! I share the fear of the “curling” iron, though mine comes from trying to turn straight hair curly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial