Mom could have gone to college

good hair

I had heard this vague story that my mom could have gone to college. By vague, I mean I don’t know where she would have attended. Moreover, someone (who?) was willing to pay for it. Further, the reason she didn’t go to college or join Girl Scouts was her hair. Specifically, the fact that her hair would become kinky when wet.

Was this a genuine concern of my mother’s? Maybe. But it sounded more like HER mother. Mom’s first cousin, Frances Beal, told this tale about Fran’s daughters and my grandmother, who was temporarily taking care of them. The story, which I have excerpted here:

“The girls were five and four [in the mid-1960s]. They had never seen a curling iron in their life. And in this house, the heat, there was this big, big cast-iron stove… 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.'”

So if her potential frizzy hair was a college deal-breaker for my mom, it was from the conditioning [hair pun there] of her mother. Regardless, it was a real shame. She was astute. Even in the stages of dementia she experienced in her last years, she was still very savvy with math.

Marrying that man

One of my sisters asked her, late in our mom’s life, “If your mother was so restrictive, how was she able to marry Les Green?” She said, “I don’t know.”

But her cousin Fran did. “When my cousin Gertie — Trudy, they call her now — started to date the man who eventually became her husband, he was deemed too dark for the family. And I think my father [Ernest Yates] 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.'”

This tracks. Ernie, who died the year after I was born, was a labor leader who ran for political office and married a white Jewish woman. Ed fought in World War II and had a more expansive worldview. Could Ed and/or Ernie have been my mom’s would-be college benefactor? I may never know.

My mom was a wonderful woman. Still, it pains me that the narrow-mindedness of her mother limited my mom. Given the time my sisters and I spent with my grandmother, we knew first-hand that side of my mother’s mom.

Today would have been my mom’s 95th birthday.

Grandma Gertrude Williams

August 10, 1897-January 24, 1982

Gertrude WilliamsIt occurred to me that I’ve written a few times about my paternal grandma Agatha Green. For instance, here and here and especially here. I am reminded that she was born 120 years ago on July 26.

I’ve written far less about my maternal grandma Gertrude Williams, born August 10, 125 years ago. I think it’s because my relationship with her was more… complicated. She was born Gertrude Elizabeth Yates, daughter of Edward Yates and Lilian Bell Archer. For the longest time, even my mother believed she was born in 1898. I always remembered it because it was the year of the Spanish-American War.

Then one day in the mid-1960s, she went to register to vote. Unwilling to lie to a government official, she confessed her true age.

I thought Gert grew up in the house my mother always lived in until mom got married. But in the 1905 New York State Census in Binghamton, NY, she lived at 53 Sherman Place, a street razed c. 1960 to build a park near 45 Carroll Street. By 1910, she lived at 13 Maple Street with her parents and her younger siblings, Edward, Ernest, and Adina, or Deana as everyone called her. Gert had an older sister who had died before she was born.

In March 1912, her father died. Yet, in July of that same year, her mother Lillian married a guy named Maurice Holland, a guy from either Texas or Mexico, depending on which subsequent Census you believe.

In the 1920 Census, the household was Harriet Archer (Lillian’s widowed mother), Lillian, Maurice, and Lillian’s four children. Gert, now 22, was working as a maid.

My mom enters the picture

Gertrude married a guy named Clarence Williams around 1927, and they had a child named Gertrude. (She will hereafter be referred to as Trudy to avoid confusion.) And they had a second child, who did not live long and died in early 1929.

In the 1930 Census, the household consisted of Lillian and Maurice; Gertrude, Edward, and Deana, Ernie having moved out; a nephew of Lillian named Edward Archer, 17; and my mother Trudy, 2. Here is a picture of Gert with her mother, sister, and daughter.

But where’s Clarence? Fuzzy gossip suggested that Lillian and maybe even Harriet (d. 1928) drove him away. I never got the real story. Gert is 32 and working as a servant.

By the 1940 Census, the residents were Maurice (Lillian d. 1938), Gert, Edward, Deana, and Trudy. Gert only had a 6th-grade education, and she was working as a housekeeper.

My sister has many undated pictures of people visiting 13 Maple Street, eating in the not-very-large backyard. So it was some sort of cultural mecca. What was THAT all about?

I’ve just seen the 1950 Census

It shows Edward, 47, as head of household, naturally(!), because he was the eldest male; he was a truck driver. Adenia, 42, was a stitcher. Gert, 52, was now listed as separated from Clarence (d. 1958) and not working outside the home. Trudy, 22, is a shipping clerk. She married Les Green, 23, on March 12, 1950; he was a cleaner doing remodeling work.

Eventually, in 1950, my parents-to-be moved into 5 Gaines Street, about six blocks away. It was owned by Gert and presumably her siblings.

I enter the picture

I was born in 1953. In 1958, when I was going to kindergarten, I was supposed to attend Oak Street School. Since my mother worked outside the home, at McLean’s department store, it was determined that 13 Maple Street would be my school address so that I could go there at lunch and after school, tended to by Gert and Deana. Ed had moved out by then.

Deana was cool. We’d play 500 rummy and Scrabble. I taught her canasta, which Grandma Green had shown me.

Gert was a pain. She would tell stories, but it was difficult following them or believing how much, if any, was true. She would indicate that we should not go near this person, who turned out to be a relative. Worse, she forbid her adult daughter and us to see her brother Ed because he was living with a woman, Edna, who was not his wife. After Ed died in 1970, my strongest memory was of Gert and Edna crying on each other’s shoulders at the funeral.


There were “bad men” lurking in the Oak Street underpass, we were told. The boogie man existed.  When I washed the dishes, which I did at home regularly, she told me I shouldn’t because it wasn’t manly. This was one of the several times that Deana said to Gert, “Leave the boy alone!” When Deana died in 1966, I was devastated.

My mother was in a tug-of-war between her mother and her husband, which I alluded to here. Dad clearly did not like Gert. One time, we were having dinner, and someone asked Gert if she wanted some peas. She said, “I’ll have a couple.” My father put two peas on her plate. It was shocking and bite-your-lip funny and may explain why I can be such a literalist.

Mom’s first cousin Frances Beal, Ernie’s daughter, tells a Gert story here, in the fifth paragraph from the end.


When my parents and baby sister Marcia moved to Charlotte, NC, it became clear to everyone except Gert that Gert needed to move down with her daughter and son-in-law. She had a coal stove, which required going to the basement to shovel the coal into pails and carry it up rickety steps. I did this a lot as a kid, which I oddly enjoyed.

It was the task of sister Leslie and me to take Gert to Charlotte. She railed against it. Where would she get stockings? “They sell stockings in North Carolina.”

She lived in Charlotte until she died on Super Bowl Sunday in 1982. She was cremated in Charlotte but buried at Spring Forest Cemetery in Binghamton, less than 100 meters from 13 Maple Street.

I did love Gert, I believe. But I didn’t always like her.

Sister Marcia: contribution to the genealogy talk

Someone in the audience knew Charlotte Yates from her time in Binghamton before 1954.

Even though she hasn’t been to our hometown of Binghamton, NY in over a decade, my sister Marcia has contributed mightily to the genealogy talk our cousin Lisa presented recently.

Lisa spoke at the Broome County Area History Conference on April 21 at the Bundy Museum. She came all the way from Washington, DC to introduce two families, one Black and one Jewish, which my wife, daughter and I attended.

As she wrote in the precis, our “second great grandfather, James A. Archer, a free Black man who, along with two other family members, fought in the Civil War. They survived and returned to Binghamton to raise families and start businesses.” In part because of other photos Marcia put online, Lisa was able to ascertain that the post-Civil War photo I’ve posted to this blog included not only James Archer, but the brothers of his wife, Harriet Bell Archer.

“In the late 1800’s the Archer family purchased a house on Maple Street, which became a hub of family activity for several generations to come.” That was the house my grandmother and mother grew up in.”

She also told about her great grandparents, Isaac and Sarah Berman, who were born in Latvia and Lithuania, emigrated, first to Denmark then to the US in 1913 and settled in Binghamton. Isaac “started an egg business that eventually turned into a trucking company that was the first to offer overnight service from the Triple Cities to Boston.

“Both families grew and in 1937, the two came together with the marriage of Ernest Archer Yates and Charlotte Berman, my grandparents, who faced their own challenges as an interracial couple.” Ernie was my grandma’s brother and Charlotte the third child of Isaac and Sarah.

This picture also came from Marcia’s collection, with Ernie and Charlotte together in the back row, my mother’s arm on Ernie’s shoulder. Given the presence of three of their four children, I peg the photo in 1945 or 1946. Someone in the audience knew Charlotte from her time in Binghamton before 1954, when she and the children moved to Queens, NYC after Ernie died unexpectedly.

When Lisa came to Binghamton, she had to take a detour off Front Street onto Gaines Street and pass another Archer property at 5 Gaines Street, where MY nuclear family lived in the 1950s and 1960s.

So Marcia, even though she was far away, was an important part of Lisa’s presentation. Happy birthday, baby sister.

I really am Irish, I guess

This is fascinating, because all the Census records I came across suggests that she was black.

I discovered only recently that my maternal grandmother’s brother Ernie, born in 1904, was arrested in 1928 near Syracuse, NY and that he spent nearly five years in prison in Auburn, NY. Apparently, he was spending time with a young white woman, her father didn’t like it, and helped manufacture a charge of rape against Ernie.

In the mounds of papers filed in anticipation of him being paroled in 1932 was this “social history” such as his education, his military service (none), religion (Catholic – I did not know that), marital status (single), and family background. His father, Edward Yates, had died in 1910 at the age of 58. His mother, nee Lillian Bell Archer, remarried to Maurice Holland in 1911. (His Census track is fascinating, born either in Texas or Mexico, depending on what Census one checks.)

This, though, was the kicker for me. It indicates that she was of Irish descent! This is fascinating because all the Census records I came across suggests that she was black. Surely she was partially black, but as the rules of the time would suggest, anyone partially black was considered black. And that’s still largely true of most mixed-race people; see Barack Obama, Halle Berry, etc.

Lillian, my great-grandmother though, at least on this document, was Irish, and that’s reason enough, besides my name, to be wearing the green. Oh, and Ernie, who agreed to live an “honest and upright life” married Charlotte Berman, a white woman of Eastern European descent, in 1937, and did just that until he died in April 1954, just 50 years old, when I was but one. I have no first cousins, but most of the second cousins I’m close to, including the one who retrieved this prison record, are his grandchildren, who, I suppose, are all a little Irish, too.
Creepy old Simon and Kirby comic: Nasty Little Man

Green Light, Red Light

Arthur’s maybe a little Irish

Grandparents Day: my grandmas, and one of my daughter’s

Curiously, this picture triggered a memory of some kind about my OTHER grandmother.

One of those holidays I think WAS created by Hallmark is Grandparents Day. Well, technically not, but it FEELS that way.

Here’s another picture my sister Marcia found, taken at some point in the 1940s; no idea where, when or why. The woman in the top row, second from the right is my great aunt Charlotte and the guy next to her in the sweater is her husband, Ernie Yates. Ernie died while his kids Raymond (directly in front of Charlotte), Frances (sitting on the floor), and Donald (on the blonde girl’s lap) were still young, but Charlotte had grandchildren, as Fran, Donald, and Robert (either not yet born, or an infant) all had children. Fran and Donald now have grandchildren.

The woman behind the blonde girl, partially obscured, is my grandma, Gertrude Williams, Ernie’s sister. She had three grandchildren, including my two sisters. And the young woman in the back row next to Ernie is my mother. I don’t know who she was holding hands with, but it was not my father. She too had three grandchildren, as my sisters and I each had a daughter.

This picture was posted on Facebook, and a cousin suggested that it was taken on the second floor of something called the Interracial Center at 45 Carroll Street in Binghamton. The only people I recognize are my mother and her mother in the front row.

Curiously, this picture triggered a memory of some kind about my OTHER grandmother. A guy named John wrote, “I worked with your Grandmother Agatha Green in the Sunday School as a teacher at Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church Binghamton NY at the earlier location on Sherman Place & the church moved to Oak St. in 1960. Yes, I of course also recall your Mother and VERY artistic Dad, Les … A GREAT encouragement, motivation to me was knowing your Grandmother … (& I do mean “Grand”)…one fine Lady who made a HUGE difference in [my] life to the extent that she did NOT, sadly live to see. God Bless Her Soul!!!”

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