I am not what you call me. I am what I respond to.
The city into which Richard Holmes stepped was a city of contradictions. In the heart of world democracy, human slavery was legal. The recently passed Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had ensured his vulnerability to recapture, for crossing a state line was no longer sure protection: those who captured fugitives would be rewarded and harboring refugees was a crime. If found, Richard Holmes could legally be whipped, resold or even executed.
"Nor do I exaggerate how I understand my great-grandfather came here," his great-granddaughter Eleanor Holmes Norton says 150 years later, shaking her head in her plush congressional office. "Walked off a plantation in Virginia, walked across the bridge. My grandfather told me this story, told it with enormous pride, and passed that pride on to us.
"Richard walked across the District line, because there you could get work, and the white man couldn't get you unless he could find you. They were building Washington and hired people off the streets every day. My grandfather says that, moreover, under the law, you could come here and get your slave and take him back. The city was swarming with all kinds of blacks: you couldn't tell one from another because Washington had a large number of free blacks. And white people would come from all over looking for their slave."
In the bustling Washington of the 1850s, Richard Holmes, like thousands of fugitives before him, made his way in a shadow economy. Southwest Washington was home to large numbers of fugitives; twenty-seven neighborhood churches provided relief, and the area housed many stops on the Underground Railroad. Escaped slaves were welcomed in this part of town. Probably living in a one-room shanty with a dozen others, he soon found work, according to Eleanor, on a construction gang.
"Remember, he came to a city where the Capitol itself," she roars, "was built in part with slave labor, and blacks free and slave were used throughout the city to build the official buildings and develop the historic streets. Tough as it was, it beat working for nothing as a slave in Virginia." Foremen on construction sites, needing ready and cheap workers during a building boom, often didn't ask questions -- especially when they could pay a fraction of what they'd pay their white workers or even their slave labor, hired from local owners.
Depending on the kindness of others and his own well honed wits, crafted for survival, Richard made his way in the city. After only a few weeks, another day came for which he had rigorously prepared. According to family history, handed down generation by generation, while Richard shoveled mud on the side of a road a white man stalked up and shouted, "Richard!"
Richard didn't flinch, didn't so much as move a muscle; he simply kept shoveling. His former owner accosted the foreman:
"That's my nigger! I'd recognize that nigger anywhere!"
"Looks to me like he ain't your Richard," the foreman replied. "He didn't answer to you. I saw him. He didn't pay you no mind."
Rebuffed by the insistence of the foreman, the white man finally gave up. With no way to prove his ownership of this particular disinterested black man, he wandered away. Perhaps he had made a mistake.
So Richard Holmes was, by his own hand, a free man.
"It's enough to inspire anybody," Eleanor says. "My great-grandfather clearly had been waiting for that day. Yes, he had disciplined himself to know the day could come and he told himself, 'Wait for that day.' And when that day comes, make sure that you do not know who that man is. He must have practiced the inner discipline not to instinctively respond, even to what every human being responds to: his name! Here's a man who thought ahead."
When Richard Holmes arrived in the 1850s, Washington was a city mired in muddy streets and controversy. Founded as a grand symbol of the new republic, the city plan called for magnificent boulevards laid like wagon spokes, ending at public squares designed to inspire patriotic pride. Yet Congress wouldn't pay to finish the splendid boulevards or maintain the inspirational squares. Author Charles Dickens had recently ridiculed the District as "a City of Magnificent Intentions," laid out with "broad avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere."
The federal government charged with running the city had a history of rebuffing local requests. Streets were dim; in order to save money, municipal streetlights were lit only when Congress was in session. President Jefferson said early in the century, "We cannot suppose Congress intended to tax the people of the United States at large for all the avenues in Washington." Yet the District was not allowed to tax its natural base, government property.
The battle over local control, one that Richard Holmes's great-granddaughter would someday lead, had raged since Congress granted the city its charter in 1802, with a mayor appointed by the president. In the decades since, every power had been contested, from the authority to regulate schools to control the noisy pigs, cows and geese that roamed the town. And although the streets were full of mud in the 1850s, Congress repeatedly turned down petitions to pay for street-cleaning, for fear, as one congressman warned, of giving an "opening wedge to future demands." The contest escalated. Representatives defended their home interests versus those of the federal District, which would have no advocate in Congress for another hundred years.
In the 1850s Washington was a rough city, with plentiful gambling and drinking. But it was starting to fulfill its promise. After a fire in its library, Congress spent unprecedented money to install citywide water pipes and funded 800 gas lamps, to be lit year-round. Though unpaved streets abounded and the Mall -- a touted city park -- was only partially complete, Congress began to lay the framework for a modern city.
And its construction required labor.
Richard Holmes emerged into Washington history during a propitious era of growth. Yet the issue of slavery was even more contentious than local control. Washington had accepted the laws of its neighbors -- Virginia and Maryland -- along with the land they'd ceded to make the federal District just fifty years before. Wedged between these two slaveholding states, the capital was a battleground. Linked to the South as a slave territory, Washington was at the same time uniquely open to the influence of Northern abolitionists and free-state congressmen.
On the eve of the Civil War, the status of blacks -- both free and slave -- was a sizzling issue. In the District, local newspapers warned about the "unsettling influence" of "free negroes," with their ambiguous status. By the time Richard Holmes arrived as part of a great migration, Washington severely restricted mobility and occupations. City codes with almost impossible restrictions -- monetary bonds to ensure good behavior, registration with the mayor, character testimonials from whites, curfews and certificates of freedom always at hand -- had been passed, modified, loosened and tightened during the previous decades. Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion in neighboring Virginia had not been forgotten; white fears brought corresponding restraints. In 1835, after the so-called "Snow riot," in which whites demolished black churches, schools and businesses -- including a restaurant owned by Beverly Snow, a free black woman -- the right of black people to own businesses was terminated. While the restrictions were difficult to enforce, by the 1850s almost three-quarters of all free black people in Washington could find work only as laborers and domestics.
"Oh, they had slave blocks all downtown," says Eleanor. Congressional policy was noninterference with slavery in the District. In 1850 the slave trade was finally eliminated in the federal city, but this "compromise" included tough provisions for the return of fugitives like Richard Holmes. Violent clashes increased, with some whites and blacks physically resisting the efforts of traders and bounty hunters to seize people on Washington streets. Yet the District would hold onto slavery itself until 1862. If slavery was repugnant, becoming a haven for "free negroes" was worse, in the eyes of many whites. Public opinion was shaped by the city paper, the National Intelligencer, which continually raised the specter of black "mobs" emigrating from neighboring slaveholding states if there were to be emancipation in the District. "No asylum for free negroes!" it thundered. Attacks on blacks increased.
Yet in this perilous situation Richard Holmes prospered. After he had been in Washington just a few years, in 1861 the Civil War erupted. President Lincoln had predicted that: "[Slavery and freedom] are like two wild beasts in sight of each other, but chained and apart. Some day these deadly antagonists will . . . break their bonds, and then the question will be settled."
The turbulence of war stimulated even more rapid city growth, and the construction trade that was Richard Holmes's livelihood exploded. "A stable black middle class had its root established right there," says Eleanor. "That was the beginning of federal employment, the springboard for the black middle class. For a black person living in and around Washington, government work of almost any kind was good work, respectable work. I give a lot of credit to the government hiring black folks."
First, regiment after regiment of white soldiers, then thousands of destitute black refugees poured in. Labeled "contrabands" -- literally, confiscated property, for they had stolen themselves -- these fugitives arrived, as had Mr. Holmes, carrying at most a small sack with a few belongings. Hundreds came each week from nearby Maryland alone. Local whites became alarmed as people crowded into any shelter they could find: former slave pens in the shadow of federal buildings, abandoned schools, or already-bursting tenements. Even some abolitionists urged deportation of these free "darkies," questioning how they could ever be integrated into American life.
As refugee numbers swelled, the army opened "contraband camps" on both sides of the Potomac River, housing up to ten thousand refugees at a time. Fortunately, the demand for wartime labor kept pace. The federal government hired fugitives; the need was such that wages were often above the $10 a month established by military order. But incredibly, the government also imposed a staggering $5 a month "help-blacks-in-need" tax on these very wages, a burden borne solely by contrabands, until protests eliminated it.
All during the early 1860s arguments over slavery continued in the halls of Congress. Were there any states, abolitionists asked, where a refugee could be safe from recapture or a "mistaken identity" seizure? Finally in 1864 Congress repealed the Fugitive Slave Act. And for the first time Richard Holmes was legally a free man. He no longer had to pretend to be someone else; even if he were identified he at last had the law on his side.
Richard Holmes continued to prosper, and on August 20, 1872, he married Lucy Ellen Jones, a woman with her own difficult story of the times. Daughter of a white master and black slave, a young Lucy Ellen, "very fair with straight hair," her descendants say, had been left by her father in Washington, D.C., right after the Civil War, hours after he dropped off her sister in Baltimore. Lucy Ellen never saw her sister or father again, though later she managed to reconnect with her mother and other sisters, "decidedly different in appearance." Three generations later, Lucy Ellen Holmes's great-granddaughter Eleanor would have a vehement explanation for this ancestral desertion. Upon learning the story, her unsentimental response was, "That's not abandonment! Before the war she was privileged, a house nigger. But what life could she have in the South after the Civil War? There was no space for her. He dropped her off in Washington, where there were other blacks, where people were aspiring, to give her a chance -- and I'm sure glad he did!"
As the years went by, Richard Holmes took initiative of a different sort. History shrouds the exact circumstances propelling this laborer to become a student, but he attended the recently founded Howard University Ministerial School while Lucy Ellen supported him, washing, ironing and baby-sitting for the families of Washington Barracks military officers. Although he did not graduate, Eleanor's great-grandfather became minister of a small church in nearby Arlington, Virginia, to which he and his wife traveled by horse and buggy.
"Leadership appears in the family tradition. Ambition. I can only imagine him, having the guts to walk off the plantation. I see him as a kind of righteous man. The family was always religious, raising children well and right. So I just have a sense of these righteous black people who came to Washington and started churches."
Family legend variously places Lucy or her husband Richard among the founders of today's large Vermont Avenue Baptist Church; however, church records list neither as among the seven who created the church in 1866. "Founders are usually persons who sign the legal papers," Eleanor speculates. "Not everyone who helps start a church would be on the founders document."
Because Richard Holmes became a minister, he had a freedom unusual for a black man in post-Civil War Washington.
"The more segregated [the] society, the more the church was the leader in the community, because the minister, in any real sense, was the only free man. He didn't have to depend on anybody except his parishioners. He wasn't dependent on the white man."
In a sea of white control, churches formed critical networks. Ministers often took up an "after collection," a second offering distributed during the week to those most needy. In the trauma of exodus and relocation, churches stabilized communities, inspiring worshipers who sang, "Order my steps in your Word, dear Lord. Lead me, guide me, every day." Soon these anchors attracted grocery stores, cafes, barbershops and offices; community sprang to life.
In the chaos of the post-Civil War migration, much of Washington's black population viewed education -- with religion -- as the way to freedom. After the cultural wilderness of slavery, when literacy was severely punished, a thirst for knowledge propelled the founding of school after school. Unable to use public facilities until after the war (though they paid taxes), black Washingtonians supported more private schools than any other city. This educational emphasis would later have a direct impact on Eleanor Holmes.
"Washington's premier schools for Negroes," she would boast of her schooling in the 1940s and 1950s, "were unparalleled in the nation. Washington was a mecca for aspiring blacks. A critical mass of institutions nourished black intellectual life."
Beyond public schools, themselves unusual, Howard University, created after the war by contraband camp commander General Howard, was established in the heart of Washington's black community. A magnet for nationally renowned artists and intellectuals, Richard Holmes's great-granddaughter would grow up in its orbit, ever-aware of its luminous presence.
During these post-Civil War years Richard Holmes and his wife Lucy, remembered by a namesake granddaughter as "kind and busy, a good cook making wonderful fruit pies," had five children: another Richard, Alfred, Isaac, John -- who died at age seven -- and Irene. The offspring of this independent couple "were very clear that they didn't want to function in a 'less-than' role, that it was important to 'Be Somebody,' " another great-granddaughter says. "They wanted their children to excel. High academic standards were important." This drive for educational excellence -- a way to escape the crushing conditions -- would continue down the generations.
While the family grew and each of its members figured out how to "Be Somebody" in a culture that frustrated that possibility, official Washington swelled in size and polish. When the United States emerged as an imperial power in the 1890s its capital city correspondingly gained stature. Historian Constance McLaughlin Green describes senators of that era, "conscious of the new prestige attaching to the men who ratified or rejected international treaties, [who] abandoned the broad-brimmed hats and string ties of yesteryear and adopted high silk hats and frock coats as standard daytime attire." This was white federal Washington, with grand conventions, hotels and fine restaurants.
The other Washington, where most black people lived, was still the city of back alley shanties, desperate poverty and daily humiliations. Yet amid the indignities, a new middle class flourished. Near the end of the century, civil rights giant Mary Church Terrell wrote in her autobiography, Colored Woman in a White World, "There are more well-educated colored people to the square inch in Washington than in any other city in the United States."
After the war the radical Republicans who controlled Congress used the capital as a model city, legislating unprecedented civil rights. Calling this a time of "Reconstruction," they opened public accommodations. On Washington streetcar lines, for instance, the Holmes family could now ride inside the car, rather than sit on the roof in rain, snow and burning sun.
Richard John Lewis Holmes, son of the man who walked off a Virginia plantation and the woman dropped in Washington by her slave-owning father, was one of the handful who made it through the narrow Reconstruction window of the 1870s and 1880s into the new black middle class. His siblings, like others in Washington, had steady work with the federal government. Alfred mowed grass and cleared snow, Irene cleaned, and Ike, who attended Howard for several years, worked in the government printing office.
But Richard secured a plum city job. In 1902, at the age of twenty-five, he became one of only half a dozen black D.C. firefighters -- a secure, high-paying position that blacks would still have trouble attaining fifty years later. Yet Richard grew frustrated. As one of the few colored men scattered throughout the Fire Department, he could not rise to become an officer; there was an unbreakable ceiling above his head.
"You could not have black men over white men in a paramilitary environment."
The post-Civil War window of opportunity was closing. Repeatedly discouraged as he sought promotion, Richard Holmes joined several others to petition the Fire Department for the first all-black company. Successful in their mission, on January 28, 1921, Private Richard John Lewis Holmes was promoted to sergeant, paid "$1,700 per annum." Two decades later he would retire as a lieutenant.
Like his father, this Richard would live to be an old man past ninety, but he died before his granddaughter would help eliminate such segregated units as the one he proudly started; no fire department should have to be segregated for a black man to be an officer. Almost a century later, she, equally proudly, displays in her congressional office a picture of Grandfather Richard standing with his all-black firefighting company.
As the twentieth century dawned, restrictive laws everywhere eroded civil rights gained in postwar Washington. Mary Church Terrell recalls that in the 1890s "a colored person could dine anywhere in Washington." But the devastating 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision signaled the end.
The case arose from a Louisiana citizen -- Homer Plessy -- who refused to sit in a "colored" railroad car. He lost on appeal to the Supreme Court, which ruled that "separate but equal" facilities could be provided. The decision gave the green light to a resegregation that would stand until the firefighter Richard Holmes's granddaughter Eleanor was almost grown. Using Plessy, the city ignored District Reconstruction codes mandating nondiscrimination -- in fact, they "lost" those codes -- and created two distinct, racially divided cities.
Soon Mrs. Terrell, wife of a judge, could walk the sixteen blocks from the Capitol to the White House and find not one restaurant "in which I would be permitted to take a morsel of food if it was patronized by white people." She recalled being ravenously hungry and weary downtown, unable to replenish anywhere unless, in an occasional concession, she was offered the option of eating behind a screen. (Imagine the noted school board member, international lecturer on suffrage and president of the National Association of Colored Women, clad in her elegant attire, coming from a meeting at the Capitol. She takes off her white gloves, sits and places her napkin in her lap as a screen is placed next to her table to shield other diners from her presence.) In real life, Mrs. Terrell rarely submitted to the indignity, even when hungry or with out-of-town colleagues needing a meal.
Housing and schools resegregated, many hospitals no longer accepted black patients and most black people became even more firmly relegated to humble work. "There is no way for me to earn an honest living in the National Capital, unless I am willing to be a domestic servant, if I am not a trained nurse or a dressmaker, or unless I can secure a position in the public schools," Mrs. Terrell fumed. Teaching was often impossible since the supply of colored teachers exceeded demand.
Yet while the city soon had separate schools, churches and clubs, the turn-of-the-century black community, one third of the population, developed a vibrant cultural life with its own movie theaters -- the Lincoln, the Republic, the Howard, and the Booker T -- in the U Street area. Despite segregation, Washington's public schools were known as extraordinary and the city harbored a burgeoning intelligentsia. The federal government, though offering mostly menial jobs, still contributed a modicum of economic stability.
As the twentieth century opened, aspiring blacks -- including Richard the firefighter and his wife Nellie, daughter of the immaculately starched midwife Matilda Jackson Coleman and her husband Frank -- clustered in the near Southwest and Northwest neighborhoods. Living on a muddy street at 913 3rd St., SW, in a little four-room house, the Holmes clan expanded. First child Selena was followed by a baby boy, who, according to family lore, died from eating a piece of meat inadvertently given him too young by his father. Then Frank and another Richard were born, each exactly four years, nine months apart. On April 17, 1912, at 2:10 a.m., when his parents were thirty-five years old, the last baby, Coleman Sterling, was born.
Richard provided well for his family. Years later his ex-wife Nellie would tell her granddaughter Eleanor, "We had fifty-pound bags of flour, twenty-five pounds of sugar, kegs of every kind of food. Richard was a man who did right by his family."
And she did right by him, speaking nothing but praise for his "right-minded" ways even after they divorced, though she did later tell Vela, her daughter-in-law, that on her wedding night her husband's behavior was a shock. Richard undressed and dropped his clothes on the floor, clearly expecting his new wife to pick them up.
"Why have you left these clothes for me to hang up?" the proud woman asked her surprised husband. But she remained married to Richard for twenty-five years.
Hardworking, independent-minded folk, Richard and Nellie Holmes were faithful Baptists like Richard's father, the man who walked away from slavery: they didn't drink or smoke. With their middle-class neighbors -- postmen, teachers, shoemakers, Pullman porters, and barbers -- they helped build a flourishing community that founded its own businesses and inaugurated holidays celebrating black achievements, like Douglass Day on February 14. These self-sufficient institutions at least partially protected their children from racial insults, yet Washingtonians also fought discrimination, organizing an early NAACP chapter to protest Jim Crow laws.
Within this vibrant, segregated environment, Coleman Sterling Holmes grew to adulthood. A tall, handsome young man who dressed impeccably, he both read music and played piano by ear, enjoyed fine foods and was a true son of his upwardly mobile, independent-thinking family. His father, Richard, the firefighter, got an unheard-of Mexican divorce, Uncle Ike played the violin, and Uncle Alfred had a farm in Maryland -- something most blacks didn't do.
Called "Coley" at Cardozo Business High School, "the first business high school in the history of Negro education," Coleman was a member of its first graduating class. An editor of that historic yearbook, he also figured prominently in it. Coleman was everywhere: acclaimed as an oratorical contest winner, vice president of his home room, chair of the Recreation Committee, one of four student speakers at commencement and a football player who played in his own patent leather shoes because the new Athletic Association had no size elevens.
In 1931, as the Depression gripped the country, this young leader of his class determined to leave the protection of home and set off north for Syracuse University, where he had received a scholarship.
"Very unusual for that day, especially for black men," declares Eleanor about the role model who would be her father. Alone among his schoolmates, he made the arduous trip to Syracuse to begin his odyssey, constantly scraping together money for school.
During the years that Eleanor's paternal family made their way in the nation's capital, her maternal root flourished farther south. Great-grandparents Emily Johnson Fitts and William Fitts, enslaved in northern North Carolina, near Warrenton and Macon, faced different hazards. There was no possibility here of crossing a river to a city filled with free blacks and abolitionists. No chance here of passing by a town square as Frederick Douglass poured forth his vision, or stumbling into an antislavery lecture given by young Susan B. Anthony and her father. Deep in the hills of North Carolina, the black Fitts (named after their white owners) labored on the Fitts plantation, far from urban networks or hopes of flight.
But like Richard and Lucy Ellen Holmes, these were people of strong wills. Eleanor's mother Vela Holmes sits in her comfortable Northwest Washington living room and tells a tale of hardy ancestors.
During the Civil War, when the white Fitts men raced off to battle in the Confederate Army, the plantation mistress, "ole miss," was left in charge. Eleanor's mother carefully emphasizes her choice of words -- "My mama, who told me this story, always called her 'ole miss,' never said Mrs. Fitts" -- as she grimly recounts a story she heard many times growing up.
"I don't know whether my mama added a little juice to this or not," she says as she begins. Ole miss, anxious about her sons at war, carefully followed Confederate troop reports, foraging scraps of news from neighbors, letters from the front and deserters who rode by with tales of burning and carnage.
"Well, naturally," Mrs. Holmes explains, "they were listening for if any of their children were hurt." In fact, one of ole miss's sons was eventually wounded in the war raging nearby. She ordered her slave, Eleanor's great-grandfather, to find the wounded Confederate soldier and bring him home.
"I know the thing my mother resented the most," says Mrs. Holmes, "was that when the message reached ole miss that her oldest son had been shot, ole miss said right away, 'William, you've got to go get him, you can't let him die!' "
Mrs. Holmes grimaces. "Evidently ole miss thought my grandfather, William, was a giant."
Ordered off on this dangerous mission, William Fitts set out with two horses. When he managed to track Confederate troops and find the injured soldier, William hoisted the man onto a horse and trotted back to the plantation. Someone shot his own horse out from under him; eventually he arrived home walking, his hands pulling the bridle as he led the other horse carrying the Confederate soldier.
"My mama said," Mrs. Holmes relays, "that her mother, little ninety-pound Emily, took the roof off the house to her husband when he brought the white man home. I understand that the tiny grandmother, Emily Fitts, said to her husband William, 'Why didn't you shoot him and the horse?'
"After that rescue from Sherman's army, when the Confederate son got home to recuperate, he raped William's wife, my grandmother, and that baby was born. He became Shepherd Fitts, my uncle, who got to go to college and read law, because who do you think got him in there?
"His father, the white man. And you see how they tried to pay up. Human beings are peculiar beings, and the owners ran things.
"But that Emily Fitts, she raised sand," Mrs. Holmes repeats with a smile of satisfaction. "Yes she did. She had a will. And all of Eleanor's ancestors did."
After the Civil War, the black Fitts family remained near Macon, farming. Emily and William Fitts's daughter Lucinda, who would be Eleanor's grandmother, was at first thought to be lazy because she liked to read all the time.
"My mother Lucinda was a very bright young person," Mrs. Vela Holmes reminisces. "When she got to be about sixteen or seventeen, the Plummers, a historically free black family, wanted somebody to help with their children's studies. You see, they didn't have schools. So they asked my mother if she would come and live with them." In late nineteenth-century North Carolina, Lucinda Fitts became an educator, although there had been little opportunity for her own education. "The county tried to give you a certificate. That's what you strived for. Every time, you got a little bit more here, and a little bit more there too. And Mama talked about her first-grade certificate."
While Lucinda taught the Plummer children, she met a young carpenter, Mark Lynch, who came into Warrington on business and had to stay overnight, tying his horse at Plummers' livery stable. Mark's father had been another North Carolina rarity -- a free black man during slavery. After courting, Lucinda Fitts and Mark Lynch married and built a house on land given them by Mark's parents, Dudley and Mary Silver Lynch.
First a son, Bernard, was born. Then on September 7, 1909, Emily and William Fitts's daughter Lucinda gave birth to a baby girl, Vela, who would become Eleanor's mother. Two more boys -- Fitzhugh, and, in 1919, Nathan -- completed the family.
Born less than fifteen miles from the old Fitts plantation on a Littleton farm that raised cotton, corn, peanuts, cane, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, Vela remembers tending "everything that grew." On the red, rocky land, everything grew but tobacco, and every crop was worked by the family. Vela's father's and mother's people all lived nearby, forming a large extended family.
Like their neighbors, Vela's family dined on food it harvested, wore clothes its women made, and relied on its men to build the shelter they enjoyed. Vela regularly ate a country breakfast: fried chicken and gravy, rice, biscuits, and corn bread -- though Vela, as a girl, got only the feet of the chicken. At midday dinner, she had a pot of cabbage with potatoes and "middling meat" -- pork cut from the middle, between the shoulder and the hip of the hog. At supper, the family had a light meal of fried potatoes, a fresh-picked vegetable and leftovers from midday dinner.
The family worked from before dawn until after dusk, raising crops, tending animals and making virtually everything they used. Vela's cousin Ara Walls remembers vividly, "We worked on the farm from the time you was big enough to walk. Mama put a five-pound sugar sack around your neck for cotton, Mama had her bag, you had your bag, you know you wanted to do everything your mama did. As you grew, it turned to a meal bag, and then you'd fill that up. By that time, you're almost able to have your own row in the field." The family worked cotton with a hoe, thinning seedlings row by row and "when you finished one job Papa had another one for you."
Finally Sundays came. Vela did up her hair and dressed in Sunday slippers and middy blouse, with her white pleated skirt "starched until it could stand up by itself." The family set off by horse and carriage for the little junction of Essex and Pine Chapel Baptist Church, the home church for grandfather Dudley Lynch and his six grown children, each a prosperous farmer he'd started out with a piece of land. When they'd made the journey, hoping to avoid skirt-soaking rain, Vela greeted her aunts, uncles, and cousins; together they went in to sit on the long hard benches.
Every Sunday evening when chores were done, after the family had prayed at Pine Chapel and eaten dinner, when the cows and horses were where they should be, "Papa would take his children and we'd go to his father's." Vela Holmes smiles at the memory. "Grandfather Dudley always had a hug for us. Then he would say, 'Go look up there, and whatever is in that thing bring it to me.' " Grandfather had a sweet potato treat or a piece of hard candy tucked away. "And that was what he had been saving all week for us. So you see you can't help but have a lot of affection for people like that."
Vela saw her entire family on important occasions. A few had cars; a drive across the mountain was an all-day event. On dirt roads, if it was raining, they were mired in mud. If it was dry, they got stuck in sand. But several times a year, they made it.
Mrs. Holmes reminisces, "knowing my mother's cousins, they were also slaves indentured to a similar family. In fact, they all had the same last names, as all slaves did [who worked for a family]. And it was Fitts. As I grew up I remember looking at these Fitts men, my uncles and cousins. They were tall and strong and fine-looking men. And they seemed to be very happy people."
A generation later, these hard-workers would have their legacy in Eleanor. Raised by her country mother Vela, the daughter would herself labor from dawn to dusk and beyond, just as her North Carolina relatives had done. Eleanor would emerge the heir to both sides of her family, twining the legacy of independent-minded, urban paternal ancestors with that of her even-keeled, industrious Southern roots, both sides joined by a love of education.
After Vela Lynch completed sixth grade at Jerusalem School, she left her close-knit kin to go off to Bricks Junior College, since no public high schools were open for "colored" in North Carolina. Run by people who looked white ("but known as colored," Vela recalls), the school was founded by the American Missionaries, a Northern group. The few who attended these private high schools became the educated leaders of the next generation. Amongst this vibrant group of seekers, Vela has fond memories; the boarding school also provided relief from the city school, where white children had pushed her off sidewalks.
"You'd have to hold your own," she recalls with a shake of her head, "or they'd bump you off."
After just three years at Bricks, Vela was yanked from her comfortable second home. At the age of fifteen, she was summoned by the school principal to receive fearful news: her mother was gravely ill. Vela hurried home just in time. Within days, Lucinda Lynch died, leaving four children. On her deathbed she specified that her only daughter was to be sent north, away from the harsh conditions of Southern farm life. Almost immediately, Vela was sent to Auburn, New York, to live with her mother's older sister, Elizabeth, after whom Vela Elizabeth had been named.
"It was a very heartbreaking thing," Mrs. Vela Holmes remembers, leaving her family behind on the farm. "I'll never forget the day. I had never seen all my aunts and uncles. I knew my uncle was a lawyer, his daughter had gone to Howard University, and she was supposed to be musical. She had a piano, I'd heard. But I had never seen them before. It was such a dreadful day."
The difficulty of her leave-taking was magnified by her treatment in the "colored" waiting room at the train station. Although she arrived early with her family, she was kept waiting at the ticket window until all in the white waiting room purchased their tickets, moments before the train pulled out. But the spirit of her grandmother, the indomitable Emily Fitts, came to Vela in a most unexpected form.
"My uncle Shepherd [the offspring of Emily Fitts's rape] walked by, and he hugged me and kissed me on my cheek and threw five dollars in my hand." Vela Lynch was thus fortified to start her journey alone to the chilly unknown, way up north.
On the train Vela sat in "a little cubbyhole" of a Jim Crow car, right behind the engine. "It was the only place black people were put in front of the white," her cousin says, laughing at the irony seventy-five years later. With the window open to relieve the stifling heat, smoke blew in Vela's face all the way to Syracuse, covering her with soot. Allowed in neither sleeping cars nor dining room, she sat up all night and ate food her family provided. Every few hours the young woman untied the twine around her shoe box, crammed with chicken, ham sandwiches, biscuits, cake and apples.
"Travel," Vela Holmes understates, "was very difficult then."
In Syracuse, stepping off the train with her cardboard suitcase, she was greeted warmly by Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Alfred, thought by Vela to be a relative of Harriet Tubman. Vela arrived wearing her mother's old coat.
"I remember my aunt took that coat, sewed it, hemmed it, and I threw that thing.
" 'Aunt Elizabeth,' I said, 'I'm not going to wear this old coat!'
"So she said to me, 'Yes you will. Yes you will.'
"Uncle Alfred, who is no relation to me, said, 'Fittsie, go downtown and take her into Witherow's and get her a coat. You're not going to have her walking down Genese Street in that old coat.' " The following Saturday Vela's uncle and aunt took her into Syracuse for her first city-bought coat and a city outing.
"I was well treated," Mrs. Holmes says, her face softening as she remembers the kindness of her uncle and aunt. "They were wonderful teenage years," made more marvelous by the arrival of her brother Fitzhugh, who secured a nearby live-in job as a chauffeur.
After graduating from Central High School in Syracuse in 1930, where all the other students in her high school yearbook were visibly white, the young woman worked her way through two years at Syracuse Normal School by being "in service." Always groomed with gloves and purse, she cooked in white folks' kitchens and lived as a maid in their homes until, like her mother before her, she received her teaching certificate.
Vela began to teach in the public schools. Yet twenty-five years later another African-American woman, Marjorie Carter, would be heralded as the first to break the city's teaching color bar. Perhaps, Vela's niece Dolores Brule now speculates, "it's possible they didn't know she was African-American. If they did a face-to-face they might not have known. She was light enough that it may not have occurred to them, and if they didn't ask she may not have told. I've always thought that's what happened."
"New York State would not have had a question on the application form," Eleanor concurs. "My mother graduated from Normal School where they didn't ask you what you are, she applied for a job where they didn't ask you what you are.
"There's no question that my mother was very light, but she wasn't passing. She said, 'Here's a job, I show up for the job, hire me.' Passing was if someone asked you and you said 'No.' Passing is literally passing over; a large number did it in the oppressive climate of the early twentieth century. They lost their identity as blacks, disappeared from the black world, lost their friends."
However Vela secured her early 1930s teaching job, she found pleasure after-hours in the company of her brother Fitzhugh and his wife Gwenderlin. In 1931 she was delighted by the arrival of their first child, Dolores; Vela spent hours combing the child's hair and pushing the carriage while she talked to friends.
Soon the sedate young woman encountered a debonair student at Syracuse University, Mr. Coleman Holmes.
"One way they had of integrating everything at the university was, I think, they all assumed that the men could sing." Vela describes the fateful meeting with a wry smile.
"I had a good friend, Fanny, who [later] stood up to be Eleanor's godmother. And she would say, 'Well, let's go on up to the university and see if these colored boys can sing. They're going to sing tonight.' So we'd go up there. They could usually sing. We'd go, and Fanny's husband Robert would go with us. He was also a friendly person and he got to know Coleman. After that, quite often, when I'd go to Fanny's house, Robert would say, 'Oh, Coleman was here. He wants to meet you.' "
Coleman Holmes was just beginning his college career when he met the light-skinned Vela Lynch. Upwardly mobile Washington had made its mark on the young man with high ambitions. "Coleman was very color-struck," his daughter Eleanor would later concede. "Part of the legacy of middle-class Washington was a pronounced color consciousness within the race. Although it wasn't like New Orleans, there was a color hierarchy for which Washington was well-known. Today we've gone through 'Black Is Beautiful,' but Coleman hadn't." Years later his mother Nellie would laugh about her dark brown son, "Coleman said he would never marry anybody as dark as he was."
The romance between Coleman and Vela blossomed as he struggled to complete Syracuse University.
"Lord," Mrs. Holmes exclaims, "we've had a hard way to get through school. That scholarship ran out, and before he could go back, he went to work, and he had to come back and beat it through."
On July 14, 1936, Vela Elizabeth Lynch and Coleman Sterling Holmes pledged their union in Syracuse, New York. After saying their vows the couple left for Washington D.C., where the Holmes family had established deep roots since Richard Holmes first walked across the Long Bridge from Virginia eighty years before.
In August, Coleman and Vela moved into a small apartment on Lamont Street, Northwest, and began life together in the nation's capital.
Washington, D.C., in the Depression-era 1930s was a modern city. Gas lanterns were mourned by some but had been almost universally supplanted by the new electricity that lit up nearly every building.
And it was a segregated city. Even white-owned stores in black neighborhoods wouldn't employ colored people, triggering the New Negro Alliance to form, with the slogan "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work!" Thurgood Marshall and other lawyers were filing federal complaints for access to rest rooms and lunch counters.
Coleman Holmes arrived home to the District with his shy, attractive bride as his community cheered one "first" after another: people huddled around radios to hear the news when Jesse Owens racked up four gold medals at the Olympic games in Nazi-led Berlin. They cheered as Joe Louis pounded white opponents in the boxing ring with satisfying thuds, and little boys shadowboxed like their idol. Singer Lena Horne describes the "Brown Bomber": "Joe was the one invincible Negro, the one who stood up to the white man and beat him down with his fists. He in a sense carried so many of our hopes, maybe even dreams of revenge."
In the city of his birth Coleman was well connected. Finding work as the Depression deepened was a day-to-day challenge when those "last hired and first fired" got the hardest, dirtiest work, the so-called "Negro jobs." Urban black unemployment climbed to over 50 percent; white women competed for jobs as maids and cooks. The new Social Security Board established a Bureau of Public Assistance to help an increasingly destitute populace. But Coleman's people, hardworking and self-reliant, tightened belts in a time when even porter jobs became difficult to find.
Coleman's father, Richard ("Papa"), a tall dignified man, married his second wife, Miss Olivia. The grown Holmes children -- Coleman, Selena, Frank, and the third Richard -- regularly went out to Papa's house for Sunday evening dinners after lengthy services at the Mt. Mariah Baptist Church. The aroma of fried chicken, ham, fresh corn and beans, black-eyed peas, greens, cornbread and sweet potato pie, all blended into one sweet smell of home. Soon, however, Coleman and Vela broke from this tradition of Holmes family life.
"In their search for upward mobility," Eleanor says, they left the clapping Baptists of their youth and on December 18, 1936, joined Saint George's Episcopal Church at 2nd and U Streets. "They always said they were determined to get out of the long day of church services." After a brief sermon the couple enjoyed their own small family dinner at home.
Coleman, a witty and sociable man, also enjoyed the fellowship at several local clubs. Coming alive at night, he played cards -- whist and bridge -- with his wife and other up-and-coming couples, and soon hatched plans to go to law school at night while driving a cab during the day.
The young couple sparred. Vela Lynch Holmes was still, in her husband's eyes, the North Carolina farm-girl-turned-teacher. When she scooped grease off a plate with a piece of bread he teased her about being "country."
"That's straight out of North Carolina!"
Coleman scoured secondhand stores, looking for antiques and Oriental rugs to furnish their little apartment, "to keep North Carolina from getting in here."
If Coleman was elegant, Vela was thrifty and practical, captivating her husband and friends with steady, no-nonsense ways and a friendly manner. Determined to once again make the best of another move to a strange city, Vela ignored her husband's barbs and threw herself into work and family life. She began to think about night school, perhaps at Howard, where she might complete her bachelor's degree and get a District teaching license.
Barely four months after their move to Washington, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to a second term and cold fall rains chilled the air, the new couple got the news: Vela was pregnant.
All that winter and spring they prepared. As snow piled up around their front door, Vela put away what money she could. By the time daffodils opened, she was cutting old clothes into blankets, sewing up baby dresses and knitting tiny caps.
While Vela stitched and saved, Coleman the dreamer found the perfect name, one that honored a relative -- his grandmother Lucy Ellen -- and preserved tradition, but also invoked another woman, prominent and daring: the president's wife. She had begun publishing "My Day," a widely read newspaper column. This "exquisitely right name," as its holder would later declare, signified both a grounding in Coleman's family past and an anticipation of a future that would be different. In the hot, humid, early June days of 1937, Vela and Coleman anxiously awaited the arrival of their first child.
They would name her Eleanor.
Copyright © 2003 by Joan Steinau Lester
Fire in My Soul
Author Joan Steinau Lester met Norton in 1958 while they were both students at Antioch College. Fire in My Soul charts their longstanding friendship and tells of Norton's rise to leadership -- from her early on-campus activism to demanding a Senate hearing for Anita Hill to standing before the Supreme Court to uphold first amendment rights. Filled with scores of Lester's conversations and correspondence with Norton, interviews with Norton's colleagues and confidantes, and dozens of original photographs, Fire in My Soul is a compelling biography of one of the greatest political pioneers in American history.