Looking Back on Our Own Histories

As we celebrated Black History Month it was natural to look back on our own individual family and cultural histories and wonder how they shaped the people we are today.
Not too long ago Ancestry.com had available the census records that brought me some surprises. There in the 1920 and 1930 census records I found my grandparents. Knowing that such records are far from perfect, I saw that in 1920 both my paternal grandparents were listed as literate. The line item was “can you read and write?” and the answer was “yes.” I don’t know whether the census taker tested them on the spot. In the census record of my maternal grandparents both had “no” listed in the literacy line in 1920 but by 1930 my maternal grandfather had a “yes’ but my maternal grandmother still was listed as “no.”
Thirty years after my maternal grandmother came to the United States of America with five of her eight born children (sadly, triplets did not survive infancy in Europe) to join my grandfather who was waiting for her (he having established a very humble working man’s “lunchroom” at the Brooklyn Navy Yards), she could not read or write. This was not unexpected for a young girl who appeared to have married at fifteen and had her first child shortly thereafter. Coming to America meant learning a new language and often a new alphabet. Perhaps there just wasn’t time. My grandparents worked night and day in the workingman’s lunchroom they established, and when the children were old enough they helped their parents there. The somewhat older kids raised the younger ones at home and in the end another child was born to my grandparents in their new country. The surprise in the little bit of history I found was not that my maternal grandmother hadn’t learned to read or write by 1930, but that my mother, her daughter, strove valiantly to achieve an education in this new world of possibilities. She refused to leave school before she completed a commercial diploma. It was expected that all the daughters in the family would leave school and go to work in order to contribute money so that the youngest son could be sent to college. My mother, encouraged by a librarian at a settlement house, refused to quit and stayed on in school and became a skilled secretary in a small office. She married at age twenty-six, late for those times. My mother and father scrimped and saved to put my sister and me through college and saw us enter the professions of teaching and social work. My parents were so proud of us for this was their “American dream.” My mother saw what it meant for her mother to go without an education and wanted something else for herself and her children. She struggled and fought for this dream and succeeded.
This is what I learned and wanted to share — my little piece of family history. The importance of education that we passed on to our children came from a cultural experience and struggle of our grandparents crossing the ocean to the lower east side of New York City and our parents’ yearning for education in a country where this became possible.
Fondly Shared, for the Diversity Committee

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1 Response to Looking Back on Our Own Histories

  1. Rich Alpert says:

    This is a great post, and shows what has been so important in so many family histories – trying to give our future generations a better future, in this case, through education.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Rich Alpert, diversity videos producer

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