It’s hard to bloom in the shadows with little nurturance and parents who struggle just to survive. My maternal grandparents barely obtained sixth-grade educations and lived with cousins, uncles, and aunties on the same street and often in the same houses, not much different from my father’s childhood story.
They found one another amidst this poverty and ignorance, and I find these same themes haunting my family story for generations to this day.
Grandmother Mary and her entire family came up from Tennessee and left the sawmills for the coal mines. Grandpa Rubin was born in St. Charles, KY, was without a mother by the age of 9, and an orphan by the age of 16. Census reports have him living in Hopkinsville, KY with his father in boarding houses or with his paternal grandmother, Francis. Francis was widowed twice and left with five children to raise, so the marriages came and went until her final husband, T. Matheny, welcomed her, her sons and grandkids into his home.
I have stories of Francis that float through my head from time to time as I can only imagine the stiff chin and resolve it took to deal with a world without women’s rights and men who were either from money or doomed to work the fields, sawmills and coal mines instead of seeking an education or having any other way to move up in the world. Francis came from money and landowners, but her name and the finances were lost by her grandfather who was hanged for his love of drinking, greed, and finally, murder. On May 1, 1846, at the age of 14, Francis’ mother Mary, witnessed her father’s public hanging. It was the first public hanging of a a white man in KY, and brought crowds from all over Muhlenberg. Mary stood by her belief that he was an upstanding man. Following this, for Mary and Francis, I imagine life to be hard for them with the disgrace of this event.
They both found marriages quickly in order to survive. These were women who existed in a world that limited them to marrying well, having babies and daily housekeeping. Their lives were ingrained in fundamentalist religion, and the rights of men alone.
Francis married twice. She named her first son, Eugene Alonzo Stewart, after the grandfather she never knew, who was hanged. Being the namesake of the disgraced Edward Alonzo Pennington was likely more of a curse for her son because he ended up alone with a daughter, and my grandfather Rubin. Census shows Stewart living as a boarder with his two children alone not long after his only marriage and finally back with his mother, Francis. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 43, and his mother, Francis raised Rubin to his adulthood.
This was a time when communities mainly met through churches, and the Stewarts found themselves immersed in fundamental religious rhetoric. Whatever old money that brought my Stewart family to Kentucky was soon absorbed by the effects of greed, harsh living environments and religious hell-fire rage.
Rubin, now an adult who grew with little guidance and a lot of fight, raised his family with no concern for education or personal growth, ruling over them by the gun and the Bible. This led to mental illness, physical sickness, supported abuse, incest, continued poverty and no accountability for the hands that molded the family at the time. These events sparked the beginning of family secrets that have passed through generations in my family — and continue to this day.
The shame of how America came into being — how my family came to being — continues to haunt us all and many do not want their children to be educated about these shameful histories.
The curses of our pasts continue to recur, not just in my family but in most of the families I met in my over thirty years of social work.
We must acknowledge the stories of the past or we will relive them over and over again. The deterioration of families has broken my heart on both personal and professional levels in my fifty-three years of life. I accept my role as an agent of change early on. I simply could not stop myself from speaking and questioning what I saw and I could not look away.
If we hide the shame, these stories disappear and the abuse the people struggled with to survive will continue in later generations. The elders must learn from and continue to share their experiences. If not, the oppressed often becomes the oppressor. By never letting go of the shame, we risk raising future generations of oppressors and continuing the cycles of poverty, hatred and stunted personal growth. I have witnessed this time and again in my own family history. It must end. •