The Intriguing Family Truth
A Review by Ginny Sterling
I’ve known Dedria for many years, and have heard bits and pieces and pieces of her family’s story along the way, a subject dear to her heart. I was intrigued by the premise of her book from the beginning.
How did her great grandmother, Alice, a white woman, and John, a black man, get together at the turn of the 20th century, in an era where such a thing would be totally unthinkable? Why did she put her children in an orphanage? And even more of a mystery - why did the youngest never come home?
These are questions whose answers might lead some to assume a lack of attachment, however, the truth Dedria pieces together points to a very different reason: doing what she thought was ultimately best for the children, even though that reality was harsh and painful.
By telling her family’s story, she helps us to understand the choices made in a time when people had few options and no social safety net other than family. Their circumstances often turned dire in an instant, with untimely deaths of young parents, and offspring to be raised. This happened to a number of people in my own family.
Dedria delves into the mysteries of her great grandmother’s life with curiosity, a lot of research, and deep appreciation for family members and their accomplishments. She also gives us glimpses of one African-American family’s ties, options available to them, and Detroit history.
Ginny Sterling, East Lansing
Juicy Treatment of Family Mystery
A Review by Karen Petersmarck, PhD
Anyone who has ever grown up with a family mystery will appreciate what Dedria Humphries Barker has done in her book Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, a Colored Man’s Widow. In Ms. Humphries Barker’s case, the family mystery was why her great grandmother, remembered as a kind and loving woman, decided to place her three mixed-race children into an orphanage in 1913 when her Black husband died. The author spent 20 years seeking the solution to the mystery.
When no living person knows the answer to a question of this nature, finding the truth requires scholarship, persistence, intelligence, and imagination. Ms. Humphries Barker displays all of these as she assembles hundreds of disparate bits of information from hundreds of sources, turning them into a fascinating narrative.
The barest of basic facts made clear the nature of the challenges Irish Alice would have been facing. How could Alice support herself and her three children? Who would care for the children while she worked?
Slowly, bit by bit, over the book’s 276 pages, the story emerges. Some of the story consists of biographical facts that were uncovered. Many of those facts, however, could be understood only in the context of a deep understanding of what was happening in the country in terms of racial and cultural realities of the time. As the author strove to understand the world that her Irish great grandmother had been born into, some striking cultural trends soon emerged which eventually made sense out of Irish Alice’s decision to give up her children.
The Irish were scorned. The author’s great grandmother Alice Donlan came from a family of immigrants from Ireland. At the time Alice was growing up, Irish people were the bottom of the social barrel in the U.S. They were not considered “white.” They could hope for only the most menial, low-paying jobs. “They were particularly vilified by the country’s Anglo-Saxon Protestants whose ancestors had explicitly made their exodus across the ocean to find a refuge from papism.”[i] This fact explained the urgency of a poor Irish lass to find a husband who was a good provider. A financially secure “White” American family would not welcome a poor Irish girl into their midst. At the time Alice met her flamboyant and handsome Black husband-to-be, she was in danger of becoming “an old maid” and thus being doomed to a future of servitude.
The Irish scorned blacks. Despite sharing the bottom of the social barrel with Blacks, the Irish looked down on Blacks. This fact explained the total rejection by Alice’s Irish family of Alice, her Black husband, and her mixed-race children.
The Irish were passionately committed to education for their children. The author cites several references to support this fact. Understanding the cultural value for education – of girls as well as boys – was critical to understanding Alice’s decision.
Oldest daughters were generally expected to take over childcare for working parents. This was true in the European-immigrant communities in New York tenements. It was true among German Americans in Detroit, where my own grandmother held her oldest daughter out of school to help with the housework. It was true of Irish Alice’s Black in-laws, where all the adult women were holding down jobs. Alice’s in-laws loved Alice’s children, but they could not afford to support them financially. They could not fathom why Alice would not simply keep her oldest daughter home to care for her siblings.
These and other forces such as poverty, the absence of opportunity for women, the unavailability of childcare, and racial injustice taken all together helped make some sense out of Irish Alice’s decision to give up her children and send them to the Clark County Children’s Home. There they would be safe. Her oldest daughter, Polly, could be spared full responsibility for her two younger siblings. All three children would receive an education. The facility she chose permitted Alice to continue being part of her children’s lives – taking them out for family events, bringing them gifts, buying them clothes.
The author used every skill she had ever acquired as a journalist to uncover information. The obvious first step, interviewing the oldest relatives, initially bore little fruit. This was a family that had never talked about such things. The next step was to dive deeply into U.S. Census data – before the days when genealogy websites made it relatively simply to do so.
With some dates and places in hand, the next step was to dig into the records of the Clark County Children’s Home. But doing so would require the signature of one of the children who had been placed there, the author’s grandmother, who was, by this time 92 years old, in a nursing home, with a fading memory and distrust of people who asked questions. The author enlisted the support of her grandmother’s two beloved sons, one of whom was trained as a social worker, to gently obtain the mandatory signature.
The orphanage record was a treasure trove of information but was no help in illuminating motives and thought processes. However, there was enough there to jog the failing memory of the author’s grandmother, unlocking a few precious anecdotes from the former orphanage resident.
Tracing the family story sometimes took more than documenting historical facts and figuring out their social context. In some cases, the author also used incredible problem-solving skills to get at the truth. One example that impressed me was Ms. Humphries Barker’s tracking of her great-grandfather’s location at the time he met his future wife.
She did it by painstakingly studying city directories for the five years surrounding the time of her parents’ meeting. There were ten separate entries for men with variations of the name John Henry Johnson. Why so many men with the same name? And which one was her ancestor? Ms. Humphries Barker explained why the name John Henry was so common. Many Black males at that time had been named after a folk hero, who had proposed a contest between his strength for pounding rivets into railroad rails and the machine that was being brought in to drive the rivets (and subsequently put many men out of work). The legendary John Henry beat the machine, but wore out his heart, dying with the effort.
After explaining the multitude of John Henry’s, she explained how she decided which of the ten was her ancestor. The city directories listed each male and his occupation. In family lore, her great-grandfather had been employed as a jockey when he met his wife-to-be. The author studied all ten of the entries that could possibly have been her ancestor. Only one of the men had an occupation related to horses. The John H. Johnson who lived at 731 W. 7thStreet was a “coachman.” That had to be the one.
Many aspects of the Mother of Orphans book impressed and inspired me. The scholarship and persistence that resulted in elucidating the family mystery were remarkable. But what impressed me equally was the author’s documentation of the effects of Irish Alice’s decision on four generations of her family. The research and thoughtful analysis that went into the latter 2/3 of the book would have been a credit to a doctoral candidate in sociology, with none of the dryness that would be found in a dissertation.
She accomplished this by telling the stories of four remarkable women and their families -
Pauline, Irish Alice’s Black sister-in-law, who became the family’s matriarch.
Polly, the oldest of Irish Alice’s three children who were turned over to the Home for Children.
Mary Jane, Polly’s oldest daughter, who gave up her own dreams to take care of the children.
Dedria , Mary Jane’s daughter and the author of the book, whose own children were cared for by Mary Jane so that Dedria could go to school and pursue meaningful work.