EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is excerpted from ‘Negroland: A Memoir,’ published by Pantheon on September 8, 2015.
The grandmothers were enthralling. Improvising dowager status for themselves. Mine had both grown up in Mississippi, gone to Rust College, and taught in small country schools. They both worked in dressmaking when they moved north (the Jeffersons to Denver, then Los Angeles; the McClendons to St. Louis and, for my grandmother, Chicago). They planned their children’s educational ascent with vigilance. They plotted their own advancement with equal care.
Women of color born between 1880 and 1905 seized hold of progress and faced down peril on all fronts. Encouraged by the example of their own formidable parents, they became teachers and dressmakers and caterers, nurses and stenographers, even doctors and lawyers. They opened beauty shops and Sunday schools. They learned to keep accounts for the men who founded insurance companies and funeral homes. They sometimes married these men; they often outlived them and took over the business. But if they’d married men who had little to leave, they set out to earn dowers for their daughters. They passed for white to sell clothes in white department stores. They took in boarders. They studied property values and bought real estate. (Every week, tenants placed their rent in the courteous, peremptory hand of the dowager.)
My maternal grandmother, Lily McClendon Armstrong, had a 2-year-old daughter when she lost her husband to the flu epidemic of 1918. He’d been an engineer, hired by Booker T. Washington and sent by him to Purdue for graduate training. When he died, Lily and baby Irma moved from Holly Springs, Mississippi, where her family had owned land and a general store, to St. Louis, where they’d bought property, and where her husband’s mother and aunt’s sister had respectable jobs in service. She had taught school in Mississippi; she learned dressmaking in St. Louis. She took a second husband, an attractive, well-spoken man from a respectable colored family, and together they moved to Chicago for better jobs and more independence.
The St. Louis dressmaker became a Chicago dressmaker with well-to-do white clients at the posh Edgewater Beach Hotel. (The beach was private and patrons were often flown there.)
Lily McClendon Armstrong became Lillian McClendon Armstrong in Chicago. The additional syllable was appropriate for worldlier Northern ears. The St. Louis husband was left behind when, after several years, he continued to show insufficient ambition.
All politics are local, and when she turned her attention to politics, she entered at a very local level, collecting votes door to door for a Negro precinct captain in the Democratic Party. She always delivered a high count, so he made her a playground supervisor, which she found benevolently dull. With the party’s support, she became one of Chicago’s first Negro policewomen. This she enjoyed.
“Lemee go with you, babe,” said a drunken man one night when she was out of uniform and on her way home. “Certainly” came her genial reply, whereupon she asked him into her car and drove him to the police station.