The Age: The hands that rocked the cradles

Lucy Jones was a black slave who, once emancipated, found work and a home with the White family in Chambers County.

By Marie Hughes, museum director, Chambers County Museum at Wallisville

Slavery remains a dark indelible stain on the tapestry of our nation. The thought that anyone would have the right to own another is reprehensible to me, but one thing I know, in the darkness of despair, God is able to bring forth light. One bright spot in this darkness is the impact many of the black nannies had in the lives of the children they helped to raise. 

I found little recorded on the character of the women themselves, but we can learn much about them by the qualities reflected in the babes they raised on their knees. 

Children, in their innocence, care not for the color of the hands that nurture them, but only for the love they see displayed. 

Lucy Jones painting

LUCY JONES, 1847-1936

One such nanny who was loved by the J. T. White family was Lucy Jones. She was so highly esteemed by the Whites that today her painting hangs in a place of honor in the R. M. White home in Stowell. The following newspaper article was written about 1935, Lucy died in 1936.

Remembering clearly the day she was purchased by the Barrows in 1861, and again when she was freed, Lucy Jones, about 88, lives today in her cabin on Turtle Bayou near the old James Taylor White place.

Lucy, who nursed more that one generation of the White and Barrow children, was purchased February 9, 1861, after the opening of the Civil War, by Benjamin Barrow of Chambers County. Barrow, a neighbor of the Whites, bought her for $775.

Mrs. G. B. Hamilton said of Lucy’s bill of sale, “It gives Aunt Lucy’s age, in 1861, as twelve, but Aunt Lucy said she was 14, and you know they frequently moved the ages of slaves back a little for purposes of the sale, so Aunt Lucy is probably 88 or older.”

Liberation

After the war when the slaves were liberated, Jones was homeless, and went to live with James Taylor White, the son of the original James Taylor White, at the old White ranch. She knows better than anyone the story of the first Texas cattle ranch. She nursed two or three generations of children, and more than one died in her arms. She is the very last of the original generation of slaves in lower Chambers County, though she is still active.

Lucy has been gone for many years now and is just one of the myriads of woman who served in the role of “Nanny” to white children, both before emancipation and after. I, by no means, speak for all nannies, as I am sure there were many who lived under far worse conditions than Lucy.  Lucy, however, remains a beautiful example of the perseverance of the human heart and the power of love.

Arleta Mae Douglas Singleton was 14 when her parents died. She found a new home with the Maxwell family, who taught her how to read and write, and how to play the piano. Pictured are Lloyd Maxwell, Arleta, Barry Jeffrey, Lamar Maxwell, Ila Boyt (in car), (front row) Don Maxwell, and David Maxwell.

ARLETA MAE DOUGLAS SINGLETON, 1924-2001

Arleta, born long after the dark days of slavery, was a member of the Douglas family who owned a section of woods West of Nome near the county line for Liberty and Jefferson Counties. There’s a section of woods in there that even today is called ‘The Douglas Woods.’ The property had been in their family since before the early 1900s. Arleta’s father was George Shay and her mother was Malina Douglas, but Arleta always kept the Douglas name. Arleta’s brother, R. L. Douglas, worked for my daddy when he was young and he was a great mechanic and welder,” said Lloyd Maxwell. “When World War II broke out, he served in the Pacific Theatre where he led a company of all black soldiers. When the Marines had cleared Guadalcanal and some of those really bad fighting areas, then R. L.’s crew would come in and do cleanup and get rid of the remaining Japanese that were still on the island. During that time, R. L. received one maybe two bronze stars for leading that crew and he received all kinds of mention in the military. When he returned, he went back to work for daddy for years as a mechanic until he got a job with John Deere. The Douglas family were well-known, well-respected, and had been there for a long time.”

Joined Heart to Heart

“When Lamar and I were born, World War II had just gotten started,” said Maxwell.  “Arleta was 14 years old, and her parents had died.  She was living with her elderly uncle and aunt, who had limited income.  Mama knew Arleta was a good person because the folks in the quarters had told her she was, so she went and talked to her aunt and said, ‘Maggie, you’ve got your hands full, and I’ve got a garage apartment above our cars.  I need some help, and if you will let me, I will be glad to take Arleta to our house.  She’ll have a safe place to stay. We will feed her and treat her just like she’s one of ours.  I’ll bring her back to you on the weekends, whenever y’all need her around there, but Arleta will be safe with us.  I’ll teach her how to read and write and we’ve got a piano in here.'”

“Arleta learned to play the piano by ear,” continued Lloyd.  “She helped mama raise all of us.  The rest were terrible, I was the best one of the bunch.”

Lloyd paused and ran his finger tenderly across the photo of Arleta.  His lip quivered as he struggled unsuccessfully to hold back a tear as the memory of this cherished woman washed over him.  He said softly, “I tell you. Arleta got a place in Heaven.”

“She’d go to the beach with us and help take care of us boys, you know.  She worked for Mama for 33 years.   I have a letter that Arleta wrote to Mama, and I saved that letter in case anyone had any questions about how we treated Arleta.

“When Mama and Daddy would go to a concert somewhere, Arleta would take us into the piano and she had us singing the old black spiritual music, and I’m going to tell you something, the Baptists in the Church in Devers didn’t have anything compared to us, he said with a smile.  Daddy was the song leader at church, but Arleta would have us clapping our hands and stomping our feet, oh my Lord!” Maxwell said.

“When we were growing up, we had a chicken yard out behind the house.  We had a little swing tied there in the tree and a little brick yard.  We were little bitty son-of-a-guns and Mama would say, ‘Arleta, take them out there and take care of them,'” he said.

“Once a year Mama would go to the doctor and say, ‘I need some worm pills for my boys ‘cause they eat everything, dirt and otherwise.’  So once a year Mama would get the worm pills and give us a big dose and send Arleta and us and two rolls of toilet paper out to the chicken yard.  This is the real-life stuff!” he said with a laugh. “One day I asked Arleta, Arleta, ‘How do you do it?’  She said, ‘I had to, nobody else would do it,'” Maxwell said with a laugh. “Oh, she was great!  I keep her letter in my briefcase, I keep it close to my heart. Arleta just had a good soul and a good heart.” 

Arleta married a World War I veteran who turned out to be a Baptist preacher in Beaumont, Samuel J. Singleton.  He was a lot older than her, so when he died, she got his pension, which helped her a lot.  She had two daughters, one named Sharon Rose and the other was named Sonja after Sonja Boyt. 

“I don’t know how to describe the letter she wrote,” Maxwell said. “I get teared up when I think about it.” 

Arleta’s Letter: A Mother’s Day Blessing

Friday Morn

Dear Miss Ila,

It is almost a year ago now that I asked for help.  And you did mighty fast.  I let a lot of time or months pass without saying anything.  Altho it wasn’t a day that passed by that I didn’t think of you and was very thankful.  But, I didn’t let you know because I couldn’t send you anything, but I haven’t forgotten, and I will as soon as I can. 

The City Rehab fixed my house up real nice, thanks to you.  As I said, I let a lot of time pass by without saying anything, but I could not let “Mother’s Day” go by without letting you hear from me.  I am up in age now, but I remember each time a baby was born you would send me word that I was still your girl.

When I went to work for you, I was fourteen going on fifteen, really to play with Lamar, he was nineteen months old.  Never knowing as the years passed by when I needed some one to talk to he was always there.  Then came Lloyd Judson.  I guess we were so much alike, even though he never had cotton in his navel.  Looked like we crawfished all the time, Lamar, Lloyd, and I.

I remember when we went to Boyt’s Ranch to wait for David to be borned. They was building the big barn. We got up in it and couldn’t get down.  The men that was working there had to help us down. I guess we got into many of things that I have forgotten about. And David, will never forget him coming around the corner of the garage with his cowboy hat and boots screaming with his pants full, not wanting it to touch him. But he would do it every time. And Don was so sweet. I was given the job, so it was mine to take care of him as a new born baby even his navel string. After it fell off, I parched some flour and put a band on it. Then after that I would put a fifty-cent piece on it so it could, or he could have a pretty navel.

And the baby Arthur, he was in a class by himself.  Remember he would take the whole back seat in the car, but he called me Mama.  My Sonja could have been a twin to him.  Well, she was borned on Dec. 3rd too. Now she has three paying her back.  I also had some fringe benefits, Sonja and Little Pat, Barry and Byron. I thought they all loved me.  As I loved back on my boys (as I like to call them.)  I am glad I had a part in shaping their lives.  I am happy because they turned out to be such wonderful young men.  I am glad for Mr. George too, he always remembers me even now, when I stop by and have something to give out of the freezer.

Miss Ila, have a happy Mother’s Day.  I know you will.

Love, Arleta

MAMIE P. SMITH, 1887-1975

Mamie P. Smith was born on the May 29, 1887. She had three children by her first husband before marrying her second husband, Pleasant Luther Smith about 1919. Her middle daughter, Arthella, died at the age of 6 in 1922.

James B. “Jimmy” Sterling III of Liberty said, “Mamie Smith was a very precious lady to me and my family. She began working for my parents a year and a half before I was born and took care of me and my brother, Ben. Mamie was an excellent cook. I used to love to eat at her house ’cause she had a big ole’ garden and she’d cook collard greens and pork chops in her big ole’ iron skillet, and it was delicious!”

He continued: “Sometimes my mother would take my brother and me to Mamie’s house, so she could keep us there for the day.  She had electric lights, but a hand pump on her water well out in the backyard, and it was my job to fetch a bucket of water for the kitchen.  She would take us on a walk through ‘Low Woods,’ the neighborhood here she lived.  Low Woods was named after a Mr. Lowe, who gave some land to the former slaves to build houses on after the Civil War.  It was originally called ‘Old Man Lowe’s Woods’ and that name continued for years.  Finally, the “Old Man” was dropped off as was the “e” in Lowe and it just became ‘Low Woods.’ This area is situated on Dayton Hill, which is the highest point between Houston and New Orleans, so there ain’t nuttin’ ‘Low’ about this area.”

“Mamie would take us to a place on the edge of the hill called “Debbil Slide” which looked like a vast hole in the abyss to a 5-year-old,” said Sterling, “but was probably no more than about 50 feet.  Mamie told us that the Devil lived at the bottom of this area, so we shouldn’t get too close to it! When Dad was Mayor in 1960-62, he talked the Dayton City Council into naming some of the streets in Low Woods.  The street in front of Mamie Smith’s house was, ironically, named ‘Smith Street’ for some reason,” he said with a chuckle.  “We knew another wonderful couple that lived in the area, Luke and Maud Walker, that operated a barbecue restaurant in their home.  We dined there a lot. It was delicious! My Dad had the street in front of the Walkers’ home named ‘Luke Street’ in Luke Walker’s honor.”

Sterling said he absolutely loved Mamie and she treated him and his siblings as her own children, like family.

“Mamie wrote a letter to my folks, after she retired, thanking them for letting her work for them.  She had the most beautiful handwriting,” noted Jimmy. Her letter follows:

Dayton, Texas

August 22, 1960

Mr. and Mrs. Sterling,

I want to thank you all for your kindness your many favors you all did for me during 13 years I worked for you all, from April 18, 1947 until July 9, 1960.  I can’t find words to express my appreciation for the many nice things you all did for me.  I can say and I will say I never has worked for nicer people as you all.  Jimmy and Ben will always be my Honey Bunches no one takes their place and I will always be their Mamie.  I will never forget you all.  Thanks a million for being so nice to me.  I love you all.

Faithfully,

Mamie Smith

VIRGINIA ‘PAT’ CARRINGTON LEWIS

Virginia “Pat” Lewis was born on the Fourth of July, 1927, to Clarence “Sam” Carrington and Sadie “Sate” Lewis.

“Virginia ‘Pat’”’ Lewis took care of Jean and I for 30-plus years,” said Janet Lagow.  “She started taking care of us when I was about 3 years old.  She was our surrogate mom.  Her name was Virginia, but she went by Pat.  She was the best. She took really good care of us.

“Pat was such a prankster. We both would pull pranks.  We use to hide those little squishy toys to scare her and she’d be working under the desk cleaning and touch it and we’d hear bumpety bump bump, ‘Oh, my gosh, girls, stop, get that thing off of me!’  Dr. Andres gave Daddy a rubber alligator whose mouth would open by remote control.  I’d wait until Pat crawled under the desk and let it chomp on her leg, she’d just squeal.  About a week would go by and she’d say, ‘Girls, I’ve got your little beds all made, I’ve washed your sheets and put new little covers on.’  So we’d hop in bed not knowing she had hidden a pine cone in the bottom.  Somewhere in the middle of the night we’d hit it and wooooo, it’d wake you up,” Lagow continued.

She recalls having a little dachshund named Snooky Bear. The dog was taken to the vet to have his teeth cleaned and he had a tube put down his throat, so every now and then he would squeak when he breathed. 

“I rolled over one night and heard the squeak and said, ‘Oh, Snooky Bear, are you okay?’  Snooky Bear just looked at me like, ‘What are you waking me up for?’  It wasn’t until morning that I found Pat had put a little squeak toy under my pillow and every time I would roll over it would squeak.  She pulled stuff like that on us all the time.  We used to hide some squishy toys in the washing machine with our laundry.  She’d find them and come chasing us through the house swatting us with a broom just a laughing,” Lagow remembered, laughing.

“She was the best cook. She’d cook ducks with dirty rice and cornbread and all the fixin’s.  The doctors who came out to the ranch to hunt would say, ‘We don’t care if we hit a duck as long as we can get some of Pat’s delicious duck dinner.’  There was Dr. DeBakey, doctors from Waco, and all over.  They all wanted to come have some of her fantastic cooking,” she said.

“One time, when I was in the seventh grade, I think, I was supposed to do a science project and daddy helped me get a gopher and a mole.  I was supposed to show the skeletal difference between the two.  One day Pat thawed out that gopher and mole thinking they were ducks.  I heard her holler, ‘Sista, come here, get this out of my sink!’  I went running in there and said, ‘Oh, I was looking for my gopher and mole.’ It’s hilarious the things we used to do,” she said.

“She was the sweetest, she would make us all kinds of special treats.  I wish I’d paid better attention when she cooked because she cooked better than anybody.  I’ve never tasted any other cooking that measured up to hers.  I tell you, we would have been lost without her.  She took some time off to have back surgery and after she recovered, she asked if she could come work for us again.  She said I know your parents are gone now.  We told her, ‘Absolutely, you will always be welcome here,’ and she worked for us until the day she died in a tragic car accident. Jean and I stayed by her side in the hospital until she passed in the night. She was like our mom.  Pat showed me how a real Christian and spiritual person should live. She was the most giving person. She was truly family. She wasn’t hired help – she was family.  She was greatly admired by us, just a very special lady,” Janet said tenderly.

LEGACY OF INFLUENCE

The women highlighted in this publication are a mere snapshot of myriads of women like them.  Cherished women, who poured themselves into the young lives under their charge, sculpting their character during their most formative years.  Their qualities of faith, diligence, loyalty, honesty and commitment continue to impact our world through the lives they influenced.

The hands that rock the cradles truly do rule the world.

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