In honor of my grandmother, who turned 80 this week, I’ve decided to do what I said I would start doing years ago – write the stories of the women I hail from. She let me do this interview many years back and trusted me to do something productive with it. I could call her a guest blogger now, except that she may not know exactly what a blog is and I didn’t tell her I’d be posting her words here.
I couldn’t wait one more year, one more month, one more day to give her story a home. It’s only right to use this as an opportunity to acknowledge that something great happened when she was born. When history books would have you believe that women of her time weren’t working, that sharecroppers were a cut above slaves, that Black people didn’t have much or know better, my grandmother (and, frankly, many of the women in my family) simply wasn’t living her life to fit those statistics. She defied every stereotype I’d ever been told to expect for a Black woman born in Alabama in 1934. And she didn’t do it by fighting. She did it by living fully and unapologetically. I love her dearly, am thankful for her eighty years on this earth, and hope that this is just one of many more birthdays to come. Most of all, I hope she isn’t pissed at me for posting this.
My name is Rosie. I was born May 1, 1934 in Pike County, Alabama. My mother’s name is Carrie Williams-Macon. My father’s name was Sam Simmons. My mother’s mother was Rosie Carter Starks. Her father’s name was George Carter. My father’s mother was…I can’t remember her name cause I never knew her really, but her last name was Simmons, Grandma Simmons.
I’m the second oldest of my mother’s children, which was ten. Five boys and five girls. It’s six of us alive now: four girls, two boys. I’m the baby of my father’s children, which far as I know was two boys and three girls…far as I know. And the three girls is alive. All I know is my mother and my aunts and uncles [on my father’s side] was all friends. I don’t know how [my parents] met or what brought on – if it was a love affair or whatever. I don’t know about how that happened.
We lived on a farm and I was born at my grandparent’s house. My Grandma and Grandpop. I used to walk to school at an early age. I guess 5 or 6 years old. We used to walk like three miles to school and I remember we had big farms and a lot of chickens. My one aunt, my grandmother’s baby daughter, we was raised together, so we were more like sisters than niece and aunt. And my grandmother used to raise chicken and turkeys. My grandfather raised hogs and cows. Farm – all kinds of stuff on the farm – cotton, peanuts, corn, stuff like that. They was sharecropping. No, they didn’t own it. We used to help out on the farm. Me and my aunt used to plow the plow. We was about nine years, yea.
With my grandfather, just one year, we helped him plant the crop. And we had a goat named Wild Bill. We had a lot of goats. We had a crazy goat too. He was wild! He was black. And we had a dog named Blackie, which was one of the children. He would play with us like a child. He would play house, and we had this big front porch and it had about 7 steps come up on the front porch and we would tell him we was gon’ play house, and say, “When we get on the porch, now we in the house. And you can’t come in the house with us.” We’d run up there and he’d come to the house, girl, and stop. He was a great protector. One of my cousins from Pittsburgh came and he wouldn’t let her in the yard. We had a fence ‘round the yard and she was standing on the outside of the fence hollering and fighting with her pocketbook and he was just standing there by the fence. And he just dropped the handle and sat there and waited. She was out there screaming and hollering and he wouldn’t let her in. We had to go get her.
My grandma used to come up here when my uncle and aunt was alive. My grandfather was working in the field and, well, I was still living in the house when my great grandmother died. Yea, we was still living there and my grandma was up there when she had a stroke and died.
My great grandmother, her name was Annie Warren and that was my grandmother, Rosie Starks’ mother and she was born in Alabama too. She had a stroke one Saturday. My grandmother had came up here to stay with my aunt, cause she was having a baby. She had little kids so she would come up and stay with the kids while my aunt would go to the hospital. My grandfather was in the field, as usual, and my great grandmother had washed and ironed the clothes. And I loved to read. I used to read all the time. I guess that’s why ya’ll got that. You could catch me reading at the house any minute. Everybody else would be outside; I would be in the house reading. She came out on the porch and she said to me, “Gal, you better put them clothes up.” And I said, “Ok Nana, ok, ok, ok.” And she was sitting there, and she was eating a piece of neck bone and she wouldn’t let go. She just started peeing. My grandfather had came home for dinner and he didn’t go back to the field right away. He said, “Im gon’ wait till after the mailman come.” And I started calling him, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy something’s wrong with Nana! She peeing on herself! She peeing!” But she wouldn’t let go. She was eating that meat. They say when you having a stroke or heart attack, whatever you doing, you just keep doing that.
So my brother came by and he went to town to get the doctor, cause my great grandmother had raised those children. Those white kids. That was her doctor. She raised him from a baby and his father told him to always take care of her. So, my brother went and got him. We had got her in the bed and he came and he marked an X under the bottom of her feet. He said, if she survived to the next day, she would be alright. But she didn’t.
My grandmother and my uncle came. They got somebody to stay with the kids while my aunt was in the hospital. I could hear my grandmother crying. It was in the morning, I guess two or three o’ clock in the morning, when they got there. I could hear her talking ‘bout, “I don’t have no mother now. My mother is gone.” She was coming in the door and me being sleep and young, she just sounded so far away.
Well, we moved to the city limit and that’s when my grandfather couldn’t farm anymore, because he found out he had high blood pressure. And he was sick cause he had to get rid of his mules. Then he started doing his garden and he grew a garden – all kinds of vegetables. He took them into town and sold them to the white folks. After that we moved up into the city into this house. We had a house and it was sitting right in back of a juke joint and it was a nice house. I went to school there. And that’s where when I left, yea, when I left from town, that’s where we had been living in the city. I came up here [to New Jersey] in 1952. I came up here, and up here is where I met your grandfather. And we had 4 childrens: one boy, three girls. I think it’s 9 grandchildren. My brother went back to Alabama and got my grandma and my grandfather. He lived a couple years, he lived till September 1954 and my grandma died, I think, it was 18 years ago.
Yea, 1991 she died. And that was my Mama. She raised the four of us: my oldest brother, James, myself, my brother Arnold, my sister Johnnie. We really was raised by her along with her daughter Gloria and we were like sisters and brothers instead of aunts and nieces and nephews. We was like sisters and brothers. I haven’t been home since 1952. I really don’t have no close relatives down there, because right after I came up here, my brother went back and got my Grandma and Grandpop. And all my sisters and brothers were up here.
What year we moved here? I don’t even know what year we moved here [to this house], if you want to know the truth. 1982? 81, 82? Something like that. I know it was in May, cause that was my birthday present [from your grandfather], when I moved, the first of May.
Oh God, well, I wish I would have let [your grandfather] stay with the girl he was with. (laughs) Well, we was living on East Kenny St. and he was living on Scott St. , which was the next street over. This girl she used to [date], she was living directly in front of him. Her name was Mary Anne, I’ll never forget that. We went to school together. She would be talking about him and all this stuff. I sure do wish I would have left him with her. Everybody thought that he liked my Aunt Gloria, but it wasn’t him – it was his friend Sam that liked Aunt Gloria. So, it just went from that to the prom. He took me to the prom. We had to go get his cousin’s car, to get Uncle Sam’s car, but we went.
I left high school in ’54, but I got my GED. I went back and got my GED.
Danny was born November 24, 1954, the night before Thanksgiving. I was living on Hillside Avenue and I was walking around there. I said, “Oh, I need to wash my hair.” Now let me tell you how stupid – how my mind worked back in that time. I thought, “But if I wash my hair, I might start having pains and I’m not going to feel like straightening it.” Now wasn’t that kind of smart? So I said “ok, I’m not gonna wash it.” I heard your grandfather coming up the stairs. He had got off from work early. I got down on the side of the bed and I just started having pains. And he said to this guy, his name was Al Richardson, “Al, can I borrow your car to take her to the hospital? I think she in labor.” Al said, “I was here! She ain’t tell me nothing! I coulda took her to the hospital!” I got to the hospital about 6 o’clock in the afternoon and that boy was born 9:45 at night. We was in this big ward at the city hospital, and they was up there talking bout the soap operas.
As The World Turns, Search For Tomorrow, Guiding Light, Valiant Lady, And what’s that one come on in the afternoon? One Life to Live, General Hospital, All my Children. All of them was on back then, back in that time. They been around for fifty something years. One lady from Guiding Light died a couple weeks ago, she was about 90 years old, one of the actors. And, he was born. We had Thanksgiving dinner there. We had turkey and dressing and cranberry juice.
And a lot of [women] stayed home and the husbands worked. If they wasn’t on the farms and stuff, they stayed home. You know, it’s not a long time, but it has been a long time where the women really go out into the world now and work and everything. But back in that time, if they wasn’t farming and having children, the ladies stayed home and cooked and cleaned and washed and ironed and scrubbed floors, stuff like that. Yea, kept the house clean.
Well, I had a million new jobs. Not a million. I used to work where they developed pictures on Broad Street. Really, it used to be a lot of happenings down on Broad Street, chile. And a couple times, I went and cleaned a lady’s house for my grandmother. I think the next job I got was in the dry cleaners. I stayed there for years. I was getting paid 65 cents an hour, but bus fare was like 5 cents and we lived on East Kenney. I used to go to Target on Clinton Avenue in front of the Horizon building over there. That’s where I used to work.
Then in 1960, I was working on South Orange. On South Orange Avenue, right there on the corner of Church Street, when you go up the hill. That was the cleaners where that flower shop is. That was the dry cleaners. I worked for Western Electric in Kearney for thirteen years. Then I did twelve years AT&T in Clark. I retired with 25 years’ service from AT&T and 3 years’ service from Tyco, so really it was 28 years that I worked. I started to work at Western Electric and I went out there on a dare. I went out there saying, “I know I’m not going to get this job.” But the ad had been in the paper for a long time. I had never worked in a factory before. And out of about 8 people, 2 of us passed the test. Every time they got slow, we got laid off. Every time. I think I lost about 5 or 6 years out of that 13 of layoffs. Then, finally, they closed in 1984. I left on my birthday. Your mom sent me flowers on my birthday and I left that day and – the Union paid for us – I went to school up in North Newark at the secretary school. I got a job key punching. I could key punch, girl! I go to work key punching! That’s when they started the computers. We used to go down to Essex County and work the computers. I could type pretty good. I used to do 45-50 words, no errors. And I’m ready to go back to work now, cause I’m tired of staying home. I been retired for 8 years.
The love of my life, besides my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, is church. I enjoy going to church. I get my relief, all my pressure, my everything, when I go to church. When I first came up here, I started going to the Holiness Church. My mother used to live on South 11th. Then I left from there and I stayed out of church for a long time. But I always made sure your Mama and them went to Sunday school. I would get up and take them to church for Sunday school, go back, and pick them up. Then after that, I joined Genesis. From Genesis to First Zion Hill. So, I really wasn’t in a lot of churches.
I get such a relief from the Word of God and I’m learning more of the Bible, understanding more. It’s a lot in there to understand and when you read scriptures you can go back and if you read it five times, you get five different meanings out of that one scripture. So, I’m learning that and how to have my quiet moments. It just gives me peace of mind. I have joy. And I really love the youth choir we got over there now. I enjoy them. I only invite people to my church on 3rd Sunday, when the youth is singing. I told Reverend “First Zion Hill wasn’t short of water.” And he said “What?” People in the pulpit crying, all the kids crying! I turned around and looked and everybody in the sanctuary crying. He fell out laughing. He say, “You know we didn’t rehearse that song that way, don’t you? God, just came on in.” So, I enjoy that. I enjoy the children.
I was in the Holiness Church, but I was baptized in a Baptist Church in Alabama at the age of 9 in the river. They didn’t have pools in the church. We went down to the big river and was baptized in the river. Yep, I think the name of the river was White Water, I’m not sure. I told Reverend, “I’m going to be baptized again.” Nine years old, I ain’t know what I was doing. Yea, I want to be dipped.
You know, I’m like this – Everybody have their own belief. It’s not but one God, I don’t care what kind of religion or what name you come up with or whatever. It’s only one God and we can call him Jehovah, Allah, whatever we want to. And, as long as they are reading the Bible or the Quran or whatever it is and they try to live to the best of their abilities, that’s it. I don’t damn nobody’s religion, but I don’t want them to say they’re one thing and not believe in it and do something else. If you Muslim, do what you supposed to do. Baptists? We all sin. We all have to ask God to forgive us, cause we was born in sin. So, we not sin-free. We have to come and ask God, Allah, or whoever to forgive us for our sins, each and every day. Not when we in trouble. Then, we try and get a prayer through. We think He supposed to be a microwave God and He gon’ pop it out right like that. You gotta go through trials and tribulations. That’s when you use your faith.