ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
In spite of her inexpressiveness, Beautine was a woman who felt deeply and
loved passionately, as I discovered when I read the over 200 letters that her husband,
Frank A. DeCosta, wrote to her between 1934 and 1967. She saved all of his letters
Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
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The Ground Beneath Her Feet
Remembering Beautine Hubert DeCosta-Lee
No better heritage can a [mother] bequeath to [her children than a good name; nor is there in a family any richer heirloom than the memory of a noble ancestry. Anonymous from Profile of a Black Heritage
She was a country girl, proud to be the only one of her siblings who was born in rural Georgia, in Cane country, in a landscape of loblolly pines and sweet-gum trees and November cotton flowers. Although her parents moved to Savannah only a year after her birth on that cold January night in 1913, her roots were buried deep in the rich red soil of Hancock County, where her ancestors had lived for a century and a half. When she went back to visit her grandparents, women asked, Whore her people? The deacon replied, Oh, thats Uncle Zachs grandbaby; a church mother responded, Thats Fess Huberts chile; and a teenager explained, Shes my second cousin. Her mama and my grandpa are some kin.
It was important in the South, particularly among Black folk, to know who your people were, because your family indicated who you were and what you might amount to in life. A sixth-generation descendant of Africans, Beautine Hubert knew who her people were, and she grew up hearing the family narratives: how Sally, a tall, slender, dark-complexioned girl was brought in chains from Dahomey, West Africa around 1760, and sold on the docks of Virginia; and how Sallys great grandson Zacharias and his wife Camilla, former slavesand Beautines grandparentsbuilt a log cabin school, organized the Springfield Baptist Church, established a store that became a community center, and built a two-story, five-bedroom house for their twelve children, all of whom they sent to college. Those narratives, supported by extensive research, were shaped into a book, Profile of a Black Heritage, by Beautines brother-in-law, Dr. Lester F. Russell.
She loved the land and every summer she dragged me, kicking and screaming, back to the country, where images of placethe sight of rattlers in the road, feel of leeches on the legs, taste of sorghum and canned milk, smell of kerosene lamps and outdoor toiletsare still vivid after, lo, these many years. I hated the country! But the land was good to the Huberts, who, after slavery, acquired it acre by infertile acre from former slave owners who begrudged them their property and even tried to cheat them out of their signed and paid-up contracts. It was hardscrabble land that nobody wanted until the Hubert brothers beat it into shape, digging up rocks, watering and fertilizing fields to plant corn and cotton.
According to Russell, Zach Hubert and his brothers became the first black property owners of record in Hancock County, Georgia, and by 1925, Hancock was the largest Black land-owning county in the South, Zach and Camilla bequeathed 1500 acres to their children; their oldest son, John WesleyBeautines fatherbuilt a large, two-story house in Savannah with proceeds from his timber sales; and Beautine, a savvy businesswoman, bought property with the sale of timber from her 190 acres. The land shaped the valueshonesty, respect, discipline, responsibilityof the Huberts, who taught their children the importance of education and hard work. Zach admonished his children and grandchildren: Get your education; they cant take that away from you.
Zach and Camillas children were something of an anomalyeducated country folkwith one foot in the classroom and the other in the cottonfield, because their parents insisted, wisely, that they work in the fields when they came home from college in the summer.
Zach and Camilla Hubert in 1925
That lessonthe importance of both work and educationwas passed down through four generations; my brother started delivering newspapers when he was ten years old, and, at fourteen, I got my first summer job working at Camp Daniels for $5.00 a week, though I was attending an exclusive New England private school at the time.
Beautine was born into a family of writers and storytellers, and eventually she became the culture-bearer and history-keeper of her paternal and maternal ancestors: the Huberts and Joneses. As far as I know, she had the only copy of her grandfather, Reverend Willis Leander Joness 1908 Travel in Egypt and Scenes of Jerusalem, in which he writes, poetically, of a storm at sea: Oh! what a night, an awful night, a night that was passed over in dread, with expectation of finding a grave beneath the waves. She had the only photographs of her great grandparents, Elizabeth and Richmond Joneshe, of Cherokee descentand she remembers watching Native American dances in Norcross, Georgia, where they lived.
Willis L. Jones Georgia J. Jones
Beautine kept the letters that her parents, John Wesley Hubert and Lillie Ophelia Jones, wrote to each other in 1902, when they were courting; she labeled the photographs of her maternal grandparents, Georgia and Willis Jones, pastor of Savannahs First African Baptist Church; and she wrote biographical sketches of her mother and grandmother. She liked to tell stories about growing up in the country, taking care of her cow Spot, visiting her grandparents, and working for Uncle Ben at Hancock Countys Log Cabin Center.
In summer, her young cousinsDennis, Cora Estelle, Johnson, Wilson, and a host of othersjourneyed to the home place for family gatherings and always looked forward to tea and cookies with the White Huberts at their Warren County plantation. One time, though, smart-assed Wilson protested: Im not going over to those White folks place. I dont like that ole slavery stuff. Me neither, exclaimed Dennis, and Beautine, not to be outdone, piped up,. Im not going either. But Johnson, looking sheepishly down at the ground, whispered, But those ladies make some GOOD cookies, and the fight was on.
In her role as culture-bearer, Beautine wrote lots of letterson the plane, in church, or at the ophthalmologists officeto her grandchildren, siblings, and countless friends. One day, she wrote to granddaughter Elena from the race track: Since Im not winning I might as well use this paper to write a note to you. She kept her close friends in stitches with her funny notes and naughty jokes. When she found out, for instance, that her husband had sent his friend, a physician, to check on her (and to send her to the hospital), she wrote: Ted, I have decided to continue to be SINFUL. Frank said I have too many sins to get into Heaven, but I am not bad enough to go to Hell. Well, I am still in about the same conditiona few sins daily.
Wedding of Lillie and John Wesley Hubert in 1902
Whether as a sinful woman or a naughty girl, she often got into trouble and had the audacity to write up her misdeeds for posterity. She was in her teens when she wrote, Cleaning Hubert Reeves room, I smoked my first cigarette and did I get sick. When she was a high school student at Spelman, she frequently sneaked off campus to get a home-cooked meal at Grandma Joness or to go to the Sunset Casino with her handsome cousin, Dennis Hubert. One day Miss Reid, Spelmans president, caught her in the act and called her in: I know it was you I saw flying through the gate, Beautine. Only two girls have those long plaits: you and Josephine Herrold. In the 1960s, Beautine would go down to the basement of her Baltimore home to peck out a long letter on her old manual typewriter, with absolutely no concern for errors, typos, or strike-overs, as she confessed: Dont talk about my typing! Cant cook cant sewcant type.
In fact, that was one of Beautines finest accomplishmentsher utter lack of domestic skills. She was definitely not into the feminine arts and, consequently, did not inflict them on her daughter or granddaughters. On the other hand, she thought that women should learn to handle money, develop a budget, invest, and save for emergencies. When I was fourteen, she told me, Im going to give you $12.00 every week out of which you have to buy food and cook the meals. If you have anything left over, you can keep that. As a result, I learned to budget, cook thirty-six entrées out of chicken and ground beef, and save at least $2.00 weekly.
Beautine with her mother and siblings
Beautine believed that women were brought into the world to achieve Great Things, just like men, so she spent her summers away from her husband and away from her kids conducting family life workshops at Duke and North Carolina State College, or taking graduate courses at Columbia, Stanford or the University of Chicago. During the 1940s and 50s, we lived like gypsies, moving from one Black college campus to another, as my parents climbed the academic career ladder; at times, they separated to pursue different goals.
When Frank went to Philadelphia in 1940 to begin work on his doctorate, Beautine moved, with two kids in tow, to Atlanta to complete her masters. I realize now that it must have been unthinkable in that day for a woman, especially a Black woman, to leave her husband to earn an advanced degree. (When I left my husband for a year in 1959 to pursue a masters, my in-laws explained, Well, you know how her family is about education, and when I left again in 1965 to work on a doctorate, folk said, Her marriage wont last a year . . . and it didnt.) But Beautine was doing that in 1940-41, setting an example for her daughter to follow.
Although she probably couldnt define a feminist, she epitomized one, because she believed that women should develop their minds and not sit on their behinds. She came by that honestly; her grandparents sent five daughters to college at a time when advanced education for women was not a priority in most homes, and her mother was a college-educated woman who became a school principal. Even her mamas mama, Georgia Jones, was a resourceful entrepreneur; when her husband died leaving her with seven children to raise, she took in boarders, men who worked on the railroad.
One of my earliest memories is of the drive from Grandpapas home in Savannah, through the Okefenokee Swamp, to Charleston, where we lived when I was a little girl. My head was resting in Beautines lap as we drove in the twilight on a half-deserted road, and I remember, as if it were yesterday, the sensations of warmth, closeness, and security that I felt. Other than that, I cannot remember my mothers touch, for she did not hug or kiss her children or show affection for her family. I always knew that my mother loved me, because she expressed her love through actions. Aware of her inability to express her feelings, Beautine wrote to her mother in 1929; One thing I have learned about myself is that I am not of an affectionate nature, but that only means that I dont show my love so readily . . . .
Her seeming coldness resulted, I believe, from the early losses that she experienced: the deaths of her five-year-old brother John Wesley, Jr.; little sister Datie Mae; Hubert grandparents, grandmother Jones, and, finally, her motherall before she turned nineteen. Several of the losses were devastating and had unfortunate consequences. Although John Wesley, Jr. actually died of meningitis, his Atlanta-born and bred mother believed that he was killed by Liza, an aunt by marriage who practiced hoodoo, so Lillie Jones Hubert persuaded her husband to leave Hancock County and move to Savannah.
Hubert family after funeral of mother
The daughter of a noted Baptist minister, she did not like the country, where the Hubert women, beginning with Dahomeyan Sally and her daughter Sarah, were traditional healers, midwives, and rootworkers. When Datie Mae died after eating a piece of fat meat that Beautine had given her, Beautine blamed herself and wanted to jump into her sisters open grave. The loss of her mother in 1932, for which she also blamed herself, was devastating to Beautine, who was only eighteen at the time; and she wrote: . . . the death of her mother cast a veil of gloom over her life from which she was not to emerge for two years. (Emphasis added: even in her writing, she distanced herself through the use of the third person.)
In spite of her inexpressiveness, Beautine was a woman who felt deeply and loved passionately, as I discovered when I read the over 200 letters that her husband, Frank A. DeCosta, wrote to her between 1934 and 1967. She saved all of his letters, but, unfortunately, Frank did not keep the letters that she wrote him. Still, I learned a great deal about their relationship from the one-sided correspondence: the longing during their frequent separations, the anticipationphysical and emotionalof their reunions, his possessiveness, her flirtatiousness, their joy in being together, and, most of all, their deep love for and support of each other.
I found the letters in 2000, when I moved Beautine to a residence for seniors, but I had read a few of them in 1959, while in graduate school and living with my parents. Those letters revealed two family secrets. I learned that my parents had not married on January 10, 1934, as anniversary cards and celebrations indicated; I found out much later that they eloped on June 1, 1934, and I was born five months later. After more late-night letter reading, I told my parents, Uh huh, there were supposed to be three of us!, but I was greeted with shocked and embarrassed silence.
DeCosta family in Boston
Later, I recalled another of my early memories: I was four years old and living in Charleston, when I awakened to find Beautine in the adjoining room. She was standing up in bed, crying and seemingly in pain, and there was a group of women, including Aunt Julia, consoling her. After I took a bath, my cousin Bennett whipped me on my behind with a wet comb, and then my little brother got into the tub, turned on scolding water, and started screaming. I was upset and frightened because I did not understand what was going on.
I realized much later, after reading Franks letters, that Beautine had made a unilateral decision to abort a child; she felt that she had no choice because the Depression was on, money was tight, and her husband was in New York completing a masters. Frank may have forgiven herand his letters were tender, full of concern for her healthbut he never forgot. He named the unborn child Harold, after his closest brother, and lamented the loss of that child until his own death in 1972.
When we lived in Orangeburg in the 1940s, Beautine agreed to let Franks brother Harold, an alcoholic with tuberculosis, live with us on South Carolina States campus after he left the hospital, because he had no wife or children. As a result of her upbringing and training as a social worker Beautine often reached out to help those in need. When one of her best friends lost adult twins to suicide in the same year, Beautine went by every day before going to work to have coffee with Marie, and she did that for months.
When Aunt Daisys husband was institutionalized and she had to work long hours in New York, she asked her brother and sister-in-law if she could send her son to live with them, because nine-year-old Bennett was running wild in Harlem.
Beautine at work
Although Beautine had been married for a short time, had one child and was expecting another, she agreed to raise Franks nephew; soon after he arrived, the wild child burned the fence down, but Bennett lived with us in Florence, Alabama and Charleston, South Carolina, where he completed high school.During the tumultuous years of the civil rights struggle, Beautine must have reflected on the words of her grandfather: If anything is worth having, its worth fighting for even unto death. In 1956, I went to Montgomery to visit my parents during the semester break from college. Beautine, a member of Martin Luther Kings Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, left early every morning to drive through the streets of Montgomery, picking up women in rundown shoes and men in starched overalls who refused to ride in the back of the bus.
One night, the silence was shattered by the ring of the telephone. Come quick, a friend urged. Reverend Kings house has been bombed! Beautine and I rushed out into the January darkness, hurrying toward the little frame house on Jackson Avenue, near where we lived in the 1940s. We joined a small group of neighbors, solemn and pensive, who were standing in the front yard whispering among themselves.
Dr. King is away . . . Mrs. King is in the back with the baby . . . The bomb exploded in the front of the house . . . . Several policemen stood in the yard facing us. Suddenly, one of them shouted, Get back. You people, move on away from here, as he began walking ominously toward us, one hand on his holster and the other on his billy club. One by one, we began to retreat toward the sidewalk, but Beautine stood her ground. Didnt you hear me, girl? he asked. Terrified, I whispered, Mother, Mother, come here. Please come back. But Beautine just stood there. She would not be moved.
When she wasnt demonstrating, organizing family workshops, or teaching sociology classes, Beautine was a free spirit, who adored people and enjoyed life to the fullest. In 1972, she and I were single womena widow and a divorcéeon a jaunt through the Caribbean, determined to have fun in the sun. We landed first in Haiti, where we were greeted by the loaded rifles of the ton ton macoute. I looked for the closest exit, but Mrs. DeCosta, unfazed, plowed right through the line of armed soldiers. The next day, we journeyed high up in the mountains, where Beautine, an inveterate shopper, bought a huge table, loaded it on top of our teeny, tiny taxi, and dragged it 25 miles back to Port au Prince, expecting me to get it through customs.
That night, we went clubbing with a young man who taught us the méringue, and, afterwards, Beautine tipped him a whole dollar for the nights companionship. (The Huberts were known for their parsimony, uh, thrift.) In Jamaica, we bought patties from street vendors, bargained with market women, and flirted in nightclubs. At one of the jump-ups we met Max, a sixtyish man-about-town, whom I wanted to fix up with Beautine but who tried to hit on me. When I got wasted from too many rum punches, Beautine let him have it, Youre trying to take advantage of my daughter by getting her drunk, and then hot-footed it out of the club leaving him to pick up the tab.
We touched down in Barbados, fell in love with the country, and decided to stay a few days. A terrible driver, Beautine rented a car, swerved off the road, and almost hit a Bajan, who shouted, Lady, you almost killed the father of nine! Undaunted, she continued on to some small, pastel-colored cottages, where her curiosity got the best of her. She walked up to a woman and said, Ohhhhh, your house is gorgeous. May I see inside? I almost died of embarrassment, but the lady graciously invited us inside.
By the time we reached Guyana, Beautine had talked her way into houses throughout the Caribbean. One night, a portly Guyanese, whom we met in the hotel bar, invited us to dinner with his family. The next day, we planned a ride across the river, but, after thirty minutes or so, we noticed that the boat was heading deep into the Amazon jungle. Oh, goodness, were on the wrong boat, announced the unflappable Beautine, who got off at the first stop and bribed a fisherman to row us back to Georgetown in time for dinner.
After a great meal of roti and callaloo, we asked our portly friend for his address, but he whispered, Dont write me here; this is not my wife. Beautine and I laughed about those wicked Caribbean men and their outside families, and I learned: When traveling with Beautine, youll have fun, get into lots of trouble, and acquire wonderful lessons in living.
Family portrait at wedding to Dick
Contrary to the Southern folk saying, I had always been Papas baby, Mamas maybe, until my fathers death in 1972, when my mother and I became much closer. Four years later, she married a wonderful man, Richard Dick Lee, and I saw them primarily during the holidays until my move back to Washington in 1989. Over the next decade, we journeyed back and forth over the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to dine at restaurants, attend plays and concerts with family and friends, share birthday and Mothers Day celebrations, and participate in programs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where I was then teaching.
Dick died in 1998, and I retired from UMBC the following year, but when I returned from spending the summer of 1999 with my family in Memphis, I realized that Beautine needed care. She wasnt eating properly, had difficulty handling her financial affairs, and seemed confused or disoriented at times. We were two independent, assertive, and opinionated women, struggling at first to create new roles as mother and daughter under very changed circumstances. Meantime, my brother, who had disappeared several years before, died in Alberqueque, so Beautine had to deal with the death of her favorite child, and she did so in silence, without complaint, as was her custom, while I had to take care of his burial, papers, and business affairs.
Over the next nine years, as I moved Beautine from Baltimore to Silver Spring to Washington and, finally, to Memphis, we talked often about her life, as she spun tales about all the people she had known and the many places she had lived, until her memory slowly faded and her words gradually slipped away except for . . . Mamie . . . and, finally, Miriam . . . my daughter. She died the next night when she no longer knew my name.
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Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Foreword by Mary Helen Washington. Afterword by Dorothy Sterling
DeCosta-Willis makes it possible to look back in a new way into the character of wells, and, more than that, into the daily life of African-Americans a century ago. Chicago Tribune
Wells and DeCosta-Willis join together across time in a scholarly collaborative dance of sisterhood to produce a work that not only holds an insightful mirror to the past, but could be used as a guidepost for African-American and other women today in living totally self-defined lives.Tri-State Defender
A unique look at the life o an independent, unmarried African-American woman coping with financial hardships, romantic entanglements, sexism, and racism . . . A substantial contribution to African-American Studies.Publisher Weekly
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Notable Black Memphians (Miriam DeCosta-Willis)This biographical and historical study by Miriam DeCosta-Willis (PhD, Johns Hopkins University and the first African American faculty member of Memphis State University) traces the evolution of a major Southern city through the lives of men and women who overcame social and economic barriers to create artistic works, found institutions, and obtain leadership positions that enabled them to shape their community. Documenting the accomplishments of Memphians who were born between 1795 and 1972, it contains photographs and biographical sketches of 223 individuals (as well as brief notes on 122 others), such as musicians Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin, activists Ida B. Wells and Benjamin L. Hooks, politicians Harold Ford Sr. and Jr., writers Sutton Griggs and Jerome Eric Dickey, and Bishop Charles Mason and Archbishop James Lykeall of whom were born in Memphis or lived in the city for over a decade. . . .
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 14 January 2008