Sister-mother, Sarah LOU GRIMSLEY

My Great-grandmother Sarah was the oldest daughter of Nettie Smart and Samuel Anderson Grimsley.

Sarah was born in 1893, long after the emancipation of slavery in 1865, to liberate enslaved people of their long field working days without pay. However, the long, laborious days of fieldwork consumed her life and denied her an education.

A sister-mother is when the oldest daughter fulfills the motherly duties to her younger siblings.

Abstracted 1910 Federal Census

Sarah’s parents were Sharecroppers.

Alabama 1880 Agriculture population record. It shows Sam Grimsley renting his plot. Besides Thomas Bell, everyone else owned their land. They also owned horses and mules to assist in plowing. My ancestors were strong.

Many people who study Southern African American History call sharecropping another form of slavery because they often did not profit from their labor. While Sarah’s parents worked the fields in rural Shorterville, Alabama. Sarah attended to her siblings and not school. This experience made Sarah an expert homemaker, caregiver, and illiterate. My Aunt shared a childhood memory with me of how she asked Granny to help her with her homework.

Granny replied,” Gal, you know I can’t read.”

At the mature age of 19, Sarah married Jarret Irwin, who was recently divorced, on the 8th of December in 1912. Sarah’s youngest sibling, Nettie Mae, was one year old. It was time for Sarah to raise her own family. Her first pregnancy delivered fraternal, boy-girl, twins, L.D., and M.E. M.E is Mary Emma. She lived to adulthood; L.D. did not. Sarah had eight more children. Six of them reached adulthood.

The family name is currently spelled Ervin. Family members speculate the change is due to Jarrett leaving his first marriage.

Sarah followed Jarrett to Georgia, where he worked at the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad station in Waycross. The family lived there for 10 years or so. Sons James Carl, Leroy, and Robert were born there.

During their time in Georgia, Sarah contracted Tuberculosis; T.B. By the 1920s, T.B. deaths had significantly been reduced by healthy nutrition and proper sanitary practices. But just like our present COVID-19 pandemic with social distancing and wearing masks, people are still contracting the virus. Granny was so ill that arrangements for her to visit the Lookout Mountain sanatorium in Tennessee. Jarrett planned for their children to live with other families. In a last-ditch effort or the size of mustard seed faith belief, Jarrett heard a famous evangelist, C.H. Mason, would be hosting a camp tent meeting in Waycross. Sarah was so weak she could not walk. Jarrett carried her and laid a pallet on the ground for her. While C.H. Mason ministered the word of God, he noticed Sarah lying on the ground. He looked at her and said, “Woman, be thou healed!” Sarah immediately leaped from her bed and began to praise the Lord. She and Jarrett walked home together. This is a testimony that Sarah would always share that God healed her. My Aunt remembers taking Sarah to the doctor in the ’60s. The physician remarked he could tell she had T.B. at some point. Sarah replied, “God healed me.”

Sarah and Jarrett migrated to Ohio to leave the hostility of Jim Crow racism. Sarah’s first cousin, Grover Cleveland Fields, had been living in Columbus with his family since 1917.

A page from the 1923 Columbus City Directory. The Grimsley and Ervin families lived on Naghten Avenue before the city built Columbus Technical Institute, CTI. It now known as Columbus State Community College.

Not long after their arrival to the “Northern paradise free from racism,” they experienced the worst type of tragedy as parents that resulted in their two youngest sons’ death. Leroy, 3, and Robert, 2 years old, became violently ill. Their oldest son James Carl, survived the incident and told his parents; a white male neighbor gave them rice. Their death certificate stated the cause of death as Broncho-Pneumonia. The family believed the boys died from poisoning. Leroy and Robert died four days apart. Two years later, the family grew again with another son named after Jarrett, nicknamed Jerry Jr.

Green Lawn Cemetery registry lists that Robert and Leroy are in the same grave. Photo Credit to FindAGrave Volunteer, Patty.

Respiratory issues continued to plague the family. Sarah, with her daughter, Effie, had rehabilitation visits at the Franklin County Sanatorium. Sarah recovered and birthed three more children: Nettie, Michael, and Lee. Effie did not recover from her respiratory condition. The couple buried a fourth child in May 1930.

Effie died at the Franklin County Sanatorium

Sarah’s sister-mothering skills benefitted her family outside of the home, too. She was a domestic for private families. She was industrious as well. She and Jarrett’s home had indoor plumbing, which was a luxury in their neighborhood. Sarah charged ten cents per bath. Sarah ran the numbers. Before Ohio sanctioned the state-operated lottery, there was the illegal numbers racket. My cousin recalled accompanying Granny to the corner store to place the number orders.

One of Sarah’s noted skills was baking. The family had a restaurant in Downtown Columbus. Sarah baked pies for their Black-owned business.

1934 Columbus City Directory listed Sarah’s brother-in-law, Elgin Ervin as the Restauranteur.

By the time I was born, Sarah had begun to display some Alzheimer’s disease behaviors. We called it old-timers.

At this time, Sarah and Jarrett lived with their oldest daughter, my Grandmother Mary.

Sarah would revert to her domestic, sister-mothering, and parenting days and wrap me up and leave the house. No one knew where we were. The Police were called. We finally returned home. Sarah asked, “What? And answered, “I was walking my baby!”

I remember the day Sarah left for the last time in an ambulance stretcher. She died on the 30th of October, 1970.

Eastlawn Cemetery, Columbus, OH. Photo Credit to FindAGrave Volunteer, Gene.
Sarah L. Grimsley Ervin. Photo provided by Trina.

Who is your Great Family Matriarch? Please comment below. I would like to hear from you.

8 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this… I had no idea about of any of this formally. I’m Michael Ervin’s granddaughter. I have a ttended a family reunion at Whitehall Park once and can’t wait until the world opens back up so I can meet and commute with my family.

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  2. My name is Charlene Davis Fisher. I am Nettie Mae Grimsley Davis oldest granddaughter. I remember my grandmother’s sisters and brothers. I have a love for the Grimsleys in my heart in my blood, deep down in me.! My granny was the baby of Nettie & Sam Grimsley. Like you said mother-sister. I met my Madear sisters and brothers. Aunt Sis(Sarah) aunt Mamie-aunt Effie-uncle Joe–uncle Ander– uncle John and i think uncle Ooten. All the sisters at one time lived in Columbus, close to aunt Sis(mother-sister) aunt Effie got married and moved to Cleveland and my grandmother came to Fremont. My grandmother brother uncle Joe lived in Fremont. Uncle Anderson stayed in Abbeville. What was Cousin Pat daddy name?(his daughters were Annie Mae–Josephine–Beck –Martha Rose) Every time they said Columbus i was in the car. Me and my grandmother would stay at Aunt Sis house, aunt Mary Emma(her& my grandmother was close to same age) Aunt Ozzie because Aunt Mamie was over there. No hotels for us! The sisters would love on one another and we got to know our cousins!! My dad and aunts would talk about their cousins all the time. The sisters named their sons Sam, and 2 cousins were named Nettie– We had cousin Joseph–cousin Mamie– cousin Pat– cousin Anderson Jr. They named their babies after family member! What a tribute to your love one.
    Ill write more later.

    d deep down in me.

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  3. I just love reading these passages you’ve taken the time out to ‘dig’… it’s so intriguing to learn about family and our roots. Thanks aunt Tammy, keep me posted!!

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