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 from 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.
Sarah’s parents were Sharecroppers.
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 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, 26, a recent divorcé, on December 8th, 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.
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 her husband arranged 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 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. She even carried their youngest child, Robert, on her hip. Her miraculous healing is a testimony that Sarah would always share that God healed her. My Aunt remembers taking Sarah to the doctor in the ’60s at Ohio State University Hospital. 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, lived in Columbus with his family since 1917.
Not long after their arrival to the “Northern paradise free from racism,” they experienced the worst type of tragedy as parents resulting in their two youngest sons’ deaths. Leroy, three, and Robert, two 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 had 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.
Respiratory issues continued to plague the family. Sarah, with her baby daughter, Effie, had rehabilitation visits at the Franklin County Sanatorium. Sarah recovered and birthed three more children: Nettie, Michael, and Lee. 14 month-old Effie succumbed to her respiratory illness. The couple buried her, a fourth child, on June 3rd, 1930.
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 property 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.
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, parenting days, wrap me up and leave the house. No one knew where we were. They called the police. We finally returned home. Sarah asked, “What? When she noticed the cop cars in front of the house. And answered, “I was walking my baby!”
I remember the day Sarah left for the last time in an ambulance stretcher. She died on October 30th, 1970.
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