In 1922, Edward Marshall Howard, a young man from Charlottesville, Virginia, left his home and travelled 150 miles to attend Hampton Institute, a college in Hampton, Virginia. Born in 1900, Edward was the son of Marshall, a chauffeur, and Lula, a schoolteacher, who wanted to study mechanical engineering.
He left behind his family and his girlfriend Anne Kelley, whom he’d known since childhood. At Hampton, he dived into his studies and joined the basketball, track and field and football teams.
In the 1920’s, only .1 percent of blacks held a four-year college degree. Today that number is 22.5 percent. Rampant discrimination and economic disadvantages were the primary reasons, but many other factors played an integral role.
In 1925, Edward married his sweetheart Anne who was expecting their child. Shortly after their daughter Ernestine was born in 1925, they divorced and Anne left Virginia with her daughter and headed North to find work. There, with her mother’s sister Harriet, Anne settled in Chelsea, Massachusetts and worked as a cook at the Chelsea Naval Hospital. At church, she was introduced to a northerner, Albert Theodore Sneed, who worked at the General Electric plant aviation unit, and the two married in 1930. Albert raised Ernestine as his own along with their five other children.
Ernestine went on to study nursing at the Boston City Hospital School of Nursing in 1947, and several years after she completed her education in 1950, met William Marshall Cline, who worked at Massachusetts General Hospital and was the son of Lizzie Cline, a cook, and Morris Pompey, a farmer in Shelby, North Carolina. William and Ernestine, or Bill & Teeny, as they were known, shared a love of nursing and married in 1957.
William and Ernestine Cline are my parents and their story and the story of their parents is also mine. Selecting which stories to write aren’t the greatest challenge writers face, it is how to tell the stories that matter to us. I believe the stories we tell are rooted in our histories.
The story of our families, provide a wealth of history upon which to draw and offer a roadmap into our futures. My grandfather’s story of entering a historically black college at a time when opportunities for blacks were few or my grandmother’s trek north from the segregated south or my mother’s experience in a nearly all-white Boston suburb and my father’s rise from hospital orderly to LPN, are stories that have made their way into mine. Their quest for education and a better life helped me to write of Frederick’s Douglass’ burning desire to read in Words Set me Free and allowed me to outline the story of Rosa and her mother as slaves who sought literacy in a pit school in Light in the Darkness. I can hear the beautiful cadence of my mother-in-law, Margaret Williams’ language and her story of making her way to school only when the cotton season ended in the story of Paul and Lizzie’s miles long journey to school each day in Freedom’s School. The determination of my mother and grandmother to persist in the face of adversity are infused in an upcoming book about Harriet Tubman, Before She was Harriet. My grandfather’s and father-in-law James Williams’ passion for sports can be found on the pages of Satchel Paige, Major Taylor and Pele. My New England roots and the joy I found spending time with my father made their way onto the pages of Whale Trails: Before and Now, the story of a young girl and her father from Cape Cod aboard their whale watching tour boat. A household filled with my parent’s jazz trickled into Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson and Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong.
I would wager you can find pieces of every writer’s history in the books they write. I am not attempting to rewrite history, but to weave in the ones that have shaped me. It’s what makes perspective important and strengthens the argument that the publishing world needs to encourage many voices to tell their stories. It’s why diverse books matter. Because in each and every one of us, the history of us is what makes us unique and enriches the lives of readers and the stories we need to tell.