Digging Into My Family’s Racist History Turned Up Hard Truth
Growing up, I associated genealogy with the begats of the Bible, with an old family tree my father showed me, and with my father’s reverence for the Old South. His father was an outspoken white supremacist and defender of slavery. I wanted to emulate him and my branch of the family. It was not something I expected that would lead me to be interested in creating my family tree. When I did start researching my ancestors, only my mother’s side interested me: the Texan rabble-rousers, scoundrels, and misfits I’d grown up hearing about. Had my maternal grandmother’s father really been a communist in early twentieth-century Dallas? Had my mom’s father really married thirteen times? Had HisA father actually killed a man using a hay hook. I slowly verified these tales, at the very least partially. Granny’s father was a member of the Dallas County Local of Socialists. My mom’s father married at least ten times, to nine women. And his father, my great-grandfather, really did kill a man with a hay hook, though it was an accident outside a feed store one morning rather than the swashbuckling bourbon-soaked bar fight I’d imagined.
I got interested in researching my father’s family when I learned there were things they didn’t want me to know. In a spirit filled with gleeful defiance and a stubbornly determined self-righteousness, I started my sleuthing. I wanted to root out every secret, lie, and hypocrisy and parade their skeletons up and down the block, to refute my dad’s mythology about what he called “our blood,” his view of it as an honor and an obligation, his depiction of our predecessors as inherently good and correct, never to be questioned, only emulated. When I’d failed him by (among other things) not being as smart as I was expected to be, I’d also had the sense of failing to measure up against the yardstick of our forebears. My paternal clan was a club that could reject you, even if it is your birthright. I decided to refuse them.
In my late twenties or early thirties, I started asking about Maude Newton, Granddaddy’s sister and Grandpa’s aunt. When I was young, my dad told me that Maude had been an architect when she built her house. It’s remarkable for someone of her age in the Mississippi Delta. Maude Newton was his first name, but he never used that term. The two names were interchangeable as Maude Newton is a more distinguished, well-known, and respected woman, much like Lucille ball or Amelia Earhart. At the age of 30, I began publishing family stories on the internet. I then decided, out of a combination of irony and perversity and because I wanted to protect the innocent, to name them Maud Newton. (My real name is Rebecca. Maud is a nickname now, one most of my friends call me, but I didn’t foresee actually answering to the name when I chose it as a pseudonym.
My sister and I went to Mississippi with our grandmothers around that same time. This was the way we traveled for most of our lives. After we had finished dinner, I was able to get in the car and drive back home. Then I met Grandpa’s eyes in the rearview mirror and asked about Maude. Did she actually become an architect? Was she able to design her house herself?
“Well,” said Grandpa, his silver-white hair picking up the glow of the streetlights. Partly because of his drawl, but also due to his deliberation, he spoke slowly. He was exact. “The thing they used to say about Maude was—”
“Oh, Richard.” Grandma’s hands fluttered to her handbag and then back into her lap. “They don’t want to hear that old story.” She flicked open the passenger mirror to check her lipstick. Her dark eyes seemed worried as she turned her mouth down.
“Yes, we do,” I said.
“Yes,” said my sister, whose expression of interest in their family was a rarity, “we do.”
Grandpa hesitated before he went off on his own. Grand-Aunt Maude was the one who designed her home, he confirmed. In addition to that, she also sat down in a lawnchair and called for corrections while it was being constructed.
“Just look at those magnolias—aren’t they beautiful?” Grandma’s voice had risen an octave.
The magnolias were not noticed by anyone. Instead, Grandpa told us that Maude had been married but didn’t like it and so “she threw pepper in her husband’s eyes until he stopped coming around.”
Grandma reached for Grandpa’s shoulder and jogged it a little. “I just can’t believe how the neighbors have let their hedges go!” she said.
Grandpa said we’d have to talk more about Maude “some other day.” We never did. My only source of information on Maude was lost when he passed away in 2008 The Newtons were also a focus of my research. Grandpa’s first cousin, whom I tracked down through my research, was able to tell me that Maude had been a schoolteacher, but not much more.
Finally I was able to find her married name in newspapers. When I did, I found treasure: a photo of Maude in 1977, at age ninety-two, sitting in a “King Midget” car. This vehicle, billed as “the World’s Most Affordable Car,” was assembled from a kit, although hers reached the Mississippi Delta in completed form. This picture is accompanied by a profile about Maude from James Dickerson. Delta Democrat-Times.
According to the article Maude was around seventy-nine when she saw an angel nine years after retiring from public school. National Geographic ad seeking Midget Motor Corporation dealers. She replied and offered to be the Sunflower County dealer. She was thrilled when the company offered to sell her a vehicle at a discounted price of five hundred dollars.
Maude was eighty or so, according to Dickinson’s account, when the car was shipped down on a train from Ohio. Main Street was “filled with curiosity seekers” when it arrived. Maude was astonished, but she didn’t know how to use the car. “It was my first car,” she said. “And I couldn’t drive an inch,” but she learned. She told her story about how she was reluctant to become a King Midget dealer. “My family didn’t want me to do it. After listening to them for around a year, I decided to write the company. Then I wrote the company anyway and told them to send me a car.” Everything about this story delighted me, apart from Maude’s disapproving Mississippi Delta family, though I related most to that.
Dickerson describes Maude’s house as filled with “stacks of books and magazines,” another commonality. According to her, she first met her husband while working in Indiana’s architectural office. “‘I learned how to do house plans there,’” she explained. “‘In fact, I did the plans for this very house I’m living in right now.’”
She also remembered teaching in Southern Mississippi “when we had Halley’s Comet.” She said, “‘That was 1910, the year Mark Twain died. When the comet came over we all went outside to have a look.’” I’d gone through a phase of devouring Mark Twain’s nonfiction in the years before I read this, so I knew he was born shortly before the comet passed and that he’d died the day after its return. “It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet,” he’d said. “The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” Like most people, Maude, who was born in 1884, got to see the comet only once. At ninety-seven, she died.
In reading this article I realized she was indeed a like-minded spirit.
Now I had more information. I knew Maude’s family was poor, at least during her childhood. She was only twenty when her father died. Four years later, in 1908, Maude somehow graduated from Grenada College, a Methodist girls’ college in Grenada, Mississippi, with a bachelor of letters degree. I don’t know how she was able to attend, unless on scholarship.
You can find the Delta Democrat-Times profile, Maude implied that she met her husband at an architectural office prior to 1910 and returned to Mississippi before that year, but the records I’ve found show that she married Simmons in Elkhart, Indiana, in 1912. They ran an advertisement in 1915. American Contractor as the architectural firm Simmons & Simmons. According to the ad, Maude Newton, whose middle name is Corona, had at one point dropped Maude! “Simmons & Simmons, architects, have opened an office,” it read. “The members are Royal Leonard Simmons and his wife, Corona Newton Simmons. Mr. Simmons has had twelve years’ experience in the profession. Ms. Simmons graduated from Grenada College in Miss. and completed a course on advanced engineering and designing. A number of Elkhart bungalows were designed by her.”
Grandpa and I, possibly in Long Beach, Mississippi around 1973
Courtesy Maud Newton
It made me sad to read this. The Delta took Maude back. It’s impossible to know the real story of the end of Maude’s marriage. The 1920 census falsely identifies her as widowed—maybe that was the story in the community for a time—but the 1930 and 1940 censuses indicate that she was divorced. Royal, her ex-husband had remarried in 1930.
One thing the Newtons of earlier generations always seemed to agree on was that the lineage produced an unusual number of, as John put it, “old maids,” a course I could easily imagine having decided on for myself—or, courtesy of my undocile personality, being chosen for me in Maude’s era. Unmarried daughters are a common feature of my family, at least back to Jesse Newton’s fourth great-grandfather. He was likely the son of Sally Newton.
Maude is actually a woman. a writerOf course. In 2010, I discovered that the Mississippi Department of Archives and History maintained a “Maude C. (Newton) Simmons collection,” devoted to newspaper articles, local interest items, and letters, some of them published in the Drew, Mississippi, newspaper from 1960 to 1970. Her “Drew Doings” column “concerned a variety of subjects, including births, deaths, church and school news, politics, sports, topics of community interest, visitors, and poetry composed by Simmons or published authors.”
Are the archives mainly church-supper bulletins or were they? Is it opinion? Whatever else they might be, one thing was certain: They were civil-rights-era dispatches from the very town where, in 1955, Emmett Till was lynched, and from the state and era where the 1963 murder of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers led a sickened Eudora Welty to, for once, discard her reticence, sit down at her desk, and write, in a single impassioned rush, her short story “Where Is the Voice Coming From?”
Minnie Ann Newton (Grand Newt), my great-great grandmother (probably in Drew Mississippi in the 1960s).
Courtesy Maud Newton
I was nervous to read Maude’s writing but also eager. Because the library claimed that the microfilm could not be reproduced using the standard procedures, I hired a researcher so she could take a look at them. I was interested in the paper copies she returned. The first article, published January 4, 1968, in Indianola’s Enterprise-Tocsin, offered a survey of New Year’s celebrations, customs, and superstitions from around the world. The second, published November 14, 1968, opens with “My walking marathon,” a section on car trouble. “Such a wonderful age with efficiency (?) the order of the day!” it begins, before launching into her motor travails. Four months passed without her King Midget. It kept sending out the wrong parts. And then, she wrote, “At the voting precinct, Nov. 5th, if I didn’t have enough trouble deciding how to vote, a member of the shop said, ‘I have good news for you. The mechanic broke the parts.’”
I giggled. It was then that I realized what the timing was. Maude was unable to choose how to vote when George Wallace, the independent segregationist presidential nominee, won the state.
Soon came a dispatch about the Newton family’s history in Mississippi, about fishing and playing with “little Negro boys on the plantation,” until “a crop failure from cutworms” forced the family to move. After their father died, her teenage brothers “carried on the farming and later added Newton Brothers General Store.”
All I had feared in the end was contained within the packet. In notes for one article, Maude excoriates Lyndon Johnson’s “fuzzy-thinking” and “wishy-washy policies.” Later she contrasts him unfavorably with Barry Goldwater, who “had the integrity and stability to vote against the civil-rights bill and the nuclear test ban treaty—the latter the first step in giving up our sovereignty to become a member of a One World Government.” In another article draft, she advocates defying the Civil Rights Act. Otherwise, she warns readers, “Your little girl will be integrated with little Negro boys and grow up on intimate social terms.” Maude would still have been teaching in Drew, and her column would have been running, in 1965 when a Black family that enrolled their children in the town’s white school district woke to gunshots fired through all their windows after they refused to return their children to the Black school. Around 1968 she was retired.
Elsewhere, Maude claims that “Congress is planning to pass a voting bill that will discriminate against the white people in six Southern States. Mississippi is one of them.” She says that she has it “on good authority” that “an average of 70 Negroes go every day to Indianola to register. In the South, it is well-known that many Negroes don’t know their ages. This will make it possible for many under voting-age to register and vote.” In another Enterprise-Tocsin column, in a Deep South “but I have Black friends” hat trick, she writes:
My mom owned and operated a Drew hotel many, many decades ago. Later she moved to a private residence and retained boarders. She had to have a houseboy of color. [sic]It was the standard practice in those days.
Her particular houseboy was a colored one. He moved to Chicago. He still lives there. As a Santa Fe porter, he was fortunate enough to be able attend the Pasadena Tournament of Roses many times over the years. He always gives me a pictorial copy of Pasadena Tournament of Roses Pictorial, which I’m happy to report. My 1970 copy arrived the other day.
This “relationship” does not stem from decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court.
In Maude’s position, I’d view the annual gift from Chicago as an indication that her mother’s former employee didn’t exactly pine for his old life waiting on my great-great-grandmother and her boarders in the Delta, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to Maude.
Thus did it transpire that, in naming myself Maud Newton, I’d accidentally honored the parts of my family history that trouble me most. The disappointment I felt reminded me of a biography I reviewed that revealed the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor relished racist jokes.
The critic Sadie Stein, whom I later met and liked (and who has Arkansas roots on her mother’s side), responded to my review, observing that my and others’ surprise over O’Connor’s racism seemed “disingenuous.” I saw where she was coming from and appreciated the critique; on reflection, though, the most accurate description would have been “willfully naïve.” I’d known the likelihood that O’Connor, having grown up in Georgia during the Jim Crow era, was racist, but I’d chosen to hope she’d applied her stringent values and astringent perspective to white supremacy. In the case of both Flannery O’Connor and Maude Newton, I’d hoped so hard, I’d nearly convinced myself my fantasy was true. But both Maude and O’Connor actively fed the systemic racism from which they benefitted.
Retrospectively, I found out that Drew Newspaper, which had published Maude when I was elementary school, had been revived. Each week, a subscription arrived at my Miami house from my father. While my sister and I were enjoying breakfast, he often mentioned things that interested him. I wonder now if my father mentioned back then that Maude Newton had written a column for the paper and if that’s how she became lodged in my mind as someone whose story was worth digging up.
Whatever the cause of my original interest, Grandma’s horror at my curiosity fueled my persistence. I researched as a defiance and an effort to uncover what Grandma wanted to keep. It was also a desire to find a precedent in my father’s family for myself. Maude rejected me; I was the same.
Ironically, I believe now that Grandma’s resistance to my interest in Maude was partly a result of the things Maude wrote that I myself find unconscionable. Grandma thought that having the Confederate flag displayed on the Mississippi state emblem was embarrassing, even before she passed away. She threw away fifty years of her mother’s plantation journals. She realized, despite the nostalgia for her childhood, that it was wrong to defend the South’s segregated South. I suspect she’d also come to think it was wrong. I know she would approve of the new state flag with the magnolia—“look at those magnolias!” she’d said, when I persisted in asking about Maude. My curiosity was only heightened by my attempts to switch the topic.
I’m sorry that Maude’s writing turned out to be what it is, but I’m not sorry I found it. As the world shows more clearly every day, pretending racism doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away. The act of giving myself my name affirmed a conviction I had from my earliest years.
Adapted by Maud Newton from ANCESTOR TROUBLE : A Reckoning, and a Reconciliation Copyright © 2022 by Maud Newton. Random House is an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights are reserved.
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