One of the things I noticed looking though my parents’ high school yearbooks is that yearbooks haven’t changed very much over the last 75 years. Individual pictures of each student are followed by all the various clubs, sports and activities. Students sign one another’s books and promise eternal friendship. The seniors are quoted and predictions are made. (Annoyingly, the student pictures in Garth’s yearbooks are not alphabetical and there is no index. And I notice that the building depicted on the cover of Garth’s 1934 yearbook is clearly NOT Pittsburg High School!)
Eighteen year old Garth is bright and ambitious, and not particularly modest!
He is, of course, a member of the Science Club, which has now become the Shulen Von Wissensehaft. (Garth did believe that German is the language of science!) All that surprises me here is that Garth is part of the photography department, but none of the disciplines represented in the club strike me as particularly up his alley.
He looks quite serious!
Garth was also a member of something called Hi – Y.
My favorite: Garth’s nickname is “Prof.” and his favorite expression is “Prove it.” Yep — that’s my father!
I have learned that it can sometimes be a bit … unnerving … to snoop around in one’s family past. One never knows what information is just waiting to be discovered. One might find one’s self genetically linked to delightful African Canadian cousins and discover historical information about ancestors who were born into slavery. Or one might learn fun facts like that one’s own grandmother was several months pregnant when she married. One might come across intriguing hints about one’s father’s very young first marriage – stuff like that.
While I’m fascinated by the more distant past, I feel just a little detached from it. It is something else entirely to start poking around into the young lives of one’s own parents. It’s almost impossible to imagine “mom and dad” as young adults doing things like having crushes, participating in campus clubs, graduating from high school, choosing careers, getting friends to sign their yearbooks ….
Ancestry.com recently added American high school yearbooks (1900 – 1990) to their searchable database. (And that reminded me that I have in my possession several of Garth’s and Shirley’s high school and college yearbooks – I have never looked at them very closely, but I will now! What stories these yearbooks tell!)
Predictably, the new information offered on Ancestry.com reveals some information about the Kansas folks, but very little on Mona. That’s quite possibly because the Gees/Shaws bounced back and forth between Canada and the U.S., changing professions and religions (and sometimes even races!) for a couple of generations. I have never had a very clear picture of where my mother actually grew up – but now I know this:
In 1938, my mother, Mona Gee, was a graduating senior at Detroit Central High School.
And she was BEAUTIFUL!
Mona was a member of the Ellen H. Richards Club which was organized to promote interest in home economics, promote fellowship and contribute to the school’s social atmosphere, all noble goals at which Mona certainly excelled!
Much to my disappointment, and probably Mona’s as well, she was apparently absent on the day the yearbook photo was taken!
One might assume that when Susan made that fateful decision to live her life as a white woman, she severed all ties to home and family. But apparently, that was not entirely the case. While we know that many of her descendants knew absolutely nothing about her (and their!) African ancestry, some family relationships continued. We know that when Susan, after traveling and living abroad for more than ten years, returned to Canada with her English husband and four young children, they were going to join her brother, Thomas Christian.
Betty Kurkjian (daughter of Cyril Gee, niece of J. Ronald Gee, Mona’s first cousin) shared this memory of Susan:
My mom and my older sister and I had to move from Detroit to Windsor and we took up residence with my grandmother at 182 Lincoln St. in Windsor. My aunt Dorothy was living there as well. Prior to WWII, my family lived for a short time with Grandma Gee in Windsor.
My mother did not get along with Grandma Gee and said Grandma spent a good deal of her time in her room reading her bible. Well in a way I couldn’t blame her. I was around 4 years old and my sister was 9. I’m not sure we were entirely welcome. My mom was the one who told me most of grandma’s background, although I know she did not know of her African heritage.
My mom told me while we were living with her, she would occasionally disappear to visit a sister who had married an African Canadian. So perhaps she wanted to maintain that family relationship.
Mom said Grandma had quite a temper. She remembered her chasing my dad around the kitchen with an iron frying pan when she was upset with him.
Cousin Jean Bridges, a descendant of Susan’s sister, Ada Vincent tells us that when she was visiting cousins in Cleveland:
I remember opening the door for a man who dropped by for a visit. It was later in the day explained that he was “a gone white relative.” It seems that when he traveled nearby, he did drop by to visit his cousins. Many have found it easier to find employment, education and opportunities if one could pass as white.
Who that “gone white relative” was I can’t say, but I have a hunch that it was my grandfather’s brother Cyril – just a feeling.
So what would Susan think of us … researching the census records of three countries; examining ship passenger lists; tracing her travels through Europe; discovering her secrets that weren’t so secret after all; taking DNA tests; and eventually meeting cousins from a branch of the tree that some of us didn’t even know existed? (My grandfather, J. Ronald Gee, had 16 first cousins who at various times were described in census records as Black, Negro, colored, non-white and mulatto!)
My mother’s first cousin Bill Gee, son of Ronnie’s brother Bruce, came to visit from Toronto. Bill and Joan took us out for a great lunch and then we returned to Park Street to swap stories and photographs.
It’s funny – I have to remember that just because I don’t know something – some bit of family history – doesn’t mean others share my ignorance. Bill and I looked at several pictures of my mother’s brother, Bill Gee (“the other Bill Gee”). There are several photos of Mona’s brother Bill in which it his African ancestry seems pretty apparent, and there are several pictures of him with his grandmother Susan. Was he a favorite of hers? I have not seen any pictures of her with any of her other grandchildren. Anyway, I mentioned that I “thought” my mother’s brother Bill died in a VA hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. Oh yes, not only could my cousin Bill confirm that, but he added that he actually visited Bill Gee at that hospital.
“He is an interesting story. I saw him a few times in Romeo and a couple times after he came back from the war. On the first occasion, he knew he was going to die and was making the rounds of relatives to say goodbye. Can you imagine? In any case, he came waltzing into the house (only my mother and I were there at the time) with this breezy, happy attitude as though he didn’t have a care in the world. It was quite amazing. Shortly after, when I was about 12, I went with my parents to visit him at the veteran’s hospital in Battle Creek. He was laying in bed and still cracking funnies doing his best to make everyone laugh. I later heard from Jack that his mother never forgave Ronnie for not getting Bill deferred when he could have done so.”
Somehow or other, Susan Christian, a small town girl of African heritage, from Amherstburg, Ontario, decided to “pass” as white and made her way to Detroit where she was employed by a very prominent American family by the name of Newberry. John Newberry, a well known and respected admiralty attorney, was one of the earliest inhabitants of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where he and other wealthy industrialist types built costly mansions. He was elected to the U. S. Congress in 1879 where he served just one term. His son, Harrie Robinson Newberry was Secretary and Treasurer of the Detroit Steel & Spring Works and served on the City Council. Harrie and his wife, Harriet Dudgeon, had a daughter Gladys, born in 1885.
What exactly Susan’s role was in the Newberry family is a little unclear. According to Betty Kurkjian, Susan was a “cook/governess” and travelled with the Newberry family to France where she spent enough time to learn to speak fluent French. Bill Gee describes Susan as a “travelling companion” to Gladys Newberry, who was 22 years younger than her. Whatever the relationship, Susan travelled extensively with the Newberry family!
Harrie Newberry served the United States Department of State as charges d’affaires (or consul – general) in Constantinople and Madrid. On Ancestry.com, I have found tons of passport and visa information for Harrie and his family, and although I have not found the same kind of travel documentation for our Susan, we know she accompanied her employers for some period of time between 1885 (when Gladys Newberry was born) and 1897 (by which time Susan was married and had had her first child).
So somewhere in her European travels, Susan Christian met a sailor named William James Gee. Again, there are a couple of versions of this story. Betty Kurkjian was told that Susan and William James met on a crossing to France on a ship on which he was a Chief Petty Officer. Bill Gee tells the story somewhat differently: “I’m more inclined to believe my Dad’s story that she was in Constantinople with the Newberrys when the British fleet came into port and the crew was given shore leave. We can only guess what happened next ….”
Is it fair to say the Susan Christian is the most interesting person in my family tree? No … I find them all pretty interesting: Nolie’s sister who was married, had a child, was widowed and remarried all within 18 months – she’s pretty interesting. Garth’s ancestor who at the age of 20 fathered a child out of wedlock with a woman 10 years his senior, then married a different woman and had three children, then deserted them to homestead in Indiana with his common law wife – he’s very intriguing. (So is the common law wife, as she is my third great grandmother!) And I’m so curious about the couple of generations of Mormons – where did they come from and where did they go!
But Susan certainly came as the biggest surprise! When I first began researching my family tree, I knew next nothing to about Susan. All I knew was that that she was born in Ontario in 1863, went to England where she married, had four children, and then returned to Ontario. It always seemed to me that she was, well, going the wrong way. This is the only picture I had of her.
In the spring of 2015, I took the Ancestry.com DNA test and contacted a few people with whom I share DNA, my second cousin once removed (okay, I still don’t really get how all that nomenclature works) Jim Shreve, and my third cousin Irene Moore Davis. It was from them that I learned of the African twig on my family tree. And it was from Irene that I learned that my great grandmother “looked very much like her mother, Ann Wilson who emigrated to Canada from Lancashire, and far less like her father, Henry Christian who was born into slavery in Kentucky … The story in our family has always been that Susan did what a lot of people who could ‘pass’ did in those times: she moved away and lived her life as a white person. Passing often involved having minimal contact with one’s relatives or others who had known a person earlier in life: this was generally necessary to avoid being found out.”
Imagine my surprise! I have often regretted not asking my parents more about their ancestors, but learning that I have some African heritage really got me wondering. No one ever saw fit to mention this to me or my brother Greg? Why not? There are, I know, people for whom this information would be distressing, but not us. I did, however get a few interesting comments from my own first cousins. Bill Wagner pointed out to me that “there is some bigotry in our family.” When I asked him who in particular he meant, he told me Nolie. Interesting … did she know that her mother-in-law was half Black? When did she learn this? What did she think? And my cousin John Gee told me that his mother Betty told him that she might not have married Jack if she had known.
So I guess Susan’s plan to live her life as a white person worked! And what was she up to between the time she left Ontario and 1904 when she returned with her young English family?