March 18th, 2007 by sashafaith
My family called her “Nanny”. She was my grandmother’s paternal grandmother, but a far more central figure, because she raised my grandmother from birth, following the tragic death of my great grandmother Addie Johnson Stewart during childbirth. Her remarkable life inspires me even today.
Mary Mason was born January 1, 1871 in Murfreesboro, TN the second daughter of 10 children born to Samuel Mason and Mary Jane Jamison Mason, former slaves. Our family’s oral history is that Mary Eliza Mason was Choctaw, but I have not uncovered evidence of that. Her father Samuel was likely a former slave, listed as black on all of his records. Her mother, Mary Jane Jamison was the oldest of nine children of Monroe and Jemima Jamison, both likely former slaves from Tennessee, several of whom went on to become leaders in the work of improving lives in the black community. I imagine that some of the Nanny’s drive in life came from the example of her mother’s family.
Samuel & Mary Jane Mason, along with their four children at that time were part of the Exoduster movement. This mass migration was an effort by many poor black families to get away from the violence and poor opportunities in the south. It was encouraged by businesses like the Santa Fe Railroad, with it’s glowing advertisements, and several organizations like the Tennessee Real Estate and Homestead Association founded in Nashville, TN in part by Benjamin “Pap” Singleton. In 1879 and 1880, when Sam’s family moved, over 25,000 people came to Kansas.
Once in Topeka, the family may have struggled to find their footing among the thousands who came with little or nothing. But Topeka had a black population familiar with protest, the political process, and invested in social and race progress. Among Mary’s mothers siblings were several professionals. One of her uncles, Dr. J. M. Jamison was employed by the Santa Fe railroad as a company physician. His wife was prominent in the social life of black Topeka, and active in the Topeka affiliate of National Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. The Plaindealer newspaper called that group, “a band of earnest, intelligent colored women who have given and are giving much of their lives to lift the race to a higher plane.” Mary’s Uncle Wesley I. Jamison was a lawyer and justice of the peace. He later served as a Judge. Her aunt, Mrs. Sally Malone ran the Florence Crittendon Home for Unwed Mothers, in addition to raising her own seven children. I believe that their example, along with a deeply held Christian faith played a strong role in shaping Mary’s destiny.
I have few facts about Mary’s childhood, and have not located any records for her young adulthood. Her obituary states that she left Topeka at age 17 to marry Reginald W. Stewart in Denver, CO. Their son Samuel Sylvester Stewart was born in Cripple Creek, CO in about 1893. My grandmother has told me that Nanny once had a job as a laundress in the “Red Light district” in Denver. But I know nothing about their lives during Samuel’s growing up, beyond two photos of Mary & Samuel, one taken in Topeka, Kansas when Samuel was still an infant, and a later photo from about 1910.
By 1903, her husband Reginald was enrolled as a student at Lincoln University, listed as single. He went on to meet and marry another woman Jane Johnson, and fathered a son with her, Rex Stewart – who went on to fame as a coronet player with Duke Ellington’s band. In 1910, Eliza and Samuel are missing from census records, although Reginald was living with his new family in Washington, DC. In 1917, Samuel signed a World War I draft registration card in Syracuse, NY, saying he had spent 4 years in a military school in Kansas. Although I have not located a record of this, in about 1918 Samuel was married to Addie Jane Johnson of Wytheville, Virginia, a graduate of Morgan College in Maryland. Then he enlisted and served in Europe in World War I.
Mary’s life for this period is missing from the records I have searched. But in 1918 her life changed dramatically. Her daughter-in-law Addie Jane died of “childbed fever” in a Newark hospital shortly after giving birth to her only daughter, Mary Elizabeth Addie Stewart. Nanny made a promise to Addie before she died to care for the baby who grew up to be my grandmother. In the 1920 Census, Mary was reunited with her husband Reginald. He worked as an insurance broker, she is listed as having no occupation, and her son, granddaughter, and a boarder are listed. My grandmother remembered the border, Florence Randolph, as her wet nurse. They lived on Hartford Street, in a home they owned, one of several properties Nanny purchased. Although Nanny is listed as having no occupation she actually had several.
Above is a card showing Mary’s membership in the Poro System, a school of black hair dressing founded by Annie Malone in St. Louis, MO that eventually spread to schools in many major cities. Grandma remembers Nanny doing hair, taking in laundry, cleaning houses for white families, and collecting rents on her properties as she continued to invest in real estate. In 1937, Nanny also had a business running a Tea Room.
As she raised her granddaughter, she instilled the values of faith, education, hard work and family. She took trips to Topeka regularly, somtimes bringing along my grandmother to visit with her family there, and also traveled several times to Wytheville, Virginia, so that my grandmother would know her mother’s people. The picture below is of my Grandmother Mary, Nanny, and Elizabeth Sayles Johnson, my grandmother’s maternal grandmother on one of their trips to visit the Johnson family.
She died before my lifetime, but her presence in our family was larger than life. She is talked of often, and with reverence, at my grandmother’s house when I spend time there. Her granddaughter Doreen Washington Abernathy remembers Nanny as hardworking and generous. She paid for piano lessons for Doreen and her sisters from a Mrs. Williams who came to the house for $3 an hour to teach. She read her Bible and The Upper Room, and on Sunday evenings would listen to radio programs by Reverend Fuller and Norman Vincent Peale. Her granddaughter Marilyn Washington remembers being given Juniper Tar syrup on sugar by Nanny for health. They described her thriftiness in re-fashioning clothing for the family, and the fact that she sewed aprons and sold them as well.
In addition to work, she was very active in her church. She was a member of 13th Avenue Presbyterian Church, and her obituary lists her involvement in the Inspirational Chorus, the Missionary Society and the Violet Club. Her obituary concludes with this paragraph:
In conclusion we can say that Mother Stewart fulfilled the description of a good woman as described in Proverbs 31st Chapter where it says: “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.” “She riseth also while it is yet night and giveth meat to her house-hold.” “She considereth a field and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vinyard.” “She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.” “Strength and honor are her clothing, ans she shall rejoice in time to come.” “She openeth her mouth with wisdome; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” “She looketh well to the ways of her household and eateth not the bread of idleness.” “Her children arise up, and call her blessed.” “Therefore give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.” Ma was all of these, and we are quite sure that her own works has praised her in the gates and she is now reaping the reward of her labor.
When I thought about One Woman to write about, she was my first thought. There are many remarkable women in my family, but Nanny stands out as one whose life might have appeared to hold little opportunity. Just the way one woman might thrown out an old outgrown dress, and another might fashion it into a ballgown, Nanny seemed to have a talent for taking what she was given and making it flourish.