Monday, July 6, 2015

Whose Stories Deserve To Be Told?

It may seem an odd question. We all imagine, I suppose, that our own stories have intrinsic worth and deserve to be told. Yet, examine any bookstore's or library's collection of autobiographies and you will see almost exclusively the lives of the rich and famous.  The internet is changing this algorithm of historical memory—anyone with even limited access to the internet can now tell her own story—but, in general, stories of the rich and powerful survive best, if only because those who occupy positions of influence generate the buzz (even on the web), the correspondence, memoirs, and other sources on which historians rely.

This means that in Grinnell, as in many other places, the disadvantaged, the poor, people of color, and others at the margins of power and wealth disappear from the story.  I hope to use this blog occasionally to add some of those stories to Grinnell's master narrative.  
A Gathering of Extended Family of African Americans at Arbor Lake, Grinnell (ca. 1930).
One Grinnell story that deserves to be added to the master narrative belongs to an African American family—the Renfrows. Lee Augustus Renfrow (1872-1945) and his wife Eva Craig Renfrow (1875-1962) raised six children in Grinnell where African Americans constituted a distinct minority. Consequently, the Renfrows lived at the margins of the town's economy and society.  Yet their children obtained college educations and successfully entered the professions.  For the most part, the children's lives played out in places far from Grinnell, which may explain in part why their stories remain so little-known; I hope to tell some of their stories, too.  But let's begin with the parents.
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Although born after the abolition of slavery, Lee and Eva Renfrow nevertheless inherited the social consequences of the "peculiar institution." The prejudice that today still afflicts race relations in America certainly affected the Renfrows back then, even if that bias did not take the violent forms that it has taken elsewhere. Instead, the Renfrows had to deal with the mostly silent discrimination that limited them financially and socially.

As happened often with black folk of his era, Lee Renfrow expressed uncertainty about his place of birth: he sometimes told inquirers that he was born in Kansas, sometimes in Texas.  But it seems clear that he was born in Texas to Perry Renfrow and Delia (sometimes Alice) Anderson (elsewhere Gamefoot). According to Lee's daughter, Edith, Delia was born in Gambia and came to the Americas as a slave, but elsewhere the records describe her as having been born in Riverside, Texas where she and Perry met and married.  Perry was born into slavery somewhere in eastern North Carolina before the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation.

When around 1880 the family moved to Emporia, Kansas, only five children (of the fifteen who were said to have been born to the couple) were living with Perry and Delia; Lee was also living in Emporia, but with another African American family (also relocated from Texas), presumably earning his keep by working on the family's farm. Soon thereafter the senior Renfrows moved again, this time to Kane County, Illinois, where they appear in the records several times. For reasons unknown, however, sometime before 1901 Lee arrived in Grinnell, where at the end of July 1901 he married Eva Craig.

Like Lee, Eva was not far removed from slavery.  Although she was born free in Oskaloosa, Iowa, both her parents had been born into slavery, and by different routes had come to Iowa where they married and settled. Consequently, both Lee and Eva knew very well the hard road that their parents had traveled to freedom; they knew as well the considerable limitations that still attached to African American men and women, decades after the abolition of slavery.

Surviving records have little to say about Lee and Eva Renfrow in the first years after their 1901 marriage, except that their first child, Helen (1904-68), was born in Grinnell.  But by the time that Minnesota officials conducted the 1905 census, the Renfrows were living in Red Wing, Minnesota, a town that in the nineteenth century had prospered because of the wheat trade along the Mississippi River, but which at the turn of the century had diversified its economy, boasting several factories.

What brought the Renfrows to Red Wing? Nothing survives to explain the move. According to the census, Lee worked as a porter in Red Wing, but exactly where he worked the records do not say. We know only that the Renfrows lived at 418 Third Street, a few blocks from the river and the railroad station and two blocks from the St. James Hotel; any of these sites would have offered work to a porter.
Sketch of Red Wing, MN (ca. 1895) (from Footsteps Through Historic Red Wing, n.d.)
Apparently the Renfrows did well in Red Wing, as three more children were born to them there—Alice in 1906 (d. 1997), Rudolph in 1907 (d. 1974)—both born at home with the aid of a midwife—and Evanel in 1908 (d. 1994), the first in her family to be born in a hospital (Red Wing City Hospital).

Nevertheless, the 1910 US Federal census found the Renfrows back in Grinnell, living at 511 2nd Avenue, occupying the house that had once been home to another African American, Mumford Holland (d. 1916), and immediately next door to George and Eliza Craig, Eva's parents.  Exactly what brought them back to Grinnell is unknown, but we might imagine that personal reasons dictated the move: when Eliza Craig died in 1924, her funeral service took place in the Renfrow home, perhaps because she had been living with the Renfrows during her last illness.
511 Second Avenue (2015 photo)
In Grinnell Lee identified himself as a "cook" for the first time, telling the 1910 census-taker that he worked in clubs rather than in a restaurant.  In the 1915 Iowa census Lee, again described as "cook," reported having been out of work for four months the preceding year, and it seems likely that previous years had produced similarly irregular employment.  His total earnings for all of 1914 came to $400, a sharp contrast to the several thousand dollars of income that Grinnell notables like B. J. Ricker reported in the 1915 census.
Monroe Hotel, ca. 1920. Photo from Digital Grinnell
Perhaps exactly because work as a cook was not steady, when Lee registered for the draft in 1918 he declared himself a janitor for the school board in Grinnell. The 1920 US Census, however, lists him as "laborer" in a "packing house," these different jobs all a reflection, one imagines, of the insecurity of employment at the bottom of the job scale, especially for African Americans. Sometime around 1920, however, Lee seems to have settled into work as a cook.  Despite the census report, the 1920 Grinnell city directory identified Renfrow as a "cook," a position he consistently reported thereafter.  Various reminiscences of life in early Grinnell recall Lee as having worked at the Monroe Hotel in these years.

By 1920 the family had moved to 411 First Avenue, less than two blocks from the Craigs' home.  Here the Renfrows resided for the rest of their time in Grinnell, and here they added two children to their family: a daughter,  Edith (1914- ), and a son, Paul (1916-1974).  Consequently, the 1920 census counted all six children who shared the house on First Avenue with their parents.
411 First Avenue (2015 photograph)
Gradually the Renfrow children passed through the Grinnell schools; Helen graduated from Grinnell High School in 1923 and Alice in 1924.  The 1925 Iowa census omitted mention of Helen, who by this time was attending Fisk University in Nashville. Alice does appear on the census sheet, although she, too, soon left for college, enrolling at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later known as Hampton University) in Hampton, VA.  Rudolph, the third-eldest Renfrow child, is also missing from the 1925 census report, apparently because he had left Grinnell before graduating from the High School, and had enrolled at the Hampton Academy, part of the Hampton Institute.

When officials of the 1930 federal census visited 411 First Avenue, only the two youngest Renfrow children—Edith and Paul—were still at home. Evanel graduated from Grinnell High School in 1926, and soon thereafter enrolled at Iowa State University, concentrating upon nutrition and dietetics, just as her High School yearbook had anticipated. In this career choice she may have been influenced by her mother, whom Edith recalled as having managed a large garden in the lot west of their home where Eva raised lots of fresh vegetables for family meals.

By the time that the 1940 US census was carried out, Lee Renfrow was 68 years old, and Eva was 65, living by themselves at 411 First; all their children had departed to pursue lives that took them from Grinnell. When Lee died April 16, 1945, he was serving as cook for the Hotel Shaner at the corner of Broad and Commercial. This hotel, which bore a series of names over the years—Mack; Gifford, Powell and Storm; and later  Patterson, and Park—was much smaller than its rival, the Monroe, which stood adjacent to the railroad depot on 3rd Avenue and Park.
Hotel Shaner, corner of Broad and Commercial (1947)
After Lee's death, Eva remained in Grinnell for some years, but around 1952 she moved to Iowa City to live with her daughter Helen. In 1929 Helen had married Allyn Lemme, and the couple settled in Iowa City where they both worked and where they raised two sons. Active on the local human rights commission, in the local Democratic Party, as well as in numerous other Johnson County civic organizations, Helen left a huge legacy to Iowa City, which responded after her 1968 death by naming a grade school in her memory.
Gravestone for Lee and Eva Renfrow, Hazelwood Cemetery, Grinnell
Public records preserve little information about the last years of Eva Renfrow, who died in Iowa City hospitals, August 26, 1962. Her funeral took place in Grinnell, and she was buried beside her husband in Hazelwood Cemetery. With her death, the Grinnell part of the Renfrow family story came to a close. Of course, the outline of their lives leaves much unsaid; no doubt the basic text of the family story was told often, perhaps over the dinner table or at other occasions when the family gathered behind their home's doors. What did they think of the Grinnell people they knew? Did they feel welcomed or trusted?
Cover of the program to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of Grinnell. Courtesy of Digital Grinnell.
There is little evidence with which to answer these questions. But one peculiar relic of the era provokes wonder.  In 1929 Grinnell celebrated the 75th anniversary of the town's founding and marked the event by staging a historical pageant.  Almost all the dozen scenes dwelt on the accomplishments of the city's white founders and their immediate descendants. Only one scene touched on the experience of African Americans, referencing with pride the town's abolitionist past and its connection to the underground railroad: 
...
(Knock at door)
MOTHER: Hush, children! (Father goes to door. Group is tense. Low conversation at door. Negro woman enters hesitatingly, child clutched to her breast)
GRANDMOTHER: Poor woman, don't be afraid, we are your friends.
COLORED WOMAN: (gasps) Oh, ma'am, they're close behind me.
MOTHER: You are safe here. No one has ever been taken from this house. Let me have your baby.
COLORED WOMAN: (clutching baby) Oh, please, Ma'am—
MOTHER: Of course, if you feel safer.

COLORED WOMAN: Oh, ma'am, you can't know. Day and night I hear hounds and the whistle of whips. I see auctioneers selling human flesh and blood. I can't be taken. I won't be taken.
GRANDMOTHER: There, there, child. The Lord will be with You. And we are His servants.
FATHER: And we're here to do the Lord's work with some articles your enemies understand. (Lays pistol on the table.) You must get some food, and as soon as it's dark we'll push on. We'll head for the Quakers in Cedar county. 

COLORED WOMAN: Can't we start now ? They'll see me here.
MOTHER: If you'll feel safer, we'll hide you in another room. I'll bring some food.
COLORED WOMAN: Can't we start now?
FATHER: You must believe me when I say it's safer to wait. Darkness is our friend. We have done this often and we've never failed...
COLORED WOMAN: You're so good to me. (Follows Mother into next room)....


It is interesting to note that Mrs. L. A. Renfrow played the part of fugitive slave woman, and therefore constituted the only African American among the dozens of actors, dancers, and others who had parts in the anniversary celebration.  More than that, she had to play the part that the pageant's white authors imagined for her enslaved ancestors. The slave that she was instructed to represent was a helpless and passive vessel in the hands of the well-meaning and fully-empowered white townsfolk who, to judge by the slave woman's final line, fully expected to be complimented for all they had done for their black compatriots.

One wonders what Eva Renfrow thought as she voiced these lines.  Did she think about whether white Grinnell really was good to her and her family—even if her husband was obliged to accept various temporary, low-paying jobs? And when she went home after rehearsals or after the performances, did she and her family discuss the difference between the Renfrow story and the way that white Grinnell told its story?

We are not likely ever to learn the answers to these questions; no one seems to have asked Lee or Eva what they thought about it, and so no record preserves their impressions. What we learn from their children, however, is that the offspring of Lee and Eva Renfrow intended to author their own stories, which they did with considerable success, as I hope to relate in some future posts.

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