Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Evanel, the academic...

Evanel Elizabeth was the fourth of the Renfrow children and the last to be born in Minnesota. Like others in the family, Evanel had her eyes on a college education, but, more than that, once she obtained the bachelor's degree like her sister Helen, she continued on to gain a master's. She then spent the rest of her career teaching at African American universities across the South, culminating in a 27-year tenure at Savannah State University. A recognized expert on nutrition, Evanel regularly attended professional conferences and published scholarly papers in her field, in this way perhaps extending furthest her mother's encouragement to her children to pursue an education.
Evanel Renfrow, 1926 Grinnellian
As mentioned in an earlier post, Evanel was born in Red Wing's City Hospital in 1908, the fourth child born to Lee and Eva Renfrow. As such, she followed in the wake of her brothers and sisters as they wound their way through the Grinnell schools after the family moved back to Grinnell around 1910.  Like her older siblings, Evanel spent her first years at the old South School, but with the completion of Davis School in 1917, she continued her education there, following close on the heels of her brother Rudolph. And Evanel did quite well in school. She had Vesta Atkinson as her sixth-grade teacher at Davis, where, according to extant records, she achieved a 91 overall average; the next year Evanel moved on to Center, the old downtown school that was soon to be replaced by a new Junior High School.  At Center her first-semester seventh-grade teacher was Olive Bowling, who found Evanel's work good enough that in November 1920 she "especially promoted" Evanel ahead of schedule to 7A, confirmation of the intelligence and hard work Evanel brought to schoolwork.

To judge from the high school yearbook summary of her activities, Evanel's scholastic achievement did not come at the cost of extra-curriculars. Like her oldest sister, Helen, Evanel was active in YWCA, but, in addition, she participated in numerous sports: basketball for three years, soccer for one, tennis for one, and something called "gym exhibition" (presumably a kind of gymnastics) all four years. She was also active in "Declam," a kind of public speaking activity, and did very well, once reaching the semi-finals of the annual competition. To imagine a personality of someone known only through historical evidence is hazardous, but the record indicates that Evanel did not shrink from encountering or even competing against white classmates. The saying attributed to her in her senior yearbook—"I want what I want when I want it"—seems to confirm her confident approach to life.

In an earlier post I noted that around 1925 the Renfrow family confronted a difficult situation: Helen was two years into her education at Fisk University; Alice had graduated from high school but had not started college; Rudolph, the third-oldest of the children, was enrolled in the academy of the Hampton Institute; and of course Evanel was about to graduate from Grinnell High School. It appears that, in order to balance these various demands on the family budget, the Renfrows arranged for Alice and Helen to mark time so that Evanel could begin college immediately after high school. Records confirm that autumn 1926 Evanel began a program in home economics at what was then called Iowa State College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts (today's Iowa State University). Whether finances (oldest sister Helen began at Iowa in the 1927-28 academic year) or some other issue was to blame, Evanel evidently interrupted her study in Ames after the first year, and only in the 1929-30 academic year did she resume her education at the University of Iowa from which she received a B. S. in 1930 and where she continued in graduate study, receiving an M. S. in 1935.
Home Economics Club, 1936 University of Iowa Hawkeye, p. 138.
As sister Helen's efforts to assist African Americans in Iowa City proves, the University of Iowa remained a very white institution. The 1936 yearbook picture of the university's Home Economics Club shows Evanel in the center of the photograph, the only African American of the 37 women pictured in the club. Being the lone black was nothing new to the Renfrow children, of course, who had grown accustomed to the situation during their Grinnell school years, but minority status did nothing to dissuade Evanel from pursuing her own educational goals.

Evanel's master's thesis ("The adequacy and cost of dormitory diets in the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for colored students") indicates that at some point before 1935 Evanel was living in Tallahassee where presumably she collected the data for her thesis. But I have so far not been able to confirm any position she might have held at Florida A & M.

By 1939 Evanel had won appointment at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute where the 1939-40 catalog lists her as Head, Department of Foods and Nutrition. In addition to citing her degrees from the University of Iowa, the catalog also reports that she had received a "Graduate Dietician's Diploma" from the Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D. C. To judge from a much later article about Evanel, at Freedmen's she was part of a special student dieticians training course founded by Frances McShann in the 1920s. Consequently, by the time she arrived at Tuskegee, she had completed some of the best training then available in dietetics and nutrition studies. 
Freedmen's Hospital, Washington, D. C. (ca. 1910)
It is no surprise, then, that at Tuskegee Evanel had the best resume of anyone in the Home Economics/Dietetics School: only Susie Elliott, who was then the school's director, and Henry Partridge, an instructor in commercial dietetics then on leave, had master's degrees like Renfrow; the rest had either bachelor's degrees or diplomas from specialized schools. Put another way, Evanel's education prepared her to exercise leadership, helping to explain her having won a General Education Board Fellowship to study at the University of Chicago for the 1941-42 academic year.

After Tuskegee and her Chicago fellowship her name disappears from the records for a time. She next appears in 1945 in the catalog of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, another of the country's historically black universities. A September, 1945 article in the university newspaper, The Lincoln Clarion, noted that "Miss Evanel Renfrow, assistant professor of foods and nutrition," would be joining the faculty. In addition to listing her degrees from Iowa, and her service at Freedmen's hospital, Tuskegee Institute, and Florida A & M, the newspaper also credited her with stays at "Michigan State College, University of Chicago, and the Loop Center YWCA, Chicago." I was able to find nothing about what positions she might have held at Michigan State and the Chicago Y, but these posts might well account for the three years between her fellowship at Chicago and her arrival at Lincoln in 1945.
Lincoln Institute (University), ca. 1920
Evanel seems to have made a smooth adjustment to life at Lincoln. Already in October, 1945 The Lincoln Clarion announced that she had become a member of the O. M. E. Civic Club as well as the Lundi Soir Bridge Club; subsequent announcements proved that Evanel was a rather good bridge player, since not infrequently she won the club prize at regular meetings. At Lincoln she was also sponsor of the local chapter (Epsilon nu) of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.  But soon Evanel's influence was felt in the university curriculum, as in 1947 she took to the annual convention of the American Dietetical Association (since 2012 the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) in Philadelphia a "proposal to establish an institutional training course for dieticians on Lincoln University's campus." Other notices confirm that Evanel was a well-known member of the dietetics profession, and held important office in the Missouri Dietetic Association as well as in the national professional organization.

The successful years at Lincoln led her to Savannah State College (today's Savannah State University), where in 1949 she was appointed associate professor and Director of the Division of Home Economics. Over the course of the next twenty-seven years Evanel led a very busy and productive life of teaching and scholarship. The periodic Faculty Research Edition of the Savannah State College Bulletin published several of her articles, including the following:
-"Pilot Study on a Non-Credit Adult Education Program in Chatham County" (1958)
-"A Review of Pertinent Literature on the Nutritional Status of the Negro Child, 1919-1954" (1963)
-"Changes in Social Welfare of Caribbean Families" (1961).
Prof. Evanel Terrell (far right) in class (photo courtesy Asa H. Gordon Library Special Collections, Savannah State University)
This last title grew out of a special summer, 1960 Family Life course that "toured and made a survey of contemporary family patterns of selected Caribbean countries." Evanel led a group of some half-dozen African American teachers who spent a month visiting Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica to explore domestic life and home economics in these Caribbean societies. In each place the group received a specialist briefing and visited sites related to the tour's theme.

Throughout her many years at Savannah State, Evanel continued to provide expert consultations and speak before various professional groups.  Soon after she arrived in Savannah, for example, she traveled to Tallahassee to advise the Foods and Nutrition Workshop at Florida A & M where she had done some of her original research. Later, as an "FDA school lunch specialist for Negro schools" she was consultant to a three-week conference sponsored by the Florida Department of Education and Florida A &M University "for in-service teacher training of Negro home economics teachers." She performed similar short-term consultations throughout her years at Savannah State.

In 1976, fifty years after her graduation from Grinnell High School, Evanel retired from her post at Savannah State University. Apparently she remained active in her church, First Congregational of Savannah, where she had been a long-time member, deaconess, and former president of the women's fellowship.
1976 Tiger, yearbook of Savannah State University
 Other activities (no doubt including bridge club!) continued to keep her busy, but the available records do not have much to say about her private life. All that is certain is that sometime in late 1951 or early 1952 Evanel married Carl Calvin Terrell (1918-84). I could find no record of the marriage, but a January, 1952 photograph in the Pittsburgh Courier shows a group of Savannah State couples, all of whom were being congratulated on their recent move into wedlock. Evanel Renfrow Terrell stands alone in this photograph, without her husband, although she, too, was included in the congratulations, and, as her changed family name indicates, must have married recently.
Pittsburgh Courier, January 26, 1952.
Carl Terrell was born in 1918 in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and had earlier served in the US Army, enlisting the day after the 1944 D-Day landings. According to city directories from the second half of the 1950s, Carl at that time was working as an embalmer for Bynes-Royall Funeral home in Savannah. I know little else about him, except that after his 1986 death he was buried at Beaufort National Cemetery.

Gravestones for Carl and Evanel Terrell, Beaufort National Cemetery, Beaufort, SC
At some point after Carl's death, Evanel moved to Chicago, where she endured a long illness at the Methodist Nursing home (today's Wesley Place Rehab, 1415 W. Foster) before her February 22, 1994 death. Her body was returned to Georgia for the funeral at Bynes-Royall Funeral Home, and was then buried next to her husband in the Beaufort National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina. Her obituary emphasized Evanel's academic success, including membership and leadership roles in numerous regional and national dietetics associations. The obituary also pointed out that Evanel was a lifetime member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the service-oriented African American sorority in which Evanel had some years earlier celebrated Golden Soror status—fifty years of membership.  She had served as sponsor for local chapters at both Lincoln University and Savannah State, and the Savannah chapter, Gamma Sigma Omega, established an annual scholarship in Evanel's name.

So this particular story, most of which was played out far from the Renfrow family home in Grinnell, came to an end. But all these years Evanel had enjoyed and depended upon her family's encouragement and wisdom. Not only had she pursued and succeeded at formal education, but also, far from the garden her mother had tended on First Avenue in Grinnell, Evanel Renfrow Terrell multiplied and shared her mother's interest in nutrition and good eating. Through numerous consultations, publications, and years of teaching Evanel had helped create a healthier generation of African Americans.  And, through the scholarship that carries her name, Evanel Renfrow Terrell, like her sister Helen, continues to influence young people for the better.



Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Helen Sets the Tone...

All the Renfrow children left Grinnell, laying down roots elsewhere, even if they returned to 411 First Avenue for their weddings and other family gatherings. Helen Renfrow, the oldest, remained closest to Grinnell, going to school and then taking work and making a home in Iowa City. Perhaps for that reason her story is best-known in Grinnell. But even this story has accumulated various misunderstandings that make it worth our while to take another look at the life of this remarkable—perhaps the most remarkable—child of Lee and Eva Renfrow.
Helen Renfrow (1904-68), 1923 Grinnellian
Details on Helen Renfrow's early life prove elusive. As the oldest child (and the first one born in Grinnell), Helen probably was called upon to help with her siblings; after the family moved to Red Wing, MN, three more children were born to the Renfrows—each only a little more than a year apart.  Consequently, there was plenty to do in the Renfrow household, and almost certainly Helen had a part in caring for her siblings.

When the family returned to Grinnell sometime around 1910, Helen was the first to enroll in school, and therefore the first to confront life as an African American child in Grinnell's overwhelmingly white schools. The slim evidence that survives indicates that she did well, but exactly how she managed life at school remains guesswork. Articles published after her death, eager to praise an obviously praiseworthy life, reported that she graduated from Grinnell High School as the valedictorian of her class, but the commencement programs assign that role to someone else. We know that, while in eighth grade, she won a $5 gold piece in a competition sponsored by the DAR. But was she deprived of her prize because of race as some later accounts indicate? It is not difficult to imagine this happening, but I have so far not been able to confirm this rather harsh, childhood encounter with racism. Quite the contrary, The Bystander, an African American newspaper published in Des Moines, reported that Helen won the prize "last Friday," but said nothing about her being refused on account of her race.
The Bystander February 28, 1919.
Her high school yearbook entry is modest, reporting only that she had followed the "normal course," intended as preparation for teaching. She listed only two extra-curriculars—YWCA and the "Orange and Black," the student newspaper.  The yearbook photograph of those who contributed to the student paper shows Helen seated, close to the center of the photograph and the only person of color among the seventeen students depicted here. As her brothers and sisters would later learn, this was to be the Renfrows' regular experience—being the lone African American in a sea of white faces.
1923 Grinnell High School Yearbook, The Grinnellian, p. 42.
Helen also pioneered the path to college, setting off for Fisk University in Nashville, TN in the autumn of 1923. Many years later, one of her sons recalled that his mother had always emphasized the importance of education, perhaps because Helen's own mother, Eva Renfrow, had done the same. In a 2007 interview with the Grinnell Magazine, Edith Renfrow, Helen's youngest sister, remembered that their mother had regularly urged her children to get an education; most of the Renfrow children took that advice to heart.

But how did Helen choose Fisk University in far-off Nashville? Fisk was one of several "Negro" colleges founded in the nineteenth century, and one can imagine that Helen would have been eager to be part of a mostly African American world after her years in Grinnell.  But why Fisk? I am aware of no record that explains her choice, but it might be that Fisk was a college with which she had some contact here in Grinnell.
Fisk University  Campus, ca. 1920 (photo courtesy of A. M. Kleimola)
People at Grinnell College certainly knew about Fisk, as one of Grinnell's early presidents had gone on to become president of Fisk:  George A. Gates, president of Grinnell between 1887 and 1900 and later president of California's Pomona College, had assumed the presidency of Fisk in 1909.  On at least one occasion before his 1912 death, Gates had returned to speak at Grinnell, and had brought with him members of the college's renowned musical group, the Jubilee Singers. But this would have been while Helen was still quite young, and was therefore unlikely to have had much impact.
Fisk University Jubilee Singers (ca. 1880)
But the Jubilee Singers returned to Grinnell in November, 1916, presenting a concert of spirituals at the Old Stone Church—the Congregational Church. Responding to the 1915 Iowa census, the senior Renfrows had declared themselves affiliated with the Congregational Church, and much later daughter Edith reported that she and her family had not experienced racial discrimination at church, and had freely mixed with everyone, including the college president.  It seems more than likely, therefore, that young Helen saw and heard the Jubilee Singers in 1916 at the Congregational Church, and perhaps had occasion to meet some of them (might one or two have overnighted with the Renfrows, one of the few African American households in the city?). Of course, Helen would still have been only twelve years old, seven years before she set off for Nashville. But in the white world that Grinnell was in those days, the image of an all African American chorus (and the college they represented) must have been entrancing.
Notice from Grinnell College Scarlet and Black, 22 November 1916
Apparently Helen remained a student at Fisk only two years. Accessing information on her studies there has proven unproductive, but it appears that she interrupted her studies at Fisk after her second year; later, in 1927, she resumed her education, but not at Fisk. According to records from the University of Iowa, Helen was enrolled there for the full 1927/28 academic year and also for summer 1928, after which she received her bachelor's degree.  Why the interruption in 1925 at Fisk?
President's Report to the Board of Trustees, Fisk University (Fisk University News 12, no. 4[Jan. 1922], p. 2).
No evidence I know of directly addresses this decision, although it is easy to imagine explanations. Even the Fisk University annual president's report in these years worried, on the one hand, about how crowded classrooms were and, on the other, about the university's relatively low retention rate. Both could discourage a serious student. When Helen entered Fisk in 1923, she enrolled with 166 other first-years. That same year at Fisk began with only 47 sophomores, 40 juniors, and 43 seniors. Put another way, the total enrollment of the other three years did not equal the size of the incoming freshman class, an indicator of very high attrition rates indeed. The president noted that many Fisk students—especially those who had come to Fisk from segregated schools that were underfunded—were not well-prepared for the rigorous education that Fisk intended, and therefore quickly paid the price—either outright failure and dismissal or else, before confronting expulsion,  students in difficulty simply left school voluntarily.

But for other Fisk students money was the chief problem, and it seems likely that Renfrow family finances influenced Helen's decision to leave Fisk.  In the early 1920s, tuition at Fisk was $50 a year, and room and board was estimated to cost another $250 or so, not counting travel and other associated expenses. In the context of today's college costs, this sum sounds trifling, but to the Renfrow household in the 1920s it was not at all insignificant. What Lee Renfrow was earning in the 1920s is unknown, but we do know that in 1915 he reported his previous year's income as totaling $400. One hopes that he was earning considerably more than that by 1923, but, even if his salary was two or three times his 1914 earnings, the cost of Helen's education would have been hard on the family budget.
Alice Renfrow, 1924 Grinnellian
No doubt Helen, like many other Fisk students, worked on campus to help pay the bills, but the education of other Renfrow children—the first four all close in age—also had implications for the family budget. Alice, the second-oldest child, graduated from Grinnell High School in 1924, the year after Helen, but she did not enter college herself until 1928. Were her college plans held hostage to the family's finances?  Quite possibly; even worse, Alice, who had completed the commercial course at Grinnell High School, found it impossible to get office or secretarial work in Grinnell. In a 1982 interview she reported her frustration at being unable to get a secretary's job anywhere: "They didn't have any Negroes down at the glove factory,  [nor] at the canning factory...We all [enrolled in the commercial course] took shorthand and typing...if we excelled we were all supposed to be recognized as the ones to be selected [for office jobs], but that was not the case. There were no secretarial jobs at the college, none for me."

Meanwhile, Rudolph, third-oldest of the children, left Grinnell High School in 1923 before graduating, and enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute Academy; after his 1927 graduation, he continued at Hampton, matriculating at the Institute's trade school. Of course, Rudolph, too, worked to help put himself through school, but there can be little doubt that the Renfrows were feeling the pinch of two children away at school, a third at home, graduated but unable to secure work appropriate to her education, and a fourth, Evanel, set to complete her high school education in 1926.

So the Renfrows had things to work out, and work them out they did. Helen returned to school in 1927 at the University of Iowa where she was able to complete requirements by summer 1928. Exactly what happened after that is a bit murky. By some accounts Helen left Iowa City immediately after graduation to teach at Lander College, a women's college in Greenwood, South Carolina, but when I inquired of today's Lander University archives whether they could confirm Helen's presence, the librarian reported that Helen's name did not appear in any catalog or yearbook published between 1928 and 1931. Helen may also have worked for a time at Alabama State Teachers College (or Alabama State University as it now is) in Montgomery, Alabama, but so far I have not been able to confirm or learn the details of her employment there.
Allyn and Helen Lemme (ca. 1929), Daily Iowan, February 18, 2008, p. 5a.
What is clear is that in August, 1929 Helen Renfrow married Allyn Lemme, who had been born in Chicago, but was then living in Iowa City, working as a shoemaker. The wedding took place back in Grinnell at the Renfrow home on First Avenue, an indication of how close family ties remained among the Renfrows. If, as some reports maintain, Helen accepted a job in Alabama, then the Lemmes spent 1930 away from Iowa. But by the time that Lawrence, their first child, was born (July 31, 1931), the Lemmes were back in Iowa City, and here they remained for the rest of their lives (and where they had a second son, Paul, born in 1935).

Helen accepted a position as research technician in the internal medicine laboratory at the University of Iowa. Here she was part of Dr. Elmer DeGowin's lab that pioneered blood preservation, storage, and transfusion. As important as that work was, Helen Lemme made her most enduring contributions outside the laboratory. For years she and her husband had opened their house—first at 15 E. Prentiss Street, and then later around the corner at 603 S. Capitol—to African American students who were denied residence in the university dormitories. Generations of Iowa graduates recalled with affection "Ma Lemme," her advice and encouragement, as well as the good eating that they enjoyed while living with the Lemmes. Helen became so famous for her meals that a February, 1942 article in The Daily Iowan touted her chili, chicken gumbo and other dishes, and printed her recipes!

Over the years the Lemme home became a favorite gathering place for Iowa City's young African Americans. With a tile floor for dancing, built-in high fidelity for playing records, and walls covered with murals and dotted with the signatures of visitors, the basement was a much-loved destination. The Lemmes also occasionally hosted visiting celebrities, one of whom was Duke Ellington, whose band had performed in concert one Friday night in March, 1949. Long after the concert—about 3:30 AM—the Lemmes brought Ellington and his band to their home where the music continued long past sun-up. According to one man who was present for the jam session, the Duke, various members of his band, as well as some local talent, took turns producing the "finest in jazz music that has ever been heard in Iowa City."

Helen Lemme was also active in the larger community. She was a long-time member of the city's Human Rights Commission (as it is called today), was President of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, and was very active in local Democratic Party politics—at various times she was precinct committeewoman, delegate to both county and state conventions, and a member of the party's Black Caucus.  Indeed, in 1944 Helen had advocated for greater representation of African Americans at the Democrats' national convention. Active in her church (First Baptist), the local PTA (Henry Sabin school), YMCA, Girl Scouts, Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and many other organizations, Helen Lemme worked hard to improve her community—and its reception of all its citizens. Her work did not go unnoticed: in 1955 Helen Lemme was named the first "Woman of the Year" in Iowa City, and was later recognized as the first African American to be named "Best Citizen of Iowa City."

Helen's last years included some sorrow. In 1961 she lost her husband Allyn, a victim of heart failure, and his death must have been hard on her. Allyn may not have cooked much for the students who lived with them, but accounts of the basement gatherings in their home inevitably feature Allyn as cordial host. Despite her loss, Helen carried on the work that she and Allyn had begun so many years before.  But in December, 1968 a devastating fire in the house at 603 S. Capitol took her life, and burned down most of the building that for so long had been home to Helen's generosity and compassion. After her funeral at First Baptist, she was buried next to her husband in Iowa City's Memory Gardens Cemetery.
Helen Lemme Elementary, 3100 E. Washington St., Iowa City, IA
Her influence in town was so great, however, that it did not die with her. In 1970 a new Iowa City elementary school opened at 3100 E. Washington, and was named in her honor. Her sons and some of the many African Americans who had benefited from her hospitality and support attended the opening, and spoke about the numerous contributions that Helen Lemme had made to their lives and to Iowa City. Lemme's portrait hangs in the school, and students there regularly revisit the life of Helen Lemme, whose story began in the small African American community in Grinnell, Iowa.

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.