Monday, February 29, 2016

Love Letters in the Tibbs Family Archive

February is not only Black History Month; it also celebrates love on Valentine's Day. Consequently, although I am a little behind the curve, and barely made February, I thought it might be fun to examine some of the love letters preserved in the Tibbs Family Papers. It is important to point out that all these letters came to the Tibbs children; we don't know what Harold, Janet, and Roberta Tibbs themselves wrote, except perhaps by inference from what their correspondents wrote, so the full picture is hard to make out. Nevertheless, even with these limitations the love letters that arrived at 712 Elm Street make very interesting reading. More than that, they remind us that the Tibbs children, in addition to being African Americans in a very white town, were also humans, experiencing all the joys and anxieties of seeking and sharing affection with others.
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Harold Tibbs was the oldest child born to Jim and Mamie Tibbs. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Harold graduated from Grinnell High School in 1940, and soon thereafter enrolled at what was then called William Penn College.  Apparently he dropped out after his first year, and later returned for a time, but, so far as I could learn, he never completed his bachelor's degree. To judge from the one high school grade report that survives in the Tibbs collection, Harold was an average student, earning a "C" in high school English.
Harold Tibbs, 1940 Grinnellian
But it is clear that he did not seem average to the several young women who wrote him between 1939 and 1943. Lois Gilmore, for instance, lived in Marshalltown and had somehow gotten to know Harold. In the spring of 1939 she sent Harold a couple of notes, inviting him up to dances in Marshalltown. But so did Yvonne Longus, also living in Marshalltown. In a May, 1939 letter she urged Harold to "come up [to Marshalltown] on Sunday and bring another picture of you. I have a new gold locket with your picture in it, but I want another picture." A third woman, Louise Balden, lived in Centerville, and she too was in pursuit of Harold. In a June, 1941 letter she confided to Harold, "I still love you and always will. I can't hardly wait until I see your face again." In October, 1942 Louise sent another note, her passion in no way diminished: "Harold, I'm this way when I like a person real well...Yes, I still say love you, but, Harold, it seems as though 'I Just Can't Get Started with You.'" Concluding, Louise confessed, "I guess I'm a fool in love," adding several symbolic kisses with her signature. There's no way to know what Harold thought of Louise, but apparently she felt that she and Harold remained close. In an April, 1943 postcard, she inquired why Harold hadn't written, and urged him to make the trip down to Centerville.

Harold received still another set of letters and cards from a young woman who signed herself "Torchie." In the oldest letter that survives (November, 1942), Torchie was living in Aurora, Illinois; in 1944 she wrote from Albert Lea, Minnesota; and her 1947 Valentine's card to Harold came from Oskaloosa, Iowa. What Harold wrote her is unknown, but she seems to have taken a real shine to Harold: "Honey, I never had so much fun in a long time...honey, you're in the 'beam,'" she wrote him in 1944.
Harold Tibbs (far right, 2nd row) and Class of 1944, 1941 Quaker (courtesy William Penn University Library)
Nothing in the letters to Harold indicates who his admirers were, but one of Harold's other correspondents, Raleigh Clark, indicated in a 1944 letter that Harold was dating a white woman, a development that seemed to merit special attention. Clark mentioned no name, but photographs of Harold's class at William Penn College make clear that Harold was the only African American in the group, so it might be that Harold was intimate with a woman there. On the other hand, in a letter whose date is difficult to make out (February 4, 19??), a woman who signed herself Ellen argued against Harold's plan to quit college. But she herself was not a collegian; instead, she worked at Grinnell's glove factory. "Why waste the money you've already spent for a college education by quitting now," Ellen wrote. "It's very foolish. Can't you take it?" But Ellen was  more than a correspondent: "Come up to the glove factory at 6:45 and I'll be out then for lunch and we can further our plans. OK?" What plans Ellen and Harold had we'll never know, but this collection of letters makes plain that young Harold enjoyed the affections of several women.
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Janet Winona Tibbs was the third oldest child of Jim and Mamie, and their oldest daughter. The family papers preserve a series of letters that she received, beginning in December, 1944, from Private Dennis Kelly, then stationed in Pecos, Texas. Apparently Janet and Dennis were well acquainted, because in that 1944 letter Dennis tried to decline Janet's proposed gift of a bracelet. Calling Janet "Darling," Kelly told her, "I don't feel so good about a lady buying me something," he wrote, but nevertheless allowed her to send it if she wished. A couple of weeks later, Kelly complimented his "darling" on her typing, but by February he allowed his imagination to wander further: "I wish that I was going home to a wife," he said; "if I had you at home you would be so nice to come home to." Then dreaming further into the future, Kelly began to think about a time when the war would be over and he was free of his soldier obligations: "maybe [then] I can have the girl that I want so bad and we can be happy from then on...." This alliance was not to be, however. A summer 1945 letter from Janet's cousin Alberta remarks upon the fact that Janet had gotten herself a new boyfriend. Evidently Dennis had proven himself unworthy. "I tried to tell you about your friend Dennis," Alberta wrote, "but you would not believe me, so I'm glad you found out for yourself." What Janet found out the letter does not report, but apparently it was enough to put an end to her relationship with Dennis Kelly.
Janet Tibbs, 1946 Grinnellian
In a late January, 1945 letter still another army private, Curtis Brooks, then stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, replied to an inquiry he had received from Janet: "You ask me what do I want you to send me." His reply could have been featured on a Hallmark card: "Send me 1000 kisses on every letter and the photo I want so bad [so that] I will have it so I can look at it every night and kiss it before I go to bed." Nothing in the archive confirms whether Brooks ever got the photo he wished for, but Janet did receive at least one more letter from Brooks, who wrote the following autumn that Janet couldn't "know how much I have missed you these last few months...." No other letters from Brooks remain in the archive, indicating that perhaps Janet dropped her correspondence with him.

Meanwhile, she had become a pen pal for still another soldier, Charles Harrison, who was  part of the Army Air Corps. In one of the few letters in the collection that is missing some pages, Harrison asked in April 1945 whether Janet was "still engaged" (to Kelly?) and when she planned to marry. At this point Janet must have been almost unknown to Harrison, who went on to ask how old Janet was.  However, by July Chuck, as he called himself, was trying to make Janet his girlfriend, asking her to "consider waiting on [for?] me and be mine." Volunteering to be trained as a "aircal [?] gunner," Harrison asked, "How would you like having a boy friend with wings?" Perhaps he was getting ahead of himself, though, because he went on to ask how Janet felt about him, since "I never did ask you." Later that month Harrison admitted that "I miss you so very much," and that it had been over a year since he'd seen Janet. In fact, as an August, 1945 letter explained, Janet and Chuck had been acquainted before the war, but Chuck had not then shown any interest in her. "I tried my best in every way not to pay any attention to you because I didn't want you to get the idea of liking me more than a friend. But now it's different," he wrote. "I want you to love me...You're what I've been seeking for a long time only I've been too blind to really notice." Harrison went on to comment on marriage—he didn't believe in it—but he still wanted Janet to wait for him, asking her to keep their affection a secret. In a subsequent letter, Harrison pledged that he would "never stop loving you my darling...."

While on a bomber training mission early that fall, Harrison was hurt. His bomber had landed badly, and the plane caught fire. "I managed to crawl from the plane somehow but I got burnt on the arms and legs, and...all my eyelashes burnt off and some of my hair." Writing from the hospital, Harrison asked whether Janet still loved him. "I love you so very much...my throat wants to utter words of love and endearment. It wants to tell you how much I miss you and long to enfold your loveliness that I need so much." Soon thereafter Harrison was back in the hospital, this time for pneumonia, but he was concerned about something else: "this is my third letter to you and no answer as yet. Tell me, sweetheart, what is the matter?" A January 1946 letter picks up the same theme: "Why haven't you written?...You've told me so many times of your love for me. Now I wonder if you meant those things as I never hear from you." These are the last words on the subject in the letters, and nothing survives to explain what happened between Janet and Harrison.
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The Tibbs collection includes two folders of letters addressed to Janet's youngest sister, Roberta. These letters overlap chronologically as Roberta balanced an emerging romance with a young man at the University of Iowa with a soldier in Germany who sought to use the mails to nourish a long-distance romance. One peculiarity of this part of the correspondence is the inclusion of a letter written by Roberta ("Bobbie") but evidently never mailed.
Roberta Tibbs (2nd from left), Senior Representative to Grinnell Athletic Association (GAA), 1949 Grinnellian
In early February, 1950 Bobbie wrote Keith Brown, responding to something Keith had said or written earlier about sexual relations: "Your view about virginity," she wrote,  "certainly isn't my view. You don't know what might happen after having sexual intercourse. And if that [pregnancy?] ever happened to me I would maybe kill myself first...." Bobbie went on to say that her older sister had had sexual relations with someone, but "she didn't do nothing to prevent it from happening [and] now she has two children and is married (I won't say she is happy)." Bobbie did not specify whom she meant—Janet or Shirley—but clearly she felt strongly about what was appropriate in a romantic relationship.

We cannot know whether Keith ever read these words because we do not know if Bobbie ever sent this letter. But if he did, Roberta's scolding did not stanch his ardor. A few days later he wrote, saying, "If I'm not in love with you I don't believe I could come any closer!" Whether Bobbie visited him in Iowa City or he came to Grinnell is not clear, but they had gotten together. "I hope you didn't mind my kissing you while we walked down the street after we had the malts...Having my arms around you gave me a sense of possession, like you were mine...." Keith went on to remember how his hands had wandered beneath her blouse, provoking a rebuke from Bobbie. "Your reaction...makes me think you're a virgin. Are you?" Keith hastily added that, of course, he was a "male virgin," although other comments seem to contradict the claim. When Keith next wrote, he reported having received from Bobbie a letter that "cooled me off quite a bit." "You certainly have good common sense," he continued, but "I think you are a bit old-fashioned for letting your conscience bother you since I put my hand under your blouse." All the same, Keith asserted that he was "glad [that] you're that kind of girl."
Roberta Tibbs, 1949 Grinnellian
Keith and Roberta exchanged letters all through the spring, Keith often sending cards from places where the University of Iowa track team competed. But sometime in early April he and Roberta had  been together again, and Roberta had gone through Keith's pockets, being shocked to discover there some Gems condoms. "They're used for what you think," Keith explained. "They're to prevent spreading of disease and pregnancy." Keith went on to inquire how Bobbie liked to be kissed (on the ear? the neck? the throat?), then disingenuously asserted that he was "not an experienced kisser...." Apparently he and Bobbie had gotten very friendly, because Keith asked "how far you think we would have gone if the circumstances had been different?" He seemed to wish that things had indeed been different, because he also asked if she would have said "no," had their love-making gotten more passionate.

This May, 1950 letter is the last one from Keith Brown in the archive, but Bobbie had also been collecting letters from Private Jesse Sanders. Put in touch via a relative, Jesse began writing Roberta in November, 1949. She had replied soon thereafter, sending Jesse a picture of herself. Jesse responded in kind, and added that he thought Bobbie "really lovely" and that she appeared to have a "most adorable personality." Sanders very soon felt so strongly about her that he began his letters by calling her "Dearest Roberta." Although he recognized that Roberta at the time had a boyfriend—Keith Brown, presumably—he wrote that he kept her photo with him all the time, "and at nights under my pillow." Soon Sanders was asking for still another photo of Roberta, what he called a "full photo so I can put it in a frame and put it on my dresser." Bobbie apparently did not immediately fulfill this request, so Sanders repeated himself in subsequent letters, explaining that what he wanted was a "full length picture." Picture in hand or not, Sanders seems to have fallen head-over-heels in love. Telling Roberta of a dream, he told her that he imagined visiting her in Grinnell, "and you were so glad to see me that you fell into my arms and we found out that we were really in love...I am keeping my fingers crossed so that that dream will come true." By March Sanders was calling Roberta "darling," telling her that "you are the only girl in my heart." In a mid-April letter, Sanders addressed her as "Dearest Darling," asking Roberta to be his "steady girl." "You are the first girl I know," he continued, "that I could go through life with and love with all my heart and soul."

Apparently Roberta did not take this passion as seriously as Sanders had intended. "I guess you are still laughing at some of the words I said," he wrote in his next letter. But Sanders was in no mood to surrender: "It is only you that I want and I won't stop till I get you to be mine," he said, adding only that he was still waiting for that full-length photo he had asked for so often. Since this was the last of his letters Roberta saved, it seems unlikely that Sanders ever got his photograph.
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These sometimes lugubrious epistolary expressions of affection remind us that, against the backdrop of world war and an America still deeply riven by race, the young men and women of the Tibbs family, like their white coevals, were experimenting with their emotions, seeking out and giving affection as they made their way through the difficult years of youth. Although Harold never married any of the women who wrote him, and although Janet and Roberta did not marry the men whose letters they saved, all these letters make clear that the Tibbs chldren experienced the same anxieties and emotional roller coasters that played out in the hearts of most young men and women of their time, whatever their race. Certainly Harold, Janet, and Roberta were African American, and that meant that they had to deal with considerable racial bias. But they were also man and woman, like the rest of us, feeling their way to maturity and understanding, with all the excitement and disappointment that accompanied the process.

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