Another African American family that shared Grinnell with the Renfrows was that of James and Mary Tibbs. As I wrote in a post last fall, Jim Tibbs shined shoes in Grinnell, a humble job that gave some customers license to indulge their meaner natures. But Tibbs died in January, 1941, leaving behind his widow—who was still in her 40s—and six children. The two oldest children soon charted their own routes out of the house. Harold had already graduated from Grinnell high school before his father's death, and soon thereafter enrolled at William Penn College in Oskaloosa. Albert, the second-oldest, married an Oskaloosa woman in late 1942, and the following spring joined the US Army. That left Mamie with four children still at home: Janet, who graduated from Grinnell High School in 1946, Shirley, who finished school in 1948, Roberta, who graduated in 1949, and Edward, the youngest, who was a member of the class of 1951. So, widow Tibbs had plenty to think about as she contemplated life after her husband's death.
|Undated photograph of Harold and Ed Tibbs (courtesy Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives)|
Despite the limitations of this small collection, Mamie's letters to Ed Tibbs make fascinating reading. As she no doubt did with each of her children, Mamie regularly reminded her son of her love, but otherwise the subject matter of the correspondence wanders without much conscious plan. She reported on news from her other children, remarked on developments in Grinnell ("the law here has a new car," she wrote Ed in 1958; "it's nice, [but] you sure can tell it miles away!"], and sometimes discussed her plans for the future. A persistent theme, however, was how difficult life was for her in that Elm Street house. Although she often found a way to send a dollar or two to her children, several of whom had their own struggles with poverty, Mamie's letters reveal how close to the margins life ran for the Tibbs family in the decades after Jim Tibbs's death, and remind us that every story—perhaps especially a story of struggle—enlarges our understanding of life in Grinnell in those years.
####The house on Elm Street figures in several letters, Mamie reflecting upon the difficulties the house presented. As revealed in a 1946 letter from Albert, Mamie contemplated buying the house almost from the moment she moved there. Harold opposed his mother's plan, but Albert was inclined to support her, as he wrote Harold: "she is doing something that she has been wanting to do all her life; let her be happy. After all, it is only $700 and that isn't really much money...." For whatever reason, Mamie did not buy the house then, but she kept the dream alive, and sometime in the winter of 1958 she revived the plan, hiring someone to inspect the house and give her an opinion on its soundness. The report, however, poured cold water on Mamie's enthusiasm; she wrote Ed, "the house should be torn down, the man said, and built over." It is easy to imagine Mamie's disappointment at this news, which might explain why she decided to consult her neighbors for their advice. Here, too, however, the news was not encouraging. Observing that the house had "too many air holes," Mrs. Moyer urged Mamie to get out.
In fact, Mamie herself often reported that she had trouble—and plenty of expense—keeping the place warm. We know from her letters that she heated the house with wood—as many others in this era did—, because "coal is so high here. And oil is too." At first, Mamie had the help of her children, but once the children graduated from high school and moved on, responsibility for getting all that wood into the furnace fell increasingly upon Mamie's own shoulders. In March 1956, when she was 64 years of age, she wrote Ed to say, "I have been chopping wood and raking the yard and I am really tired." Apparently the city had cut down some trees from the lot behind her and had given one of the trees to Mamie for firewood. It was hard work, but there was no alternative, so Mamie did what she had to do. Only two years later, after having had a scare from her heart, did she tell Ed, "I ain't going to chop no more wood to try to keep warm."
|Ed Tibbs, 1949 Grinnellian|
In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that money figured so often in Mamie's letters. In an undated Christmas card to Ed, she wrote: "I am sorry I couldn't send you no present but will send you something later on." In a 1958 letter she enclosed five dollars, "as it is all I can send." On another occasion Mamie sent one dollar: "that is all I have till next Friday or Saturday. You can buy some cig[arettes] now. I will send you some [more] money then." When Ed asked Mamie for twenty dollars, she replied, heatedly, "I don't happen to have no $20 in the house right now and won't have till the first of the month." She proposed instead to get Albert, then living behind her at 707 Summer Street, to provide ten, and she would add ten more later. In a subsequent letter Mamie complained that Ed did not confirm having received the five dollars she had sent: "I haven't got money to throw away," she wrote, "so let me know if you are getting it or not."
|Roberta Tibbs, 1949 Grinnellian|
|Shirley Tibbs, 1950 Grinnellian|
Mamie finally abandoned the house on Elm Street in 1964, moving to Omaha as she had long imagined she would, although with which of her children she lived I could not determine. In the meantime, age, poverty, and hard work wore away at her health. Not infrequently Mamie began letters to Ed by observing, as she did in a September, 1957 letter, "I am not feeling so good myself today..." Some of the health issues were common, as when she told Ed in a 1958 letter how she had been sick in bed with the flu for several days. Not once did Mamie mention having visited a doctor, but she did tell Ed that she was taking pills that cost her dearly. What pills they were and what ailment they aimed to remedy she did not say.
|Mount Pleasant Mental Health Institute|
####Mamie's last dated letter to Ed was written in 1958, and with that letter the historian's door into Mamie Tibbs's life closes. After abandoning Grinnell in 1964, Mamie never returned until her 1973 funeral and burial in Hazelwood cemetery. She had lived 32 years after her husband's death, and had seen her children grow up and generate their own families (Mamie's obituary reported that she was survived by twenty grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren). Sorrows were mingled with these joys, as her children struggled to make marriages work and ends meet. On balance, though, the family had done well, and much of the credit goes to Mamie, a poor widow who did all she could to help her kids succeed.
Meanwhile, the house on Elm Street sat empty, city directories regularly reporting it as "vacant." Somewhere within the decaying frame walls there remained a cache of letters, awaiting discovery and the opportunity to tell part of the story of Mamie Tibbs's hard life.