Reflecting on March as Women’s History Month, I decided that if I wanted to pay tribute to the efforts of women, I would have to go no further than my own family, and today I pay homage to my maternal grandmother Rowena Winters Lark, who died on March 5, 1970.
She was the daughter of Alexander and Emma Lark, born in Chatham County (Savannah), Georgia, on August 29, 1892. Alexander was born a free man after his father, George Lark, had made enough money shipping cargo, alleged to have been enslaved people, from South Carolina into Georgia to buy his freedom and the freedom of his wife and children. Alexander would later relocate to Washington, D.C., where my grandmother was raised.
The Larks did well for themselves financially. Alexander worked as a cook on the railroad in the Dining Car Industry, started by George Pullman—a prestigious job for a Black man. While often treated poorly by railroad customers, there was little hard labor, and cooks got to work with some of the finest chefs the railroad could find, many from France, as the railroad competed with the five-star hotels their clientele frequented. This allowed Alexander to buy a home in Washington that stands today. Ironically, Grandma’s father was a fine cook because Grandma, a Black woman born in the south, didn’t seem to grasp the concept.
She first met my grandfather when she was just eight years old. After his mother’s mysterious death, followed by the same mysterious death of his father a year later, while official reports list the cause as “Undisclosed,” family folklore alleges they were murdered. Sent to live with his ex-slave grandmother and possibly an aunt, unable to tolerate their ill-treatment, he ran away at age twelve (1902) to his Uncle Alexander, my grandmother’s father, who raised him. In 1918, after requesting his cousin’s hand in marriage, Alexander agreed to the union, and they were married a month later. Four days later, he was shipped off to France and WWI.
Alexander demanded his children do their best to become educated, resulting in Grandma attending and later teaching at the Washington Miner Normal School for Colored Girls, where young African American women were taught domestic skills in addition to reading and writing. Today the school is the University of the District of Columbia, one of the few public universities in Washington. However, even the school was not shielded from drama, and considerable racist opposition forced it to move three times after the “community” objected to its existence. Finally, the founder, Myrtilla Miner, an American abolitionist, moved physically into the school and learned to shoot. While I am not promoting gun violence, in this case, the action is said to have reduced some of the nonsense. Miner, born on March 4, 1815, in New York, is also recognized for her contribution to women. She was also encouraged by an education colleague, Henry Beecher, after Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, bequeathed royalties from her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin to support the school.
My grandmother was indeed a pioneer. She didn’t just work out of the home. She worked out of the city and the state, 160 miles away in Washington, as Grandpa, after discharge from the Army, raised their six children on a 103-acre farm in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Although he worked for a time as a messenger for the Bureau of Standards, it was my grandmother’s salary, twice that of his, that together provided an income of about $3,500 per year, a great deal of money at the time for any family, to say nothing of Black families in the early 1900s.
In later years, through a strange set of circumstances, my grandparents would become members of the Mennonite faith, and Grandpa became the first Black bishop of the church. I am convinced through reading countless articles and journals that Grandpa’s rise to fame in the church may have been due to my grandmother’s efforts, at least in part. But, whatever her contribution, he got the credit, and she was willing to let that stand.
In my soon-to-be-released book, Lark’s Flight, you can learn more about these exceptional people, their life work, and their impact on their children. So, please stay tuned and visit soon for more information.