My sister and I are blessed to have such a loving, nurturing mother. We have always had a close relationship with our Mom, who loved being a Mom. That’s why I couldn’t understand how a woman, who gives birth to a child, opt out of being a mother to that child. However, as I got older, I began to understand why. With some women, the greatest love that she can give to her child is giving that child up. What do I mean?
This weekend, I have been thinking a lot about the late Mrs. Gertrude “Gert” Estelle Belton Brown. She was my father’s birth mother. I remember her well. She lived in Harvey, Illinois. We visited her every summer up until her demise in 1983. I can still picture the inside of her house she shared with her husband, David Brown. When my family and I traveled to Chicago, we would spend at least one or two nights with her and/or my Aunt Geraldine before spending the remaining time in Chicago with my mother’s sister and her family.
Gertrude Belton Brown (1908-1983) with her daughter, Aunt Geraldine
Growing up, I was always told that she was my grandmother too, and for that I had great love for her. However, I used to wonder why she chose to give my father up to his biological father. Shortly after my father was born in Leake County (Lena), Mississippi, Grandma Gert left with her infant boy and moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where she resided with relatives. She had been living in Leake County for a short while with her uncle and aunt, Arthur & Mattie Belton Jones. Well, a tall and reserved man named Hulen “Newt” Kennedy wasn’t having it. He was Dad’s biological father. He did not want any child of his being raised in the neo-slavery Mississippi Delta. So he traveled to Clarksdale to get him, and he brought him back to Leake County. Making no fuss, Grandma Gert allowed him to take my father. She didn’t see him again until 16 years later.
Upon returning back to Lena, Grandpa Newt asked his childless double first cousin, Willie Ealy Collier, and her husband, George Collier, to raise him. George & Willie Collier were esteemed educators, so Grandpa Newt knew that they could give my father a great upbringing. And that, they did! They legally adopted my father. They were also wonderful grandparents to me and my sisters. We were very close to them, and I thank God, as well as Grandma Gert and Grandpa Newt, for giving me the best grandparents in the world. When Grandma Willie would say to me, “Buster, you have plenty of my blood in you,” I knew what she meant because my father’s true parentage was not a secret. Being double first cousins, she and Grandpa Newt Kennedy shared the same four grandparents. Read “Grandma Was Right” for DNA evidence.
Grandma Gert later expressed to my Mom that she had no regrets giving my father up. She knew that he would have a much better life back in Leake County and that the Colliers would be great parents to her son. Still, I didn’t understand things until I started researching her family. As I connected the dots, everything began to make sense. Genealogy gives you more than just your family tree; it helps to put things into perspective.
You see, Grandma Gert’s life was filled with instability since she was a young girl. She was born in 1908 in Warren County, Mississippi near the Bovina community, to Peter Belton Jr. & Angeline Bass Belton. However, in the 1910 census, Grandma Angeline Belton was reported as the head of household and was reported as being a widow. Grandma Gert and her older brother, Jake Belton, were in the household. Peter Belton was nowhere to be found in 1910, so I assume that he had died near the time Grandma Gert was born. Therefore, she didn’t have a father.
1910 U.S. Federal Census – Warren County, Mississippi
Then by 1920, within that 10-year span, her mother Angeline had another daughter in 1912 (my great-aunt Pearlie), remarried, and moved to Sharkey County, Mississippi, in the neo-slavery Mississippi Delta. In the 1920 census, Grandma Angeline’s second husband, Henry Dennis, was the head of household. The only child in the household was my grandmother’s older brother, Jake Belton. See below. Aunt Pearlie was left back in Warren County, being raised by her father, William Weekley, and his new wife.
1920 U.S. Federal Census – Sharkey County, Mississippi (Where was my grandmother?)
I still have yet to figure out why Grandma Gert wasn’t in the household and with whom she was living. Based on Aunt Pearlie’s memory, Angeline had died around 1920, probably shortly after the 1920 census was taken. Therefore, not only did Grandma Gert not have a father, but she lost her mother when she was around 12 years old. I don’t know with whom she resided after her mother died. To add salt to her wound, her only brother, Jake Belton, died five years later in 1925. Life had dealt her a bad deck of cards. Her immediate family – her parents and her brother – were gone forever. And she was a teenager when she reconnected with her baby sister, Aunt Pearlie Mae Weekley Spicer (1912-2008).
At age 18, she gave birth to her first child, my aunt Geraldine Rayford Parham. Similar to my father, Aunt Geraldine was raised by her father’s family. She would reunite with Grandma Gert years later, and they remained close. I loved visiting Aunt Geraldine and Uncle Fred Parham, who lived just a few blocks away from Grandma Gert in Harvey, Illinois. Aunt Geraldine showered us with lots of love. She will always have a special place in my heart.
Aunt Geraldine Parham (1926-1991)
Sadly, I have only been able to find Grandma Gert in the 1910 census. I can’t find her in 1920, 1930, nor in 1940. From what I understand, she had lived in a number of locations – Nitta Yuma, Mississippi; Kosciusko, Mississippi; Earle, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; Lena, Mississippi; Clarksdale, Mississippi, and lastly, Harvey, Illinois. Unfortunately, instability was part of her life and would not have been conducive to the upbringing of a child. I am sure that she cried many tears after releasing her infant boy to his father. Genealogy enabled me to see clearly why she did what she did. She wanted for him what she didn’t have – a great, stable childhood. Giving him up was the “greatest love of all” that she could give to her child. Happy Mother’s Day, Grandma Gert! You will never be forgotten. R.I.P.