“… cursed the ground because of you; in toil of it all days of your life; thorns and thistles it will bring forward to your life.”
Two decades ago, while pursuing a master’s degree at the seminary, I conducted interviews in Emmitsburg’s black community. My thesis project, “Up the Hill: Education for Black Americans, St. Euphemia School Emmitsburg, MD 1886 – 1956,” drew on testimony from many of them. All their stories have come to influence me beyond the academic exercise. This is one of those stories based on an interview with Elizabeth Kathleen Richardson Williams. Kathleen was 91 years old when I interviewed her and had lived her entire life in the Emmitsburg area.
She was born in 1914 on January 6, “Old Christmas Day,” in a two-story brick farmhouse on a rutted dirt road (Old Frederick Road). The house, rented for five dollars per month, was heated by a wood stove, had no indoor plumbing or electricity, and was lit by oil lamps. Many a winter night the stove was kindled with corn cobs drawn from twenty-five-pound feed sacks bought by her father from neighboring farmers for five cents. Kathleen was one of five children born to William and Marie Richardson. Three boys, Joseph, Francis, and Billy died during the 1918 flu pandemic. She and a younger sister Marie were the only children to survive.
Across the road were the farm fields of the college of Mount St. Mary’s that laid west in the distance at the edge of the mountain. The year Kathleen was born, the college was settling into the second century as an academic institution. Monsignor Bernard J. Bradley, a graduate of the school and its seminary, was serving his third year as president. The enrollment at school was 342 undergraduates, 58 seminarians, and 35 students in the college preparatory school. According to the 1910 federal census 3,226 people lived in the Emmitsburg Election District #5 of whom 1,054 lived in the town.
While most black families in the area lived in town on West Lincoln Avenue, the Butlers lived north of the town on Irishtown Road, and Mamie Van Brackle on the Gettysburg Road north of the square (North Seton Avenue). To the south of town among the green slopes and hollows of the mountain lived the Richardson, Craig, Williams, and Mitchell families. Her father grew up on the mountain and worked nearly his entire life at the College as a gardener. Her mother was a Butler, an eminent black family in the area with roots back to southern Maryland and the beginnings of the Maryland colony. Kathleen’s maternal grandparents, John and Ann Butler, had 14 children, two of whom died at birth. Ann Butler was a Mitchell.
The family “had what membership was available to black families” at Saint Anthony’s Church. The accepted practice on Sundays was for a family to sit in the balcony with the other black families. That all changed in 1923 when Father Edward F. Reilly became the pastor (serving until 1931). Father Reilly was a New Englander and embraced integration. He added pews to the rear of church to accommodate black families. This was a significant step forward in balancing the message of Christ’s presence. Demand for that seating was strong, “This seating usually met with competition for those pews from young white ‘cut ups.’” Occasionally after church the Williams girls accompanied their dad across the road to Roddy’s Store, where he bought tobacco, and they bought candy.
In 1921, when Kathleen turned seven, educational opportunities for black children in the area were limited. These were the days where in much of the country the alleged legal and cultural standard was, “Separate but equal.” The St. Anthony parish elementary school, and the public schools in the area, were segregated. The only choice for black students in northern Frederick County was in the town of Emmitsburg at Saint Euphemia School grade school (grades 1-8) taught by the Daughters of Charity.
In 1922, 101 boys and 98 girls were enrolled in St. Euphemia and taught by five Sisters. One of these five, Sister Corrigan, O.B, taught the “colored” students, eleven boys and ten girls that year. Black students of all ages were taught together, in the sisters’ residence across the hall from the chapel, apart from the white students in the three-story school building next door.
Upon arriving at Saint Euphemia in the morning, the black students climbed a creaking set of wood stairs outside the sister’s residence by the kitchen, to a second-floor landing. The classes were small, drawn from the Chases, Abbeys, Butlers, and Van Brackle families. Black students were forbidden to use the water fountains used by white students or play at recess with them. Ironically, black male children often played formally on town sports teams and informally with the white male children after school without incident. The black girls, however, never played with their white counterparts after school. Students who lived in town went home for lunch while the others brought their lunch. Kathleen recalled that many a winter day the students wore their coats in class and often the sisters wore their capes. There was electricity for lighting and marginal heat provided by a coal-fired furnace. When indoor plumbing became available and installed in the late spring of 1944, black students still used an outdoor facility. The children put their own lock on the facility “to prevent transients from dirtying it up.”
Sister Cecelia Bradley was Kathleen’s first teacher and taught at the school from 1915 until 1923. Sister Beata Bartling succeeded Sister Cecelia Bradley, teaching there 1923 to 1932. She was a caring but demanding teacher who, according to Kathleen, often exhorted her black pupils by saying, “They must study as hard and become as good a student as the white students in school.” English, Church History, Mathematics, and Religion were all emphasized. When Kathleen was in grade school, the high schools in Emmitsburg and Thurmont were still segregated. Black children, if they chose to continue their educations, typically moved in with relatives in either northern states or south to the District of Columbia.
She was a student in 1929 the beginning of the Great Depression. Survival during those years was not much different from her whole childhood “Her family never went hungry as they always had their garden and chickens or turkeys to eat.”
Most days Kathleen (and when she was old enough, Marie) walked to and from Saint Euphemia, about 2 and half miles. On severe weather days, if they had the necessary fifteen cents, they took the bus to school from the reservoir on the Mount campus. On snowy days they did not go to school. If it rained in the morning, they waited until the storm cleared and got to school late. Tardiness and absences for weather were understood and accepted by the Sisters.
As the family grew William and Marie moved from the Frederick Road to a larger home on Annandale Road rented from William’s brother, Charlie Richardson, for five dollars a month.
Kathleen went on to marry Martin R. Williams from the mountain. Starting off, the couple lived with her parents and did so for some time. Both worked at the College, he doing various odd jobs, and she was a launderess. During World War II, Martin enlisted in the army; a proud distinction for him. He was ready to ship overseas when the war ended. They went on to have seven children, four girls and three boys.
Her parents, William and Marie, lived to be eighty and eighty-one respectively. In November 1960, Martin died suddenly of a heart attack. He was fifty years old. He was to be the first black person not buried along the stone fence at the lower end of the St. Anthony’s cemetery. He was buried “up the hill.” Today we find that many Richardsons and other black family members of the mountain and the valley are buried “up the hill.”
In late August 1963 Kathleen purchased a home on West Lincoln Avenue from Bernard M. and Mary E. Boyle. Her Aunt Rose, Kathleen’s mother’s sister, and Uncle Ward Brown had owned the house but lost it for nonpayment of taxes, and the Boyles purchased the property at the tax sale. Prior to selling to Kathleen, the Boyles made renovations to the property, including installing indoor plumbing. Over the years Kathleen worked various jobs in town as a cook, including for the priests at St. Joseph’s parish rectory, across from the (by then closed) St. Euphemia School.
Kathleen wished that she had asked more questions about her heritage when she was young, but, out of politeness or shame, that was something that just was not done. She remembered some names, and knew some who had been enslaved, but could recall few details.
Part of Kathleen’s legacy is that her oldest daughter, Lois Ann, became the first black student to be admitted to the nursing program at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore. Her other children Mary, Joan, Pat, Richard Martin, and Marie a nurse too; all went on to lead successful lives. Two of Kathleen’s nieces, Shirley, and Thelma, along with Kenny and Robert Van Brackle, were among the remaining black students at St. Euphemia when it integrated in 1944 (a decade before the Supreme Court, Brown vs. Board of Education, ruling that formally put an end to school segregation throughout the county).
Kathleen was a woman of abundant poise, dignity, and determination. She presented a composed calm, frank demeanor. She had lived her entire life in the shadows of American inequities, ever so slowly to be peeled back. She was to be reminded every day of limitations, where to go and where not go, what to do and what not to do. But whatever the test of discrimination, it only honed her love of being black. She was ever so grateful for the education she received at St. Euphemia, but also to what the black children of the mountain and valley brought to Catholic education.
Left to imagine are Kathleen’s thoughts on going to her first day of school at St. Euphemia. The way was familiar, the fields of hay and planted crops, the dust off the Frederick Road. The commonly late summer early morning too, the light nearing fullness, the air in its weight.
Ahead lay the Toll House to meet the sound of her step, the dust it stirred, companions now to her prayers and worries. To make sense, maybe, the quieting murmur of Toms Creek, her heavier step, the sobering dark of the covered wooden bridge she crossed. Readied now to go up the hill, just a bit further, her determination now secure.
With the shared stories, her gaze roamed between my eyes and the distance. She spoke, it seemed, more with her eyes then her voice to take me along back in time. Her soul was my guide through filters now worn too. Never for a moment a sad portrayal. To a soft graced gust, discrimination, deaths, pains accumulated with others, all burdens resolved, and recalled now with a gentle smile.
In 2014, at her 100th birthday celebration party, well over hundred people gathered with the majority being descendants, the families of mountain and the valley, now scattered across the country.
Elizabeth Kathleen Williams, died peacefully on June 6, 2016, at St. Joseph’s Ministries in Emmitsburg. She was 102.
Born January 14, 1914,
“…and important day
or the gold finches
that have gathered
in the field of thistles…”
Mary Oliver, “Invitation”