I spent some time researching my Sicilian ancestors today. This is my grandmother, Sara Mazza Parker, my namesake. Born in 1907, first-generation. A teacher saw her potential and encouraged Grandma's old-country parents to let her go to college. She was a Cornell and Middlebury graduate, master's degree, teacher.
We can say it's the classic American immigrant success story. But we can't forget the other classic American story: immigrants as dirty, dangerous, ignorant. This has always been with us. I learned 11 Sicilians were lynched in New Orleans on one gruesome March day in 1891. There were many more incidents of violence and exclusion in cities where Sicilians settled. Italians from the mainland distanced themselves from the poor, illiterate peasants from Sicily. My great-grandfather knew no English of course when he came to the States on April 4, 1904. He was a fisherman from Brucoli. He settled in Oakfield, Genesee County, New York, joining his older brother, Sebastiano, and worked in the gypsum mines. He sent for his wife, Maria Bucceri Mazza, from Sortino, a few years later. She came with their two young children, my grandmother's older sister Francesca and brother Pietro (Aunt Fran and Uncle Peter to me).
It would be generations before Sicilians found their place in mainstream American society. My grandma would have grown up hearing those stories. No wonder she changed her name from Santina to Sara and married a Yankee. That is a story for another day. I wish I'd asked more about her early life when she was alive. I would have asked her about this.
If Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ name sounds familiar, it’s probably because she wrote The Yearling, the 1938 classic bestseller that earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 and became a movie starring Gregory Peck in 1946. But before she was a famous novel writer, Kinnan Rawlings was a newspaper reporter in Rochester. She was a features writer at the Journal American, a Hearst newspaper whose salacious approach to the news was considered a bit scandalous, though deliciously titillating, in conservative Rochester.
Owner J. Randolph Hearst liked to shake things up and make a splash, and he did so in Rochester. Their offices were at 128 St. Paul Street, at the corner of Andrews. You can still see the marquis over the door. (Side note: Cook Iron Store moved into the space in the 1930s, shortly after the paper folded, and has been there ever since.)
Before the world read Kinnan Rawlings’ books, women were reading her poetry. She wrote a column of light verse after she joined the staff at the Times Union, one of two Gannett newspapers in Rochester. Poetry, by men and women, was a regular feature in newspapers at the time. “Songs of a Housewife” ran six days a week for a couple of years and became so popular it was syndicated to 50 newspapers around the country. Her reflections on daily life for American women appeared just a few years after women had finally won the right to vote. In her twenties and coming into her own when she wrote them, Kinnan Rawlings tapped into a new sense of freedom and possibility that women were feeling at the time.
By the late 1920s, Marjorie and her husband, Charles, both journalists, were feeling restless in Rochester. They took a leap and bought a 72-acre farm in frontier Florida. Their new home provided a rich setting for her books to come.
But her time in Rochester was an important part of her growth as a writer. Her columns are an early peek at Kinnan Rawlings’ writing style and voice, and they reveal a lot about American popular culture. They were largely forgotten until the 1990s, when researchers resurrected them and published about half of them in Poems by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Songs of a Housewife.
Photo: State Archives of Florida
Fresh from the ‘Rochester Writers Who Found Fame’ file:
Mary Jane Holmes – No, her name doesn’t ring a bell. But she was a bestselling and prolific writer (39 popular novels as well as short stories, magazine series and novellas) in the late 1800s. She lived in Brockport from 1852 to 1907. She sold 2 million books in her lifetime, second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe, and wrote about gender roles, race, class, slavery and war. None other than ‘The Nation’ published her obituary:
“It is an eternal paradox of our world of letters that the books which enjoy the largest sale are barely recognized as existing by the guardians of literary tradition. Mrs. Mary Jane Holmes, who died Sunday at Brockport, N.Y., wrote thirty-nine novels with aggregate sales, it is said, of more than two million copies, and yet she had not even a paragraph devoted to her life and works in the histories of American Literature.”
Photo: ca. 1865, SUNY Brockport / Emily Knapp Museum, Brockport NY
Found Frank today! Burton Francis (Frank) Blackall was the dad in the Blackall family. He’s been hiding from me in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester. I knew what area he was buried in, but his headstone has eluded me for years. Frank was the telegraph operator who warned Frederick Douglass that officials were looking for him after John Brown’s Raid, which FD had nothing to do with. Frank and Frederick had a long friendship, even after Douglass moved to D.C. Photo by Gia Lioi
Originally published 10/20/2013
When Frederick Douglass moved from Rochester, NY, to Washington, DC, in 1872, he left behind a lot of friends and supporters. But he didn’t lose touch. In fact, his moving away means we can see the nature of those relationships more clearly through the letters he exchanged with them.
Frederick and his second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, corresponded with the Blackalls for many years. For the most part they are cordial and chatty letters about everyday life - the weather, the health of family members, invitations to visit. They describe family gatherings - Fred playing violin with his grandson, the Blackalls vacationing on Frontenac Island on the St. Lawrence River. Some highlight big events, like the Chicago World’s Fair and President Garfield’s election, and others comment on the politics of the day.
Most of the letters between Burton F. (Frank) Blackall and Frederick were about business; Frank looked after rental properties that Frederick owned back in Rochester. Little has been written about Douglass the real estate investor, but he owned a fair number of properties. With these letters, it’s more than just his name on a plat map or deed. They show the typical wranglings of being a landlord - finding good tenants, fixing old pipes, collecting overdue rent. So far the letters I’ve tracked down are from Frank to Fred and show the mild frustration Frank went through being the go-between:
“I have held this money for several days in hopes that I could collect the rent due you from the Bond Street property and remit that also, but I am sadly disappointed as I know you will be also,” Frank wrote on Sept. 29, 1877. “The truth of it is that the tenant is a ‘dead beat.’ We will never be able to collect a cent from him. He is all packed up and ready to move out. The sooner he goes, the better.”
Some things never change. I’ll write lots more on all the great letters I’ve found!
Originally published 9/27/2012
Filed under frederick douglass rochester ny Helen Pitts Douglass Blackall
Gertrude Blackall was a businesswoman—this much I know—a woman who worked for herself as a stenographer at the turn of the last century. In this she was unique. Stenography back then was a man’s world, as was most of American commerce.
Gertrude never married, and if you never married in those days, unless you were of a certain class, you worked. She was middle class. (How wealthy the Blackalls were remains another mystery, but they were comfortable enough to afford vacations and own their own home. And I’m guessing their financial support was one reason they knew Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.) Gertrude lived at home as an adult, as did her sister Florence, who also never tied the knot.
The first mystery of Gertrude: How did she come to open a business? And what did her business look like? Did she employ others? Where was she educated? Was it considered prestigious to have offices in the Powers Building? And while we’re at it, did she know Martha Matilda Harper, who opened her own salon empire in the Powers Building around the same time?
The second mystery of Gertrude: How active was she in the suffrage movement? Several letters to her from Susan B. Anthony show that she helped the famous suffragist sort mountains of paperwork on a number of occasions. Maybe she transcribed some things for her; I’m not sure.
“It was very good of you to feel that you wanted to help me see through the piles of unanswered letters – but I felt all the time you couldn’t do so, without neglecting your own more important work,” Susan wrote her on Christmas Eve in 1897.
“The great good that came to me from the attempt was the coming to know and appreciate you more than ever before, for which I am very grateful – I had always looked upon you a heroic young woman who had fought through hard battles and gained a most enviable position in your profession – but it was left to those few morning hours to teach me the lesson of your deeper and higher qualities.
“So we are both the better for the little experience, and I trust we may in the future see and know more and more of each other.”
The letter is one of a few small windows I have to peek into Gertrude’s life—and into Rochester at an important time in its history.
Originally published 8/21/2011
Maybe I read too many Trixie Belden mysteries as a kid.
There’s just something about unraveling the mysteries of the past. A clue drops into your life, stirring your curiosity. Next thing you know, you’re googling day and night, amassing links to reference later, copying and pasting tidbits from far-flung websites into Word docs, promising yourself you’ll organize it all – later, later, when you have time.
That time has come. For about 10 years I’ve been lazily looking for information on a 19th century Rochester, NY, family called Blackall. I have website printouts, copies of letters they wrote, obituaries and the like. Introducing: Burton, Sarah, Gertrude, Florence, Minnie and Robert. Why they have stuck around is beyond me. I guess they want me to tell their story.
I doubt their story, like most, is a true mystery. I don’t expect to uncover anything history-altering. Their time on Earth has simply been long forgotten. Still, you never know… Perhaps the way it tugs at me is the mystery; it is the part of the story I don’t yet know and need to tell.
I’m creating this blog to crystallize what I already understand about the Blackalls and to connect to others who may know more.
Burton Francis (known as Frank) and Sarah (Colman) Blackall married in 1853 and moved to Rochester in 1858. They and their four children were close to Frederick Douglass and his family, and Sarah and daughter Gertrude were active suffragists who were friends with Susan B. Anthony.
In coming posts, I’ll write about what I know and muse about what I don’t. Here’s what I hope: that the process of unraveling and sorting my own notes will lead to a clearer picture of these people and the impact they had during their time in Rochester.
Originally published 3/13/2011
Filed under Blackall Frederick Douglass Susan B. Anthony Rochester NYabolition suffragists