Today, Charles County, Maryland looks nothing like it did at the turn of the Twentieth
Century. My grandmother, Theresa Brown, was born there in a small house on a dirt road in 1902. The baby of the family was the fourteenth child of Charles and Charity Brown, both former slaves.
Granny told me her mother was seven years old when the Emancipation Proclamation went into
effect. Grandpa Brown was older, but I’m not sure by how much. When Granny was in school,
Charles County’s ‘Negro’ children were only allowed to go as far as the sixth grade; just enough education to be able to work in Miss Ann’s kitchen, clean house, tend the children, or work in the fields. Granny was so thirsty for knowledge that she continued to go to school, volunteering as a teacher’s helper, for two years after completing the basic six years’ education. By the time she was 25, she and my grandfather, Grant Chase (“Pop Pop”), were married, had four children, and were living in a tarpaper house. Less than three years after giving birth to my mother, their last child, one of Granny’s sisters succumbed to tuberculosis, leaving behind two young daughters and an infant son.
Grandma and Grandpa Brown assumed responsibility for the little girls and Granny and Pop Pop Chase raised the infant as their own. It seemed as though children were almost always living in that house. When my Aunt V passed away in the 1960s, my cousin Marlene moved in. Then, two or three years later, Granny’s great-niece, Louise, who was in high school, moved in.
For my grandparents, keeping food on the table for themselves and the five children in their care, and maintaining a household was not at all easy. They had no electricity, no running water, and no telephone. No doubt about it… they were POOR. Pop Pop worked seasonally in the construction industry and, like many of his peers during the prohibition era and the Great Depression, he operated a still in order to supplement his legitimate income.
Once all five children were in school, Granny cleaned, cooked, and did laundry for white families in the community. Life was a struggle for the Chase family and every non-white household in Charles County. Granny and her brother, James Francis Brown (Uncle Francis) were members of the Catholic Church their entire life. Although they and all of the other Black congregants were forced to sit in the back of the church, Granny and Uncle Francis were among the first to give of their tithes, time, and talents toward the success of every church event. I could never understand this phenomenon, especially when I realized that they were only allowed to participate in events specifically scheduled for the ‘Negroes’.
Discontented with the restrictions on them, their peers, and their community, Granny and Uncle Francis made a commitment that their children and those who came behind them would not suffer the indignities they were forced to live with. Like Mahatma Gandhi, Theresa Chase and her big brother Francis Brown decided to be the change they wanted to see in the world. They heard and read about great changes taking place in the lives of Black people throughout the United States. With personal testimonials from siblings in New York, Baltimore, and points in between, they connected with other forward-thinking people in their rural community and set out to get a charter from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Enlisting members was an extremely risky proposition. This small group of concerned individuals who were fed up with the status quo put their lives on the line for what they believed.
As far as I know, Charles County was not a hotbed of racial violence in the late 1920s and early 1930s. But, there were certain liberties people of color simply were not allowed. Among those forbidden liberties were registering to vote, voting without scrutiny by the white community, and the ability to come together to strategize improvements for the quality of life of people of color. Back then, if word got out that somebody was recruiting members for any organization that appeared to threaten the order of hierarchy, that individual might go missing or be found dead in a ditch.
My grandmother, no more than 4’11” on her tallest day, risked life and limb as she walked for miles on dirt roads, carrying a kerosene lamp to light the way. The lamp may have been a welcome companion on those dark, backwoods paths. But it could also have made this diminutive woman an easy target for anyone wanting to stop her as she moved from house to house encouraging people to vote and join the NAACP.
When each of her three grandchildren was old enough to understand what was going on politically, Granny enrolled us in the NAACP Youth Council. She corralled me, Marlene, Louise, our friends, and many other family members to sing, march, and make picket signs. Granny also served on or created a number of social action groups and clubs in the community, including a homemakers’ club and Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of St. John.
Granny, Uncle Francis, and their small band of friends remained on the board of the Charles County Chapter of the NAACP until health challenges forced them to step down. Their legacies live on through the many generations dedicated to continuing to raise the consciousness and improve living conditions for all of Charles County.