By Linda M. Jones
Wilhelmina Johnson Hamlin was the grandmother I never knew, personally. I never knew her because she tragically died at age 26, just ten days following the birth of her sixth child.
My mother, Dorothy, the third-born, was only six at the time of her mother’s passing. She knew very little about the details of her mother’s life. As my sister, the author Wilhelmina Rhodes Kelly, and I pursued our genealogy, searching for answers to questions never before raised, the facts we gleaned about Wilhelmina’s life a century ago and the institutions that once comprised the African-American township of Weeksville were total revelations not only to us, but to our mother as well.
My grandmother was born in 1903 in downtown Brooklyn near the Navy Yard. She was of mixed heritage, having an African-American father, William H. Johnson of Dutchess County, New York and an Irish mother, Catherine Cannon Qualters, a widow with two surviving daughters. These discoveries were both fascinating and instructive. I learned that her parents were married in 1899 by the Rev. William T. Dixon, the distinguished forty-six-year pastor of the Concord Baptist Church.
Although she had both parents, Wilhelmina Johnson’s early years were spent with her brother John in the now-long-disappeared (but hopefully to be remembered) Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, originally in Weeksville (Dean Street between Albany and Troy Avenues). They remained in the Howard through at least the 1915 New York State Census when the Howard was then based in Kings Park, Long Island.
She married John Francis Hamlin, son of Rev. John W. Hamlin, pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, in 1920. He was 21 and she 17. John worked as sorter for the post office and Wilhelmina worked in a wig factory at the beginning of their marriage. Once the children started coming (six children born between 1921 and 1930), Wilhelmina became a full-time mother. They lived in various Brooklyn locations, first in the downtown area, then moved to several Weeksville addresses.
Following Wilhelmina’s death, oral history has it that John’s family suggested that the children be separated and put in orphanages, but he would not hear of it. During these very difficult Depression years, John always found work to help support and keep his family together.
Wilhelmina was gone too soon, but her memory remained alive through her descendants.
That young woman was the grandmother I never knew but whose life has had an enduring impact on my own. Learning of her brief life and times, with its limited opportunities for education and employment, so very different from my own, resulted in my being even more sensitive and appreciative of the life I now live, eighty-five years after her passing.
That is why it is so critically important that we learn, record and share our family histories with the next generation so that they may appreciate the sacrifices of the elders and be inspired to do even more with the abundant choices never dreamed of in the past.
Vivid memories, as related by my mother, taught me that the mother-child bond is irreplaceable and if absent, remains an elusive goal in the search for love and personal validation. I am forever thankful to my mother for remembering Wilhelmina and for sharing those precious few memories of her with me. My grandmother Wilhelmina is gone from this realm, but her spirit lives on through the inspiration her legacy provides.
About the Author: Linda M. Jones, a native Brooklynite, is a product of the NYC public school system. She earned her Master’s in Management from Polytechnic University. A retired career Civil Servant, her last position was as an administrative manager in the Office of the Inspector General of the NYC School Construction Authority. She is the Regent of the Manhattan Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and is actively pursuing her personal genealogy as she teaches others how to uncover theirs.
More about Wilhelmina Johnson Hamlin:
Join author RJ McCarthy as he takes us on a journey through his perspective of the life and legacy of Wilhelmina Johnson Hamlin on Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at the Central Library, Brooklyn Collection with a (7:00p) talk and book-signing for “Wilhelmina: An Imagined Memoir”, preceded by a wine-and-cheese reception (6:30p). The talk is co-sponsored with the Info Commons genealogy workshop. To contact Ms. Jones, send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(“Ancestral Calling” is a new column produced by Legacy Ventures and edited by Bernice Elizabeth Green for Our Time Press. Send stories or story drafts of 400 words for placement consideration to email@example.com.)