By Marlon Rice
I want to tell you the story of my two grandmothers.
My maternal grandmother was Mary Elizabeth Morgan. She was a barely educated woman from Portsmouth, Virginia that migrated to the North with dreams of a better life in the big city. She worked odd jobs, many times as a barmaid or waitress, doing as much as she could to be able to care for her three children. I used to call her Mum-Mum. I remember how lively Mum-Mum’s house would be on Friday nights. There would always be music playing. One song I remember specifically is “Native New Yorker” by a group called Odyssey. That song is the backdrop for every memory I have of Mum-Mum’s house on Friday nights. She’d cook this enormous pot of spaghetti and fry a bunch of fish, and people from all over would come to her house to hang out and enjoy life. My sisters, my cousins and I would be relegated to the bedroom, not yet able to fully enjoy the things that grown-ups find pleasure in. But I know for a fact that those adults that ate that spaghetti and drank her famous lemonade with a splash of vanilla extract would leave her house happier than the way they came. Mum-Mum had that effect on people. She made the people around her happy, and for that, she was well-respected on Pacific Street. When I was around 5, I was holding her hand as we walked home when some guy ran passed us, snatching her purse and pulling both of us to the ground in the process. I remember looking up from the ground and watching the guys from the block chasing the purse-snatcher down to the corner. The thief was beaten up and Mum-Mum got her purse back. She was protected because she led with love. That was my Mum-Mum. When she died of breast cancer in 1986, the whole block mourned. Truth be told, Pacific Street wasn’t the same after she left.
My paternal grandmother was Nan Artis. She was a barely educated woman from Eden, North Carolina that migrated to the North with dreams of a better life in the big city. She worked odd jobs, mostly as a cleaning lady, doing as much as she could to be able to take care of her two sons. I used to call her Nana. Nana was a very big part of my childhood. Up until I went to junior high school, Nana would walk me and my sisters to school almost daily. She was born in 1912, so by the time we were school-age, she was already in her 70’s, and yet almost every day she’d leave her house to walk us to school. Nana used to tell the most incredible stories, I’m sure that my passion for stories comes from her. I’d lay in her bed and she’d tell these elaborate stories, most of them probably far too elicit for the child in me to be digesting, but it was her candid nature that made them so interesting.
She told me once that The Honorable Elijah Muhammad hit on her while she worked at a numbers spot on 139th and 8th Avenue. She said he was a short man that spoke funny. I was maybe 10 when she told me this. Her pancakes were legendary, I’ve yet to taste better. Nana worked for almost 30 years for the Schiff family in Sheepshead Bay. The Schiff’s owned a couple of furniture stores and they had a large Victorian-style house out near the water. Sometimes I’d go with Nana to her job. We’d take the B44 bus all the way to the last stop and then walk for what seemed like forever just to get to their house. I’d sit in the kitchen and eat pancakes while Nana cleaned their whole house. I remember her saying that they used to pay her $125 per week. When she finally retired from working for them, they gave her a card with a check in it. The check was for $500.Thirty (30) years of cleaning their home and her retirement gift was equal to one month’s pay.
The first time that I ever stepped foot into Magnolia Tree Earth Center was a few years ago. I was invited to a meeting unrelated to the organization itself. I remember walking in and seeing the giant picture of an older lady smiling at me. She was beautiful. She reminded me of my grandmothers. Last year, I worked on Project Green, a community and educational outreach project implemented by MTEC and created by OTP Senior Advisor Bernice Green. Through that connection and through the work, I began to learn about the organization and its founder, Hattie Carthan, who was from Portsmouth, Virginia like Mum-Mum. She lived on the kind of block I was raised on. When that block started losing trees, Hattie decided to do something about it. First, she started replanting trees in her community. Then she created the Tree Corps to teach young people to care for the trees. Then she became the Chairman for the Bed-Stuy Beautification Committee, bringing together 100 Block Associations from all over the borough to plant 1,500 trees.
She founded the Magnolia Tree Earth Center from a sense of community, wanting for the children that ran up and down her block to have a place where they could learn about trees and plants and the earth, so that after she was gone we wouldn’t have to go without knowing. Like my Nana, Hattie sacrificed so much of her time and energy to make sure that her community had what it needed. Magnolia Tree Earth Center isn’t the product of deep pockets and old money. It is the product of an old woman who recognized a need and worked to fulfill it.
I recently became the Executive Director of Magnolia Tree Earth Center and my decision to take on this role and the responsibilities that come with it stems from how I feel about women like Hattie Carthan. Black women have nurtured our communities since the beginning of time, educating our children, loving and honoring our men, speaking our truth to power. Most times our women do this at the expense of their own dreams and lives. Both of my grandmothers spent their lives working to instill in me the knowledge and the passion necessary to be successful at whatever I put my mind to. Hattie was doing the same thing, pouring into the children in her community with the knowledge and the passion necessary. Those of us who were raised in this community owe it to Hattie to continue her service and to be a living reflection of her legacy. She deserves that. My grandmothers deserve that.