MISS HILDA’S CENTURY: A DOCUMENTARY
Well son, I’ll tell you;
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor –
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now –
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Mother to Son
Robert and Lucella Moore welcomed their fifth, and last child, a daughter they named Hilda on September 14, 1911. The family, Robert Senior, Lucella, Robert Junior, Deborah, Fanny, and Sam resided in Franklin, the seat of St. Mary Parish, a rural county located on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in southeast Louisiana. This precious baby girl and her loving, close-knit family could not, and probably did not dream little Miss Hilda’s life would span a century. Nor could they foresee how Robert Moore’s prophetic urging would bless his daughter to be part of the history of her local community. This beautiful, diminutive, strong-willed woman experienced the turbulence of life. She tasted the honey and swallowed the bitter. She saw the lightning flashing and heard the thunder roll. Through it all she kept her hand in God’s hand, trusting always in God’s goodness. Miss Hilda’s century is a testament to the grace and mercy of God.
During Miss Hilda’s Century, the United States expanded from forty-six to fifty states. At the time of her birth, the country had been governed by eighteen presidents. The US Constitution had been amended eight times and eight Roman Catholic popes were elected to the papacy. The twentieth century witnessed the bloodiest, and costliest, wars in history. During Miss Hilda’s century, warfare has engaged people across the world in every decade of her life. During Miss Hilda’s century art forms transitioned: vaudeville gave way to movies and they began to talk. Radios blared soap operas and whodunits. Gramophones became record players which became eight tracks, then tapes, and finally compact discs, and DVD’s. Movies went from black and white to color, they could be enjoyed indoors, and out, and for a while there was the luxury of the double feature. The automobile replaced the streetcar and airplanes overtook trains.
During Miss Hilda’s century, telephones transformed social intercourse. Party lines became private lines and voice over internet service is the latest development. Telegrams are a thing of the past. Technology created a vast network of possibilities for communicating. Nightly news is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Celebrities are people who can get, and keep, their fifteen minutes in the spotlight through whatever means necessary. The grapevine can be tweeted, texted, or transmitted via instant messaging. There’s email and snail mail. We can teleconference in real time and see our favorite television programs or movies on handheld gadgets. There are computers, iPads, iPods, smart phones, iPhone, and books are digitally available on tablets.
Miss Hilda’s century began at a most auspicious time. The United States comprised 46 independent entities bound together by a centralized federation. The country was governed by a constitution overseen by presidents elected by white men. Europe was still a major colonial power although wars dating back to France’s revolution, 1789 to 1799, were rapidly reshaping the political fortunes and geopolitical boundaries of monarchies in Italy, Germany, Belgium, Austria, the British Empire, China, Japan, and the continent of Africa. The violent overthrow of the Romanov Empire in Russia resulted in the political realignment of the country and the emergence of communism which was viewed as a global threat to democracy. During Miss Hilda’s century, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Mao Zedong rose to power in Germany, Italy, Russia, and China. Each of these men waged desperate, despotic, and monstrous wars against humanity. The end of World War II resulted in the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was erected, and torn down by ordinary, freedom-loving people.
During Miss Hilda’s century, Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, and Robert F. Kennedy were brutally assassinated in a country which prides itself on its democratic ideals. During Miss Hilda’s century the quest for democracy has most recently manifested itself in Egypt, France, China, Libya, and Greece. During Miss Hilda’s century, space exploration became a reality. American astronauts walked on the moon, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for fighting against apartheid in South Africa, and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was organized in Oakland.
During Miss Hilda’s century, seven men and women of the African Diaspora received the Nobel Peace Prize:
- Dr. Ralph J. Bunche Junior in 1950.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Junior in 1964.
- Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu in 1984.
- Nelson Mandela in 1993.
- Toni Morrison in 1993
- Wangari Maathai in 2004
- Barack H. Obama Junior in 2009
A confluence of events which began before Miss Hilda’s birth played out across an international landscape over her lifetime. One much loved, respected, and revered woman bore witness. Against this backdrop Miss Hilda matured into adolescence, married, became a mother, and eventually the matriarch presiding over at least four generations.
Happy 100th birthday Miss Hilda, this is all about you!!!
Miss Hilda’s First Decade
The waning years of the 19th century gave rise to actions which significantly affected the first sixty years of Miss Hilda’s life. A. US Supreme Court decision issued on a case which originated in Louisiana, reshaped the social, political, and economic landscape of the country, sanctioning segregation as a domain of government at every level.
Homer Plessy, a free black born in New Orleans in 1862 was arrested June 7, 1892 for violating Louisiana’s Separate Car Act. Plessy, who was categorized as 7/8 white, or an octoroon under the state’s feudal caste system, agreed to participate in a test case whose outcome would have wide-ranging ramifications for the country.
“The arrest of Homer Plessy was part of a planned challenge to the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act by the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law, a small group of black professionals in New Orleans. Soon after its organization in 1891, the committee appointed Albion Tourgèe its legal representative. After successfully leading a test case in which the Louisiana district court declared forced segregation in railroad cars traveling between states to be unconstitutional, the committee was anxious to test the constitutionality of segregation on railroad cars operating solely within a single state. The committee[‘]s strategy was to have someone with mixed blood violate the law, which would allow Tourgèe to question the law’s arbitrariness. Homer Plessy, a native of south Louisiana who could “pass” as white, agreed to be the test case. The committee arranged with the railroad conductor and with a private detective to detain Plessy until he was arrested. When Plessy appeared before the Louisiana district court, the court ruled that a state had the constitutional power to regulate railroad companies operating solely within its borders and concluded that the Louisiana Separate Car Act was constitutional. The decision was appealed to the state supreme court in 1893 and was appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896.
By the time Plessy v. Ferguson arrived at the Supreme Court, Tourgèe and his colleagues had solidified their strategy. Tourgèe argued that Plessy was denied his equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and [the denial] violated the Thirteenth Amendment by perpetuating the essential features of slavery. Eight of the nine justices were unconvinced by Tourgèe’s arguments, and ruled that neither the Thirteenth nor Fourteenth Amendment was applicable in this case. The majority opinion delivered by Henry Billings Brown, attacked the Thirteenth Amendment claims by distinguishing between political and social equality. According to this distinction, blacks and whites were politically equal (in the sense that they had the same political rights) but socially unequal (blacks were not as socially advanced as whites):
Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish
Distinctions based on physical differences, and the attempt to do so
Can only result in accentuating the differences of the present situation.
If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior
To the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the
Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.
The majority also attacked Tourgèe’s Fourteenth Amendment claims by arguing that enforced separation does not “stamp” blacks with the badge of inferiority, because both blacks and whites were treated equally under the law – in the sense that whites were forbidden to sit in a railroad car designated for blacks. In his famous dissenting opinion, John Marshall Harlan attacked the constitutionality of the Louisiana law and argued that while the law may appear to treat blacks and whites equally, “everyone knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons.”’¹
Plessy v. Ferguson facilitated the emergence of Jim Crow laws across the nation. By the time of Miss Hilda’s birth, segregation, and the deliberate disenfranchisement of African Americans was a way of life in America. New Mexico was admitted to the Union on January 16, 1912, and Arizona became the 48th state on February 14th. Woodrow Wilson was elected the nation’s 28th president.
African Americans continued to persevere, building communities across the nation, contributing to the economic, social, religious, and political fortunes of American society. John Arthur Johnson, better known as Jack Johnson, was the reigning heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1908 to 1915, the first African American to achieve this distinction.
Sarah Breedlove, forever known to history as Madam C.J. Walker, pioneered the hair growing business. Madam Walker established her company’s headquarters and opened her manufacturing plant in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1911. At the time of her death in 1919, America’s first female self-made millionaire owned a business empire comprising more than 15,000 Madam C.J. Walker agents and beauty schools in three states. Carter Godwin Woodson became the second African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University. He organized the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 and initiated the official observance of Negro History Week in conjunction with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Five of the Divine Nine, Black Greek letter fraternities were founded during the first decade of Miss Hilda’s century. Two of them share their centennial with her: Kappa Alpha Psi, founded on the campus of Indiana University and Omega Psi Phi, chartered on the campus of Howard University. Howard is home to Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, 1913, Phi Beta Sigma, 1914, and Zeta Phi Beta, 1920. Sister Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament opened a coeducational secondary institution which became Xavier University of New Orleans in 1925.
As the first decade of Miss Hilda’s century progressed, political upheaval in Europe coalesced into war. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in June 1914 set World War I in motion. By 1917 the United States had joined the fray. Little Miss Hilda was barely six years old. Article XVII modified Article 1, Section 3 of the US Constitution providing every state with two senators, each having one vote, in 1913. Article XVIII imposed prohibition on the manufacture, sale, import, export, or transportation of intoxicating liquors in the United States. Article XIX granted women the right to vote and was ratified August 18, 1920.
Perhaps the single most important event of Miss Hilda’s first decade was the commencement of the mass exodus of Blacks from the south known as the Great Migration, which according to Isabel Wilkerson’s groundbreaking study, The Warmth of Other Suns, began around 1915 and ended around 1970.
“From the early years of the twentieth century to well past its middle age, nearly every black family in the American South, which meant nearly every black family in America, had a decision to make…
It was during the First World War that a silent pilgrimage took its first steps within the borders of this country…It would not end until the 1970s and would set into motion changes in the north and south that no one, not even the people doing the leaving, could have imagined…It would become perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century. It was vast. It was leaderless…
Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America…”
Eventually, Miss Hilda, her children, Lucella and Lucky, and her sisters, Fanny and Deborah, and Deborah’s husband, Eddie Osibin, would become part of this exodus migrating from Louisiana to California’s Bay Area in search of a better life.
Miss Hilda’s Second Decade
Miss Hilda’s second decade coincided with the New Negro Movement which is better known as the Harlem Renaissance. Miss Hilda was entered her teenage years during this period which Alain Locke, a writer, educator, philosopher, and patron of the arts described as a spiritual coming of age for African Americans. The Harlem Renaissance was celebrated by gifted men and women of color who embraced the joy, pain, beauty, and anguish of being Black in America through literature, poetry, theater, and music. Black-owned magazines and newspapers flourished. Hilda Moore matured into womanhood as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Dorothy West, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Eubie Blake, and others produced many of the most enduring works of art attributed to the Black community. Hilda learned to play the piano and began her lifelong love of the great hymns of the church.
During this decade, Robert and Lucella Moore moved their family to Pensacola, Florida. Here the vivacious Miss Hilda met and married Lucky Thomas. As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s, Hilda and Lucky welcomed their first child, a daughter they named Lucella, who was born in May 1930.
Miss Hilda’s Third Decade
Miss Hilda began her third decade with the birth of her second child, a son, Lucky Junior. The Thomas family returned to Franklin in 1933 and Miss Hilda devoted her time and energy to making a home for her husband and their children. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the 32nd president of the United States. Once again the Constitution was amended. The XX Amendment set the end of the term of office of the president and vice president at 12pm on the 20th of January. The terms of senators and representatives end at 12 noon on the 3rd of January. Prohibition was repealed by Article XXI. Lucky Senior contracted pneumonia during the latter part of the decade and died. Penicillin had not been discovered. Miss Hilda moved to New Orleans to be with Deborah and Eddie. She left her children with her parents and went to work as a domestic.
Miss Hilda’s Fourth Decade
Deborah and Eddie joined the silent exodus of Blacks fleeing the south as the forties dawned. They moved to Oakland where Eddie had family. Fanny was next. Robert Moore insisted Miss Hilda do likewise and join her sisters. He felt certain she could make a better life for herself and her children. He believed she would have access to more, and better, opportunities. In 1941, on the eve of her 30th birthday, Miss Hilda became part of the great migration as the United States entered World War II.
Her first job in the Bay Area was at the Naval Supply Depot in Oakland. It was a warehouse facility which opened December 15, 1941 to support ships operating in the Pacific theater. She met Tony Gammage and they fell in love. Thus began a new and exciting chapter in her life. Tony, Hilda and their children became a blended family with five children.
Miss Hilda’s Fifth Decade
Miss Hilda and Tony joined St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, Berkeley, in 1950. Their pastor, the erudite and illustrious Rev. James Austell Hall encouraged Hilda to became a stewardess, a position of honor within the denomination. The Book of Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2008, defines a stewardess as one who is “…in good and regular standing in the local church and of good character…The main functions of the stewardesses are to assist the stewards in the discharge of their duties relative to the ritual of baptism and the Lord’s supper…” Miss Hilda actively recruited younger women to the stewardess board. Among them, Doris Denson Belcher. Miss Hilda served St. Paul as a stewardess for sixty years.
Hilda moved from the Naval Depot to the US Postal Service. She was assigned to the Rincon Annex at the US Post Office in San Francisco. This facility, which is now on the National Historic Register of Places in San Francisco, and a local landmark, was sponsored by the New Deal Works Progress Administration and built in 1940. Designed by George A. Fuller in the Streamline Moderne style, the lobby contains twenty-seven murals depicting California history painted by Russian immigrant Anton Refregier. The annex was retired by the US Post Office in 1985.
Miss Hilda spent the last twenty-five years of her professional career on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. She worked at the Ernest V. Cowell Memorial Hospital, a facility constructed from a bequest by a Cal alumnus. During Miss Hilda’s tenure, Cowell experienced the social and political changes which engulfed the university from free speech to free love, the controversy surrounding dispensing of birth control, to the provision of assistance to the disabled, and those in need of mental health care. Her retirement coincided with the hospital’s transition into what is now University Health Services at Tang Center.
Miss Hilda balanced marriage, motherhood, work, volunteer activities, and family, all while enhancing her reputation as a gracious hostess. She was known for decorating her home on special occasions and cooking lavish meals which are still fondly recalled. History was also in the making. May 17, 1954, Earl Warren, a former governor of California, and now the newly appointed Chief Justice, wrote the majority opinion for Brown v. Board of Education overturning decades of segregation made legal by the same court in 1896. Miss Hilda was 42 years and had witnessed a crucial turning point in the fight for racial equality. By the end of this decade of Miss Hilda’s century, she and Tony were grandparents; and John F. Kennedy was elected the nation’s 35th president.
Miss Hilda’s Sixth Decade
Miss Hilda never learned to drive nor was it a problem. She went where she wanted to go and did what she wanted to do. She and Tony were active members of St. Paul. He was a devoted and faithful member of the usher board and was recognized as a man of the year. She served as secretary of the Women’s Missionary Society and worked with the altar guild. Miss Hilda loved flowers and was a gifted arranger. She, too, was the recipient of the annual woman of the year award at St. Paul.
Miss Hilda’s Seventh Decade
Lucella married Majors Harrison May 30, 1971 at her parents’ home. This union blessed Miss Hilda and Tony with five more grandchildren and two step-grandchildren. She and Tony retired during this decade and began traveling the world. Their destinations included Germany, Denmark, where they visited with grandchildren, Rome, Vatican City, Venice, and the Holy land. When they weren’t globetrotting, they hosted family gatherings, entertaining frequently.
Miss Hilda’s Eighth Decade
Miss Hilda and Tony continued to enjoy their family welcoming their first great-grandchildren. They continued to work in the Lord’s vineyard at St. Paul, travel, and entertain.
Miss Hilda’s Ninth Decade
Tony Gammage was fatally injured in an automobile accident September 9, 1992. Once again the indomitable Miss Hilda looked to the Lord to see her, and her family, through the loss of her beloved companion of nearly half a century. Four months later, her heart overflowing, she stood with Lucella and Majors as Lucella was sworn in for her first term as a member of the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education. Miss Hilda worked tirelessly behind the scenes in support of Lucella’s successful campaigns. Throughout her life, Miss Hilda remained a lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She maintained a keen interest in, and was attentive to, politics. Her father was the first African American to vote in Franklin.
Miss Hilda’s Tenth Decade
Miss Hilda entered her tenth decade full of beauty, grace, and gratitude. After Lucella was widowed, she moved back home. Mother and daughter attended Sunday worship services at St. Paul often followed by a leisurely dinner at Merritt Restaurant. They spent time traveling to Los Angeles, New Orleans, Reno, St. Louis, Sacramento, and Santa Cruz to visiting with family and friends.
Miss Hilda was eight years old when the XIX Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified granting women the right to vote. She was 47 when Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state. She was rearing her own family when a young woman living in Honolulu gave birth to a son on August 4, 1961. She and her husband named him Barack Hussein Obama, Junior. At the tender age of 97, Miss Hilda proudly cast her votes for the little boy who became the 44th president of the United States.
Happy 100th birthday, Miss Hilda, it really is all about you!!!
Epilogue: Miss Hilda made her transition in December 2011.
¹Zimmerman, Thomas Plessy v. Ferguson excerpted from
Wilkerson, Isabel The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration Random House, New York: 2010