Today I celebrate the life of my maternal grandmother, Mattie Mae (Springer) Holt. She would have been 92 years old on May 17 this year.

Although my family has had to do without her physical presence for 13 years now, her influence and spirit lives on in us all.

My grandmother was the only one of my grandparents I was fortunate to have interviewed and she shared wonderful memories of her childhood. Those interviews, especially looking back today, were a real gift. You simply never think of your grandparents as having once been children themselves.

Family History

Mattie was born in 1921 in rural southwestern Tennessee, and she had 7 siblings who survived to adulthood. Her parents worked hard to provide a good life for their family. Her father sharecropped and sometimes worked on steamboats.

He eventually landed what would have been considered a good government job at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee plant, site of the infamous Manhattan Project. Mattie’s mother Effie, was a caring homemaker.

She told me about about her father’s ghost stories, about attending camp meeting at church, and how although her older siblings picked cotton she never did. She was proud of that.;) She explained how families wouldn’t have meat for the winter unless they had a hog to kill. Hog-killing was a big celebration in Tennessee (and all over the South) that brought the whole community together.

My grandmother finished about two years at Tennessee State University, which was quite an opportunity for her generation. She married Luther Holt and they migrated to Dayton, Ohio. True to the patterns of the Great Migration, three of her siblings and eventually her mother Effie were all brought to Dayton to live.many working in the Delco factories of the GM plant.

Life in Dayton

Whatever its shortcomings, in Dayton my mother and aunts grew up free of the de jure segregation that most African-Americans faced during this era. Dayton was a booming city, thriving with innovation and big businesses.

Mattie earned her real estate license and excelled in a male dominated occupation that required charisma, intellect and tenaciousness. She had a gleaming black Cadillac (her sister had a silver one). I rode around with her to collect rent from various properties she managed. I felt so important!

I remember thinking my grandmother was a glamorous celebrity. She had an endless array of fur coats, wigs, jewelry and fabulous clothes for me to play in. I spent many long summers prancing in front of the mirror in those items.

I’ve heard that in selling those homes she enabled many blacks at that time to buy their first homes. She also connected them with a Jewish friend of hers who owned a store and would let them to buy furniture and appliances on credit.

That may seem like a small thing, but it was a necessary step on the march towards blacks achieving the American Dream. Especially in the era of redlining, when blacks were barred by law from federally backed loans and entry in to the housing projects and suburbs that were for whites only.

Oh What a Woman

Mattie fiercely protected and loved her daughters. She and my grandfather were able to provide all of their girls with college educations.

Mattie Holt

Everyone called her Mama, including her grandkids. She was smart and funny and loved to keep up with the news and issues of the day. Later, when she retired and joined her daughters in Maryland, I remember her  listening to the Joe Madison Show (“The Black Eagle”).

She enjoyed politics. She had a confidence and independence that allowed her to live life on her own terms no matter what “society” thought about it. She was far ahead of where women were in those days. I’m pretty sure I inherited this trait.

She wore the most outrageous wigs in every color and mini-skirts, bikinis. Her clothing was entirely out of sync with the average conservative older women from the South! Everyone I interview talks about Mattie Holt and her clothes.

I think for her it really was an expression of her truest self.

She divorced after 20-some odd years of marriage, a rare thing for a woman of her era to do. The expereince was tough, but she went happily about her life.

She and my grandfather later in life became very good friends and she was buried beside him. That kind of bravery and courageousness left a powerful impact on my consciousness as I grew into a young woman.

She had five grandchildren and my son would have been her first great grandchild. She left a long trail of love in this family and we remember all the gifts she left us. I hope she is looking down with a smile.

Mama, I am missing you & thinking about you on your 92nd birthday~

Your granddaughter Robyn

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