In 1962 my grandmother won the lottery. Actually, the bet she won was an illegal one, placed with a numbers runner in Harlem. But what mattered is that she found herself with $5,000 in cash and knew immediately how the money was to be used: She was going to put a down payment on a house.
My family was never supposed to have ended up in a tenement on 132nd street in the first place. My grandparents had given up a nice apartment on Sugar Hill in anticipation of moving into their first house, only to see the deal fall through. My grandfather lost his job for a time, and ten years later the family, my grandparents and their three children, were stuck in that tenement, getting by but not much more. So when my grandmother’s number hit, she took the opportunity to pick up where she left off, and took her oldest son, Junior, house hunting.
The first agent my grandmother met with sent her away in tears. How dare she waste his time with a paltry $5,000, didn’t she know that couldn’t buy her a tent in New York City? Defeated, my grandmother headed back home, feeling foolish and wondering how much longer it would take to get her family out. Sitting on the train, Grandma listened as the rhythm of the subway car riding along the tracks seemed to transform into an insistent, repetitive command: Get-the-paper—Get-the-paper—Get-the-paper.
The command became louder, and more insistent until finally, she relented, shouting out loud, “Fine, I’ll get the damn paper!” Junior looked up at her confused. Without explaining herself, she dragged him off the train, walked up to the nearest newsstand and purchased a paper. She shoved the rolled paper at my increasingly worried uncle and reentered the subway.
The subway car was not satisfied. Now it commanded, Read-the-paper—Read-the-paper—Read-the-paper. Exasperated, my grandmother opened the paper to an ad for homes being built in an upper middle class neighborhood in Queens. For families of veterans, which my grandfather was, the required down payment was $5,000.
And so it was that my grandmother was led to the home in which both I and my mother would spend the bulk of our childhoods. And thirty years later, when that neighborhood became not so upper middle class, that house paid for the next move away from a sometimes dangerous city into a place with sprawling lawns and quiet neighbors.
My grandmother had grown up owning land as the daughter of subsistence farmers on Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia. The land had been in the family since slavery ended, acquired by a set of brothers, former slaves who divided the land first among themselves and later among their children so that no member of their family would ever be dependent on someone else for survival.
My grandmother’s sisters, Clara and Nellie Bell, left the island for work in Florida in the 1930s. My grandmother, their baby sister, shortly followed. This would be the first generation of my family since the Middle Passage to make their lives away from Sapelo. From Florida, they traveled to New York City, where my family would remain until I was born many years later.
And in New York City my grandmother married, was abused, beat her husband out of her life and married someone new. She went from Sugar Hill to a run-down tenement to a three bedroom house, all while raising five children, and spoiling 5 grandchildren and one great grandchild before she passed away.