Resilience in the Face of Adversity: A Suffolkian's Life Story

Resilience in the Face of Adversity: A Suffolkian's Life Story

by Margaret Ellen Mayo Tolbert

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In her revealing autobiography, Dr. Tolbert describes how she overcame the obstacles that threatened to derail her aspirations for a sound education and professional career. From humble beginnings—surrounded by dirt roads and segregated schools, left orphaned and penniless at an early age—she chose a path of hard work and diligent study that lifted her out of poverty, despair, and ignorance.

In an era of tense race relations, and despite numerous stumbling blocks, Dr. Tolbert rose to prominence as an African-American scientist, educator, and administrator—often in positions traditionally held by males. She eventually became:

• The first African-American female to serve as director of the nation’s New Brunswick Laboratory. • The first African-American female appointed director of education at Argonne National Laboratory. • The first female to serve as director of the Carver Research Foundation of Tuskegee Institute. • One of six African-American senior executives at the National Science Foundation. • The second African-American to graduate from Brown University with a doctorate in biochemistry. • The first member of the Mayo family of Suffolk, Virginia, to earn a doctoral degree.

Her journey, however, was no “crystal stair.” In publishing her tale, Dr. Tolbert affirms our human ability to survive the unexpected, rally against adversity, and charge ahead on a path to personal accomplishment. She is a strong role model with an inspirational message for others struggling against overwhelming odds.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504331968
Publisher: Balboa Press
Publication date: 06/16/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 290
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

Resilience in the Face of Adversity

A Suffolkian's Life Story

By Margaret Ellen Mayo Tolbert

Balboa Press

Copyright © 2015 Margaret E. M. Tolbert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5043-3196-8


Survival in Saratoga

* * *

In the early 1940s, Suffolk, Virginia, was a segregated city. I was born in Saratoga, one of the sections of Suffolk for Colored people. Saratoga was, and still is, bordered on two sides by forest. The other two sides were bordered by Wellons Street and the Norfolk and Western Railroad track. By the time I was six, I was aware that Colored people lived on one side, and White people on the other side, of Wellons Street.

There were times, during the summer months, when Whites would ride through the neighborhood in nice cars, sometimes with their children. Perhaps the adults were teaching their children about Colored people; perhaps it was just an adventure. The White children would stare and sometimes sing, "Bye, bye, black birds." Or, they would chatter and point their fingers in our direction as they passed our house. My siblings and I were so accustomed to such attention that we did not react.

It was no secret that we were different. Colored people were relegated to the back of the bus and the balcony of the downtown movie theater. The outdoor drive-in theater had a separate entrance for us. This was the situation everywhere — drinking fountains, restrooms, stores — even though everyone paid the same amount for services. "Colored" signs dotted the city, and many privileges were reserved for Whites. Whites could touch the goods in stores and even try on clothes; a Colored person trying one of those actions could result in an angry look or being expelled from the store.

As a child, when I first read about a "White Sale" in the newspaper, I thought it meant that only Whites would be offered the sale prices. Only much later did I learn the true meaning of the term — sales on bed linens and other "white" items.

Perhaps the most significant impacts, besides housing conditions, were in educational opportunities — or lack thereof. The schools for Colored students were overcrowded and poorly supplied with equipment. There were neither enough teachers nor sufficient classrooms, occasionally resulting in two grade levels being taught in the same room. To compensate for these shortcomings, students in one grade sat on one side of the room and kept quiet while those in the other grade were being taught.

As a child, I was aware, but ignorant of the impact, of these aspects of our lives. As an adult, I can begin to understand the negative effects on young minds of being shut out from mainstream services and social activities.

In the Saratoga neighborhood, however, we stuck together and supported each other. Doors and windows were unlocked, and people helped one another. Children belonged to the neighborhood. Adults, especially the older ones, served as protectors and mentors of children, whether or not they were related. Many of the adults were known as sister, cousin, uncle, and aunt — regardless of kinship. It seemed to me that every adult participated in teaching, guiding, scolding, helping, feeding, and otherwise taking care of the children. If an extra child ended up at someone's house at meal time, or homework time, it didn't matter. A lot of times, it wasn't even noticed.

We needed all the care we could get. Conditions were marginal in Saratoga — though as a child I didn't know that; I had no frame of reference for comparison. The houses had no electricity; we burned kerosene lamps. Most homes had hand pumps for water, and a place to burn trash. Streets were gravel and lined with ditches, which carried rain and wastewater from kitchens and baths to places distant from its source, perhaps to the Nansemond River, which is a part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. The ditches were breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other insects. The mosquito man rode through the neighborhood periodically, spraying a fog and squirting a liquid into the ditches to kill the mosquitoes, though it was never long before they returned. My sisters, brother, and I, along with other neighborhood children, would play by running behind the truck, inhaling the chemical fog, unaware of any long-term risk to our health.

In hindsight, I can identify numerous health risks in Saratoga; I feel fortunate to have avoided a wide range of ill effects. As in many small towns and cities, there were no sewers or inside toilets. Such was the case in Suffolk's Colored neighborhoods of the 1940s. Outhouses sat out back, just far enough away from the houses to keep the odor from overwhelming us day and night. Even the outhouses were primitive — a small wooden shelter containing a stool with a hole in it, set over a hole in the ground. In addition, we had a bucket inside the house so that we did not have to go outside in the night to use the toilet. Of course, our least favorite chore was dumping and cleaning that bucket in the morning.

Houses were usually one story, and none were more than two stories high. None had basements; they would have flooded because of the high water table. Our house, two rooms and unpainted, was stacked high off the ground on bricks and cement blocks. Yards were bare, with any grass that encroached on the lawn quickly chopped up, probably to discourage snakes and rodents. For Suffolk, where I grew up, is in Virginia's tidewater region, at the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp — a vast wetland cloaked in peat, dotted with cypress, and home to deer, bears, and numerous small critters, some of which appeared on our dinner table.

Seafood and wild game were staples in my home, caught and trapped by my father and cousins or purchased in town. We grew corn, collard greens, cabbage, and snap beans in our yard. Chickens roamed free during the day, returning to the chicken coop in the backyard at night. Some people in the neighborhood raised goats, pigs, and other animals — resulting in a zoo-like pandemonium when they were all aroused from their torpor at once. Adding to the noise was our dog, Rex, who roamed free, as did most pets in the neighborhood.

Raising family members and keeping them healthy, putting food on the table, and tending the menagerie were chores which largely fell on the overburdened and long-suffering women of the community. My Mama was certainly one of those.


Raising the Family: Mama's Burden

* * *

I was the third child born to Jessie Clifford "Clifton" Mayo and Martha Taylor Artis Mayo. My Mama, who was strong, quiet, and a diligent worker, was assisted in my birth by a midwife, Miss Little. I was told that Miss Little provided her services for very little pay, and sometimes just for food. Those were the days when newborn babies had to wear stomach bands to hold their navels in place, and they wore cloth diapers held in place by safety pins. Disposable diapers were a luxury of the future.

My two older sisters, Audrey Mae and Lee Vania, helped my mother take care of me. My Mama could not go to the large hospital near the downtown area of Suffolk for any of our births, lacking both money and insurance. Or maybe Coloreds weren't allowed to be treated there; I don't know. She did not trust the White doctors who worked there, regardless. A small number of Colored doctors, pharmacists, and nurses were available in the city, but most people relied on home care.

My brother, Benjamin, was born three years later. Having a boy in the family made my Dad very proud. Two years later another sister — my "knee" baby sister Eleanor — was born, followed two years later by my baby sister Mary Lee, bringing the total to six kids. This resulted in an exceedingly crowded house on Linden Avenue, with a total of eight people living in two rooms. My two older sisters, my knee baby sister, and I slept on a large folding bed while my brother slept on a small one. My parents slept in the only real bed, often accompanied by my youngest sister. Sometimes my siblings and I would pile clothes and other items on the floor to sleep on. At meal time, we would gather at the small kitchen table, where we sat on large empty cans that had formerly contained lard. Mama kept our clothes reasonably clean, though we often went barefoot, saving our shoes to wear on special occasions.

As soon as my Mama recovered strength following the birth of each child, she returned to work as a domestic servant in the homes of White families. They liked her work, and as a result she was always employed. In addition to the monetary payments for her maid service, sometimes they gave her food to bring home. The food from my Mama's employers was appreciated. It supplemented vegetables from the garden, chickens raised in the yard, wild game that resulted from hunting by my father and cousins, and the limited amount of money available for purchases from the local store.

I do not recall ever going inside any of the houses in which my Mama worked. However, she told us stories about the beauty of the houses and how the family members acted. I could see in my mind how nice the homes were, with sheer curtains, linoleum kitchen floors, and carpeting or hardwood floors in other rooms. I imagined those people had a lot of everything. Sometimes Mama brought home used clothes, household items, and leftover food. She also told us about having to enter the homes through back doors and about how she worked hard to please her employers.

People in Saratoga called my Mama "Lil Boy," but she was no boy. She was only my Mama. Most of the time, she wore pants over her wide hips and a simple shirt over her disproportionately small upper body. Her hair was short and coarse — perhaps the reason for her nickname. People often commented that she spoke with a slight accent like that of a Geechee — a coastal population with African roots in the American southeast — and she could also speak Pig Latin. She could neither read nor write well, but she could surpass anyone when it came to cleaning houses and cooking. Although she always had a job, she could not earn enough money to do relaxing things like take vacations. She worked as a domestic for as long as I can remember. After working all day cleaning others' houses, she was usually too tired to clean our own.

I do not believe that my Dad did much to help around the house or to remedy the family's money problems. I was too young to be fully aware of family and financial matters. However, I knew that, when he was not working, my Dad was usually drunk from corn liquor he bought at local juke joints. He would buy his friends drinks with money that he should have spent on us. Many of my most vivid memories center on his disruptive influence and the fear he instilled in us.


Enduring Dad's Tantrums

* * *

My parents seemed to me to be an unusual couple, with different appearances as well as personalities, a distinct lack of affection between them, and the family burdens resting largely on my Mama of whom I have no photographs.

Dad inherited his skin and hair traits from his parents, Grandma Fannie and Granddaddy Benjamin. Granddaddy had died by the time I was born. However, people said that his skin was very dark brown, and he had straight black hair, an unusual combination. I never saw a photograph of Granddaddy, but I have one of Grandma Fannie. She was an odd sight to see in a Colored neighborhood because she looked like a White person, with silky dark brown hair and very light skin.

A few other people who lived near Grandma also had light skin and looked like White people, and they had fine homes with fences. When children in some of those families grew up, they were able to choose friends of both races. Some even moved north to begin new lives, sometimes passing for White.

Grandma Fannie lived around the corner from us on Battery Avenue, in a bigger, nicer house. Her sister and brother-in-law, Aunt Lucy and Uncle Ruel, lived on Brook Avenue, parallel to Battery Avenue, also in a larger house, made of cinder blocks. They had a large yard in which Uncle Ruel built a one-room building, which served as his barber shop. Although we occasionally were taken to their houses, I do not recall any of them ever visiting us at our two-room house. They did not seem interested in the way Dad treated Mama, my siblings, and me. Although we were all in Saratoga, seemingly we might as well have lived in two different worlds.

Granddaddy who died before I was born was about 20 years older than Grandma Fannie. Of their five children — including my dad — all are now deceased, including one of his sisters who was shot to death in the neighborhood before I was born. I have been told by several people that I look like her and that our mannerisms are similar, though I did not share the long, straight hair that came to her waist.

The gossip was that Grandma Fannie, my Dad's mother, did not like my Mama. The reasons are unknown to me. In those days, people were color conscious even within races. If Grandma Fannie or her sister were in a crowd of White people, you would not be able to distinguish them from those people. Some said that Grandma was Cherokee while Granddaddy Benjamin was part Mohawk and part Colored; however, I have been unable to find any documentation of their heritage. On the other hand, since Granddaddy had dark skin and straight black hair, it does not stand to reason that my Mama's dark complexion was the cause of her not being accepted into the Mayo family.

We never discussed Mama's roots during her lifetime. However, my youngest sister, in recent years, did some research that revealed Mama was the daughter of George Cherry and Erma Taylor. There was a gentleman in the neighborhood that we called George Cherry, to whom we spoke respectfully when we passed his house. Also, my Mama frequently visited a lady we called Grandma Equilla. I never heard any discussions about her actual relationship to us; however, I knew Mama had lived with her and her husband — Joshua — prior to meeting my Dad. Whether the two of them were our grandparents by blood remains a mystery.

My Mama and Dad met in a juke joint. When he spotted her, she was said to have been "dancing on a dime" — a sensual type of dancing involving more movement with the hips than the feet. She was very dark complexioned, and he had olive brown skin with dark wavy hair. As previously indicated, I do not have any photographs of my Mama, I have one of my Dad, proudly wearing his U.S. Army uniform, which made him popular in my section of town (see his photograph).

At some point, they moved in together, probably at Grandma Fannie's house initially. Later they moved into the two-room house on Linden Avenue. As far as I know, their marriage was never officially recorded and was likely what we know of now as a "common-law" marriage.

My Dad was handsome, and well-liked by his side of the Mayo family. He dressed well, and he seemed to care for my Mama when he was sober. There was no stopping him when he wanted to complete a task. He was a hard worker, and his boss liked his work results. Although I feel confident that I inherited my strong work ethic and values from Mama, perhaps I inherited some of my drive from Dad.

However, when he had taken a few drinks of corn liquor, he became a different person, often getting into fights. He never went looking for trouble, but it always seemed to find him. Many of the men in Saratoga carried knives and other objects of defense, and fighting was a common weekend pastime. Dad seemed to fight with people for the sheer heck of it. When he fought, he used his switchblade or anything he could get his hands on.

I never saw my Mama and Dad have an affectionate moment. They usually sat in silence, or he would argue or sleep in her presence. When he was sober, Dad was ill-tempered but relatively quiet. Until he began drinking, that is. When he had consumed a small amount of whiskey, he was still reasonably calm. But when he drank a great deal, which he did often on weekends, our home was rocked with violence. He would come home from a local juke joint and tear up the house, throwing the small, wood-burning heater across the room or tossing chairs here and there. If anyone got in his way, they would get hurt. When he came home drunk, my sisters, brother, and I would hide under the house or in the bushes. On occasion, Mama would take us to a neighbor's house to wait until Dad calmed down. Fortunately, he was away from home a good deal of the time.


Excerpted from Resilience in the Face of Adversity by Margaret Ellen Mayo Tolbert. Copyright © 2015 Margaret E. M. Tolbert. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
Photograph and Logo Credits, xi,
Introduction, xiii,
Part One: The Early Years, 1,
Survival in Saratoga, 3,
Raising the Family: Mama's Burden, 6,
Enduring Dad's Tantrums, 9,
Making Our House a Home, 15,
Growing Bodies, Growing Minds, 19,
The End of Life as We Knew It, 25,
Grandma Fannie Takes Us in, 30,
Living at Grandma Fannie's House, 42,
Mr. and Mrs. S. A. Cook, 55,
A New School Environment, 59,
Taking Over as Head of the Family, 67,
Moving in with My Oldest Sister, 73,
Part Two: Higher Education and Marriages, 81,
Chemistry and Civil Rights at Tuskegee., 83,
Wedding Bells: Pursuing the Dream of Marriage, 102,
My Graduate Years, 106,
From Alabama to New England: Change of Scenery, 119,
Part Three: Four Decades of Service, 133,
Return to Tuskegee: Teaching and Research, 135,
Moving Around, 143,
The Carver Research Foundation, 150,
Governing Boards Add a New Dimension, 168,
Working in the Private Sector, 177,
Promoting Diversity in Research at the National Science Foundation, 182,
Onward and Upward: The Argonne Experience, 187,
Nuclear Chemistry at New Brunswick Laboratory, 204,
Return to the National Science Foundation, 217,
Part Four: Living in the Here and Now, 235,
Appendix 1 - My Family, 243,
Appendix 2 - The Education of My Son, 248,
Appendix 3 - Biography of Dr. Margaret Ellen Mayo Tolbert, 251,
Appendix 4 - Book Chapters, Articles, and Other Information Published about Dr. Margaret Ellen Mayo Tolbert, 265,
Appendix 5 - Abbreviations and Explanations, 269,

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