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Tying the Knot

The HistoryMakers e1589803022222Summer is here and we often think of graduations, festivals, barbecues, and weddings. The pandemic has put a dent into plans, including the June wedding season. Some have decided to postpone their big day and others have decided to carry it out differently, nixing the majority of the guest list. So, we decided to go into The HistoryMakers Digital Archive to see what we could find about wedding traditions and when weddings had to be slimmed down or cancelled. Enjoy!

The Broomstick Wedding 1899
The Broomstick Wedding, 1899

Lawrence Carter (1941 – ) reminds us that for enslaved African Americans who could not legally marry and “marriage, of course, you know in those days, was just a matter of jumping a broom.”[1] When African Americans were able to legally marry, the practice became less common, regaining popularity after the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1976.

Newlyweds c.1920s
Newlyweds, c.1920s

In the early twentieth century, Irma Josephine Barber (1904 – 2004), a seamstress and former employee of the Department of Forestry, recalled her small wedding: Well in those days, Wednesday was the important day. And I was married on a Wednesday, September the 22nd, 1925. And we had 9:00 Mass. After the marriage, we came over to our home, to my mother’s home, and we had breakfast. And then after the breakfast in the afternoon, we had a little reception. And that was it. No honeymoon… My husband worked on the railroad.”[2]

Newlyweds 1943
Newlyweds, 1943

Also, during World War II, eloping was common as this saved on the time and costs of a wedding. Ada Anderson (1921 – ), the first African American elected to the board of the Austin Community College District, eloped in 1943 with her husband Marcellus J. “Andy” Anderson, who was with the New Jersey U.S. Army Medical Corps. She explained: “I’m one of the few… women that I know who never wanted a wedding, absolutely did not want a formal wedding. We went to the courthouse…it was on a Saturday and they closed at noon so we had to run to get there… we didn’t even have a ring. It was so silly, it was the most fun… I never told my parents how crazy it was as they would have not been happy.”[3] During this time, traditional wedding materials could be hard to come by. Ask Prudence Burrell (1916 – 2012), a first lieutenant of the United States Army Nursing Corps who described her wedding ring, which accompanied her dress made from parachute fabric: “[It] cost fifty cents and it’s pure gold with Philippines written on it… Fifty cents, pure gold. You ought to see it and you’ll see that it’s still just like it just came out. Well, that was during the war where the people were just getting rid of whatever they could.[4] Milwaukee-based teacher Irma Daniels (1949- ) recalled the frugality her family exhibited with their weddings: “My dad and mom were married December 3rd, and she took off her wedding dress and then gave it to my dad’s sister and she was married in it that same day… And my aunt made the dress for them so they tell that story. And then the other sister, my dad’s other sister got married like a week or two later in that same dress.[5]

The Honorable James O. Webb his wife Frankie Lowe c.1960
The Honorable James O. Webb & his wife Frankie Lowe, c.1960

Then there is the story of the former mayor of Glencoe, Illinois and CEO of Dental Network of America, James O. Webb (1931 – ), who was actually married in 1954 in the home of Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. in Atlanta, Georgia while on leave from the U.S. Army: “Typical me, I didn’t tell anybody about it. My parents didn’t know about it. And we called them the next day after we got married and told them… [but] I didn’t have anything with me. I just had my military clothes. Fortunately, George Key, my, good roommate… we were about the same size, so I wore George’s suit, his shoes, his socks. I had my own underwear. I had no money, so George bought the ring and put it on his account because he had gotten married earlier. And so he had an account at his jewelry store when he bought his wife’s ring. And I had not even seen the ring until George showed up, as he was my best man… we got married in Reverend King’s study… and Reverend King presided.”[6]

Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.s home Atlanta Georgia
Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr.’s home Atlanta, Georgia
Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr.

For corporate lawyer Michele Coleman Mayes (1949 – ), her wedding day was lumped in with her graduation day in 1974: “He ended up then graduating from the University of Alabama at the same time that I graduated from law school [University of Michigan Law School]. We decided to get married on the same day that I graduated from law school… I didn’t want any ceremony, quite frankly, but it was in my mom’s house, my mom’s small little house. And I invited all my friends from Michigan–white, black, green–it didn’t matter. And they all converged on my mom’s little house… And it worked.[7]

Valerie Richardson Jackson’s (1949 – ) marriage to former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson in 1977 was a small, very private affair: “Maynard was running for re-election and he didn’t want politics to become any part of our relationship. So we basically kept our relationship very discreet… nobody expected it and it was only planned a few months ahead of the date. We got married in Richmond, Virginia, at my brother’s home. Once again, only the very immediate family, siblings, and a few cousins, uncles …were in attendance.”[8]

Valerie Richardson Maynard Jackson Atlanta Georgia 1976
Valerie Richardson & Maynard Jackson, Atlanta, Georgia, 1976

For public health consultant Dr. Arese Carrington (1958- ), who married former U.S. ambassador to Senegal and Nigeria Walter Carrington, the ceremony was not as important as the long view of what will sustain a long marriage: “My mother would always say that marriage is not a sprint, you know; it’s like a marathon… and I came up with this acronym of the importance of the different things you have to bear in mind–the foundation of a marriage–and I call it CUTLER, C-U-T-L-E-R; and the first thing my mother used to say is communication–you need to communicate with your spouse, and I found that’s very important. And then U is for unity. You need to be united, so it’s like when you marry, you become one; and marriage is that union… And then T is for trust. You have to trust somebody who you decide to marry and who you may have kids with, and who sometimes your life depends on that person; so that’s very important. And then you have L, which is for love. Love is the most important weapon there is. Love knows no boundaries, love conquers everything. And then the E is for endurance. Like my mother has always said: it’s not a sprint; when you go in there, you should go in there for the long haul… you have the R, which is respect. You have to respect each other; don’t talk down on each other. So, that’s my acronym, so I always go through it—CUTLER.[9]

The wedding day of Dr. Arese Carrington’s parents Dora Obaseki Elisha Noyoze Ukponmwan London England December 31 1952
The wedding day of Dr. Arese Carrington’s parents, Dora Obaseki & Elisha Noyoze Ukponmwan London, England, December 31, 1952

Then there are those who feel compelled to back out of their wedding plans like artist and art consultant Madeline Murphy Rabb (1945 – ), who explained: “I was introduced to this young man who was a medical student at Hopkins… and there were things about him that I was beginning to see… And I said I’m not doing it. I am not doing it. And so I told my parents and my mother was like, are you crazy? What is the matter with you? Are you sure? I said, I’m not going to marry him… And my father who was the tightest man in the world and who’d spent a small fortune on this wedding said, if that’s the way you feel, fine. And we donated all the food to one of the girls’ reform schools and the flowers we sent elsewhere… my grandmother was upset. ‘Well you could marry him and then you could get a divorce later.’[10] Her father, Judge William H. Murphy, Sr. (1917 – 2003), also told his side: “Madeline was engaged to be married to this young black Hopkins Medical School graduate. Brilliant fellow. And, we planned a big wedding, you know. And then the night before the wedding, she came into the living room and told us she didn’t want to get married… I had obligated myself for about $3500, which was, you know, a lot of money. And, I said, ‘Madeline, don’t give it another thought. Don’t worry about the money. Don’t worry about nothing. If you don’t want to get married, don’t get married.’ So we called it off. And the Afro [American Newspaper] had a headline in it, ‘Bride says No.’ Or something like that.“[11]

wedding cancelledMadeline did indeed find the love of her life when she met and married ophthalmologist Dr. Maurice F. Rabb in 1966. They were married for 39 years until his death in 2005.

Madeline Murphy Rabb Dr. Maurice F. Rabb with their sons Maurice L Christopher R
Madeline Murphy Rabb & Dr. Maurice F. Rabb with their sons, Maurice (L) & Christopher (R)

So, the reality is that love champions all. Despite obstacles, may this wedding season, like those of the past, bring about new loving and lasting unions.

[1] Lawrence Carter (The HistoryMakers A2010.080), interviewed by Denise Gines, July 15, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, Lawrence Carter describes his mother’s family background, pt. 2.

[2] Irma Josephine Barber (The HistoryMakers A2003.051), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 18, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Irma Josephine Barber recalls her marriage and talks about her husband’s work as Fred Harvey waiter.

[3]Ada Anderson (The HistoryMakers A2010.011), interviewed by Denise Gines, May 14, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 5, story 8, Ada Anderson remembers her wedding.

[4] Prudence Burrell (The HistoryMakers A2007.077), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 7, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 5, Prudence Burrell describes her wedding dress.

[5] Irma Daniels (The HistoryMakers A2007.329), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 26, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Irma Daniels describes how her parents met.

[6] James O. Webb (The HistoryMakers A2007.061), interviewed by Sasha Daltonn, February 12, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 8, James O. Webb describes his wedding.

[7]Michele Coleman Mayes (The HistoryMakers A2008.126), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, November 6, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Michele Coleman Mayes remembers her wedding ceremony.

[8] Valerie Richardson Jackson (The HistoryMakers A2005.148), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 16, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 5, story 2, Valerie Richardson Jackson recalls her wedding to Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

[9]Dr. Arese Carrington (The HistoryMakers A2016.075), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 20, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 11, Dr. Arese Carrington describes the qualities of a successful marriage.

[10]Madeline Murphy Rabb (The HistoryMakers A2003.248), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 7, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 8, Madeline Murphy Rabb talks about canceling her wedding.

[11] The Honorable William H. Murphy, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2001.052), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, February 23, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 5, William Murphy shares humorous anecdotes about his wife and children.

Favorite Quote

Clayton W. Bates Jr.I Believe That There Are Greater Things in Life Than Life Itself. I Believe in Climbing Upward Even When the Spent and Broken Thing Called My Body Calls Halt.”

Clayton W. Bates, Jr.

Electrical Engineer and physicist

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