Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Sisters Speak

One indulgent pleasure of being a genea-journalist is occasionally hearing from one's readers that they enjoyed a particular piece. It's even better when the subjects of one's writing respond positively. (This is indeed a rare treat for genea-writers, since most of the folks we write about are . . . , well, you know . . .gone).

Anyway, after Three Sisters was published in the Carnival of Genealogy, I heard from Bernadine Coles Gines and through her, her sister, Ruth Coles Harris. Ruth wrote, "WE LOVED THE ARTICLE!" She also had some corrections. She retired as chairman of the Accounting Department at Virginia State University, not the Business Department. And concerning her academic achievements, Ruth says, "I doubt very seriously that I graduated first in my NYU class." She was, however, first in her class at VSU, where her degree was in business administration. She also said, "I don't know how important this is, but to be factual I passed the exam in November 1962 but wasn't certified until April 1963. So [one may] either say I became the first black woman to pass the exam in 1962 or the first black woman to become certified in 1963."

Bernadine also had some corrections. About the story that their grandfather gave them a typewriter "when Bernadine and Ruth were about ten and five years old, respectively," she points out that there is just a two yearage difference between them, so Ruth would have been eught years old. Concerning the statement that "In a 2003 interview with her journalism major granddaughter, Bernadine that from the time she was in the fifth grade, she knew she was going to college," Bernadine says that it should have said, "I knew when I was 5 years old that I was going to college even though I didn't know what college was." The discrepancy was the result of a transcription error in the original source.

By the way, there is an oral history interview with the sisters' mother, Ruth Wyatt Coles, at this link: http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/afam/raceandplace/orals/rcoles.html . Unfortunately, there may be a defect in the recording, because I've been unable to hear it above a whisper and there's a lot of background noise. Nonetheless, a synopsis of the interview reads:

Ruth Coles was born around 1900 and although her family did not live on Vinegar Hill, her father was a barber in that section of Charlottesville. She remembers how important family was for them. Also, she recalls that neighborhoods were close and discusses how she, her family, and their neighbors enjoyed attending houseparties in the neighborhood, playing croquet, and maintaining a flowergarden. Coles says that she did not consider issues of class to divide the black community much, remarking on how poorer citizens, for example, shopped at the second hand store on Vinegar Hill and therefore could always dress well and "in style". After completing high school at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute in Petersburg in 1929 (currently Virginia State University), Coles returned to Albemarle County to teach school for thirty years, eighteen of which were spent teaching in Charlottesville. Much later on in life, she and her daughter were the first parent-child pairing to graduate from Virginia State University together.

Try the oral history link and see if you you have better luck than I did. The site is part of a collaborative project of the Virginia Center for Digital History and the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African and African-American Studies.

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