She was born on this day, September 30, 1895, the daughter of Paul Coley and Lillie Clark Coley. They named her Puella Coley. Her father Paul, was a doctor in Hawkinsville, Georgia. Her mother Lillie, a homemaker, was educated at Spelman Seminary for Girls in Atlanta, Georgia, as were her sisters.
Paul Coley was the mulatto son of the southern plantation owner named Coley, to whom Lillie’s Father, Dempsey Clark, had sworn from the slave auction block he would never slave on his plantation. Clark had heard that Coley was extremely harsh to those he held in bondage.
He never did. Instead, he ran away with his brother Bristow. They hid in the swamp for three years until Coley sold them to another planter.
Paul was educated in his master’s house along with his white sisters.
Her grandfather,Dempsey Clark, amassed over 400 acres of land and in the late 1880s he was considered one of the wealthiest Black men in Georgia. He sent his girls to Atlanta to attend Spelman, while his sons helped him to manage his cattle and real estate holdings.
Puella would attend Spelman too, during the early years of the 20th century, but withdrew after a few years when her father died. Her mother had preceded her father in death.
Orphaned, she and her sister Georgia Mae Coley moved in with their uncle, John Brown and his wife. Her uncle’s family had been owned by the plantation owner who bought the Clark brothers from the Coley Plantation.
The sisters had a difficult time dealing with the loss of their parents. Up to that point they had lived a very good life, not a lavish life, but a good life.
By this time in her life, 100 years ago, Puella was trying to find her way in the world. Her sister struck out first. She met a young man to the west of Hawkinsville, in Roberta, Georgia, with promises of becoming a leading businessman in the impending “roaring twenties.”
Puella traveled to Roberta to visit with her sister and husband. While there she met Charlie Harvey, whom she always referred to as Charles. It probably had something to do with her Spelman education.
Charlie, (or Charles, out of respect to granny) worked for the railroad. It was hard, honest work. He had a fifth grade education, which was as far as the school for coloreds in Crawford County, Georgia went during that time. His parents were deceased, and as the oldest male in the family, Charles had to work to provide for his sisters and brothers. He shouldered most of the support for his siblings until his eldest sister Dollie Harvey married Rev. Francis Dixon, a Colored Methodist Episcopal Church pastor. Whereupon my great aunt Dollie took over the responsibility for her siblings. After Charles and Puella married, Dollie converted Puella from a Primitive Baptist to a Colored Methodist.
Charles and Puella married in 1928. The next year the stock market crashed, the economy tightened. It did not take very long for the effect of the market crash to affect life in rural Middle Georgia. Charles was laid off from his railroad job. By now, Charles and Puella had two children and more on the way. It was difficult to feed them on the odd jobs that he came by, so he counted the money Puella had saved from his wages and found a piece of land that could be whipped into shape for farming.
“If I could just get me a piece of land,” he told Puella, “I could at least feed my family.”
For 30 years, he did just that, raised his family on income from cotton, corn, field peas, cattle and hogs. He retired at age 55, living another 35 years before closing his eyes.
Meanwhile, Puella educated their sons and daughters in history, politics, and spirituality. When her children were adults and had children of their own, Puella started educating them.
She would take the current events of the day and make sure they knew the historical context in which to place them. Perhaps, this explains why much of my writing has a distinct historical backdrop. It is the prism through which I learned under my grandmother’s tutelage.
If she was witness to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this past week, she would probably say that it pales in comparison to the “Teapot Dome Scandal.”
In fact, one of her favorite words to describe less than worthy behavior was “scandalous.” In her day, the word scandalous meant something and no one wanted to be labeled scandalous or associated with a scandal in any form or fashion. It had a way of jerking you into an upright manner of behavior. If a person had been accused of being a sloppy drunk, you would not expect that person to proudly proclaim to the world: “I like beer. I drank beer in high school and I still drink beer.”
I learned so much from this grand lady of the South that it made history, civics, political science and law courses easy and a joy to sit through.
She left us at 95 years of age. Before she did, she made me pledge that I would love her even in my so called “death state.” She pledged to do the same for me. I know that she has kept her end of the bargain because I feel her love and presence as I run my fingers across the keyboard.
Today, Puella Coley Harvey would be 123 years old. Long live her legacy of love and commitment to family, history and education.
Needless to say, Granny, I love you.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine, Medium and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org