Black History Month offers an opportunity to connect

Black History Month offers an opportunity to connect

By Louise Lindgren

In 1918, baby Maydrew Weliza Stewart nestled contentedly in her mother’s arms, totally unaware of the turbulence that would soon visit her young life. Nor could she have known that her grandfather, William P. Stewart, someday would be honored by the State of Washington — a portion of Highway 99 was named for him last year. Nearly a hundred years later, both Maydrew’s daughter Marilyn Quincy and her cousin Marian Harrison would tell stories of the past that are now recorded in county and state history.

Maydrew’s mother, Eva, died in December 1919, leaving the small daughter with her father, Vay, who had married relatively late in life at age 43. Although he tried, eventually he was not able to care for both her and his mother, who lived with them, so at age 12 Maydrew was sent to the home of Eva’s cousin Glenna Norwood, who lived on a dairy farm in Arlington.

Glenna already had seen what hard work could accomplish in spite of a poor background. She was a college graduate from Normal, Illinois, who had a degree in home economics, and she passed along valuable lessons of self-reliance to her own children and to Maydrew. One inspiration may have been her own widowed mother-in-law, Louisa Norwood Donaldson, a former slave from South Carolina who made her way to Everett and managed to own a grocery store near the Snohomish River bridge. Not only was she a successful business woman, but in 1901 she helped found Everett’s Second Baptist Church, which continues with a vibrant congregation today.

In addition to her role as adoptive mother to Maydrew, Glenna Norwood had two sons and a young daughter, Marian. The girls were separated in age by 13 years, so Marian undoubtedly was in awe of her “big sister” when Maydrew became the first black graduate of Arlington High School. The family survived the Great Depression of the 1930s without great hardship because they could raise their own food on the 62-acre farm. Marian remembers that she never felt “poor” during those years in spite of having little money.

Maydrew soon married George Davis and began her own family. That helped her adjust after feeling like an orphan, not quite fitting in, for so long. Her daughter, Marilyn, was born in 1944 and grew up learning bits and pieces of her family history but nothing of her great-grandfather’s Civil War experience.

Marilyn and Marian were deeply affected by the fact that Glenna, after the death of two more sons, decided to sell the farm, move to Seattle and attend Broadway Technical School. There she became a licensed practical nurse and worked at the Veterans Hospital until retirement.

Perhaps the examples set by those strong women, Louisa Donaldson, Glenna Norwood, and Maydrew Stewart, helped inspire Marilyn and Marian to search out their family histories when Snohomish County created its first Nubian Jam celebration to honor black heritage in 1993. In 2001 there was even more effort as they continued their research with the Snohomish County Black Heritage Committee for over six months. Volunteers dug through timeworn records from courthouses, libraries and family archives to bring forth stories long buried for an exhibit for Black Heritage Month at the county courthouse.

One of those stories was of Marilyn’s great grandfather, William P. Stewart, born in 1839. As free blacks he and his family left Virginia and migrated north to Wisconsin because the burdens imposed on former slaves were onerous. An example from their memorabilia is a wedding license that cost $150 in 1833. That would be the equivalent of charging $4,034 today. Imagine the outrage if that were imposed today.

William P. Stewart served honorably on the side of Union troops in Company F, 29th Regiment, U.S. Colored. Any black man who fought on the side of the North ran a real risk of enslavement if they were taken prisoner, so his courage was immense. After the war he married Eliza F. Thornton and traveled west to begin farming and raise their son, Vay. They settled a mile east of Snohomish, and William became a member of the Grand Army of the Republic fraternal organization. When he died in 1907 of ongoing illness attributed to his war service, he was buried at the G.A.R. cemetery.

Stewart could not have imagined that the State of Washington would see fit to name 49 miles of Highway 99 in his honor on May 17, 2016. Nor could baby Maydrew or her mother have realized how deeply coming generations would be affected by his Union Army service and the tragic early demise of his daughter-in-law, Eva. Thanks to Marilyn, Marian and all who undertake the search for family history, for it often reveals truths that we need to learn and forges connections among generations and with our broader community.

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