Gertrude’s suffrage scrapbook included a picture of Susan B. Anthony, a picture of Anna Howard Shaw, and an article about the second inauguration of Grover Cleveland in 1893, along with many other materials of interest to her.
Bill and I just returned from beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia, where we participated in the Virginia Festival of the Book. From the time we took our two children there to see Jefferson’s home at Monticello and visit the rotunda on the lawn of the university campus, we have always loved that “village.” Both our children, Kristin and Billy, ended up attending college at UVA. Billy decided last year that he wanted to raise his 5 boys there. Yes, five boys. So when we visited the festival we also got to visit with Billy, his wife Kelly, and the fabulous 5!
Bill and I both spoke on panels – Bill on the meaning of football in our culture and his book Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle and me on my panel about women of the Civil War and my book Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas. Both panels went very well and we enjoyed visiting with other writers and discussing their books as well. But we must say the highlight of the festival was visiting Monticello High School where our two oldest grandsons, Alex and Elliot, are students. We spoke in their beautiful auditorium. Students and faculty were very attentive and asked thoughtful questions. Alex and Elliot sat on the stage with us and Alex introduced us. Who would ever have guessed that when we took our children to visit Charlottesville and the university Thomas Jefferson founded, we would go back years later and be introduced by our grandsons at their school situated near Jefferson’s home Monticello. That visit years ago was life changing and has led us to this moment. This weekend was truly a blessing for us and one that we will never forget.
Bill and I had a wonderful visit to the University of Georgia on March 11. There are so many jokes about UGA and Ga Tech that I felt I had to clear the air. Even though Bill went to Georgia Tech I assured them that some of our family went to UGA. His father went there and graduated as did his sister Deborah. She was an English major who did very well being elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She liked it so well that she has never left the Athens area. She has represented the family well in that part of the world.
In all seriousness, the new Richard Russell library is beautiful and I was greeted royally. Chantel Dunham did a great job planning the event. The librarian and Associate Provost Toby Graham gave me a glowing introduction. I even said I would like for him to introduce me everywhere I go in the future. I truly appreciate the welcome they gave me. Ga Tech and UGA have blended very well in the Curry family!!
I did not know until I published this book that February and March are such big book festival months. They are held all over the country and the ones I have attended have been full of folks who like to read books. I have attended South Carolina, Tennessee, Panama City, Amelia Island and others. I am off to the Virginia Book Festival tomorrow. They have all been fun and, by and large, very well planned. Putting on any kind of event of this magnitude takes a lot of work. For the record, I would just like to say thank you to all the volunteers who give of their time to keep books alive and healthy. You are doing something very important!
I am writing from Louisville, Kentucky where I have spoken to the wives of football coaches from all over America. I was here to inspire them – hopefully- and also tell them about my book entitled Suffer and Grow Strong. Being a coaches’ wife is not easy. I speak from experience because my husband was involved in football in one way or another for 58 years. Since we grew up together, I saw him play in high school, college and 10 years in the NFL. Then he coached for 27 years and broadcast football on ESPN for 11 years. Any way you look at it that is a lot of football. Coaches’ wives spend a lot of time alone running households and raising kids while the coaches follow their dream. My message to the wives was to find that thing they loved to do that is separate. It is so easy to get caught up in what their husbands do and lose track of their dreams. That is what I did when I went back to school and got my MA and PHD. Of course, it was that work that led me to the study of strong women like Gertrude Thomas. I told them about Gertrude and all that she suffered hoping she would be an encouragement to them. Many said they were excited to read the book and were inspired by what I said.
An amusing thing happened to me soon after the book appeared that brought up the football connection. I was on the treadmill exercising one day when a woman said she had heard I had written a book called Suffer and Grow Strong. I told her that indeed I had and that it was about a woman who suffered through the Civil War and had kept a diary for 41 years. She looked at me with surprise and said, “With that title I thought it was about being a coach’s wife.” I laughed but thought about it later. That would be a good title of a book about coaches’ wives because they do suffer a lot and, hopefully, grow stronger. If they do not, they will not survive. I always remember what Eleanor Roosevelt said about being married to a politician, “You have to have the skin of a rhinoceros.” With all the public scrutiny, that is good advice for coaches’ wives, too.
This is the first blog that I have done since August. I feel that I am not the best blogger but, nonetheless, I will pick up where I left off and try to explain. I had no idea I would make so many appearances for this book. At last count I had made something like 55 appearances since March 13 when the book came out in Macon. They have kept me on the go. Combined with the non-profit Women Alone Together that I direct and various family obligations, I find very little extra time to write anything. However, I would like to change that in the New Year and will start now!
One of the most gratifying things I have experienced is the way people react to Gertrude’s story. Women especially connect with what she experienced and over and over they say, “I love the title – Suffer and Grow Strong.” I was concerned when I chose that title that readers might not understand and think I was writing a self-help book and not a biography. But in a strange way, it has become a book that seems to help those who read it and take it to heart. One woman said, “I think I have it hard but, if I had been Gertrude I would have curled up in a fetal position.” The fact that Gertrude came back from one horrific difficulty after another does show others that it is possible.
I have always been one that looks for role models. I study how people cope and respond to hard times in their lives. I have seen a number of women that I have met in connection with Women Alone Together who have inspired me as well. We really do have two choices in life. We can either get up and go on or quit. Gertrude did not quit and neither can we.
I must write about my visit last week to the Susan B. Anthony House Museum in Rochester, New York and my subsequent visit to Chautauqua Institute in Chautauqua, New York. What a wonderful experience I had at both places.
I was invited to speak at a luncheon last Monday at the SBA House by my friend Bernie Smith, who is on the Board there and also went to my alma mater Agnes Scott College. They are doing a wonderful job caring for the house Anthony lived in during her life, rounding up authentic furniture and artifacts, as well as, giving guided tours led my informed and friendly docents. There is a beautiful statue in a close by park of Anthony and Frederick Douglas having tea together. People – especially children - love to have their picture made standing with the replicas of the two famous people. The bronze statue is life size and really quite impressive. I learned many things there that I did not know before and would recommend it to anyone.
At the end of the week my husband Bill and I drove over to Chautauqua, New York, to visit the famous Institute there. It is now one hundred thirty years old and still going strong. It was started by Methodists and wealthy philanthropists who wanted to create a place for lifelong learning in a beautiful setting on Lake Chautauqua. Wonderful speakers are brought for morning and afternoon sessions with concerts in the evening. Each morning we selected to start our day with M. Craig Barnes from Princeton Theological Seminary who gave thoughtful, sometimes humorous, spiritual messages. We then heard Ken Burns who has produced so many masterful films recording our history in such magnificent ways with period photos and music. One of the afternoon speakers was E. L. Doctorow discussing his new book. I cannot mention everything but one can certainly appreciate the variety and excellence of their programs from the ones I have highlighted. I am discussing going back next year and presenting on Gertrude Thomas. It was a great way to spend a week and I would definitely recommend that as well.
Courage is a central theme in this book. It is implied in the title. Gertrude went through so many difficulties in her life but, over and over, she was able to survive and even thrive in the end. There is one story that illustrates this very well.
It happened in 1868 during the tumultuous time of Reconstruction as the first presidential election after the war approached. Rumors were circulating everywhere about violence and unrest instigated by the former slaves on their old masters. A young 14-year-old slave named Ned told Gertrude what he had been hearing. The freedmen were not afraid of the white folks like they used to be. He said some of the ex-slaves had met at the church and they were going to march into town burning all the houses along the way. Gertrude reported that she listened very patiently and for some unexplained reason felt very calm. She said they had always trusted the slaves when they lived among them. Why should they not trust them now? Some of the ex-slaves still employed in her home also got fearful and Gertrude found herself trying to calm them down. One Bob then commented, “Why Miss Trudy would be a good soldier herself.” To this remake, Gertrude responded that she did not know if she would make a good soldier but she did know for sure that she was not a coward.
This comment is very telling in light of the fact Jeff had bought a substitute during the War. She had always been somewhat ashamed that he was not on active duty for more years of the war. In fact, he had only served for less than one year in a war that went on for three more years. Gertrude mentioned several times how she could not get excited about the local militia he had joined. She never came out and said in the diary that she thought he was a coward. But this empathic statement saying she knew she was not a coward said more about how she felt about Jeff than it says about her. The rest of her life she found courage to stand up for controversial causes such as the vote for women. She repeatedly proved beyond a doubt that she was not a coward.
Years ago when I first got excited about Gertrude’s journal and was writing my dissertation my children used to say Gertrude “lives at our house.” I would laugh and say maybe she does. But as time passed we got to where we did not talk about her as much. Of course, with the book now that has all changed.
To make Gertrude even more present in my life, my husband Bill and two business associates – Pete Wellborn and Jeff Battcher - surprised me a few months ago with a wonderful gift. Hearing me talk about this fascinating woman, our friend Pete Wellborn decided to do an internet search for a possible portrait. To his amazement, he found one on sale and persuaded Jeff and my husband Bill to go in with him and split the cost. They were very secretive about it all and said they had a big surprise waiting at the office. I had to drive down to his office at Colony Square in Atlanta to discover it. When I opened the door there was an original portrait of Gertrude. I was delighted.
There were only two portraits painted of Gertrude that we know of today. One was painted the week she married when she was 18 years old and is still a treasured possession of Michael Despeaux, Gertrude’s great-great-grandson in Easley, South Carolina. He graciously allowed it to be photographed for this book and is the lovely cover. The one in my possession was painted very late in her life in 1899 when she was 65 years of age only eight years before her death. Fortunately, that was the year she was elected president of the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association. Even though there was almost 50 years between the two portraits, both reveal an attractive woman with piercing, brown eyes depicting strength and determination.
We learned that the portrait was painted by a female artist that I had never heard of before now. Her name was Elizabeth Sherwood (“Lizzie”) Jeter. She was well-known at the turn of the century in Atlanta for her portraits and her exhibitions on Whitehall Street. There were not that many female artists and they had a harder time getting recognition. To learn about Jeter made the portrait even more interesting.
We immediately started looking for the right studio to restore the painting and the original frame. We decided to use Avery Gallery in Marietta that had done work on the Cyclorama and other antique paintings with great success. We were delighted with the splendid, rich colors in the portrait and the original frame that even had some gold leaf. It took several months but the results were worth the wait. They did a wonderful job of restoration. I took it with me to Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, when she was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement Hall of Fame on March 13th, 2014. I also took it back out to Avery Gallery for a signing event on June 6th, 2014.
The portrait has a permanent place of honor in the entry hall of my home in Atlanta. Gertrude would feel at home in this city where she spent some of the happiest years of her life. It makes us feel good that we have re-introduced Gertrude to Atlanta and that she again “lives at our house.”
Historians usually write about their subjects using their last name. But I decided early not to do this. In Gertrude’s case we would always be calling her "Thomas" which was her husband’s last time. I always dislike this for women. Also, I started writing about Gertrude when she was 14 years old. It certainly did not make any sense to call her Thomas at that point. Then there is the issue of her first name being Ella. But the only time I ever saw her referred to as Ella was her commencement program from Wesleyan where she was "Ella G. Clanton." I decided to call her Gertrude for three reasons. First, when she occasionally signed her newspaper articles with anything other than Mrs. J. Jefferson Thomas, she signed simply Gertrude Thomas. Second, when she was named in lawsuits, she was listed as Gertrude Thomas. Finally, Gertrude is the name that has been handed down in the family in her memory. My good friend, Gertrude Thelkeld Despeaux, who was so helpful to me in the early years telling me stories of her great-grandmother, is a perfect example. Thus, I am very comfortable going somewhat against historical practice by calling her Gertrude. Finally, I have just gotten to know her so well that I almost see her as I would a friend. I would never call a friend by anything other than their first name. I would never call them their husband’s last time. It is far too formal. I want the recognition to go to Gertrude and her story alone.
Historically, women have been told to remain silent and be submissive. In the 19th and 20th century, women in America have tried to find their voices and be heard. If they were successful, they were criticized and called “strong-minded” which was not meant as a compliment. The central theme of Gertrude’s story is her finding her voice first in her writing and then in public speaking. She was finally able to articulate what she believed and share it with anyone who would listen.
Almost all women go through a similar experience in one way or another. There is a wonderful story my mother has passed down in our family. Mother was an active, intelligent young girl named Frances with a Buster Brown haircut growing up in depression-era Georgia. She was very much like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her story was about her mother, called Mama Carrie, her father, called Daddy Bill, and his sister, Aunt Estelle, who was a teacher at mother’s school. Young Frances was very proud that Mama Carrie was grade-mother of her class and had planned a special project to surprise her teacher Mrs. Rowe. Each child in the class was to piece a quilt square and Mama Carrie was going to collect them, put the quilt together, and present it in a special ceremony at the school.
One day Frances was astonished to see Aunt Estelle up on the stage presenting Mrs. Rowe with the quilt. Unbeknownst to her, Aunt Estelle had collected the squares and made the quilt thus usurping the privilege from Mama Carrie. Frances was furious. That afternoon when she got off the school bus, she walked directly to Aunt Estelle’s house which was just down the road. She walked in the door and did not hesitate. She told Aunt Estelle exactly what she thought. “That was wrong what you did today. I know what you did. My mama was supposed to put the quilt together and present it. That was wrong.” She then immediately turned and walked out the door.
That evening Aunt Estelle and her husband Loy came walking up the road to see Daddy Bill. Aunt Estelle told Daddy Bill that Frances had been sassy and disrespectful to her that afternoon and should be punished. Naturally, when Aunt Estelle left Frances was very anxious and did not know what Daddy Bill was going to do. After they left, Daddy Bill started laughing. He leaned over with a smile on his face and said, “You’ve got a little vinegar in you.” He understood what she had done and why. He didn’t punish her.
Today my mother Frances is 93 years old and you never have to wonder what she believes about anything. She says you have got to say what you think – you have got to have a little vinegar in you.
Very often people tell me that Gertrude is a real life Scarlett O’Hara. Once you hear Gertrude’s life story you cannot help but think of the fictional Scarlett. They both had grit and determination or what we call in the South “gumption.”
Gumption is one of those words that is difficult to define. There is no known origin of the word but is loosely defined in dictionaries as initiative, courage, energy of mind and body or more colloquially guts or spunk. It seems to be more often thought of with women. That is probably because Margaret Mitchell talked about it in a 1936 interview about her movie Gone With the Wind. She was asked what was the theme of the movie. She responded that if the movie had a theme, it was survival. She was interested in why some people survive catastrophes and others do not. Thus, she said she was writing about people with “gumption.” It is a kind of toughness and survival instinct. Yes, that ability is hard to define in a word or two, but you know it when you see it. There is no doubt Gertrude and Scarlett both had that trait that we clearly understand in the South as “gumption.”
One of the nicest things that has come out of the publication of this book is the reaction of family and friends. There have been so many comments and words of encouragement that I will never forget. The ability to celebrate with someone else’s long sought dream is a real gift to me. I am truly blessed.
But beyond the words are the actions. People joining what I have started calling “The Celebration Team.” In the beginning I had a great experience with Mercer University Press. I only sent my dissertation to one press which could have been a mistake. But they agreed to publish, gave me guidelines for revision after all these years and were always there to answer questions. Marc Jolley, Marsha Luttrell and Mary Beth Kosowski have answered my calls and emails with knowledge and good cheer. Our dear friend Pete Wellborn has done so much with his computer expertise that I will never be able to say thank you adequately. The website design was all his and I could not be happier. Pete introduced us to Jeff Battcher who has so much PR experience with BellSouth and Delta to mention a few. Mercer recommended that I contact Kathie Bennett to be my publicist and advocate. She has proven to be a real dynamo. I have yet to know all the things she will come up with but so far she has been great. Then there are the friends who want me to come to their book groups or their Sunday School Classes. My good friend Betty Mori, who took me to Wesleyan to speak in 2011 and got this book idea going again, immediately offered to give a party in Atlanta. Tom and Sue Wilmes are giving a party in Lexington, Kentucky. Our extraordinary friend Dian Winingder jumped at a chance to give two parties – one in New Orleans and one in Highlands, North Carolina. As Dian stated it, we are going from the Lowlands to the Highlands to reintroduce Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas to society. All I can say to everyone is “Thank you for sharing this adventure with me. Let’s all enjoy it.”
If there is something you have always wanted to do and haven’t done it, this book is proof that it is never too late. I first discovered the diary of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas at the Perkins Library at Duke University in the early 1980’s. I was immediately intrigued by the sheer length of the diary. How could someone keep a record of their life off and on for 41 years filling 13 volumes with almost 450,000 words? I researched her life for my doctoral dissertation which I published in 1987. As soon as I reached that milestone, my busy life took over. I was encouraged to publish her fascinating story, but I began following my husband from state to state in his life as college football coach. Of course, I was raising two children, doing volunteer work, and giving luncheons in my role as coach’s wife. I would give speeches about her, occasionally write any article, or teach a course, but I could never bring myself to write the book. I was advised by an historian who knew what it would take in time and energy to “put it on the back burner and when the time is right, you will come back to it.” That satisfied me for a few years, and then I really began to be bothered by the fact I had not written this book.
Virginia Woolf said for a woman to be a writer she needs to have a room of her own. I would add that a woman must open the door to that room, go in and begin it. That is the hardest part. As the Nike mantra goes, “Just do it.” You will be so glad you did. It does not matter how old you are. In fact, you might do it better now that you have had more life experience and are not afraid to do what you want to do.
When I was teaching at the University of Kentucky, a wonderful woman in her late 70’s named Betty Morgan audited two of my classes. When I ran into her one day at a movie, I asked her if she would be taking my class that fall. She said, “No, I am going to take a freighter around the world. I want to re-visit islands in the South Pacific where I was a nurse during WWII. I have to do it this year because they will not let me go by myself after the age of 80. I must go alone because I want to write a book of poetry about my experiences.” Betty did visit my class at the end of the semester to tell my traditional college age women about her trip. They listened to this courageous woman in astonishment. I still have a copy of her book of poetry she presented to me about her trip. It was never too late for Betty Morgan.
The same can be said about the heroine of my book, Gertrude Thomas. She loved to read and write and from a very early age wanted to do something of significance with her life. In her early years she lived a charmed life with all the time in the world to write, read, and explore. But the Civil War came, and her life changed forever. Her family lost everything. She went through bankruptcy, loved-ones dying, and horrific family strife, but, through it all, she kept trying to figure out what would give her life meaning. She felt like she never had lived up to her own “idea of excellence.” At 50, she thought her life was over and wondered if she would live much longer. But when she moved to the bustling, young city of Atlanta in 1893, she got involved in the embryonic suffrage movement. She found that which she had always been looking for and got great satisfaction from her work for women and the vote. At the age of 65, she reached the pinnacle of her public career when she was elected president of the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association in 1899. She even found the courage to speak and say that not only should women get the vote, they should be equal to men. That was an extraordinary statement for any woman, especially a 65–year–old woman who had been born in the protected, antebellum South.
The philosopher Goethe said, and I paraphrase, “Anything you can do or dream, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” That would be my advice to anyone who thinks life has passed them by – it is never too late to follow your passion. Just begin it, and you will be glad. As I said at the beginning of this article, if I can publish this book after 30 years at the age of 71, anything is possible. It is never too late.