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Digging Into My Family’s Racist History Turned Up Truths America Is Still Wrestling With

17 minute read
Newton is the author of Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation. She has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The New York Times Book Review, and Oxford American.

Growing up, I associated genealogy with the begats of the Bible, with an old family tree my father showed me, and with my father’s reverence for the Old South. He was an avowed white supremacist, a defender of slavery, and I aspired then to be as little like him and his branch of my family as possible. So I never expected to become interested in compiling my own family tree. When I did start researching my ancestors, only my mother’s side interested me: the Texan rabble-rousers, scoundrels, and misfits I’d grown up hearing about. Had my maternal grandmother’s father really been a communist in early twentieth-century Dallas? Had my mom’s father really married thirteen times? Had his father really killed a man with a hay hook? Slowly I confirmed these stories, at least partly. Granny’s father was a member of the Dallas County Local of Socialists. My mom’s father married at least ten times, to nine women. And his father, my great-grandfather, really did kill a man with a hay hook, though it was an accident outside a feed store one morning rather than the swashbuckling bourbon-soaked bar fight I’d imagined.

I got interested in researching my father’s family when I learned there were things they didn’t want me to know. My sleuthing began in a spirit of gleeful defiance shadowed by a grimly obstinate self-righteousness. I wanted to root out every secret, lie, and hypocrisy and parade their skeletons up and down the block, to refute my dad’s mythology about what he called “our blood,” his view of it as an honor and an obligation, his depiction of our predecessors as inherently good and correct, never to be questioned, only emulated. When I’d failed him by (among other things) not being as smart as I was expected to be, I’d also had the sense of failing to measure up against the yardstick of our forebears. I viewed my paternal clan as a club that might reject you even if you were born into it, and deep down I resolved to reject them first.

In my late twenties or early thirties, I started asking about Maude Newton, Granddaddy’s sister and Grandpa’s aunt. My dad had told me when I was a child that Maude trained as an architect and designed her own house, surprising accomplishments for a woman of her generation in the Mississippi Delta. He never referred to her merely as Maude but always as Maude Newton, the two names together, as though she was a person of distinction, a woman of note, a family counterpart to Amelia Earhart or Lucille Ball. I started publishing stories about my family on the internet in 2002, at the age of 30 and, on a whim, in an homage built on some combination of irony, perversity, projection, and a desire to shield the innocent, I decided to publish them as Maud Newton. (My given name is Rebecca.) Maud is a nickname now, one most of my friends call me, but I didn’t foresee actually answering to the name when I chose it as a pseudonym.

Around that time, my sister and I traveled to see our grandparents in Mississippi, as we did most years. I waited until the four of us were settled into the car for a drive home from dinner. Then I met Grandpa’s eyes in the rearview mirror and asked about Maude. Was she really an architect? Did she really design her own house?

“Well,” said Grandpa, his silver-white hair picking up the glow of the streetlights. He spoke slowly, in part because of his drawl but equally due to his deliberation. He was precise. “The thing they used to say about Maude was—”

“Oh, Richard.” Grandma’s hands fluttered to her handbag and then back into her lap. “They don’t want to hear that old story.” She flicked open the passenger mirror to check her lipstick. Her mouth was turned down; her dark eyes looked worried.

“Yes, we do,” I said.

“Yes,” said my sister, whose expression of interest in their family was a rarity, “we do.”

Grandpa hesitated, then went rogue. Great-Aunt Maude did indeed design her own house, he said. Not just that, but she sat in a lawn chair and called out corrections as it was being built.

“Just look at those magnolias—aren’t they beautiful?” Grandma’s voice had risen an octave.

No one looked at the magnolias. Instead, Grandpa told us that Maude had been married but didn’t like it and so “she threw pepper in her husband’s eyes until he stopped coming around.”

Grandma reached for Grandpa’s shoulder and jogged it a little. “I just can’t believe how the neighbors have let their hedges go!” she said.

Grandpa said we’d have to talk more about Maude “some other day.” We never did. When he died in the fall of 2008, I lost my only known source of information about Maude. My research into her and the rest of the Newtons intensified then. Grandpa’s first cousin, whom I tracked down through my research, was able to tell me that Maude had been a schoolteacher, but not much more.

Eventually I searched newspaper archives for her married name, Maude Simmons. When I did, I found treasure: a photo of Maude in 1977, at age ninety-two, sitting in a “King Midget” car. This vehicle, billed as “the World’s Most Affordable Car,” was assembled from a kit, although hers reached the Mississippi Delta in completed form. The picture accompanies a profile of Maude by James Dickerson for the Delta Democrat-Times.

According to this article, Maude was about seventy-nine years old when, nine years or so after she retired from the public school system, she saw a National Geographic ad seeking Midget Motor Corporation dealers. She responded, volunteering herself as the dealer for Sunflower County, Mississippi. The company was enthusiastic and sold her a car at the discounted rate of five hundred dollars.

Maude was eighty or so, according to Dickinson’s account, when the car was shipped down on a train from Ohio. Main Street was “filled with curiosity seekers” when it arrived. Despite her excitement, Maude had no idea how to use it. “It was my first car,” she said. “And I couldn’t drive an inch,” but she learned. She recounted her hesitancy over becoming a King Midget dealer. “My family didn’t want me to do it. I listened to them for about a year. Then I wrote the company anyway and told them to send me a car.” Everything about this story delighted me, apart from Maude’s disapproving Mississippi Delta family, though I related most to that.

Dickerson describes Maude’s house as filled with “stacks of books and magazines,” another commonality. She told him that she met her husband in Indiana, where she had a job in an architectural office. “‘I learned how to do house plans there,’” she explained. “‘In fact, I did the plans for this very house I’m living in right now.’”

She also remembered teaching in Southern Mississippi “when we had Halley’s Comet.” She said, “‘That was 1910, the year Mark Twain died. When the comet came over we all went outside to have a look.’” I’d gone through a phase of devouring Mark Twain’s nonfiction in the years before I read this, so I knew he was born shortly before the comet passed and that he’d died the day after its return. “It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet,” he’d said. “The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” Like most people, Maude, who was born in 1884, got to see the comet only once. She died in 1981, at the age of ninety-seven.

Finding this article, I allowed myself to hope that she really was a kindred spirit.

With this new information, I dug deeper. I knew Maude’s family was poor, at least during her childhood. Her father died when she was twenty years old. Four years later, in 1908, Maude somehow graduated from Grenada College, a Methodist girls’ college in Grenada, Mississippi, with a bachelor of letters degree. I don’t know how she was able to attend, unless on scholarship.

In the Delta Democrat-Times profile, Maude implied that she met her husband at an architectural office prior to 1910 and returned to Mississippi before that year, but the records I’ve found show that she married Simmons in Elkhart, Indiana, in 1912. In 1915, the couple ran a solicitation in The American Contractor as the architectural firm Simmons & Simmons. The ad revealed that Maude Newton (whose middle name was Corona) had, at one time, dropped the Maude! “Simmons & Simmons, architects, have opened an office,” it read. “The members are Royal Leonard Simmons and his wife, Corona Newton Simmons. Mr. Simmons has had twelve years’ experience in the profession. Mrs. Simmons is a graduate of the Grenada, Miss., college, and has taken a course in advanced designing and engineering. A number of Elkhart bungalows were designed by her.”

Grandpa and me, probably in Long Beach, Mississippi, around 1973Courtesy Maud Newton

Reading this, I felt sad. Maude was so close to escaping Mississippi and doing her own thing, I thought, but the Delta sucked her back in. It’s impossible to know the real story of the end of Maude’s marriage. The 1920 census falsely identifies her as widowed—maybe that was the story in the community for a time—but the 1930 and 1940 censuses indicate that she was divorced. By 1930, her ex-husband, Royal, had remarried.

One thing the Newtons of earlier generations always seemed to agree on was that the lineage produced an unusual number of, as John put it, “old maids,” a course I could easily imagine having decided on for myself—or, courtesy of my undocile personality, being chosen for me in Maude’s era. The preponderance of unmarried daughters traces at least as far back as the children of Jesse Newton, my fourth great-grandfather, likely son of an unmarried woman Sally Newton.


Maude turns out to have been a writer of sorts. In 2010, I discovered that the Mississippi Department of Archives and History maintained a “Maude C. (Newton) Simmons collection,” devoted to newspaper articles, local interest items, and letters, some of them published in the Drew, Mississippi, newspaper from 1960 to 1970. Her “Drew Doings” column “concerned a variety of subjects, including births, deaths, church and school news, politics, sports, topics of community interest, visitors, and poetry composed by Simmons or published authors.”

Were the archives mostly church-supper bulletins? Or opinion? Whatever else they might be, one thing was certain: They were civil-rights-era dispatches from the very town where, in 1955, Emmett Till was lynched, and from the state and era where the 1963 murder of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers led a sickened Eudora Welty to, for once, discard her reticence, sit down at her desk, and write, in a single impassioned rush, her short story “Where Is the Voice Coming From?”

My great-great grandmother, Minnie Ann (House) Newton (Grand Newt), probably in Drew Mississippi, maybe in the 1960sCourtesy Maud Newton

I was nervous to read Maude’s writing but also eager. The library said the microfilm was too badly eroded to be copied under the normal procedures, so I hired a researcher to take a look at the archives. She returned paper copies of the writings she thought would interest me. The first article, published January 4, 1968, in Indianola’s Enterprise-Tocsin, offered a survey of New Year’s celebrations, customs, and superstitions from around the world. The second, published November 14, 1968, opens with “My walking marathon,” a section on car trouble. “Such a wonderful age with efficiency (?) the order of the day!” it begins, before launching into her motor travails. Her King Midget was out of commission for four months. The company kept shipping the wrong parts. And then, she wrote, “At the voting precinct, Nov. 5th, if I didn’t have enough trouble deciding how to vote, a member of the shop said, ‘I have good news for you. The mechanic broke the parts.’”

I laughed. Then I realized the timing. Maude had trouble deciding how to vote the year independent segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace carried the state.

Soon came a dispatch about the Newton family’s history in Mississippi, about fishing and playing with “little Negro boys on the plantation,” until “a crop failure from cutworms” forced the family to move. After their father died, her teenage brothers “carried on the farming and later added Newton Brothers General Store.”

In the end, everything I feared was in the packet. In notes for one article, Maude excoriates Lyndon Johnson’s “fuzzy-thinking” and “wishy-washy policies.” Later she contrasts him unfavorably with Barry Goldwater, who “had the integrity and stability to vote against the civil-rights bill and the nuclear test ban treaty—the latter the first step in giving up our sovereignty to become a member of a One World Government.” In another article draft, she advocates defying the Civil Rights Act. Otherwise, she warns readers, “Your little girl will be integrated with little Negro boys and grow up on intimate social terms.” Maude would still have been teaching in Drew, and her column would have been running, in 1965 when a Black family that enrolled their children in the town’s white school district woke to gunshots fired through all their windows after they refused to return their children to the Black school. She retired around 1968.

Elsewhere, Maude claims that “Congress is planning to pass a voting bill that will discriminate against the white people in six Southern States. Mississippi is one of them.” She says that she has it “on good authority” that “an average of 70 Negroes go every day to Indianola to register. It is a well-known fact in the South that scores of Negroes do not know their ages. This will make it possible for many under voting-age to register and vote.” In another Enterprise-Tocsin column, in a Deep South “but I have Black friends” hat trick, she writes:

Many, many years ago my mother ran a hotel in Drew and later moved into a private home and kept boarders. Naturally, she had to have a colored houseboy [sic], which was the custom in those days.

This particular colored houseboy of hers moved to Chicago. He still lives there. Through the years, being a porter on the Santa Fe passenger train, he has had the opportunity to attend the Pasadena Tournament of Roses. And I am happy to say he always sends me a copy of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Pictorial. I received my 1970 copy the other day.

This “relationship” does not stem from decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court.

In Maude’s position, I’d view the annual gift from Chicago as an indication that her mother’s former employee didn’t exactly pine for his old life waiting on my great-great-grandmother and her boarders in the Delta, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to Maude.

Thus did it transpire that, in naming myself Maud Newton, I’d accidentally honored the parts of my family history that trouble me most. The disappointment I felt reminded me of a biography I reviewed that revealed the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor relished racist jokes.

The critic Sadie Stein, whom I later met and liked (and who has Arkansas roots on her mother’s side), responded to my review, observing that my and others’ surprise over O’Connor’s racism seemed “disingenuous.” I saw where she was coming from and appreciated the critique; on reflection, though, the most accurate description would have been “willfully naïve.” I’d known the likelihood that O’Connor, having grown up in Georgia during the Jim Crow era, was racist, but I’d chosen to hope she’d applied her stringent values and astringent perspective to white supremacy. In the case of both Flannery O’Connor and Maude Newton, I’d hoped so hard, I’d nearly convinced myself my fantasy was true. But both Maude and O’Connor actively fed the systemic racism from which they benefitted.

In retrospect, I realized that when I was in elementary school, the Drew newspaper that had originally published Maude was revived. My father bought a subscription that turned up each week at our house in Miami. He often pointed out things of interest to him while my sister and I were eating breakfast. I wonder now if my father mentioned back then that Maude Newton had written a column for the paper and if that’s how she became lodged in my mind as someone whose story was worth digging up.

Whatever the cause of my original interest, Grandma’s horror at my curiosity fueled my persistence. My research was an act of defiance, an attempt to unearth what she wanted to hide. It was also a desire to find a precedent in my father’s family for myself. Maude was a reject; so was I.

Ironically, I believe now that Grandma’s resistance to my interest in Maude was partly a result of the things Maude wrote that I myself find unconscionable. Before she died, Grandma believed having the Confederate flag on the Mississippi state flag was an embarrassment. She threw away fifty years of her mother’s plantation journals. Whatever nostalgia she may have had for her childhood, she realized that defending the segregated South was offensive. I suspect she’d also come to think it was wrong. I know she would approve of the new state flag with the magnolia—“look at those magnolias!” she’d said, when I persisted in asking about Maude. But trying to change the subject only intensified my curiosity.

I’m sorry that Maude’s writing turned out to be what it is, but I’m not sorry I found it. As the world shows more clearly every day, pretending racism doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away. Giving myself her name deepened and sharpened a reckoning I knew from my youngest years was inevitable.

Adapted from the book ANCESTOR TROUBLE: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maud Newton. Copyright © 2022 by Maud Newton. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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