Letters from my Grandmother - Part 3

Nina Hortense Clinton, around 1900

When I think of the humiliations endured by my mother and grandmother, it makes my blood boil. My grandfather had built his house in a rural area, which was eventually swallowed up by the city of Charleston, West Virginia. The people who built their houses around his happened to be white, which meant that by the time my mother was old enough to attend school, she was not allowed to go to school in her own neighborhood. She had to travel for miles to get to the nearest “Colored” school. My grandfather faithfully paid his taxes so that his children could attend public school, all for naught.

My mother told me a story that she and her mother were taking a trip on a bus, and they had pulled into a bus station for bathroom breaks. The humiliation of segregated bathrooms was bad enough. But my grandmother had already returned to the bus and was seated when my mother tried to board. “You can’t get on this bus!” the new driver spat at my mother. She replied, “Well, my mother is already on this bus.” Then my grandmother had to get off of the bus and the two of them waited until a kinder driver would take them where they wanted to go.

These people’s lives were controlled by the whims of racist bigots, most of whom were totally uneducated. My grandmother was a high school teacher; my mother was a college professor. Many bigoted whites thoroughly resented the fact that my mother and grandmother were more articulate than they were, a fact that simply intensified their hatred.

In their photographs, I can see the effects of the disappointments, the humiliations and rejections. The older they got, the harder their faces became. When I see my grandmother’s immaculate handwriting and grammar in her letters from London when she was just twenty-one years old, and I think of the discrimination and blatant racism that was waiting for her upon her return to her own country, I am nauseous! Her parents were free, tax-paying citizens in Ohio; but her husband set up his medical practice in West Virginia. How does one cope? The rage must have poisoned their lives. I know that later in her life, my grandmother was known in the family for her Bible readings. But tongue cancer ultimately took her life. Who knows? Maybe the release of a few choice words might have prolonged her life. My aunt supposedly “swore like a sailor,” and she lived into her nineties!

I am posting this letter in its entirety since it is so descriptive of the decorations for the coronation.

                                                                       June 29, 1902

 My Dear Ina,

         It seems a long time since we have had any communication whatever, though I think you are owing me a note. However as I have just been reading some of the letters you wrote me some time ago, I have decided to write and try to find out what has become of all of my Zanesville friends. I wrote Ida a long letter but have not heard from her yet. Everyone seems to have forsaken me because I am so far away from home.

         I dare say you are all disappointed because I did not come home this summer. Indeed I should like very much to see you all but, as you know, my advancement has been somewhat hindered (especially the first year) owning to the weakness of my throat and as I am feeling so much better now. I think it’s a pity to give up my place when I have an opportunity of keeping it. I know that by remaining here this summer I should be better prepared for my work next year. The Lord has spared our lives so far and He is just as able to keep us all to meet and embrace one another once more if it is His Holy will. I only hope and pray that all things will 'work together for good.'

        I think that the world has had most convincing evidences lately confirming the Supreme Sovereignty of God and showing how helpless are all earthly Kings before Him.

         This thought must have been prevalent in the minds of at least all London citizens and visitors during the past few days. The topic for conversation for many weeks past has been 'The Coronation.'¹ The interior of Westminster Abbey has been most beautifully decorated and although it is a very large place having been found inadequate to seat all those who owing to their rank were entitled to admission on this grand occasion, a temporary addition was made to it; and so skillfully is this piece of work done that a stranger would be quite unable to notice that it is not all work done hundreds of years ago. Westminster Bridge and the street as far as one can see from the east of the bridge is one mass of color. I have never before seen any place so profusely decorated with paper flowers, draperies of different kinds, flags, lanterns, etc. At intervals along each side of the bridge are busts of 14 ancient kings and queens. These are splendid and were made for the occasion. I am acquainted with two or three of the artists who helped to model them.

         In Whitehall nearby is the great 'Canadian Arch.' This is built entirely of straw and grain. It has tassels of Indian corn and was last Thursday hung with beautiful fruit. I understand that the materials are from Canada. At the top of the arch in large blue letters is written 'Britain’s Granary.' This is one of the most unique things that I have seen. Piccadilly, The Strand, the street facing St. James Palace, and in fact all along the route of procession, present the appearance of one great mass of waving, floating coronation colors. The Rothschild’s house in Piccadilly was most artistically covered with red and yellow draperies. Aside from these, the preparations for illumination were perhaps more elaborate. The Bank and Royal Exchange were illuminated last Saturday night and I can assure you that it was a sight well worth seeing. All kinds of designs are arranged of apparently small pieces of cut (?) glass and when a light burns behind them they glitter beautifully and have quite the appearance of diamonds. Nearly all business places of any importance and many private residences were to have been illuminated last night and I with the rest had looked forward to it with the highest anticipations and I with the rest have also been disappointed.

          All along the route of procession seats were erected and many without hesitation paid $50 for a seat.

       Kings and Princes from all over the world had arrived in all their splendor. One of the East Indian potentates came bringing 125 servants besides special food and even water to drink. The British Government required to find accommodations for these. Perhaps in some such cases not entirely at its own expense. I have seen numbers of East Indians on the streets in their native costume. Their head dress is so amusing. It is yards and yards of some kind of goods wrapped about their heads. I must say, though, that some of them are fine looking. They are such a pretty color – light brown with straight black hair. I don’t remember of having seen any in America. Perhaps you have. Lulu Gants' Dr. Brown looks like some I have seen. I have been most anxious to see the African King who is King Edward’s guest but have not done so yet. I am so proud to know that the color line is not so marked here as it is in America (though I must say that some parts of London show signs of becoming Americanized) and that that black king was as cordially received by His Majesty King Edward VII as was Whitelaw Reid² of America. It is interesting, too, to note that nearly all of the Royal visitors were members of dark races, so many of which bow to the ruling power of Great Britain. Thousands and thousands of soldiers from the colonies had arrived either to be in the procession or to be stationed along the line. We went to Alexandra Palace the other day to see the black soldiers who were camping there. Some of them seemed so glad to see us because we were colored and they took us about through the tents. In a corner of the of one of the camps we heard such shouting and saw such a number of little white figures darting back and forth that we naturally gravitated to that place. Here were a number of African Soldiers and coolies³ in their native white (some filthy) costumes, also some from the Fiji Islands in their short skirts, bare feet and bare heads all engaged in a game of football which they had picked up just the day before. They are said to be great imitators (?) Ha ha. It was not a proper game but whoever could get the ball first would kick it and I must say that some of them were remarkably clever kickers. Probably the best kickers were the barefoot Fijians. One poor fellow, however, after giving a most energetic kick, came limping to where we were standing and sat down and began pulling at his toe. As he did so, with a comical face he exclaimed, 'bare foot no good.' I could not help laughing. The latter class is a peculiar looking set of people. Their skin is brown, they wear a short, rather plain skirt, never anything on their feet or heads. Their hair is about four inches long and stands straight out from their heads, on ends I should say. It is very coarse stuff. The sun turns it almost red. I believe that if it would grow a little longer, splendid brooms could be made of it. Ha Ha.

         There were a number of West Indians. Mr. Lane met one soldier who is acquainted with a friend of his in Trinidad. Later on Mr. Loudin met a soldier who remembered him well and who heard this company sing in New Zealand. It was very interesting to those two especially. I wish I could make a trip around the world but there is no prospect of doing so. I shall be happy if I am able to go to Paris and one or two of the places on the continent before I return to America. Even that is rather doubtful for I could not go alone.

         The city has been simply crowded with visitors and the bus fares were in some cases tripled and even then were well patronized and people would ride around through the city to see the decorations. (One has a splendid view from the top of an omnibus. It was wonderful to ride into the thickest of the traffic one keeps thinking that there will be a collision every minute but so well is it managed by the faithful 'bobbies'4 that comparatively only a very few ever happen.)

         Really, it is impossible for me to describe the extravagant preparations that were made for this sacred event and the terrible gloom that overshadowed the place when only two days before it was to occur the announcement was made of the King’s illness. The disappointment to the people in general was a very small consideration as many have been ruined financially, having gone to great expense in preparation, expecting to fairly coin money during those two or three days. The people immediately began to disperse, trains leaving London and steamers leaving England being almost over crowded. Miss Henson was very fortunate in having engaged her berth5 on the 'Etruria'6 some weeks before, else she may have had some difficulty in securing one owing to the rush. 'to avoid the rush come early' O, I did hate to see her leave yesterday A.M. She was not very anxious to go to America but had to go on business. After I found the coronation to be a failure I felt almost like accompanying her but I knew that if I did I should not have the rest and practice necessary before beginning next year’s work, I should have had a very short time with my parents and worse than all I should have hated leaving them again. So she has kindly promised to pay them a very short visit. Her time will be very limited but I want her to meet my particular friends. She will tell you all you care to ask about your 'little friend in Europe' and I want you to send loads of messages to me by her. She has certainly been like a sister to me and I feel that I cannot do too much for her. I frequently talk to her about you girls so that you will not be strangers to her. I should like so much for you to have a pleasant afternoon or evening together but I suppose that will be impossible.

         I spent the two first weeks of June in a country place. Burgess Hill. It is so lovely there and so healthy after having been in London for so long a time that the change really did me lots of good. I gained two pounds during a fortnight. We were only twenty minutes from Brighton and could go to the seashore whenever we liked. (Miss Kelly and I) We used to go for long walks and rides on the bicycle and on the evening before we left, the lady with whom we were staying took us for a long ride in an open carriage. Can you picture us? Indeed, the whole time was thoroughly enjoyable. We only came to London for the coronation and now expect to return soon. Perhaps tomorrow. It is not far from here. I shall stay in the country as long as I can for I love it.

         Talk about having beaux, Ina, I can only say that I have none and I shall be able to explain when I see you. You know there are some things that one cannot make clear in a letter. A young man over here does not as a rule go with a young lady without becoming engaged. It is quite expected. I have heard of parents asking a young man what he meant by continually coming to see their daughter and never having approached the question of marriage. I think this particular young man was not an Englishman or he would have been better acquainted with the custom. The engagement often lasts for several years before the marriage takes place but this, of course, keeps both parties from having other company. They take things so seriously. It is rather good in one way for marriage seems a more sacred thing here that it does in A. and divorces are not easily obtained. The English people are considered very slow in so many ways and are very conservative. So that if by chance I should be transformed into an English lady before returning home I should not have much to brag on as you Americans would consider one “just behind the excitement” which I undoubtedly would be. As much as I like these people I must say that in a general way they have not near the life and energy and enterprise about them which is so characteristic of Americans. Did you read of the terrible fire which took place in Queen Victoria St. about two weeks ago? A large factory was being hugged by flames when the fire engines arrived. The building had no proper fire escape (a very few buildings in this country have) the ladders brought by the companies were not long enough to reach the top story, the hose burst at a critical moment and altogether they made a perfect muddle of it, several young girls having been burned to death in consequence. They may, perhaps as they do in many things boast of the fact (though I have heard no one do so) that those ladders were used in the time of 'William the Conqueror' (?) and therefore are very valuable. O well, but that is not bringing to life those poor girls who should have been saved had the fire companies had proper means of saving them, which was their duty. Americans are always making improvements on things while the English people like to cling to old customs 'because their grandfathers did.' Ancient things become very valuable in England. So that when I become an old maid this will be the place for me; really the country is overrun with them now. In some places there are eight or ten women to every man. I remember so well hearing Miss Moorehead tell us one day at an English recitation that the English people are great for keeping established precedents and I certainly find that to be true, often to their own embarrassment.

         There has been great rejoicing and jollification over the close of the South African war. I am very glad that peace has been declared. I hate to see that valuable country wrested from the black people to whom it ought to belong, yet it has been evident that some country would go in and take possession of it, and I think it is better in the hands of England than of any other country. The English Government seems to feel itself duly compensated for the loss of so many lives during the war, owing to the terms of peace. I suppose it is well that they are satisfied with their transaction. I cannot 'go back on' England for she treats my people well as long as they behave themselves in her presence. But all nations have their faults.

         Do remember me kindly to all the girls and boys. O, I say what is the latest addition to your list of beaux? Give my love to Blanche and tell her that I am waiting patiently.

         You know I shall be dreadfully homesick until Leola returns and I think you all might make it a point to write and keep up my spirits. Ha Ha. I am not doing as I did last summer but am taking time from a 'reverie or a siesta,' or both to write you a few lines. If you will kindly allow mama and perhaps one or two of the girls to read this, I’ll not need to write any of the same again. I’ll depend on your doing this and may not write to mama this week. Do give my love to your mother and to Mamie with a portion for Inabelle.

                                                                                 I am
                                                                          Yours lovingly
                                                                                Nina H." 


¹Edward's coronation had originally been scheduled for 26 June 1902. However, two days before, on 24 June, he was diagnosed with appendicitis. Sir Frederick Treves, with the support of Lord Lister, performed a then-radical operation of draining a pint of pus from the infected abscess through a small incision (through ​4 1⁄2-inch thickness of belly fat and abdomen wall); this outcome showed thankfully that the cause was not cancer. The next day, Edward was sitting up in bed, smoking a cigar. Two weeks later, it was announced that the King was out of danger. Edward was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 9 August 1902.

²Whitelaw Reid (October 27, 1837 – December 15, 1912) was an American politician and newspaper editor, as well as the author of a popular history of Ohio in the Civil War. In 1905, he was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James's by Theodore Roosevelt.

³Coolies - (offensive) an unskilled native laborer in India, China, and some other Asian countries.

4Bobby - a slang term for a member of London's Metropolitan Police derived from the name of Sir Robert Peel, who established the force in 1829.

5Berth - a fixed bed or bunk on a ship, train, or other means of transport.

6RMS Etruria was a transatlantic ocean liner built by John Elder & Co. of Glasgow, Scotland in 1884 for the Cunard Line.


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