For African-Americans in the '20s and '30s, life on the Eastern Shore was a mosaic of joy and sorrow, pride and prejudice. Adele Holden's story captures it all; A Gift to our Time


It is a miserable gray afternoon. A fierce wind rips up trees. A sea of rain washes into the Jones Falls as Hurricane Floyd drags its soggy self up the East Coast.

All this makes Adele V. Holden's fifth-floor apartment seem even more more comfortable, even more appealing. She has hot coffee and graham crackers waiting. Outside the storm rages, but inside there is easy conversation and a story of days past.

Holden has just published "Down on The Shore," her memoir of growing up in Pocomoke City during the 1920s and '30s.

"It always bothered me about the way we had to live down there on the Eastern Shore," she says, explaining the genesis of a book she has lived with for nearly 20 years. "I know how it was, and I know how my mother and father had to struggle."

Her book is suffused with a poet's sensibility and a simple, elegant style. Poems frame the narrative. Fragments introduce each chapter. This is to be expected because Holden is a poet. She published "Figurine and Other Poems" to some acclaim in the 1960s. She says she might return to poetry now that her prose journey is done.

"I'd like to take the best of 'Figurine' and my new work and have a book of poems," she says. "Now that I'd be willing to work for."

Poetry is more to her liking. Editors don't muck around in your words the way they do with prose, cutting this, adding that. Poetry is pure. She recites one of her works:

Memory of the dead

it is said

loses shape

becoming fuzzy and blurred

unconsciously fading

as years go ...

returning only in dreams.

She is talking about Caleb Holden, her grandfather, a light-skinned man who "unknown he would be taken or mistaken for mostly any race but his own," who smoked a pipe she still keeps, a pipe that smells of tobacco, an "ornate pipe with its round ivory bowl edged with metal dipped in gold, cankerous and moldy, resting in its faded velvet-lined casket."

He is part of the family and place that shaped Holden's story. Pocomoke City had an end-of-the-world feel back then. Virginia was just down the road. Baltimore was a world away, up the shore to Wilmington, Del., then south. Few made that trip.

They made their living on the farms and in the canning factories. Black women took in laundry. Being poor didn't break the Holdens' spirit. Adele Holden's mother and father still found ways to bring magic into their children's lives. Christmas was splendid, even in the Depression. Joy bloomed like spring during icy winters along the Pocomoke River.

Her father, Snow Holden, fought to bring small improvements to town. He was an auto mechanic, a strong, grease-stained man who yearned to play violin, but who wanted more to give his children a better life. His faith told him his children would know a better world.

"The faith that they had in that time was stronger than we have now," says Holden, whose book includes a wonderful account of a sanctified church meeting. "My father used to say if we did all that we can, God will help us. And they believed it."

Snow Holden also made sure his children believed in themselves.

Sense of self-worth

"I never doubted my worth as a person. My father was a good person, but he was very stern about certain things," says Holden. "He taught us to value ourselves. We had enough guidance to know we were as good as anybody else out there, black or white."

Still, many blacks lived in a sort of "blind contentedness," not yet strong enough or fearless enough to take on the white world. Teachers, often from Northern cities, found the segregated, insular Eastern Shore intolerable. Adele Holden was 7 years old when she learned the price of defiance. Lela Blaine, a treasured teacher fresh from New York City, lost her job barely a month after starting in Pocomoke City. She had demanded to be called "Miss Blaine."

"That robbed me of something," says Holden. "From then on I realized there was quite a difference in treatment. You find out that there is something that you didn't know before, especially something that there's no reason for, other than plain prejudice."

Blaine's firing was one of those awakening moments, one that comes like a bucket of ice water chilling you to your soul. One day you're too young to know, the next day you're old enough to know better. Holden lived with such memories before putting them to paper.

Her book is a gift to our time. It lets readers look through the eyes of someone who can say, "Yes, all that happened, the good and the bad." Her generation remembers the years when it seemed Jim Crow might never die. The following generation survived Jim Crow's violent death and, with its burning anger, sometimes turned hope into a smoldering heap of ashes. Now a comfortable black middle class contends with cries of reverse discrimination.

Too soon, it seems, the old days lose their edge and morph into an advertiser's dream of a quaint, happier time. That's what happens if no one grabs a pen and gets the story down before it's too late.

"So many things happened down there. It was so sad," says Holden, considering the December 1931 lynching of Matthew Williams in Salisbury. "You had nightmares after that lynching. Everybody knew about it. It wasn't hidden."

Two years later, George Armwood was lynched and burned on a pyre in Princess Anne. Holden remembers the palpable fear of those years. That fear stopped some, but not her father.

"I still wonder how my father got to be so different from the average man in Pocomoke at that time," she says, smiling. Snow Holden has been dead 30 years, yet she is still his proud daughter.

In 1932, Snow Holden secured a 10th grade for Pocomoke City's black students with help from Andrew Turner, the town's white mayor. Town officials discontinued the grade after one year, forcing black students to complete their educations elsewhere. Snow Holden kept on fighting and pushing his children.

Adele Holden graduated from Morgan College, now Morgan State University, and became a teacher in Baltimore City schools. She ended her career at what was then called the Community College of Baltimore. Along the way, she published "Figurine." Now, she has added "Down on The Shore."

"When the manuscript arrived, it blew me away. From the prose, I could tell she was a poet," says Gregg A. Wilhelm, director and editor of Woodholme House Publishers. "The story was a coming-of-age story, a family saga, and showed the nurturing that gave this poet her voice, situated against this backdrop of tension."

The racism of the time, the lynching and the violence do not overwhelm the story. They are inseparable elements of this American story. Wilhelm says, "It wasn't all this 'trouble-I've-seen' life for blacks on the Eastern Shore."

There was cooperation between blacks and whites, though limited. Snow Holden's work with Andrew Turner is a fine example.

"I think it is a piece of evidence that there were people on the Eastern Shore who did care," he says. "I guess you have to give some white people that credit."

Holden agrees. "Some of them were decent down there; some were. So, [Turner] gave him a hand a little bit. But the main reason was my father was not going to stop."

Measuring up

Looking back over her years, she wonders if she has accomplished enough. Her generation was charged with showing everyone once and for all the stuff of which black people were made. She has two books, a teaching career and received a full fellowship to the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University.

She is an amateur painter. Her works hang from her walls, a snow scene from the Blizzard of 1996, a city scape looking west from downtown toward Bolton Hill, black and white figures in an homage to integration. She is a solitary person.

"I'm an anachronism with some of my friends because they belong to all these organizations, and I do not," she says. "I say the only thing I belong to is the human race."

Some of her fellow parishioners at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church jokingly call her "a seat warmer." That doesn't bother her. What bothers her is repeated questions about her age.

"You asked me that before," she says, during a second interview. "Anybody who reads the book can find out."

She is in good health, a blessing given the heart attack and stroke she had a few years ago. Growing up, she thought anyone the age she is now would be decrepit.

"I might feel old if I live long enough, but right now I do not," she says. "When I was a child, someone who was My goodness," she says, then veers off into another subject when she sees a reporter scribbling.

There's no sense spending time talking about age, which some say is nothing but a number anyway. The better topic is how those years have been used.

Early on in her research, Holden visited her uncle and asked for stories. He told her what the old folks used to say, that even if every black person for miles around told his or her story, she wouldn't have half of what needed to be told. Only the river, the brown, twisting Pocomoke River, could tell all.

Rivers don't speak. You cannot hold a dark night seance with incense and incantations and a medium saying, Rise up river and speak of long ago. In "Down on The Shore," it is as if someone has said, Rise up river and speak through one who knows not only segregation's sorrows, but also the joys of family and childhood's endless summers, one who at her story's end writes:

"If, by some means, we can will ourselves to relate to one another as individuals -- each one sheltered under the umbrella of humanity -- there yet is hope."

Adele Holden will speak at Bibelot at Woodholme, 1819 Reisterstown Road, at 2 p.m. Oct. 9. Call 410-532-5018.

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