BND Magazine

June 22, 2014

Beloved matriarch: Mattie Malone's life is a history lesson

Mattie Malone doesn't dwell on race when telling her life story.

The 99-year-old East St. Louis resident graduated from high school, fell in love, married, reared 12 children, attended college for a year, volunteered in the community and stayed active in church.

"My occupation is homemaker or housekeeper, whichever you prefer to call it," she wrote in a four-page biography in 1994. "My husband, Louis Malone, was a chemical worker (for Monsanto)."

But the biography also describes harsh realities faced by black children in the 1920s.

Mattie and her siblings walked six blocks to the "colored" school, which consisted of two small, wooden buildings that students referred to as "chicken coops." The well-built brick school for white children was two blocks from their home.

"As a child, when I would pass there in the cold wintertime, I would wonder why it was I couldn't go to that school," she wrote. "I never really knew until I was promoted to the fifth grade and had to walk to Lincoln school when the weather permitted or (ride) street cars otherwise.

"The white people didn't want to sit next to you on them. Some of them would rather stand. When walking to and from (school), the white children would try to push you off the sidewalk because they didn't want (you) to be walking on their sidewalks."

Beloved matriarch

Mattie still lives in the frame bungalow she and her husband built in 1950. Her children care for her with help from a home aide.

Mattie uses a wheelchair but is relatively healthy and looks younger than her age. She recalls the past with surprising detail, even reciting lines from her speech as Class of 1933 valedictorian.

"She's lived so much," said daughter Ruth Carr Townsend, 64, of Edwardsville, a retired social worker. "She's instilled so much into us. She's always been there for us."

Today, Mattie has nine children (three deceased), 29 grandchildren (one deceased), 38 great-grandchildren and 10 great-great-grandchildren for a total of 86 living descendants.

They describe her as a loving and compassionate woman with Christian values and a strong belief in education. Her greatest pride is knowing all her children attended college. Eight graduated, and some earned higher degrees.

"(She's) a wonderful example of womanhood," said granddaughter Denise Malone, 60, of Montgomery, Ala., a retired federal employee who lived with her grandparents as a child.

Mississippi native

Mattie was born on Nov. 28, 1914, in Starkville, Miss. Her parents, James and Lydia Bolden, were farmers with eight children. Their parents were slaves.

Mattie was a toddler when her father moved to East St. Louis. He wanted to find work before sending for the family.

"They weren't going to farm anymore," said Mattie's daughter, Mary Blackburn, 74, of Mitchellville, Md., a child support specialist and retired schoolteacher.

"(Lydia) said she didn't want that white man telling them to take that 12-year-old boy out of school and put him behind a plow," Mattie said.

She was referring to pressure faced by poor black families to enlist their children's help on farms to pay money owed to white landowners and suppliers.

James returned to Mississippi briefly after the East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917.

"My father had two brothers and two sisters that lived (in the city), and my mother had a half-brother," Mattie wrote in her biography. "His wife barely missed being killed during the riot. She was shot in the face. Her nose was injured."

Lydia and the kids moved to East St. Louis in 1921. They hauled all their possessions, including furniture, on a train.

After graduating from Lincoln, Mattie taught shorthand for an adult-education program and worked as a clerk typist for a state agency. She married Louis in 1934.

"He lived next door, and I fell in love with him," she said. "He was a tall, dark and handsome young man."

Mother and activist

As a young woman, Mattie's daily routine started early. She fried pork chops or chicken for her husband's lunch and saw him off to work.

Then she prepared eggs, grits, bacon or sausage and homemade biscuits for the kids. She ironed clothes at night while listening to them read aloud.

"It's just amazing that she had 12 children, and she would bake cakes for us to take to school, and she always had dinner ready when we came home," daughter Ruth said.

Mattie also taught Sunday school, sang in choir, ushered and served on committees at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church.

She registered people for government sugar rations during World War II, volunteered for fundraisers and boards and served as PTA president at her children's school.

"She used to work in the cafeteria," said daughter Cheri Gaston, 54, of Edwardsville, a speech pathologist and retired principal.

"She didn't get paid. She was a volunteer. She served hot lunches to the children. She and the other mothers spearheaded the program."

Mattie also knocked on doors in the neighborhood and collected money to help poor families pay for funerals.

Louis Malone died in 1979. In her 60s, Mattie took classes at State Community College and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in East St. Louis for a year. She quit to care for her grandchildren.

"She's so generous, and I'm amazed at her intellect," daughter Mary said. "She kept up with the news on television. She read newspapers and magazines. She was interested in politics and involved in community service. She was always on top of things."

Excerpt from Mattie's handwritten biography about the East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917:

"My parents never talked about the race riot in East St. Louis much. On one occasion, I remember them relating a story of how so many black men were killed when they got off work. ... The white men who were waiting for them to get off work would shoot them and then throw their bodies into the Cahokia Creek.

"I also remember one of my teachers telling the class how her family survived in her community. They watched for signs, like burning lights in your windows, which was a signal used by white families in order not to destroy their own homes and family. A burning light in the window indicated that it was inhabited by white people.

"The various kinds of segregation and discrimination they had even after the riot was over: Segregated public schools, recreational facilities, workplaces and neighborhoods. The NAACP and the Urban League (were) very effective in fighting racism in East St. Louis."

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