Sister of High Court Nominee Traveled Different Road : Family: Although Clarence Thomas held her up as a horrible example, Emma Mae Martin defends her life and the choices she made.


At the end of the narrow sandy road that winds to the marshy shore of Moon River lies the life into which Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was born--and the life that his sister never left.

Emma Mae Martin still lives in a dilapidated frame house with a hole in the roof just a few steps from the spot where a midwife delivered her and her two younger brothers.

Nearby stands the rotting factory where she had once picked crabs, as her mother had done before her. It has been closed for five years, and weeds grow through its broken windows.


When Martin was on public assistance in the early 1980s, Thomas publicly aired his disgust. To him, she and her four children symbolized all that was wrong with liberal handout programs.

“She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check,” he declared at a conference of black conservatives. “That’s how dependent she is. What’s worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check, too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation.”

But the story, as Martin tells it, was not that clear-cut. In 1973, her ex-husband vanished, just as her father had abandoned her mother a quarter-century earlier.

While her brother was attending Yale Law School, Martin was working two minimum-wage jobs. When an elderly aunt suffered a stroke, she gave up her work to take care of her.

Although Martin did spend four or five years on welfare, it was far from the lazy existence that one might have thought from her brother’s comments. Many months, she said, that $169 check did not even stretch far enough to cover the utilities.

Yet Martin, a heavy-set and affable 44-year-old woman, would take issue with any liberal do-gooder who tries to portray her situation as a tragic example of the special trap that poverty sets for single black mothers.


In fact, although it would seem that her circumstances could not be more different from that of her brother, she looks on them with somewhat the same point of view.

“You make your life for yourself,” Martin said, dismissing the suggestion that being poor lowered her expectations. “I had the opportunity to go to college if I wanted to, but I made the choice. I took care of the older people.”

So now she finds herself living with three of her children in the cluttered, shabby house that her aunt left her. She works as a cook at the same hospital where her mother is a nurse’s assistant and often has to report for work at 3 a.m.

On Wednesday, her day off, she sat with her two daughters and her son’s pregnant fiancee, watching a rerun of “Lost in Space” on the new color television set that dominates her tiny front room. The screens on the cinder-block porch were torn, the furniture inside covered by sheets and bedspreads. Out front sat a car on blocks and a broken kitchen chair.

Occasionally, a muggy breeze carried the water’s briny smell into the house and lifted the yellow ribbon in the open doorway. The family put it there in honor of its eldest son--named Clarence, after his uncle--who served aboard the battleship Wisconsin during the Persian Gulf War. Mark, 22, works as a carpenter; 20-year-old Christine was recently laid off from a bakery, and Leola is a student just short of her 15th birthday.

Pin Point is just that--a tiny community too small to be found on most maps. Before Thomas’ nomination this week, few white people in nearby Savannah seem to have heard of this enclave, founded by a group of freed slaves who were granted the land after the Civil War.

Across the river, rich Northerners now flock to several expensive new resorts to retire and play golf. Pin Point has seen its share of changes, too, since Clarence Thomas left at the age of 7. For starters, houses here are now equipped with indoor plumbing and electricity.

The town has taken on some of modern society’s ills as well. Several houses have been burglarized recently, a development that Martin attributes to a growing drug problem in the community.

Taking stock of these changes, Martin said wistfully: “I enjoyed it when we had kerosene lamps.”

Although her brother has often spoken of the racial discrimination that he faced as he got older, Martin insists that Thomas saw none of that in Pin Point. Their common poverty bonded everyone.

“In this neighborhood, black and white played together,” Martin said. “Out here, you didn’t pick colors. They (whites) were like everybody else, selling fish and shrimp.”

The point where her life turned a different direction from that of her two brothers came in the summer of 1955, when their mother’s house burned down, leaving the children with nothing but the clothes they had worn to school that morning.

Their mother could no longer support the family by picking crabs for a nickel a pound. “I couldn’t get no help for the children. When I tried to get some help (from public assistance), they said I couldn’t get no help because my daddy had money,” recalled Leola Williams, who remarried eight years ago.

So she started cleaning houses around Savannah for $14 or $15 a week.

That meant she had to send Clarence and his younger brother, Myers, to live with their grandparents in Savannah. “I wanted Daddy to have those boys because they were boys and I couldn’t handle them,” Williams said.

Emma Mae stayed in Pin Point with the aunt who had helped her mother during the children’s early years. Later, Martin would repay that debt by taking care of her aunt after a stroke left her helpless.

Thomas has said that much of his success can be attributed to the values that he learned from his grandparents and from the discipline that the nuns in his all-black Catholic school instilled in him. Everyone in the family believes that he turned out most like his grandfather, who had only a third-grade education but built a successful fuel-oil business through perseverance.

Myers also thrived under the influences of Catholic school and his grandparents’ nurturing and is now an accountant in Bloomfield, Conn.

Martin, too, attended Savannah’s St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School with her brothers for a few years, but Pin Point remained the center of her life. She received a high school diploma from a public school, she said, then was married briefly.

For the last 18 years, there has been one man in her life--the father of her youngest--who helps out with her support. But Martin said that she is not eager to marry again. “He has his house and I have mine,” she explained.

She added that she would not be unhappy if her own children choose a path in life as short as the one she has taken, saying: “It’s their decision to make with themselves what they want to be.”

Although her brother Clarence was harsh in his public descriptions of her when she was on welfare, Martin said he never criticized her in their private conversations. He understood, she insists.

And his conservatism? She laughed heartily. “That’s just Clarence. He had his opinions. Whatever he said had to go, just like my grandfather.”