Family’s Six Generations Reflect Rich Vein of Black History : Legacy: Eva Armstrong came to California 69 years ago. In many ways, her tale is the story of the city.
Eva Armstrong’s family has flourished since she arrived in town 69 years ago, ushering two small children off the train, the monotonous clickety-clack of the Southern Pacific tracks echoing in her ears after a grueling three-day ride from Arkansas.
Her husband, Grover Cleveland Armstrong, was there to greet the family at the station. He had come out two years earlier, searching in the California sunshine for an alternative to the hard-scrabble life of a black sharecropper in the South.
The family settled for a while in a rented house on Claremont Street. Then, after Grover got a job as a truck driver for the city, they bought a house on Kirkwood Avenue.
Since then there have been births, deaths, wars, social movements. The house on Kirkwood is long-gone, bulldozed for a redevelopment project. And Pasadena has changed from a sun-dappled resort town, famous for its orange trees and handsome Craftsman homes, to a complicated city of 131,000.
But the Armstrongs--and their progeny, the Bryants, the Kennedys, the Williamses, the Andersons and others--persist.
Eva Armstrong, 98, is the matriarch of the big, loose-knit family. Four of her six children are still living. And from them have come 18 grandchildren, 34 great-grandchildren, 11 great-great-grandchildren and two great-great-great-grandchildren.
The six generations got together the other day and several of the family members were asked to reflect on the black experience in America on the occasion of Black History Month. Their thoughts were not the usual rosy celebrations of progress with which people often mark ceremonial events.
“Some things shouldn’t ever have been,” said Hughletta Bryant, 72, who was one of the small children who stepped off the train from Arkansas that day long ago. “So you can’t call it progress to say they’ve changed.”
These are conspicuously realistic people, still wrestling with family accounts of slavery and their memories of racism, and they are slow to believe that America has put those things behind it.
In many ways, this family’s history, bitter memories and all, is the history of Pasadena, said the Rev. George Bolden, pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Pasadena, which Eva Armstrong helped found in 1927.
“This is no longer the sleepy little vacation spot where tourists came in the winter to pick oranges and play lawn games,” Bolden said. “There’s a vocal minority community. People want representation and a bigger piece of the economic pie.”
Eva Armstrong lives on Washington Boulevard, not far from Lincoln Avenue, in a neighborhood of neat little houses with neat little lawns. Her husband died of pneumonia 50 years ago this spring, and she spends her days, silently contemplative, in an armchair in her small living room.
But the house vibrates with the comings and goings of family members, and sometimes history--black history--seems to reach out and jostle them like an invisible hand.
Hughletta Bryant’s cousin Ulysses Grant Cole, 76, stepped into the room from an adjoining bedroom.
“You should know that our grandparents"--meaning his own and Bryant’s--"were slaves,” he said.
“That’s right. Ella Simms,” said Cole, anger seeming to rise in him at the thought of it. “She was a slave in Union, S.C. The slave mistress was cruel. She kept (Ella Simms) with her arms suspended for hours at a time.”
Cole spreads his arms like Christ on the cross.
“After slavery, she begged my grandmother’s forgiveness.”
“Our grandmother was a Christian woman,” Bryant said. “She forgave.”
“That’s right,” Cole said, with an impatient shake of the head. “But I’m a new breed. We don’t forgive.”
He stomped out of the room.
It is still a source of astonishment to younger family members that slavery--abolished 130 years ago--can still be so close.
“We’re all the children of slaves,” said Wanda Kennedy, Bryant’s 52-year-old daughter. “It really amazed me when I first realized it.”
Though the Armstrongs came to Pasadena to try to escape the legacy of slavery, there were things about their adopted city that were not much different from the South of the 1930s and 1940s. Certain businesses downtown did not serve black people, and the city-owned swimming pool in Brookside Park was closed to people of color, except on Wednesdays, the day before they changed the water.
But there was opportunity. Eva Armstrong found work as a machinist at Lockheed in Burbank.
“She made small parts for the nose of the plane,” Bryant said. “She used to say that, if she worked on a plane, she wouldn’t be afraid to ride in it.”
Most of the Armstrong children went to college--Bryant eventually got a master’s degree in public administration from Pepperdine University and worked as a nursing administrator at County-USC Medical Center--and their own children grew up in suburban comfort.
“Life was pretty carefree,” said Kennedy, an eligibility worker with the county Department of Social Services. “You didn’t worry about walking the streets or who your kids were playing with. Everybody had the same standards. And we always lived in an interracial neighborhood. I never knew there was such a thing as an all-black neighborhood.”
By 1960, when Kennedy’s daughter, Susan Lewis Williams, was born, “Jim Crow” restrictions were long-gone in Pasadena, and the civil rights movement was fueling more social changes.
“There was progress in the ‘60s,” Kennedy said. “There were quotas. They had to hire you in equal numbers sometimes.”
But the Armstrong crowd is not so sure of the lasting effects from all of that.
“They have to go to a little more trouble to hide the jobs now,” Bryant said. “They used to advertise for whites only, but now they just tell you the job is taken.”
If you want to talk about change, take a close look at northwest Pasadena, the racially diverse neighborhood where many of the family still live, the women said. The level of violence there has escalated radically since the 1970s, they agreed.
It is most apparent in the Pasadena schools, said Williams, 33, a John Muir High School student in the mid-1970s.
“When we went to school, kids fought with their hands,” she said. “There were no guns or knives. If you wanted to fight, you told somebody to meet you after school and you’d go down the street somewhere and do it.”
But now, there is a depressing pattern of gangs, drugs and drive-bys, they said.
“You used to feel really safe in Pasadena,” Kennedy said. “Most of the horrible things were happening in the inner city.”
Williams’ 18-year-old daughter, Timisha Anderson, a tall, statuesque woman who rarely smiles, is most harsh of all in judging her contemporaries.
“Everybody’s having babies and dropping out,” she said, cradling her 16-month-old daughter, Ashlee, on her lap. “They’re all scared to go to school because they might get killed.”
An overstatement, Bryant suggested.
“I have nieces and nephews in high school, and they’re doing fine,” she said.
For the most part, the Armstrongs and their relatives are a sociable bunch, full of music and laughter. On holidays, they often gather around a piano and break into song, play parlor games or just talk a blue streak. One of the Armstrongs gave a “cousins party” last year, and 200 people showed up from as far as Illinois and Louisiana.
Most are churchgoing folks. Eva Armstrong is the last surviving charter member of the First AME Zion Church on North Raymond Avenue. And Bryant and her children belong to the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Glendale.
“It’s a value my grandmother instilled in me,” Kennedy said. “If I’m not sick or something, I know I have to be in church.”
But sometimes, when it comes to talking about the past, there is a hot strain of indignation, like a dash of Louisiana hot sauce.
Ask them about the television docudrama of Alex Haley’s “Roots,” and there’s a hesitancy in the room, as if the questioner has touched a sore point. Yes, they watched it, and the recent “Queen,” too, the story of Haley’s mixed-race ancestors.
“That Queen didn’t show me anything,” said Cole, of the title character, Haley’s tormented grandmother. “She wanted to be white.”
“She was really in conflict,” Kennedy said.
Bryant said she tapes shows like that, watching them at private moments, when her husband, James, isn’t around.
“I have to be careful about showing those kinds of shows,” she said. “My husband is ready to get up and shoot out the television.”