“I am more than Tommy Townes” African Americans at the Phillips Library

Envelope - Thomas Townes to father, Moses Townes

Envelope, letter written by Thomas Townes to his father, Moses Townes, August 1919

In honor of Black History Month, I looked into our holdings to highlight a manuscript collection created primarily by African Americans.  While we have many collections centered on the history of African Americans, many of these materials were written and maintained by white abolitionists with the hopes of raising the status of blacks in nineteenth-century America.  I made it my goal to find a collection written by African Americans.  This led me to MSS 349, the Townes Family Papers, 1911-1931, which includes materials created by three generations of an African American family from Newburyport, Massachusetts. The eldest of correspondents in the collection is matriarch Henrietta Townes who lived and worked on a farm in Finchley, Pennsylvania, with her daughters Robertha and Amanda.  Her son, Moses Townes, lived in Newburyport, MA, where he was employed as a porter at the Wolfe Tavern (which ceased operations in 1951).  He then met and married music instructor Eliza Adams around 1910.  Moses brought his thirteen-year-old son to the marriage and the small family moved to 3 Titcomb Street in Newburyport.

The collection demonstrates a series of successes and failures experienced by the Townes family, particularly Moses’ son, Thomas.  By 1916, at the age of 19, Thomas had moved in with relatives in Harlem, New York.  In a letter marked October 22, 1917, he writes his father the following plea,

Page 1, letter written by Thomas Townes to his father, October 1919

Page 1 of letter written by Thomas Townes to his father, October 1919

“Dear Father … I have really woke up and found myself. I do wish you could arrange it so I could take one year in shorthand, type writing and English.  The schools are open and the fields are good now colored boys … can qualify for stenograffie (sic).  I have too much education to sit in a hall all my life.…I will work here until Feb 1. So I can get plenty of clothes and things so you wont (sic) have to worry about them only my eats and sleep.…I mean this Father from my heart.…I am trying to prove to the world that I am more than Tommy Townes.Jobs open here for colored boys paying from $75.00 to $125.00 a month.  And I am working for nothing…Best love to all from your ambitious Son,Thomas TownesWrite real soon”

There is no evidence of a subsequent letter from Moses or Eliza indicating that they have either supported or refused Thomas’ request for further education.  This letter indicates an opportunity for advancement which was capitalized on by many minority groups during World War I.  With a large percentage of men being enlisted and going overseas, there were many increased opportunities for those staying at home.

This may have been an instance of economic improvement for Thomas; however a year and a half later we see evidence of a downward turn.  On February 28, 1919, three months after the conclusion of the war, Eliza writes her husband in New York:

Page 2, letter from Eliza Towns to husband, Moses, February 1919

Page 2 of letter written by Eliza Townes to her husband, Moses, February 1919

“Will you please find out where Thomas has gone to? He wrote me three letters that he was down and out and he promised faithfully he would come home on the 18th so I sent him $23.00 but have not heard one line from him yet.”

It is possible this decline may be traced to the world-wide economic recession in the wake of World War I.  In addition, the return of white soldiers would have pushed a large proportion of African Americans back down the economic ladder.  Regardless of the cause, we know that six months later, on August 20, 1919, Thomas writes his father in spite of the fact that he knows “you are angry with me” about his current employment situation:

Page 3, Thomas Townes letter to Father, October 1917

Page 3 of letter written by Thomas Townes to his father, October 1917

“Aunt Amanda, George, and Lewis (Ethel’s husband) are all working in the same place with me at 160th B’way [Broadway] with 96 families, and 12 stores, so you see it is not such a small house.”

According to a 1917-1918 New York City Directory, 160th Broadway appears to be just as Townes suggests: a residential building with additional office space.  We cannot know what Townes did in this building, but we do know he was employed.

Though not in this collection, I found a Draft Registration Card from 1942 on Ancestry.com.  According to the card, Thomas Townes was living at 229 West 142nd Street in New York City.  Also listed is his occupation.  Thomas Townes worked for the Works Progress Administration in the role of Junior Clerk.  It looks as if he got that upward mobility he was looking for.

To learn more about the Towneses or for other research inquiries about holdings at the Phillips Library related to African Americans, consult PHILCAT.

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