Renée Nik Davies: Deep Berkshire roots
SHEFFIELD -- In the year 1909, William Howard Taft was America's 27th President, the American flag sported only 45 stars and sugar cost a mere four cents a pound. It was a time before the invention of zippers, Band-Aids, traffic lights, penicillin or bubble gum, and it was also the year Minnie Gertrude Golden was born.
I sit across from Stephanie Wright, Minnie's oldest granddaughter. I listen raptly to stories of her large, tightly knit family and am awed that I have stumbled across a branch of one of the oldest African American family trees in Berkshire County. Wright's family roots trace back to 1855 when Sam Golden, her great grandfather, moved from Fishkill, N.Y., to begin a farming life in Sheffield. Sam's grandson, Cornelius Golden Jr., met and married Minnie.
When Minnie and Cornelius, an African-American man, married in 1928, it was a controversy. They went through trying times as a mixed raced couple raising bi-racial children in the early ‘30s and ‘40s.
"Popi and Gram met in Norwalk, Conn. He met her and refused to return home to Sheffield without her. He was a very convincing man," Wright said. "Sometimes [their life together] got tough, but they always made it through. My grandparents were hard workers. They never gave up."
Minnie worked as a housekeeper until age 85. Cornelius worked as a carpenter to help construct the Mid-Hudson Bridge in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and with his own construction company he built many homes in Sheffield that still stand to this day.
"Popi was somewhat of a short man," Wright said, "but I remember Gram being a tall, stately woman [in her early years.] It was when Gram retired that our relationship became stronger. I visited her nearly every day. We would talk about anything and everything. She was very news-conscious. She had an opinion on everything, and she wanted to know your opinion too. Gram was a hot ticket until the day she died."
Wright smiled as she recounted the years of Minnie's long life.
Minnie and Cornelius had been married for 48 years when Cornelius died in 1974. They had eight children, and those children have produced a legion of grandchildren, great grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and even a few great-great-great grandchildren.
"Gram loved her family, Wright said. "She loved having us all around her every chance she could get. She kept us together. Family was important to Gram, and it's still important to all of us. We were all so close when we were growing up. We just love each other so much, and I am so thankful for that."
Wright's close-knit family was the driving force behind her success when she moved from South Carolina to Berkshire County.
"Mom was born in Great Barrington, but she married my father, who was from the south and moved there," she said. "I spent most of my young years in a segregated school in South Carolina. We eventually moved back to Berkshire County, and in 1963 I started school at Mt. Everett, [a predominately white school.]
"It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement back then. The South was in flames, people were killing and fighting over race, but I was clueless here. I had so many cousins at school, some with blond hair and blue eyes, but they loved us and were proud of us, and [the tension in the rest of the country] didn't seem to touch us. My family made my experience in high school fun."
Perhaps it is Minnie's strength that continues to keep their family close to this very day.
"Gram was a very strong person," Wright said. "She always wanted things to be fair and straight. If she ever had a problem, she went right to the source, and she wouldn't leave until the problem got solved. She taught me to not only speak up when things are bothering me but to speak up and applaud the good in the world too."
Many have described Minnie Golden as a wonderful woman. She grew to love her home in Sheffield and became a treasured and respected member of her community. When asked what she remembered most about her grandmother, Wright was moved to tears.
"She believed that an apple a day kept the doctor away, so she grew her own fruit," she said. "She also raised her own chickens and maintained her own gardens. Now that I reflect on her, I realize that she believed in excellence. She pursued excellence, expected excellence and showered excellence upon us."
Minnie was 100 years old when Wright pulled out an old tape recorder and captured her reciting from memory "Come Little Leaves," a poem by George Cooper. On the tape, Minnie's strong, rhythmic voice speaks these final words.
"Cricket, goodbye, we've been friends so long.
Little brook, sing us your farewell song --
Say you are sorry to see us go.
Ah! You are sorry,
Right well we know."
Minnie's life began on Feb. 11 in Sharon, Conn., and came to a sweet conclusion in Sheffield just a few months before her 105th birthday last November. This may seem like the end, but Minnie's story will continue to live on in her family and her beloved home.
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