When Our Elders Perish, an Entire Library Burns to the Ground (African Proverb)

Aunt Jo and Uncle Ivy.  (Photo courtesy Patricia Anita Young)

Aunt Jo and Uncle Ivy. (Photo courtesy Patricia Anita Young)

Private Ivy Hagan and Josephine Hicks Hagan became the twenty-something ensemble known as “Aunt Jo and Uncle Ivy.” They mentored children of all ages and needs throughout Saint Paul between 1933 and 1994.

They were gifted storytellers, speaking in parables of their African American memories between Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Saint Paul, Minnesota. I listened, observed, and learned. Storytelling is the mutual language spoken among African Americans to preserve our faith, hope, and roots.

Doctors George Washington Carver and Booker Taliaferro Washington bounced Josephine on their knees when they stayed in her parents’ home while speaking in the Southern states. Hotels refused colored citizens reservations at that time. (Colored was the term used in the early 1900s.) Both men, born of enslaved American parents, advocated that post-slavery African Americans use their skills to improve their lives and help future generations.

Aunt Jo’s optimistic folklore made the post-Depression years seem encouraging.

She kneaded her philosophy of “Take what you have and make what you need” into her handcrafted, buttered monkey bread. With unwaveringly fragile fingers, she opened a dress shop on Grand Ave­nue, where she designed dresses for the entire wedding party. She sculpted the bridesmaids’ hats, tailored the men’s tuxes, and choreographed their wedding marches. She helped plan Kirby and Tanya Puckett’s wedding and quilted on the AIDS quilt.

Living in Saint Paul, Jo and Ivy’s stories became the divine potluck gumbo of neighbors of Scandinavian, Jewish, Japanese, Liberian, Mexican, and African American heritage (among others) who dined with the couple.

Uncle Ivy owned Anderson’s Barber Shop (the name of previous owner) at Selby and Macubin. One day John Dillinger stopped by Anderson’s for a shave and haircut. There was an unspoken tenseness in Ivy’s tone as he related this experience, yet he told me Mr. Dillinger was the best behaved of any gangster or gang member who walked through his doors in his forty years on Selby Avenue.

Uncle Ivy confirmed, “Dillinger left a lunch-size paper sack in his shop.”

“The ‘Lady in Red,’” Aunt Jo continued, “came by the shop the next morning and asked if a package had been left.”

Uncle Ivy told the lady yes, and grabbed the sack off the shelf where he had placed it overnight. John’s girlfriend, the “Lady in Red,” took the bag from Ivy and left the shop.

Aunt Jo leaned closer to Uncle Ivy on the duct-taped arm of his lounge chair. “What was inside?” she asked.

“I didn’t look.”

John Dillinger allegedly stayed near the Selby/Dale neighborhood and relied on many African Americans for home-cooked meals and other personal needs. These stories have been preserved by word of mouth.

They welcomed John like family, with a kind of “home away from home” feeling that a man like Dillinger might find worth coming back for.

For this story I pieced together a newspaper article written about the Hagans, my many overnight chats with them, and recent conversations with my dad. The Keeper of Family Stories is a role I embrace; it’s my contribution to future generations.

When our Elders perish, an entire library burns to the ground.

 

Patricia Anita Young is an accounting technician who has been writing since a classmate gave her a magical number 2 pencil in the third grade. As “keeper of the family stories,” she records the oral histories of the Saint Paul village that raised her. Her article All Aboard! was published in the 2012 Saint Paul Almanac. Patricia has published articles in the Twin Cities newspapers Insight News and Access Press as well as numerous freelance articles on thriving while surviving chronic medical conditions.

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