Great-grandfather and mason Emerit JonesPhoto courtesy Jennifer Bangoura
Great-grandfather and mason Emerit Jones
Photo courtesy Jennifer Bangoura

Nanny is my grandmother. Daddy is her husband, my grandfather. One day, years ago, Nanny and Daddy were out looking for the Winter Carnival Medallion. They watched others find the medallion on the grounds of Nanny’s old house. “Boys,” she said.
Nanny’s daddy was my great-grandfather Emerit Jones. He came to Saint Paul with his wife, Ora Lee Jones, nee Wade. Any Wades out there?

In my world Nanny loved me more than love loved itself. Nanny was the only child of ten born in Saint Small aka Saint Paul, matter of fact, on Rice Street. In the summer of 1986, she declared, “That’s where I was born!” We were at the Holiday gas station with my mother,
her daughter Martha.

I asked, “Where?”
“There!” she replied, as if I knew.
“Where?” I persisted.
“There!” she insisted.
“There” was across the street from the gas station. In the vicinity
of “there” were two businesses. One looked more like a house, so I took a wild guess and chose the tiny building, which at that time was a . . . anyway, I said, “That sauna?”

“Yeah,” she answered.
I retorted in my smart-alecky way, “I won’t tell nobody!”

On one occasion Nanny asked me if I had on a bra. Oh, whoa, I
was so totally undone! She was seventy-six at the time of this conversation. So I sought to inquire about the status of her underwear as well.

“Nanny, do you have on a bra?” I asked.
Proudly, my favorite person in the world responded, “I always wear a bra.”

I looked at her and said, “Why?” I loved teasing my Nanny, whose nickname was Coopie. How did she, the tenth of ten children, become the only one born in Minnesnowda? Relax yourself.

Coopie’s father, Emerit Jones, was one of ten African American masons recruited from Tennessee to Saint Small to build the State Capitol Building.

Ora Lee Wade Jones had the midwife with her at the time of Coopie’s birth over on Rice Street. That location was ideal for my great-grandfather (Papa), since he lived so close to his place of employment.

Upon completion of the Capitol, Coopie’s mother didn’t want to go back to the place below the Mason-Dixon Line, the South, specifically Union City, Tennessee. Why didn’t she want to leave the blasted, arctic cold of Saint Paul? The horrific cold was most wel- coming and bearable compared to the hellish heat of racism in the land of A. Lynch, Jimmy Crow, and Ku, Klux, Klanny. That was not for my Nanny; this her mother knew.

There was another building on University and Rice on the corner near the White Castle with its eight-cent hamburgers. My grandfather built that one too. It was known as the Ritter Building,
and it was a beauty school—Ritter products were sold there. Who would have thought that as a child, I’d go to Mr. Ritter’s house and even his houseboat with my mother and brother? That building no longer stands, which makes me sad.

My grandmother was near the age of thirteen when her mother died and Papa, my great-grandfather, half Cherokee and half African American, became a widower. Emerit Jones left Saint Small (Paul) for Shytown (Chicago). Most of the buildings there are brick, so my grandfather had plenty of work.

Now and then when I see the Capitol Building in passing, I think of my great-grandfather walking in the snow to work. I think about the kind of man he was. Pride rises inside me. I yearn to saddle up on one of those golden horses that galloped to the top of that legislative institution. As a little girl on a field trip with Webster Elementary (now Obama Elementary), I longed to climb one of those trusty golden steeds, even before I was aware of Papa’s contribution. I claim one of those horses, you should know. Papa died when I was a toddler. I never knew him, but he knew me.

My grandmother Coopie celebrated her 101 birthday with our family on February 22, 2011. She was vibrant, forgetful, and full of the life God gave her. Coopie died October 29, 2011, in her sleep while holding my mother’s hand.