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They Raised Me Up

A Black Single Mother and the Women Who Inspired Her

Carolyn Marie Wilkins

Publication Year: 2013

At the height of the cocaine-fueled 1980s, Carolyn Wilkins left a disastrous marriage in Seattle and, hoping to make it in the music business, moved with her four-year-old daughter to a gritty working-class town on the edge of Boston. They Raised Me Up is the story of her battle to succeed in the world of jam sessions and jazz clubs--a man’s world where women were seen as either sex objects or doormats. To survive, she had to find a way to pay the bills, overcome a crippling case of stage fright, fend off a series of unsuitable men, and most important, find a reliable babysitter.

Alternating with Carolyn’s story are the stories of her ancestors and mentors--five musically gifted women who struggled to realize their dreams at the turn of the twentieth century:

Philippa Schuyler, whose efforts to “pass” for white inspired Carolyn to embrace her own black identity despite her “damn near white” appearance and biracial child;

Marjory Jackson, the musician and single mother whose dark complexion and flamboyant lifestyle raised eyebrows among her contemporaries in the snobby, color-conscious world of the African American elite;

Lilly Pruett, the daughter of an illiterate sharecropper whose stunning beauty might have been her only ticket out of the “Jim Crow” South;

Ruth Lipscomb, the country girl who dreamed, against all odds, of becoming a concert pianist and realized her improbable ambition in 1941;

Alberta Sweeney, who survived a devastating personal tragedy by relying on the musical talent and spiritual stamina she had acquired growing up in a rough-and-tumble Kansas mining town.

They Raised Me Up interweaves memoir with family history to create an entertaining, informative, and engrossing read that will appeal to anyone with an interest in African American or women’s history or to readers simply looking for an intriguing story about music and family.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

...This project would never have become a book without my family. My mother, Elizabeth, shared her memories and inspired me to Celebrate the Beautiful. My daughter, Sarah, provided tea, sympathy, and wisdom beyond her years. My brothers, David, Stephen, and Timothy, offered much-needed encouragement, and Ruth Spencer spent hours telling me “Aunt Ruth” stories. Sally and Jason Cooper, Ann Marie and Emelda Wilkins, and my Aunt Constance...

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Carolyn’s Inspiring Women

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pp. xi-xii

...Carolyn’s great-great-grandmother. Born into slavery, she nurtured her daughters with music and instilled in them a deep sense of their intrinsic value....

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A Note to the Reader

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pp. xiii-xvi

...This is a work of creative nonfiction. Its historical sections are drawn entirely and without embellishment from the sources listed in my footnotes. However, in the parts of the book that take place between 1986 and 1987, I have disguised some of the characters to protect their privacy. In writing about this same time period, I have also reconstructed conversations from memory and altered the chronology of certain events in order to create a smoother...

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Chapter One. Carolyn and Sarah, Somerville, Massachusetts, August 1986

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pp. 1-5

...Blam! A heavy object thuds against my bedroom wall, startling me from a deep sleep. Heart pounding, I prop myself on one elbow and listen intently. Silence. I squint at the clock on the cardboard box beside my bed: 1:45 a.m. Stumbling into the bathroom, I press my ear against the wall. The banging has stopped. I tiptoe back into the bedroom to check on my daughter. If Sarah wakes up now there’ll be no getting her back to sleep for the rest of the night. Fortunately, my four-year-old continues...

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Chapter Two. Lilly, Midway, Alabama, November 1896

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pp. 6-9

...On the day before Thanksgiving 1896, Lillian Pruett and Richard King walked into the Bullock County Courthouse in Union Springs, Alabama, to apply for a marriage license. Although she was just fourteen, my great-grandmother was already a beautiful woman with luxuriant brown hair, shapely curves, and striking oval eyes. We do not know what Richard King looked like, only that he was thirty-one years old, that his family came from...

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Chapter Three. Carolyn and Sarah, Somerville, August 1986

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pp. 10-13

...Ten minutes after I called 911, two Somerville police cars pulled up outside the apartment building. Minutes later, my neighbor emerged from the front of the building, wearing handcuffs and flanked by a pair of broad-shouldered police officers. Although I knew my neighbor’s voice all too well, I had never actually seen him. Like any other vampire, he preferred to do his business late at night, away from prying eyes. Illuminated...

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Chapter Four. Lilly and Alberta, Birmingham, Alabama, 1899

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pp. 14-16

...It is impossible to know exactly when Lilly King’s carefully ordered life began to fall apart. When I asked my mother about Lilly’s husband Richard King, she did not even recognize his name. The only story Mom had ever heard about her grandfather was that he “left the family” after Alberta was born. When I looked for Richard King in the U.S. census records...

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Chapter Five. Carolyn and Sarah, Somerville, September 1986

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pp. 17-22

...After my neighbor was arrested, my apartment building became quiet as a tomb. No sounds came from the apartment next-door, and the tough kids who used to hang around the stairwell were gone. I didn’t see how this state of affairs could possibly continue, but I was determined to enjoy it while it lasted. The day after Labor Day, I started my new job at the Happy Trails Afterschool Program. Although I didn’t want to...

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Chapter Six. Lilly and Alberta, Birmingham, 1899

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pp. 23-25

...New coalfields had been discovered in southeastern Kansas, and the state’s four biggest mining companies were desperately looking for workers. In the summer of 1899, Central Coal and Coke Company set up a recruiting office less than a mile from the shotgun tenement where Lilly and her family lived. Alabama’s use of convict miners had created an unintended consequence: a prisoner who managed to survive his sentence emerged with valuable job skills. To entice the Birmingham miners, the Kansas...

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Chapter Seven. Carolyn and Sarah, Somerville, September 1986

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pp. 26-29

...The 1369 Jazz Club on Cambridge Street hosted a popular jam session on Monday nights. From eight to midnight, jazz musicians from all over New England would stop by to play with the band, to network, and to hang out. The session was legendary—even back in Tacoma, I’d heard musicians talk about it. For weeks I’d been debating whether to go...

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Chapter Eight. Lilly and Alberta, Weir, Kansas, 1905

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pp. 30-33

...When Lilly stepped off the train at Weir Depot, she must have thought she’d landed in the Wild West. The sidewalks were made from rough wooden planks. Coal dust from the town’s thirteen mine shafts clogged the air, and the streets were unpaved, even in the center of town. Prostitution, gambling, and corruption flourished. Weir’s miners worked ten hours a day, six days a week, in dark and dangerous caves buried under the earth. When Saturday night rolled around, they were ready to party. Saturday night...

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Chapter Nine. Carolyn and Sarah, Somerville, September 1986

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pp. 34-39

...I allowed plenty of time to find my way to the 1369 Club. Contrary to my usual practice, I didn’t get lost and wander down any of Cambridge’s winding side streets. Also contrary to my usual practice, I found a legal parking spot only a block away from the club. I checked my watch—7:30 p.m. The jam session didn’t start until 8 and no self-respecting...

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Chapter Ten. Alberta, Anniston, Alabama, 1913

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pp. 40-42

...Weir High School did not accept black students.1 Lilly, however, was not going to let segregation keep her daughter from getting an education. True, Lilly had never made it past the eighth grade. And yes, Lilly’s own mother was illiterate. But Alberta was going to be different. She was going to rise in the world—Lilly would see to it. After Alberta graduated...

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Chapter Eleven. Carolyn and Sarah, Somerville, September 1986

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pp. 43-46

...Two weeks later I played my first gig in Boston at a funky Puerto Rican community center in the South End. Resplendent in a brightly patterned dress that complimented her café au lait complexion and reddish-brown Afro, Semenya McCord was every bit as much fun to work with as I’d hoped. The atmosphere was relaxed, the audience enthusiastic. They stamped their feet and whistled at the end of the show until she agreed to sing an encore. For days afterward I was on Cloud Nine...

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Chapter Twelve. Lilly and Alberta, Detroit, 1917

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pp. 47-51

...Lilly’s new lover was thirty-nine years old, a brown-skinned man with a medium build and a receding hairline.1 Although not dashingly handsome, Henry Pratt possessed one highly attractive quality: he was not afraid of hard work. As soon as Pratt arrived in Detroit, he found a job working as a janitor. The following year he found better paying work at the Bellevue Foundry...


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pp. 52-66

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Chapter Thirteen. Carolyn and Sarah, Brooklyn, Thanksgiving 1986

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pp. 67-71

...I had been looking forward to Thanksgiving for weeks. My afterschool teaching job was driving me crazy, and Sarah remained unhappy about spending her afternoons with the babysitter. I was doing my best to keep a positive attitude, but the truth was I needed a break. And not just any break. I needed to see my Aunt Marjory. Aunt Marjory was actually my great-aunt, but everyone, friends and relatives alike, called her...

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Chapter Fourteen. Alberta, Harlem, 1940

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pp. 72-77

...moving from town to town across the Midwest because the Methodist Church required its pastors to change congregations every three years. In each new city, Alberta had tried to finish her college degree. She majored in music education at Capitol University in Columbus, Ohio. At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, she majored in English and was featured in the school’s literary magazine. At the University of Chicago, she took classes in social...

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Chapter Fifteen. Elizabeth and Carolyn, Brooklyn, Thanksgiving 1986

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pp. 78-85

...I left Aunt Marj napping in the living room and went upstairs to look for Sarah. Once she had gotten over her shyness, she was swallowed up in the gaggle of children running all over the house. As I got to the top of the stairs, I could hear her laughing in the spare bedroom with three of her cousins. I was about to check on her when my mother approached me. “I’m glad to see you talking with your Aunt Marjory, but I hope you won’t forget to spend some time with me. I haven’t seen...

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Chapter Sixteen. Alberta, Harlem, 1943

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pp. 86-88

...Samuel Jr. was eighteen, John was seventeen, and Paul was sixteen. All three were bright, handsome, and popular, and all three would soon be eligible for the draft. On New Year’s Day 1943, her worst fears were realized. Samuel Jr. was drafted and ordered to report for duty on July 3. A few months later, John received a similar notice. World War II , which had seemed merely a distant threat, had now become deeply personal. Of all the Sweeney boys, Samuel Jr. looked...

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Chapter Seventeen. Carolyn and Sarah, Somerville, December 1986

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pp. 89-93

...On the morning of December 1, I returned home from Sarah’s preschool to find a large moving van parked in my designated space. Cursing, I swung the car around and began searching for a place to park. When I finally got home twenty minutes later, two burly moving men were maneuvering a kingsized mattress into the apartment next-door. From inside, a woman—white and from Boston, judging by the broad sound of her...

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Chapter Eighteen. Alberta, Harlem, 1944

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pp. 94-96

...Alberta Sweeney would have seen the flags hanging in windows all over Harlem. Sewn by the mothers of soldiers, one blue star was embroidered against a white background for each child in military service. In recent days she would also have seen flags embroidered with gold stars—one star for each child killed in the war. With two sons in the army, my grandmother must have worried herself to sleep every night. At least John, who played...

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Chapter Nineteen. Carolyn and Sarah, Somerville, December 1986

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pp. 97-101

...close to the bandstand where I could keep my eye on her, I’d fix her up with a glass of Coke and a bag of potato chips. For the rest of the afternoon, she drew in her coloring book and listened to the band. After a few weeks the neighborhood regulars, elderly black men who’d been listening to jazz since the 1940s, began to consider us part of the family. “You play a mean piano, young lady,” one old coot told me...

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Chapter Twenty. Aunt Marjory, Brooklyn, 1948

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pp. 102-106

...When I imagine this Sunday in September of 1948, Aunt Marj is wearing one of her outrageous hats. Maybe it’s the little pillbox with the veil. Maybe it’s made of velvet and sports a feather at its peak. As Aunt Marj steps up to the microphone at Janes Methodist Church in the heart of Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, she looks out on a sea of faces, black folks dressed in suits, fur coats, and elaborate Sunday hats. In my mind’s eye...

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Chapter Twenty-One. Carolyn and Sarah, Somerville, January 1987

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pp. 107-111

...When Sarah returned to Boston in mid-January, she appeared to have taken her six-hour plane ride in stride. “Look, Mom. They gave me wings,” she told me, pointing to the silver pin fastened to her coat. “I’m an Official Flier now.” On the way home from the airport, we stopped at McDonald’s to celebrate. As Sarah described her visit, I restrained myself from asking too many questions. I didn’t ask if my former husband seemed...

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Chapter Twenty-Two. Aunt Marjory, Brooklyn, 1948

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pp. 112-116

...Henry Jackson Jr. was Aunt Marjory’s only child. In several of the pictures I have, she hovers next to him—holding his hand, leading him by the shoulder, or standing just behind him, beaming with pride.1 In these early pictures, Henry is often in uniform, the cub scouts, the boy scouts, and later as a high school cadet. Like his mother, Henry was good with words—he enjoyed writing poetry and even composed a sonnet in honor of his formidable grandfather...

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Chapter Twenty-Three. Carolyn and Sarah, Somerville, March 1987

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pp. 117-121

...After my failed flirtation with Jim Jakes, the campus cop from Mississippi, I called my mother for a dose of much-needed moral support. “You should start going to church,” she told me. “That’s where I met your father, you know.” I did know. On a trip to New York City, my father’s parents had visited Mom’s church in Harlem, bringing Dad with them. And the rest was history. “But Mom,” I began. “And where did your Grandmother Alberta meet...

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Chapter Twenty-Four. Alberta, Harlem, 1947

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pp. 122-125

...As she celebrated her fiftieth birthday, Alberta Sweeney could look back with satisfaction on a full and meaningful life.1 She had become the first black woman to sit on the board of the Girl Scouts of America’s New York branch. Her husband, Samuel Sweeney Sr., had been awarded an honorary doctorate from Morgan State College and another one from his old alma mater, Gammon Theological Seminary. Her church...

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Chapter Twenty-Five. Carolyn, Somerville, August 1987

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pp. 126-130

...Come on, Jelly!” A caramel-colored woman in a skintight pink strapless dress and six-inch heels pirouetted away from her partner to encourage the band. “Come on, now! Tell me about that road.” Jelly grinned and ground his enormous hips in a lascivious circle. Dave locked into a throbbing bass groove while Philippe, our saxophonist, blasted a high-pitched riff into the swirling crowd. Just when it seemed that the song couldn’t get any more intense, Jelly raised his voice another octave, screaming with the full force of his three hundred pounds. “Further on up the road, that’s when it’s all gonna come down...

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Chapter Twenty-Six. Carolyn and Elizabeth, Birmingham, January 2012

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pp. 131-136

...My mother and I drove down from Red Mountain and into the north side of Birmingham. When my grandmother was growing up here, this area had been teeming with migrants just like herself—African Americans fresh from the cotton fields seeking a better life in the city. These days, my grandmother’s former neighborhood was largely deserted. On the corner where Alberta Sweeney, her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother...


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pp. 137-142


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pp. 143-150

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About the Author

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p. 151-151

...Carolyn Marie Wilkins is a Professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. She has toured South America as a Jazz Ambassador for the U.S. State Department, performed on radio and television with her group SpiritJazz, and worked as a percussionist in the Pittsburgh and Singapore symphonies. She has released several critically acclaimed CDs of her...

E-ISBN-13: 9780826273086
E-ISBN-10: 0826273084
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826220110
Print-ISBN-10: 0826220118

Page Count: 167
Illustrations: 25, index
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1