I think often about my grandmother’s hands—wrinkled and smooth, soft and firm, nails long and curled.
I remember her arranging flowers in her flower shop; in the rich soil of her garden teaching me about airplane plants; on my shoulders reminding me to sit up straight at the piano; in a mound of ground beef shaping the most delicious meatballs this side of the Mississippi. I remember their softness as she held my face tenderly and told me I was the most beautiful little girl in the world.
And I wonder: How could one woman’s—one fierce, gentle, strong Black woman’s—hands tell so many stories, hold so much history, share so much love.
My grandmother, Artimese Tarlton Morris West, known by her beloved children and grandchildren as simply “Dear,” was born March 1, 1919, in Adams County, Miss., the daughter of Elvira Cecile Morris and Eddie Tarlton. She graduated from Brumfield High School in Natchez, Miss., in 1937 as salutatorian of her class, and she married my grandfather George F. West, Sr. one month later. From their love would come seven children—6 sons and 1 daughter—George, Henry Eddie, Diane, Theodore, John, Samuel, and James.
Dear served on many committees and held numerous offices in organizations in the Natchez community, but she is most remembered by history as being the 1st Black alderwoman for the city of Natchez, serving out the term of my grandfather after he died of a massive heart attack in 1982; and as owner and co-founder of West Funeral Home and West House of Flowers where she served her community for over 50 years.
“[She]took the job very seriously,” former Natchez Mayor Tony Byrne told the Natchez Democrat. “She wasn’t just a figurehead, she went to work and was very, very active.”
This was not a surprise to anyone who really knew Dear, a woman made of silk covered steel—and love, always love. She moved gracefully, quietly, and embodied a stillness, a peace, a freedom that was evident in all she did and everyone’s lives she touched.
““She never did anything to try to make a statement, but whatever she did was for the betterment of the community,” Bluff City Post Publisher William Terrell said.
Dear didn’t have to try; her entire life was a statement, a blueprint, for and in honor of free Black women.
In 1960, my grandfather was placed under surveillance by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. He was president of the local Business and Civic League and that summer, he co-authored a letter to a Mr. W.A. Geisenberger asking to form a bi-racial committee (Black and white men) to address the issues of racism and discrimination in the community.
Geisenberger forwarded that letter to Judge L.C. Gwin, who then forwarded it to Albert Jones, director of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission—a racist organization that spied on “subversive Negroes” who even so much as thought of freedom. Their purpose was to suppress these “dangerous” Black men and maintain segregation and the second-class citizenship of Black people. The Commission was also complicit in the 1964 Ku Klux Klan murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner—the three civil rights workers who traveled to Neshoba County, MS to register people to vote.
The Commission was under the leadership of Gov. Ross Barnett, a racist Dixiecrat who believed that integration was evil and, to that end, attempted in every way he could to stop James Meredith from integrating Ole Miss. After my grandfather put in a request to be recertified as a notary public, he was again brought to Jones’ attention. At that point, Jones began to dig. He sent out letters to white people in Natchez asking about my grandfather—what land did he own? Did he pay his poll tax and vote? How many children did he have?
The Commission found out that he did, in fact, pay his poll tax and Dear’s, too. She was one of few Black women who could vote in the South before the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She voted for the first time in 1959; and she was stalked and assaulted by white supremacists, who threw rocks at her for trying to register more Black women. Dear was later honored by the The National Council of Negro Women and the NAACP for her efforts.
Dear loved so hard and so gently. Despite the burdens that white supremacy and patriarchy placed on her shoulders, she found joy and purpose in Black art, Black literature, and Black community.
“What you might not know is that Dear took corresponding courses, which today are online courses, and taught herself,” my Uncle Sam West, Dear’s next to youngest son, told me. “She taught herself floral design, accounting, how to read music, and how play the piano. I saw her studying how to become a politician in preparation of serving her community as alderwoman after your granddaddy died. She refused to just occupy a seat.”
“She was instrumental in developing a Christmas Tree Fund where families in need could receive funds to make ends meet,” Uncle Sam continued. “She would provide gifts and food at Christmas time to hundreds of families for over forty years. She was one of the first Black people to integrate Armstrong Library downtown with your Aunt Diane, one of the first Black people to work vote registration and the polls.”
“She helped your dad become a census counter in the sixties, no lie,” Uncle Sam laughed. “My Dear, she was an outstanding mother and grandmother who got on the floor and played with her children and grandchildren. She taught us—her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren—the meaning of life, laughter, and love.”
Dear joined the ancestors on July 4, 2013. She was 94-years old. I often think about the meaning of that—to leave this realm on a day that proclaimed freedom, but not for Black women. She was free—as a praying woman, she was free to be with her God, free from the Alzheimer’s that tried to take control of her beautiful mind, but never her love. Never her love. I know she knew how much I loved her, but I’m not sure if she knew how much I admired her, respected her, emulated her. I don’t know if she knew how proud I am of her and how honored I am to be her granddaughter.
Dear taught me how to love and be loved, how to be a mother, a wife, a leader, and a fighter. She may be remembered for making history as the first Black alderwoman in a city poisoned by white supremacy, but, to us—those who loved her most—she is Dear, our matriarch. I will forever hold close the memories of her taking me to the backyard to pull magnolias from our tree. I see her smile as we drank honeysuckle, blew daffodils, and curled roly pollies, all while swatting at mosquitoes and laughing. I see her thoughtful expression as we walked the Natchez Bluff and strolled Under-the-Hill where our enslaved ancestors were shackled and sold as the Mighty Mississippi continued to sway and rise.
I remember love.
Whenever her grandchildren prepared to leave after a visit, we kissed her cheek, held her close, and said, “I love you, Dear.”
And in her kind, gentle voice, she always said, “I love you more.”
Thank you, Dear, for being the rock, the core, the matriarch, of the West family. Thank you for my father—my hero, my everything. He would not be the man he was, the father he was, without you being the woman, the mother, you were. Thank you for teaching me how to put family first, always. Thank you for being my blueprint. Thank you for always being my soft place to land.
I love you more.
She heard the names,
swirling ribbons in the wind of history:
nigger, nigger bitch, heifer,
mammy, property, creature, ape, baboon,
whore, hot tail, thing, it.
She said, But my description cannot
fit your tongue, for
I have a certain way of being in this world,
and I shall not, I shall not be moved.
Centered on the world’s stage,
she sings to her loves and beloveds,
to her foes and detractors:
However I am perceived and deceived,
however my ignorance and conceits,
lay aside your fears that I will be undone,
for I shall not be moved.
— Maya Angelou, Our Grandmothers