— By Esther M. Williams-Hays, M.S.

Rosetta Gradford in 1939
Rosetta Gradford in 1939

Many times we regard a person as “well-known” because they are highly visible and are recognized on sight. Rosetta V. Strong Gradford is one of those people who has been highly visible for many years throughout Evanston and the North Shore. She can often be seen at many community social events or in supporting an assortment of programs within our households of faith. When she is in attendance at one of the numerous organizational meetings around town, Mrs. Gradford is seen, and when you see her, she makes an impression on you, and will be remembered.

Mrs. Gradford is well known for her trademark “Hats”. Her flare for dressing with style is well known by pretty much everyone and people say, “Yes I know her”. But do we?

If you are a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), you might think you know her. In 1963, after the National Convention in Boston, Mrs. Gradford, a homemaker, wife, mother and social activist boldly sought out the President, Roy Wilkins to ask him “…just one question, Mr. Wilkins, I would like to start a Life-Membership Program in Evanston Illinois.” Mr. Wilkins responded, “Do you think that is a job you can do?” Mrs. Gradford responded, “Yes, I would like to assume that responsibility.” And from that day until now she has been the only Life-Membership Director of the NAACP in Evanston.

On Mother’s Day in 1963 when asked by her husband, the Rev. Joseph D. Gradford what gift she might want, her reply was, “If we can afford it, $50.00 towards Evanston’s first Life Membership,” and she received that gift. Mrs. Gradford said, “As a leader I can’t ask anyone to do what I haven’t done myself. I had to be the first.”

On the National level, the NAACP appoints Membership Directors for two-year terms. In 2003 Mrs. Gradford will have held her position for 40 years and has received numerous awards and medallions for a job well done. Mrs. Gradford lets everyone know, “Life-Membership money is raised as an act of faith to expand and continue the fight for full freedom for all Americans.”

And, if you are a member of the Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church, you might say, “Oh yes, Mrs. Gradford I know her. Her husband served here for many years as Associate Pastor. She is quite the talker and has her own flare for dressing!” You might think you know her but, would you have known that Mrs. Gradford, then Miss Rosetta V. Strong, had been a member of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church since 1939 and had paid the last installment of $15.00 in 1942 to cancel the mortgage. Miss Strong at that time was earning $7.00 a week, a single young Christian woman living on her own paying rent of $2.50 a week because her room also had a radio in it and she was sending money home to Mississippi.

Would you have known that years later, Mrs. Gradford, after the second devastating fire endured by Ebenezer A.M.E. worked tirelessly to replace the church pews lost in the blaze. Or that she worked toward the building of the Ebenezer Primm Towers Independent Living Housing complex.

Would you have known how integral Ebenezer had been in all facets of Mrs. Gradford’s life that as a young woman in the church that, as she put it, “I had been Praying that God would send me my husband, a good God fearing Christian man.” Miss Strong was singing with Ebenezer – Shekinah Glory Singers, when, in 1944 at a special evening service, she met the man who would become her beloved husband, Joseph D. Gradford whom she later in life affectionately called “Daddy.”

She had been born into a family whose foundation was built on a heritage of freedom.

“We met at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church when Melvin Smith brought a 40-voice Black Soldiers’ Choir from Joliet to sing at our evening program.” Mrs. Gradford related on that night, “God answered my prayers. We “courted” a while and, two months later we were married.” Rosetta was a “War bride” whose husband left for Germany two weeks after they married, and did not return until two years later. “Every evening before bed I would write him a letter, and mail it that next morning” Mrs. Gradford said.

When Rev. Joseph Daniel Gradford passed, they had just celebrated 48 years of marriage. “I’m not one for mourning,” Mrs. Gradford said, “I was blessed with a good husband, I loved him and he loved me. I just say it like this, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

As a member of the Evanston community you might say I know her. I see here her carrying foil-covered plates in a large bag, carrying flowers in the other hand. But did you know that she was taking the time to be a neighbor to those who could no longer get out and about. Once a week, Mrs. Gradford cooks dinners and takes them to her neighbors who might have a taste for some good-old, homegrown greens, or might want to sit and talk and visit a while with someone who remembers when. She might also be found getting her exercise by working out in her yard, cutting grass with a push mower, tending to her garden full of all kind of greens, Alabama onions and flowers of many varieties.

Would you have known that most of the hats you see her wearing have either been made or embellished by her in some way. She first learned the skills of sewing, making hats and clothes from her mother, back home in Mississippi.

“Mama would make all our clothes and we all learned to sew too. So if my sisters and I would see a outfit or a hat we wanted in a magazine, we would just make our own version, ‘cause Papa would always provide us with good material.” “Both my Mama and Papa could sew very well. Papa would make tailored men’s suits, and Mama could make just about anything.”

In the 1940’s while still a new bride Mrs. Gradford took a class at the Evanston Township High School Evening School to further develop her hat-making skills. She sold her creations to several employees at the then downtown Evanston Weibolts Store.

Rosetta Gradford in 1995
Rosetta Gradford in 1995

The oldest of ten children born to Ned Strong, Jr. and Shadie Hayes Strong on September 9, 1917, Rosetta explains, “I always claim that birthdate because it was recorded in our family Bible. The courthouse told all the Black folks that our government records were burned up in a fire, …at least that’s what they tell us.” she said with a smile.

She had been born into a family whose foundation was built on a heritage of freedom. Her father’s mother, Ellen, who was Irish and whose family name was never spoken and therefore never remembered, was disowned by her family for loving and marrying Ned Strong, Sr. who was born of the Cherokee Nation.

Rosetta’s grandfather was very “well to do”. “He owned his own six seat covered-carriage drawn by six horses, and when they moved out from Dublin, Mississippi, he owned his own plantation and had other Coloreds sharecropping for him.”

Rosetta’s mother’s mother was “very light-skinned” possibly bi-racial. Her name was Mariah Kittrell, from Kittrell, North Carolina and “I never did get to meet her.” Rosetta’s mother’s father was James Henry Hayes and he was also born of the Cherokee Nation.

I started to pick cotton at the age of six.

Rosetta V. Strong came to Evanston in 1939 at the age of 16, traveling here with only a hand-written letter from her Aunt Alice to guide her, with her “Sunday-Go-To-Meeting” clothes on her back and $9.00 to her name.

“Aunt Alice was just two years younger than I, and we would talk about a great deal of things together. She was a senior at Evanston Township High School in 1939 and worked part-time to help the family because it was still the “Depression.”

“Aunt Alice, along with my Aunt Sarah, was raised by my Great Aunt Sister Hurley who often came down to Mississippi to visit. Sometimes they helped bring in the crop. While we worked Aunt Alice would tell me about the North and the freedom up there. I would just think, NO MORE COTTON!”.

“We went to school until harvest time, then we would have to stop school and work in the fields. I went to school until the 11th grade and I would have graduated high school had I stayed at home in Dublin, Mississippi, but the freedom of the north sounded much better.”

She planned with Aunt Alice by mail for months to escape the cotton fields of her father’s farm in Mississippi. “I started to pick cotton at the age of six, Papa would give me a basket or bucket and I’d pick.” Mrs. Gradford recalled. “By the age of 13, I was required to “pull” 200 lbs. of cotton in a sack that was strapped to me and trailed behind about five feet long. We’d pick from sun-up to sundown. We had no clock and everyone, even the White folks, told time by our shadows.”

Aunt Alice had promised to save money from her part-time job and buy a bus ticket and enough money for travel. Aunt Alice did just as she had promised, and the “Freedom Letter” with $9.00, a bus ticket and directions arrived. The instructions told how to travel by bus to Memphis, from Memphis to Chicago, and from downtown Chicago on the elevated train to downtown Evanston, then by cab which cost .10¢ to Aunt Alice’s house.

Rosetta V. Strong had never traveled anywhere alone, and had never been on the bus. She had only left Mississippi once before with her Grandmother as a three-year-old traveling by train to Tennessee. Believing “With God to guide you, you are never alone,” she began her journey to freedom.

She left rural Dublin, Mississippi in Sun Flower County by Greyhound bus, the same bus that had passed her every morning on the rock and dirt road she traveled on foot to school.

Rosetta’s own living legacy of freedom to choose to love, work, live and to be free began the day she arrived. Perhaps now when you see Mrs. Gradford around town you can truly say you know a little something more about who she is really is, as she lives out her legacy of freedom.

Author’s Reflections

I met Mrs. Gradford when I joined Ebenezer A.M.E. in 1972. She was the wife of our Assistant Pastor the Rev. Joseph D. Gradford. From that time to this, I have always appreciated her strengths as I observed her in the roles of Saved Christian woman, wife, mother, daughter and community activist. Whether in the Church, in the community or at home, “Mother Gradford’s” inner beauty, outer sense of “style”, creativity, her flare for color and hats, her down-to-earth sense of humor and her ability to always speak what was on her mind and often in a very soft-spoken yet straight to the point manner have inspired me.

While in conversation with “Mother Gradford” the other day she told me that “in all my years I have never in my life smoked or drank any alcohol – not even cocktails.”

“Mother Gradford” is unique, different and quite an extraordinary woman. I truly do love her and am extremely proud to call her my friend.

Source: Reprinted from the printed Shorefront Journal, volume 3, number 3, Spring 2002. Article based on a video interview by Esther M. Williams-Hays, M.S. Photo of Ms. Gradford in 1935 courtesy of Ms. Gradford. Photo of Ms. Gradford in 1995 ©Rich Foreman Photography.

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