Celebrating the Extraordinary Who Are Relegated to Ordinary: A Tribute to Rebecca White Simmons Chapman and Juanita Cranford Robinson Watson
This article, written by Aishah Shahidah Simmons, was originally published on The Feminist Wire.
Nana (Rebecca White Simmons Chapman)
Too often, we do not celebrate the extraordinary individuals who, because of their race, gender, and/or socio-economic standing, lived what appeared to be ordinary lives. This year, I am paying homage to my paternal and maternal grandmothers’ lives and legacies. I proudly stand upon the shoulders of my Nanas—Mrs. Rebecca White Simmons Chapman and Mrs. Juanita Cranford Robinson Watson—whose lives were remarkable.
My grandmothers grew up in abject poverty in Rock Hill, South Carolina and Memphis, Tennessee. Nana Chapman was the third of four children born to Jack White, Sr., and Maggie Pagan White. When she left school in the fourth grade to financially support her family by working as a domestic cleaning white people’s homes, she was forced to abandon her dream of becoming a nurse. Alone with limited financial means as a domestic laborer in the 1930s, she moved from South Carolina to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when she was 12 years old. Nana Watson’s formative years were also quite challenging. She was the 9th child of 10 children born to Mattie Garrett Cranford and Henderson Cranford. She was orphaned early, losing both of her parents as a very young child. Both her paternal grandmother Mrs. Francis Macklin, and paternal aunt, Mrs. Florence Cranford, raised her and her siblings. Nana Watson was an excellent student who completed the 11th grade during the Great Depression. Never overzealous with their Christian faith, Nanas Chapman and Watson were active and engaged members in their churches—Jones Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church and Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church, respectively. Neither woman subscribed to the belief in a vengeful God who would bring His wrath upon those who didn’t follow (human interpretations of) His will. Nana Chapman always taught and believed that “good deeds are their own rewards.”
During World War II, Nana Chapman worked at the Budd Automotive Company, then subsequently began working at Sichek Clothing factory in Philadelphia, where she quickly rose to floor manager. Throughout her tenure at Sichek, she was an active union member and a shop steward.
During that same period, Nana Watson became a pioneer by breaking the virulently racist Jim Crow color line by becoming the first African-American woman to write laundry tickets for Memphis Steam Laundry and Cleaners. Prior to her, no African-American women worked in this position because it required collecting money from and interacting with white customers during a time when racial segregation was strictly enforced. This type of work was reserved for white women. African Americans, nevertheless, endured and resisted this U.S.-sanctioned domestic terrorism.
Nana Watson valiantly persevered despite the racism that I can barely imagine, much less stomach, that she endured from most of the white women customers who didn’t want to accept laundry tickets from a “Colored Woman.” While it was not her intention, she was a trailblazer who broke ground in this field and paved the way for those African-American women who followed her.
With the first African-American President of the United States in his second term, many will probably not view Nana Watson pioneering job as an extraordinary act. However, one need only talk to the surviving elders from her generation and earlier to learn first hand about the horrid impact of the brutal, state and locally inhumane, racist and sexist Jim Crow laws. These were the laws of the Confederate states from 1876 to 1965. Some of the many seminal award-winning works that document a plethora of historical accounts of the era include: Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War, Paula Giddings Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching, Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, Danielle Maguire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years: 1954-1963, the Hands on the Freedom Plow:Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC anthology; Blackside’s PBS television series Eyes on the Prize, and Duke University’s Beyond the Veil: African-American Life in the Jim Crow South. These are a few thoroughly documented references that underscore what Nana and all African-Americans experienced daily during Jim Crow reign. Being the first African American in any type of employment that was his/herstorically reserved for white women and men was no small feat.
And yet, there was no fanfare for the pioneering work of Nana Watson and Nana Chapman primarily because we live in a classist society and the work of laborers, most especially Black women laborers is not valued or respected. They, like so many African-American women of their generation, were unsung and very quiet extraordinary sheroes.
Challenging the racial and gender stereotypes of the 1950s and 60s, Nana Chapman demanded that all strata of society respect her and her family. She was committed to supporting African-American health care professionals, attorneys and other business people throughout her life. She was particularly proud that her two sons’ first doctor was an African-American woman.
In 1962, Nana Chapman was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and was given five years to live. She wasn’t daunted by the prognosis. With her faith in God, along with the unlimited emotional, psychic, and financial support of her second husband, Willie L. Chapman, my grandfather, Nana outlived this diagnosis by 39-years. Over a 30-year span, the illness caused her to be hospitalized on average of every 18-months. She was exposed to an inordinate amount of radiation, which made her bones too brittle to be exposed to extended sunlight; and she was often in excruciating pain. In spite of these major impediments, Nana insisted on and lived a normal life.
In the 1970s, Nana Watson and her second husband, Reverend Granville Watson, established their own cleaning business, which provided quality janitorial services for Hobson-Kerns Realty for many years. After her divorce, Nana continued providing cleaning services for this and other companies for decades until her retirement at the age of 80.
Both Nanas Chapman and Watson were hard workers who held life long desires and quests for knowledge. They were avid readers with homes filled with books, magazines, and newspapers. Neither woman defined herself in terms of education or paid work. Rather, each saw her quality of life determined by what kind of sister, wife, mother, grandmother, and friend she was to those she loved.
Long before I had ever heard of and encountered my teacher, mentor, and big sister friend Toni Cade Bambara, Nana Chapman was my teacher and mentor. Until I was 21-years in this journey called life, there was hardly anything that I could not share with her. With the exception of one big secret, I talked to her about almost everything –religion and spirituality, reproductive freedom, politics, my lesbian sexuality, education, and friendships with my peers. Her home was my second home. During my turbulent pre-teen and teenage years, Nana and I would talk on the phone almost daily for hours at a time. She was my “Nana Banana” and I was her “Apple Pie.” I never felt like she didn’t have time for my issues, concerns, thoughts, ideas, and/or fears. For many years she was literally my emotional and psychic lifeline. She never used the words “Black feminist” to describe herself, but she played a major role in teaching me Black feminist principles. She always made it explicitly clear that there were no limits to any goals that a woman sought to achieve. She would always tell me, “There’s no such thing as ‘can’t,’ Pie.” These conversations played a pivotal role on my current quest to write about and document the struggles of African-American women and other women of color. With a fourth grade education and a PhD. in life experience, she was my intellectual adviser, my trusted confidante, sought after consultant, and my friend.
Aishah & Nana (Juanita Cranford Robinson Watson)
I will not be a revisionist and say that Nana Watson and I were extremely close because we were not. There was deep love and affection shared between us. However, very unfortunately, with the exception of one-year when she came to live with my mother (Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons) and I during my adolescence, we never lived geographically close to each other. Over the years our relationship was really relegated to phone calls and brief visits over holidays or during birthdays. And yet, she always traveled to Philadelphia to attend major milestone events in the lives of her daughter and granddaughter. While she didn’t think that rape was something to be discussed in public or even private, Nana made several financial contributions, which supported the making of my film NO! The Rape Documentary.
Nana had a will power that would not be denied. When she set her mind on something, there really wasn’t anything that you could do to change it. Even if she changed her mind, it was not because someone forced her to do so. As her health declined over the years, she was not aware that she could no longer fully take care of herself. In her mind’s eye, she was still the same Mrs. Juanita Watson she had always been, just slightly older. I write this because it is difficult to come to grips with the fact that someone who has taken care of you is in need of care. It is often hard to face the sobering aging process. Additionally, it is very challenging to do this work when our aging loved ones don’t believe they are in need of care.
Both of my grandmothers died in the Chinese Astrology year of the snake in 2001 and 2013, respectively. I am moved that they died within a 12-year cycle. I don’t know what the timing all means. I know that being with both of them in their deaths transformed me as much as knowing them when they were physically alive.
I was alone with Nana Chapman during the last three days of her life in 2001. She beat cancer, but not Alzheimer’s disease. I rubbed her body, combed her hair, played African-American spirituals and gospel music in rotation, and called upon her ancestors to welcome her. She wasn’t conscious, and yet, she was present. Recognizing that the end of her human form was imminent, I found my voice to share with her the one secret that I kept from her for over 20 years because of spoken loyalty to my parents and unspoken loyalty to my grandfather. I was molested over a period of two years. I don’t know what she absorbed, if anything, during my highly emotional disclosure. What I know is that a shift happened within me, and my incest burden was slightly lighter. I wasn’t with her when she transitioned from this realm to the next. I left five hours before her last breath. At that time, I didn’t have a full understanding of the process of dying nor did I have a grasp that she was departing. I told myself that I would return to the hospital the next day. Knowing what I know now, I firmly believe that I was afraid to witness her death. I knew she transitioned somewhere between 4:00am - 5:00am on December 22, 2001 because I was awakened by an unexplained loving presence in my bedroom. I knew it was her presence. She was no longer here in the physical form. When I received the call several hours later, I said to my dad (Michael Simmons), “I know. Nana has passed on.”
Now here I am;
and there I am;
and all I am;
Free to be anywhere at all in the Universe.
~ Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters
The experience of being so close and yet, missing her transition sent me on a spiritual quest, which ultimately led me to my practice of vipassana meditation –an invaluable and non-negotiable anchor on my life’s journey.
Only one month ago, I arrived in Memphis during the last 26-hours of Nana Watson’s life. During those sacred hours, I came face to face with the fact that I missed so much with my maternal grandmother. Simultaneously, I also realized that it was not a time for guilt, but a time to support and witness the final stages of her transition into the next realm. I was by her side in deep prayer in her religious (Christian) tradition and in deep meditation in my spiritual tradition. Unlike in 2001 when I was with Nana Chapman, I came prepared to be completely present during Nana Watson’s transition. She was no longer conscious, but I felt her presence. I rubbed and massaged her body and called upon her ancestors to welcome her into the next realm. I shared and reflected upon many things that I’m not comfortable sharing in this article. I practiced Mettā meditation. I played what was perhaps a continuous stream of African-American spirituals and gospel. She made her transition at 4:00AM on April 6, 2013. The song that was playing around the time of her transition was Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Come by Here”— arranged by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. I sat and stood prayerfully and meditatively in silence with Nana Watson’s body while being acutely aware of the universal law of impermanence.
And again, I hear Toni Cade Bambara’s words:
Now here I am;
and there I am;
and all I am;
Free to be anywhere at all in the Universe.
~ The Salt Eaters
About 45-minutes to an hour after her transition, the Hospice nurse, my mother, and I bathed Nana’s body before the undertaker arrived. It was an incredible ritual. During the bathing, I saw an 89-year old version of my own body. I am flesh of her flesh and womb of her womb in this lifetime.
I am grateful that Nana Watson entrusted me with the profound gift to support her crossing over and witness her final hours in the physical form. This gift has left an indelible imprint on me. I am forever changed.
In life and in death, Rebecca White Simmons Chapman and Juanita Cranford Robinson Watson have directly and indirectly impacted my journey called life. I inherited and now walk with their Black feminist warrior legacies
I close with an excerpt of Dr. Delores S. Williams’ timeless words featured in Dr. Gloria Wade-Gayles’ edited anthology My Soul Is a Witness: African-American Women’s Spirituality:
“…Whenever I reflect upon the sources of my spirituality as a Black woman, I think of love, struggle, work, self-sight, justice, and celebration taught to me by so many Black voices, most of them female. For this I continue to be deeply grateful. For this I celebrate the very force of Life itself.”
May Nana Chapman and Nana Watson be peaceful, happy, and fully liberated.
Sadhu. Asé. A(wo)men. Ameen.
 Delores S. Williams’ “Sources of Black Female Spirituality: The Ways of ‘the Old Folks’ and ‘Women Writers,’” in My Soul Is a Witness: African-American Women’s Spirituality, ed. Gloria Wade-Gayles, p. 191