Rochelle’s Story: Piecing together family history

Photo of Rochelle's mother with her sisters in Missouri.

by Rochelle Fritsch

Stories passed down from grandparent to grandchild often tell stories of identity – who we were – and who we are.

In my case, my grandparents died before I was born. Their absence left a space where identity should have been. Later, my own parents died before my daughter was born.

I realized what had been a space for me was a chasm for my daughter.

With memories being the only source to fill the chasm, I brushed away my brain’s cobwebs and tried to remember bits and clues from decades-old conversations. Soon, the most basic clue emerged: my grandmother’s name.

The Story I Was Meant To Know

Mary Jane Godley.

Godley was her maiden name. She wasn’t from Milwaukee, and “had people” in Missouri. In hindsight, I find it curious my mother made sure I knew that. Almost as if she knew I’d someday play genealogical sleuth.

Education and reading were important to Mary Jane. Each Saturday, she and her brood rode a streetcar to the Central Library on Wisconsin Avenue.

Today, when I pass that grand place, I imagine how its walls can recognize the voices of my early Milwaukee forebears and each step ascending to its entrance remembers their footfalls from long, long ago.

Hushed Conversations

I began remembering overheard, whispered and hushed conversations between my mother and my aunt. They’d begin with Those were some wild people and then the tones would grow even quieter. But I could decipher one whispered name: French Godley.

He must have been a relative, but I never knew how he was a related. Since this was “adult talk” never meant for young ears, I couldn’t ask questions like How are we related to French?, and What does wild mean?

These unasked questions echoed within me at a low vibration ever since that time. It was something I lived with, something unfelt until I looked into the chasm.

But that name and my remembrance of it would lead to a story that would fill it.

Clues, Quotation Marks and a Discovery

Quote, French Godley, End Quote. Quote, Missouri, End Quote. Clues I Googled from the ancient overheard conversations in hopes of finding my story.

Multiple pages of articles mentioning FRENCH GODLEY, MISSOURI appeared in seconds. Pride co-mingled with confusion as I realized many people had known of my story long before I did.

For a brief moment, I reasoned that if so many articles existed, then there must be images of this French Godley. One click would lead me to it. I would see his face, and perhaps recognize my face in it, or see my daughter’s features echoed in French’s eyes, jawline or nose.

That hope-filled click disappointed me. There were no images of people, much less the mysterious French Godley. But there was an eye-catching image – a thumbnail of rich, royal blue. Out of curiosity, I clicked on it.

When enlarged, the thumbnail was a blue marble disk, about three feet across and at least five inches in depth. My heart quickened as I read its inscription:Godley memorial gravestone

Will Godley

FRENCH GODLEY

Wm. Peter Hampton

 

At last, I found him.

Then, the final inscription:

KILLED BY A MOB. AUGUST 19, 1901. MAY COMMUNITY BE RESTORED.

The Facts

Time stopped in that moment. I tried reconciling the joy of discovering this often whispered relative with shock and nausea over his death and that of two other people killed at the hands of a mob.

My hands turned cold, sweaty and leaden as I searched articles for answers. Among them was one written by Missouri’s native son, Mark Twain. It was entitled The United States of Lyncherdom.

Perhaps this was why conversations were hushed.

Another commemorative article, dated 1991 from a Missouri newspaper, detailed the facts.

Will Godley was jailed and awaiting trial for the rape and murder of a white woman. While he was awaiting trial, the townspeople broke into the jail and tried to coerce a confession. When Will would not confess, he was hung and his body riddled with bullets.

The townspeople then traveled to the “colored” part of town to the home of Will’s father, French Godley. They demanded French and his stepson, Pete Hampton come out to answer for the crimes of the now dead man. They refused, and a firefight ensued, culminating with the home being set ablaze with both men in it.

The townspeople went on to other black residents, torching homes and threatening violence until all the remaining black residents fled the city.

Sometime later, Will Godley was acquitted of his crimes.

Facts Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Newsclipping from display at the Pierce City Historical Society

Still in shock, but unsure of how these Godleys were related to me, I reached out to the reporter who wrote the 1991 article to see if he had additional information about the Godley family.  Within days, he sent a research document entitled Preliminary Findings on the Godley Families of Pierce City, Lawrence County, Missouri.

It was my family story dating back to 1795. It answered my unasked questions, and it revealed more than facts; it revealed stories.

French Godley was an illiterate former slave who understood the power of the ballot box. He was President of the Independent Colored Voters. He also had other children, one of whom was a son who escaped that tragic night.

That son’s name was Wiley Godley. Even though displaced and illiterate, he eventually settled in Milwaukee and raised a family, including a girl named Mary Jane.

My grandmother.

Mary Jane was not illiterate, but had limited schooling. She ensured her children grew up with a love of reading by taking them to the Central Library every Saturday on a streetcar.

It took over forty years for me to discover the facts and our story. It’s one I tell my daughter, not in hushed conversations or whispers, but with gratefulness and pride over resilience passed down from our forebears.

As I pass strangers on the street, I can’t help but wonder how many other stories are undiscovered, waiting to be told.

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Rochelle Fritsch is a native Milwaukeean who is a blogger, nonprofit professional, mother and wife. As a member of the inaugural class of Ex Fabula Fellows, Rochelle has told stories in the community on the topic of race and race relations. This feature is the latest story she told at a collaborative community event. The top photo is of her mother with cousins during one of their visits to Missouri.

Rochelle, along with 20 other fellows, participated in a WHC grant-funded project called “Greater Together Stories.”

The idea was to build a fellowship among community members. People applied to be part of the program and, with the help of storytelling coaches, honed their own personal, true stories to explore the challenging topics of privilege and oppression.

The hope was that the art of storytelling would make it easier to talk about the most pressing issues in the Greater Milwaukee area, namely segregation and economic and racial inequality. We hope Rochelle’s story continues to inspire honest and open-minded dialogue.

 


 

More to read and think about:

All about Race


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One Response

  1. Jennifer Hoepner says:

    Rochelle, thank you to sharing this. I found it chilling, important and highly relevant.

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