Two-Toned: Grandma Joyce’s Story

By Quiana Tilghman

Instructor’s note: Quiana is a local high school student getting a jump on college by taking Introductory Composition early. She researched this true tale of a family torn apart by race in the era of segregation by reading obituaries and interviewing family members. Her family has kindly consented for this important piece of local history to be shared with the world.

Have you ever seen two children who are brothers and sisters, but they are two totally different skin tones? Let’s say one of the children is caramel skin tone and the other is chocolate skin tones, but the only reason you know they are brothers and sisters is because of the resemblance. What would you do if this happened to you? How would you deal with this situation if it happened during segregation? Would you keep your family together and endure the hell or split your family apart for an easier life? To you this may be a psychological question but for my great-grandmother this was an ultimate decision. Though she may not have known it then, the effects of her decision are still evident today.

In today’s society interracial dating has become popular, more than 46% of couples are interracial, and it is becoming more accepted in America. I just wish that was the case 75 years ago.

My great-grandmother, Grace Merrill-Meazles, (Obituary) was born to a white mother and an Italian father. She was tall, hazel-eyed and very dark to be white. As she grew up she disagreed with segregation and Jim Crow laws. When she became of age to date and have children she moved to Salisbury MD, where she fell in love Sherman Jones, a black man. Due to so many people having problems with interracial relationships, they had to keep their relationship very clandestine. As a result they moved to Crisfield MD, a small town where everyone knows everybody and their business. During segregation Crisfield had no extraordinary problems with the races acting as one, except for in church and dating.

While in Crisfield everything was going fine until the 3rd child; my grand mother Georgette Jones. Unlike the other 2 children who were also bi-racial, my grandmother did not appear white; she appeared to have a slight tint to her. Let’s just say you could tell she had some black in her. This became fully evident when my grandmother hit the age of two, according to my aunt Libby.

As my grandmother, Georgette, grew older people began to harass my great-grandmother Grace. Calling her every name in the book except a child of God. The harassment became unbearable, and my great-grandmother just had to get out. She had to make the choice to either stay in Crisfield and endure hell, or split her family up hoping that life would be alright for Georgette. She chose to split up the family; taking the two daughters that could pass for white and leaving my grandmother with one of her black family members (L. James). She left my grandmother to Phillip and Addie Sterling, who changed my grandmother’s name to Joyce Faye Sterling. (Obituary) She grew up not remembering much of anything about her real mother. It wasn’t until she turned age 10 when she reconnected with her sister Libby (one of the daughter who could pass for white). My great-grandmother returned Libby when she began to look more tan-ish than white and she didn’t want to have to deal with the harassment again. “Joyce and Libby met up in the 5th grade. The two looked exactly alike; however; they didn’t have the same last name and they were two totally different skin tones”(L. James).

They became best friends and it wasn’t until the 9th grade that they found out they were biological sisters.(L. James) It was at that time that Addie and Phillip told them the story of how my grandmother, Joyce, was left with them because her skin tone was two dark to pass for white. That’s when my grandmother was not to keen on whites. Not saying that she was prejudice, she just did not like them enough to make them a key component in her life(L. James). Because she was left, Joyce was emotionally scarred. Feeling as though she was not good enough to be who she really was, she chose to deny her root and have a slight aversion toward whites. (Tilghman) When it came time for her to date and have kids she set her eyes on the darkest man in Crisfield, Emerson (Bobby) Johnson. (Tilghman) They began to date and eventually got married and had 6 kids, one of which is my father Daryl.

I understand that my great grandmother did not intend on her decision effecting the future generations, but it did. As a result of her decision there are missing links in the family, and we don’t know our aunt. Some of the family despises, abhors and are basically narrow-minded towards whites, even though what happened to my grandmother is not their fault. But everything worked out fine in the long run. I wonder if my great grandmother had a chance to re-make her decision what would she do. Would she choose to endure the hell, or still leave in order to make life easier? Either way her choice would still have repercussions that would be present today.


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