Makin' a Way Outta No Way: Nellie Mae Rowe

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Xenia Zed

...'We always called freedom 'possum' so as to keep the white people from knowing what we were talking about.'

Ambrose Headen, 1878

Nellie Mae Rowe's father, Sam Williams, was a true patriarch. Born a slave, whose own father could well have been from Africa, Williams worked as a farmer, blacksmith, and basket-maker. Resourceful and respected in both the black and white communities of Fayetteville, Georgia, he was known as 'Uncle Sam.'Joe Brown, Rowe's nephew, remembers his grandfather as a small, strong man whose advice was often sought and who had a reputation as an extraordinary communicator.

Williams and his wife, Luella Swanson Williams, had one son, who died very young, and nine daughters, of whom Nellie Mae was the youngest. She was born on Independence Day in 1900 -- a fitting birthday, as she was the living embodiment of a firecracker, with a strong independent spirit. She would hide to avoid working in the fields, preferring to spend her time drawing and making rag dolls out of dirty laundry. She also enjoyed music, playing the drum in the band that she and her sisters formed.

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