FEATURE | A true story for Black History Month: Gladys Miley ‘MaDear’ Bennett’s house

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THE Memphis City Landmarks Commission considered and approved the nomination to add the Gladys Miley “MaDear” Bennett House to the National Register of Historic Places at 4 p.m. Dec. 19 at City Hall.

Gladys Miley “MaDear” Bennett
“MaDear” Bennett’s house in Nashville, Tennessee.  Contributed photos

After that, the nomination was considered by the State Review Board at 9 a.m. on Jan. 29 in Nashville where this writer proposed the nomination, spoke for MaDear’s Family and the house was approved with flying colors. The Commissioners were ecstatic about the idea of a real “MaDear Bennett House” in the State of Tennessee, which is believed to be the only Official Historic Site of a MaDear in America. The National Park Service is now reviewing the approval for publishing on the National Register of Historic Places in America.

The home of Gladys Miley “MaDear” Bennett House designation by the State of Tennessee Historic Commission as a Historic Site has opened the History Books for all of America to be educated about African-American culture. As the patriarch and son of MaDear, I felt compelled to share and to educate American Society about my MaDear and raise the awareness on the many MaDears in African-American culture. The matriarch of the family was and still is often referred to as “MaDear or Big-mama” due to their unique characteristics as the head women of the family. MaDears all seem to have an outspoken personality combined with humor, strict about children’s behavior, full of religious wisdom, and achieved some form of personal triumph. Just to give you an example of how MaDears dealt with children: My MaDear actually taught me to read while riding in the car with her because I was always asking her what signs were saying needless to say she made me start trying to read the signs before helping me. But that’s not all, as one day we were riding and I saw something and without thinking said “hot ah-ah dang” and MaDear slapped me in the mouth. I said, MaDear I didn’t say a curse word and she replied “it was too close”! I’m very sure Mr. Tyler Perry’s MaDear would have also done the same thing as all MaDears had the character trait of being strict with children.

There are many Americans who are confused about the Tyler Perry character of Madear who was made up but Mr. Perry took his character from a real MaDear and named her Mabel Earlene “Madea” Simmons. However, MaDears are actually common place among African-American families especially in the Southern parts of America as our entire family have only and always called our mom “MaDear.” Gladys M. Bennett was first called “MaDear” by her young daughters Claudia & Bonnie in the 1930s when the title of MaDear was more common. But our house on Delmar was submitted to the National Trust for Historic Places because of its significance of black entrepreneurs in an era of segregation and Jim Crow Laws. Our home built in the late 1860s at 1039 Delmar Avenue is of no architectural importance due to a fire that caused much of the home to be destroyed. However, our MaDear, who learned to make patterns and other special sewing techniques in Mexico as part of her school’s Extended Programs was an expert at making patterns for clothing and she actually drew the “blueprint” to renovate the house. She lowered the 12 ft cellings and changed the two-sided shotgun house into a family quarters on one side of the hallway with 3 Studio Apartments on the other side and she included the basement (a total of 6 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, 4 kitchens, a living room & den, sewing room & beauty salon). But it’s what happened inside the house between 1955 and 1970 that represents a significant and underappreciated part of the African American experience & culture.

The basement was where two African-American women, Gladys “MaDear” (Crawford) Bennett, and her sister Cora Crawford overcame the obstacles of the Jim Crow and segregation era to run successful businesses in the basement of a house. These enterprises were called Gladys’ School of Domestic Arts and the Subway Beauty Salon. The “MaDear” Bennett House was also a Room & Board place for Blacks visiting or traveling through Memphis as MaDear was well connected through Rev. Ambrose Bennett who was not related but the author of all the Southern Baptist Association Sunday School & Baptist Training Union Books and other materials. The Southern Baptist Association was always having Conventions and Events in Memphis and there were always luxurious new cars in our driveway owned by well-off Blacks. MaDear was also an activist in the community as she is solely responsible for starting a Petition Drive and lobbying the City of Memphis to build a “walk-way bridge” over the Freeway that had divided the neighborhood and she was a devout Missionary for decades. Our family is working with the Mayor & City Council to name the bridge “MaDear’s Walk-way.”

But MaDear’s story really starts in 1911, when she was born to former freed slaves Isaac Crawford and Manerva Potter in Pinney Woods near what is now Star Mississippi. Manerva’s father Peter Potter was much like a Statesman for free slaves as he was one of the few who actually organized some freed slaves to get their 40 acres an-a-mule promised by the Government for all freed slaves. Their land was all in one area together in Pinney Woods where the main road is still named after Peter Potter. However, Isaac didn’t have land of his own because his father had escaped slavery so he moved north with Manerva and was sharecropping in the Delta of Mississippi. But he could never seem to make any profits due to the Jim Crow Scheme of “keeping Blacks in debt so they couldn’t leave the plantation” and it worked! Blacks would have to get everything on credit from the store like food products and seeds to get started planting. However, when the crops were harvested the landowner who often owned the store where they had gotten food and supplies made sure they would not make a profit and still in debt. Keeping Blacks in debt was “cooperative-scheme” among Whites then.

But finally, Isaac got tired of the cheating landowner and put MaDear and her siblings in the wagon surrounded by their furniture and proceeded to leave the plantation with his shotgun on his lap. The landowner saw this and came riding up on his horse saying to Isaac “you can’t leave here with those mules; you still owe me money”. Isaac said: “I’m leaving here today with my family and you are not going to stop me — are ready to die today” and Isaac just kept going while the white landowner looked on with disbelief. MaDear told me “her Pa pa did not play around when it was serious with that Indian blood in him”. Isaac was ½ Cherokee Indian as Isaac’s father (Ed Crawford) had runaway and avoided slavery in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) with his “Cherokee Concubine” and they had two children and Isaac was one of them which is why Isaac didn’t have land and had to sharecrop.

Eventually Isaac and his family found a fair goodhearted Black Preacher who gave Isaac some land to farm near Memphis and the family finally begin to experience some since of success and prosperity. MaDear eventually married Claude Wells and they had two girls (Claudia & Bonnie). The family moved to Memphis and their home was located where the “helicopter pad” at Baptist Hospital is today. Claude had a good job working for Memphis Steam Laundry and MaDear had learned to sew at a Trade School for Blacks that is now a Museum near Star Mississippi. But Claude’s sudden accidental death put a lot of pressure on MaDear to care for her girls as a single Black woman during .the Jim Crow era.

MaDear became a real entrepreneur using her sewing skills and even opened her School of Domestic Art in Sewing in the early 1940s to make a good living to raise her girls. MaDear was so good at sewing that nearly all of the Tailor Shops on Beal St. tried to hire her but she refused as she was already making very good money. One of MaDear’s dresses that took a “bolt” (24 yards) of material actually won the Southern Bell Contest at the Cotton Carnival on Front St. for Whites only as the Black Cotton Carnival was on Beal Street. MaDear’s success with the Southern Bell dress actually brought her even more rich white people as customers. MaDear was so successful that she was able to save enough to send Claudia and Bonnie off to college at Tennessee State University in Nashville. Claudia went on to become a teacher and later a School Principal in Chicago. Bonnie became big in Detroit’s politics and became the Executive Secretary for two different Detroit’s Mayors until she stopped to help her husband Matthew Kirk run his Painting Business with his contract to paint all the Detroit Schools.

But while her girls were in college MaDear met Harvey Bennett and they later married and had a son in December of 1950. Ambrose Bennett (of no family relationship) and William Milton Fields who also attended Tennessee State University brought Claudia & Bonnie home to see their new baby brother but Harvey and MaDear didn’t have a name for the baby boy. So, Ambrose had given the baby his first money and William had given the baby his second money and they asked could they name the baby and with MaDear’s OK Ambrose Milton Bennett was named with Ambrose’s first name and Williams’ middle name of Milton. Two years later Regina Rene’ Bennett was born to Harvey & Gladys “MaDear” Bennett and she became a very talented and very popular singer, songwriter and choir director in Memphis. She also traveled America and overseas to appear with on tour with other singers and bands.

Harvey and MaDear had lived on Lane Ave. above what was then “Field’s Sundry” but MaDear found out about a house that was going to be demolished that was literally a give-a-away if you had the land and the means to move the house. Well, MaDear was a real go-getter and she and Harvey purchased the house and had it moved to its present location on Delmar. MaDear got the local winos (alcoholics) to dig out the basement for a meal and some change for-a-day’s work and our relatives James Higgins (1st cousin) did the electrical work, our uncle Tommy by marriage did the concrete and masonry and uncle George, MaDear’s brother, did the plumbing & carpentry work for the basement. One side of the basement was her School of Domestic Arts that had been in another location and the Subway Beauty Salon run by her sister Cora was on the other side of the basement. MaDear and her sister Cora even begin to work part time at the Funeral Home as a team preparing bodies. MaDear would do the embalming and Cora would do their make-up and hair.

But when Cora passed the Beauty Salon became my bedroom. I was almost a teen by then. But when I left with my Chamorro wife to live overseas on her island of Saipan my bedroom and the Den were no longer used. I became a successful teacher, member of the Board of Education and Activist while raising our three girls. So, Darryl Claude Wells, Claudia’s son who was raised by MaDear like a son with this writer turned the basement into the Print-City Recording Studio. Darryl is a very famous drummer still active today as has played behind many famous singers and he has traveled the world with Al Greene as his drummer & road manager and he has worked with other stars. In 2039, the Studio will actually reach its maturity date to also be considered a Historic Site as a Birth Place of Rap in Memphis. The Studio was an incubator that literally help to start Rap in Memphis. All of the famous Rappers from Memphis in the early years of Rap had all visited and even recorded at Print-City Recording. MaDear’s House is only going to grow in its value to African-American Culture and American History.

MaDear, her home, her activities and even her children have a rich history that needs to be shared which is why our family will be working to turn the house into a fully “interactive tourist destination.” MaDear was a genuine entrepreneur during the Jim Crow times of segregation when it was hard for Blacks and especially hard for Black women which is why MaDear and her Home are now Officially part of American History.

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