Black History Month Series

Johnnie Lou Gaudy Carithers: My Grandmother’s Part in Black History

This last week of Black History I wanted to focus on my family, and the accomplishments of those who came before me in my direct lineage. Sometimes we fail to recognize the amazing history we have in our own family tree. While searching for the amazing achievements within Black history we become blind to the work of our own grandparents and great-grandparents whose tribulations had a direct impact on where we are today. Today I’ll be focusing on my father’s side of the family, his mother Johnnie Lou Gaudy-Carithers because I know that without her sacrifices I wouldn’t be where I am today.
My grandmother was born July 3, 1918 in Detroit, MI to her parents Rev. John W. Mamie Hooks Gaudy on Ricky Jackson farm near Albany Georgia. She was the eldest of her eleven siblings, six sisters: Lula Johnson (William), Mamie Lawson, Clara Eston, Leomie Johnson (Joe), Thelma Brooks (James) and Brenda McDonald (Hezekiah) and four brothers: John (Florine), Porter (Abby), Benjamin (Barbara) and Raymond (Florence). When she was young her family moved from Sandersville, Georgia to Ecorse, MI as a result of KKK attacks. Their father, a preacher, was threatened for speaking out against white supremacy at their church, The Gaudy Memorial, and it had been burned to the ground by white supremacist mobs. For their safety, John relocated his family up North, where many Blacks fled from the south as refugees of KKK violence.
Johnnie Lou thrived as a result of the move. She graduated second in her class at Ecorse High School just one week before her seventeenth birthday and continued her studies at the University of Michigan. When I found her name at on the university’s student registry for the years 1946-47 I so was proud of her. While I was in high school I intended on attending U of M, I was even apart of the University’s high school mentorship program: Michigan Ross School of Business Enriching Academics in Collaboration with High Schools (MREACH) so I couldn’t believe that my grandmother studied at my dream school and I’d never known. She wrote shorthand at the rate of 120 words per minuet and due to her clerical skills she was hired as the fist Black secretary. She was known to record entire sermons for Detroit’s famous Bishop C. L. Morton, head of the International Church of God and Christ. She was a large part of the state’s Black history, working in the capital as a young Black woman was a barrier she broke for all those who came after her. Her writing shorthand and clerical skills allowed her to graduate high school early at the top her class, record sermons and organize official documents in the state capitol, she worked for the Michigan state government for over 40 years.
As the oldest of her siblings she took on the role and responsibility of a caregiver for her brothers and sisters. She waited until 40 years old to have her first and only child, my father Gary Carithers. She quickly married and had the child in an attempt to be right in the eyes of the church. The marriage didn’t last long, her husband left her and remarried, she was left to raise her son alone. She did this with strength and determination. My father never had a relationship with his father. He told me about a time he visited his father’s family once. At the age of 16 his mother dropped him off at his father’s house to spend time with his siblings. He told me that his father treated him like a distant cousin, they didn’t speak because his father’s wife wanted to be sure that young Gary kept his distance. She felt that her husband developing a relationship with his ex-wife’s son would threaten their marriage. As a result Gary rarely ever visited his father and they were never able to build a relationship.
Johnnie Lou was a stern women and as a single mother raising her only child to be a strong Black man, arguably she had to be. She forbid my father from attending his senior high school prom and kicked him out of the house when he didn’t obey her rules. To this day when my father tells me stories about his mother, his love and respect for her shines through. I know my father wouldn’t be the amazing dad he is today without the love and support he had from his mother. After graduating from Ecorse High School his mother paid for him to attend higher education, a privilege not many Black families are able to afford. His successful completion of a 2 year engineering program landed him a design engineer position at Ford Motor Company, one of the big automobile manufacturing companies in the metro-detroit area (along with General Motors, Chrysler, etc.) Johnnie Lou had successfully raised a strong and self-sufficient Black man, even as a single mother in the impoverished areas of metro Detroit, against all the odds she prospered. As a result of his mother’s sacrifice and dedication, my father grew up with the vow to support his children and pay for their education because his mother made the sacrifice to pay for his. He promised himself that he would be the father he never had and this is exactly what my father did for me. After moving to Washington State to work at the Boeing Company, in 2012 just before my senior year my father moved me to Washington State to attend the University of Washington. Last year I graduated with honors without any debt or student loans. Now because of my father, and my grandmother’s sacrifice I vow to support my children’s future by paying for their education, it’s the greatest gift you can give someone to graduate debt free. Sadly, I was never able to meet my grandmother, she passed away November 1991, I wasn’t born until 4 years later. However, she did meet my mother, my parents were dating at the time of her death.
While attempting to do research to write this piece on my grandmother I encountered a lot of dead ends. In many cases the records of our ancestors are not in tact; places, names, dates and ages are scattered and misplaced. In my grandmother’s case (and many members of my family) Gaudy is sometimes spelt Gordy (like in the case of her cousin Motown Record Label Founder, Berry Gordy) also her birth year is 1918 in some records while 1919 in others. Finally, like many Blacks who refused up North, her family’s displacement from Alabama to Michigan makes locating records difficult for the average person, on top of the fact that events from the early 20th century weren’t well documented on the internet. Regardless the experience of researching the life of my grandmother is based around my father’s personal accounts of his mother, her life and legacy. Talking to family members about family history is arguably the best type of research. I challenge us to dig deeper into our family trees for Black History stories that aren’t posted online, that are hidden in the words of our elders, those are the prized treasures worth searching for. There are so many achievements that go undiscovered because of us, it’s up to us to record, preserve and share the stories of those that came before us so that they do not die or, even worse, become manipulated by those wanting to profit from their legacies.

Thank you Johnnie Lou
I’ve never personally met you
But for all the things you do
For raising my father
And pushing him through
I want to say thank you
Johnnie Lou

Additional Sources:

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About Amani Sawari

I am a University of Washington alum, Class of 2016. I graduated with my Bachelors Degree in two majors: Media and Communications AND Law, Economics and Public Policy. It's a mouthful but it illustrates how I have a hard time doing only one 'thing'. I am a writer, poet, singer, songwriter and much more. I enjoy sharing my experiences and perspectives with those who are interested and I am a proud member of the black diaspora!
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