“Ma, what do you think? She definitely has a little bit of Fred in her,” my mother would say with a concerned wink in her eye. I never got to know my grandfather Fred Cuffie, who died before I was born. As I get older, I find myself not only looking closely at the very qualities that make me who I am, but also searching for a deeper understanding of where those same qualities come from.
A few weeks ago, I spent the day at my mother’s house, and towards the end of my visit, I begged her to take out Nana’s box of photos. As we carefully passed around the years of memories, I was struck by just how much my grandparents really made the most out of life. All of the dinner parties and outfits, social clubs and bus rides to National Baptist Conventions were immaculately captured. But something else caught my eye: as my mother recalled so-and-so’s second wife, and those aunts who were really cousins, it occurred to me just how much I didn’t know about that side of my family. That perhaps, over the years, that sense of responsibility for everyone my grandparents worked so hard to care of, was lost. So, if I didn’t have a complete understanding of my own history, how could I make sense of my present and prepare for the future? A lot of time has passed, and I can’t possibly retell the story of Fred and Lutrell complete with all of the nuances, but I’ll do my best.
Fred and Lutrell were born in Georgia: Fred in Cordele and Lutrell in Waycross. But the two of them actually grew up in St. Petersburg, FL. Since Lutrell had gone to school with Fred’s younger sister Dealma, this is likely how the two of them met. While Lutrell graduated from high school, Fred only completed the ninth grade before being sent to what was then referred to at the time as the Civilian Conservation Corps. Fred then enlisted in the military, and while he was away on tour, Lutrell moved up North. Her cousin Marie, who had already settled in Newark, NJ, encouraged her to take advantage of the job opportunities there. But Lutrell’s break away from the familiarity of home in St. Petersburg was also motivated by personal reasons. When she was quite young, her father George Hall, had joined his brothers up North, and never came back, leaving his wife to take care of their two young girls. Having grown up without him in her life, as she got older, Lutrell’s migration, many say, was really a daughter’s journey to find her father.
With Fred away in the service, Lutrell was settling into her new life in Newark, taking advantage of every opportunity to make something of herself. Although she would never work a day in a hair salon, she attended beauty school. (“Doing hair was bad for one’s health,” she would say.) During WWII, she worked in an aluminum factory, and when that company folded up, she found a job in a coat factory. At one point, she was hired for domestic work, before moving onto employment at a senior citizen home. Lutrell was always up to something, determined to make the most out of her situation.
On October 14, 1943 Fred and Lutrell were married in Newport, DE where Fred was likely stationed on leave. And when Fred was done serving, he and Lutrell could finally begin their life together as husband and wife and soon-to-be parents. Fred was able to get a job as a mechanic for the government, and with the two of them working, they were soon able to save enough money to buy a two-family house on Dickerson Street in Newark. Lutrell then sent for her mother, Grandma Jessie, who helped raise Fred and Lutrell’s only child, my mother. They would later buy a second home on Baldwin Avenue, but Grandma Jessie and my mother stayed in the one on Dickerson. My mother described Grandma Jessie as looking “very Native American.” And with a warm smile, she shared with me that my great-grandmother “would tell us stories about Blueberry Hill in the [Georgia] mountains somewhere, in a way that was kind of like a chant, a song almost.”
With roots now firmly planted in the city of Newark, Lutrell would become very involved in social clubs, especially the Eastern Star. (Her funeral, many decades later, was held at Abyssinian Baptist Church, and it was a production: two pastors and a procession that rivaled the church’s annual usher’s anniversary service. Not to mention the mysterious disappearance of her coveted Eastern Star crown. The rumors are still flying to this day.) A woman about town, she was always up to something. When she and Fred moved to Baldwin Avenue, she became a District Leader, responsible for getting the vote out in her geographic area. Church, politics, social events, no matter what it was, you could be sure that Lutrell was at the center of it all.
Now Fred on the other hand, he was more complicated. Known as the “party guy,” he was fun, outgoing, but quiet when he wanted to be. Although he never received any formal musical training, whatever tune he heard on the radio, he could play it on the organ. He may have been shy about it, but he could do it. He loved his cars, clothes, and had all kinds of friends because as my mother put it, “he was out there in the streets.” He was also kind, and would help just about anybody, especially when it came to his family. Fred’s mother died when he was young, so his aunts raised him along with his father, Charlie “The Carpenter” Cuffie. My mother suspects that because of Fred’s mother’s passing, he would later do whatever it took to take care of his family. And for a black man who had only completed the ninth grade, that meant looking for other sources of income. At the time, no one would ever really say anything, but everyone knew what his meticulously-kept records of numbers meant. Lutrell was against it, but as my father later shared with me, “Your grandmother didn’t want for nothing. Fred did what he had to do for his family, and he made sure they were taken care of.”
Fred passed away on June 26, 1979. By that time, the city of Newark had changed, almost unrecognizable from the urban safe haven that my mother fondly recalls growing up in. But generations later, or at least what’s clear to me is that Fred was a man who lived his life with the purpose to do right by those he loved. I was fortunate enough to spend so many years with my Nana, but I wish, I wish I could’ve sat down with Freddie. So, dear Grandfather, this story is really for you, for everything that you were, and for everything you continue to be for me.