On this day in 1888, my great-grandfather Emmett Columbus Street was born on his father’s farm in the Antioch community, five miles outside of Ripley, Mississippi. He’s pictured here in 1944, holding his first grandson, Richard Hawley. I know he doesn’t look too happy, but he was. Honestly. That frown was a permanent fixture on his face.
Emmett was the seventh child and fifth son of Joseph David Street and Minerva Alice Jamieson. In a day of arranged marriages, the relationship between Joe and Alice, as they were known, was, by all accounts, an adoring one. So when she died in 1895, after nineteen years of marriage, Joe didn’t immediately remarry, as men with young children were so apt to do. It took him twelve years to do so.
Emmett was not without guidance, however. He was surrounded by family, but the death of his mother taught him a cruel lesson. While life could be beautiful and filled with love, it was also harsh and unforgiving. You had to be self-reliant because there may not always be someone around to help you.
Other family lessons were imprinted on him by his father, mostly a love of books and education. Emmett managed more schooling than most of his ancestors, but all of them could read and write, even if they were self-taught. They knew that educated people, then as now, had advantages in society that the illiterate did not. So that’s how Emmett gained his frown. He ruined his eyes while reading his books.
On 9 November 1913, he married Leona Elizabeth Linville, a nearby neighbor in Antioch. They moved to her brother William’s farm in Ruleville, where Emmett taught school for a year and farmed for another year. After that, they came back home, with their new addition, my grandmother Hazel, in tow. They settled on five acres full of elm trees and a stream running through it in west Ripley, so their growing family could go to school and get that valued education. Their farm became largely self-sustaining with cows, his beloved chickens, and a large garden to grow the fresh vegetables to be stored for winter.
Emmett, along with his brothers James and Joseph, owned several businesses in town. His skill enabled his children to know only of the Depression from others. Emmett was able to install a tennis court on his property, more or less equivalent to having an in-ground pool today.
The most that was expected for daughters was to marry well and have babies, but Emmett’s experience showed him that kind of life was dangerous, so he saw to it that his daughters finished high school and acquired a skill to be self-supporting. My grandmother ran an ice cream parlor and my great-aunt Lois ran a beauty shop on the town square, both buildings owned by their father.
Emmett died at home of a heart attack on 8 November 1947, the day before his 34th wedding anniversary. But as it says on his tombstone, the legacy of Emmett Columbus Street lives on in his descendants. All of us are book lovers and college graduates. Among us are doctors, lawyers, architects, and engineers. We all have the furrowed brow and the large ears, the self-reliant streak that would make Thoreau proud, an intellectual curiosity that sometimes gets the best of us. But we are successful and of that, he would be proud.
Happy Birthday, Papa Emmett!