The Curious Case of Lillian Arrington
Today is my Great Grandfather’s birthday. If he were alive today he would be 102 years old. He was born William James Arrington and later when he converted to Islam while incarcerated at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, he changed his name to Walid Jamal Ali.
Walid is my maternal great grandfather and I think of him often. While going through a lock box with some papers and photos my Nana saved, I found this letter. The letter is dated May 19th, 1922 and is addressed to a Mrs. Irene Albury of 825 Park Place, right here in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights.
"My dear Mrs. Albury: -
I write to advise you that Lillian Arrington was twenty-one years of age May 11th, 1922 and according to the laws of this School our jurisdiction over Lillian ends at that time. From that date on, we cannot be responsible for little William’s board.
I am enclosing here certification showing that William was born February 7, 1917. I hope that William may do well in school.
Lillian was removed from the Whittier House and placed in the Metropolitan Hospital, Blackwell’s Island. Ward K, since it was found that she had an infected lung. Her baby is at the hospital with Lillian.
Very truly yours,
Before reading this letter I had no clue as to who William’s mother was but here she is - Lillian Arrington. I had already known William was raised by his aunt, whom my Nana referred to as Grandma Albury, but seeing her name and address made her portion of the story a bit clearer. Years later, when William was married to Martha, Grandma Albury would have a great-niece named after her. The address on the letter would reveal even more. I currently reside less than 4 blocks from the block where my Great Great grandmother once lived. My family has literally been in this neighborhood for 100 years.
I found a directive manual from 1904 on the New York State Training School for Girls. The manual presented more questions than it answered but it gave me a bit of insight as to who Lillian could have been. The manual states that certain classes of girls could and would be detained at the facility. After reading the types of activity that could’ve gotten Lillian sent there it made me kind of emotional. We already knew that the system was harsh on black people and black girls are no exception. Some of the “offenses” included but weren’t limited to: willful disobedience to parents or guardians, vagrancy, any criminal offense, playing any game of chance or skill. For the last offense, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald was sent to this very reform school in the spring of 1933. She ended up running away at the end of the year.
My feelings about the prison industrial complex aside, I also knew about the social codes of the 1910’s and 1920’s; if a teenage girl was pregnant and unwed she wasn’t about to be allowed to parade around the neighborhood. My other maternal great grandmother was sent to a school for pregnant girls in Harlem back in the 1930’s by her mother for that very reason. Families who couldn’t afford to send their daughters to a reform school would send them to neighboring states and cities to be looked after by relatives and sent back home once she was no longer “in a family way”.
A few other things were puzzling to me as I read the manual. This line, in particular, stood out to me: “...any girl over the age of fifteen and under sixteen when committed shall not be detained for a period longer than three years.” If that were the case then why did Superintendent Huckley say Lillian aged out of the School at the age of twenty-one when she was at least sixteen by the time she had little William? Why did they let her stay so long? And with a baby, no less? Was that a common practice? Did Grandma Albury not want her to come home? Grandma Albury ended up raising William anyway but her relationship with Lillian is still very fuzzy. However, I am grateful that Lillian kept William as she could have very well put him up for adoption or worse.
The other thing that stuck out in the letter was that it was dated less a month before Lillian died from Tuberculosis on Blackwell Island (now known as Ward’s Island). According to the directive manual, the School boasts of its cleanliness and states that it has never had an outbreak or epidemic of any kind. If that were true then how and when did Lillian contract TB? And if she hadn’t gotten sick would she have still been allowed to stay at the School?
My great-grandfather’s life started off in an institution and it has made me think about the ways in which he went on to be further institutionalized. While researching the history of the New York State School for Girls I learned that in the 1930’s Superintendent Morse brought in psychologist Jacob Moreno to work with her reform students after a pandemic of runaways in 1932. Morse learned of Moreno’s successes in dealing with the inmates of Sing Sing prison and wanted to implement a similar strategy at the School. Ironically enough, William Arrington would later be incarcerated at Sing Sing Penitentiary for the better part of his daughter’s lives.
I’ve shared this story because I think it’s important that we truly commit ourselves to the task of truly uncovering our own histories. As people of the Diaspora, it can sometimes get depressing when we come up against dead ends and roadblocks in our quest to explore our family tree. There is only but so much information that was actively preserved but we cannot discount what we have at our disposal. I was able to find a considerable amount of information on The Arrington’s and Albury’s through the Church of Latter Day Saints family search website. For some reason, the Mormon Church has meticulous family records and documents here in the United States and overseas. If ancenstry.com is working your last nerve try familysearch.org and resume your genealogy search with a fresh heart.
I have lots of photos and letters that contain a number of significant dates, address, places, and people. I have committed myself to the job of organizing, archiving and sharing this information with my family members. Thankfully, the process is only as hard as I make it because we have scanners, camera phones, and social media but it can be tedious. I started a family facebook group a few years ago to have a place to share things as I discovered/uncovered them and so far it has been a great way for us to stay connected.
In short: family history is Black History. The power of knowing who you come from is like no other. Keep digging! Stay encouraged! Be proud of who you are.
Happy 102nd Birthday, Walid Jamal Ali.
“New York State Training School for Girls at Hudson, N.Y : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Full Text of "Passing", London : F. Warne ; New York : Scribner, Welford, and Armstrong, 1 Jan. 1970, archive.org/details/cu31924016969390/page/n13.
“New York Training School for Girls.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Dec. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Training_School_for_Girls.
“New York State Training School for Girls.” Prison Public Memory Project, www.prisonpublicmemory.org/blog/2014/new-york-state-training-school-for-girls.