During a trip to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem in 2010, I found my father. After more than four decades of searching, it turned out he had long been within reach. No, my dad – Ebenezer Ray – was not an absent parent. He lived in the house on Shawnee Street in Pittsburgh with my mother, Mary, sisters Ellen-Marie and Marian (now Malaya), and me until his death in 1967, a week after my 13th birthday.
What I knew was that my father had been a newspaper man. He had worked in the composing room of the Pittsburgh Courier before he was disabled by Parkinson’s disease. I also knew that he had dabbled in photography: There was an abandoned darkroom in our basement, and there were lots of photos around our house, including my baby picture, which earned Honorable Mention in the Carnation Healthy Baby contest in 1955. The photo credit from my christening announcement in the Courier says “ERay Photo.”
I knew he was born in 1897, immigrated to the United States from Barbados, and had lived in New York for many years before settling in Pittsburgh, where he met and married my mother, a much younger woman.
My most vivid memories are of my father sitting on the sofa in our living room, four females twirling, chirping, bickering around him. He was largely housebound and unhappy. I was young and oblivious. He and I rarely talked.
As I got older and it was clear I was destined to be a writer, my mother and my father’s friends would tell me how proud “Ebbie” would be that I was following in his footsteps. For decades, I lamented the fact that I had not had the foresight to talk to him about journalism, that I’d never read anything he’d written and probably never would. But thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web, I stumbled upon an honors thesis that quoted a column he’d written in 1940 for The New York Age, a black weekly founded by T. Thomas Fortune. I found another, an academic article that quoted a column my father had written for the same paper in 1939.
I headed for the Schomburg with the intention of finding those two articles – I still assumed my father was a printer who wrote an occasional article – but as I rolled the microfilm reel, it was clear I had hit upon a treasure trove. My father was a reporter and a weekly columnist for the Age for about 20 years, from 1925 – 1945.
In the early years he covered the courts. His first column appeared February 18, 1933 under the title “Xcuse Me.” Later columns were dubbed “As We See It,” “You and I” (only one) and later as “Dottings of a Paragrapher” and “A Paragrapher’s Dottings.”
I now know the name of his mother, Malvina Alkins, whom he mourned in print when she died in 1936, and his first wife — I assume she was his first — Lucille Manning, whom he married in 1939.
How ironic that as my ink-stained colleagues and I lament the demise of print, the most exciting development in my life as a journalist involves learning how to use a microfilm machine to decipher very old hot type.
I have created this blog to preserve my father’s legacy as a newspaper man and most of all to explore the history that is so much a part of me.
Elaine C. Ray