While we say good bye to Women’s History Month and welcome National Poetry Month, I’d like to welcome, a friend and a guest blogger, Agy Wilson, who shared with me the story – in both pictures and stories – the remarkable life of Ann Cummings Searcy. A woman who lived like poetry in motion.
Ann Cummings Searcy lived and taught in the same town I grew up in, but I didn’t know her until I was nineteen and living in a different place. I used to sit at her table while she sang songs from another time and we’d talk about her childhood, careers, and the things she loved, especially her family.
Annie’s mother and father had divorced when she was five, a rare thing at that time. Rose, Annie’s mother supported her family by opening her home, the Cummings’ Old Homestead (also known as 110) in Old Orchard Beach, Maine to summer visitors. Rose charged $12.00 a week for meals (her specialty) and board. Up until this time, almost all hotels were "whites-only" For the first time, "colored people", as African Americans and people of other races were called at the time, could enjoy a world famous vacation spot. Many came with thoughts and hopes of what they’d find in "Vacationland", Maine. Though most of Rose’s guests were African American and personally approved, she hosted people of other races as well.
Annie met people from all walks of life. There were porters, like her father, and maids. But also famous folk came to stay for the weeks and months of the traditional vacation. Sociologist, W. E. B. Dubois, jazz musician Cab Calloway, and writer Countee Cullen enjoyed the hospitality of Rose and her family. Mr. Cullen had even dedicated his book MY LIVES AND HOW I LOST THEM, to "Pumpkin Cummings of Old Orchard Beach"– Annie’s cat.
Duke Ellington would come every year from 1931 and on. He would take Annie down to the pier and give her treats and rides at the amusement park. Young Annie would often sneak around the corner and listen to him practice on the family piano before his shows, sometimes singing along. Mr. Ellington invited a grown Ann to sing with his band. But Rose and Ann decided she would stay in Maine and become a teacher.
Annie and Mr. Ellington’s friendship lasted his entire life– whenever he came to New England, he left Annie tickets to see him perform. She always went.
Annie became the first African-American teacher certified by the University of Maine system, then known as Gorham Teacher’s College. Her brother Emerson, like many others, received his degree outside of Maine for reasons of racial bias, though Emerson came back. He and Annie taught school for many years in Maine; most black teachers did not return.
Annie’s other sisters became professionals, as well. Maud was detective in Washington D.C., two sisters worked for the Pentagon and on an artist in Boston. Rose sent all her children to college, except for Annie’s beloved brother Eddie. He chose not to go, instead he became a master carpenter.
When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, the Old Homestead was no longer necessary. Still, people who had spent lazy, bright summers and the service men far from home who Rose fed on Thanksgivings past, as well as Annie’s classmates from college stopped by every summer to visit. In more recent times, the place fell into disrepair. A woman who had stayed at 110 as a child, bought the home and is putting it to rights. The Old Homestead was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2004.
Annie sang all the while. She performed all over Southern Maine, her voice clear like liquid sunshine. Even after she developed multiple sclerosis and could no longer teach, Annie still sang. Those she knew inspired her, and then she inspired those who knew her, including me.
I’ve taken a few liberties, for instance, Annie always referred to her friend as "Mr. Ellington" and most of her family referred to her as "Ann". The reason, Duke Day, because I’m talking about Mr. Ellington’s arrival as an event. Many of her friends and I’m imagining as the youngest child, called her "Annie" and these are small familiarities.
Ann Cummings Searcy passed away March 2, 2006 leaving three daughters, eight grandchildren, six great grandchildren, and a legacy of laughter, fun and her beloved music.
Agy speaks about her relationship with Ann…
Ann Searcy was an inspiration to me. She was my Friday night (sometimes Saturdays) in my art schooled youth. At that time she made her way to the table with canes or a walker, her ebullience and warmth were infectious. Her music scotched honey. She’d regale me with stories of her family, her youthful friendship, especially the one she enjoyed with Duke Ellington, and her many students. One of her most favored of phrase "We did have fun."
Later in life, when she lived at the Barron Center, I’d visit with my then baby daughter and eleven year old. Some days, she couldn’t get out of bed without aiding the use of her arms, or seeing. Still she inspired, and managed to go out, performing for other people at Barron’s Center. Moreover, no matter what her situation, I never heard a self-pitying, or negative word from her. Quite simply, Ann refused to let anything get in the way of what she wanted to be, do, not even the tragedy of Multiple Sclerosis.
She fought against sexism, racism, her debilitating disease, refusing to let anything but her vision of who she was, her love for her family, music, teaching, others define her. Some frazzled days, it’s Ann’s hard-to-pinpoint sunny drawl that motivates me to be better than circumstances. She taught me not how to make lemonade out of lemons, but quite simply how to plant and tend that grove.
Agy Wilson lives in Windham, Maine with her husband, daughter, and a passel of animals. She’s a children’s writer and illustrator, founding member of www.Yellapalooza.com, calligrapher and eggartist.