A Shadow History: Stories from the Kitchen Table
In honor of Women’s History Month, I have decided to write a slightly
different column. Several years ago, I interviewed the women in my family in order to compile a family history. What follows is an excerpt from that history, tracing my family from the immigration of my great-great grandparents up to the childhood of my mother and her sister. I encourage
each of you to talk to the older women in your life: gather their stories,
listen to their sorrows and their joys, and celebrate the past together….
“Traditional” history is a curious matter. Using the advantage of
hindsight, many historians extrapolate major events or people who they
believe had a great impact on society or culture. Studying only the heroes
or antiheroes leaves us with a distorted collective memory – one that
remembers the names of generals and Presidents but not the names of those
men and women who were not in the spotlight. The narrowness of this
perspective ignores the depth and width of a history that includes shadows
as well as spotlight. History is written for the collective; it attempts to
outline events, people, and places that have affected the majority. This
phenomenon holds trued even in attempts to return agency through minority
The research for this column reflects a shadow history, illustrating an
oral tradition that exists among the women in my family, and many other
families. My family’s history offers a different lens through which we can view our past, a lens that places major events on the periphery and brings the shadows of people’s lives into the light. These events for the most part play only the role of a backdrop –scenery before which the actors played out their lives. This story is a Women’s History.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, thousands of Eastern and Southern Europeans were immigrating to the United States and settling in cities.
Many of them chose Baltimore as their destination. Jobs were plentiful in this bustling and prosperous city, built around the Chesapeake Bay. Among
the German and Polish immigrants who resided in the Fells Point area were my
great-great-grandparents, Jozef Frazer and Catherine Jagachziewski. Part of
St. Patrick’s parish, they raised their children, including my
great-grandfather, Francis Frazer, to be active participants in the Catholic
My grandmother’s maternal grandparents, Martin and Rose Kowaleski, were
also part of Fells Point’s expanding Polish-Catholic population, settling at
618 South Washington Street. Though it is certain that their parents
migrated from Poland, the exact date of their arrival is unknown.
There is only one strong memory of Martin and rose that has survived
through generations of my family. A testament to the strength of the women
in my family (or the baseness of the men), the “iron skillet story” has made
its way around the kitchen table since the beginning of this century.
Years after they married, Rose noticed Martin paying extra attention to one
of his granddaughters. Sensing that his motives were less than pure, Rose
wasted no time in showing him her displeasure. Selecting a large, heavy
iron skillet out of her cabinet, Rose brought it crashing down over his
skull. From that day, Martin never allowed his eyes or his hands to wander
in the direction of his granddaughters again.
The marriage of Jozef and Catherine’s son, Frances, and Martin and Rose’s
daughter, Josephine, was not quite as volatile as that of Josephine’s
parents. They were probably married around 1910, and began having children
right away. By the time the U.S. became involved in WWI, the government
exempted Frank from service because of his status as a father and provider.
Frank and Josephine moved to Dundalk, bring Frank’s mother, Catherine with
them. They settled on a large farm owned by John Strattman, and raised
seven children, six others had died very young. Included among their
children was my grandmother, Marcella Veronica, born November 23, 1925.
Frank and Josephine named their daughter Marcella in honor of his brother’s
service in Marseilles, France during the war.
Marcy’s older brothers and sisters helped on the farm when they could, but
their father, a tall, slim man with shining blue eyes and a warm smile, did
most of the work. Frank was one of the first men in Dundalk who learned to
drive, a skill that was appreciated on the farm. He received seven dollars
a week for his labor, in addition to living in a house on Mr. Strattman’s
Despite the steady work, the Frazers were not immune to the financial
hardships of the Depression. In an effort to avoid paying their creditors,
Frank and Josie added the letter “i” to their last name. Marcy was barely
more than a toddler at the time, and to this day confirms that her maiden
name is “Frazier.”
Just as they were struggling to attain financial security, a catastrophe
befell the family: Frank contracted liver cancer. He passed away on April
16, 1934. Without his strong shoulders to bear the burden of the work, the
family was unable to maintain their contribution to the output of the farm.
Shortly after her father’s death, Marcy and her family left Strattman’s
farm and settled on South Washington Street in Fells Point, Baltimore.
Marcy’s mother and older sisters found jobs on AliceAnne and Boston Streets
at the Footes & Langralls Packing Company. They received ten cents for each
large scrub bucket they could fill with skinned tomatoes and snipped beans.
In 1911, investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Labor wrote on the conditions
of Baltimore’s Canneries. The report read as follows:
The odors arising from the souring mass of tomato pulp
and skins on the floors, augmented by the juice dripping
the nearby vats, together with the addition of an oppressive and
distinguished odor whose origin could not be determined, produced an
environment that was distinctly discreditable and called for attention on broader grounds than the health and comfort of employees. (i)
Though the investigator wrote this report a little over twenty years before
Josie and her daughters began working in the canneries, few changes had been made by the 1930s. As long as there was a surplus of workers, employers
were able to dictate the kind of conditions the women would work in, as well as the kind of wages the women would accept. If Josie had refused the conditions of her employment, another woman would have gladly accepted them.
Like so many other women, Josie found her way out of the factory through
marriage. She wed John Krezmer and they opened a bar on the 2000 block of Fleet Street, naming it the Fleet Street Café. Just a short walk away stood
the Thames Street Café, owned and operated by Josie’s sister Vera and one of
her many husbands, James Judd. (Exactly how many husbands she had is an
issue of much debate, though most guess between seven and nine.)
In addition to the sailors and stevedores in Fells Point, the bars catered
to the large concentration of Catholics in the area, serving codfish cakes,
or “coddies,” every Friday for ten cents each. The dangers, then, stemmed
more from Josie drinking up all of the profits than from a lack of
customers. Her life on the farm and in the canneries had been hard, and she
found solace in alcohol.
Though Marcy was too young to work in the canneries or bars, she attended
the Number Six Public School on the corners of Anne and AliceAnne Streets.
Eventually, she also found employment at a florist shop. Working on the
weekends, Marcy earned one dollar a day cleaning the dead flowers off the
frames that drivers collected from nearby cemeteries. It was a morbid job
for a fifteen year old, but in her words, “jobs were hard to find, so you
took what was available.” (ii)
One year after Marcy found her job with the florist, another tragedy struck
the family. Marcy’s favorite brother, Joe, contracted tuberculosis,
probably from his stepfather, who was still recovering from the disease.
Joe entered a sanitarium, but passed away on April 17, 1943 at the age of
Marcy met her future husband, Roy Ray Steele, just a few weeks letter on
May 1, 1943, during WWII. She and two of her cousins were walking home from
a circus when they spotted a handsome sailor. Marcy glanced appraisingly
over his dark hair, bright eyes and broad shoulders (forty-eight inches, to
be exact.) Nudging her friends, Marcy called out to the green-eyed
stranger, “If we come over there to talk to you, will you talk to us?” (iii)
Taking in Marcy’s sleek good looks, the sailer nodded encouragingly, and
walked Marcy to her home, lingering on the front stoop for just a little
longer than was necessary. A member of the Coast Guard, he was stationed on
Lazzaretta Pier, on Clinton Street. Though he went overseas to the Pacific
during WWII, they kept in touch through letters. Prior to his return, Marcy
worked at Monitor Controller Company making start and stop boxes for motors.
They were married on March 30, 1946, two months after Roy’s homecoming.
Marcy was twenty-one. Ten months later, their first child, my mother, was
born, Myra Jane Steele. Less than a year after that, Myra’s sister Joyce
Ann was born. Their happiness as a family was short-lived: Roy walked out
on them. Then, in 1949, Marcy contracted tuberculosis.
Before traveling to the sanitarium, Marcy stayed briefly in City Hospital.
The conditions were unbearable. Even if she could have adjusted to the dirt
and the pervasive odor, the roaches in her coffee were the last straw. One
day, Marcy got out of her hospital bed, marched out the front entranceway,
and caught a bus home. She was still in her hospital gown.
Three years later, she went to the sanitarium, the last home her brother
had known before his death. While their mother was away, Myra and Joyce
stayed with various relatives, usually their Aunt Dot, Marcy’s dearest
sister. Marcy was released a year later, although she continued to undergo treatments for the next five years at Victor Cullen State Hospital.
Throughout this ordeal, her husband had not returned to take care of the
children, or to inquire about her condition.
Despite Marcy’s efforts to collect child support, Roy hid from her until
she put a stop claim on his IRS check. When Roy tried to collect his check,
he found himself in handcuffs. After being called down to the police
station, Marcy was confronted by a policeman who, after confirming her
identity, handed her revolver and begged her to “go shoot the
son-of-a-bitch.” (iv) Even a hardened police officer was taken aback by
Roy’s callousness. Marcy declined the officer’s offer, saying that the two
children she had at home were more important to her than seeking revenge.
Unfortunately, the jail sentence did little to soften Roy Steele’s heart.
He continued to avoid child support payments. Then, in 1958, there was a knock at Marcy’s front door. A man in a policeman’s uniform asked her if
she knew a Roy Ray Steele, and she responded by asking him “what’s the
son-of-a-bitch done now?” (Son-of-a-bitch seems to have replace ‘Roy’ as his
first name by this time.) The policeman promptly responded, “He married my
daughter, and left her seven months pregnant.” (v) Remembering the three
hundred-dollar suits that Roy was fond of wearing, the policeman did what he
could alleviate the poverty Marcy and her family were living in, even
bringing them an Easter Basket to brighten their holiday.
Roy never came back to the family. In fact, he married yet another woman,
never bothering to procure divorces for his previous marriages. After his
death in 1977, his will detailed the distribution of his inheritance. He
left the majority of his estate to his “only child,” his adopted daughter
Despite the hardships, the family survived without him, though Marcy never
remarried. Myra and Joyce both recall their childhood with warmth. Their
daily walks through Fells Point and Patterson Park to reach the school, St.
Patrick’s, have become part of family legacy. “Courageously they struggled
for miles through the snow in their Catholic School skirts, uphill both
ways…” Even the difficult times are remembered with a laugh.
Myra and Joyce reminisce about a Fells Point nearly free of crime. When
they scurried to H & S Bakery for fresh, hot rolls at two o’clock in the
morning, they did not worry about muggers lurking in the shadows. In fact,
they recall very little of the fear that many now associate with life in
Recreation included trips to the museums, which were free, and visits to an
unrenovated Inner Harbor to watch the boats bringing in their exotic cargo.
They also took special day trips into Dundalk, which was then open country.
The Baltimore area offered a host of inexpensive ways for them to entertain
Though they were on welfare, even this is remembered with a silver lining.
Plagued by severe allergies, Joyce recalls the excellent health care they
received because of social services. Both Joyce and Myra remember the
kindness of an organization called Santa Claus Anonymous, which still
exists. The group gave them five dollar gift certificates each year for
Christmas. In addition to the certificates, the sisters received stockings
filled with apples and perhaps ten pennies from the Empty Stocking Club, an
organization both women now contribute to each year.
The true tests of strength for these women were still to come. Joyce’s
difficulties would come even before she left childhood, including teenage
pregnancy and a troublesome marriage. Myra also faced an unhappy marriage,
and her troubles had only just begun when an accident in the railroad yard
left her husband, John Collett, amputated below the waist. For seven years,
until his death, she took care of him, changing his bandages and cleaning
his bed sheets.
These are the stories of the women in my family. It is a shadow history, a
narrative of strong women who overcame awesome hardships and kept their
family going. It is through the examinations of these struggles that one
can come to understand the agency of women in history, and the marginality
many of them have to historical events. Though their stories would be
ignored in many history books, they are in no way unique and serve to
underline the existence of a rich shadow history.
At first glance, the stories of my family history appear to revolve around
Martin’s attempts at molestation, Roy’s polygamy, or John’s accident. After examining them more closely, it becomes clear that the backbone of our
history is not composed of these fantastic stories, but of my mother’s quiet strength, my grandmother’s fierce determination, and my great-great grandmother’s iron skillet. There, lurking in the shadows, is our history, the true story of my family.
i. Elizabeth Fee, Linda Shopes, Linda Zeidman, The Baltimore Book, New Views of Local History (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1991), p.132.
ii. Conversations with Marcella Frazier Steele
1. Fee, Elizabeth, Linda Shopes, Linda Zeidman, The Baltimore Book, New
Views of Local History. Philadelphia: Temple University, 1991.
2. Knudson, Mary. “Half His Body Lost, He Fights to Lead Whole Life.” The Sun. Monday, August 23, 1976 p.A1
3. Oral History with Marcella Frazier Steele
4. Oral History with Myra Collett Noonkester
Questions about this column? Please e-mail me at [email protected]