One Awful Night a Long Time Ago
In July 1900, a census taker reached a small rented home in Galveston, Texas—a mere three blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. This was the home of my great-great-grandparents. That census taker learned that the couple had seven children, six still living. My great-great-grandfather, August, was a day laborer, and my great-great-grandmother, Katherine, was a laundress; their two daughters worked as spinners at the town rope mill. Their children were: Annie, age 16, Emma, age 14, Willie, age 13, Adolph, age 11, Albert, age 8, and Henry, age 4.
Two months later, Galveston Island was hit with a storm that could not be conceived by the weathermen of the day as the monster it proved to be. Think Hurricane Katrina with no levees and no notice. They didn’t mandate evacuations nor even suggest the storm would be worse than weather they’d had in the past: flood waters in the streets and high winds. The inhabitants of Galveston Island were sitting ducks.
As the storm was breaking down houses, snapping trees, and destroying all in its wake, August and Katie gathered their six children and went to the only safety they could find: a tree. Getting to higher land was no longer an option; it was far too late for that. The couple had their younger children climb up the tree first so that they (husband and wife) would be at the lowest, most vulnerable, point.
As that night of horrors roared on, the family clung as best they could. The flood waters rose and the winds screamed. The family inched higher and higher up the tree. By morning, Emma was left clinging with only two of her younger brothers. Her parents, sister, and two other brothers perished that night. Their home, along with countless other homes and structures spanning along miles near the beach, were wiped away and claimed by the Gulf. All, all was lost.
It is estimated that between 6,000 and 10,000 people died in the storm that night—the highest death toll in America to date due to one single natural disaster. It was a horrific scene throughout all of Galveston in the weeks and months that followed. Emma gathered her young brothers and came to New Orleans to live with their mother’s childless brother and his wife.
That night, September 8, 1900, was only the first of many fatal tragedies my great-grandmother endured in her long life. She died before I was born (a minor tragedy of my life). In looking at Emma’s life, I think of her not as a victim but as a survivor; not as a refugee but as an southerner; not as an orphan but as a mother. I never knew her, yet her strength is in me.
The skies opened early this morning and the rain hissed throughout the day. It wasn’t a hurricane or anything really serious. But the sound of pouring rain always makes me think of that night and my ancestors, and Emma especially, and causes me to shudder.