The flower bed along the front of the porch is as beautiful as it was when “MaDear” was tending it.
“Some of these plants have been here since the 1950s,” said Ambrose Bennett, son of “MaDear.”
That’s just one of many enduring elements of a remarkable legacy of a woman who was the daughter of slaves.
Gladys Millie Crawford Bennett raised her children at 1039 Delmar Ave. near Poplar and Interstate 240 near the Medical District. But the address was so much more than a house.
Gladys Bennett was “MaDear,” not only to her children, but to all those who came to that house.
“Our house was like two shotgun houses put together,” said Ambrose Bennett. “We lived on one side, and boarders lived on the other side. But everyone came to eat at our dining room table. This is the same table that has always been here.”
Bennett had his mother’s house designated as a National Historic Site. It started with the Memphis City Landmarks Commission nomination to add the “Gladys Millie “MaDear” Bennett House to the National Register of Historic Places Dec. 19, 2019.
On Feb. 7, 2020, the house was officially added to the registry.
The Bennett family was planning a huge celebration. But then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And those plans were discarded: Until now.
Ambrose Bennett and other family members hosted a celebration of the house as an historic site on Thursday (July 29). Bennett also officially released his book, “MaDear’s House,” during the event.
“There are lots of our family stories included in the book,” said Bennett. “This is a record for our children and their children and their children about the woman who was the matriarch of this family.”
During Thursday’s celebration, MaDear’s granddaughter, Yvonne Bennett, an actress who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, presented a one-woman show as MaDear.
Bennett explained that the house was going to be demolished, but MaDear had the house moved from the corner of Delmar down on Delmar to its present location. The house was set on the lot, and MaDear had the basement dug out.
She ran two successful businesses out of the basement and a boarding house upstairs.
“There was the School of Domestic Arts, where MaDear taught sewing on one side, and the Subway Beauty Salon, run by her sister, Cora Crawford, was on the other side,” said Ambrose Bennett.
“MaDear took in boarders at a time when hotels did not take Black patrons. There were very prominent people who stayed at our house. There was once a Rolls Royce parked out in our driveway. All the children went out to look at it.”
Ambrose Bennett, a retired teacher and former board of education member overseas, lives in Kagman III, on the island of Saipan, in the Pacific Ocean’s Northern Mariana Islands.
Bennett is a successful author who felt his mother’s story and the life she created for her children and her community was a story worth telling. He also extols the value of “MaDears” in the African-American community.
“I felt compelled to share and educate American society about my MaDear and the many MaDears in African-American culture,” said Bennett. “The matriarch of the family was and still is often referred to as ‘MaDear or Big Mama’ as head women of the family…MaDears are especially commonplace among African-American families in the South. We have always called our mother ‘MaDear.’”
Bennett tells how the house, built in 1860 during slavery, was destroyed by fire after MaDear had acquired it. She designed the blueprints to rebuild the house.
“MaDear said if I can make a dress pattern, I can design this house,” Bennett recalled.
Bennett said his mother was born in Piney Woods, now Star, Mississippi to former slaves Isaac Crawford and Manerva Potter.
Manerva Potter’s father, Peter Potter, was “a kind of statesman” for freed slaves. He was caught in the oppressive sharecropping system.
According to Bennett, Potter packed up the whole family and loaded all their possessions on a wagon.
Potter put his children inside the wagon, with furniture surrounding them. Potter began leaving with a shotgun laid across his lap, according to what MaDear said about her grandfather.
The white landowner came riding out to them on a horse and told Potter he could not leave with the mules because he still owed him. Potter told the landowner he was leaving, and asked the landowner if he was ready to die by trying to stop them from leaving. The family came up to Memphis.
Bennett shares other intriguing stories about his mother’s ancestry and growing up in MaDear’s house.
Bennett said future work would go into making MaDear’s house a fully-interactive tourist site.