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Women and Migration

Deborah Willis
Ellyn Toscano
Kalia Brooks Nelson

Part one. Imagining family and migration

1. Between Self and Memory

Ellyn Toscano

Texte intégral

1It was through the investigation of a rich socialite and an ambitious librarian that the previously unknown racial identity of a six-year old girl — my grandmother — came to light on a beach in Italy in the summer of 2010. I had not been looking for the complexity, coherence, or even the excitement that this investigation ultimately brought to me. Searching and researching Mary Godfrey’s life, using incomplete and curated documentation, imagination and reconsidered recollections, I came to understand the consequences of migration, the liberty of withholding and concealment, and the powerful self-fashioning of transitive identities.

22010. August, the most unbearable summer month in Italy. I managed a week-long beach holiday, built around Ferragosto, the national holiday commemorating the Catholic belief that God took the body and soul of Mary into heaven at the end of her life on earth. I left my duties at Villa La Pietra, the house museum containing 6,000 objects including art, furniture, tapestry and textiles, sculptures, books and photographs, on a thirty-eight acre estate now owned by New York University.

3The Villa and estate were previously owned by the Acton family. It was Hortense Mitchell, a wealthy socialite from Chicago, who purchased the fifteenth-century estate with the extraordinary fortune amassed by her father, one of the founders in 1874 of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank in Chicago.

Fig. 1.1. Steffens Studio, Hortense Mitchell Acton. New York University, The Acton Photograph Archive, Villa La Pietra, Florence.

4In 1903, Hortense married Arthur Acton, the rather less distinguished but socially ambitious adventurer with questionable lineage traced to the nineteenth-century historian Lord Acton. The marriage was unannounced, unexpected and without the fuss of the many society weddings in Chicago in which Hortense served as bridesmaid. Only her brother, Guy, and a passer-by witnessed the ceremony. Hortense and Arthur settled in Florence and began a life collecting art and entertaining. In July 1904 they started a family. Hortense never returned to live in Chicago. Pictures kept in an archive in Villa La Pietra reveal that Hortense had travelled extensively and adventurously before she married, apparently seeking a different life from that expected of young, rich debutantes of her day.

5We can cobble together a sketchy understanding of her biography from newspaper accounts of her social life in Chicago and Florence, the treasure trove of photographs in the family archive, and the objects in her home attributable to her alone, such as a carefully preserved collection of fancy dresses with matching shoes, and her copious library of books, all readily identifiable as hers through the beautiful bookplates, one of which depicted a boat traveling at sea. We know nothing about her motivation for uprooting her comfortable existence and emigrating to Florence. What was she leaving when she quit Chicago? What was she seeking? We treat her objects like totems; we imbue them with potent meaning and significance. In her fetishized presence in, and, at the same time pervasive absence from her home, Hortense is an alluring character. Aside from her wealth, was she extraordinary? Was it away from the ordinary that she was traveling?

Fig. 1.2. Hortense Mitchell Acton travelling. New York University, The Acton Photograph Archive, Villa La Pietra, Florence.

Fig. 1.3. Bookplate of Hortense Mitchell Acton. New York University, The Acton Photograph Archive, Villa La Pietra, Florence.

6My daughter wanted to be with her friends at the beach in Forte dei Marmi, but I wanted to be far away from the crowds of idle summer socialites. I elected to rent a room in a bed and breakfast near Pietrasanta, where I could rest by the pool and look at art when resting became too stressful. My goal was to tackle the 580-page book I had ordered months before entitled An Illuminated Life, Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege by Heidi Ardizzone. I had been drawn to this biography since the subject was an occasional companion of Bernard Berenson, the art historian who lived in Florence and was more or less a contemporary of Hortense and Arthur Acton (and an occasional visitor to Villa La Pietra). Fascinated by the intertwined lives of the large expat community in Florence during the early part of the twentieth century, the story of Bella, her employer J. P. Morgan and their relationships to the Florentine society of Hortense and Arthur Acton, I was reading for context of the life lived in and around the Villa. Myself, an ‘expat’, the rather more genteel word for immigrant, the question of why people choose to disrupt their lives, leave behind a regular, knowable and predictable life for an uncertain and precarious existence in an unknown place was increasingly on my mind. I, too, was a voluntary, privileged migrant in a historic city notorious for its legions of rich English and American expats and hordes of visiting students. I was always asked to account for myself, both by the community into which I had inserted myself and by that which I had left behind.

7In 1905, Belle da Costa Greene (1879–1950) was a young librarian at Princeton University when banking tycoon J. P. Morgan hired her to help him to expand and organize his rare medieval and Renaissance book and illuminated manuscript collection. Belle probably developed her interest in books and manuscripts from her father, who had also begun his career as a librarian and professor. Belle was firmly established in the social circles of her supremely connected and well-heeled employer, frequenting the parties of wealthy cosmopolitans not unlike the Actons of Chicago and Florence. Through her travels to Florence with Morgan, she met and entered into a long affair with art historian Bernard Berenson. Heidi Ardizzone’s research into Belle is exhaustive, in part relying on a substantial collection of letters from Belle to Berenson that Belle had expressly directed Berenson to destroy.

8Belle was unmarried, exotic, private and beautiful, apparently alone in the world. Her exoticism and mystery were said to be the product of her Portuguese background. Ardizzone’s biography, however, reveals that unbeknownst to Morgan, Berenson, and all of her social milieu, Belle was born Belle Marion Greener into a prominent Black family in Washington, D.C. Her father was Richard Theodore Greener, renowned as the first Black graduate of Harvard College in 1870, who had begun his career as the first Black librarian and professor at the University of South Carolina. Belle invented her name and Portuguese heritage in order to pass in white society.

9Somewhere in the middle of this book, I stopped reading about Belle and J. P. Morgan and Bernard Berenson and stopped caring about the Actons. I started reading voraciously for clues. Somehow I realized that this story — this narrative of exoticism, intelligence, ambition, mystery and hiding — illuminated some of the unacknowledged secrets of my mother’s family. Somehow I understood from Belle’s story that the vague and inconsistent description I had been given of my grandmother’s Cuban ancestry was, like Belle’s Portuguese lineage, a fiction to mask a different heritage.

10With my daughter sleeping at my side, and my exhaustion overcome by the adrenaline of the chase, I went online and accepted’s convenient introductory offer of two weeks of free genealogical research. I began searching for my grandmother with the scant and obviously unreliable information I could recall: I had been told that my grandmother had been brought from Cuba by her parents at the age of six or seven to Great Barrington, Massachusetts. My grandmother’s name — Mary Godfrey — was one of the things that had caused my dissatisfaction with our meager family history: Godfrey was clearly not a Cuban name. In a moment of uncharacteristic curiosity during college, I had asked my mother about this inconsistency. My mother responded quickly and not very convincingly that the name had been changed from Maria Gutierrez.

11I knew nothing else, nothing about her family or siblings. Nothing about the motives behind her leaving. Nothing about the strange choice of Great Barrington (the birthplace of W. E. B. Du Bois — how could this not be relevant to the story?). Nothing more than this sparse story of migration.

12I began to search: Maria Gutierrez — Great Barrington — birth year 1900 plus or minus five years. Nothing. I altered the dates. Nothing. Changed Maria to Mary. Nothing. Finally, I entered Mary Godfrey, the suspect name under which she lived. One entry. Reading it, I froze. Mary Godfrey, 1910 Census, a fifteen-year-old negro servant in the white household of the Noonan family in Great Barrington. I stared for a long time. I knew this was my grandmother. It was late, 3am, but I had to keep looking. Reason told me that Mary Godfrey was too common a name to be sure that this single entry was my grandmother.

13Further searching that morning revealed nothing and I spent the waning days of the summer on the hunt. Going through the military records of my mother’s brother, killed in August 1944 in the Battle for Brittany, I found census records of the family in 1925, 1930 and 1940, all listing the family as ‘colored’ and giving various locations — Virginia, Massachusetts and South Carolina — as the birthplace of my grandmother. Never Cuba.

14My mother was still alive when I discovered this history but I never confronted her with what I had found. Whatever she knew of her mother’s life, I realized she did not want me to know and I did not want to confront her with this discovery at the end of her life. I could not help, however, picking around the edges a bit and once asked her how her mother had come to New York from Great Barrington. She answered, ‘the church’. ‘What church?’ I asked, eager for any shred of information. ‘St. Benedict’ s, on the west side’, she replied, helpfully. When I arrived home I googled St. Benedict’s.

15The Mission of St. Benedict the Moor was established in New York City in 1883 by Rev. Thomas Farrell, a Catholic priest with a church on Waverly Place who had come to be deeply troubled by the conditions in which the Black community lived in New York during the years just following the Civil War. In his will, he left money to establish a parish for that community. Rev. John E. Burke became the first pastor: he build the church and founded a home for poor Black children first located on Macdougal Street, then in Rye, New York.

16Finding anything online from Italy beyond census documents proved challenging, though I spent many a night scrolling through records of Mary Godfreys. One night my eye fell on an entry for Mary Godfrey, a seven-year-old ‘inmate’ in Rye, New York. Thinking inmate a strange description for a seven-year-old child, I clicked on the entry and found the document that would provide the connective tissue between the haphazard documents I had found and give me the first evidence of my grandmother’s origins in South Carolina: an entry in the 1905 New York State Census listing the children living at the St. Benedict’s Home for Destitute Colored Children, the orphanage established by Rev. John E. Burke.

17The following summer, back in New York, I was initially denied access to the records, with a helpful contribution to the church I was able to persuade a church employee to send me a copy of the record of Mary Godfrey, an index card containing information about her arrival into the home and her departure six years later.

18In July 1904 (the same year that Hortense Mitchell Acton gave birth to the son who would leave La Pietra for New York University, and a few months before Bella da Costa Green was hired by J. P. Morgan) a six-year-old ‘colored’ girl named Mary Godfrey was surrendered to St. Benedict’s Home for Destitute Colored Children in Rye, New York by a retired Catholic priest named Thomas F. Hopkins, from Summerville, South Carolina, Pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Charleston. The index card recording her admission into St. Benedict’s listed her deceased mother as Mary F. Washington, a Catholic, but failed to name her father, noting only that he was alive, and Protestant. If it was known that he was alive and Protestant, surely his name was known, and omitted. I do not think I will ever find out who Mary’s father was and I do not think his name was Godfrey. I suspect, but do not know, that Father Thomas F. Hopkins gave her that name as some sort of reference to his Catholic charity toward her. I suspect, but do not know, that Father Thomas F. Hopkins is key to discovering my grandmother’s early life. According to the records of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, Father Hopkins was pastor from 1894 until 1901, when he retired due to ill-health. That meant that he was no longer an active priest when he took my grandmother north. On 25 June 1904, roughly a month before ‘surrendering’ my grandmother to St. Benedict’s Home, Father Hopkins, sixty-two years old, was issued a passport. On 22 August 1904, roughly one month after he delivered my grandmother to St. Benedict’s, he died in Germany, at a resort noted for its salt springs, used to treat heart and nerve diseases.

19What did he have to do with her and why did he undertake to bring her north? A further search of the records of the Home revealed that she was the only child he ‘surrendered’. Mary stayed at the Home until she was twelve (when children were discharged from St. Benedict’s) and she was released on 2 March 1910 to another Irish priest, Rev. Thomas O’Keefe, the then priest at St. Benedict. The record book of students indicated that Mary Godfrey was ‘adopted by Mrs. Noonan, Great Barrington, Mass, 3/2/1910,’ the matriarch of the family, with whom Mary was listed as a servant in the 1910 census. The next traces of Mary Godfrey, also found within the records of St. Benedict’s Church, were her 1921 marriage certificate and the record of the baptism two years later of her daughter, Margaret, my mother.

Fig. 1.4. Record of Admission to St. Benedicts Home for Destitute Colored Children. Author’s collection.

  • 1 Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: (...)

20My grandmother’s trip north could be considered part of the Great Migration, the exodus of African Americans leaving the south to seek out opportunity and freedom in the north in the early twentieth century. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson tells the stories of three Black migrants, writing that what bound their stories, and those of other migrants ‘was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.’1

21Mary Godfrey did not leave, or go, she was brought. She was saved, or got out of the way. Whatever motivated Father Hopkins — Christian love, guilt, money, parental duty, a death-bed act of kindness hedging a life of luxury — he brought her north to an orphanage in which she would be educated, a right by no means certain in late-nineteenth-century South Carolina. She came north, barely aware of the south from which she was taken, taught the value of education and tempted by the luxury of self-determination. What she learned, or felt, or reached for or struggled toward is unknown to me except in the imprint she made on her daughter, a barely-Black woman, also unaware of or undaunted by limitation, and light-skinned and audacious enough to walk out of her fate.

22I do not know that my grandmother ever acted to conceal her identity. It is more likely that she lived her life exploiting whatever good fortune she encountered. Mary Godfrey was not Belle Greener. Migrating, leaning forward with hope and innocence, does not always mean leaving something behind. Maybe you can make the past unimportant if not invisible.

23Ultimately it is my mother I am searching because it is my mother from whom I am formed. I knew she was hiding something of her life from me and I knew she had memories that would never be mine to know. I could hear her silences. Like Hortense, she never belonged or wanted to belong — she wanted to remain sufficiently outside to stay in possession of herself, always free to retreat into some carefully preserved, comfortable and comforting secret self, always capable of annihilating an uncomfortable reality to make way for something more pleasant.

24She was a powerful, willful and ultimately creative woman who deeply believed, as I think Mary Godfrey taught her, that one is the master of one’s own identity, notwithstanding so much evidence to the contrary; that which is inconvenient or no longer relevant is expendable and there is nothing sacred, or even very genuine, about the truth. We moved frequently, migratory, never defining a home, never weighted by roots. If anyone ‘passed’ with any consciousness, it was my mother. If anybody chose to walk out of her history, to embrace a life of creative insecurity — like Belle Greener — it was my mother.

Fig. 1.5. Margo Ledee Toscano. Portrait photograph. Author’s collection.

25After she died, in going through old agendas and files, I found a ripped out page of a notebook, with random notes and reminders but with a scrawled sentence, written at a rising angle across the page, as my mother often wrote. The note said: ‘I never shared my past because I felt these memories belonged to me.’

26I use my imagination to fill in the lacunae and omissions of my history. I watch myself, trying to understand if I feel differently about my mother after what I have discovered. My migration is a sort of self-psychotherapy. The borders against which I push shift and waver and falter. I can never return to the place of my origin, or answer all of the questions I have — but this does not concern me. Ultimately, like my mother — and Hortense and Bella — my history is an act of creativity and imagination, an indulgence in not belonging, a migration.


1 Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), pp. 14–15.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1.1. Steffens Studio, Hortense Mitchell Acton. New York University, The Acton Photograph Archive, Villa La Pietra, Florence.
Fichier image/jpeg, 106k
Légende Fig. 1.2. Hortense Mitchell Acton travelling. New York University, The Acton Photograph Archive, Villa La Pietra, Florence.
Fichier image/jpeg, 267k
Légende Fig. 1.3. Bookplate of Hortense Mitchell Acton. New York University, The Acton Photograph Archive, Villa La Pietra, Florence.
Fichier image/jpeg, 231k
Légende Fig. 1.4. Record of Admission to St. Benedicts Home for Destitute Colored Children. Author’s collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 226k
Légende Fig. 1.5. Margo Ledee Toscano. Portrait photograph. Author’s collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 179k


Senior Director of Programing, Partnerships and Community Engagement, NYU in Brooklyn and former Executive Director of New York University Florence. She is the founder of La Pietra Dialogues and the founding producer of The Season, a summer arts festival in Florence, Italy. Toscano co-organized Black Portraitures conference at NYU Florence and produced the exhibition ‘ReSignifications’, held at three venues in Florence, Italy. She is a member of the Boards of the Harbor Conservancy, New York, Museo Marino Marini in Florence, Italy; of the John Brademas Center, New York; the Italian Advisory Council of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, Umbertide, Italy; and the Comitato Promotore of the Festival degli Scrittori and the Premio Gregor von Rezzori, Santa Maddalena Foundation, Donnini, Italy. Before arriving at New York University Florence, Toscano served as Chief of Staff and Counsel to Congressman Jose Serrano of New York, was his chief policy advisor and directed his work on the Appropriations Committee. Toscano also served as counsel to the New York State Assembly Committee on Education for nine years and served on the boards of several prominent arts and cultural institutions in New York City, including The Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (representative of the Borough President), A lawyer by training, Toscano earned an LLM in International Law from New York University School of Law.


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