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Ethel Wright Mohamed - The Artist

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Hassan Mohamed - The Self Made Man

 

Ethel Wright Mohamed - The Artist
October 13, 1906  - February 15,1992

Early Years

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Ethel Lee Wright was born on a farm in Webster County, Mississippi, on October 13, 1906, in a small community named Fame; She described it as "about the size of a bird's nest".  Fame, the small neighborhood near Eupora. Her father, Elijah Wright known as 'Lidge' and her Mother, Nina Bell Ramsay was of English and Scotch - Irish ancestry. 

Four children were born to this family; Ethel was the oldest of three daughters and one son. Her two younger sisters were Hazel Edna Wright, and Eva Lloyd Wright. The youngest child and the only son was named Ortie Orville Wright.

 Her musically talented, resourceful father, a farmer and a trader took an active role in rearing the children to become upright and moral. Her Mother and Father shared equally in the spiritual direction given to their children. Ethel grew up in a warm and nurturing environment.

Ethel's artistic Mother fostered a lasting influence on her by inspiring and teaching her how to embroider little pictures she had created for her. Soon Ethel was doing her own drawings for herself. In the Wright household
 "when little girls would get too nosey, they would have to sit down and do a little handwork", Ethel would say.

Ethel and her siblings had a strong attachment for each other. She looked down on her younger sisters and brother as a protector. She proved herself to be suitable for the responsibility.  If she had a favorite it was surely her little brother, Ortie, although she would never have admitted to that.

School Days

The one-room schoolhouse Ethel attended is now an open field. The school was in walking distance from her home. Her classroom consisted of one teacher who taught all the children from grade one through grade eight. The girls sat on one side of the room and the boys on the other .The grades were in rows. 

In the wintertime the boys would gather wood for the teacher to build the fire in the wood stove. The girls would fill the inkwells and wash the blackboard. The teacher, quite often, had been a student in the same schoolhouse and had later gone to earn a certificate and would come back to his or her old classroom to teach. Sometimes, Ethel would have a teacher that was related to her. 

Ethel was an excellent student and received a good education in the basic studies. She delighted in the spelling bees, storytelling, and her favorite the outdoor recess. The girls would jump rope, swing and play hopscotch while the boy were busy playing ball, marbles, and mumble peg.

Young Womanhood

When Ethel was about fifteen years old her father moved the family to Shaw, Mississippi With much reluctance from her Father, she was finally allowed to get a part time job working in the local bakery, owned by a Mr. Adolph Schlatter.

Each day, one of the customers who would come into the bakery to purchase fresh bread was a young, handsome, local dry goods merchant named Hassen Mohamed 

Ethel was aware that he would sometimes linger while eating a few cookies he had purchased. She soon asked "You must like those cookies" and he answered saying "No, I like you". He later told her he would marry her someday and he did

Hassan wasn't shy about asking if he could visit her in her home. Ethel was very reserved and thought he was a little forward but she did eventually grant him permission to call on her. She remembered that on his first visit he came for Sunday dinner bringing gifts for everyone in the family. Mr. Schlatter had filled him in as to the family members, who they were and where they lived. Hassan courted her 'old country style'.

Hassan soon insisted, during his visits, to include her Father in the conversations, which caused Ethel to wonder just whom did he come to see, after all. She realized later that Hassan was trying to make points with his future father-in-law, Lidge Wright.

 There was a difference in their religions. Hassan was a Moslem, a believer in the religion of Islam. Ethel and her family were Christians. Her Father, Lidge Wright was a lay minister in the Primitive Baptist Church. After many lengthy discussions and finally gaining Lidge's permission to marry Ethel; Hassan proposed to her and she accepted

They were married on April 21, 1924. Their first three children were born in Shaw; they were Ollie, Hazel and Nina Mae. Hassan had been a successful businessman, after many years of peddling in the Mississippi Delta. The temptation was there for him to find his fortune farther on.

Depression Days

In 1927 Hassan moved his family to Belzoni, Mississippi. to the thriving county seat, located on the banks of the Yazoo River,. He and his business partner Dave Homod had a large building constructed for the new D. Homod and H. Mohamed General Store. . A few years later Hassan would be faced with the lowest part of a business cycle, The Great Depression.

 The way Ethel and Hassan dealt with this serious problem, the children were never aware of a depression. More children had been born. and Mittie Price the housekeeper kept everything under control. She ruled with an iron hand.

There were evenings of storytelling, sitting in front of the warm fire; listening to Monday night's Lux Theater, on the radio; reading aloud to each other; doing little stunt plays and weekly nights at the picture show.

Ethel was an avid reader, especially in history and legends. She built the Mohamed family library with reference books, general reading, and great works of the best writers, exposing her family to the tools of developing in absolutely essential knowledge.

With long hours of hard work, and much anxiety Hassan made it through the depression without a business failure or losing his life savings.

World War II

Business was booming again. World War II was taking place. Ethel would enjoy market trips to New York City and St. Louis with Hassan to buy merchandise for the store. Government rationing and ceiling prices was in effect, making sure that everyone got his or her fair share of the scarce goods. There was plenty of money in circulation for purchases that could possibly deplete the limited supply of commodities. Ethel enjoyed the retail business, of the buying and selling merchandise. She became an excellent merchant and was in the store, at Hassan's side, until his death.

In the spring of 1949, Ethel and Hassan sailed for a six-month trip to Europe and the Mediterranean with Sarhine, Lebanon as their destination. She met and bonded with the large family she had heard so much about.

They enjoyed many more years of happiness, devoted to each other, relishing in the fact that there was no doubt or second thoughts about their marriage. The children, in order birth Ollie, Hazel, Nina Mae, Joy, Joseph, June, Hassan, Jr. and Carol were a source of their wealth 'the greatest gift of all'. They tried to make each child feel unique, special and one of a kind. Hassan and Ethel delighted in seeing their children as contemporaries. and loved them unconditionally. 

After forty-one years together and rearing the eight children who would carry on many Wright -Mohamed traditions, Hassan was faced with a long illness. Surrounded by his loving family he died March 23, 1965. 

Alone

For the first time in her life, at the age of fifty-nine Ethel found herself alone. The eight children were married and had their own homes and young families. Reality set in; Hassan had taken her world with him, when he died. She knew she wanted to keep the H. Mohamed Store in operation as long as she could.  It kept her busy during the day and she took pride in proving she could be the merchant Hassan would want her to be, by doing it wellIt did not take care of the nights.

"Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself walking around in the day time and falling into at night".

                                                                                    Edna St. Vincent Millay

Ethel said "I felt as if, I was like a big ship floating around without any reason or any purpose, but one thing I had was a lot of beautiful memories. I wished I could live my life over. Of course, I couldn't do that. I thought, if I could write, I would write a book. I tried my hand at painting but painting wasn't it. So, I decided to stitch a while.  Sitting in my rocking chair, I got my needle, and thread out and it was just the thing for me".

Inspired 

Ethel would see a beautiful painting and wonder how it would look in materials and threads. After trying a few of these and loving the results, she got the idea to do her own designs and embroider them. When she first started doing the embroidery, she felt a little insecure about it and didn't show her pieces to anyone, except a few family members. Later she was more inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidery hanging in Bayous, France, done by Matilda the wife of William the Conqueror.

She stitched her memories; she embroidered scenes from the early days of her marriage; Hassan's peddling days; the store during the depression; her ancestor's marriage; Sacred Harp Singing and over one hundred more. Ethel was still very active in the store during the day but the stitchery was her nightlife.

In the early 70', an open house was held on a New Year's Eve, in Ethel's home. Annelle Mohamed, a daughter in law, took a few of the stitchery pieces out to show to the artist friends, who were guests at the party. Ethel, very nervous about this, wondered what their reaction would be. They were pleased at what they saw and Ethel thinking those were not her best, brought out more stitchery pieces for them to look at. Rita Halbrook, a well-known Belzoni artist said, "You know, she's found her thing".

Fame

Her stitchery pictures soon became in demand. They were framed and hung in the local school and public library for showings. She was soon invited to display her stitchery at art shows in Jackson and Memphis Tennessee.

Ethel never sold any of her stitchery pictures. She would remark " These are my memories, I can't part with them. I have dresses, shoes, hats and other item to sell in my store, but not my pictures."

In 1973 while participating in an art exhibit, in Jackson, Mississippi, Ethel was discovered by two young men who were Smithsonian Institution researchers traveling the United Sates, looking for grass roots America. 

This led to her invitation to attend the two week 1974 Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. .The Smithsonian has held this Festival each year since 1966, featuring one of the fifty states. Mississippi was featured in 1974.and Ethel Wright Mohamed was there as a participant.

In 1975, Smithsonian Festival Designer Janet Stratton traveled to Ethel's home to commission a tapestry to represent the three-month Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C.. The purpose of this festival was to show the American people their roots. The tapestry she made for the 1976 Festival is in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution.

Twelve of her stitchery pictures were in a six-month exhibit at the Renwick Gallery of the National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution. It was held from December 3, 1976 through July 10, 1977. A champagne reception was held at the Smithsonian Castle for the opening. Ethel Wright Mohamed attended as well as many of her family members. The   US Senators and Congressmen from Mississippi were there to show their appreciation.

After this recognition, Ethel's fame spread and she was invited to be the speaker at many organizational meetings. This is when it came to the point that the people had to come to her. She opened her home for all to see, over 100 stitchery pictures. They covered the walls from the high ceilings to the floor. By appointment only, visitors came as individuals, small groups or bus tours that would include as many as seventy people. Most visitors came from miles away. People from almost every state in the Union and from many foreign countries signed her guest book. Family members and friends became the docents. This was the beginning of The Ethel Wright Mohamed Stitchery Museum.

Charities started asking her for a stitchery picture donation. Dr. Toxey E. Hall of Belzoni was the first to ask her to donate a picture to the American Heart Association. She did a scene for them and named it  "Shivaree". After that, she was asked for a stitchery piece by many other charities. She made pictures for the Mississippi Agricultural Museum; Junior League of Jackson Mississippi, Inc.; Mississippi Diabetes Association. and the  University of Mississippi Medical Center Candlelighters; Jackson , Mississippi.

The pictures Ethel made year after year for the different charities brought over $250,000 at the auctions. She never made another stitchery picture for herself.

Final Days

In 1980, Ethel had realized it was time to pass the H.Mohamed Store on to the one person who loved it as much as she did. It was her grandson David Shuman Mohamed. She walked out and never went back in.

Even though Ethel's life was like a whirlwind, she still had plenty of time for her children and the nineteen grandchildren. Sunday afternoons, at three o'clock, was coffee and cake time in her studio. It was her weekly family gathering. She would also have daily visits from her little brother Ortie Wright who lived only 15 miles away. Christmas Day, celebrated in the Mohamed home, was the biggest family occasion of all.

The Smithsonian called her the 'Grandma Moses of Stitchery', she was spoken of as a national treasure, but to her children she was Mama, to her grandchildren she was Big Mama, and her Hassan called her "um ", mother in Arabic. After a short illness Ethel Wright Mohamed died on February 15, 1992.

"She shall be brought before the king in raiment of needlework"

Psalm 45:14

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Hassan Mohamed - The Self Made Man
August 5, 1895- March 23, 1965

Early Years

Hussein Mohamed Asim Shuman "Hassan Mohamed " was born August 5, 1895 at Sarhine, Syria ( now Lebanon).  Sarhine is near Zahle, which is in the Bekaa Valley, about thirty miles east of Beirut. Hassan was the son of Nahale Klais  and Mohamed Asim Shuman . He was born a Moslem and he died a Moslem. the religion of Islam.

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At the age of eighteen, in 1911, speaking only Arabic, Hassan voluntarily left his homeland for America "the new land of opportunity" and "the land of second chance". He had heard intriguing stories about the United States. In leaving Sarhine, he left a home and did not know where the next one was.

He purchased his ticket in Marseille, France and was a passenger on the French steamship - La Bretagne, leaving LeHarve, France, in which landed him in the United States. U S Immigration officers at Ellis Island, New York examined him and he passed with flying colors. The person in the United States to whom he was coming was Nave Salam of Utica, New York, The same year Hassan left Utica for Mississippi, his final destination.

The Peddler  - The Self-made Man

As an 18-year-old and not speaking a word of English, Hassan found his new home in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He would live with a family he had first known in his homeland.

Clarksdale is located in the Mississippi Delta. This was an area of very rich and fertile soil where most people, at that time, made their living on the land, in cotton farming.

Hassan arrived in Clarksdale with about $64.00, in his pocket. The head of the host family was a merchant. I regret I do not know this person's name. At wholesale cost, Hassen bought a small suitcase and about $12.00 worth of merchandise, from the merchant friend.

Setting out on foot, carrying his suitcase filled with items to sell, he was looking down the road of success. Peddling, for him was a unique business. It required no experience, no capital and just enough English to get by. He quickly learned the basic words he needed to know in this struggle to succeed. He had no problem dealing with money, as most people in this world used the Arabic numeral system.  All of his sales transactions were done in cash. He would bargain with his customers and he knew the first lesson of making a profit was to get his cost back first.

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Walking the rural dusty roads, and hobbling over the frozen ruts, he went door to door to the scattered, isolated farmhouses, in search for customers. He sold lace, jewelry, watches, needles, threads, buttons, combs, and other small articles. The women of the houses were pleased, as these were some much-needed items and the nearest store was miles away. It was reported that he sold everything the first day. With a nice profit, he bought more merchandise from his merchant friend and did this day after day. He soon had regular customers and would even take orders for the next call.

It was not an easy life. Suffering from blistering heat and severe cold, at the end of the day, he would return to his new home, tired and weary with aching bones and at times soaking wet from rain.

I wonder, at this point, if he longed for his 'old country' home, the place he knew best and how he felt about all he had given up, his family, his friends and his religion, only to be a peddler in the Mississippi Delta.

This young man, with determination and a strong will, lived to tell his stories to his children.

Having prospered and with a better command of the English language, in just a few years Hassan had earned enough money to buy a horse and a wagon. Work was much easier. More territory could be covered and more merchandise could be supplied to his customers such as yard goods, hand tools, blankets and even suitcases.

His customers looked forward to his visits with the big," rolling store" of merchandise. It was a happy event. The whole family would assemble and choose the articles they wanted.

Even though he was young, able bodied and in certain terms financially succeeding, this rigorous life most certainly was taking an inward, bodily and religious toll on him, as he daily prayed to Allah.

The Merchant

In 1922, at the age of 29, still a bachelor, with money in the bank, he had amassed enough capital to open his first Dry Good Store with his partner, Dave Homod. His peddling days were over. He had peddled for eleven years. Nine years in Clarksdale, two years in Jonestown, Mississippi and now he was an established merchant in Shaw. This is where he met his beautiful Ethel Wright and shortly afterwards married her on April 21, 1924. The first three children Ollie, Hazel and Nina Mae were born in Shaw, Mississippi.

The temptation was always there for him to find his fortune farther on.  Three years later, in 1927 Hassan moved his family to Belzoni, Mississippi. He and his partner had a building constructed for their new D. Homod and H. Mohamed General Store. Finally, this contented settler found his Utopia in this thriving county seat, located on the banks of the Yazoo River, eighty miles North of Jackson where the rich black soil deposited by the Mississippi River and the hot climate formed an almost perfect combination for the staple crop, cotton.

After triumphing over his many hardships, a few years later he would be faced with the lowest part of a business cycle, The Great Depression. With a wife and a larger family he was determined not to yield to the threat of losing the one thing he depended on for his family's survival, his store. With long hours of hard work and distressful worries, this master merchant made it through.  He did not have a business failure, or lose his life savings.

As very little money was in circulation during the depression, the barter system had to be used when there could be no sales transaction. The customer supplied the food such as, fresh eggs, milk, garden vegetables, pork, turkeys, and chickens. The merchant furnished the shoes, cloth, warm coats, and rubber hip boots, just to name a few. Customer and merchant's families alike were clothed and had food on the table. Hassan's children were not aware there was depression. I might add that we corrupted him; he finally ate bacon.

Becoming an American Citizen

This hopefully will clear up any question about Hassan's name. He was born into the large Shuman family in Sarhine. Arriving in America, using his old country customs he was Hassan Mohamed, never stating that he was from the family of Shuman or the house of Shuman.

In establishing his successful businesses he used the name Hassan Mohamed and had secured excellent credit with manufactures, suppliers and especially Dun and Bradstreet, Inc., the New York firm who published the names and credit ratings of companies and individuals.

At that time, under the Department of Labor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service supervised and prepared the aliens and legal residents of the United States for naturalization, by providing citizenship textbooks to the public schools.

Hassan was diligent and with painstaking effort he attended the necessary classes. There was a time when he almost gave up, having to read about Cora and succotash. I never could understand why he had that word, succotash. I thought an ear of corn would have done just as well.

Having complied with the naturalization laws of the United States, the courts ordered that Hassan Mohamed be admitted as an American citizen of the United States, on November 21, 1932.

In obtaining his citizenship he had a difficult decision to make, as to what his legal name would be. If he kept the name Shuman he would have to make major changes in all of his business connections. After many agonizing thoughts and serious consideration, it was settled, he would drop the Shuman and keep the Hassan Mohamed intact. The name was changed, by order of the Court, from Hussein Mohamed Shuman to Hassan Mohamed on February 22, 1933.

Separate Ways

The D. Homod and H. Mohamed business continued until 1943, when the time came to dissolve the partnership. It was done in a friendly and orderly manner. The merchandise was divided equally and they literally put a sheet rock petition down the middle of the large store. Each of the smaller stores had its own main entrance, one being D. Homod and the other H. Mohamed. Business thrived, again. World War 11 was taking place.

The Family Man

Hassan transformed into the commanding American way of life, giving up much of his Moslem culture. He held on to his mother tongue and never forgot his family bonds in the ' Old Country'.

The strong attachment he had for Ethel and his children gave assurance to everyone, that he adored his family. Five more children had been born into the Mohamed clan. They were named Joy, Joseph, June, Hassan, Jr. and Carol the eighth child.

He was a stern Father and we were all good children. You, the reader can be sure of that. He would be gentle and lenient, we all knew he had that soft spot in his heart.  He was generous and unselfish. He would laugh and cry, with us. He lived to see a few of his nineteen grandchildren born and all of his children grown and married.  Not one, of his eight children, was a disappointment to him.

Hassan was in favor of his children being reared in the Christian faith of their mother. He was civic minded and active in community affairs. He was a member of the Belzoni Masonic Lodge # 547 and 32nd Scottish Rite.  .He was also  a member of the Wahabi Shrine Temple in Jackson, Mississippi and held offices in theses organizations.

Hassan had bought the big white, framed house that became the comfortable family home. There was, "dear to our hearts, today, but much feared, then", the strict Mittie Price, our housekeeper. Others who helped with the chores in taking care of a large family included the quiet, gentle Cora Reed.

Not being a farmer, Hassan did understand investing in the wealth of the earth, which is the source of all things. He wanted a part of it. In doing so, he became the proud owner of Mississippi farmland, seven miles outside of town. He called it 'Ashwood'.

In the evenings, after dinner, there would be special story telling time. He would tell tales he had heard as a child, like Saint George and the Dragon, The Girl with the Iron Hand stories from The Arabian Nights, only the ones he wanted us to hear. Listening to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp mesmerized us.

The numbers were small, but a few Arabs migrated into the Mississippi Delta. There was Charlie Abraham, Hassan's first cousin, Sam Shipley, his second cousin, and others from Sarhine. They found their solace in each other. They talked about their homeland, and had large Sunday family dinners with their traditional foods; there was cracked wheat dishes, Kibby, lamb, stuffed eggplant, laban (yogurt), and lentils, just to name a few.

For his own family's consumption, Hassan would place large orders for imported ingredients and foods from Syria and Lebanon with A. Sahadi & Co. Inc., New York, a chief importer. As children we looked forward to this, .I especially remember the Jordan Almonds, Halawa(sweets), mixed dried fruits, and bags of shredded wheat cakes.

Going Home Again

In the spring of 1949, Hassan saw his homeland for the first time in thirty-eight years. He and Ethel sailed for a six-month European and Mediterranean vacation with Sarhine, Lebanon as their destination.

They enjoyed many more years of happiness, devoted to each other, relishing in the fact that there was no doubt or seconds thoughts about their marriage to each other.

Fifty four years after arriving in America at the age of 18, a marriage of forty one years and eight children, Hassan found himself facing the ultimate struggle, a long illness. He still dreamed of his homeland, took pride in his family and was pleased with his status by the achievements. Surrounded by his loving family he died March 23, 1965.

This brief biography of Hassan Mohamed is written by his oldest daughter, his second child.

It is an honor and a joy to write about my Daddy. I am aware of my inadequacy in showing the gratification he so well deserves.

ma*a  a salemma            Go in Peace

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