The Note Book

R esearching family history for the publication of her parents’ love letters was interesting and fun, Hamden author Jill Snyder says. It was also healing. While telling the story of her parents’ courtship, Snyder learned a larger story about her Black family’s ancestry and, ultimately, herself. Black people “carry a lot of pain from the legacies of the past, but we don’t know why,” Snyder says. “There are a lot of consequences of not really knowing who you are and what your history is.”

Snyder confronted her own past—the parts she already knew and the parts she didn’t—in the process of publishing Dear Mary, Dear Luther (2015), a nearly complete series of love letters her parents exchanged from 1937 to 1941. The book includes research on Snyder’s extended family and historical context for their stories. She will give a talk about her family’s history, share excerpts from some of her parents’ letters and discuss the Black history of New Haven at the time of her parents’ arrival in a Zoom presentation sponsored by New Haven Museum on Wednesday, February 10 at 6 p.m.

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Both of Snyder’s parents “were descended from African Americans who had likely escaped enslavement through the Underground Railroad,” she writes in the book’s preface. “Both families had experienced acts of racism that had devastating consequences. Both of their mothers were outcasts in their respective communities: my maternal grandmother Stella because she was a white woman who had married an African American; my paternal grandmother Maude because she was an unwed mother at a time when it was much less accepted than it is today.”

Mary Brooks and Luther Snyder lived in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where they met at a mutual friend’s wedding in 1935. It turned out Luther’s aunt lived next door to the Brooks family; he would often drop in on her in order to visit Mary. When 26-year-old Luther left Wilkes-Barre for a summer job in Asbury Park, New Jersey, his correspondence with his future wife began. “Dear Mary, I’m as sure as the sun shines that you are as sweet as when I left,” opens Luther’s first letter, dated May 27, 1937. “Gee, it’s swell down here but it would be perfect if you were here, you know I can’t lose that longing for you.”

Mary, who was 18 years old and about to graduate from high school, responded in kind: “I loved reading your letter and you were sweet to write so promptly. You can’t imagine how much I’ve missed you.” Their missives are filled with news of birthday parties and picnics, gossip about friends and funny stories. They exchanged suggestions on songs to listen to and made plans for their infrequent visits. “Dear Mary: I’ll see you Friday evening! Whooppee!!!!” Luther wrote on May 8, 1940.

Eventually, they planned a New York City wedding. Mary’s last letter, written on January 10, 1941, tells Luther when she’ll be arriving at Penn Station. Sounding formal and nervous, she added, “So please be sure to meet me. I think I’ve made the time, the place and the hour plain enough, I mean so you will have no trouble locating me. Looking forward to seeing you. Mary.” Allowing time for the requisite paperwork of the day, the couple were married 20 days later, on Luther’s 30th birthday. There, the correspondence ends. A few months later, the couple moved to New Haven, where Luther quickly found work at the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

The family—eventually including sons Roy and Dale and daughter Jill—lived in several New Haven apartments before moving to West Haven, where Jill graduated from high school. Their story, as recounted by her, also includes tragedy—most notably, the murder of Mary’s cousin by his own son. It was a family tale told over and over again, Snyder recalls. When she began her genealogical research on Ancestry.com, the popular genealogy website connected her with distant cousins. They knew they were related partly because they all knew the same story.

While the Internet has made such connections much easier to find, Black families often run up against barriers in tracing their ancestors. “We reach a roadblock because of slavery,” Snyder says. She sifted through wills, property records, bank records, Freedmen’s Bureau records and seamen’s certificates. “A lot of Black men were seamen,” Snyder explains. “That was one area where there was a little bit more equity between Black and white, on the sea.” People of Caribbean descent can also look up passenger immigration records. Many of these resources are available free via the Ancestry Library Edition of Ancestry.com at some public libraries. Snyder also tapped into the National Archives and the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

Her search was aided by the fact that much of her family had lived in the same small Quaker town of Catawissa, Pennsylvania, for three or four generations. “They were the only Black family in the town, so [the town] recorded everything about them just like they did everybody else,” Snyder says. With the help of the local historical society, she unearthed information including the obituary of her great-great grandfather, Henry Jones, who was born into slavery in 1807 in Virginia and escaped around the age of 20, eventually marrying and settling in Pennsylvania.

“I got my great-great grandfather’s obituary, and I literally fell on my knees and cried when I read it, it was so emotional,” Snyder recalls. “I just think about what resilience and fortitude that takes to put that life together,” she says. The information corroborated her mother’s oral history of the family. It also fleshed out a part of herself that Snyder had felt she was missing. “I’ve always been a resilient person, able to bounce back after problems,” she says. “I understand now where it comes from.”

Learning about her own history has also fleshed out the incomplete Black history she learned as a child in school. “I think that adding in the personal history is important,” Snyder says. “Not just knowing the big-picture history and about the leaders and legislative successes and the Civil Rights Movement but learning your own history so that one understands oneself better and all the people in your universe better as well.”

Snyder believes her parents’ story can also be meaningful to readers outside her family. “Black love stories aren’t portrayed that often in media,” she notes. Sharing the love story of “ordinary folks” like her parents, she says, is “my way of saying Black lives matter… That’s one reason to excavate one’s history because our ancestors’ lives matter, and they should be lifted up—especially if they weren’t lifted up in any way in their own lifetime.”

Dear Mary, Dear Luther
by Jill Marie Snyder
Virtual Author Event: Feb 10, 6pm, sponsored by the New Haven Museum (register)
To purchase the book: New Haven Museum (info@newhavenmuseum.org | 203-562-4183 x119) or Amazon

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photo, featuring Mary, Luther and their son Roy on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1942, courtesy of Jill Snyder.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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