Velma Davis Embry: Working Class Hero
March 1, 2011 by Anna Belle Pfau
My favorite time of year is upon us as of today: Women’s History Month! The theme for 2011’s Women’s History Month is Our History is Our Strength. The idea behind the theme is to integrate the traditional, trailblazing histories we usually cover with the local and social histories of women from our communities, and indeed, of our families. Every woman has a place in some kind of history.
With that theme in mind, I thought I’d share the story of my maternal grandmother, Velma Davis Embry, who was a local business woman and the mother of 7 children. Grandma Embry passed in 2000 at the age of 82. I knew her when she was older, and very grandmotherly, always with this perfectly coiffed silver-blue hair. We didn’t always see eye to eye, especially when I was a teenager, but I’ve come to understand her in a different way as I’ve matured. Her long life and amazing story never cease to amaze me. She wasn’t a saint, but she is my hero and a role model.
Velma Davis’ story starts in Barren County, Kentucky in the year of her birth, 1918. Her parents were share-croppers and she was a twin, the twins among 9 children total. Being one of the eldest girls, she was forced to quit school in the seventh grade to care for her younger siblings. At what we now consider the tender age of 16 (fully considered a woman at that time by most people, especially among the working classes), she married a local man and the next year gave birth to her first son.
Her marriage was conflicted with the problem of alcoholism, however, a disease which afflicted a lot of marriages at the time. Her husband drank and, in the teetering economy recovering from the Great Depression, could not find meaningful employment. She worked as a waitress serving lunch, where part of her pay was a free lunch, which she took home and split between herself, her husband, and their young son. When she was 19 years old, her 20-month old son died from complications due to an eye infection; the next month she gave birth to my aunt. Her marriage ended in the hurricane of pain that followed these events.
I cannot imagine from what depth inside herself she pulled together the strength to carry on after this; such events might have ruined lesser women. But Velma carried on. It was her way. She worked as a waitress for the next several years while her parents cared for her infant daughter, and she sent money home, visiting them as often as she could. She eventually married my grandfather, Rodney Embry, also divorced. He died before I was born. Velma and Rod went on to have five more children: four strapping sons and another daughter, my mother. With her daughter from her previous marriage, they cared for a total of six children over the course of their marriage.
Their marriage was unstable, but productive. Rod, too, was an alcoholic, and the disease had dire consequences in their marriage as a result of the lack of equal protection women faced. He was not a bad or evil man, but he was plagued by demons that are better told in a story of his life than hers. I have heard stories of his magnanimous personality all my life, and in pictures I can see in his eyes the mischievous glint of a man who could charm angry bees. But he had a darker side. He drank excessively and was prone to rash judgments that often put his family at risk. He also had a violent streak when he drank, and Grandma Embry put up with his attacks on more than one occasion.
They opened their first restaurant in the late 1940s, in the boom years that followed the Second World War. They were very successful at this, and soon spun off new restaurants in other locations. With two locations situated in downtown Louisville, Embry’s Restaurant was a favorite of local business leaders and politicians of all stripes. Grandma Embry basically ran the restaurants, and employed several family members, including several of her children. She eventually worked hard enough to buy a house for her family. She fell in love with a three bedroom ranch house in Pleasure Ridge Park. She planted three blue spruces in the front yard and settled into the longest stretch of stability she and the children would know—nine years.
She toiled in their restaurants by day and hand-made clothes for her children into the night. Because of Grandpa Embry’s drinking and the fact of 6 children to support, they struggled financially. Other women in her predicament might have made do with ragged hand-me-downs or charity, but for Grandma Embry “good enough” was never good enough. She wanted her children to be taken seriously and treated well, and she understood, however intuitively, that first impressions made all the difference in the world. My mother, who was what they called “husky” in those days, wore beautiful dresses that Grandma Embry and her mother (my Great-grandmother Davis) made for her all through her childhood. Grandma Embry wanted her to look “normal” instead of clad in the traditional black and navy attire available for “husky” girls in stores. The boys in public were well scrubbed and tidy. Their starched collars stand out almost as much as their Midwestern ears in the photos that I often take out to linger over.
One day she came home to find that her husband, my Grandpa Embry, had sold her small, beautiful house, which she had worked so hard for, out from under her. He had not even asked her what she thought about it, let alone if she would agree to it. He did this because he had traded the home for a trailer park in West Point, Kentucky, a hair-brained business idea that sank the next year when the park flooded. I’ve heard my own mother tell this story a hundred times, and I still cannot quite wrap my head around it. To be working day and night caring for and supporting five growing children, and then *wham* to be practically homeless, all your stability yanked out from beneath you by the person you should be able to trust the most, such a thing is a foreign concept for the vast majority of women today. It still happens, of course, and Grandma Embry’s story demonstrates how little has changed for women who face substance abuse issues and domestic violence in the home. But women have won such independence since my Grandmother’s time that we can hardly identify with a history like this anymore, though it was common enough in her day.
In fact, such an event couldn’t happen today, unless the woman’s name is not on the deed. Property rights for married women did not exist in the United States until First Wave women’s groups made them a staple of their agenda in the mid-19th century. Kentucky was the very last state to pass a married women’s property law, in 1894. Josephine K. Henry, a prominent Kentucky woman from a long-standing Kentucky family, was instrumental in getting the law, informally dubbed The Husband and Wife Law, passed. The 1894 legislation, which you can see from the linked text, expressly forbade the buying and selling of real estate unless a wife’s husband was also a party to that contract. So it basically only allowed married women property rights in the event of a gift, inheritance, conspiracy with a trustworthy male, or a very enlightened husband for the time.
Thus, it was not much help to my Grandmother in this case, this law that allowed for the writing of wills and the collection of business profits and rents. (Many married women during this time had trustworthy husbands, brothers or fathers purchase property for them and then transfer it into their names.) Furthermore, loans were rarely granted to married women of her working class station at the time. My Grandfather had to do that for her, hence his holding all the titles and deeds. It took another decade before the law was reformed, and another decade still—by which time I had been born—until business practices caught up with the notion of women deserving equal rights. In this way, and in line with our theme for the month, Velma Embry and Josephine Henry are linked across time, and my mother and I to them. Our history is shared.
Grandma Embry, as was her way, stoically carried on. She continued to maintain restaurants for another decade before my grandfather died. She raised her children on a working class income and even managed to pay for the first year of college for several of her children. Because she was only able to complete the seventh grade, she valued education immensely and returned in 1965 to complete her own G.E.D. Her legacy is her children; they include a life-long business woman, a Berkeley Ph. D., an M.D., a chemist, and a nurse. Not too shabby for a woman who started life as a farmer, and went on to work in restaurants the rest of her days, who was knocked down in life by the death of her first child, a constant cycle of emotional and economic insecurity, and the insistence of a culture that her husbands, whatever their failings, should be granted more rights and greater stature than her. Like so many women, she carried on in the face of so much injustice, and achieved what she wanted to achieve in her life, which was the success of her children. Modeling such strength is what women do every day, and why it’s important to share our history.