Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Grandmother of My Grandmother

 This is all true. Or if it isn't true, I'm remembering incorrectly. Or someone told it to me wrong. You get the idea. I am not sure this will interest anyone besides my brother and me, but here it goes.

My great, great maternal grandmother Ellen Jane Stewart was born in Londonderry, NI in 1847. Escaping the constant mid-nineteenth century potato famines, she came to the US. circa 1870 where she earned a modest living as a lace-maker. The idea was that at some later date, her two younger brothers would follow her overseas. (And I understand they did and opened a tavern somewhere in New Jersey eventually.)  

Between 1871 and 1891, 55,690 Irish women emigrated to the U.S. compared to 55,215 men for the same time period. Immigrants coming from other countries were overwhelmingly male. This female-dominated migration stream was unique to the Irish and reflected their cultural values and the impact of the years of famine. Fewer than 50% of Irish women were able to find husbands after the potato famines and marriage was their only avenue out of poverty. (There are several good books and articles about this phenomena).

Soon after her arrival, Ellen married Thomas Alexander Morrison (1846), a coal miner, who came to the US from either Ireland or Wales. The sole story passed down about Ellen is that the first time she saw a streetcar, she fainted at the sight. Or ran after it. One or the other. (The first streetcars in the region, running on steel rails and pulled by horses, began operating on the Frankford and Southwark Philadelphia City Passenger Railway Company on January 20, 1858). They didn't appear in NI until the 1890s.

The young couple had three children: Margaret (1876), John Alexander (1878) and Thomas Wilson (1881). Sadly in 1886, Thomas died from black lung disease, leaving his widow with three children to raise. 

And now we come to the story of Girard College and its impact on the life of my great grandfather, Tom Morrison. Stephen Girard (1750 –1831) was a Philadelphia philanthropist. Using, his fortune, Stephen Girard personally saved the U.S. government from financial collapse during the War of 1812, and became one of the wealthiest people in America, estimated to have been the fourth richest American of all time, based on the ratio of his fortune to contemporary GDP. Childless, he devoted much of his fortune to philanthropy, particularly the education and welfare of orphans. He was a virulent atheist. He worked hard nursing people who contracted yellow fever in 1793, fearlessly staying to help when he could easily have fled.

He bequeathed nearly his entire fortune to charitable and municipal institutions of Philadelphia and New Orleans, including an endowment for establishing a boarding school for "poor, male, white orphans" in Philadelphia, primarily those who were the children of coal miners. Girard College (130 acres) opened in 1848. It took that long to build it according to his detailed instructions. His will dictated everything from the school’s curriculum to its precise architecture, and even the lunches provided for students and staff. If accepted at Girard College, boys would spend their school years getting a first-rate education, being clothed, fed, and taken care of at the school. Discipline was strict. At one time over 1800 boys lived at the school. 

Ellen Jane Morrison was only able to visit her boys on Sunday afternoons (currently boys go home for the weekend) and a huge wall sequestered the boys from city distractions. No clergy man would be permitted to enter the premises as Girard believed them to be a weakening influence. Ellen's boys were eight and five when their father died. I am not sure if they went to live at Girard College immediately, but the school took first graders. Of course, Margaret, the older daughter, was excluded. And it wasn't until the 1960s, that black students were admitted. Today almost all of the students are black, reflecting the current population. 

Tom Morrison completed his education there and was admitted to Temple University and then Temple Law School. He had a successful career as an attorney, eventually working as Deputy City Controller for the city of Philadelphia. In 1932, just as the Depression began, he opened a diner with a Mr. Struhm called the Morrison and Struhm Diner, which still exists in Philly today as the Mayfair Diner. He died in 1933, age 52, probably a victim of the downturn.

Pics are a painting of Stephen Girard and his male orphans, the ten-foot walls that surround Girard College, Ellen Jane Stewart and her daughter, Margaret, and my grandmother, Dorothy Morrison with her brothers Tom and John and her parents, Edith and Tom.


Margot Kinberg said...

This is really fascinating, Patti. Learning about the past gives a window on oneself, I sometimes think. Thanks for sharing.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for reading. A bit long. My history major background rears its head.

Rick Robinson said...

Very interesting. What history! I have no idea about my grandparents' grandparents.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't know much about the other three.

TracyK said...

I agree, Patti, this is fascinating. You are lucky to know the background of even one ancestor so far back. And the information about the school was interesting. My mother knew hardly anything about her father's background. He left the north in his twenties, moved to the south, and never wanted to have anything to do with his family up there again (although I believe some of his siblings came by their house one time many years later).