Hannah Wesley gave birth to two daughters, 66 and 62 years ago. But Geil Wesley Williams and Sherre Wesley Davis were hardly the only two people Hannah watched over, cared about and nurtured lovingly and helped with homework in a 93-year life that ended last month.
“So many people felt the mothering that my mother gave,” said Williams, the older daughter of Hannah and Herman Wesley, Hannah’s husband of 62 years, who died in 2005. “A lot of people she met, she was kind of a mother figure to them — even though they had their own mothers.”
And Williams, a school social worker who lives in Wexford, Pa., figures the reason for that lifelong mothering instinct has roots deep in the history of a woman who lived all 93 of those years in Millville.
“Her mother died when she was 9, and because of that, being a mother ... was something very important and dear to her,” the daughter said, a few days before this Mother’s Day. “She wanted people to know that they were loved. When you lose your mother at an early age, things aren’t always easy for you. So I think she just wanted people to know, ‘Somebody loves you.’”
And Williams can dig back into some of her earliest memories to see that maternal motivation in action. She recalls her mom opening the family’s home to a youth group called the Spiders — when her own two daughters were too young for the group. Williams said her parents even redecorated their basement for those neighborhood kids, painting the walls a bright pink and hanging 78-rpm records on the walls to give it a more fun look.
Her sister, a school administrator who lives in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., knows that basement work was mainly for those kids from other families, because the Wesley family hardly used that room themselves.
“She saw a need, and she could fill it, so she did,” Davis said. “That would be her modus operandi: If she could, she would.”
Davis, 62, said the closest she ever got to being in that group was seeing Kirby Carmichael and other, older kids dance downstairs.
“It was like a little club in the basement of their big house,” said Carmichael, 73, who grew up in Millville but lives now in Richmond, Va. “It kept us off the street. ... We basically danced and listened to music, and we were all in one spot.”
There weren’t many black families in Millville at the time, explains Carmichael, who started a long career as a radio DJ when he was a high-school kid in Millville. He said the Spiders weren’t a real rough crowd — and the hosts made sure they stayed that way.
“It wasn’t a church group, but we were the kids who went to church and Sunday school,” he said, adding that the Wesleys were like “second parents to me. ... They gave me things to do to keep me off the street while my mom worked, because she was a single mother.”
And even when he grew up and moved out of Millville and had a busy life, “If I came home to visit my mother, I would not leave without seeing them.”
Herman Wesley was a teacher in Millville — reportedly the first black teacher ever in the city’s school system. After her mother’s death, Hannah had to work her way through high school as a “mother’s helper” while she was raised by an older aunt.
She finished high school and hoped to to go college and become a teacher herself, but “there wasn't enough money so I went to the Apex School of Beauty Culture in Philadelphia and had a shop in my home for many years,” Hannah told The Press in 2008 — mentioning a school founded by a legendary Atlantic City-based entrepreneur, Sarah Spencer Washington.
Her daughters remember that beauty shop, and Davis said there was even a sign out in front of the house. Davis, who has a doctorate degree in education — her sister has her master’s degree — said she knows her mom regretted never having the chance to go to college after high school, although Hannah did later take courses at Cumberland County College.
For her daughters, higher education “was just assumed in a strange way,” Davis said, adding that the only real discussion of the subject as she grew up was where — not if — the girls would go to college.
“Education was really important to my father as well,” she said. “That was one of those nonnegotiables.”
And Hannah did get a job in education, working in the offices of several Millville schools, where she found lots of ways to help kids out.
The other major institution in the Wesley family was Millville’s Bethel AME Church.
To Davis, the most notable thing about her mom — the main reason Hannah always felt called to mother others — was her “spiritual strength. That’s the source of it all. ... My parents were both driven, not obsessed, but both were very concerned with improvement and betterment. Both were active in community organizations as well as church groups.”
Jeanne Lewis, 89, Hannah’s lifelong friend — they grew up on the same block — can’t remember all the roles and positions Hannah filled at their church. But they included everything from singing in the choir to being a youth leader to a missionary to a “telephone minister.”
In that ministry, Hannah volunteered to call Bethel members and check in on them to make sure they were OK. She also was a chaplain at a local hospital “and she would go and pray with the patients,” said Lewis, who still lives in Millville.
Hannah had lots more volunteer jobs in her life, including chairman of the Millville Housing Authority, and she did enough good work to join her husband in the Cumberland County Black Hall of Fame. She had a gospel radio show for years, and she won too many awards to fit into one life story.
But Hannah had one more volunteer job she particularly liked in her later years. She was a “listener” for struggling young readers at Millville’s Wood School. She volunteered to go in and have kids read to her, to give them both practice and confidence in their reading.
So even near the end, she was still acting like a mom, helping kids with their homework, even if they were other people’s kids. But no matter how old she got, she worried about her own daughters too, and her two grandchildren.
“She would say, ‘You can always come home,’” Williams said.
But Hannah’s own children never needed to take her up on that. They were raised well, and their mom and dad made sure they had good educations.
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