Van Der Zee family wedding rings, Kingston, New York, 1895. Photo courtesy of Edward C. Jones.
My great-parents, Bertha and Thomas Van Der Zee, were married in Kingston, NY in 1895. Thomas, who was a junk dealer, was born in 1870 and was an uncle to the famous black photographer of the “Harlem Renaissance,” James Van Der Zee. My great-grandmother, Bertha Almira Means, who was part Narrangansett Indian, was born in 1874 and was from Providence. They lived just over the railroad tracks in an integrated community where everyone interacted with one another. They had 7 children: Thomas, Jr., William Forrest, Helen, my grandmother, Louise, Cecilia, Isabel and Alfred. All of their children, at some point, lived in that little house on South Pine Street, as all of them, with the exception of my Aunt Ceil, came back to live out the remainder of their lives there.
The house held so much memorabilia and items from every family member who had lived there. When my last remaining uncle passed away in 2006, my mother and sisters and I went to Kingston, to the little house, to clean it out and prepare to sell it. As we went through the many items, it occurred to me just how remarkable they all were.
As we handled many of these items from lives lived long past, I came across the wedding rings from the great-grandparents I never knew. They were nestled in a little jewelry box, with the name of the jeweler and Kingston, NY stamped on the inside. My great-grandmother passed away in 1945 and her husband, in 1953. They had been married for 50 years and lived to see their grandchildren have children. Those tarnished rings meant a lot to me – I took them as one of my personal keepsakes from that house with so many memories. To me, they represent the perseverance of a family and what lasting love can mean. Though I would never know them, those rings allow me to reflect on them, and what it meant to be black in the North during that time. Someone put those two rings together in that jewelry box, so that the commitment they made back in 1895 would allow them to continue to be together.