‘One generation’s secrets are another generation’s history’

Dedria Humphries Barker digs into her family’s past to answer lasting questions


In her book, “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, A Colored Man’s Widow,” Lansing author Dedria Humphries Barker tells the true story of her great-grandmother Alice Donlan, a second-generation Irish American who married a Black man in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the hostile Jim Crow era.

After Donlan’s husband, John Henry Johnson, died in 1912, she returned to work as a hotel maid and placed her three mixed-race children, ages 10, 8 and 2, in an orphanage. The oldest child, a daughter, would become Barker’s grandmother.

When Donlan died in Detroit in 1961, surrounded by her Black family, Barker began to wonder about the orphanage story and her Irish heritage.

Barker’s writing career stretches back to her time at Wayne State University, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English.

In addition to writing for three newspapers and working in communications at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, Barker was an English professor at Lansing Community College for 18 years before retiring.

While working for the Michigan Chronicle, a weekly Black newspaper in Detroit, she had the chance to interview James Baldwin, Jacob Lawrence and Amiri Baraka, a trifecta for the young journalist.

Barker’s book is part genealogical research and part mystery as she tells the complex story of race relations and a mixed-race family in the early part of the 20th century.

“One generation’s secrets are another generation’s history,” she said.

It’s those secrets — and some gnarly bureaucratic mistakes by government enumerators — that she probes in the book.

Early on, Barker makes it clear that Donlan sent her children to an orphanage in hopes of them getting an education and bettering themselves, a characteristic that was passed down through the generations of the family. She writes, “Most Irish brought little or nothing to America but their intense interest in education.”

She also explains that although her great-grandmother put her children in an orphanage, she didn’t abandon them. She visited, checked them out for vacations and holidays and bought them clothes and gifts.

Through the retelling of the story, readers realize that giving her children up was the hardest thing Donlan ever had to do.

The author leaves nothing on the table in telling the story of a mixed-race marriage during an era when they were often outlawed and even prosecuted. She also tells a story that still resonates today of a single mother trying to navigate childcare and work while assuring her children receive an education.

Barker said she started researching the book in the ‘90s and that writing it “was 20 years in the making before it was published.” For her, the hardest part of the writing process was shifting between information she collected through research and family beliefs while reconciling public records like birth certificates and census data, which she found weren’t always correct.

The author found it necessary to fill in some details that were lost to history. She was required to speculate about Johnson’s life by doing dogged research about his employment as a horseman for a Cincinnati businessman and a stone mason.

Through her historical research, Barker paints a picture of Ohio in the early 20th century that belies the state’s conservative policies of today. Perhaps best representing that liberal thought of a hundred years ago is a wedding certificate the author found recognizing the legal marriage of her great-grandparents in 1899. At the time, many states prohibited mixed-race marriage through anti-miscegenation laws, but not Ohio.

Another challenge was “making sure the Black family didn’t come across as the bad guys, especially as it related to education,” Barker said.

The book details how, following the death of Donlan’s husband, she was shunned by her white family.

On the other hand, Barker said the easiest part of writing the book was capturing the personalities of the Black women.

“I knew all of them, and there were things about them I could trace directly to Irish Alice,” she said.

Despite being born 10 years after the Civil War, Donlan came to Detroit to live with her Black family and was alive when Barker was young.

“I knew her,” Barker said. “We could trace our bland soul food to the influence of Irish Alice.”

The best part of writing the book for Barker was sharing the historical family research with Donlan’s daughter, her grandmother.

“She was in a nursing home, and her early family and friends were dead. I would tell her what I found, and she would lean forward and ask, ‘Do you know them?’ I would answer, ‘I do,’” Barker said.


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