Celebrating Ann on Women’s History Month

This blog is a celebration of my mother Ann and her family namesakes in commemoration of Women’s History Month.

My mother was named after her grandmother Annie and her great-great grandmother Sarah Ann. My mother’s life as a parent and educator fully realizes the hopes and dreams of the Anns who came before her.

Ann Richards Kearns was born and raised in the segregated city of Suffolk, Virginia. She graduated from all-black East Suffolk High School as the class Salutatorian and then integrated Randolph Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, VA, majoring in math. Upon graduation she married my father, a native North Carolinian whom she’d met at a summer program for college students on the campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. They settled in Washington D.C. in the final years of the Great Migration, and had two children, me and my sister.

Black mothers in our society face profound challenges raising black boys. How do you set high expectations, raise them to feel fully affirmed, and build their resistance to the societal prejudice and negative stereotypes they will face throughout their life? My mother prepared me for adulthood with love, nurturing and protection. Here are a few of the countless examples I could share of my mother’s impact on my life.

My mom wore her hair naturally when I was a baby. Then one day she went to the hairdresser and returned home with her hair straightened. Upon seeing her I cried, distressed that her hair was no longer like mine. So just like that, she returned to her natural hair style, instantly validating to me that there was nothing wrong with the way my hair naturally grew out of my head.

I attended a predominantly white, suburban high school and had a positive experience with good friends, but I also battled experiences that damaged my confidence. I had a talent for performing and auditioned for the lead role in the musical Bye Bye Birdie, a character modeled after Elvis Presley. I didn’t get the part, but what created doubt for me was hearing that classmates had whispered, “I just couldn’t see Andre in *that* role”, leaving me to wonder if their sentiments were somehow racially motivated. My mother consoled me and encouraged me not to doubt myself or give up on my dreams. The next year I went out and landed the lead role in our school’s production of The Music Man.

I attended a historically black college, Morehouse, which was one of the greatest experiences of my life. However, my first few months of college were challenging. I had some trouble adjusting to college life and felt unsure socially. I remember my mom coming to visit me in February for Parents Weekend. She sensed my unease, comforted me and assured me that things would get better and that with time I’d find my social footing. Sure enough, by the end of my freshman year I was on my way, and I couldn’t wait to return to campus as a rising sophomore.

My mother was a stay-at-home mom when my sister and I were young. Then she went back to school and earned a master’s degree in education from Trinity College, now Trinity Washington University, in Washington D.C., and entered the workforce as a teacher. Mom was an early childhood education teacher for many years in Montgomery County Public Schools (MD) and retired as early childhood education specialist for Jefferson County Public Schools (KY). Throughout her career I saw her teach, advocate for and improve the lives of hundreds of children. As I reflect on the impact of her career, it inspires me to know that so many students benefited from her caring, just as my sister and I did as her children.

Annie Biggs Richards, my mother’s grandmother, was born in 1902 in Suffolk, Virginia. Her mother Florence Cumbo died young, leaving her father Edward Biggs to raise her and her three siblings. At age 16 Annie married James Richards, a delivery man for Ballard and Smith, Inc. a leading department store in Suffolk at the time. Perhaps they first met as he delivered dry goods to the Biggs home. Tragically, Annie died young just like her mother, at age 28, leaving her husband James to raise their 6 children including my grandfather James. His memories of her as a mother were limited, but what he shared with me were quite warm. I also remember that he kept a framed photo of his mother on his bedroom dresser throughout his life.

Sarah Ann Biggs, my mother’s great-great grandmother, was born enslaved around 1848 in Bertie County, North Carolina. I discovered through slave records that her own mother Clara had been bought in 1844 by Kader Biggs for the grand total of $1, likely as a favor to his wife Jane, whom Clara had served as a childhood playmate. Post-emancipation, Sarah Ann became a teacher in Bertie and Martin County North Carolina Freedman Schools between 1865–1870. She was likely able to pursue teaching post-emancipation because as a “house slave” she’d learned how to read and write. By 1880 she’d moved 60 miles north with three young children to Suffolk, Virginia to pursue a career as a teacher. It’s inspiring to know that she dedicated her life to teaching fellow formerly enslaved people to read and write and helped to transform their lives through education. This value in education which she seeded with our family led my mother to choose teaching as a profession a hundred years later.

Annette Durandis Duplessy. In an interesting twist, another Ann entered my life when I met and married my wife Nadine. Her mother’s name is Annette, meaning little Ann. My wife was born in Haiti and immigrated to the United States with her mother and two sisters at age 11. Her mother’s strength kept their family together through a prolonged and exceedingly difficult family immigration journey to the US. Annette’s name may mean little, but her courage, determination and impact are large in our family today.

Let us all research our family history and discover the Anns in our family tree. Let us celebrate the impact women have had on our lives and recognize the contributions they have made to our history as a country. Let us commit ourselves to sharing their stories of resilience, triumph and agency over life challenges during Women’s History month and year-round. Thank you, mom.

My mother Ann as a teenager.
Mom in her natural hair with me and my sister.
This is the photo my grandfather James Richards kept of his mother Annie Biggs Richards.
Headstone for my great grandmother Sarah Ann “Annie” Biggs Richards at Oaklawn Cemetery in Suffolk, VA.
Freedman’s Bureau records for my third great grandmother Sarah Ann Biggs. She was born enslaved around 1848, then as an adult, post-emancipation, became a teacher in Windsor, Bertie, NC from 1865–1870. By 1880 she’d moved to Suffolk, VA as a teacher. She was likely able to pursue teaching post-emancipation because as a “house slave” she learned how to read and write. From this she dedicated herself to teaching fellow formerly enslaved to read and write too. This is a Freedman’s Bureau receipt covering rent for the Bertie County school house where she taught, which includes a special treat — her actual signature. I am so thankful to learn this history on her and see this.
My wife and her mother Annette on our wedding day.