Ephemeral Wonders

By Jacquelyn Thomas

Once a week I catalog artifacts at the Grant County Historical Society. Mostly I’ve been working with photos, but recently I moved onto ephemera, from the Greek for one and day; these calling cards, funeral programs and certificates of Sunday School merit were meant to be useful only briefly, transitory as trillium or mayflies, but here they are, 100 years later, being entered into the Pleasant Ridge Collection.

Jacquelyn Thomas

A community of formerly enslaved persons, Pleasant Ridge was founded by Shepards in 1848. Over the next decades, Greene, Grimes, Gadlin and Richmond families took up adjacent land. By 1877, Black farmers owned 714 acres of Beetown Township, 10 miles west of Lancaster. A handwritten “History of the Negro Pioneers of Grant County” names more than a dozen “Others coming in search of new homes” who lived in Pleasant Ridge briefly before scattering to labor elsewhere or disappearing from public records. In the margin of this list, the author has drawn a bracket and added “you may leave out.” Noted and dismissed: a meta-ephemeral census.

Here in the Driftless Region, we’re rich in spring ephemerals — Dutchman’s breeches, jack-in-the-pulpit, bloodroot, columbine, phlox — and proud of the glacial relicts we’ve kept: Pleistocene disc and cherrystone drop snails. It’s the marginalized people we easily forget. 

Arthur Richardson, The Quill, Lincoln Institute Yearbook, 1924

Anthony Richardson, first on the short-term non-settler list, was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, 1845. Sometime before civil war broke out, he was in Beloit, mustering in as soon as Black soldiers were able — Aug. 25, 1864 — the same day as John Shepard of Pleasant Ridge. When mustering out at Milwaukee, Richardson gave Lancaster as his intended address, though he never appears in any Grant County census. 

By 1878, Anthony Richardson has opened a barber shop in Evansville in Rock County, purchased a home on Liberty Street and married Adeline Dixon. They have three children and remain, until their deaths, in Rock County: the only Black family in Evansville.

Juanita Ferguson, Abraham Lincoln Middle School, Rockford, Illinois, 1932

One child precedes them in death: “Eddie Richardson, aged about 16 years, youngest son of Anthony Richardson, a colored barber in this city, was found dead on the race track this afternoon, with a bullet hole through his head,” reports the July 29, 1899, Weekly Wisconsin. “A revolver was lying in his hand.” He was last seen riding his penny-farthing toward the track. An hour later his body was found. Beneath a grandstand. A coroner’s inquest ruled it an accidental death. Impossible to know; hard not to wonder.

Two months earlier, Eddie’s older brother competed on the track at Camp Randall, where their father had enlisted in the Civil War. Arthur Richardson placed second in the pole vault, 100-yard and 220-yard dash. Two years later, with a record-setting 4,000 spectators watching from the stands, he finished first in the 100-yard dash. The Portage Daily Democrat reported, “Madison protested Richardson unofficially. Some said he was beyond the age limit and others that he was a professional.”

Lincoln Institute Postcard, 1872

After high school, Arthur attended Tuskeege, returning to Evansville by 1909, to open his own tailor shop. When he married, in 1914, he was living in Texas, “a professor of tailoring at Prairie View college,” the newspaper announcement read. By 1920, he and his wife, Juanita, are both teaching and living at Lincoln Institute, a college founded in 1866 by soldiers and officers of the 62nd United States Colored Infantry. According to a 1925 Jefferson City, Missouri, phone book, Arthur is teaching music and tailoring, as well as directing the orchestra and band. Though the couple remained together well into their 70s, they had no children.

Alice Richardson, age 17 at the time of Eddie’s death, had already graduated high school and in less than a month would be living in Jubilee Hall at Fisk University in Nashville. After college, she taught for eight years under a mentee of Booker T. Washington at the newly founded Utica Normal & Industrial Institute in Mississippi, and two years at East End School in Durham, North Carolina. In 1915, she moved to Rockford, Illinois, to marry Ernest Ferguson.

The lineage of Anthony Richardson culminates in a single grandchild — Juanita Ferguson —born July 28, 1917, 10 months after he died. By the time Juanita is 2.5 years old, she is living with her mother alone, in a house Alice owns, next door to her father, Ernest, who lives in half a rental duplex he owns. City directories and census records show the family maintain this side-by-side arrangement for a decade. After 1930, things become less clear: In the 1930 census, Alice and Juanita are listed near Arthur in St. Louis; two years later Juanita is back in Rockford, pictured in a ninth-grade photo at Abraham Lincoln Junior High School. 

At age 21, Juanita died of tuberculosis in St. Louis. The person providing information on her death certificate was 30-year-old stenographer Evelyn Hilliard, her roommate. 

Ultimately, the legacy of the Richardson family is not tied to any particular place, but firmly rooted in a bounty of Black institutions: Tuskegee, Lincoln, Fisk, Utica, Dunbar and the Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, described in “The Color of Medicine” as “the world’s largest exclusively Black city-operated general hospital, serving over 70,000 people.” 

Ephemerals reserve spectacular energy for optimal periods of growth. When dominant trees lie dormant, plants like the threatened northern monkshood take roothold and gain ground, leaping boldly into blazing bloom — before slower plants take over during shadier months.

Everything we archive is quotidian. Waiting to be illuminated by story.

Jacquelyn Thomas returned to the Driftless Area after living more than 30 years in a Madison housing project where she served as director of an on-site community learning center. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, won or placed in contests, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.