Nell Vera Lowe Williams (1918-2006)
Jamaica – 1940s
Photo Credit: Finding Samuel Lowe
On August 1, 2015, I met author and entrepreneur Paula Williams Madison at the Leimert Park Book Fair in Los Angeles. What a surprise to learn that our grandfathers were both Hakka Chinese immigrants to the Caribbean!
Born in Harlem, New York, to Jamaican immigrants, Madison is the youngest of three siblings. Her memoir, Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem, recounts her quest to find her maternal Chinese grandfather. At the heart of her riveting journey is her mother, Nell Vera Lowe Williams.
My connection with Nell Vera Lowe was immediate and intense. I saw the multitude of Caribbean women who fight against all odds for their place in the sun, raising their children to become achievers. I saw my mother. I saw myself.
Nell was Samuel Lowe’s firstborn outside child to a Jamaican black woman. A month after Nell’s birth, a second daughter, Adassa, was born to another local woman who also bore him a son, Gilbert. The half-siblings knew nothing about each other’s existence.
When Samuel’s relatives in China sent him a Chinese bride, Nell’s mother took off with her, then three, leaving her in the care of her grandmother. She never saw her father again. Life became one of neglect and hardships for the “you half-Chiney wretch,” as her grandmother often called her. At twelve, she was raped.
Samuel’s Chinese wife, who bore him three sons and two daughters, welcomed Adassa into their family. Unlike Nell and Adassa, Gilbert showed little Chinese features. On his return to China with his family, Samuel left Nell and Gilbert behind in Jamaica. Loss and abandonment marred their lives with melancholy.
After migrating to the United States in 1945, Nell married Elrick Williams, who had pursued her from Jamaica. Their relationship lasted ten years. As Madison puts it, her parents “were two strong-minded outside children, and neither would ever let the other in—except in the intimacy of violence.”
“If there were an overriding description of my mother,” Madison writes, “I would describe her as fierce—God, she was fierce—and sad.”
Nell did not survive to accompany her daughter to her father’s ancestral home. At her first meeting with the Lowe family, Madison met her grandfather’s middle surviving son, the new patriarch of the Lowe family…and Adassa. Then 93 years old, Adassa’s longing for her lost brother, Gilbert, brought together the families of Nell and Gilbert (both deceased) for a grand reunion in China.
After years of melancholy longing, Nell had finally come home to her father’s family.
Separation, abandonment, and loss are shared experiences of Caribbean peoples. We have been defined by slavery and indentureship. Uprooted and disconnected from our ancestors in Africa, Asia, and Europe, we became incomplete.
As she stood at her grandfather’s grave, the daughter of Nell Vera Lowe Williams was, at last, complete.