An Extraordinary Life

Feb 17, 2012

Jennie May Royal could be thought of as an ordinary, everyday person—she wasn’t rich or famous—but  her story, which was pieced together through scrapbooks and letters, is extraordinary. Through her story we catch a rare glimpse of everyday life for an African American woman in Connecticut between 1936 and 1961, before the American Civil Rights movement was in full swing. 

Jennie May Royal was born in New Britain in 1908; she was the youngest of four children. Around 1914, after a series of unfortunate events—Jennie’s father was incarcerated, her mother died during childbirth, and her oldest sister died in an accident—Jennie and her two siblings, Herman and Loretta, were sent to the State Receiving Home for Children, an orphanage in East Windsor. After a short time Jennie was sent to a foster home, but that arrangement did not work out as described below:

“They had a brat of a son whose mother wanted me to call him master. They said I had to go to the bathroom in cellar. I refused and used the receptacle in the bedroom. They wanted me to wear the minister’s shoes. I refused and wore sneakers. They wanted me to wear a black uniform. I refused. …  Then I returned to the State Receiving Home for Children and stayed there until I graduated.”

Not only did Jennie remain at the Home through graduation, but she stayed on to live and work there for 36 years.

Jennie’s collection covers a range of subjects. The first photos are of the Flood of 1936 and also include blizzards, hurricanes, and the changing of the seasons. Many years of daily life at the Home are documented—both children and employees. Jennie made yearly trips to Ogunquit, Maine, and one can start to see her favorite haunts and the same faces show up year after year. In the 1950s and 1960s, Jennie also captured the rapid changes taking place in Hartford:  construction of I-91 and the building of new hotels and department stores.

To see Jennie’s scrapbooks firsthand, visit the Connecticut Historical Society’s research center at One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, CT: Thursdays 12:00-5:00 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays, 9:00am – 5:00pm.

Jennie Royal’s story was pieced together by former CHS employee Amanda Rivera Lopez.