A Beautiful Life of Zigs…Zags…and Jazz
Camay Calloway Brooks Murphy
I know I’m running late…. the podcast is live. The transcription will be completed shortly.The wait will be worth it as you learn of the living treasure, Camay Murphy, who adds a most beautiful thread to the tapestry of our community.
Camay is a beautiful lady inside and out. In her full length interview she shares part of her life story from her auspicious beginnings as the love-child of famed jazzman Cab Calloway and Zelma Proctor, to an esteemed educator, and an avid citizen of the communities lucky enough to have her living within their boundaries.
In this podcast excerpt, I will share snippets of her life, rich with experiences from the days of the Harlem Renaissance to her early years in Baltimore.
In this podcast excerpt, I will share snippets of her life, rich with experiences from the days of the Harlem Renaissance in NYC to her early years in Baltimore. She shares stories of living in Baltimore under the guidance of her grandmother, spending wonderful times being pampered by the lady customers at Poindexter’s Beauty Salon.
She shares the attitudes of her mother’s and father’s families towards their relationship. We hear a funny story about the ‘alien’ praying mantis! And she shares her love and not-so-loving relationship with technology.
In Havre de Grace, those who have met her enjoy the easy laugh, twinkling eyes, and always enthusiastic energy of this amazing 90 year old woman. She may have slowed a tiny bit, but you would never notice as she enjoys jazz, talks about her play created for Havre de Grace of the fictional tale of a black jockey during our race track days, or shares her desire to see a statue built to celebrate the life of a local legend, Ernest Burke – speaker, humanitarian, and superb athlete of the Negro League. She is a remarkable addition to our community.
A Few of Camay’s Projects and Activities Since Coming to Havre de Grace
Ernest Burke Memorial
The council also agreed to move forward with a memorial recognizing Burke, in response to a request from resident Camay Murphy in partnership with Bill Watson of the city’s Public Art Committee.
Burke was born in Havre de Grace in 1924 and served in the first African-American U.S. Marine unit in World War II, according to a resolution the council approved.
After returning home, he played third base and pitcher for the Baltimore Elite Giants, a professional baseball team in the former African-American League in 1946.
“We know it’s an important thing to do as we look at the diversity in our community, but we also want to look at the man whose statue or memorial is going to be erected,” Murphy told the council.
Martin said the memorial is just part of many public art projects he hopes the city will undertake, as Watson noted plans are underway for a maritime heritage sculpture at the Concord Point Park.
“We are hoping the whole city is going to blossom with public art,” Martin said. “We are really hoping that the maritime sculpture at Concord Point Park is going to take off.”
Camay Calloway Murphy, a member of St. John’s Episcopal Church, has been working with fellow church members and leaders to uncover the history surrounding the church and its role in the 1813 battle.
She has found portions of sermons from the mid-1800s which will be read during Sunday services on May 5, and a variety of historical exhibits will be available in the church, which dates to 1809.
Murphy said she is even working to bring former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to town during the weekend because of his interest in the African-American experience during the early years of the United States.
“I just love the town and love the friendliness and the openness of the people here, and I think that Havre de Grace is really going to be on the map,” she said.
‘Born to Ride’
Havre de Grace’s history as a horse racing center was the main attraction of Saturday’s event. The name Graw Days came from the nickname of the city’s horse track, “The Graw.”The track, officially known as the Havre de Grace Racetrack, turned 101 years old this year. It was active from 1912 until the early 1950s.
The track and its supporting buildings off Old Bay Lane are still in existence, on property used by the Maryland National Guard.
Visitors to Graw Days got a glimpse into that life, however, through the production “Born to Ride,” a short play put on at St. John’s Episcopal Church that told the story of black jockeys in the early 1900s.
The play was written by Havre de Grace resident Camay Calloway Murphy, directed by Randolph Smith and brought to life by the members of the Arena Players of Baltimore.
“As you can see, I’m a very Christian and God-fearing lady, but today, honey, I’m off to the races,” Murphy said while introducing the play.
Harford Community College is hosting an exhibit this month on the black jockeys, who like their counterparts of other races, were small, yet athletic men who could ride the large horses to victory.
Black men also worked as grooms, caring for the horses who were housed at Harford County’s many horse farms.
The late Joshua Eugene Fischer Jr. was known for working with Saggy, who was born at Country Life Farm in Bel Air and defeated Citation at the Graw in 1948. Citation won the Triple Crown that year.
“Born to Ride” took place in 1915, and was the story of a fictional teenage Harford County farm boy, Tyke Barnes, played by Jabari Adeleye.
Tyke works on the farm owned by his parents Sadie (Sandra Meekins) and Abraham Barnes (James A. Brown).
They are approached by Matthew Wilford (Richard Peck), who thinks young Tyke has what it takes to be a jockey and offers to teach him to care for and ride horses.
His parents agree and the audience sees footage of a horse race from New York’s Sheepshead Bay Race Track in 1904, meant to double for The Graw. Wilford and the Barneses sit and watch the race, which takes place off-stage.
Peter Brooks, who also helped research the jockeys, played a race announcer, leading the crowd through Tyke’s victory.
“Who would have thought a horse with a Negro jockey and 30-to-1 odds would be in this race?” Brooks cried out.
The exhibit on black jockeys, “Beauty in Sport: Celebrating Black Jockeys in Harford County, Maryland and Beyond” is open through Nov. 8 at the Hays-Heighe House at Harford Community College. The exhibit is open Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m., Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon and Saturday, Nov. 2, from 10 a.m. to noon. Call 443-412-2495 for more information.
“Black jockeys were the first professional athletes in the United States of America,” Brooks said after the play.
Camay Calloway Brooks Murphy
Born: 1/15/1927 Harlem Hospital, NYC Interviewed: 2/1/2017 w/Ellie
I was born in Harlem Hospital in New York, January 15, 1927. My mother and father were not married at the time that I was born. My father was about 19; my mother was about 15-16, about 16. They were in high school. They had this love affair. I was the result of the love affair.
This was in Baltimore, Maryland. I think they weren’t married because my mother’s side of the family felt that Cab Calloway was a too flighty a person, wasn’t going to be able to make any money, wasn’t going to be able to support a family, he was doing all these things like walking horses at Pimlico, selling newspapers, doing a lot of all these odd and end jobs, playing drums and singing at various clubs around Baltimore. So her family didn’t feel as though he was a very stable person.
His family didn’t feel that my mother’s family was culturally or socio-economically on the same level. They felt as though they were socially – not just a step above, but well above the Proctors. So they didn’t want him to marry her.
(So Cab’s parents thought they were…socially above…yes)
Anyway, my mother was sent to New York to have me because everything was kind of under wraps in those days when you had these pregnancies, it was a disgrace. Now they don’t seem to be too bothered about it. So I was born at New York’s Harlem Hospital.
My mother stayed with some relatives in NY for a while. Then she came back to Baltimore. My grandmother at that time was working at her sister-in-law’s beauty parlor at 833 Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore. My grandmother on my mother’s side; she was Viola Proctor. The person who had the beauty parlor was my grandmother’s sister-in-law. Her name was Bertha Poindexter. And it was Poindexter’s Beauty Salon.
She was sort of on the level with Madame Walker, insofar as she made some of her own products, made some of her own beauty products that she used at the beauty parlor. Not quite the multi-millionaire that Madame Walker was, but for Baltimore standards she was considered wealthy.
She kind of took me in. I lived there – I was in Baltimore, shortly after birth until I was 6 or 7 years old. I think as a little girl I had some very nice experiences at the Poindexter Beauty Salon. Because I think I was kind of cute (chuckle) as a little girl. I got pampered. A lot of ladies coming to the shop brought candy and things for me.
Of course, doing hair, doing black peoples hair at that time was very different. Number one, for some reason these black women could not get long hair. Their hair would grow to a certain length, then no more. So everybody was trying to get longer, straighter hair. They used to do this thing call violet ray treatments and put all these rays and things in their hair. Bertha Poindexter had developed something that was supposed to make the hair grow. That became very popular. People were buying a lot of her products, which I think she was just making out of suet and … it wasn’t…
However, somewhere along the way I found her formula. I didn’t do anything with it. I really should have. I really should have followed through but I didn’t do anything with her product. However, I do have a chart that she had listed that was in her shop with prices listed and so on. There were some very good memories attached to that period in my life.
Then my mother got married to Ralph Fendersen. She moved to NY and was living in an apartment. So I left Baltimore and went to NY to live with her, my stepfather, and a baby boy, my half-brother. He is now a retired doctor and lives in Central Court.
I remember in NY because we lived in an apartment; we used the park a lot as kids. I’m talking about 7 years old. (No, we never lived in Harlem. I lived a little above Harlem, in Sugar Hill.) When we lived downtown a little lower, 115th street, we used to spend a lot of time in Morningside Park. The local parks were very, very important to us as kids. We got all the drama. We played Cowboys and Indians. Because NY still had the big boulders and rocks and what not, we had a lot of different terrain to play in.
We played a lot of ball in the streets: stick ball, handball, games sort of… ummm… like you would call … a lot of upper body exercise, a lot of learning coordination skills, a lot of jump roping. I could even jump Double Dutch, a lot of songs, rhyming, getting into storytelling and make-believe. All of that I think was very developmental – something that really developed you.
And I was right in the thick of it. I was interested in playing these make believe kinds of things: going to the movies, spending all day long at the movies. Yep, after you washed the bathroom floor and the kitchen floor in your apartment on Saturdays, you could then go to the movies for the rest of the day. Then you had your favorite stars: Bette Davis and all these people. You come home and you’d be speaking with an accent. (chuckles)
I remember we used to hang clothes up on the roof. There were lines up on the roof. The tenants who lived in that apartment house could go up on the roof. One day my mother was up on the roof hanging clothes, and there was a praying mantis up on the roof. You know, we had never seen a praying mantis. They looked like something from outer space!
My mother was throwing clothes pins at it. (chuckle – and they don’t hardly move!) NO! Of course she couldn’t hit it. She was a bad throw. She called and said, “What is that?” I said I don’t know. Where did it come from? We knew roaches and stuff like that, but I didn’t know what this was. That was a huge experience. I called my girlfriends in certain apartments, all these people gathered around this praying mantis.
We don’t know if somebody had some. We didn’t know if it crawled into someone’s basket of hanging clothes. We don’t know how it got there. Eventually if flew off the roof. I mean it was like some alien!
We did a lot of skating. A little bit of ice skating when I got a little older, but primarily roller skating. Roller skating was very, very popular. That’s what you always asked for Christmas. (And that was the ones you need a key for?) Oh yes, you needed a key. And then you graduated to skates with ball bearings. (Was that outside or a roller rink?) Oh yes, outside! There was no roller rink!
You just skated and tried to find a good hill without too much cracks to fall over, someplace where we could skate with a group of people. I even learned how to go backwards, to skate backwards. It just seemed to be at that time in an urban setting, there was so many things to learn, so many little experiences that you might have. . Kids now seem to be fine with their computers, phones, games and stuff. So sedentary! We were always like running …. And then we used to steal. There were a lot of open markets and stuff like that. Someone would build a bonfire in an area, and then we would have to steal a sweet potato to put on the bonfire. People knew. We didn’t steal a lot, just a sweet potato to put on our bonfire.
We think “to clear this up”, we’d go to confession, do five Hail Mary’s! (much laughter – Was this area black?) It was primarily black. There may have been a few white families. A lot of families were from the West Indies. I lived in the apartments where Ethel Waters lived at one time. (Did you know her as the famous person as she is known today or just a neighbor at that time? She was a performer at the time when I was there, but she did not have that big, big name – that came later.
When you lived in NY at this time, there was no feeling of solidness, like I was here in this apartment forever. You were always looking for a better school, a newer apartment that might have more space. People would just pick up and you’d be gone. It was a very transient place. But that was kind of good because you really kind of had the feeling that your parents were always looking for something better for you. That, to me, was good.
(Was there any specific attitudes about blue collar vs people who worked in offices or anything like that?)
I think occupationally, it was fairly mixed. In NY there was an area around 136th Street – just above Harlem, where all the intellectuals, artistic people lived – like a little enclave. Of course, this was at the end of the Harlem Renaissance. So there was still a little of that in NY.
Where I lived, there was more like post offices workers, people who were public transportation workers. You know, a little above domestic workers. Some worked for the city and that sort of thing.
I don’t think there was any kind of – I don’t know because I was young. But I don’t recall any “My mother’s a teacher or my father’s a doctor or whatever…”
I remember the Joe Lewis fights on the radio. I remember you could get that in stereo because everybody on that block had their radio on. So it was like a stereo thing. I really don’t remember my first television.
(Discussing Kate Smith…)
“we remembered When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain sung by Kate Smith” in our first TV shows. Camay especially remembers watching the GONG SHOW! They had a lot of talent tryouts. If you were good, they’d get applause. If you were bad, they get the gong. (This show was actually in the mid-70s on tv. There was also a ‘gong show style’ program on the radio called “Major Bowes Amateur Hour” around 1934-1952.)
However, some of the radio shows that were like Grand Central Station, The Shadow, they really worked on your imagination. It was a good thing. You’d listen and invent your own thing, your own ending about what was going to happen. I remember listening to Pres. Roosevelt when he gave his Fireside Chats.
Telephones I remember from when I was at Poindexter’s in Baltimore. They had a coin operated telephone because it was a business. I was allowed to call. I had one person I called, Gail Shipley (?). Her father was a big caterer in Baltimore – Shipley’s Caterer. But we used to talk on the telephone. Because we didn’t have a lot to talk about we made up these people: Rookie, Chookie, Teddy Bear and Doggie – our imaginary people. Like, “Do you know that Rookie hit Doggie with a stick the other day? Were you there, did you see that?” And she’d say, “No, I don’t think Rookie would do that!” (laughter) So we’d have these long stories with our imaginary people. You had operators then. YES! And the operators would get on and tell us we had to get off the phone, there were legitimate calls trying to reach the business. (Laughter)
In your home do you remember having party lines? No, I don’t remember. I don’t. At Poindexter’s it was a commercial phone, coin operated. In NY I’m not sure at first we had a telephone. In NY there would be somebody who had a telephone. You’d give their phone number and they’d come down and tell you (that) you had a call.
(Do you remember your first computer, FAX machine, microwave…?)
I was, I guess I was one of those simple-minded people that was just awed by the FAX machine, wondering where does this come from? How did it get here?
I was very afraid about the radiation coming into your body with a microwave. Then I sort of got used to it. (Well, when they first came out they had a sign on them that said, “If you have a pacemaker, don’t stand in front of the microwave.”) YES!
It’s a fast moving age. You have to be a curious person. My son gets so mad with me. He says, “Don’t you want to know?” And I say, “No!”
All this stuff seems to require a dedication that you’ve got to sit down with it, for several hours, do nothing else and just sit there to try and master it. I’m just not willing to do that. Number one. Number two, I’m from NY and I’m very paranoid, very suspicious. So when people say, “I want to be your friend…”, and it’s somebody I don’t know, I just CLICK. I think it’s the age that I came up in.
(In your years, with your experiences, you must have words of wisdom that you’d like to pass on.)
…. Mmmmm….. Try to keep calm. I think calmness and keeping your emotions kind of in check if possible is a good way of living your life. You feel more in control. When you get out of control it’s bad for you and for others around you. Calmness is critical.
Sort of examine yourself every once in a while. Like feel a pain or something, call the doctor, but also a general examination. Where am I? Where am I going? What do I want to do? How do I feel about this? Am I really an honest person? When it’s necessary to say ‘no’, can I say ‘no?’
You know, because people are so different and there’s so much available to everybody now. It’s very hard to sort of say, give advice, or say, “You should do this, you should do that, this should be your pattern.” It’s a different time from when I came along. I don’t consider myself a role model. I mean I did a whole bunch of stuff both good and bad.
To live to be 90, it’s as much a surprise to me as it is to everybody else! (laughter)
I think that you have to try to get in a place where you are going to feel comfortable, where you’re going to have some friends, you’re going to have a social life, you’re going to have an intellectual life. That’s about the best you can do.
That’s about the best advice that I can give!