By Teresa Taylor Williams
Muskegon Tribune Contributing Writer
The migration of the Bibbs family from Mississippi to Muskegon in the 1950s is not an unusual story. They were among hundreds of African Americans who came to West Michigan for the industrial jobs, and also with the hope to live free of the Jim Crow south.
But what sets the Bibbs’ apart is the legacy this family leaves in Muskegon County. Of the large family who hailed from Starkville, Mississippi, 10 of the 11 siblings continue to reside in Muskegon County.
Although the 10 sisters traveled here from their hometown separately, they haven’t left one another’s side since. Their brother, George Bibbs, Jr., passed away in 1995.
When sitting among the sisters and they describe their upbringing in rural Mississippi, one might be surprised to discover it is not a tale of hardship.
When the sisters gathered recently to share their stories, the closeness among them was nearly tangible.
They finish one another’s sentences with smiles and laughs.
They speak highly and respectfully of their parents.
And, if you look closely, you might catch their eyes gazing intently as they recall memories of a much different time.
Theirs is a story of intense love of family.
And it all began with the blessed union of George and Jossie Bibbs in Starkville, Mississippi.
Life in the South
George Bibbs was a God-fearing, hard-working family man. He worked the couples’ land and maintained their cows and hogs, while Jossie Bibbs tended her home, a lush, productive garden and their 11 children.
Jossie was a master at multitasking far before it was a trendy term. She cooked three hot meals daily, including pies and cakes from scratch. She cleaned and was overseer of the children’s chores. She sewed and crocheted. She harvested her garden. She laundered and ironed for her family—even the sheets. On Saturdays, Jossie would wash and press the girls’ hair for church on Sunday. And she always prepped a large Sunday dinner, akin to a “soul food dinner,” that would be ready for her famished brood after church.
“Our mother was about the best mom anyone would want to have,” said Emma Ellis. “And goodness, that lady knew she could cook! On Sundays she might kill 4-5 chickens, get goods from her garden like red potatoes, sweet peas, sweet potatoes. We never went hungry. There were biscuits to no end and we churned our own butter and ate them with syrup.”
Their mother let nothing go to waste. A kind woman with a heart for others, she often prepared more than enough and was happy to distribute the overage to neighbors. On Sundays, George led his family to church.
“We had a good life in Mississippi,” said Julia, who is the oldest. “We didn’t suffer for anything.”
Meals were a time of togetherness, recalls Elizabeth. “There was no eating alone, we all ate together,” she said.
Eventually, family and neighbors reported that there were lucrative jobs up north. This was enticing to George Bibbs, along with the idea of coming out from under the segregated south with its oppressive Jim Crow laws.
The racial unrest was constant. When the family went uptown, they were not allowed to use public restrooms, go in front doors of white businesses, and sometimes would have to walk in the streets, walking around whites who were congregated on sidewalks.
“The difference between Mississippi and Michigan was the segregation. There were a lot of places blacks couldn’t go, and my dad didn’t like that,” said Bonnie Weaver. “He always said he wanted better for his family.”
Julia, the oldest of the Bibbs sisters, recalls separate servicing in diners and at water fountains. “There were some rough spots in the south. You knew your place and you stayed in your place,” she said. “When whites got on the bus you were riding, you had to move for them.”
George Bibbs knew there was a chance for a better quality of life. He was determined to relocate his entire brood and start a new life in Muskegon.
From Starkville, MS to Muskegon, MI
Each member of the Bibbs siblings were in different phases of their lives when they set out for Muskegon.
For young adult Julia, the thought of leaving her teaching job was a bit unsettling to the young mother of one. “I knew I had to look for another job here, and it looked like I lost everything. I had faith that I would make it,” she said.
Elizabeth doesn’t recall much, save that it was 1957 and she had to wait until fifth grade was over before her father and brother retrieved her in a car.
Lula was a young newlywed in December 1951 who had hardly adjusted to married life when her husband swept her off on a train bound for Muskegon.
A tearful Annie, toting four children with her, had left her husband and sobbed the entire trip until she met her father in Chicago. “When I saw my daddy,” Annie said with a big smile, “I was okay.”
Emma remembers the day of departure as June 1, 1957. She had to stay and finish 10th grade, and then traveled with her mother and sisters Bonnie and Julia.
Also traveling together were Jossie, Elizabeth, Susie and Joyce.
Joyce, the baby of the family who was very young during the departure, remembers that they rode in a car, but not much beyond that.
In the interim while their father was gone to Michigan and slowly sending for members of the family to come, Jossie held down the family home. “It was a little hard, but we knew we’d all be together again,” said Jossie Mobley, who is named for her mother. “Every Sunday evening he would call to check on us. We couldn’t talk for very long because it cost money, and we looked forward to those calls all week.”
The family settled on Webster Avenue and then on Erickson Street in Jackson Hill neighborhood, with George working in a shop and Jossie at the hospital. Even after the children grew older, they still brought their families and faithfully met on Sundays after church. Jossie took particular pride in seeing her family enjoy her homemade caramel cake, of which she cooked from memory and from scratch every Sunday in Muskegon.
Joyce Bibbs wistfully recalled her mother’s cooking and regrets she didn’t get recipes from her.
“There are a lot of things I wish I paid more attention to, like how to make my mother’s lemon meringue pie,” said Joyce, to which her sisters chimed in that they can do a “respectable” job of copying their mother’s chicken & dumplings, fried corn and caramel cake, but can’t quite cook exactly like she did.
It’s All About the Family
In this day and age, distractions and details of life such as hectic schedules, children’s activities and work dominate folks schedules. But the Bibbs sisters and their families make time for one another as an extended family. With 30 grandchildren and a host of great-grandchildren, holidays and reunions have swollen beyond what one house can hold, the family choosing instead to rent a hall or the like.
George Bibbs Sr. passed away in 1970, and his wife, Jossie Beatrice Moore-Bibbs died in 2002.
Each Memorial Day, the sisters usually go to Mona View Cemetery “to visit Mom & Dad,” Bonnie Weaver said.
“We had a lovely mom and dad. We had a good life,” she said.
The Bibbs sisters joyfully continue to honor their parents and put family first.
“Mom loved everybody. When Mom was sick, she said she wanted us to love each other. And Dad said don’t ever go to bed mad, it’s not a good thing. We are a close family,” said Bonnie Weaver. “We get along real well. We talk on the phone all the time. When something happens, we all try to come together and comfort each other.”
The Bibbs sisters are fortunate that they haven’t had to experience much trauma. But the family was dealt a huge blow when Julia’s son unexpectedly passed away summer 2016. They came together in support of their sister and one another.
“When my son died in July, every one of my sisters were there. They would come over and just sit with me,” Julia said.
Susie Bibbs is appreciative of her upbringing in rural Mississippi, and her family. “When you look at it, we were really blessed,” she said with a smile, “and we consider ourselves blessed now.”