Oral history interview with Mona Adams Winston

Oral history interview with Mona Adams Winston. Mona grew up on Lakeshore Court, next to Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin. Mona recounts childhood stories and memories including riding the city bus downtown to pay her family's bills at various businesses; picnics and other gatherings in Brittingham Park and Penn Park; and events at the South Madison Neighborhood Center. She shares family stories about her uncle, Edward Matthews, who did barrel-racing in Wisconsin rodeos; as well as her mother, Addrena Matthews Adams Squires, and grandmother, Mamie Taylor Matthews.

This recording was created on 11/07/2017. You can view the original file and full metadata in our digital repository.
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[Editor's note: some of the content in the transcript has been edited per the narrator’s instructions and may not accurately reflect the audio recording in its entirety.]

[START OF RECORDING]

INTERVIEWER: This is Laura Damon-Moore, speaking over the phone with Mona Adams Winston. It is November 7th, about 10:40 or so in the morning and we’re here to hear about Mona’s family history in Madison. Okay, Mona, sorry, if you could start again.

MONA ADAMS WINSTON [MAW]: That’s okay, that’s okay, no, I was just reminiscing about my mother, who was Addrena Matthews Adams Squires, and she was born in Madison. She’s 90 years old, week before last, October 25th, and she went to school in Madison. We still had, actually, relatives that lived in the Greenbush, the ‘Bush area as I was growing up, that we went to visit on West Washington Avenue.

We went to church at Second Baptist Church, which was up on—trying to think—that was Mound Street, I believe, and, just remembering the different stores, the grocery store that we’d go to after church, the drugstore, I think it was Schwartz Pharmacy, that we’d go in, and they had a soda fountain. Madison General Hospital was across Park Street, which at that time was just a little two-lane street. You know, just remembering things like that…I don’t know, it was an interesting childhood, I think.

I actually lived on Lake Monona, my family bought a house across from Olin Park and brought me home from the hospital to that house in 1951. So, I grew up on the lake but we did almost everything on the South side of Madison. The South Side Neighborhood Center, the church—Mount Zion Baptist Church is located there on Fisher Street, and you know, it was kind of like living two lives—to be a “lake” person so to speak and live on the South side. And it was actually pretty wonderful when I think about it.

I think now, looking back, knowing that we could just walk down Lakeside Street and go to Al’s Pharmacy, which was right by our school, Franklin [Elementary] School, which I went to from kindergarten through eighth grade at the time, across the street was the hardware store, Koltes & Esser Hardware Store, and we’d go in there and buy our fishing bobbers and lines and all that and just look around. Nowadays we’ve got Home Depot and Menard’s and all those places, well we had the little hardware store.

Next to that was Bernie’s Grocery Store where sometimes my cousins and I, we’d get money together and buy a pound of hamburger, and take it home, and we’d make hamburgers for everybody. And everything, it was pretty close by, and a walkable distance. And that was our little world, you know.

I don’t know, when I moved to Mississippi I did not realize I was going to be living within seven miles of where my grandmother was born: Byhalia, Mississippi. A cousin of mine that lived in Gary, Indiana told me, and we always said that Grandma was from Memphis. Memphis is like 40 minutes from where I live, and that’s where they went to, after they left Byhalia, they went to Memphis and then from Memphis they started going north, and my grandmother and some of her children at that time ended up moving to Madison, and that’s where my mother was born. So some of my aunts and uncles were born down South and some were born in Madison.

INTERVIEWER: What year would that have been?

MAW: Well, Mama was born in 1927, so we had figured that they must have moved up probably in 1925 or so. It was just a couple years before Mom was born. And just knowing some of our background, when my grandmother was born, her name was Mamie Taylor Matthews, and she was born in 1885 to a full-blooded Choctaw mother and an African-American father. So we always knew she looked a little different. She had really straight, gray—well, her hair was kind of grayish-black—really straight hair, and we’d play in her hair all the time [laughs].

But at that time we didn’t know where the Native American part came from, but we found that out later. And I think about all of the days living in the house on Lakeshore Court, which like I said was right on Lake Monona…I just sold that house actually, last year. It was in the family for 65 years.

INTERVIEWER: Wow.

MAW: Yeah, just decided it was time to sell it once I moved my mother down here [to Mississippi]. That was the family home for 65 years. And remembering my grandmother, Nana, that’s what we’d call her, N-A-N-A Nana, she’d be in the kitchen, frying chicken, making homemade biscuits, yellow cake with chocolate frosting.

[Nana] would talk about how when she was a little girl, her mother passed away when she was twelve, and her father remarried and her stepmother wasn’t very nice to them. And, it was just so strange when I read the book and saw the movie and attended the play on Broadway, The Color Purple, because it reminded me of her life, because her father married her off to a farmer, an older man—she was thirteen years old, and he married her off to an older man who lived on a farm nearby, and she took her little sister Sally with her, and raised her just along with her own children and she had a little baby girl, Willie Jo [Matthews Withers Walker] when she was fourteen years old. And she had nine more children, so, just remembering those stories, thinking about how different her life would have been if she’d stayed down South. But, it is what it is.

I enjoyed living in Madison. I was able to be on a lot of community boards and committees. I love seeing the city grow. I just loved living across from Monona Terrace, and to watch that come up from the ground, you know, be built. In 1997 when it opened, my mother and I both volunteered that summer to work there, and then I believe it was the next year, that fall, I actually found out there was an opening on the board of directors and applied for it through the mayor’s office, and was on the board from 1997 until I retired from the board, I was the chair in 2013. And that was just kind of neat when you actually see something be built from the ground up and then you end up being the chair of the board for the building, you know, that was cool.

INTERVIEWER: Definitely…

MAW: [LAUGHS] But you know, thinking back on my childhood, with Olin Park, that’s where, at that time, we could just take a book and go over to the park and just sit under a tree and read. You didn’t worry about anybody, you know, talking to you or bothering you or anything. You just said, “I’m going to the park,” and that was fine, you just went to the park. And I was probably, eight years old just going to the park. So you know, times have changed. People really have to keep track of their kids.

I remember catching the bus from Lakeside Street, when I was only eight years old, going downtown. The big adventure was my dad giving me money to go to the different stores to pay on his different little bills that he had, at The Hub or whatever little store. You took your money, I had envelopes and I went to the offices and paid the bills and I’ve thought about that, here I was, eight years old, probably had maybe $200 in cash in envelopes and I went and paid the bills. I always had a little money left over to stop at Rennebohm’s, that’s what it was at the time instead of Walgreen’s. Would stop at Rennebohm’s and get a soda, buy some candy, and catch the bus and come back home [laughs].

INTERVIEWER: Wow!

MAW: Yes, yes, very very different life than what kids have now. But it was, you know, such an adventure to be able to do these things, to be trusted with the family money to go and do that. Because Dad worked sometimes three or four jobs, and my mother always had several jobs, so if I had a little bit of time, a few hours on a weekday in the summer, that was my job, was to go and pay these bills. So that was kind of cool, to think back on that.

I went to Central High School—I went to Franklin School until eighth grade, then I went to Benedict Academy, which was an all-girls’ Catholic high school, and I was only there for my freshman year with my cousin, Evelyn Abernathy [Atkins] who, at the time, she was Catholic, I was kind of, just a hang-around-er, and go-along-er, because it seemed like a cool thing to do, go to Catholic school, but it ended up closing due to lack of funding. But that was a neat experience, to catch the bus and go out to Fox Bluff, I believe—what’s the name of it now, it’s a retreat out there now, um, trying to think…

INTERVIEWER: On what street?

MAW: Wisdom…Wisdom…what is it…it’s out in Fox Bluff, you have to go all the way around the lake, and it’s something, Wisdom, Wisdom Sanctuary. But it’s really a neat place. And there were girls that lived there, you know, it was like a boarding house, a boarding school, and then there were the girls that were like the “town” girls and that was a whole bus full of kids, girls, that went out there every day, we caught the bus and went out there, and went to school, and it was really cool. But then after it closed I went to Central High School which is where my mother had graduated from, and almost all her brothers and sisters who lived in Madison graduated from Central.

[AUDIO VOLUME DROPS, INAUDIBLE, INTERVIEWER ASKS MAW TO ADJUST VOLUME ON HER PHONE]

MAW: Okay, yeah, so there weren’t as many people in the inner city, so they closed Central High, Madison Central High School in ’69, when I graduated.

INTERVIEWER: Wow, the last class.

MAW: Mm-hm, we were the last class. Oh, I know—it was called the Holy Wisdom Monastery. That’s what it is. Yeah, Holy Wisdom Monastery. It’s funny, when you know where something is—I’ve been out there several times to retreats, and it’s just a beautiful location. Oh, it’s on 4200 County Road M, in Middleton.

INTERVIEWER: Okay.

MAW: So, after that, I got married early, my husband at the time went to Vietnam. And that was a little bit of a strange time, when you’ve got someone over there, in Vietnam, but you’re also in Madison which has all the protests, and you know, war protests going on at the university.

INTERVIEWER: Right.

MAW: John—Johnny Winston, Sr., was the first black police officer in Madison and that was in 1969, fall of 1969, when he got back from Vietnam, and, that’s another whole story.

INTERVIEWER: Wow, yeah. So, were you still living by the lake at that point, or…

MAW: No, the family lived by the lake, my mother, my grandmother, my stepfather, they lived there. And then John and I re-bought, or well, we bought the house from them in 1978. So my youngest son, Jeramie, we brought him home from the hospital to that house. Yeah, so [LAUGHS]. He was one of the ones that was like, “Okay, it’s a nice house, it’s a big house, but why do you need it?” You know, you got grandma down South, my cousin and my brother were living in the house, and it was just way too much house for two people.

I mean, at one time we had twelve people living there, and we had foster children, and my mom and stepfather lived in the basement apartment. I mean the house has—I went through and made a list of all the people that had lived in that house over the years and it’s just amazing. Amazing, all the people.

The basement apartment, used to be—we always called it the Underground Railroad, because family would come in from Gary, Indiana, or down South, and they would stay there for sometimes a couple months, sometimes a year, until they really got on their feet, they lived in that apartment. I mean sometimes it was a mother and father and three or four kids would be in this one-bedroom apartment. But they were just so glad to be in Madison, that they just made it work.

And then there were times when Truax Field Air Force Base, in Madison, was open, and we’d have a solider renting out the basement. So, it was interesting. It was really an interesting house, that’s for sure. My uncle lived upstairs at that time, and he had different wives, he had like five different wives, you know… But he lived to be ninety—that was my mother’s brother, and he was just—he was cowboy, a black cowboy, and so we had years of going with him, helping him care for his horses.

INTERVIEWER: Really?

MAW: Yeah, and go to rodeos, oh my god, we used to go to these rodeos up in like Sparta, Wisconsin and Tomah, and people would look at us like we were just—absolutely, aliens or something. Until he got up on his horse and start riding and people were just like, “Whoa! A black cowboy!”

INTERVIEWER: Did he do bareback riding, like…?

MAW: He did barrel-racing, I can remember that, and what is that—roping, calf-roping, yeah, I can just see him jumping off that horse and tying that calf’s legs up, you know. But the barrel-racing, that was the neatest thing, he was just so good at that, he could just make that horse go every which way. But because we lived where we lived, he couldn’t have the horses there, so the horses were boarded at other places. So when John and I bought the house, [her uncle] actually bought a farm at that time, out in Stoughton, and that was his dream, was to be able to have his horses on his property. So he lived there and then he lived, I remember he lived one other place too, out by Columbus. But, after he left the lake, then he always lived someplace where he could have his horses and board other peoples’ horses like he used to have to do. So that was kind of neat.

INTERVIEWER: Wow. What was his name?

MAW: His name was Edward Matthews. He just passed away four years ago. He was ninety, he was Mom’s last brother. Yeah, Mom’s the last woman standing. Out of both sides of my family, because Dad passed away in 2013, and he was the last one on his side of the family, now Mom’s the last one.

INTERVIEWER: Well, congratulations, and happy birthday recently to her.

MAW: We had a party. We had family come from all over. It was very nice.

INTERVIEWER: Well, thank you so much…I’m just looking at my questions here; I think you touched on several of these already [MAW LAUGHS] which is perfect, I…so you definitely have shared several stories about people and places, um, do you have any other stories about a person or a place related to either the Greenbush neighborhood, South Madison, the lake neighborhood where you lived, that we should know?

MAW: Well, I mean, South Madison Neighborhood Center played a big role in our lives, which is now the Boys and Girls Club. But at the time we went there for classes, like sewing classes, dances, we had birthday parties there, and it was—for me to walk from my house over to the neighborhood center, probably took me about a half hour. It was something that I probably did, whew, I bet I did that six or seven times a week.

I mean literally, just walked over there, or left from school and went over there, and then it was probably a little less, maybe twenty minutes, and if it was night time, we’d get picked up. Mom or Dad would come and pick us up, we never had to walk home at night, but it was just one of those places that was the hub of our neighborhood: South Madison Neighborhood Center. And that was just—I can just remember that so vividly that I can actually smell different things, you know how you get that smell—I can smell like, popcorn, because we’d have movie night, and we’d have popcorn. Somebody would make hotdogs and hamburgers, you know. I just remember the kitchen, the whole kitchen area, it’s totally different now, totally different. But when I think of it, I see it how it was. It was an air force barracks that they had brought over from Truax Field.

INTERVIEWER: Really.

MAW: Yes, they brought it all the way across town. And that’s what they started out with. And then built on to that, and there was a fire there, and it was rebuilt…you just remember all these little things that happened. Between [South Madison Neighborhood Center] and Franklin School—the library at Franklin School, that was the beginning of my love for reading. Even as a…I believe I was in fifth grade when I was able to help the librarian, and you had to get picked to help, and the new books came in and you had the chance to look at them and help catalog them and put them on the shelf, and what was so neat about it is that you actually got to take them out before anyone else did, you know…

INTERVIEWER: Sure.

MAW: …check them out, you know. I bet I read every mystery. I got crazy into mystery, I bet I read every mystery in that library before I left there in eighth grade. But it was just such a—I’m not kidding, when I think about my love for reading, it just takes me back to that library. And then she started giving us like a nickel on Fridays, so we got a nickel to go up to Miss Sheeley’s store, which was right behind the school on Potter Street, you could go there to buy penny candy. I mean, I didn’t need to be paid, because I was doing what I loved doing, but she insisted that everybody that worked got a nickel [COUGHS, LAUGHS].

INTERVIEWER: That’s so great.

MAW: Isn’t that funny? I mean we really did have a lot of little neighborhood stores because down closer to John Nolen Drive, where, uh, do you know where the VWF is on Lakeside Street, right by John Nolen Drive?

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, yeah.

MAW: So right next door to that, is a little store—the building’s still there, but it used to be Mrs. Mac’s grocery store, and she had penny candy. So, if Miss Sheeley didn’t have what you wanted, you stopped at Mrs. Mac’s and spent the rest of your money there. So…[LAUGHS]. Oh my god.

But, this was before the causeway was built, there were just railroad tracks that we had to cross. You just crossed the railroad tracks to go to school. And walk right up to Franklin School. Now, when my kids were starting to go to Franklin School, we had to get a bus because they had to cross—I mean, that was considered a highway, John Nolen Drive, and so they had a school bus that actually came down to that area and picked the kids up and brought them back across until they were like in middle school. By the time they were in middle school they were old enough to cross the highway, you know. But I saw a lot of things change, you know, a lot of things change just by being there a long time.

INTERVIEWER: I think you kind of spoke to this already too, but, I—one of our questions, and this will be the last one that I ask you, but I’m happy to keep talking, too—is share a story about a neighborhood or community tradition, and if they are still observed by the community or your family.

MAW: How far back do I have to go for that?

INTERVIEWER: I—I’ll leave that up to you, if you have something that was in your family…you have so many Madison generations, I’ll leave it up to you to—

MAW: Hmm. Well, I mean, I mean, Juneteenth, that’s been going on for quite a while. I was on the founding committee with Annie, Annie Weatherby-Flowers, and the whole family got involved in that. That’s been less than thirty years…[thirtieth anniversary] is coming up though. Trying to think…what else did we do…I remember church picnics, I guess they called them really “socials”, church socials, that we used to have, where my grandmother would bake cakes and we’d do the cake walk, and sometimes we’d end up bringing home three or four cakes you know, from the kids winning them, but we had those like over in Brittingham Park on West Washington, and then Penn Park on the South side.

INTERVIEWER: And was that for Mount Zion…?

MAW: Mount Zion, right. Mount Zion used to be on Johnson Street, and then it moved out to the South side, I think it was 1961, the old-new church opened on Fisher Street, in ’61, and then we built the new sanctuary that’s on, that actually faces Baird Street much later, that was like, 2000…let’s see, I have a granddaughter that’s going to be 14, and she was the first child baptized…and it’s weird, because I was the first child baptized on Fisher Street, in ’61, I was ten. [LAUGHS] So she was really more like christened there, she’s going to be 14, and that would have been 2003, so probably 2004, because she was almost a year old. We had many a church social up in Penn Park and Brittingham Park.

INTERVIEWER: Sounds like so much fun.

MAW: It was very nice. Brings everybody together, that’s for sure.

INTERVIEWER: Those cakes sound great, too. Well, as we’ve been talking, is there anything else that you’d like us to know about?

MAW: Well, I guess that there’s still a lot of family there, and I feel like Madison is always going to be my hometown. I was just there a couple of weeks ago, and it’s just so much fun, visiting everyone, but it’s, that’s our home. I think it’s a great place to be. Like every other place there’s room for improvement, that’s for sure. But as places are that I’ve been, and I’ve traveled to, it was always good to get back to Madison, for me.

INTERVIEWER: Well, thank you so much. I’m going to conclude our recording—

[END OF RECORDING]