The Biography of
Catherine Louise Harper
Catherine Louise Merchant was born the first of four children, on August 27, 1930. Her parents were John Henry Merchant and Catherine Sims. She had three younger siblings, brother, John Henry Merchant, Jr., brother, Clarence Eugene Merchant and sister, Elma Merchant. The Merchants were a Christian Catholic family dedicated to serving God.
In 1936 young Catherine attended Councill Elementary school, a historical school situated in Ensley, a small town west of downtown Birmingham, AL. Eight years later, after graduating from Councill Elementary school in 1944, Catherine attended Parker High School in Birmingham, AL. She graduated from Parker High School in 1948.
Parker High School was where the teenager, Catherine Merchant, met her soul-mate, Clyde Harper. She married her high school sweetheart on June 6, 1950 when she was just 19 years old. Between the years of 1951 and 1969, she and Clyde became the proud parents of 10 beautiful children. Rhonda Harper was the first born. Clyde, Carolyn, Christopher, Kenneth, Ralph, Steven, Anthony, Frederick and Patrick would follow. For a significant part of their lives, they lived at 1289 Avenue M in Ensley AL, a four room house, the home of two parents and their ten children. The Harper family lived comfortably at 1289 Avenue M from around 1965 to 1978.
Mr. and Mrs. Harper worked in unison (as a team) to make ends meet while ensuring a good quality of life for their 10 children. They made education, health and safety their priorities. Mr. Harper worked as a United States Post Office Clerk and Mrs. Harper worked as a Cook and House Keeper for Holy Family Church and St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Birmingham, AL.
Early on though, Clyde Harper reached a place in his life where the perils of alcoholism seemed to consume his life – his pay check as well. Things started to change at the Harper’s residence. Inevitably, Clyde Harper’s priorities shifted from focus on his family, to a firm commitment to his addiction. Playing as best she could the cards dealt her; Catherine Harper gracefully took the helm, essentially, becoming a single parent to her ten children.
Mrs. Harper was an exceptional parent. Given the marginal existence of a father-figure in the family, she developed into a firm but fair mother. Janie Smith, who lived next door to the Harper’s for several years, described Mrs. Harper by saying “she lived for her children.” And, the bond between Mrs. Harper and her children was unbreakable!
Mrs. Harper also lived in the worst of times for African-Americans in America; a time when racism and segregation plagued the tumultuous South. In fact, most of her life span across an era of key milestones in the fight for human rights, equality and the simplest measures of justice for African Americans. Opting not to engage directly in Civil Rights rallies and protests, Mrs. Harper looked to her God and the church first and placed strict focus on her family. So, in spite of Jim Crow, George Wallace, Bull Connor, the police and the dogs in Birmingham, she beat the odds; and, she “lived for her children.” Like Martin Luther King Jr.; she dreamt of a better America; an America that she was doubtful she would see come to full fruition; but, an America she would be remiss not to prepare her children for. She dreamt of days when her children would be positioned for a fair chance at mastering the guidelines for existing in the south. She dreamt of a more mature southern community where her children would have access to better jobs, homes and a better quality of life. During the toughest times of her single-parenting years that notion and those dreams for her children’s future sustained her and made her peaceful. However, in the midst of her peace, she was always mindful of the persisting struggles in the south and of a dissolving marriage (now) fraught with verbal and (sometimes) physical abuse.
For most of Mrs. Harper’s adult life, she wore a white dress uniform to work sometime with white shoes and coffee colored stockings. Her white silhouette could be seen a mile away as she walked across the Councill School campus from the bus stop at 18th street. When her children were younger, they would use the glow of the white silhouette moving closer towards the house at 1289 Avenue M as a way to buy time to get their respective act together before she reached the home. If anyone had gotten in trouble over the course of the day, they were sure to be dealt with.
Ensley was not the best neighborhood to live in. In fact it wasn’t safe at all. There were a lot of bad boys around. But they didn’t “mess” with Mrs. Harper… Each night as she walked alone from the bus stop, the greetings would ring out… “hey Miss Hopper…” “Hi ya doin Miss Hopper?” She would simply offer the young men a swift nod of acknowledgement and keep right on strutting in her white uniform not looking back. She commanded respect. She earned it. She got it!!
The 1970’s was a particularly tough decade for Mrs. Harper. After 22 years of marriage and 10 children, Mrs. Harper, on her own terms, divorced Clyde Harper on July 13, 1972.
Just over a year later on September 13, 1973, Mrs. Harper’s mother, Catherine Merchant passed away.
Mrs. Harper’s oldest son Clyde Douglas Harper, struggled most of his life with alcohol and drug challenges. At times he too was verbally abusive to his mother Catherine. Clyde Douglas would eventually move to live with his great-grandmother, Ella Truitt, on 19th Street in Ensley. It was there where, over a fall November night in 1975, Clyde Douglas (apparently) made a conscious decision to take his life. He administered a single gunshot wound to his head. He didn’t leave a note and never showed signs of his intentions. To this day, it is not clear what drove him to that dark place. Was it guilt… alcoholism? No one knows. Mrs. Harper buried her son at George Washington Carver cemetery just west of Birmingham, AL. At the time of his death, Clyde Douglas was 22 years old. Heartbroken, by the reality of burying her child, Mrs. Harper quickly mustered up the courage to complete her duty and moved on addressing her other family priorities.
On February 7, 1979, Mrs. Ella Truitt, Mrs. Harper’s grandmother lost her life. These losses and these times were especially taxing for the Merchant family. But, Mrs. Harper was a strong woman who, at times, seemed incapable of showing emotions. However, when she did, she showed them in her own time, in her own place and on her own terms.
After the passing of her grandmother, Mrs. Ella Truitt, Mrs. Harper and nine of her children were able to move into the house at 1820 19th Street in Ensley. The house boasted 4 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a dining room, a foyer area as big as the living room, upstairs, downstairs, an enclosed back porch, two bath rooms, a sizable back yard, a front yard, a car port, an empty lot next door and the best part of all… a den.
This particular development represented a major improvement from the four-room house at 1289 Avenue M in Ensley. But it was the den that existed as the nucleolus of a new beginning. The den at 1820 19th Street was the place where Prayer happened, love and caring happened, appreciation for family, movies, stories, silly jokes, dinner, meetings, announcements, memories, good-old memories and a host of other family matters happened here. As Mrs. Harper’s children became adults and got married and the off springs started to surface, it was as if this place- this den, drew power from an outside source, strong enough to pull every family member, near and far, back together again on a regular basis. It was this den where treasures of good things happened for so many years.
For 13 years, Mrs. Harper’s children, friends, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, siblings and so on made it a point to meet her after a hard day’s work at her house on 19th Street. The visitors were not just family-members; they were admirers who just wanted to show their respective adoration. Many of her visitors were hoping to get a taste of Mrs. Harper’s fried chicken, collard greens, and German chocolate cake and so on. Mrs. Harper was an exceptional cook. She and her younger sister and best friend, Elma Greggs would sometimes have baking competitions. The unofficial winner was determined by whose cake had risen the highest.
When Mrs. Harper wasn’t cooking, she sat in her favorite chair playing the role of host to her friends and family. If anyone was sitting in her chair when she returned from work or the kitchen, they knew to move without a question or a challenge.
Whatever the reasons were for visiting Mrs. Harper in her den, the experience was mostly fun. The visits were usually characterized by laughs as her younger sons recapped their childhoods and the trouble they got in. Reflections of Mrs. Harper’s unique discipline tactics served as chilling reminders of a serious but fair parent who didn’t play. The jokes and the stories would bring Mrs. Harper to loud bellowing laughter. The tears of joy would flow down her face. She had her own jokes and stories as well. She would sometimes laugh at her own jokes until she choked and needed a glass of water to recover. For some reason the horrid stories of survival turned into conduits for the most joyous times of Mrs. Harper’s entire life. Sad stories about the struggles of getting through the Christmas holiday seasons were somehow (now) representing what had turned out to be a good and meaningful life – an indication of making it. So, of all the days of the Harper boys and girl’s life’s experiences, it was Christmas that seemed to matter most. Mrs. Harper made sure each Christmas was a joyous one as not a single Christmas passed without gifts underneath the Harper family Christmas tree.
Mrs. Harper did not make it by budgeting for the long-term. She occasionally used the “lay-a-way” at certain department stores. But, she rarely used credit cards. For a very short while, Mrs. Harper received food stamps. However, her pride quickly overcame the need for government assistance and she chose to make it on her own. Mrs. Harper’s budget planning was simple. On the back-sides of letter size envelopes, she listed all of her bills, the amounts due and the total. It was the totals that would determine if she had to spend her Saturday and/or Sunday in the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook cleaning houses to close any perceived monthly financial gaps. You see, the notion of not paying her bills was simply NOT an option.
On November 16th 1983, Clyde Harper’s life was also abruptly cut short as the symptoms of alcoholism overtook it. He was just 53 years old. Again, Mrs. Harper was forced to deal with yet another family tragedy as she laid her former husband to rest. At the funeral, the single tear that traversed down her face told a compelling story of love, hate, abuse, neglect and hate and love again. But, she carried on. She hid the other ‘tears behind her smile!’
For many years, the den at 1820 served as the meeting place for a family who chose to celebrate life after making it through a hellish life’s journey. In the early 90’s though, the family meetings in Mrs. Harper’s den which for years had lasted well into the evenings started to fade. The meetings were cut short by Mrs. Harper’s decision to head to bed early. There were times when she would go straight to bed from work. She never talked about it, but something was terribly wrong. As she suffered quietly in her bedroom, she was eventually convinced by her younger sister Elma Greggs and her two daughters, Rhonda and Carolyn, to see a doctor. The diagnosis was grim. Mrs. Harper had colon cancer which was more than likely the result of personal neglect for the sake of her 10 children. In early 1992, an invasive surgery confirmed the worst of scenarios. The cancer had spread and not much could be done to save her life. Mrs. Catherine Louise Harper died on May 15th, 1992. She was 61 years old.
Her funeral service, which was held at Holy Family Church in Ensley just a single block away from where Mrs. Harper lived the final years of her wonderful life, was attended by more priests than had ever attended a funeral service at Holly Family Church. They came from near and far. The small church overflowed with people wanting to offer their final respects to a woman so deserving.
Mrs. Catherine Louise Harper and her children did not have much; but, the set of green and white encyclopedias served as a symbolic reminder that Education was a priority even when education (often times) took a back-seat to survival. She lived a modest life and made it through the toughest of times. But in the end, she was the one who set examples and laid a foundation for protégés looking to simply experience a good life. Through her life’s experiences, she taught them how. Her legacy will now live on through Catherine Harper for Keepers.