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The woman in the black silk dress

My great-great-grandmother

March 1st, 2015


In the home in Dallas where I grew up, there hung on the dining room wall a steel engraving, a head-and-shoulders portrait of a woman wearing a plain black dress. I wondered why she should dominate the dining room, but I accepted her as part of my life and her portrait as an heirloom that had to be honored. She was, I knew, some kind of ancestor. She had a sober expression on her face, and she struck me as a sourpuss. My mother disagreed. She was a kind woman, my mother told me, and her face was beautiful. Serene. Her name was Hannah Neil. She lived from 1794 to 1868. She was my great-great-grandmother.

hannahneilHannah Neil’s portrait hung prominently in my mother’s house because my mother’s name was also Hannah Neil, those being her first and middle names until she was married. Her mother’s (my grandmother’s) name was Hannah Neil also. My sister was Hannah Neil Daniel until she was married. I also have a first cousin and a granddaughter named Hannah; and I had an uncle, a brother, and a first cousin named Neil, and Neil is my son’s, and his son’s, middle name. The names Hannah and Neil hang in abundance on my family tree. They collectively honor a woman in a plain black dress, who was by all accounts a saint.

William and Hannah Neil were prominent members of society in nineteenth-century Columbus, Ohio. Both born in Virginia, they had met and married in Kentucky and moved to Columbus in 1818. William started off in Columbus as a cashier in a bank, but he soon went into business for himself, amassing a sizable fortune by establishing the first stage coach company with transportation to and from Columbus and Wheeling, W. Va. and Cincinnati, Ohio. He also established Columbus’s finest hotel, the Neil House, which endured as the city’s swankiest hotel well into the twentieth century.

The Neils lived well and bought a large home, which they furnished with good taste. There Hannah bore seven children and raised six of them (one didn’t survive infancy). But her attention was not focused entirely or even primarily on her home or her family, for during those years Columbus attracted a larger and larger population, many of whom were enterprising citizens, and many more of whom were homeless and hungry.
The sick and the poor, and especially the destitute women and their fatherless children, who were ignored or despised by most of Columbus society, were the benefactors of Hannah Neil’s unquestioning love and generosity. She welcomed them into her home and fed them, and she also rode in her buggy behind her old horse, Billy, through the back streets and dark alleys of the city, giving away food and clothing to the needy. Her granddaughter, Lucy Neil Williams, wrote, “I remember seeing my grandmother, Hannah, giving away every dress but the one black silk in her wardrobe.” She gave away her own feather bed to a family that had no bed. She once took off a heavy quilted skirt she was wearing and gave it to a woman who was shivering cold. When her granddaughter protested, Hannah said, “We mustn’t let her catch pneumonia.”

As the population of Columbus grew, swelling with German and Irish immigrant laborers, the combination of more people, more horses, and no sewers brought recurring epidemics of cholera, typhoid, and diphtheria, leaving hundreds of people dead and hundreds of children orphaned and homeless. Hannah Neil mustered her fellow philanthropists to establish Columbus’s first charity, the Female Benevolent Society. She went on to incorporate the Industrial School Association, whose goal was to give children a chance to learn the working skills that would rescue them from the streets.

Hannah Neil died in 1868 of pneumonia, having devoted half a century to caring for the poor, the sick, the hungry and cold. I assume she was buried in her black silk dress. In her honor the Industrial School Association, growing and serving the homeless children of Columbus, Ohio, was renamed the Hannah Neil Mission and Home for the Friendless. In a later reorganization, the charity was renamed the Hannah Neil Center for Children. It is currently owned and managed by Starr Commonwealth of Albion Mich., a nonprofit human services organization. The last I heard the center was up for sale and its future was uncertain.

When my mother, who was named after the family saint, died in 1970, the portrait of the original Hannah Neil was passed down to my sister, who was and still is the sole remaining Hannah Neil in our family. At the end of 2014, when my sister moved to a smaller home, the portrait was placed in storage along with other assorted heirlooms.

Hannah Neil will always be an ancestor to be grateful for and proud of, and I hope that future generations of my family will continue to honor her by naming some of their daughters Hannah, and some of their sons Neil. Further, I hope that in some future generation a baby girl will be named Hannah Neil, and when that Hannah Neil grows up, I hope she’ll inherit and fondly display the portrait of the woman in the black silk dress. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Clothing Issue, Daniel | Link to this Entry


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