…..”but my achievements wouldn’t be possible without my great-grandmother. Meet Ma Honey, the self-made entrepreneur from the segregated South”

Teri Williams didn’t celebrate her roots for 30 years–until she realized that her ancestry was essential to her success

Teri Williams is president, COO, and serves on the board of directors of OneUnited Bank, America’s largest Black owned-bank. Jeffrey Salter

For years, I lost the memory of my great-grandmother and the impact she had on my life. My memory loss was rooted in shame. As this Women’s History Month comes to an end, I hope more women, especially Black women, will embrace the power of our ancestry.

When someone asked me how I came to own the largest Black-owned bank in the country, I used to respond with a summary of my resume. First, I went to Brown University, then worked for Bank of America in New York City before heading off to Harvard Business School. After HBS, I worked in marketing for American Express, becoming one of the youngest vice presidents in its history. I met my business partner, now husband, and ultimately, we did a rollup strategy, buying four Black-owned banks that became OneUnited Bank. End of story, or so I thought.

One day, an artist who was unsatisfied with my answer asked me repeatedly, “But who are you? And how did you get here?” After being pushed to reflect, I finally recognized that more meaningful than my resume was that I am the great-grandchild of Ma Honey or Annie Coachman, also known as Miss Honey to everyone outside of family.

Ma Honey owned a lot of real estate in Indiantown, Florida–apartments, homes, a barbeque pit, a juke joint, and a store where I loved to work selling sodas and penny candy. She was an entrepreneur and a businesswoman, before the terms were coined, in the segregated South. White folks use to come across the railroad tracks to visit her, not always with a purpose, sometimes just to sit on the porch. I knew she was admired, but didn’t realize how much, or what her impact has been on my life until many years after she passed away.

As a kid, I used to follow Ma Honey around and just watch how she moved. She was a beautiful woman, with golden skin, expressive eyes, and silky gray hair that she wore in a bob. She wore comfortable shoes, because she was always on the go, and cotton dresses cinched at the waist with a flowing skirt that moved as she moved. She also chewed tobacco and spit in a can. I can still remember the mixed smell of perfume and tobacco. The combination drew me to her, but I also kept my distance to avoid getting splattered. And her voice was also a combination of sweet southern drawl and a matter-of-fact curtness if she didn’t like what was going on. Everyone loved Miss Honey but also knew not to mess with her.

She was born Annie Stokes on June 15, 1893, in Columbia, South Carolina. Her husband, my great grandfather, Hamp Coachman, was born in Georgia on June 5, 1883. It appears they moved to Indiantown so that he could work for Seaboard Railroad. I heard from my dad, their grandson, that Ma Honey saved all the money Hamp earned and invested it in real estate on the Black side of town, Booker Park. She had two children, my grandmother, Maeola when she was 17 years old and Hamp Jr. when she was 21. My great grandfather passed away in 1934, leaving Ma Honey to live off their real estate for another 41 years until she passed away at 83.

Like me, however, that’s the resume side of Annie Coachman’s story. The reality is more complex. A good friend of my family and the unofficial “mayor” of Indiantown, Thelma Waters, gave me a fuller picture of Ma Honey’s life.

When my great grandfather passed, Ma Honey became a widow at 41 in the segregated South with a fifth grade education. She lived in a “shot gun house,” made of wood sitting on cinderblocks where you could shoot from the front to the back of the house without hitting a thing. There was no indoor plumbing until the 1960’s. Her daughter, my grandmother, lived in a similar house next door, with her husband, Frank Williams, and her two sons, Frank Jr., my dad, and Nathaniel, my uncle.

Ms. Thelma said Miss Honey was the hardest working woman she ever knew. After Hamp Sr. died in 1934, she began hand washing and pressing clothes and linen for white folks from the other side of the railroad tracks. They dropped off their dirty laundry in the morning and picked them up, clean and crisp, the next day, seven days a week. She also barbequed ribs in the pit and sold them on the weekend. White and Black folks lined up down the block to buy her BBQ sandwiches. My great uncle, Hamp Jr., worked for Seaboard Railroad like his dad–and Ma Honey saved his money too.

Ma Honey did whatever she could to make a living and invested her money in real estate. Ms. Waters and many others from Indiantown said Miss Honey was an inspiration, especially for Black women. The only other Black proprietors and landowners in Booker Park were men. Even they admired her.

I lost touch with the enduring role that Ma Honey played in my life, partially because she achieved most of her success before I was born, so I took it for granted. But the bigger reason is because of the condescending reaction I experienced when I arrived at Brown University–an Ivy League institution–to my Indiantown roots. Sadly, I was embarrassed. I carried that insecurity around for 30 years, until the artist kept pressing me for a better answer than my resume.

I now realize that I got my work ethic and learned basic economics from Ma Honey. She took whatever job she could find to make money in the segregated South. She invested to make more money. She bought food in bulk and sold at retail. She bought real estate for rental income. She built wealth over time. Clearly, Ma Honey’s wealth was not the height of wealth I would see or experience in my lifetime, but remains a substantial accomplishment for a young Black widow in the segregated South. Her wealth protected my family and allowed my dad to go to Industrial High School in West Palm Beach, when there was no Black high school in Indiantown or the surrounding Martin County.

My childhood experience with Ma Honey is one of my greatest assets and my lack of acknowledgement of her enduring role in my life is one of my greatest embarrassments.

For many Black women who are first-generation college graduates or the first generation to go to integrated colleges and work in corporate America, we can feel a sense of shame about our family history. We were raised to believe that “their ice is colder” and that white colleges and businesses are better. That’s so unfortunate. I tell the story of Ma Honey often to young folks to make sure they don’t make the same mistake. There’s power in our history. We all have a Ma Honey in our lives.

Teri Williams is president, COO, and serves on the board of directors of OneUnited Bank, America’s largest Black owned-bank.

 

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