Finding Florabelle

In my on-going project, a seminar paper turned revision turned new project, I have discovered a legion of names, events, and ideas connected to knitting during the Great Depression. My project traces the ways that knitting became a cultural symbol for tradition through a mix of  popular culture, businesses, and New Deal programs. It’s been a great undertaking that I’ve truly enjoyed. All the same, as I progressed with my paper, I couldn’t shake one name that stood out to me: Florabelle King.

Florabelle showed up in my research when I sorted through scanned documents from the Yates Branch YWCA in Kansas City, Kansas, a gathering place for African American women in the twentieth century. Every Wednesday morning in the summer of 1937, Florabelle taught students in her knitting class. I imagine a young woman standing before a room of her peers instructing them in the proper way to hold their needles and how to avoid dropped stitches. Other available courses from that summer included “Personality” and “Etiquette” [1]. But that was all I could find in the Yates Branch records. Was she giggly and nervous before her students? Was she poised? I don’t know the answer to these questions. The paper trail contains no indication if the class was successful, if she continued to teach,  how skilled she was, nor any biographical information about her. I was struck by this gap in my research, and, frankly, I was struck by her name.

Florabelle.

 As any good, procrastinating student would, I did some digging to satiate my curiosity.

In 1918, Henrietta and George King welcomed into the world their fifth child. They were thirty-two when Florabelle was born in Kansas City, Kansas. Nine years prior they began their family with their first daughter; less than a decade later, the family was complete with two more children. Growing up, Florabelle‘s three eldest siblings, Reba, George, and Anna, were nearly ten years older than their younger sister. When Florabelle was a teenager, they left the family home. Florabelle was closest in age to Helen, two years her senior. Her two younger siblings, Corrine and Nadine were four and seven years behind her. Reba, George, Anna, Helen, Florabelle, Corrine, and Nadine. It was a full house that the Kings must have had.

Like her siblings, Florabelle was able to read and write. By the time she was 18, she became active at the YWCA, at least, that’s when she began instructing women in knitting. The family resided on Ohio Avenue in the Ward 4 of the city, a residential neighborhood with single family homes [2]. Conveniently for the Kings, the Yates Branch YWCA was located at 337 Washington Boulevard, about three miles from their residence. A long walk on hot summer days, to be sure, but if one could travel by car, it was an easy distance up a few streets [3].

The Yates Branch YWCA was established in March 1913. Unlike today’s YWCAs, modern looking commercial buildings, the Yates Branch in 1937 was located in a converted residential house. It was named after Josephine Silone Yates, an educator and writer. In the mid-twentieth century, parents knew that their daughters were safe if they spent time with friends at the community center. Parents knew that watchful eyes of friends and neighbors guarded the girls [4].  In 1937, Henrietta and George knew that Florabelle would be welcomed, too.

I do not fully understand the life of Florabelle King. I know that when she was 18, she knitted, and was skilled enough to teach her peers over the summer. I know she came from a big family, and that her parents were married. I don’t know how long she lived, if she married, or if she had children. I don’t know if her parents got along, and I don’t know if she liked any of her siblings. I’m not even certain of what she knitted in class. My search is limited in that way, although, I suspect if I wanted to learn more, some answers to my questions could be found with a bit more digging.

My larger point with Florabelle is that over the course of a few hours, I was able to find some biographical information to illuminate her life. I accessed most of this information through resources that are readily available to the public: Google’s search engine and Ancestry’s database. I attempted to organize the information that I found in a way that made the most sense. I concede that the drive behind my search came from a stray document scanned for me in the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas, not some random Googling. Nevertheless, I believe that not all of us need to be professional historians to think about the past. The tools that can assist us in finding rich, interesting information are plentiful online, and with a willingness to understand how people lived even not that long ago, it can alter how we think about the present. Whenever I pass listings for knitting lessons today, I smile knowing that such gatherings are part of a longer tradition.

In the future, who knows if I shall return to Florabelle King and her life as a knitter. Maybe someone reading this will discover more (tell me if you do!), or maybe this is enough, a soft glowing moment in her life that helps to ensure that her special moniker isn’t completely forgotten.

Until next time,
KR

 

[1] The records of the Yates Branch YWCA are found at the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas. All specific references to the Yates Branch comes from those documents. Many thanks to Kathy Lafferty for her long-distance help in accessing those records.
[2] Census information came from the Ancestry Database and Ward information from Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners.
[3] I will never be ungrateful for living in a time when maps are digital and readily available. This information came from Google Maps.
[4] Article about the history of Yates Branch YWCA here. Information about Josephine Silone Yates here.

 

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