Historical Connections: Mariah and Me

Mariah Holyfield Roland was my grandmother’s grandmother. Family and friends called her “Skeet.” She was thin and tall like my grandmother, and it seems something about her reminded someone of a mosquito. The first six years of my life were under the roof of my grandparents, Willie Toombs and Lillie Stewart Toombs.

Rhonda Stewart

As a child, my allergies prevented me from being outside as often as my siblings and cousins. Nosebleeds were frequent for me. I was affected by seasonal weather changes and caught colds easily. I still use Vicks VapoRub regularly… A clean body, clean bed linens, a chest smeared with Vicks, and a blanket are basic healthcare for me, in my sixth decade of life. This set-up is one of my earliest memories of life in my grandmother’s house. It still heals.

Another memory is sitting on the floor of my grandparents’ bedroom after all the children in the home had bathed and were settling down before going to bed. My grandfather would often bring us tea cakes before sending us all to bed. It was in this bedroom that I heard about my family history.

My grandmother ironed clothes as an occupation, serving the professional class in Little Rock. My grandfather was her walking advertisement. He worked for the railroad, and his uniform was his denim overalls and his railroad hat. But even after a day of manual labor, his clothes still impressed.

Many of my early days were spent watching my grandmother iron clothes and reporting to her what my siblings and cousins were doing in the backyard. I believe this to be my earliest training for my academic degrees in journalism and public history. She encouraged me to pay attention to detail while also analyzing what I was witnessing.

Rhonda Stewart and Lillie Stewart Toombs

It was in this setting that I met Mariah through the words shared by her granddaughter. Mariah rode a white horse. Her domestic skills were passed on to her daughter Neta, as well as her granddaughters. Each one had marketable skills that could support them individually. Neta taught them business skills as she included them when selling her hot tamales on the streets of Morrilton, Arkansas. They would repeat the phrase “one for a nickel, two for a dime, I would sell them cheaper, but they not nun of mine.”

I discovered documentation confirming the oral history shared by my grandmother. By doing research, I continue to grow my knowledge of Mariah by connecting her to the history of her lifetime. The first federal census I’ve found for Mariah shows her as the eldest of three daughters in the home of Mary Holyfield, in 1870. They are living in Lewisburg, Conway County, Arkansas.

At age sixteen, Mariah had witnessed the Civil War and had survived the terror of the Ku Klux Klan in her community following the war and a declaration of martial law in 1868. Her mother, Mary, claims Arkansas as her own state of birth in this census. She was born during the period that saw the “Trail of Tears,” with Native Americans being moved off their land.

Milly Stewart and Shannan Stewart (front, left to right) and Renay Dean, Rhonda Stewart, Rosalyn Miller (back, left to right), second and third great-granddaughters of Mariah Holyfield Roland

A DNA testing of my genes suggests Mary is likely my Native American ancestor. Mary is the mother of Mariah, who is the mother of Neta, who is the mother of Lillie, who is the mother of Louise, who gave birth to me on the one-hundred-year anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Military history became more interesting when I recognized that the connection between myself and Mariah included the history of the Civil War.

My grandmother gifted me with her memories of her grandmother. It helps me imagine another perspective of what is written in history books and allows me to feel my connection to that history.

By Rhonda Stewart, genealogy and local history specialist for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, housed in the CALS Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History & Art


Come to the Research Room of the CALS Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History & Art to start your own family research! Visiting information is here. There are also many genealogy resources online through the library that can help you get started: https://cals.org/research-tool-subject/genealogy




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