Dear Mary, Dear Luther: A Love Story in Letters at New HAven Museum



New Haven, Conn. (December 17, 2020) – Connecticut author Jill Marie Snyder will share her story of love, family, racism and African American history, and her discoveries while researching her complex family tree, during, “Dear Mary, Dear Luther,” via Zoom on Wednesday, February 10, 2021, 2020, at 6 p.m. Register here. The New Haven Museum (NHM) presentation is based on Snyder’s award-winning book, “Dear Mary, Dear Luther: A Courtship in Letters,” which is available for purchase by emailing info@newhavenmuseum.org or calling 203-562-4183, ext. 119.

Following the passing of her mother, Mary, in 2007, Snyder transcribed her parents’ letters in order to fulfill her mother’s wish to someday publish them. Then, to give readers the full context for her parents’ relationship, she began digging for details. Snyder’s genealogical journey led to a better understanding of her parents’ emotional connection, and some surprising discoveries, and it has become her post-retirement mission to show other African Americans the value, and the methodologies, of researching their own family trees.

“I believe strongly that every Black family should document its history,” Snyder says. “The Black history my generation learned in school was a single story—that Black people were enslaved in the south, there was a Civil War to free the slaves, and in the 1900’s Black people left the south and went north to find work—end of story.” The truth, she says, is much more complex. “The people I meet during book signings often share amazing anecdotes about their families— stories of hardship and suffering —sometimes almost too painful to bear, and uplifting accounts of family members persevering in the face of great odds. It’s important to document these stories for historians to get a fuller view of the Black experience and to inspire future generations.” Snyder will lead a workshop on family genealogy at NHM this spring, details TBA.

In “Dear Mary, Dear Luther,” which won the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society Award for Nonfiction Romance/History Focus in 2019, Snyder’s parents, Mary (née Brooks) and Luther Snyder, met in 1935. When Luther learned that Mary lived next door to his Aunt Delphine, he would visit his aunt, briefly, then spend hours sitting on the Brooks’ porch swing with Mary and her sister, Sara. For a while, Snyder notes, the sisters didn’t know which one of them was the attraction, but Luther eventually made clear it was Mary.

In 1937, as Mary was about to graduate from high school, Luther took a job in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and their correspondence began. As the pair exchanged views on friends, family, work, popular music, and the onset of World War Two, their letters reveal a blossoming love story, even as Luther later moved to New York.

Mary and Luther married in Harlem in 1941 (Luther’s 30th birthday). That summer they headed to New Haven where jobs were available at the Winchester Repeating Arms. The pair became established here, raising Jill and her brothers Roy and Dale. Eventually the entire family was employed at Yale University, in jobs ranging from campus police to research assistant in the School of Epidemiology and Public Health.

Snyder notes that the process of writing her book led to a deeper understanding of her parents’ emotional connection; both were descended from African Americans who likely escaped enslavement. Both families had also experienced acts of racism with devastating consequences. Her two grandmothers were outcasts in their respective communities—one, because she was a white woman who married an African American, the other because she was an unwed mother.

But some of the greatest revelations came while processing Luther’s letters. “He was a quiet man, who often showed his love by what he did rather, than by what he said,” she says. “I was surprised at his expressiveness, especially in his feelings for my mother.” Luther’s letter dated November 25, 1940, in which he pours out his heart to Mary, is a favorite, as are letters from Asbury Park, where he first encountered the ocean, and an entirely new world, after leaving his home in Pennsylvania. Snyder explains that she no longer views Mary and Luther as a child views her parents. She now sees their full humanity: their hopes and dreams, their disappointments.

Her most surprising discovery, Snyder says, was finding her great-great grandfather, Henry Jones’ obituary, which documented his enslavement. “I knew as a person of African descent that I had ancestors who were enslaved,” Snyder says, “But to have a name and a location (Winchester, Virginia), and to learn that he escaped, was very moving.”

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