She's living history with deeply-rooted stories to tell

By Jordan Smith Published:

Mattie Elrichard Clay’s yes is her yes. She thinks the best clothes you can get are from Goodwill because they’re old and old clothes are made better. She loves classic hymns and she stocks the library at the Senior Activity Center with aged hardbacks.

Call her old-fashioned, that’s fine. She was born in 1931, so the shoe fits.

But when it comes to her heritage – the rich story of family ancestry, teeming with deep connections to the Kentucky land she’s always cherished – don’t call it outdated. Call it love.

Mattie and her husband, John, live on a Franklin County farm that’s been in the family since 1886. 

John’s ancestors were some of the first African Americans to farm in the county, and now, 126 years later, he and his wife are some of the last.

After a morning of work at the senior center library, Mattie pledged undying love for the farm in her slow, Southern rasp. 

It’s where John was born, where the two raised their children and where every member of the Clay family tree could make an honest living, even if no other employment was available.

“We still live here because it’s his land and I love him and I love his land,” Mattie said. “The land has its own spirit – it still has the spirit of our ancestors.”

“You can feel it,” John agreed. “It draws you.”

Making ends meet wasn’t always easy, Mattie recalled. She and John had to work jobs and the farm to survive.

Mattie was the librarian at Byck Elementary in Louisville for 17 years, and John worked at the local U.S. Postal Office, unable to use his degree in accounting from the University of Louisville because of racial discrimination.

John’s coworkers in the mailroom included men with doctorates and degrees in economics and history.

All the while, the pair raised tobacco on their 60 acres in Farmdale, continuing even when John retired in 1988 and Mattie in 1990.

Now, Mattie loves taking care of her small flower, herb and vegetable garden on the property and acting as the senior center’s librarian. Relatively speaking, she's got some time to rest. But hard work is her preference  it's in her blood. 

Her father, Thomas Biggerstaff, had a degree in dentistry but had to work on the railroad to make ends meet; her mother, Mattie Biggerstaff, died of pernicious anemia a few years after giving birth. 

As a cook, Thomas would travel to and from destinations aboard a train, sleep in barns on overnight trips and pick up road kill on his way home to provide food for his family. 

An infection he picked up in a stable eventually made its way to his heart and took his life in 1969, years after he had been able to establish a well-respected dental practice in Lexington.  

The work ethic that sent Thomas from Richmond to Lexington to Frankfort to Harrodsburg and back again – just trying to drum up patients – made its way into his children.

“My daddy made me work hard because he worked hard,” Mattie said with pride.

She graduated from Dunbar High School in Lexington and has a degree in education from Knoxville College and a master’s in library science from the University of Kentucky.

Recently, she’s had a stroke, a heart attack and a has developed some eyesight issues.

“But, thank God I can still read,” she said. 

Her passion for paperbacks has only served to spur on the fervency with which she and John involve themselves in the story of their land. 

They’ve done the research – they know who lived where, where they came from, how long they were alive, what they farmed and where they went.

Irish, African American and Native American are all represented.

So, do they identify with one group? 

An Irishman was John’s great-great-grandfather – the patriarch of the family. They could start at the beginning and call themselves Irish.

But, the Native American spirit is alive and well in the way the Clays respect their land. The way it speaks about their past is sacred – and very connected to their Cherokee roots.

And if you asked, they would call themselves black. Most of the Clay family would say so, too.

But don’t bother with any of the above, said Mattie. Kentuckian, just call them Kentuckians.

 

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