THE BOSS LADY: Tilithia Brewington

Tilithia Brewington (King Godbold Dabney)

Tilithia Brewington is my 2nd great-aunt and she was born February 6, 1878 in Wayne County, North Carolina to Amelia Aldridge Brewington and Joshua Brewington. She was their eldest child and a few months after her twentieth birthday, she married Emanuel King. Tilithia and Emanuel had five daughters: Juanita, Elizabeth, Amelia, Marybelle, and Tilithia.

By 1910, the King family was living in Norfolk, Virginia, but the family would not stay together for long. Whatever happened, it happened fully and completely by 1920, as per the 1920 U.S. Federal Census, Tilitha was living under a new roof, 426 Queen Street in Norfolk, and had love “under new management,” with new husband, Walter Godbold.

It was at this address, 426 Queen Street, that Tilithia owned and operated her restaurant, The Strand Cafe. Aldridge family cousin, L.H., recalls her grandmother’s stories of Tilithia and visiting the Strand Cafe here.

Aunt Tilithia in 1920’s Strand Cafe advertisement in Norfolk Journal and Guide

The 1920 census lists Tilithia as “proprietor” of a restaurant and the head of her household. Walter is listed as “husband.” In the occupation column, it shows “none” for Walter:

Aunt Tilithia and second husband, Walter Godbold, in the 1920 US Census

In any case, Tilithia continued to operate her establishment, and in the 1930 census her business is described as a boarding house. She’s still at #426, the street was called Brambleton Avenue in 1930.
There are at least three boarders who are enumerated in the census, including a merchant tailor, a bellboy, and someone with no occupation. Tilithia’s a homeowner, as she was in 1920, per the census, and the home value is listed as $4,000 ($51,895.82 in 2019 dollars, according to an inflation calculator).

Mrs. Tilithia Godbold, proprietress, serving her community, courtesy of 1920’s news article in Norfolk Journal and Guide

Noticeably absent in the 1930 census was Tilitha’s second husband, Walter Godbold. It was over. In fact, according to Virginia divorce records, they had separated in January of 1926. This would have been during the high times of The Strand Cafe. Tilithia filed that Walter had deserted the marriage; however, it wasn’t until March 1963 that an absentee divorce was decreed. As it turns out, this formality was a difference without distinction, because Walter Godbold passed away in December of 1951 in North Carolina, according to records.

Perhaps wanting to invest more in her third marriage than in previous ones, the 1940 census shows that the establishment at 426 Brambleton Avenue, The Strand Cafe and boarding house, initialized by Tilithia, is headed by John C. Dabney, Tilithia’s third husband. Tilitha is listed as “wife.” There are at least nine lodgers in the household, per the census, but whatever reason, Tilithia’s income is shown as “0” for the year 1939. Mr. Dabney, who’s listed as the “head of household” and who’s occupation was noted as janitor at the Navy yard, had an income of $780 for 1939:

Tilithia and husband John C. Dabney in the 1940 US Census

Did Tilithia decrease so that her third husband, Mr. Dabney could increase? That is pure conjecture, but the bare facts speak volumes. There is a fundamental difference in how her 1940 household was run as opposed to the previous twenty plus years. She was gracious in allowing her husband to be named as head of household when that may not have technically been the case.

It would have been during the Dabney years that my mother would have occasion to see her great-aunt, Tilithia. Visiting with her father, Ira, the nephew of Tilithia, my mother recalls that Tilithia had a home filled with beautiful things. She also recalls that Tilithia was ravaged with some type of arthritic condition. I wonder if anyone who gazed upon Aunt Tilithia would ever have guessed just what a boss she’d been, on her own terms-at once, assertive and compromising.

Google Earth “visit” to Aunt Tilithia’s Lovitt Avenue in Norfolk, Virginia and the mystery of house number 1612. 1617?

It seems that the third time at marriage was the charm for Aunt Tilithia. In her November 22, 1965 Virginian-Pilot newspaper obituary, it reads:

“NORFOLK—Mrs. Tilithia Dabney of 1612 Lovitt Ave., the wife of John C. Dabney, died Sunday in a hospital.”

November 22, 1965 obituary of Aunt Tilithia, courtesy of Virginian Pilot newspaper

Aside from her family connections and reference to her being a deaconess and missionary, there is no mention of her being a business-owner.

At least two of Tilithia’s daughters went into business on their own or in partnerships with their husbands, Elizabeth (who operated a funeral home) and Juanita (whose husband operated a restaurant and grill).

The legacy of the Boss Lady endures. How many lady bosses are in your family’s history? Let’s continue the legacy. This is our shared situation.

The Genealogy Situation Room

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