52 Ancestors, Week 1: Mary Bartocci

Yesterday I posted about the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks project, run by genealogist Amy Johnson Crow. Each week I’ll be responding to a prompt designed to encourage exploration of someone in my family tree.

Today’s theme asks for a discussion of an ancestor I would love to meet. I want to write about my mother’s maternal grandmother, Mary Bartocci Tomassoni Citorelli.

This 1922 photo shows my great-grandmother Mary Bartocci Tomassoni and her children. The children’s father, Antonio Tomassoni, named the first three children after characters from his beloved Italian operas. My grandmother Norma has the spectacular bow in her hair. Romeo (nicknamed Rush) is in the sailor suit. Aida stands in front of her mother. Mary named her fourth child, born after his father’s death, Antonio, Jr.

I’ve written about indomitable Mary before. She must have been a remarkable woman; I am so proud to be descended from her. Mary was born in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, in 1895, the only one of my great-grandparents who was not born in Italy, though her parents, Felice and Angelina, were immigrants from Umbria. At the time of the 1920 census, she was a 23-year-old married woman, the mother of three small children. Her husband, Antonio Tomassoni, was a coal miner and union steward, originally from Abruzzo, east of Rome. Mary had had little or no education and could not read or write.

Life was not easy for a coal mining family in northeastern Pennsylvania. But a year later, it became much harder, when Antonio was was killed in a mine collapse.

Pregnant, and with three small children to support, Mary supported her children by taking jobs hanging wallpaper. And when the coal company denied her the worker’s compensation she and her children were entitled to after her husband’s death, Mary fought back.

Nobody in the family had known about this, but searching online for family history one day, I discovered the records of a court case in which this 26-year-old widow sued the mining company. In the 1920s in northeastern Pennsylvania, coal was king. I try to imagine how this young, uneducated mother found the courage to take on Big Coal in Tomassoni vs. Pennsylvania Coal Company.

In fact, she did it twice. In 1923, the court found in her favor and ordered the company to pay compensation. Pennsylvania Coal appealed. And in 1923, the appeals court awarded a cash payment to Mary Bartocci Tomassoni and her children.

Mary went on to live a happy life. She remarried in 1929, to John Citorelli, and had a fifth child, John Jr. And she never stopped standing up for workers. She protested for women’s rights and labor rights, and lived until 1948, long enough so that her granddaughter, my mother, still has memories of her. I wish I had known her, too.

Mary’s story is special to me, not just because of her strength and courage in the face of crushing adversity, but because the story of Mary vs. Big Coal was one of the first treasures I turned up on my own when I started researching my family.

NEXT WEEK’S THEME (Jan. 8-14): Favorite Photo

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