For the better part of the 20th century, the Occomy family called 85 John Street their home. Walter Calvert Occomy and Nellie White Occomy, noted humanitarians and members of the city’s Black churches, purchased the house in 1914 and it was a hub of academic and civic pursuits. Looking back at the lives of the Occomys’ three daughters gives us some sense of a family whose activities shaped the past in ways that resonate in the present.
Ruth Occomy (1891-1945) came first. Born in 1891, she graduated from Hope High School and assisted at the Providence Shelter for Colored Children, where she decided to enter nursing. The Lincoln School for Nurses in the Bronx—at the time one of the few training schools that admitted Black students—initially rejected her application, citing her small stature. Known for her strong personality, Ruth persisted in gaining an acceptance, completed her degree in 1921, and followed up with a year of courses at Columbia University Teachers’ College.
While Ruth studied nursing, her younger sisters, Katherine (1893-1980) and Nell (1897-1953), attended Hope High School. In 1910, Katherine and her husband Lawrence welcomed a son. After a few years, Katherine moved to New York City where she worked as a maid and presumably pursued her career as a dancer. In 1919, the youngest Occomy sister, Nell, graduated with a teaching degree from the State Normal School (now Rhode Island College). Because of discriminatory hiring practices in Providence public schools she moved to Harlem to seek work.
Nell flourished in New York City. She taught junior high and, like Ruth, enrolled in a post-graduate program at the Teachers’ College. In the 1930s, she honed her talents as an arts and culture writer, weighing in on debates of national importance like birth control, writing profiles of Black playwrights, and working as editor-in-chief of The Krinon, magazine of Phi Delta Kappa, a Black sorority founded in 1921 in New Jersey.
Ruth’s profession took her further from home. After a 1927 send-off that included lectures and a chorus of 200 men at Olney Street Baptist Church, Ruth sailed to London to study tropical diseases with Dr. Pauline E. Dinkins. The two then departed for Monrovia, Liberia, where Ruth worked as a missionary nurse for several years. Even when seriously ill with malaria, Ruth was not ready to abandon her post, explaining in a letter to her parents that the hospital had noticeably improved the health of a community living in the “most humble of circumstances.”
Regardless of where their careers took them, the Occomy women felt the pull of home. Nell returned to 85 John Street with her husband Leslie E. Becker for the birth of their first child. She enjoyed friendships with Providence artists, including Nancy Elizabeth Prophet. Ruth returned to the Occomy home in the 1930s to stay. She practiced nursing until suffering from an illness that ended her life in 1945. Katherine came home in the 1930s and lived at 85 John Street for the next five decades. She worked as a palm reader and raised her son, while living at home with mom, dad, brothers, grandchildren, and a handful of family friends. Katherine’s activities garnered less publicity than her sisters’, but even so we know something significant about her. She fulfilled her mother’s desires for an enduring family legacy through 85 John Street:
“I give and devise to my daughter Ruth E. Occomy for and during her natural life the real estate situated at #85 John Street, then to the survivors of my children and their heirs [to] forever share and share alike” - Nellie White Occomy, 1941