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Jessie Birtha

February 23, 2022

Obituary

Jessie Dixon Moore Birtha was born on February 5, 1920, in Norfolk, Virginia, to Aaron Alexander Moore, a tailor, and Feddie Adele Moore, a teacher. Jessie and her older sister, Alfrieda Moore, spent much of their time at her father’s tailor shop. When not at the shop, Jessie could be found across the street at a one room public library open to black patrons. Love of family and love of learning became Jessie’s backbone from an early age.

A precocious child, Jessie learned to read before the age of 5. Her enthusiasm for education quickly blossomed. She would go on to graduate from Norfolk’s Booker T. Washington High School in 1936. Following the example of her father, she graduated from Hampton Institute (now University) in 1940. It was at Hampton that she met Herbert Marshall Birtha, her future husband and love of her life.

After college, Jessie pursued teaching. Her first position was at the historic Penn School on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, the first school for formerly enslaved Africans, established in 1862.  Being immersed in the insular island community enhanced her awareness of African American culture and history, a focus that she carried throughout her career.

During the beginning of her teaching years, Jessie and Herbert were separated by World War II. The pair shared countless loving letters throughout the war. She recalled how her mother did not believe the relationship would survive the war, encouraging her to entertain other suiters. Jessie, however, was not deterred. The couple reunited after the war and married on November 6, 1945 – a marriage that lasted 65 years. Jessie cared for Herbert through health, sickness, and his eventual battle with Alzheimer’s, until his death in February 2011. Jessie would pass almost exactly 11 years later.

The newlyweds settled in Hampton, Virginia. After two daughters, Rachel and Rebecca, the family relocated to Salisbury, Maryland. As part of the Great Migration northward, eventually the family of four would settle in the Germantown area of Philadelphia in 1952 where there were opportunities for better jobs and schools.

The family moved to their final home in West Mount Airy in 1964, where Jessie would remain for the rest of her life. As a mother, she would enrich her girls constantly, from fashioning paper dolls for them to play with to reading them Langston Hughes. Recorded classical and jazz music alternated with singing Spirituals and American folk songs in the Birtha home, often with Jessie at the piano or on the harmonica. Foremost, she instilled in her children the love of learning, language, and literature that would become central to their lives as well.

She played a vital role in co-founding and leading Brownie Scout Troop 1058 at Grace Baptist Church of Germantown. She had joined Grace Church in the 1950s and attended for the duration of her life. Jessie and Herbert produced the Grace Beacon for years. As an outgrowth of her work on the committee addressing homeless issues, she wrote a play, “Home Is Where the House Is.” The play ran twice at Grace Baptist Church, with Herbert playing the lead role in the first run. Commitment and connection to the church was always central to Jessie and Herbert’s lives.

As a college student, Jessie had longed to be a librarian; however, her dreams were halted once Hampton’s library science program closed. But she was finally able to go to library school at Drexel Institute (now University) through a work-study program with the Free Library of Philadelphia. She understood the significance of being one of the city’s first black librarians and took seriously her responsibility to spread her love of reading to those around her.

Serving in several of the library’s branches, she eventually held the position of both Children’s Librarian and Branch Head at the Nicetown Tioga Library at Broad and Erie. Her daughters witnessed her dedication to being both a mother and a career woman, inspiring them to later do the same.

Jessie’s love of literature extended far beyond libraries and books. Jessie took to the pen herself throughout her life, writing journals, a prolific amount of poetry and an unpublished 450-page memoir, “Don’t Knock the Bridge.” Several of her works have been anthologized in publications, including in The Black American in Books for Children. Jessie also was selected for the committee for the 1975 John Newberry Award, the highest US award in Children’s literature. With Jessie integrating the panel, Virginia Hamilton became the first black author to win the award in that same year.

Jessie’s love of literature spanned far into her retirement years. When not traveling the globe and participating in senior activities at the Center in the Park with Herbert, she would continue to write, remaining part of the Lovett Library writing group until the end. Her personality ensured that she was never without friends and companions. She would listen carefully, judiciously, and impart her advice in a courteous yet wise and unabashed manner.

Even in her final days, she dazzled the members of her hospital team with stories and lent an ear to those needing advice. Calls from her family and friends never stopped pouring in, with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren regularly convening for a family-wide phone call on Thursday evenings – always scheduled after she had seen her favorite TV news show. Her great-grandchildren would eagerly look forward to visits with her, playing with a toy stove that Jessie had played with as a child. Her warm and generous spirit will be carried on through the next generation –as she joins her beloved Herbert in heaven.

She is survived by daughters Rachel Roxanne Birtha Eitches (Edward Eitches), Rebecca Lucille Birtha (Nancy Kehoe-Troilo); grandchildren Etan Eitches (Lisa), Eliana Rae Eitches, Naomi Eitches, Elyse Eitches (José Portillo), Tasha Birtha, and Justin Kehoe-Troilo; great grandchildren Ajani Mateo Portillo-Eitches, Anaya Sophia Portillo-Eitches, and Itai Jesse Eitches; sister-in-law Lucille Hite and Goddaughter Leni Uddyback-Fortson; nephews, nieces, grand nephews, a grandniece, cousins, and many, many friends.

 

 

 

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Services

Viewing
Friday
March 11, 2022

9:00 AM to 11:00 AM
Grace Baptist Church of Germantown
25 W Johnson Street
Philadelphia, PA 19144

Funeral Service
Friday
March 11, 2022

11:00 AM
Grace Baptist Church of Germantown
25 W Johnson Street
Philadelphia, PA 19144

Interment following funeral service
Friday
March 11, 2022

Ivy Hill Cemetery
1201 Easton Road
Philadelphia, PA 19150

Donations

Tree House
1430 W SUSQUEHANNA AVE, Philadelphia PA 19121
Tel: 1-215-236-1760
Web: https://www.treehousebooks.org

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