Mary arrived 20 minutes before Martha, and to hear these identical twins tell it, they’ve tried not to be apart that long ever since their birth 94 years ago. With the approach of National Siblings Day on April 10, the two Brookdale Magnolia residents recalled lives shaped by their close relationship and shared passion for overcoming the barriers that African-Americans faced in the days of segregation.
Mary Tinsley and Martha Johnson were born in Hillsboro, Illinois to a Baptist minister and a homemaker who were not expecting twins. “Our mother was surprised when I came along after Mary,” Johnson said. From their earliest days the two girls were inseparable. “We were together so much, it was like we were glued,” said Tinsley.
The girls, along with several cousins, were the only African-American children in their hometown of about 4,000 people. Segregation had little impact on them growing up. They attended school and socialized with white children. “We all got along; we were all friends,” Johnson said. One of the few places they encountered prejudice was at the local movie theater, where blacks had to enter by the back door and sit upstairs. “Our father wouldn’t let us go there,” said Tinsley.
After graduating from high school, Tinsley passed the civil service exam and headed to Washington, D.C. by rail to start her career. When she changed trains in Cincinnati, Ohio, she fully felt segregation’s impact. “I saw big signs for the ‘colored women’s bathroom’ and the ‘colored person’s water fountain,’” she said. “There was a separate waiting room for ‘coloreds’ upstairs. They were all filthy. I had never seen anything like it before and I started to cry.” When her train to Washington was announced, a conductor directed her to a “colored person’s car.” She found herself sitting behind the engine, into which coal was being shoveled, with just a curtain as a divider. “I was wearing a white suit and by the time I arrived in Washington, it was covered in soot. I get overwhelmed even now thinking about it.”
Johnson took and passed the civil service exam a few months later and joined Tinsley in Washington. It was the start of long and successful federal careers for both women. They combined their achievements with marriage and motherhood, and today speak with pride of children, grandchildren and a great-grandchild who have served in the military, attained degrees and learned other languages.
The pair moved into Brookdale Magnolia six years ago and rapidly became involved in life at the community. Both sing in its Forever Young choir; Tinsley leads its resident ambassador program, served for three years as president of its resident council, and recently retired as manager of the community store. Amid their busy lives, their connection as twins remains strong.
“We know what each other is thinking,” Johnson said. Tinsley added: “Actually, we think for one another.”