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THE TIES THAT UNBIND



Harlan’s early years were much like a dandelion on a windy, spring day. He was a tender weed with a strong root system. Harlan was that cheerful, little, bright yellow flower that was going to bloom into a fragile puff of seeds. Those seeds would scatter in the form of songs on the airwaves, but this story is not about those hit songs. It is a story about family roots and the ties that unbind them.


Harlan Howard was born prior to the Depression in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit, as a city, was faring better than most due to the working factories of Ford Motor Company as well as the other auto-based industries. He came of age prior to the beginning of World War II thus his life was centered in context to two major American upheavals. Upheaval proved to be a constant state of being for young Harlan, who for all practical purposes, thought of himself as an orphan, a foster boy, a loner, a motherless child, a ward of the State of Michigan. He didn’t like being a state kid, but he was one. He was a boy with a family; yet, a boy without one. His family was scattered or unbeknownst to him. His family was dysfunctional before it was the word used to describe constant chaos in the home environment.


Harlan had a mother and father, but by law, he didn’t live with them except for a brief interlude here and there. He had two full brothers, but he barely knew their names much less their whereabouts. He had aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins, half siblings, you name it, but he didn’t live with them either. Harlan lived by the seat of his worn out state-provided britches. He lived on the streets, in institutions, foster care, juvenile detention centers, state run boarding houses and privately-run boarding homes. Harlan mainly lived in his imagination. He lived where he was comfortable, in his dream-like fantasy world, where everyone had a safe home and parents who loved them.

On Harlan’s paternal side, we have Ralph Howard. He was the son, and one of seven children born to William and Canda Brown Howard. He was from good, hardy family stock. He had law enforcement in the family branches. At first glance, Ralph looked like a pretty good bet. He was 19 when he met Evelyn Steed and had a decent job in Detroit. Evelyn, on the other hand, was young. She was only 15 on that summer day, June 12, 1920, when she and Ralph wed. She thought she was getting out of a crowded house by marrying an older man with a job in a thriving city. Instead, she got an alcoholic, abusive husband with no ambition other than to secure a steady flow of cheap whisky. Ralph was only responsible for his habit of drink, that beast he had to feed. Work, children, wife and home were responsibilities he could side-line with the help of enough alcohol.

On Harlan’s maternal side of the family tree was the union of Evelyn’s parents, Perry Ellington Steed and Mary Elizabeth McIntyre. Their fifty plus years of marriage, was by all accounts, successful and fruitful as they produced fourteen children including three sets of twins. It’s paradoxical with so many brothers and sisters that Evelyn did not have any family support system that she could turn to or perhaps the lack of education played a significant role. A sixth grade education hardly prepares one for tough life lessons.


Evelyn and Ralph’s marriage quickly spiraled out of control and produced three rowdy boys in a seven year period. By Harlan’s birth in September 1927, Evelyn had had her fill of children and responsibilities. She could barely manage herself, plus she resented being the responsible parent to three ill mannered, rambunctious boys, and maybe a fourth, if you counted Ralph. Regardless, Evelyn threw in the towel and walked away from her marriage to Ralph and her three young sons in 1927.


In doing research on Harlan Howard, I am able to trace his family lineage on both of his parents back five and six generations. The Howard/Brown/Steed/McIntyre lineage has a lot of branches on the family tree in mainly three states; Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan. It is an anomaly that Harlan Howard who descended from two large American families had no one able to step up and help him or offer him a home in the early years of childhood. Times were tough in American in the early to mid 20th century. Thank goodness for social services.


Thank goodness for the kind men and mostly women who checked on Harlan regularly and routinely. Thank goodness for the goodness they saw in the troubled young state kid who was labeled high risk despite his intelligence and resilience. Thank goodness for Bertha Dressell and Elm Head Pasternacki and the many social workers who were benevolent care takers of the most at risk children in 1920’s-40’s Detroit. I have long admired you women. I applaud your kindness and am in awe of your compassion.

Respectfully written:

Melanie Smith-Howard, April 1, 2019


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