Oakland Cemetery Chronicles

Photo by David Tharp

Azelee (1866–1915) Imogene (1887–1919)

Azelee Woodliff and her daughter, Imogene, died within four years of one another, both having succumbed to tuberculosis. They are buried in single graves in separate sections of Dallas’s Oakland Cemetery.

As with so many women who lived and died in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the domestic concerns of the Woodliff women left fewer records than did the more public actions of their menfolk, making it appear as though their lives were of less consequence. In fact, Azelee and Imogene offer proof that female worth often lies not in battles fought or acres amassed, but in the daily survival and success of their children.

Azelee was the great-granddaughter of Henry Williams, a North Carolinian who came to Texas in 1819 and remained as a member of Stephen F. Austin’s first colony, known as the Old Three Hundred. Williams and a partner received a land grant in excess of 4,000 acres in Matagorda County in 1824, more than two decades before Texas achieved statehood.

In 1844, Henry’s daughter, Harriet Minerva, married Pertiller Edward Lee, a Matagorda County soldier, waggoner, stockman and justice of the peace. Three years into his marriage, Lee wrote home to encourage his mother and siblings to join him in Texas, praising its beauty and calling it “healthier than any other portion of the South ever I saw.” He also let them know that he had a wife and four-month-old daughter.

Azelee’s father, Preston Pascal Sullivan

That daughter was Azelee’s mother, Mary Francis Lee, who at 21, married her first cousin, Preston Pascal Sullivan, a Union soldier and Methodist minister. One year later, the couple welcomed their first child. They called her Azelee, though the child’s full name was Celia Azelee, in honor of her paternal grandmother.

Azelee’s grandmother, Celia Ann Lee

Soon after Azelee’s birth, her parents moved from Matagorda County in south Texas to Arkansas, where Mary Francis had family. After his wife died in 1892, Preston was left with eight children under the age of 18. He remarried and started a new family, making Azelee the oldest of more than a dozen siblings and half-siblings.

Azelee was herself a wife and mother by that time. In August 1886, at 20, Azelee married Georgia-born William “Will” J. Woodliff, 25, in Lawrence County, Arkansas. Their oldest child, Imogene, was born 10 months later. She was followed by Jennie, Miller and finally, Flora May, who was delivered at home in 1898 on the Woodliff’s farm near Calamine.

Azelee lost her husband sometime between Flora’s conception and the arrival of the 1900 census taker: The document identifies Azelee as a widowed farmer raising her four children in rural Big Creek. By 1910, the family had moved to Pine Bluff, a town of about 15,000, where the two oldest girls — Imogene, 22 and Jennie, 18 — found jobs as telephone operators. Miller, 15, worked in a factory making barrel heads.

New to the Woodliff family was Imogene’s four-month-old son, Roy. In 1907, Imogene, 19, had married Jack Legrand, 30, in Sharp County, Arkansas. Roy was born in 1909. In the 1910 census, Imogene identified herself as divorced. Lifelong, both she and her son used the surname Woodliff.

In 1913, Azelee’s adult children, all single and gainfully employed, were still with her in Pine Bluff. The family worked as a team. Azelee presumably tended grandson Roy while Imogene worked as a dressmaker at McEwen’s Dry Goods. Jennie and Flora answered telephones, while Miller tried his hand at stenography.

The next year — almost a century after her great-grandfather set foot in Matagorda County and decades after her grandfather sang its praises in a letter — Azelee at last went home to Texas. She and her three daughters, all employed by the telephone company, settled in east Dallas. Miller became a typewriter salesman, a first step to ultimately owning an office machines business.

In the spring of 1915, Azelee and Imogene traveled to Colorado for what would be a three-week stay. Azelee died there August 18, from the disease that would kill her oldest child four years later. Imogene arranged for her mother’s body to be returned to Dallas and buried in Oakland Cemetery. Azelee turned 49 a few days before her death.

Photo by K. Bounds

A few months after Azelee’s death, a Dallas court appointed Miller legal guardian of his youngest sister, Flora, as well as of Imogene’s seven-year-old son. Imogene was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis in the spring of 1918 and died a year later at Woodlawn Hospital in Dallas. She was 30 years, 11 months, and nine days old. Like her mother, she is buried at Oakland Cemetery.

Photo by Virginia Paredes-Tijerina

In January 1920, Roy Allen Woodliff , age 10, was residing in a group home of some 28 boys between ages nine and 15 in Denver, Colorado. It’s unclear whether the home was an orphanage or a school. The census refers to the boys as “inmates,” and though the word can have a criminal connotation, the census commonly used it to mean those living communally outside a family.

At 18, Roy joined the Navy, serving in World War II and Korea. After 30 years of service, he taught naval science at the California Maritime Academy. Achievement in the male sphere was in Roy’s blood. Like his ancestors, he was an active and adventurous man. According to an obituary, he loved to travel, play golf, sail and cycle. He lived to be 95.

These are the accomplishments of a man who lived many years among boys and men. But Roy also excelled in the domestic sphere: He was married to the same woman for 65 years, the father of one daughter. The writer of his obituary describes him as kind and honest, a loving husband, devoted father, grandfather and a friend to all.

It’s nice to think that Roy’s first decade — during which he was nurtured by grandmother Azelee and mother Imogene — had something to do with that.

Lt. Cmdr. Roy Allen Woodliff