Fennie May Williams, 57, changed her name to Najeeulluh Maydun in the
1970’s, when she converted to Islam.
You would think ”that if you change your name then you become anew, but
that is not true.” she said recently at the offices of the Brooklyn Bureau
of Community Service, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York
Times Neediest Cases Fund.
”It didn’t take away anything,” she said. Her problems and her past had
dogged her before the name change. And they were still with her.
Dressed in a long jean skirt and pink button-down shirt, with her hair
wrapped in a purple scarf, Ms. Maydun was just finishing her day’s classes
at the Pride program at the bureau’s center on Chapel Street. She travels
there every weekday to improve her reading and writing and learn
secretarial skills. ”I know that I won’t be able to make it unless I get
the education that I really need,” she said.
”What I really want is a job, a good paying job, to get off public
assistance,” she said. But at her age, without a high school education and
in fragile health (she has diabetes, glaucoma and circulatory problems), it
is not easy to make up for lost years.
Growing up in South Carolina in the 1950’s, her options seemed limited from
the start. Getting an education simply wasn’t allowed, she said. The way
she understood it as a child, her family was ”given” from one farm to
another; now, she said, she knows that they were sold from owner to owner
as farm laborers.
At one 25-acre plantation, her family lived in a ragged two-bedroom home.
The 13 children slept side by side on handmade mattresses: pine straw
stuffed between pieces of cloth.
She worked from sunrise to sunset. She tended to tobacco plants, cleaned
the plantation home, cooked for the owners, and picked cotton — 200 pounds
a day, by her estimate. ”Sometimes the cotton rows looked like they ran to
the end of earth, and the sun would come down into your face,” she said.
She attributes her glaucoma to those long days toiling in the hot southern