My great-grandfather, the longshoreman, rose from the docks to become a union officer and civic leader in Newport News, Virginia. The arc of that narrative seemed long and interesting enough, but we now know that it does not quite do this hard-working man justice. In fact, in just the first decade-and-a-half of the twentieth century, John C. Allen worked a half-dozen jobs to keep his growing family comfortably fed, clothed and sheltered. The 1900 census records John’s occupation as shipyard laborer, which is more or less consistent with received wisdom. Newport News city directories, however, capture the full range of John’s hustles over the years:
1902 — Allen Jno, eating house, Ivy Ave nr 18th. John’s church, Zion Baptist, was at 20th and Ivy, at the heart of Newport News’ East End. Presumably, John owned this small and apparently short-lived restaurant and probably lived on premises. (Fifteen years later, John’s nephew Junius Allen lived at 1752 Ivy, which is at the corner of 18th Street.)
1903 — Allen Jno C, lab h 748 21st John was probably laboring at the shipyard. 748 21st Street is the house in which my grandfather and his siblings spent their early childhood years. I need to check deeds to find out if John Sr. bought it 1902-03. My grandparents also lived here during the first five or so years of their marriage.
1910 — Allen Jno C, painter h 748 21st John is described as a shipyard painter in the 1910 census, and he seems to have worked this job at least two years.
1911 — Allen Jno C, painter h 748 21st
1912 — Allen Jno C, agt Am Ben Ins Co h 748 21st Insurance agent??? John had come an impressively long way for a man who’d been illiterate when he arrived in Newport News a dozen years earlier. American Beneficial Insurance Company was a black-owned business founded in 1902 in Richmond, Virginia, by Rev. Wesley F. Graham, a Baptist minister.
1913-14 — Allen Jno C, grocer 2206 Madison av h 2107 Marshall av Around 1913, John bought the house on Marshall Avenue in which he and his wife lived out their years, at which my parents married, and in which his daughter Julia lived and operated a beauty parlor when I was a child. The Madison Avenue grocery is a complete mystery. [Postscript, 13 April 2014: A mystery only to me, apparently. You just have to ask the right questions. After my mother read this post, she sent me a text identifying "Mama Taylor" and her husband as folks who operated a grocery that may have been her grandfather's. Post-postscript, 19 April 2014: my Uncle C. told me that (1) Mama Taylor and her husband Johnnie lived above a grocery they operated in the 1900 block of Madison Avenue; (2) Mama Taylor was close to "her Johnnie," my grandfather; (3) Mama Taylor was about his grandparents' age; (4) he wondered if Mr. Taylor and John C. Allen Sr. were related, as they had similar builds and full heads of white hair; (5) at least during my uncle's childhood, John and Agnes Allen ordered their groceries from a white-owned business in the 2100 block of Madison, not from the Taylors.]
1914-15 — Allen Jno C, clk h 2107 Marshall av Clerk? What kind of clerk?
The 1916 and 1917 city directories revert to the 1913-14 grocer entry, but when John Allen registered for the World War I draft in 1918, he reported that he worked as a laborer for Hampton Roads Stevedoring Company. The 1918 and 1919 city directories also show him as a laborer. (Had the grocery store closed? Why? Was there better money on the docks?)
The 1920 census finally recorded John’s occupation as “longshoreman on piers.” (John was 45 years old in 1920, well into middle age. Unloading ships in this era was brutal work even for young men.) Subsequent city directories label him “longshoreman” (1923), “mgr International Longshoreman’s Union” (1925), “mgr Intl Longshoreman’s Locals 844 & 946 gro” (back in the grocery business, 1927).
In the 1930 census, John worked as a longshoreman for a steamship company, but is reported as a laborer in the 1931 and 1932 directories. In 1933, he’s again a manager with the union, but the 1940 censustaker described him as a longshoreman in “frt. transport.” (Incidentally, sometime in the late 1930s, he helped found Whittaker Memorial Hospital and joined its and Crown Savings Bank’s boards of directors.)
A 1953 obituary laconically notes that John C. Allen “worked for the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. for about 10 years and then became a stevedore.” Ah, but he did so much more.
John C. Allen at his son-in-law’s in yet another role — farmer. Near Jetersville, Virginia, 1940s.