Land, North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin

Uncle Lucian’s house.

My grandmother has been gone more than 13 years, and there are still days that I think, “Gahh! Mother Dear would be so tickled to hear this!” Yesterday was one of them.

After my Carter collateral kin post last week, my cousin C.J. posted the photos of the Carter brothers on her Facebook page. (Her great-grandfather was Milford Carter Sr.) Her grandfather’s first cousin D.C. responded, mentioning that he is a son of Johnnie Carter. I pounced. After a couple of email exchanges last week, I called D.C. yesterday. I clarified for him who my grandmother was and what her relationship was to Lucian Henderson. Not only did D.C. know who Uncle Lucian and Aunt Susie were, he was born in their house! Presumably the Carters moved in after Lucian’s death in 1934, but Johnnie and his wife Atha cared for both Lucian and Susie in their declining years. Susie died around 1940, and four years later the family sold the house and moved a few miles southeast to Clinton. The house eventually burned down, but was rebuilt in the same spot in essentially the same form. My grandmother had loved visiting her great-uncle Lucian’s house, and her warm memories of her time there inspired the name of this blog.

Several years ago, the late Mae Brewington Marks of Dudley sent me a photo of a house near the intersection of Sleepy Creek Road and Emmaus Church Road that she believed to have been Lucian Henderson’s. (Where is that picture???) She was right. I’d been a little skeptical because it looks too new to have been Lucian and Susie Henderson’s home. D.C.’s explanation and confirmation made my day.

Births Deaths Marriages, Maternal Kin, Oral History, Photographs, Virginia, Vocation

He designed every house he built.

About ten years ago, when we were all in Newport News for a family reunion, I asked my uncle to take us on a tour of houses our grandfather built.


He designed every house he built. And there were a couple he designed that he didn’t build. I’ll show you those, too. One of them, he really hated to lose. That was a, Dr. Woodard was a dentist. I mean, a pharmacist. And so, he – that was one of the lots that Daddy had sold, and so I think Daddy was a little ticked with the guy. He sold him the lot and designed the house, then the man went to another contractor. But you know what was interesting at that time? There were about five or six good general contractors around, you know, that did small buildings. And Daddy was one of those, but these guys were pretty competitive. They had a decent market. Daddy built an average of about a house a year, I guess. The war cut him off, you know. He had to get reestablished after the war. But he had a friend named Buster Reynolds. And Buster Reynolds was reputed to have made his money in the numbers, and so when the numbers were getting real hot and heavy, when it was reputed that the Mafia was trying to take the numbers over, Buster got out. And he built this service station, and he had a Texaco franchise, and he had Daddy to build the station. And Texaco liked the work so much that Daddy built two more stations for Texaco. And both of the stations that were built in the black community are still up. They’re not gas stations anymore, but the buildings are still up. And the one that was built Overtown is gone. But even the station that was in the white community Texaco had him to build that one, too. And with the money Daddy bought – I’ll never forget – he bought an International truck, great big truck, to carry his materials around.

Texaco 2


… the churches that he used to do expansions and modernizations on all the time, but I know one of ‘em is gone, and I don’t know where the other one is. I know the one – he used to take me down to that one from time to time. But I don’t know where they are now. The thing he did throughout all of these communities – he had a strong maintenance clientele, but Daddy was a – you see these cabinet shops now? Well, Daddy used to make, put in new cabinet work in people’s kitchens for them. And, so, that’s what carried him through the winter. ‘Cause he would also do designs and drawings for other contractors. Like Jimmy’s daddy. Mr. Scott. He used to do most of their design work, he’d sit there and draw those drawings for them. But that’s what got him through the winter. That and he used to do a lot of maintenance. Put in new windows, cabinet work, doors. Put little small additions to houses. But that was generally for a white clientele. He used to do a lot of work for the shipyard management people up in North Huntington Heights.


This house Daddy was building when he died. He was building it for a family named Kramer. A white family. See the one with the little entrance and the white wrought iron?

House 1

1316 – 22nd Street


The 800 block of Hampton Avenue, this is where Daddy owned those lots. Slow down … this house right here. This tan house. 855. This house was built at that time for the Tynes family, which owned a very nice house and property up in the next block.

Hampton Avenue 1

855 Hampton Avenue

But the Tynes family ran into some – I guess it was financial difficulty. Anyway, that house was sold to Wendell Walker, who was a lawyer and a part of the Walker family. You know his father was a lawyer, who was William. And his son William jr. is Howard Walker’s father, who was my classmate. And then there were, like, four sons and a daughter, I believe it was. Three of ‘em were lawyers, and then Wendell and Phillip were lawyers. The son William was an engineer, but when he came back home, he was manager of Aberdeen. He went into real estate and insurance. Daddy sold him the lot, designed and built the house.


Hampton Avenue 3.1

819 Hampton Avenue

Let me tell you about this house right here. This house was the undoing. This house was built for his friend Leroy Ridley. And there were, I think, four lots – four or three lots. Leroy Ridley was the son of John Ridley, who founded Crown Savings Bank with Pa Pa Allen. Okay? But he became – one of the Ridley sons, he became the one who took over the bank. And the man turned out to be not the most moral and forthright businessman. He talked into Daddy into $5000 worth of extras in this house, which was almost the same size as the house. And then when it came time to close the deal, he refused to pay Daddy because he said Daddy had not duly executed the extensions in the contract to do that. And not only that – Daddy had borrowed money from his bank. The long and short of the story is the last of that was paid when Pa Pa’s estate was executed [in 1961, 13 years after John Allen’s death.] We told Mother to pay that loan off ‘cause she still owed a thousand dollars. But this house turned out to be what kept Daddy from building Mama her house. ‘Cause he was gon build it on another lot. See? But when he got caught in that deal, then he couldn’t. So then he had to sell off all the lots that he had for houses, okay? So that’s when he sold this lot – the Woodard lot. And designed that house for Dr. Woodard.

Me: This incredible – this house right here?

My uncle: Yes. That’s Daddy’s design.

My cousin, J: Wow!

Me: Sheeze. Oh, my God.

He did not do it. He designed it. Okay. See, this was an extra lot. This is another one of the large lots he had. You see what I’m saying? And this house was across the street, that was his pride and joy. That was a Cape Cod. But I’m saying, the Ridley house was a fantastic house. I mean, you know, the design was great, but anyway, so this was done for his buddy Picott. Mr. Picott. He was president — well, he wasn’t president – yes, well, he was, of Virginia Education Association, which was the black unit of the National Education Association. He was one of the guys who lost their jobs over the equal rights fight with Mr. Palmer for black teachers to have equal pay. And he left and moved to Richmond, and that’s when he sold his house. But that was a beautiful home. Solid oak floors, cabinetry that Daddy built. All of that, that house. But that’s the thing that – she won’t talk about it too much – but that’s the thing that really embittered Mother, was when she lost the opportunity to build her house because of that deal.

Hampton Avenue 2

816 Hampton Avenue


2107 Marshall Ave

2107 Marshall Avenue, my great-grandparents’ house.

You know, he did all that for his father. He put the addition – designed that addition to go on the back. Right behind the bathroom window. Okay, that’s where the bathroom was. And then Daddy designed and started that addition for the house. And that’s when he went to the Army. And they put that addition up there so – so the bottom addition was the barbershop, remember? You remember the beauty shop? Yeah, the bottom addition was the beauty shop, and the upper addition was the bedroom for Aunt Nita for the war. Pa Pa did that for his children.


House 3

3105 [I didn’t note the street name]

On the corner here, similar to the Kramer house. Designed it and built it. That was done for Dr. Fultz, who was a dentist. Actually, he was the school dentist. He built 3015. This at that time was a predominantly white neighborhood. Yeah, that’s the house. See that little carpentry he did? Those little arched doorways? That’s the original wood. That’s Daddy’s work.


Remembering John Christopher Allen, Jr., carpenter, draftsman, builder, contractor, father of five, grandfather of eight, great-grandfather of six, born 107 years ago today.


Interview by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved. Photos taken by Lisa Y. Henderson, 2002.

Land, North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin, Photographs

Where we lived: 303 Elba Street.


The windows were broken and the front door gaped wide open, and I stood in the middle of Elba Street, uncomprehending. An aged neighbor paused on her porch, and I marched over: “Good morning. ’Scuse me. How long has next door been empty?” “Andrews & Andrews …,” she began, and – wait, she think I want to RENT? – I up my decibels, “No, how long has it been empty?” She shrugged, “A good while. They might gon demolish it.” … Demolish?

This was my grandmother’s house. Sort of. Her great-aunt and -uncle — Sarah and Jesse Jacobs — had bought it nearly new in 1908, and my grandmother arrived as an infant three years later when her mother died. She grew up on Elba Street, and her children were – literally – born there, and there they remained until 1938, when Mama Sarah died, and several truths were revealed. One, in 1923, Papa and Mama Sarah had sold the house to his children. Second, contrary to promise and belief, my grandmother never been formally adopted. Papa’s daughters ruthlessly drove this last point home by ordering her and her children out. My father was a small boy, but remembers moving – his hat blew off as he rode away in the back of a truck. Despite the eviction, my grandmother was not done with Elba. One of Papa’s sons sold her his share in exchange for a train ticket back to New York, and the sisters were forced to pay her from the house’s sale.

This place has been gone from my family for 75 years, and yet, for me, it’s Mother Dear’s house. The stories I recorded cemented its place in my imagination – the mantel clock that struck as she rallied from pneumonia, the chiggers that had to be scalded from the walls, the little stable for Papa’s horse, the hoodoo’d peach tree….

“I’ve always wanted to see inside,” I tell the neighbor. “I’m going in.” A glance up and down to check for unwanted notice, a halloo at the threshold, and I stepped through into a small center hall, which surprised me.  To either side, multi-function front rooms and, behind, a third room, a bath, and a kitchen under a shed roof, all strewn with the detritus of squatters. Of these last three rooms, only the kitchen was there in my grandmother’s day, and the only obviously original features were the mantels in the front rooms and the heart-pine floors under worn linoleum.

Soon this house will go the way of so much of abandoned east Wilson, which has never recovered from the ravages of the crack epidemic that scoured the neighborhood early and hard. There was nothing much left at 303 Elba to speak to me, but I’m glad I peeked in.  It will give shape to my listening to my grandmother’s words, and that’s a gift.

Land, Maternal Kin, Oral History, Photographs, Virginia

Where we lived: 748-21st Street.

My uncle: That’s where I was born and where John was born.

Me: At 748?

My uncle: That’s it.

My cousin: This crib right here?

My uncle: That’s where I was born

Me: [Laughing.] Wow.


Tax records show that this tiny house — less than 800 square feet — was built around 1910. It now has two bedrooms and one bath, but the bath was undoubtedly a late addition. John C. Allen may have been the first to move a family into the dwelling; the Allens are shown there in the 1910 census of Newport News. John, who worked as a shipyard painter, reported that he owned the house subject to mortgage.


By 1920, the Allens had moved just around the corner to 2107 Marshall Avenue, the house I knew in childhood as my great-aunt Julia‘s. John Allen kept 748 and rented it out until his middle son married. John C. Allen Jr. and his wife Margaret Colvert Allen lived there until their fourth child, my mother, was two weeks old.

My grandmother: I lived I don’t know how many years in Mr. Allen’s house without any electricity. And just as soon as I moved out –

Me: He had it wired?

My grandmother: He had it wired.  And one of the neighbors said she went out there in the street and laid him out.  Said, that child over there with those children, washing and ironing and working herself to death, and you wait until she leaves out of your house, your son’s house?  She said she laid him out.


Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson, 2002; interviews of C. Allen and Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.

Free People of Color, Land, North Carolina, Photographs

Napoleon Hagans’ house.


Around the time he testified before the US Senate, Napoleon Hagans had this house built below the south bank of Aycock Swamp, near Fremont in northern Wayne County. It remains occupied and is featured in J. Daniel Pezzoni and Penne Smith’s Glimpses of Wayne County, North Carolina: An Architectural History (1998):

“The house, a single-pile center-hall-plan dwelling, has retained much of its charming original hip-roofed front porch, now supported by replacement square columns. Windows are surmounted by moulded peaked arch surrounds. … One original single-shouldered exterior end chimney was plastered; the other was replaced by a concrete-block flue. …”

A stone monument marking the graves of Napoleon and his wife Apsilla Ward Hagans stands in a cornfield about one hundred yards west of the house.

Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, December 2010.