Business, Maternal Kin, Oral History, Other Documents, Photographs, Virginia, Vocation

Texaco liked the work.

In the summer of 2002, my uncle Charles C. Allen told me this about my grandfather John C. Allen Jr.:

[Daddy] 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.

Today I found this:

2 1 1948

The Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia), 1 February 1948.

My uncle passed away in January; I wish dearly that I’d been able to share this with him.

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The former service station at 28th and Chestnut, Newport News, 2002.

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North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin, Photographs

It is a glory to her.

My father’s mother told me:

And so Mama was working at the factory, and I used to go up there and look at her. And so that’s when I first cut my hair. I went there, and the lady was asking Mama at the table where she worked to, and she didn’t say nothing to me, and she said, “Unh, who is that child with all of that long hair?” And she took one of my plaits and held it up. I had it in three plaits. I’ll never forget it. I had one down here used to come here. Yeah, it come down to below the shoulder. Like I plait it up, and it be from there. Two plaits here and then this one down across. And I always put that one behind my ear. ‘Cause I didn’t like it parted in the middle. Seem like it just wasn’t right in the middle. So I asked Mama ‘bout cutting my hair, could I cut my hair. ‘Cause everybody: “How come you don’t cut your hair? ‘Cause you’d look pretty in a bob.” I don’t know. I just wasn’t half combing it. And it was nappy. Like I’d go to try to comb it, and knots would be in there. And then I’d get mad with it. Then I’d take the scissors and clip that little piece off.   And then all that other part would come off. And so I wondered, “Mama, could – ” “It’s your head. It’s your hair. I don’t care if you cut it off.” And so one day, a fellow stayed up there on Vick Street was a barber downtown, a colored fellow, Charlie Barnes or whatever his name is. So he passed there one day, and I asked him, “Would you cut my hair for me?” And he said, “Yeah.” Said, “You come on down to the shop.” And I said, “Where is the shop?” And he went on and tried to tell me, and then he stopped there one day, and he told me, he said, “You say you want to get your hair cut?” He said, “You got too pretty a hair to cut.” And I said, “Yeah, but I can’t half comb it.”   He said, “Well, anytime you want to come on down there, I’ll cut it for you, if it’s all right with your mama. You ask your mama?” I said, “Yeah, she allowed me to cut it.” So sho ‘nough, I went around there one Saturday morning, went down there. And so, he turned around and cut off my plaits on both sides ‘cause I had two plaits there. He cut them off, and then he put some kind of stuff on it and then somehow fluffed it all up. Awww, I thought I was something. I reckon I was ‘bout 12, 13 years old. After then I cut it off in a boyish bob.

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With the boyish bob.

She also said:

I got a plait of [Hattie’s] hair and a plait of my mama’s, Bessie’s hair, and then mine. I was looking at that the other day, and I looked at it, and I said, “Huh, it was that long?” Rudy, Rudy Farmer took that picture. ‘Cause I – He saw my hair. I was standing there with my housecoat on. I still got that thing now. And, “Goodness! I didn’t know your hair was that long!” We were staying on Reid Street. And he said, “I’d sure like to have a picture of that.” And I said, “Well, you got a Kodak?” And he said, “Yeah! You’d let me take a picture?” I said, “Yeah.” And so he went home and got it and took a picture of it. I was standing up in one and sitting down in one.

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The standing up picture.

Those plaits of my grandmother were kept in a small soft green valise with all her photographs. We visited her in Philadelphia every summer, and usually one of the first orders of business was to “see the hair.” They captivate me no less now than they did then. Perhaps even more, now that I know exactly what I’m seeing.

My grandmother’s plait, an astonishingly heavy rope measuring a full thirty inches, is essentially one of the braids shown above. Tired of the headaches brought on by carrying that weight, she cut it at the nape of her neck about 1957. It is coffee-brown with silver strands, bound at one end, as are the others, with thread.

hattie-ricks-headshot

Hair piled high, early 1950s.

There are actually two plaits from my grandmother’s mother Bessie Lee Henderson (1891-1911), most likely cut just before or at her death at age 19. The longer measures just over two feet; they are a lustrous deep brown, a shade lighter than her daughter’s and smoother to the touch.

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Bessie Henderson a la Gibson Girl.

Hattie Mae Jacobs (1895-1908) was Bessie’s first cousin, daughter of Sarah Henderson Jacobs and an unknown white man. Hattie died at age 13, and her slender, blondish-brown braid was likely cut on her deathbed, too.

The last plait is something of a mystery, but I am fairly certain that it belonged to another Henderson who died in her teens — Bessie’s mother Loudie (1874-1893), my great-great-grandmother. The tradition, then, may have started when her mother Margaret wove a narrow braid and clipped as it a memento of her youngest daughter’s short life. It measures 25″ and is dark brown with a hint of auburn.

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The plaits — Bessie’s, Hattie’s, probably Loudie’s, my grandmother Hattie’s.

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With fiancé Jonah Ricks, not long before she cut her hair.

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Hattie Henderson Ricks (1910-2001) at age 90. After years wearing it just below ear length, she let her hair grow out again in her final years.

 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.  

I Corinthians 11:15

Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved. Bottom photo by Lisa Y. Henderson.

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Agriculture, Maternal Kin, North Carolina, Oral History

He had it in his pocket.

My mother: Tell Lisa about that thing you were telling me about your step-grandfather. Mr. Hart.

My grandmother: Mm-hmm.

Mother: And what he brought you.

Grandmother: He used to always bring us something, you know. It wouldn’t be much, but it would be a little something, you know. So this night, he brought me a chick. A little live chick. And told me to raise the chick, and I did. And it was a –

Mother: Where was it, Ma? Where was it when he brought it to you?

Grandmother: He had it in his pocket. [We laugh.] He had it in his pocket. And, oh, they were called game chickens. And they got great big bodies and long necks and their heads were small. You know, they’re funny-looking, but they’re very productive. You know, they lay a lot of eggs. And he had all kinds of stuff like that. He was a lawyer, really. But he did real estate, and he farmed. But anyway, he gave me this chick, and it was a hen. And she laid eggs and everything. And so Mama sat the eggs, sat her on her own eggs, and she hatched this little group of chickens, you know. And I don’t know why it was separate from any other ‘cause Mama had chickens and all. She had chickens then, but anyway this chicken was separate from the chickens, and it was ‘round on the side of our house. And the house wasn’t, you know, where you cover the bottom of the house. It wasn’t –

Me: Oh, yeah. It was up on pillars.

Grandmother: Yeah. And right there where she was there was none, and she made a little coop for her and her chicks. They would run around, but they would come back to that thing ‘cause she was in there. And one day a dog came along and was messing with the chickens, and oh, this hen was just a-jumping up and screaming and carrying on and stuck her head out the thing, and the dog bit her head off. Lisa, I nearly died. And you know, Mama wouldn’t cook her. We wouldn’t have eaten her nohow.

Me: Did she have a name?

Grandmother: I can’t think of the hen’s name. I can’t think of it, Lisa. But I’m sure she had one.

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Game hen, courtesy http://www.ultimatefowl.com.

Interview of Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.

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Births Deaths Marriages, Maternal Kin, Oral History, Virginia

Kin to Thomas Jefferson.

My mother told me this long ago, and today she repeated it: “I don’t know where this came from, but they always used to say that Papa was kin to Thomas Jefferson.”

Thomas Jefferson’s mother was Jane Randolph Jefferson. Jane had a sister, Susannah Randolph, who married Carter Henry Harrison. Carter and Susannah had a son named Randolph Harrison, who had a son, Thomas Randolph Harrison; who had a son, William Mortimer Harrison; who had a son, Edward Cunningham Harrison.

“Papa” was John C. Allen Jr.  Papa was Edward C. Harrison’s son.  And so, as Thomas Jefferson’s first cousin five times removed, Papa was kin indeed.

I’ve always wondered if John Allen knew who his birth father was. This bit of family lore suggests that he did.

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Enslaved People, Maternal Kin, North Carolina, Oral History, Photographs

Roadtrip chronicles, no. 5: Daltonia.

I saw that big, block of a white house, but I didn’t know what I was looking at. And, really, I wasn’t even much looking at it, because my whole attention was zeroed on a small building a couple hundred feet beside and behind it. A one and-a-half story log cabin sitting on fieldstone piers, mud-chinked, with small windows in the gable ends and central front door. In pristine condition. What was this?

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I turned to P.P., who shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I don’t even want to say this,” she started, “but it’s true. It’s just so ugly.”

“Please do. Please do,” I urged.

“Well, the official story is that’s where the Daltons lived while they were building the house.”

The house — oh. This was Daltonia.

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“But that log cabin was Anse Dalton’s house.”

Wait. “Anse Dalton!? Anderson Dalton? That was — he was the father of my great-grandfather Lon W. Colvert‘s first wife, Josephine.”

“Yes, well, after the War, he was a driver for the Daltons. But in slavery …”

Yes? “In slavery, he was a — I hate to say it — he was used to breed slaves. That’s what they called this — ‘the slave farm.'”

I sat with that for a minute.

“It’s terrible,” she continued. “They thought, just like you can disposition an animal, you could breed people with certain traits. He had I-don’t-know-how-many children.”

I knew about slave breeding, of course. About the sexual coercion of both enslaved men and women, particularly in the Upper South. I’ve read slave narratives that speak of “stockmen,” but never expected to encounter one in my research. I thanked P.P. for her openness, for her willingness to share the stories that so often remain locked away from African-American descendants of enslaved people. Not long ago, I started working on a “collateral kin” post about the Daltons. I knew Josephine Dalton was born about 1878 to Anderson and Viney (or Vincey) Dalton; that her siblings included Andrew (1863), Mary Bell (1876), Millard (1880), Lizzie (1885) and Emma (1890); and that she was from the Harmony/Houstonville area. I’d stumbled upon articles about Daltonia and had conjectured that her parents had belonged to wealthy farmer John Hunter Dalton. I’d set the piece aside for a while though, because I had no specific evidence of the link beyond a shared surname. However, here was an oral history that not only placed Josephine’s father among Dalton’s slaves, but detailed the specific role he was forced to play in Daltonia’s economic and social structure.

P.P. did not know Anse Dalton, but Anse’s son Millard and her grandfather had grown up together. P.P. was reared in her grandfather’s household and vividly recalled Millard Dalton riding up to visit on his old white horse. “You can have her till I go home,” he’d tell her as he handed off the reins.

I can finish my Dalton piece now. Though I will never know the names of the children that Anderson fathered as a “stockman,” genealogical DNA testing may yet tell the tale, and I have a clearer picture of Josephine Dalton Colvert’s family and early life.

Photographs taken by Lisa Y. Henderson, February 2015.

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Oral History

How have entire lives been so reduced?

“Written records are more reliable than oral tradition, by a disconcerting margin. You might think that each generation of children, knowing their parents as well as most children do, would listen to their detailed reminiscences and relay them to the next generation. Five generations on, a voluminous oral tradition should, one might think, have survived. I remember my four grandparents clearly, but of my eight great-grandparents I know a handful of fragmentary anecdotes. One great-grandfather habitually sang a certain nonsense rhyme (which I can sing), but only while lacing his boots. Another was greedy for cream, and would knock the chess board over when losing. A third was a country doctor. That is about my limit. How have eight entire lives been so reduced? How, when the chain of informants connecting us back to the eyewitnesses seems so short, and human conversation so rich, could all those thousands of personal details that made up the lifetimes of eight human individuals be so fast forgotten?”

— Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale

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Education, Enslaved People, Land, Maternal Kin, North Carolina, Other Documents

Writing.

My grandmother tells a story:

… Jay and I were supposed to clean the house on Saturday. You know, do the vacuuming and dusting and cleaning and everything. And then I would play, and we would play, and Grandma would say, “I’m gonna tell your mama. I’m gonna write your mama and tell your mama how you act.” She said, “I can’t write her right now ‘cause I’m nervous,’ you know.” Couldn’t write a lick. [I laugh.] Couldn’t read …. I don’t think she could read or write, but I know she couldn’t write. Bless her heart. She says, “I’m gonna tell your mammy on you. You see if I don’t. And, see, if I wont so nervous, I’d write her, but I’m too nervous” – couldn’t write any more than she could fly! [Laughs.]

Martha Miller McNeely, born into slavery in 1855, may not have been able to read or write, but her children signed their names in clear, firm hands that evidence both their early education and their easy familiarity with penmanship. Their father Henry, the literate son of a slaveowner, may have taught them rudiments, but they likely attended one of the small country schools that dotted rural Rowan County. (My grandmother said that her mother Carrie finished seventh grade and was supposed to have gone on to high school at Livingstone College, but the family used her school money to pay for an appendectomy for one of her sisters.) The document below is found in the estate file of Henry’s half-brother, Julius McNeely, who, unlike Henry, was not taught to read during slavery. Julius died without a wife or children, and Henry’s offspring were his sole legal heirs.

Power of attorney

Signatures are often-overlooked scraps of information that yield not only obvious clues about literacy, but also subtleties like depth and quality of education and preferred names, spellings and pronunciations. They are also, in original documents, tangible traces of our forebears’ corporality — evidence that that they were once here.

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 Interview of Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved. File of Jule McNeely, Rowan County, North Carolina Estate Files 1663-1979, https://familysearch.org. Original, North Carolina State Archives.

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