A Woman of the Great Migration
I represent my generation and have great humility that I lived through World War II, and actually saw a submarine launched from the shipyards of Vancouver, Washing in the 1940’s. I survived the great depression, segregation, and Jim Crow. The first man who walked on the moon was during my lifetime. I have had the pleasure to be witness to our people finally obtaining civil and voting rights. Although race relations are not perfect they are improving. I have seen the Model T and horse drawn wagons on the street and now the computerized cars and vehicles to explore space. Through all phases of my life, I can say God has blessed me and my family. I am a 96 year old woman looking back at my life to share my thoughts and experiences with my family, so they can be recorded by my daughter and shared as part of our history. I will share with you the stories my Mother, Janie Carter Millner and others told me about my early years, and then I will share my memories of my life.
Janie was the middle daughter of Alice Carter. She had an older sister, Martha who was kind, compassionate, and gentle and a younger sister, Jean who was fiery, fractious and difficult. Janie, the middle child was a hard worker, intelligent and often was mediator. Martha married Henry Smith and moved away to start her family. Janie, Jean and three brothers, Harrison, Wesley and Isaac lived with their Mother, Alice in Meadow View, Virginia.
Later, Janie moved to live with Martha and Henry who had been married for many years and had a daughter, Mae Hester. They moved to Algoma, West Virginia from Meadow View, Virginia around 1917, so they had not lived in Algoma very long before Janie came to live with them.
Harrison Carter, Janie’s oldest brother migrated from Meadow View, Virginia to Rolfe, West Virginia soon after Martha and Henry moved to Algoma. Rolfe was not very far from Algoma. Harrison invited Grandmother, Alice Carter and his younger siblings to live with him. Alice (we called her Mama Carter) invited Mama and me to come and live with her and Uncle Harrison.
It was a good move for Mama because Rolfe is where Mama met her future husband, Henry Millner. Mama was twenty years old, Henry was twenty-five and I was two years old when they met. There were many young women chasing Henry who was a very eligible bachelor. However, one woman in particular, Holly, was so very much in love with Henry and pursued him so aggressively that she hounded his door until Henry made it abundantly clear that he loved Janie and only Janie. He proposed to Janie and they were married. Henry gave me his name. He was a wonderful stepfather and made me feel like I was his own.
I was told that Mama stood a stately 5’5″, beautiful figure, dark chestnut brown soft, smooth skin. She was told by everyone that she had beautiful legs. She was articulate, worked hard and always well dressed. She loved keeping up with fashions of the day through magazines and worked hard so she and I could live well. Because she was well read and very adept socially many of my teachers believed she was college educated. Henry was tall, handsome, neat, trim and highly talented. He was a self-taught engineer, and clothing salesman. He sold suits and shoes to the local men. He measured and then ordered custom clothing for them and for himself. He supplied tailor made suits for his customers, and he was a barber that cut their hair. I guess he was a full service entrepreneur. The men did not enjoy going to town to shop because of segregation. Consequently, Henry had plenty of orders for their clothing needs. Henry was bi-racial and looked so European that he could not be identified as a black person without his birth certificate. If the situation required him to pass for white to help his family acquire food when they traveled, he would do so. He could go in the front door of a white restaurant and order food that he would take out and share with Mama and me. He received freshly cooked food, instead of going in the back door where they may or not sell to colored people, and if they did the food would be stale. He worked hard to provide for Mama and me and did all he could to make us happy.
My first memory of my childhood was in 1925 when I was seven and living in Rolfe, West Virginia with my Grandmother, Alice Carter and my Mother, Janie. Mother came to Rolfe to visit Mama Carter and to enroll me in school. Before 1925, I had been living in Tralee, West Virginian with my Mom and Dad. Traylee was an isolated rural area and did not have a good school for so called “colored” children that was in walking distance. Mother was afraid to allow me to go the the colored school because it was too far away. It would have been necessary for me to walk miles to school at the age of five. I did not go to school at all until after Mama took me to live with Grandmother and I started school at Rolfe.
Mama was happy for me to start school there. She taught me at home to read and to do arithmetic before I moved to Rolfe, so when I started school I was very advanced for Kindergarten. I could read everything in the primer, Baby Ray and answered all the questions related to the book, and could do the math. I was immediately promoted to first grade. Mama loved to read, and spent hours reading stories to me and taught me to love to go to school and love learning. When I passed to second grade the following year, the second grade teacher decided to promote me to the third grade immediately. After I adjusted to my new school, Mama went back home and I stayed on with Mama Carter and continued my education. When I moved to live with Mama Carter, Uncle Wesley, lived there with his younger sister, Jean who was 19 and 14 year old brother, Isaac. Although, Isaac was my uncle we were like brother and sister. We went to the movies together every Saturday. Rolfe had an all-black and an all-white movie theater in our neighborhood. We went to the neighborhood theater most of the time and occasionally we went downtown to a segregated theater. No one liked the downtown theater because the theater was divided in halves. White people on one side and black people on the other side. Segregation was legal in West Virginia, so the races were separated in every way possible. There were two entrances to the movie theater. Blacks entered on the left and whites entered on the right. We could see the other side that was all white, but could not sit beside a white person. The refreshment stand was in the center and was segregated. There was a window on the left to service colored people and a window on the right to service white people. There was a black ticket taker on our side. Now, I think about how silly it all was. We were in the same space; breathing the same air, but one side felt superior to the other side, so consequently we were separated by an aisle down the middle of the theater.
The Rolfe neighborhood was divided with black coal miners on a portion of the main street and many of the white coal miners on the hill. Many of the white coal miners preferred the hill because they were accustomed to living in the mountains. Middle class whites lived further down the main street from the coloreds. The white elementary school was a beautiful two story building and the black school was one story and very ordinary. There was always a difference in size and convenience. The black school was primary thru 6th grade. I do not know anything about the white school because we were not allowed to go there. There was a corner restaurant, (company owned) managed by Mr. Wade, a very stingy black man. He sold ice cream, candy and gum. Ice cream was 5 cents a cone, but he would give us the smallest dip of ice cream possible. I remember how angry we were because we felt cheated by our own. He was a great company man with little regard for fairness to his own people.
There was a playground with swings, a merry-go-round and seesaw across the street. Nanny and Grady Price would take over the playground and not let kids they did like on the playground. They would kick, curse and make kids leave. Even back then there were bullies who would make the lives of others miserable. They let me stay because they liked to come to my house to play with my toys and eat candy, and they always protected me at school. Nanny and Grady completed their chores before they could come out to play, but as soon as they came to the playground they made most of the other kids leave. Although, there were six swings they would not allow anyone else to swing. I did not like them but had to get along with them to survive. They used very foul language against the other children, and made them cry.
My Grandmother, Alice Carter ran a boarding house for single coal miners who came to work in our town. She had accommodations for three boarders. There were three beds in a large room that was shared by the boarders and she provided food and housekeeping. Aunt Jean was the cook and Mama was dish washer and housekeeper wherever we were there. Boarders paid $7.00 per week which included room and board. Most of the money was spent for food because she prepared a lunch bucket for each boarder and provided breakfast and dinner. She managed her tight budget with the income from the boarders who became her main source of income after Uncle Harrison was killed in the mine.
Uncle Harrison, moved to West Virginia in 1918 when he was hired to work in the coal mines. Over time he was promoted to brakeman although digging and loading coal was a common job that was done by “colored” men in those days. In the past the motorman and brakeman were skilled trade jobs and usually “whites” were hired for those positions. Somehow Uncle Harris gained the respect of the owners and was trusted to have the very prominent position of brakeman. He was killed in the mine shortly after he was promoted to brakeman. Many people believed that the motorman had caused his death. The motorman complained about working with a colored man, and it was rumored that the motorman was a member of the “KKK”. Consequently, when Uncle Harrison was killed there was some whispering about who may have caused his death, but nothing came of it.
After Uncle Harrison’s death Mama Carter kept the house and stayed there with her younger children. Wesley (Big Wesley), the second born son was a teenager when Harrison died but later when he came of age he went into the coal mines to work. He became a brakeman and later he was promoted to motorman for the mine and continued to work there until the mine closed in the 1940’s. During Uncle Wesley’s employment as motorman, a white guy named Mike became his brakeman. Mike was killed and Uncle Wesley brought his cold, dead body out of the mine on the coal car. There was such an uproar because the whites believed that Wesley had caused Mike’s death. Rumors were spreading that “Wesley killed Mike in the mine”. Uncle Wesley did not lose his job because the black community rallied around him. However, soon after Mike died, the colored coal miners heard rumors that the KKK was coming to their neighborhood that night to kill Wesley. They quietly spread the word for all the men to stay up all night with their guns and put the women and children to sleep on the floor. Our neighbors armed themselves quietly. They kept their plans ” hush, hush”, and quietly waited for the KKK to come, but they did not show up. Later we found out that the Company put out a warning to the white miners that anyone participating in any trouble would be fired and driven from their homes. Wesley was not prosecuted. The Company said officially that Mike’s death was an accident. I was a little girl staying with my grandmother, and can remember it was a scary night for all the little kids. I slept on the floor snuggled as close to Mama Carter as possible and cried silently throughout that night. No one slept. The next morning all the men put on their work clothes and went to work