December 14, 1936, the day after my 18th birthday Otis came for me and I was ready to leave with him. Everybody in town was waiting for him to come for me. Uncle Wesley was so proud that I had married a fine young man that he told everyone in town that Otis was coming to take Arlene to his home. Our family and neighbors watched out their windows as we left on our journey from Roth to Glen Alum, West Virginia which was to become my new home.
Glen Alum hollow was a small coal mining village that was in the hills of Mingo County. The actual town was Williamson. Houses were along the road side leading to the coal mines. There was a large company store, post office, restaurant, and there was one small theater. I hated that place because there wasn’t much social activity and I was accustomed to parties and school socials. After I had been there a while I told Otis that I did not like this part of the world, but I loved him. We were so far up into the mountains that I could not pickup any of the radio stations I listened to at home. The only stations we could pick up played country music and I wanted to hear jazz.
When we arrived in Glen Alum I was so nervous that I was almost shaking. Everyone was there to meet me. I could see people peeking out their windows. Mama Susie, Kitty, her two girls, Jr. Poole, J.C., Richard Lee and Papa Starghill were all standing near the door when we walked in. They welcomed me into the family, but they were a little suspicious of me because I was the “big city” girl who had stolen their son’s heart. The Starghill family had a large two story, eight room house with bedrooms on the second floor. They had a guest room that was always ready for visiting ministers who came to preach at their church. This guest room became ours. The room was very nice. Kitty, the oldest sister kept the house spotless. We stayed with Otis’ family for three weeks and then moved into our home. Otis rented a three room house close by. He told me he paid for furniture for our house and asked me to go to the company store and pick out what I wanted. I was so blessed to move into our newly decorated home and start our life together.
Upon my arrival at Otis’ home, I was overwhelmed with the height of the women in my new family. I felt I had moved to the land of the beautiful Amazons. Almost all of the women were at or near 6 feet tall. My father-in-law and I were the two short people in the family. Although Papa Starghill was short he was so regale that he walked tall. It was over powering for me. I was in awe when I walked into my husband’s family home and saw my new family.
At eighteen-years-old I was 4’11” and weighed under 100 lbs. I have a dark brown complexion and long thick black hair that I wore wavy and brushed to one side. I was considered very pretty and had no lack of confidence. I was outspoken and had a very strong will to do what I thought was important. I had to learn to live with my husband’s family. One important thing my new husband and I had in common that helped to create a strong bond between us was the desire to improve our lives and not to get stuck living in a coal mining town forever. We both had the same dream of one day living in Detroit, Michigan, making good wages, and living in a beautiful house where we could raise our children. I read in the newspapers about the jobs in Detroit, and ironically we both wanted to live there some day.
There was Mama Susie, Otis’ mother who was 6 feet tall and raw boned, mulatto with silky hair which hung to the middle of her back. She had grey eyes, and always wore a scarf on her head. She was very pretty but looked older than her years because she wore long cotton print dresses that reached her ankles. She was a wonderful seamstress who made her own clothes both dresses and suits out of cotton prints, but she was a timid, bashful woman, and talked very little. I learned to love her and appreciate her struggles which caused her to be sickly and weak after bearing 15 children. Two of her children passed away and her first-born son, Jack Weaver who was born before her marriage to Walter, ran away to pass for white and was never seen or heard from again. She had a heavy heart.
Papa Starghill (Walter I) was a warm, friendly and studious man. He was short, medium built, with dark, almost black skin. His straight black hair was cut close to his head. He was a minister for the Mt Zion Baptist Church in Glen Alum. He was immaculately dressed and a man with great presence. He had farmed in Georgia before moving to West Virginia.
In the late 1920’s Papa Starghill had a cotton farm in Covington, Georgia where they lived in a stately house with a bunk house in back to house 30 farm hands that worked for him in season. He had stables and a corral for 25 mules to help harvest his crop. He was able to provide a good life for his wife and children. He taught his boys the business of farming and sent his girls to school so they could have a good education. He did not believe in educating boys for anything other than farming, so he prepared them to farm the land and expected a bright future. Around 1932 the boll weevil infestation ruined his cotton crop and his stubborn refusal to change his crop after three years of infestation caused him to lose his savings and his farm. He was forced to leave his family and go work in Oklahoma as a ranch hand to support them. He sent money back to Susie and the children. To keep his family together he found work as a coal miner and and later trained his sons to work in the mines. Coal mining was the only work available to them at that time, so they followed him into the mines.
Coal was called black diamonds because it is black and had a sheen like a diamond and was just as valuable. There were million dollar mines. Factories in the Northern big cities were fueled by coal energy. When Papa learned that he could make a living working in the coal mines and housing would be provided for workers’ families he found work and moved his family from Covington, Georgia to Kentucky where the mines were located. When the work slowed down in Kentucky he moved to Glen Alum and sent for his family to join him there. His adult married daughter, Georgia and her husband, Bob Monroe moved to Glen Alum first, and told Papa about the new tunnel mine an that there was housing and opportunity to work. He preferred to work in tunnel mines. Papa felt that the shaft mines were too dangerous, so he was grateful to find work that was fairly safe to support his family and allowed him to keep his family together.
When Papa arrived in Gen Alum he rented a large house on a hill. His son’s houses surrounded his home. Burt, the oldest son and his wife, Molene lived in a house on the left side of Papa, and my husband and I lived on the right side. Bob and Georgia lived below us. The rest of the family lived in the big house with Papa and Mama Susie. The pay was fair, and the company treated the miners humanely, so they settled in as a coal mining family.
Author: J. Keel
Chapter 5 coming soon!