Chapter VI Arlene – A real woman of the Great Migration.

CHAPTER VI Henry and Martha Smith When I think back to the days of my youth, I remember that Aunt Martha and Uncle Henry were my role models for a good marriage. Aunt Martha was tall, slender, and very pretty with a creamy complexion. (Martha resembled her daughter Arlean as a young adult) Uncle Henry […]

via CHAPTER VI – A WOMAN OF THE GREAT MIGRATION – ARLENE – biography continues – Henry and Martha Smith (a love story) — realwomenwholivefulllives

CHAPTER V. – A WOMAN OF THE GREAT MIGRATION – ARLENE – biography continues – Birth of our first son.

CHAPTER V. – A WOMAN OF THE GREAT MIGRATION – ARLENE – biography continues – Birth of our first son.

Chapter V Birth of our First Son Small town gossip and rumors were circulating that I was pregnant when I arrived in Glen Alum.  Little did they know that Otis and I did not consummate our marriage…

Source: CHAPTER V. – A WOMAN OF THE GREAT MIGRATION – ARLENE – biography continues – Birth of our first son.

CHAPTER V. – A WOMAN OF THE GREAT MIGRATION – ARLENE – biography continues – Birth of our first son.

CHAPTER V. – A WOMAN OF THE GREAT MIGRATION – ARLENE – biography continues – Birth of our first son.

Chapter V

Birth of our First Son

Small town gossip and rumors were circulating that I was pregnant when I arrived in Glen Alum.  Little did they know that Otis and I did not consummate our marriage until after I arrived in Glen Alum.  My many sisters-in-law immediately began to ask me when I planned to have a baby.  I remember one instance when all the family was together; Molene, Burt’s wife asked me “when are you having a baby?” and I asked her ” when are you having one, since you have been married two years?”  My other sisters-in-law fell out laughing.  Molene never asked again and never gave birth to a child.  After a few months passed everyone accepted the fact that I was not pregnant when I married Otis.

In December, 1937 my first baby, Walter II, was born.  He was conceived in March and was born in December.  Mama came to stay with me to help me while I was pregnant.  I had my babies at home in those days.  I woke up on Sunday morning with pain in my back and Mama told me that was not a good sign for a pregnancy.  She sent for the Doctor to come for the delivery.  I was in labor all day.  My sisters-in-law wanted to be the first to see my baby, so they came to my home while I was in labor and camped in the kitchen.  I could hear them laughing, talking and drinking coffee while I was suffering labor pains.  Mama and Mama Susie were there to help me and that was enough people to be in our home.  I was miserable and wondered why Mama or Mama Susie did not ask them to leave.  It was impossible for me to concentrate on giving birth while they were there.  My labor pains began on Sunday morning and I did not give birth until Monday morning when the women went home to get their husbands off to work.  As soon as they left the house was quiet, and the baby came.  I was thankful the doctor stayed with me the entire time.  I was glad my sisters-in-law left and were not the first to see my baby.  (When women are in labor, we do not have kind thoughts).  I had delivered a beautiful, healthy baby boy. To my surprise Walter II had a fair complexion and auburn hair.  Mama Susie was not surprised at all.  She told me that my baby was indentical to his father, Otis at birth.

I felt at home in Glen Alum after living there for over a year and delivering my first child.  Life in Glen Alum became beautiful because I loved my husband and our baby; although there was nothing to do or any place to go other than church on Sundays.  I reconciled my self to the fact that I wanted to be anywhere my husband provided a home for me and our children.  Most days I took care of my baby, cooked dinner and waited for my huband to come home from the mines.  We had a garden so I had fresh vegetables to cook.  Otis planted corn, cabbage, string beans, tomatoes and onions in the garden.  We ate a very healthy diet that always included fresh vegetables.  Otis begged me to come outside and watch him garden.  He would say, “Arlene you don’t have to weed, water or do anything other than sit outside with me.”  I never went outside until the harvest.  Then, I was the first person picking vegetables and loving the fresh produce.

In the 1930’s before WWII a depression took place in the United States, but we did not feel the effects of it becuase we grew our own food.  Papa Starghill had male and female hogs he mated to raise pigs.  He killed a hog every winter.  He provided meat to all of the family members.  So, when Otis won a pig at the company raffle, he knew how to raise it.  We used our hog pen for the first time.  He also won a calf, but decided not to raise it, and sold it.  He was very lucky at the company raffles.  Mama Janie and Mama Susie both canned food for the winter.  They shared the canned food with me, so I never had to can anything.  They provided good food for all our families all winter.  There were peoople who worked everyday, and did not plant gardens or manage their money well who lived in poverty.  I was so proud of my husband because he knew how to save and how to grow our food and I appreciated my mother and mother-in-law who were smart women who had many accomplishments in canning, making clothing, and preserving meat.  We were blessed that we never experienced poverty or hunger.

Author: J. Keel




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!




In 1935 Mama Carter allowed me to go home to live with my family.  I was in tenth grade and happy to finally go home. I missed my parents.  The next year when I entered 11th grade and adjusted to being home, I endured one of the greatest shocks of my life.  I awoke feeling “happy-go-lucky” without a care in the world and then I was told that Mom and Dad were separating.  It was a bomb shell exploding in my mostly happy, carefree life.  I tearfully asked Mama, “What are we going to do?  Where are we going to live?”  I was heartbroken and devastated.

My parents separated in July, 1936.  They sold the furniture and all the things they owned and divided the money.  Mama and I planned a move to Bluefield, West Virginia.  Mama worked in Bluefield before the separation and thought her experience would help her find a permanent job there.  She found us a studio apartment that we rented from Mrs. Hancock a widow who owned a nice brick house on the main street in the city.  The apartment house was in the rear of her home.

Mom and Mrs. Hancock wanted me to continue my education.  I was not attending school because of the planned move and did not want to go back.  I would have completed 11th grade.  I felt like my Mom could not support me alone doing domestic work.  I didn’t have time to think about what I really wanted to do with my life.

Unbeknownst to me, my future husband, Otis saw my picture on the mantel at Aunt Jean & Uncle Buddy’s home in Glen Alum, West Virginia.  He became very interested in me through that picture and wanted to meet me.  He was acquainted with my Aunt and Uncle through his church in Glen Alum, and volunteered to drive them to Ammonite, Va. where we lived. Mama Carter shared time living with my family and their family.  Jean and Buddy came to take Mama Carter back to their home to live for a while.  Mama Carter had been with us for several months.  I went to a school social and wasn’t home when they arrived, so Otis’ plan to meet me fell through.

When I arrived home later that night Mama asked me to guess who had been there?  She told me that Jean and Buddy came to pick up Mama Carter, and the young man who drove the car wanted to meet me.  She explained that she was happy I was not home because she did not like the idea of him intruding.  I was excited and wanted to know more about the young man who drove over 100 miles through the mountains to meet me.  She tried to play it down, but did tell me that he was tall and handsome.  Soon after his visit my parents separated.

After the separation, Mom and I were on our way to Bluefield, Va. to live.  I asked Mom if we could stop by Glen Alum to see Mama Carter.  I had an urge to see my grandmother because I feared that it could be a long time before I would have an opportunity to see her again.  Mama agreed and we went to Aunt Jean & Uncle Buddy’s house where Mama Carter was staying.  This was a fateful visit because I met Otis at their home some time in August, 1936.

When we arrived in Glen Alum Otis came over to my aunt’s house to meet me.  I will never forget when he drove up in a 1935, beige, Chevy.  He was a tall, handsome, young coal miner with a beautiful tan complexion that turned bronze during the summer sun and I was very impressed with him.  I thought he was so smart, and was captivated by him.  He took me out to the restaurant for ice cream.  The girl he dated happended to be out of town, so he was free of her, but her mother made herself known to me by coming to the restaurant while we were there.  However, Otis ignored her.  He told me he lived with his parents to help his Dad care for the family.  He was the 12th child of 15 children.  His parents were old and still had children and grandchildren to raise.  They lived in a large 8 room house on a hill in Glen Alum.  His two brothers, three sisters and several nieces and nephews lived together.

Before Mom and I left for Bluefield, Otis asked me to write to him soon and let him know when he could visit me.  We did not own telephones, so we corresponded by mail.  He came to visit me the next weekend and proposed to me during that visit.  He told me about his religious convictions, and that he had prayed for God to help him find a wife.  He was to become an ordained deacon at the Baptist chuch and felt that it was time for him to marry, if he was to remain true to his religious commitment.  He hadn’t found anyone that he truly loved.  Then he told me about seeing my picture on the mantle at my Aunt’s house and a voice telling him “that is your wife”.

We liked each other immediately, so when he asked if we could go on a date; I said I wanted to see him again.  I felt that God had sent him to me at a time when I did not know which way to turn.  On our first date he said ” Arlene, you are my wife”.  I was shocked, and said I have to think about this.  He said that he was serious and wanted to marry me.  He said, ” I know you have boyfriends, but I am serious and I am not taking any chance that you may marry someone else”.

After he left I told Mama that he asked to marry me, and she did not like it.  She did not want me to leave her.  Otis came to vist the next weekend and asked Mama if he could marry me and of course she said, “NO”.  I talked to her and asked her to think about it.  I told her that this man wants to marry me and take care of me.  I told her, “I don’t know how to work”, and I reminded her that she could not take care of me working as a part-time domestic.  Otis and I made plans for our wedding during each visit.  Otis came several weekends and each time I talked to Mama and wore her down.  She finally consented, but we had plan “B”, if she had not consented, we would elope.

He had similar problems on his end.  His family was against the marriage as well.  They told him that he did not know me well enough to propose.  They did not want to insult the Campbell family whose daughter he was dating.  His girlfriend and her parents were very close friends with Otis’ parents.  She called his parents, “Mom” and “Dad”.  Although, they were not formally engaged, the families felt they would eventually marry.

It is possible my life may have been different, if my parents had not separated.  I had planned to marry a local young man, Leonard at Rolf.  He was waiting for me to come of age.  He just happened to be out-of-town driving his employer when all this occurred.  There was no way to communicate since we did not have telephone service.

 When Leonard came home it was the eve of my marriage and he heard the news that I was engaged to Otis.  He came directly to my house and while I tried to explain to Leonard why I was planning to marry someone else, Otis drove up.  My young cousin, Charles Smith ran into the kitchen shouting your boyfriend is here.  Charles was a little boy then, but until the day he died, he would tease me about saving me from getting caught with Leonard in the kitchen.  He thought it was hilarious that Leonard had to leave out the back door.  I never saw Leonard again.  However, Leonard’s cousin came to the wedding and cried throughout the ceremony and asked me afterward, “How could you do this to Leonard?”

Otis and I planned a small wedding ceremony for November 23, 1936 at my grandmother’s house in Rolf.  We met in August and were married in November.  Otis asked if I wanted a big wedding, but I said, no.  I remembered a neighbor, Lucille who was jilted by a man from Mingo County.  She planned a huge wedding and the groom did not show up.  Ironically, Otis was from Mingo County and he was aquainted with the absent groom, so he understood why I wanted to keep the wedding a secret.  No one was invited until the wedding day when Uncle Wesley went out into the neighborhood inviting people to come.  I invited only family.

Otis came up the day before the wedding and spent the night at our house.  He slept in the bedroom with Isaac, who was one year older than Otis.  They remainded good friends after the wedding.  I remember Uncle Wesley, Ollis and Pauline Gamble (our witnesses), and a few family members and friends.We had a very small wedding.  Aunt Jean and Uncle Buddy were not there even though they were responsible for our meeting.

I wore a blue dress trimmed with grey and Otis wore a blue suit.  There were no photographs because Mama and I were in such disarray after moving to Bluefield that we could not find the camera.  When I married Otis I had known him for three months.  We met in August and married in November.  I liked him a lot, but I cannot say I was in love so quicky.  The love grew with time.  We stayed married until the day he died.  We were married over 70 years.

After the wedding ceremony I stayed at home with Mama Carter, and Otis went home that night.  He had to work the next day.  He planned for me to go back with him, but allowed me to stay because my grandmother asked if I could stay with her until my birthday.  I would turn 18 years old on my birthday in December.  She talked him into letting me stay.  My grandmother, Alice Carter ran my life all of her days.  She had a little story ready for Otis.  She told him that the marriage was so quick that she needed time to get use to the idea.  He relented and said I could stay, but he would pick me up on the day after my birthday and that I better be packed and ready to leave.  Otis was swamped by my family throughout our marriage.  They have always tried to tell us what to do.  We had a little private time together and then he left.  My grandmother sent my husband away without me.  I felt disappointed, but knew he would come back for me.

Before he left home to come to our wedding, he told his family, “I’m getting married”.  They did not believe him.  His Mother, Susie said, “Who would marry you?  No one wants to marry you.” and laughed.  He drove away that morning and planned to bring back his wife, so when he drove home after the wedding his younger sister, Lilian was watching out the window.  She wanted to see if he truly had married and was bringing home a bride.  When he came in alone, they asked him jokingly, “where is your wife?”  He replied, “I have one, although she is not with me.”  Susie told him to show her the marriage license, and he did.  They were astonished and speechless.

To be continued in Chapter IV

J. Keel

Arlene – chapter II


Mama worked as a domestic to help supplement our family income, so she had to leave our family to stay at the home of her employer and take care of their family.  One of Mama’s employers asked her to bring me to work with her so I could play with her daughter who was my age.  These were white professional people who did not allow their daughter to play with the nearby white children.  This was so ironic that when I was older,  I asked Mama about it and she surmised that her employer thought it was better for her daughter to play with me because she would never considered me her social equal.  She felt the white children weren’t good enough, so she did not want any association that might lead to true friendship.  This class-ism existed along with the racism in our community.  I went with Mama to work only once because she did not want me to be used.

When Mama came home on the weekends Henry would cook breakfast, pick her up in his arms to carry her into the kitchen and prepare her plate.  He treated her like a queen.  When I became older I realized that Mama was not as in love with her husband, as he was with her, or as I thought she should have been.  Henry wanted to have babies, but she had some trepidation.  Although I was his step-daughter, Henry treated me like his blood.  Mama appeared jealous of my affection and did not want to share me with Henry.  Sometimes, Henry would take me to the movies, so we did have some father/daughter time together, but Mama wanted all my affection.

Mama and I moved to Bluefield, West Virginia so she could work.  Around 1929 when I was eleven years old we moved back to live with Henry.  He drove to Bluefield to pick us up.  We look out and saw him and Mama said that Henry look so handsome in his green suit with shirt and tie to match.  Apparently Mama and Henry had been communicating without my knowledge.  Henry told Mama about the house he had waiting for us and took us home.  He had a new job in Ammonati, Virginia.  It was a nice coal mining village.  New houses on both sides of the street because it was a new coal mine.  Henry was a coal miner now to support us, although he continued his other enterprises.  The town had paved roads and cement sidewalks.  It was a nice place and Mama like living there.

Jim Jones was the owner of the coal mine company, Pocahontas Fuel Company.  In those days before a mine opened, housing was built for the workers near the mine.  Consequently the company owned everything and provided everything depriving the workers of the opportunity for entrepreneurship.  Henry rented a house, with two bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen and pantry.  Everything was on one floor.  When we got there Henry had furnished the house with plush furniture, a couch and two chairs, and a floor model radio in the living room.  The bedrooms were furnished with comfortable furniture as well.

I had a bedroom all my own and was afraid to sleep in the room alone.  So I slept on the living room couch, outside my parent’s bedroom door.  I was a nervous wreck.  I would get in bed with them anytime I felt afraid.  I would scream “I’m scared” and one of them would come to get me.  I became a brat who did not sleep in her own bed.  If someone died I would be scared for weeks.  I slept with them until I was 13.  At thirteen I decided I wanted to sleep in my room, and hopped out of their bed and never returned.  Now I think back on my behavior and know that I would not allow my child to sleep in my bed so often.  My parents allowed me to control their bedroom.I feel as though my immature behavior may have ruined their marriage.  When I married and had babies, my husband told me “no babies in the bed at night:.  I could play with the babies in our bed, but the babies had to sleep in their own beds.

While we lived in Ammonate I attended public schools 6th-8th grades.  I was active in the school drama department.  I played many lead parts in the plays.  I attended AME Methodist Episcopal Church and sang in the youth choir.  We attended church services every Sunday.  My parents were very loving and kind and provided me a nice home, clothes and spending money.  My parents worked hard together to insure we always had financial security.

My two best friends were Edna Hairston, my pastor’s step daughter, and Annie Presells.  We went to school socials and house parties where they played big band music on the radio.  We listened to Cab Callow, Earl Hines and others and danced to their music.  Two of the big bands, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway came to our school.  The boys wanted to watch the musicians play their instruments and the girls wanted to dance.  We went to basketball games and had lots of fun being young.  Henry Hilton was my boyfriend.  He was tall, handsome, with a medium brown complexion.  I thought he was so good looking.  We went to movies and dances and I thought he would be my future husband.  We wanted to wait to come of age before getting serious, but little did I know who was coming into my life and would change it completely.

Again in ninth grade I went to stay with my grandmother at Roth and started school there that winter.  Grandmother had been very ill and needed someone to stay with her.  She was arthritic and her youngest daughter, Jean married Melvin (Buddy) Moore and moved to Glynn Alum, West Va.  Before I agreed to live with her I made her promise me that she would not die while I was there.  I had a great phobia of the dead.  I loved Mama Carter but she had to promise me.  She smiled and promised that she wold live a very long time.  I felt better about living with her and agreed to stay as long as she needed me.

In my mind I can see Mama Carter as I remember her, tall, slender, medium born complexion, middle aged woman with long dark hair.  she walked unsteadily and wasn’t able to do house work due to arthritis in her joints. Her hands were stiff and prevented her picking-up anything.  Her knees were stiff, causing much difficulty when she attempted to walk.  Over the years Mama Carter had given birth to six children: Harrison, Martha, Janie (my mother), Wesley, Jean and Isaac.  Her health had deteriorated, when I arrived to live with her, Wesley and Isaac.

Wesley was a fun uncle who taught me how to dance.  He was a really great dancer and loved to dance as much as I did.  He would put my feet on top of his and whirl me around the room.  He was so much fun and very patient with me.  I loved music so much that I would jump up from the dinner table and start dancing when one of my favorite songs played on the radio.  I confess I was pretty much allowed to do whatever I wanted to do while growing up.  However, I became a strong disciplinarian with my five children.

While living in Rolfe my friends and I walked to get the train to Norfork High School because that was the only means of transportation there.  There were two high schools in Norfolk, one for whites and one for blacks.  There were no high schools in Rolfe so we had to go to Norfork to school.  The whites rode in the white only cars and they had a car marked colored.  McDowell County sent checks for all the kids to take the train to the Norfork schools.  We were transported on the same track that transported the coal out of the mines.  Only a few people had motor cars in those days.  The only other transportation was a bus owned by Mr. Jeter a white man who allowed everyone to ride .  There was no discrimination on that bus.  If you paid your fare, you could sit in any seat available.  The bus was limited to mostly inside the coal mining area.  Our school transportation checks arrived the first of the month for the train rides for the month.  One month we decided to walk to school and keep the train fare to buy clothes.  There was no place for us to work and money was scarce due to the depression.  We went to school every day on time, but somehow the County caught on to us, and the next semester the County sent train tickets instead of checks.

As I grew older I had a serious boyfriend, Leonard Smith at Roth.  He was older and a chauffeur and handy man.  We had fun times together.  He worked for an African-American doctor who let him use the car.  On Sundays, we would go for long drives or a movie.  He planned to be my future husband.  I loved dating guys who liked to go places.  I had some great girlfriends which included my best girlfriends, Pauline Griffin, Dorothy Gamble and Frieda Satterfield.  We went to school together and had fun attending parties.




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