Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Uncle Russ

My dad's uncle Russ was quite easily a favorite for Rich and me. Russ married a wonderful women named Nell after knowing each other just a few weeks. He was headed off to fight in World War II and, like so many others, they decided to wed before he left. Their marriage lasted for over 50 years, until his death in 1995. We have some very precious pictures of Nell holding our baby David during Russ's final days in the hospital.

Russ was the family historian. Several years before he passed away I was doing some research on our family and he was a fount of knowledge. He even requested that we videotape his memories so that when he died there would be a record. It was funny that at the time we recorded this many in the family weren't interested in obtaining a copy. It was only after his death that we got several requests for the video. It's such a shame that we don't value those around us as much during their lives as we do after we can no longer show them how much we care.

Aunt Nell holding David
Russ took us to the coal mining town, Buggero, that my grandfather worked at. He showed us the wooden house my grandparents raised their children in. The house was covered in vines and falling down. The house was no bigger then my living room and kitchen put together! Often Russ would stay in the house too, making it at least ten people living under the tiny roof. He showed us the creek that the kids played in during hot summers. He also told us of the incredibly cold winters with only coal to heat the house. We saw the larger brick homes that the foremen and their families lived in.

If you are not familiar with the way the coal companies ran their towns, it will amaze you. See the employees were not paid in U.S. currency. They got paid by company script—the coal company's own form of money. Employees could use this script to purchase their needs from the company store—items such as food, clothing and furniture were available there. However, if they wanted to purchase outside of the company, the script would be converted at a much lower rate. They would also have to travel since all the town was owned by the coal company. In Russ's youth coal was king and no one would imagine the towns would become virtual ghost towns within their lifetime.

Russ told us of the mining accidents were he remembered the family members waiting to see if their loved ones would be lucky and survive. But, so often more bodies were brought out then survivors. Ghost sightings were a common occurrence in the town. It was believed the ghosts were a warning that an accident was about to happen.

Even though the census shows only a handful of blacks in the area during this time, the KKK was a strong influence. Russ recalls not being allowed to sit in the back row of church because this was reserved for the KKK. He was told to never look back or stare at them. One day as he passed a house he saw switches stacked up across the front door of the house. When he got home and questioned his mother she explained he needed to stay away from the house—that this was a warning to the husband of the house. He had been out of work for several months and while capable of working had allowed his wife to work and friends help to provide for the family while he laid around all day. The KKK was warning the husband that if he didn't start taking care of his family they would take the switches after him. The next day the husband went back to work!

During the days of my father's youth the mining being done was by men going down into the mine shafts and digging for the coal. However, my husband saw his first sight of the land that they do now called strip mining. Russ was driving us around when Rich saw the large bases of mountains and the upper layers just stripped away. He wasn't sure if this was some deformity of the mountains since it was seen on several mountains.

Uncle Russ's mountain home
Russ spoke to us of his memories of the death of his grandfather (my great-great grandfather.) When Russ was still very young there was a epidemic that was sweeping the area. His grandfather went down the mountain into the holler to get his daughter to remove her from the danger. However, there had been a dispute with one of the men in town and he shot and killed the grandfather. They brought the body back up the mountain and laid him out in the living room. Russ remembered vividly the bullet wounds in the chest. I tried to research this to see what the dispute was about, but while I did obtain the court record it doesn't offer any explanation—just that the man indeed killed my great-great grandfather, was tried, convicted, and sentenced.

While these stories are not my memories, the stories that Russ told us speak to my heart. It is a part of what builds and makes each generation who they are.


Becky K. said...

Those memories are special. Knowing the history behind our families is neat.

I just finished reading Clarence Thomas' Memoir. It was a fresh reminder for me how short a time ago it was that the KKK was actively out there and how far we have come in such a short time.

Thanks for sharing this post. It was really interesting.

Becky k.

Kim said...

Becky your very right about how short a time it has been. What I found very interesting in Russ' story was that I had only been taught they only terrorized blacks when in fact they were active in white only communities too.