This year marks the fifteenth year since we bought our land in the mountains of Southwest Virginia and the eighth year since we pulled up stakes in Texas and moved here to build the home of our dreams and give early retirement a shot.
Our land fronts on a county road that bisects a historic community founded about 140 years ago by the emancipated slave families from a nearby plantation (now a productive, agricultural research operation of Virginia Tech). The residents of our community are, in large part, descendants of those original families. Many moved away as young adults to seek better jobs in large metropolitan areas, and many returned to raise their families.
We recently lost Henry, the patriarch of this enclave, to cancer and as our neighbors prepare for a walk-a-thon in his memory this weekend, I have been remembering some of the stories he shared with us over the years about this area and our land in particular.
The land on our side of the county road encompasses the side of a mountain that ranges for several miles and many thousands of acres adjacent to a national forest and tapering off down to the winding New River (a misnomer, the New River is as old as the Nile and, like the Nile, flows from South to North). Our section was in private hands for generations and never developed. The owner lived elsewhere and only attended to the land when there was coal to be mined or timber to be logged.
Earlier generations of our neighbors worked (and many died) in the coal mines once active on our land and throughout this region, or helped to quarry and shape the mill stones that made this area famous, or took whatever other skilled or semi-skilled work that came available. Most of them went to a vocational institution reserved for blacks* before segregation was abolished in this part of the South**. Many of them learned construction trades that took them to other cities where good paying jobs were more available. Another descendant, Mr. Johnson, learned to be a barber and still owns and works every day in the most prosperous barbershop in town.
Over the years, the residents of this community used the undeveloped land across their road for hunting, firewood cutting, to pen their hogs and to raise crops of corn. I’m sure some of the corn was eaten, some went to the hogs, but much of it wound up in pint and quart jars of moonshine that Henry’s grandfather sold out of the back bedroom window of his home. When the old man died, Henry’s family discovered a good stack of small bills hidden away as they cleaned out his house.
Henry’s widow grew up and was educated in a big city. The first time she visited Henry’s family, she says, the road that ran through the community was just a one-lane, dirt road. By the time they married and Henry brought her back here to live and raise their family, the road had been paved. Henry and his bride of almost 50 years have worked through all those intervening years to keep this neighborhood well maintained, widely recognized for its place in local history and safe.
Thank you, neighbors, for the deep roots of this community. Thank you, Henry, for everything – we miss you.
*In this vignette, I use the term that our neighbors have used (with us) as they refer to themselves. They do not refer to themselves or others of their color and culture as “African-American”.
**Desegregation, as we know, did not happen overnight and progressed at different paces in the United States through the 1960s and even into the 1970s. There is a lovely, renovated movie theatre in our town where the rehab historically recognizes the reality that the blacks had a separate entrance, separate water fountains (no restroom privileges) and were relegated to the balcony. Today, many people find the balcony seats to be the most desirable in the theatre.