Category Archives: Johnson

Learning to Be a History Detective

I knew my grandmother was important. She was a modest little lady, even considering that she could put anybody in the family in their place with a sharp remark or a stern look. She never had her hair cut or wore a skirt any higher than mid-calf. She ignored the doctor’s advice to take a walk every day because she thought it unladylike to go walking down a public street like that. She preferred to stay out of the sun and do needlework, read her Bible, and watch the soaps and country music shows.

Fannie Johnson Oakley was a middle child, with four older siblings and five younger ones. She used to keep up with her siblings by letter. Remember snail mail? Born in 1892, she passed in 1976, when Bill Gates was barely out of high school.

Important to my research, I have been able to use her collection of photographs, and the list in her handwriting of her family’s birthdays, in lieu of a family Bible. I recall sitting in on conversations between her and my mother and Aunt Opal, who all remembered the family’s life in Surry County, N. C. The hints I remember from those conversations have been important clues for me in playing history detective.

However, once sister Fannie was gone, no one kept up with the Johnson family. There was no one to send an obituary to or share pictures of the grandchildren with. Now they’d be posted on Facebook or Instagram for everyone to see. I find pictures from my own Facebook albums whenever I go searching for clues on the web.

In 1976, Grandma’s sister Mary also died, without any of her nieces, including my mother, knowing. The last of the Johnson family, the youngest brother, Elijah, passed about eight years later, as I learned from a Social Security record on Ancestry.com.

Ancestry.com’s DNA tests and website helped me connect with a grandson of Mary, but Elijah had no children, and he moved to an area far from the rest of the family. I didn’t think that a long drive to his last known home town would accomplish anything.

Then I discovered that Rootsweb had a message board for Russell County, Virginia, where Elijah died. I joined and posted a message about my search and got an immediate reply that someone found a listing for Elizah Johnson in a cemetery book. I searched the web to see if such a book was available to me and found that it was in a number of far-away libraries.

Further inquiries on the board were lost in a flurry of messages saying the moderator of the list had died, which he then informed the group, he had not, and that was followed by apologies and people unsubscribing because irrelevant posts were filling up their email. In the meantime, I called the cemetery, and a helpful young woman found my kin in the records and confirmed that Grandma’s brother and his wife were indeed buried there. This gave me a record that qualified as genealogical proof.

I posted a message on the board to thank them and let them know that I had found Elijah with a “J.” No one lol-ed or even tehe-ed, and I know, being genealogists, they are at least as old as I am, and they should get the reference. I will excuse them, however, as most of them have unsubscribed and moved over to the Facebook page. Message boards are apparently becoming history, too.

 

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander–except the Liza image–All Rights Reserved.

International Women’s Day: Honoring My Great-Grandmothers

This is a quilt honoring my four great-grandmothers.

Left:  Martha Frances White Johnson (1862-1933) claimed Native American ancestry, and her maternal grandmother was said to have come from the Powhatan Reservation.

Right:  Margaret Matilda Stillwell Alexander (1847-1931) was an identical twin. She startled the neighbors at her sister’s funeral. Her husband was also a twin.

Top:  Mary Arabella McDonald Richardson (1867-1935) was the grand-daughter of immigrants from the Western Isles of Scotland. She loved to walk on her land in the Sandhills.

Bottom:  Margaret Jane Willey Oakley (1858-1934) gathered wild herbs for a living and ran the farm after her husband’s death. Her six children were all boys.

 

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All rights reserved.

How Quilts Contain History

I remember visiting New York City and experiencing its layered texture and gray color.  A huge number of people in a small space for centuries have left their patina of smoke and dust on every surface.  Handbills layered endlessly on every available wall made impromptu collages.  When I entered museums and galleries for the always main purpose of my visit, to see great art, I was struck by the number of 20th century pieces that reflected those surfaces outside.  They were obviously made in the city, which has long been an artists’ mecca.

Later, I took another trip to a museum in coastal Virginia to see works by the famous quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.  The quilts were made mostly for home use, but they have become famous for their obvious roots in West African textile design, preserved by an isolated community of African slaves and passed on to their descendants.

The quilts were almost casually made, for practical reasons, but with roots in a distinctive type of design that the women of Gee’s Bend learned from their mothers and grandmothers and aunts.  They grew up with patchwork quilts that repeated geometric designs originally produced by narrow looms.  The quilts came from an organic process, not an academic tradition or formal instruction.  They came from an environment with fresh, bright colors, not automobile exhaust and building dust.

There was a quilt in the collection, however, made of material with a faded patina and rough surface, namely the work pants of a man who obviously did hard physical labor.  For me, it was the most impressive quilt in the collection, although I did love the vibrant colors and neater designs of the other quilts.  This quilt, by Lutisha Pettway, was rough, but it embodied history and emotion and spoke of the life of the family it came from.  The maker said that she made it when her husband passed away, so that she could wrap herself in his love.  She cut the pants legs apart and arranged the pieces so they formed a large rectangle.  The resulting design was simple and rhythmic.  The stained, worn, and faded denim had a surface interesting enough for any abstract expressionist, but this surface told a life story. 

Unlike the paintings in the Museum of Modern Art, this artwork didn’t compete for status and money, this artwork spoke sincerely of life and emotion.  It embodied the economic struggle of a family and their day-to-day labor, and a wife’s grief.

Pettway lacked academic training and credentials, however, her work’s emotional power was greater than that of any I saw in New York.  I know that statement would make most (maybe all) of my university art professors dismiss everything I have said.  Their prejudice kept them from seeing the art in the work of females, minorities, or anyone without a university degree.

I still love the museums.  So much beautiful and inspiring art is to be seen in them.  After all, it was museums and galleries where quilts were finally hung as works of art and treated with respect.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

See a variety of “work-clothes” quilts here:

http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/quilt-categories/work-clothes

Valentine’s Day

William Edgar Oakley married Jessie Fannie Johnson on December 24, 1916 in Surry County, N. C.

In July of that year, they had survived the worst flood in western North Carolina history.  Ed, a widower with a small daughter, had his entire house swept away by rising water.  Fannie, on the opposite side of the river, (probably the Ararat, a tributary of the Yadkin) didn’t know their fate until days later, when the rain stopped and the water receded enough for people to cross the river and check on their neighbors and family.

I don’t know if this photograph was taken before or after the flood, but the tree behind them is in full leaf, so it must have been in advance of their Christmas Eve wedding, which took place at the home of Baptist minister J. R. Cruise in Mt. Airy.

Six Degrees of Lula McBride

The following article was published in The Mt. Airy News on  August 15, 1912, on page 2.  The city journalist was obviously making fun of people who lived “out in the country.”  However, as a Johnson family historian, I recognized several names in this interesting piece of Surry County, N. C., history.

“Sheriff’s Afternoon Nap Disturbed

“There is a fellow out in the country who hardly realizes what a serious offense he committed last Sunday afternoon in the quiet precincts of this thriving city.  The story goes that as Sheriff Haynes was quietly dreaming of the days when he may sit in a seat in Congress or keep the books as Secretary of State for this commonwealth–while he snoozed in the cool shade of his home on the sultry afternoon a man hastily rode up and with one hand bandaged and numerous knife wounds in his Sunday coat told how he had been assaulted at the McBride school house three miles east of the city.

“He declared that while the Rev. Allen Johnson was declaring the ways of salvation on the day in question three men from the state of Virginia by name Straud Collins, Jim Collins, and Merady Pell came to the place of worship and having imbibed too freely of Virginia liquor they proceeded to disturb the preaching by talking out in meeting and using language that so disturbed the worshippers that the minister deemed it best to dismiss the congregation.

“This being done the three above named young men became even more boisterous and one used his knife on the unfortunate young man who brought the news to town.  The sheriff went to the scene of the conflict and of course found the birds had flown.  Warrants are out for the unfortunate men who were so unthoughtful as to go to church while drinking and violate the laws of the state thus getting themselves in splendid position to help make good roads for Rockingham [County] when Patrick [County, Va.] needs their services as farmers so badly.”

The people in this story:

Sheriff Caleb Hill Haynes did indeed have political aspirations, having run unsuccessfully for the North Carolina legislature in 1912.  He was elected to the House in 1920 and served until 1933.  He was married to a daughter of Chang Bunker, one of the original Siamese twins, who settled near Mt. Airy.

Rev. Allen Johnson was from the section of Surry County on the Virginia line and the border of Stokes County, within the Westfield township.  The McBride family cemetery and McBride road are located on that side of Mt. Airy.  Allen was a grandson of another preacher from that area, Rev. “Right” Johnson, and was a son of Henderson Johnson and Amelia Norman.

The three delinquents who disrupted the sermon have connections by marriage to the  Johnson family.  It is common in a small, rural community to find many people who are distant cousins across generations, as joked about in the song, “I’m My Own Grandpaw.”  In this case, most of the relationships seem to have involved  a woman named Lula Belle McBride, who came from a large family and had bad luck in her marriages.

Lula McBride was first married in 1929 to James Hemmings, the widower of Allen Johnson’s daughter, Mary.  Then in 1933, James Hemmings died.  Allen Johnson’s grand-daughter, Sarepta Johnson, had died young, back in 1915.  Her husband, Austin Holt, married the second time to Jettie Collins, sister of the above-named Straud and Jim Collins.  Poor Jettie died very soon after, and Austin married a third time, to Lula McBride Hemmings, in about 1936.

The three drunken Virginians were only about 18-20 years old in 1912.  The Collins boys grew up and married and went to work at the granite quarry in Mt. Airy, while Meredith Pell worked on the railroad.  Straud Collins and Meredith Pell both married sisters of Lula McBride.

To sum up, Rev. Johnson’s sermon was interupted by his grandson-in-law’s future brothers-in-law, and his son-in-law’s future brothers-in-law.  Straud Collins was both, first through his sister and then through his wife.  Lula McBride was the second wife of Allen Johnson’s widowed son-in-law, who was her first husband, and she was the third wife of his widowed grandson-in-law, who was her second husband.

You could write a song about this if you could keep it all straight.

Austin Holt died in 1958 and left Lula widowed for the second time.  She married a third time, to Rufus Samuel Gunnel, and was soon widowed again.  Lula McBride Gunnell passed away in 1984 and was buried in the McBride Cemetery.

Lula-Belle-MCB2

The theory of six degrees of separation says that we live in a small world and that we can find a connection to any other human being on the planet by no more than six relationships.  In early twentieth century Westfield, all you needed was Lula Belle McBride.

Sources consulted:  Mt. Airy News, Moody’s Funeral Home Records, and  U. S. Census records, death certificates, marriage records, and cemetery records for Surry and Stokes Counties, N. C. and Patrick County, Va.

Women’s Fashions, 1917

shoe 1917005

 

collins

I don’t know if my ancestors had a “doubting purse,” as the ad mentions, but they had fashionable shoes.  Here are members of the Blanche Collins family of Winston-Salem showing off their outfits.  The matching hats were quite possibly made by the lady looking over her shoulder in the background, Fannie Johnson Oakley.  The boy and the girl seated on the left were children of her sister, Blanche Johnson Collins.  The ad appeared in the Mt. Airy News, 1917.  The photograph was taken around that time.

 

 

 

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander. All rights reserved.