Points of View

DSC_1923I look through a viewfinder at least once a day.  Photography makes me practice seeing different points of view; the very act of framing the familiar often reveals a hidden detail that adds unexpected meaning, an “aha!” that leaves me changed.

Genealogy can be a framing exercise too, with questions serving as viewfinder. During research on my dad’s neighbors, the Crute family, I posed the question:  If the Crute’s provided regular part-time labor for the neighboring Strickland tobacco acres, did the Stricklands reciprocate and provide needed labor to the Crutes?  Looking for reciprocity opened up the space to confront the Jim Crow-era world that set the context for my father’s memories, and consequently the lore that was handed down to me.

Charles, Clarence, and Robert, along with their mom, Cora, figure prominently in Norman Strickland’s childhood.  The black family lived on the Boydton-Chase City Road, a bit west of the Dodson/Strickland farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia from the 1920s through 1940, at least.  The family also included their father, Mathew (1883-1931) and siblings Willie Bee, Daisy, Alice, Angie, and Odie.

During that era of hardship my grandfather pulled out all the stops; he farmed on Oakview, invested in Chase City real estate, and purchased one school bus after another, contracting with the public school system to transport rural kids into Chase City’s schools.  I was told as a child, repeatedly, that George Strickland single-handedly shut down all the one-room schoolhouses in the area.

And he did it with the regular part-time help of Charles, Clarence, and Robert, according to my father.

Hunter's Lane, Mecklenburg County, VA 1932

The Dodson/Strickland farm was located between Route 46, or the Chase City-Boydton Road and the county road 679 also known as Hunter’s Lane, along Butcher’s Creek. It is thought the Crute farm was located along RT 46.

Mecklenburg County, VA 1932 Map Key

 

In the 1940 census, my uncles–Sidney, 17, Clifford, 15, and Paul, 14–were students in high school.  My dad,11, had just completed sixth grade.  Clarence Crute was 24 years old, farming on his own account, and evidently the primary support for his mother, Cora, and two sisters, Angie, 16, and Odie, 12, who were all listed as occupied in home housework.  Clarence had attained a seventh grade education, Angie a sixth grade education, and Odie a fifth grade education. The discrepancies in educational attainment and normal occupation are striking for the two families.

I once asked my father if George had used his buses to transport all the kids, or just the white kids.  Were all the one room schools shuttered or only the white schools?  Where did the Crute kids go to school?

Norman was stunned, I sensed, as he realized that he didn’t know where the Crutes went to school.  A conclusion is unavoidable:  George bought buses and transported white kids into better schools, into a system that went all the way through 11th grade.  But my grandfather didn’t buy buses to close all the black one room schools.  He didn’t even buy buses and hire the Crute men to drive the black kids who made it through the one room school curriculum into the local black high school, the Thyne Institute, founded on the outskirts of Chase City in 1877.

The explanations about the Crute contribution to the Oakview farm were woven as a story of reciprocity.  George needed help running the farm as his boys attended school and he gave the Crutes jobs and paid them with a fair share of the tobacco crop.  Granddaddy was a good and kind and fair employer, as the story went and the reality of the Crutes’ limited educational choices and work opportunities as a result were simply erased.

My family engaged in opportunity hoarding.

I don’t know where the members of this African American family landed after World War II.  From the records it appears that they, like my father’s family surged off the farms and into cities and towns with other work/life options.  But my father and his brothers had high school educations; Paul and my dad went on to college and into professional careers.  Sidney and Clifford held managerial positions for most of their lives.

What of the Crutes?  Did they migrate into the Bronx and Chicago and other destinations north?  What work did they find?  What dreams did they hold?

And what would their lives have been like, if instead of sitting atop a tractor or behind an team of oxen, they had sat on a bus?

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Surname Saturday–The Crutes of Mecklenburg County

Brainstorming and journaling are good for the future

Sorting through my family lore stash, I came across two sheets of yellow paper, folded into quarters.  My father, Norman Strickland, had distinctive handwriting, the product of his years as an electrical engineer.  So even though the bulleted pencil notes were not dated or signed, I recognized the scraps of thought as Norman’s brainstorming, sketches for memoir writing that never progressed beyond the legal pad.

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“Use green tomatoes to remove tobacco gum from your hands” caught my eye. That tip had prompted a quick jot about where the cotton was grown on his family’s Mecklenburg County, Virginia farm, which led to him thinking about cows, which prompted his noting of the Crute family.

Those last thirteen words kindled a memory of my father standing in the feldspar-studded field of Oakview on a sweltering July day, my kids nearby roaming the hoof-packed cow paths.   Norman loved to recall how his father, George Strickland, always had a team of mules hitched up and two tractors going, with crucial assists from tenant farmers.  Norman must have been remembering the Crutes.

The note snagged this memory and my curiosity was piqued.  Who were the Crutes? 

Tobacco had been the cash crop on this Butcher’s Creek farm for five generations by the time my father learned that green tomatoes would remove tobacco gum.  Until the markets crashed in ’29 and the Southside of Virginia watched its economy slide with the rest of America, my grandfather had been capitalizing on his entrepreneurial spirit. A partner in a Chase City sawmill when he married my grandmother, Florette, in 1921 George remained an active source of farm labor and support for his guardians, Edward, Dora, and Molly Dodson.  In 1927, George inherited the Dodson home place, Oakview.  Then the depression silenced the saw mill.

Around the time my father was born in 1928, George, Florette, and their four sons were back on the farm, full-time.  And the Crutes were nearby.

Matthew Bell Crute and his wife, Cora Hayes Crute, lived just off the Boydton-Chase City Road on land, it is thought, adjoining the western corner of Oakview, with their eight children: Charles (18),Willie Bee (16), Robert (13), Clarence (12), Daisy (10), Alice (7), Angie (4), and Odie (infant). In the 1930 census, Matthew stated that he was a general farmer working on his own account, and all but the youngest two children were in school.

Hunter's Lane, Mecklenburg County, VA 1932

The Dodson/Strickland farm was located between Route 46, or the Chase City-Boydton Road and the county road 679 also known as Hunter’s Lane, along Butcher’s Creek. It is thought the Crute farm was located along RT 46. (Map from 1932 WPA Writer’s Project. Library of Virginia, Digital Collections.)

When my father was just a toddler, Matthew was treated by Dr. Funch from April 5-11, 1931 before the 46 year old father succumbed to the Spanish Influenza.  Was it after this tragedy that the Crute family supplemented their income with regular part-time work in the Strickland tobacco fields?  Did Cora also help my grandmother?  In what other ways did the Crutes interact with my father?

May 22, 1938

Early in the morning of May 22, Robert Monroe Crute was found, his skull crushed, his left forearm broken.  The physician on call, A. Tyree Finch, recorded that the death was thought to be a result of an automobile hit-and-run.  Cora buried her 24 year old son by his father in the home cemetery.

Newspapers recorded Robert’s accident as one of several automobile deaths in that month, as if cars were a mounting cause of concern. How I wish I could talk with my father about Robert, and his death.  Were folks suspicious about what had happened?

But fields need plowing

Norman joked about his father’s incessant movement and the expectations on the family to implement George’s plans.  Neighbors expressed horror watching twelve year old Norman atop one of the tractors.  “You’re going to get that boy killed!”  George paid them no mind.

That would have been 1940, and by census records Clarence was the sole means of support for his mother, and two sisters still at home, Angie and Odie.  Willie and Charles apparently moved on, as did Daisy and Alice.  Norman’s brothers, Sidney (18), Clifford (16), and Paul (14), were still at home, attending school and providing labor.  Clarence may have continued with part-time regular tobacco work,  taking a share of the crop in payment.

The following decade ushered in an era of migration, accelerated by World War II and its technological advances.  Farming, according to my father, was an honorable occupation but not necessarily one to which a kid aspired.  It seems that the Crutes dispersed as actively as the Stricklands did, in search of new opportunities.  I know where my folk landed.  I am still wondering about the Crutes.

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A team of mules and two tractors manned by three fellows that I speculate are  Charles, Clarence, and Robert Crute.

As I look at the bits and pieces of the Crute history intertwined with my family’s story, I realize how incredibly important Cora, Robert, Charles, and Clarence were to the Strickland family’s moving through the depression.

I wonder; how did the Crutes see their relationship to the Stricklands?  Was there any reciprocity from the Stricklands, any work done on the Crute farm?  Ruminating for another day…stay tuned.