This week continues Laurence Wilson’s memoir with the family’s move to Girard. — J.T.K.
We moved to Girard in December of 1916. It was bitter cold that day. My mother and father were on a horse drawn wagon with food, boxes and tubs tied to it and a cow tied behind the wagon. My sister Lucinda, who was named after her grandmother had me and my brother Chuck and we had gone to Girard by streetcar.
When we arrived “Cin” did not know where our new home was. My mother and father had been to Girard earlier that month to negotiate for the house but forgot to tell Lucinda where it was. We went inside McNaught’s Drug Store cold, hungry, penniless, and for the moment, homeless. The people in the store took pity on us and a Negro named Martin Hughes remembered seeing a light in the old Gise house, which had long been vacant, so they thought that might be the place. Mr. Hughes took us there in his horse and buggy and it was the right place. We were all glad to see each other.
Girard was the county seat of Crawford County. The town was built around a square with an imposing courthouse in the center. I remember when it was built and everybody in the county was proud of it. It had spotlights which at night lit-up the exterior. A New Yorker passing thru the town at night commented “he had never seen tombstones lit-up at night.” Our courthouse reminded this fella of a tombstone as he was used to buildings being so much taller. The courthouse is still there.
The County Jail was also on the square. It, too, was not old and a very nice building. I remember when Uncle Bish was in jail for bootlegging. My mother who was Uncle Bish’s sister would send me to the jail to take pies and cakes to him she had baked on our coal stove. It wasn’t bad at all. Uncle Bish was in a large room on the top or 3rd floor. The jailer would let me go into this room. The inmates were free to roam around. They would be seated at tables playing cards or dominos. Some would be laying on their cots which were all along the outside walls. Some were reading. Some were listening to a radio. And some were writing letters. It didn’t seem so bad at all. They were having a pretty good time all things considered. They had plenty to eat and it was clean. Regardless, I would never want to be in such a place and I never have.
Weekday evenings before sunset old Negro men, including my father, would gather in a corner of the square under a tall shade tree sitting on orange crates playing checkers or dominos. At least once a week my mother would tell me to go get my father and tell him to come home. He would see me approaching not say a word and gesture for me to go away. As a boy I figured this was a game wives and husbands played.
Living in Girard was much better than Litchfield. We had electric lights and indoor plumbing. What a break from the outhouse we used in Litchfield. The schools were racially integrated and excellent all the way thru high school. My father, who was by now a drayman, quit working. He was not well and his wagon and draw-horse could not compete with trucks which were coming into use very rapidly. John, George, Pete and Huey continued digging coal, riding in a car from Girard to Mine 45 and 14 Sheridan and 18 Sheridan and old No. 21 eight miles away.
My earliest remembrance of my boyhood in Girard was riding my tricycle up to the corner to pedal back with my older brothers and sisters as they came home from school. Bob, Harold, Jess, “Cin” and Chuck pretended to be glad to see me or maybe they weren’t pretending? I know they weren’t as happy to see me as I was to see them. I was not yet old enough to attend school.
Sometimes my mother would let me stay a few days with my mother’s brother and wife Uncle Amon and Aunt Sarah in Radley, Kansas. The streetcar ran out there so transportation was no problem. I was practically obligated to go because Uncle Amon had named me “Paul Laurence Dunbar Wilson.” Because he named me, they were always giving me nice presents. I suppose Uncle Amon had heard about Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems and admired him. I didn’t like “Dunbar” so I dropped it and called myself “Laurence Paul Wilson,” switching around the “Laurence” and “Paul.” I changed my name in grade school. It was not done legally, but no one has ever questioned it that I know of.
Going to Radley was a bane of my existence. Uncle Amon and Aunt Sarah were middle-aged. They did not have any children. There was nothing to play with and both of them were as out of place in handling a young boy as anybody could be. Nevertheless, Aunt Sarah was a wonderful woman. She was kind, considerate, pleasant and a real good cook. She plied me with food all day long. She was also an excellent housekeeper. Her home was as clean as a pin. She was clean herself and so was Uncle Amon. He worked in coal mine No. 21 so he was gone all day. I had no realization at the time that tragedy would strike Aunt Sarah. Naturally, I wouldn’t because I was too young.
Apparently, Uncle Amon abused Aunt Sarah terribly and continuously and when she could not take it anymore and felt she had no place to turn in 1920, she drank poison and killed herself. She was about fifty years old. Everyone knew Amon Hunter was a drinker and was mean — what coal miner wasn’t — but I do not know how things got that bad? It seems to me that Aunt Sarah could have come to stay with us. My mother was her sister. I know she would have taken her in and there were enough men around our house that he couldn’t have gotten to her. However, as I said, I had no idea they were having trouble. I always wanted to get back home as quickly as possible to my toys and brothers and sisters and mother. I’m not sure I was very nice in always harping about wanting to go back home. When the day did come, I had Aunt Sarah bring me to the depot two hours early as I was afraid the streetcar would come before I got there. She was always nice about it though. If anyone should have had children, she should have. I liked her so much and often think about her.
— To be continued next week.
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