Friday, February 25, 2022

Ancestral Excursions

Old Dominion Steamship Company. Source: Library of Congress.

I grew up thinking my maternal grandparents, and their parents had never lived anywhere else other than North Carolina. I made this false assumption simply because I never asked and they never talked about living anywhere else. So you can imagine my surprise when, well into my adulthood, my grandmother, Kate Irene Russell, shared a story about briefly living in New Mexico when her husband was stationed there in the U.S. Army. I can't remember how the topic came up, but I was amazed I had never heard of this time in her life.

James Russell and his daughter Kate
James Hampton Russell and his daughter, Kate
My grandmother described the train ride from North Carolina with very young children, and how the black people had to sit in the crowded Jim Crow car at the front of the train, which was sooty and dirty. They had to pack their own food because Jim Crow segregation laws prevented them from eating in the dining car or in many restaurants along the way. As for New Mexico, the only thing she could remember was the heat and the dust storms. How I wish I could see her again to ask her more questions.

I was well into my 40s when I learned that her father, James Hampton "Daddy Hamp" Russell, had lived in Virginia in 1917, and was employed by the Old Dominion Steamship Company based in Newport News. The information is on his World War I draft card. 

My mother and her oldest brother had no idea, however, my uncle did say he recalled hearing that Daddy Hamp had taken etiquette classes at one of the historically black colleges either in Charlotte or in Concord, N.C. That makes sense as the classes would have provided the proper training for a crew member on an elegant steamship offering trips to New York, Richmond, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. 

Again, I have so many questions. What kind of work did he do? Who were his friends?

The draft card was stamped June 5, 1917. He was a newlywed. Just two weeks earlier Daddy Hamp had married my great-grandmother, Margaret Lytle, on May 23, in North Carolina.
Did she go with him? 

I may never know the answers, but I will keep researching, looking for clues, and imagining what my ancestors may have experienced on their journeys far from their Carolina homes.

World War I draft card for James Hampton Russell (1891-1966). Registration State: Virginia; Registration County: Warwick. Source: National Archives and Records Administration/

Ballins Dampfer Welt. S.S. Madison - Old Dominion Line - New York - Interior. [Video]. YouTube.


29 May 1916, Mon Asheville Citizen-Times (Asheville, North Carolina)

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