“Mom, tell me about Grandpa Smith.”
“What about him?”
“I don’t know. What was he like?”
“He was as sweet as he could be to us kids. He would always buy fruit for us. And he always read The Pittsburgh Courier. After he finished reading it, he would always say, ‘Nobody passed that I knew.’ We always wondered if maybe he came from Pittsburgh because he always read that paper.”
Washington T. Smith, or Grandpa Smith as he was called, was a man of mystery. No one knew where he came from or who his parents were. No one even knew what the “T” stood for. I asked my mother if she knew. She said she thought he said he had been named for presidents. I finally found it on his WWI and WWII draft registration cards—“Taylor.”
Gramma Maggie always called him “Mr. Washington.” She used to tell my mother the story of how they first met. He was a transient working on the railroad which went through her mining town in Virginia. She gave him a drink of water. She thought he was a "fine figure of a man!" She was 14 when she married him, by her calculations, 15 when my grandfather, Arthur McKinley Smith was born in Botetourt County.
How much truth there is to all that is debatable, after all using her recollections to figure her approximate birth year made it look like Gramma Maggie was 191 when she died! Furthermore, the 1910 U.S. Federal Census tells a different story regarding the ages.
Gramma & Grandpa were enumerated in the Iron Mound Precinct of Botetourt County, Virginia in 1910. According to information gleaned from the census record, there was no street address, just “Lignite Roads.” At that point, Maggie was 25 years old and had been married for five years; that would make her 20, not 14 when she married “Mr. Washington.” My grandfather, Arthur was six in 1910; therefore he was born after their marriage, not before.
And so, I began to mull and ponder. Was Grandpa Smith a romantically handsome drifter from Pennsylvania? After a bit of mullin’ and ponderin’, I think not. I mean, he may have been handsome. Romantic, doubtful. From Pennsylvania, no way.
I arrive at this deduction not because I have been able to find him living elsewhere in records, but because it just doesn’t make sense—why in the world would a black man from Pennsylvania leave railroad and mining work in the north to come south for the same work at the turn of the century? That and because his place of birth is listed as “Abell, Virginia” on his WWII draft registration card.
I have looked high and low for Abell, Virginia and the only Abell-like place I can find in Virginia is Abel Reservoir near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Perhaps Abell was a small, now-defunct mining camp; like Lignite. Perhaps that is why I cannot locate it. And yes, I looked for Abell, Pennsylvania also. No luck.
So, we have an apparently self-educated black man in the 1930’s with a penchant for reading a newspaper which was published 250 miles away in another state. Why was he so diligent about reading that Pittsburgh Courier?
Not because he was from Pittsburgh, I’d wager—if I were a wagering woman. I believe he read the Courier for the same basic reasons many of 199,999 other people read it:
First of all, because he could.
Secondly, because The Pittsburgh Courier was the most widely circulated black newspaper in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. As the first black newspaper to publish both local and national editions, you could be sure you’d know what was going on in the black community, near or far, if you read The Courier. It was very much an economic and political empowerment instrument. Many articles and columns sought to educate blacks about finances and history and to encourage blacks to become politically aware and active. i
Thirdly, and most importantly, I believe he read the Courier because it instilled and preserved in him knowledge that there was more to be done than 300 days-a-year of back-breaking work in the mines and more to be had than a fist full of worthless scrip and a tar-paper shack you would never own.
That, I believe, was the significance of the Pittsburgh Courier to my Grandpa Smith.
i http://www.pbs.org/blackpress/news_bios/courier.html : accessed 27 July 2014.