The second Vine Street Connection reunion was held July 25-27. I was late getting into Cape on Friday, so I missed the fish fry at Capaha Park, but I did manage to attend the dinner and dance Saturday night and the picnic at North County Park on Sunday.
I recognized quite a few folks from the first reunion two years ago and had interviewed others for the Smelterville: Community of Love book and video I’m working on. I’m usually pretty detached when I’m covering something, but there were at least three instances that really moved me this weekend.
The first came when Brenda Newbern called forward all those in the audience who had served in the military or who were presently serving. While they were coming up, she delivered this speech:
I don’t know about you, but when I was young and watched the movies about the war and how the “colored” soldiers were treated I wondered why would you go fight and risk your life for a country that doesn’t want to count you as a human. Doesn’t want to give you a proper uniform or shoes and doesn’t think you are intelligent enough to be an officer or fly an airplane and don’t even think you are going to get equal pay. Oh my word, not you!!
I asked my dad why he went to fight and he never really gave me an answer. Because I believe it was a deep-rooted conviction that those men had to show the world just who and what they were made of. And to say this is my country too!! But as I grew older and watched the same movies and saw how God would set things up to prove all of the ASSUMPTIONS WRONG!! I began to ask the question:
What if there was no 54th Massachusetts Infantry that produced the likes of Col. Robert Gould Shaw and took the battle to the assault on Fort Wagner.
What if they had not served in World War I & II? 179,000 Black Men served in the Civil War (10% of the Union Army). 19,000 served in the Navy. 40,000 Black soldiers died over the course of the war.
What if there were no Buffalo Soldiers building forts and maintaining order on the frontier?
What if there were no Tuskegee Airmen and Capt. Benjamin Davis, Jr. who would become the first African American Air Force General
What if there was no Major Martin Robison Delany, the first Field Officer in the US Army; or First Lt. Vernon J Baker, who was awarded the Medal of Honor in the battles in Italy, or General Daniel “Cappie” James, Jr. who became the full general commander of the North American Air Defense Command!
AND, WHAT IF there were NONE OF YOU!!!!
Each of you served your country and left your families, placed your life on the line and did it with dignity and honor. We as a black people may be proud and know that you did this to represent each and every one of us and for that I say “Thank you!” When I salute the flag and say the pledge it will be to remember all of you and those that have served before you that I may be free. May God Bless You and May God continue to Bless America.
We Shall Overcome
The second came when the group stood and sang We Shall Overcome. I’ve heard Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul & Mary sing it live, and I’ve been a dozens of marches and protests where it was sung, but hearing the Vine Street folks sing it, and knowing some of the things they had to overcome in Cape Girardeau suddenly made the song meaningful to me. It will never be “just a folk song” again.
[Editor’s note: they aren’t singing We Shall Overcome in this photo. They didn’t need a song sheet for THAT anthem.]
“The Walkers bought them”
While waiting for the bulk of folks to show up for the picnic, I was talking with some men. The inevitable question of “Where are you from?” came up. One of them said, “My ancestors arrived in New York. That’s where the Walkers bought them.” He started to talk about where they went from there.
I put up my hand and said, “You just sent a shiver down my spine. It’s one thing to think about slavery in the abstract, but when I’m standing next to a man who says of his family, ‘and that’s where the Walkers bought them,’ it suddenly becomes real.”
Plenty of books left over
There are plenty of copies of Smelterville: Community of Love left over. I’ll be dropping some of them off at Annie Laurie’s Antique Shop at the corner of Broadway and Frederick. They are $20 each. They will also be available by mail, but I’m going to have to work out how much the postage is after the recent increase.
Vine Street Connection Portraits
Most of these photos were taken at the picnic on Sunday. Lighting conditions at the dinner and dance were horrible, so I didn’t shoot many pictures there. Click on any photo to make it larger, then use your arrow keys to move through the images. Because there are so many images, it make take longer to load than usual.
Here are the first 15 pages of this year’s updated Smelterville Book. I’ve added some new photos and some interview snippets. I had hoped to revise the whole book, but I’ve run out of time.
These are draft pages. I have to have some folks look them over for typos (you are welcome to tell me if you spot anything that needs changing), then it goes to Son Matt for technical tweaking.
As you might notice, I’ve changed the title. This one picks up a quote from Clinton Wrencalling the area “A community of love.”
Click on any photo to make it larger, then use your arrow keys to move through the gallery. Again, these are working proofs at this point. I’ll have copies of the book at the Vine Street Reunion at the end of the month.
I’ve been working like crazy transcribing interviews and editing videos to try to get them ready for the Vine Street Reunion at the end of this month. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed talking with Bill Beal at a 2012 family reunion. (He’s been trying to shed the “Billy” nickname as long as I’ve been trying to retire “Kenny.”)
Bill was one half of one of my favorite photos from Smelterville in 1967. He said he was 10 or 11 when I shot the picture with him, Margaret Turner and a cat. His sister, Fay Beal Powders, said “Not many people had cats, but mother let us have cats because I loved them.” Bill, she said, was a twin, and so was Margaret, his cousin.
Bill and Margaret
He dropped out of Central High School when he was 17 and went into the military. “I wanted to get out of Cape and I wanted to better myself. I was a ground pounder [in Vietnam]. Carried an M60 around.”
“A scrawny guy like you carried an M60?” I interjected.
“A big M60 and belts,” he said. “Then I got into sniper. I really enjoyed that. It’s not all what they say it’s cut out to be,” he continued. “When you go into sniper, you might be off in that drain pipe over yonder and you have to sit there for two or three days. You can’t move, and that’s it. I mean, bugs bite you and you can’t move. Snakes run across you and you can’t move.”
“Would you do that part of it again?” I asked.
“Yessir. In a heartbeat. In a heartbeat, I would.”
Dad was a truckdriver
Bill’s dad was a truck driver for the cement plant until he died of a massive heart attack when Bill was about 8 or 9. When he got out of the military, he thought, “maybe truck driving is in my blood.” He’s been an owner-operator for more than three decades, and “I put three stepkids through college.”
That’s Bill’s sister, Fay, with him.
Happy memories of Smelterville
Echoing the sentiment I’ve heard from everyone I’ve interviewed, Bill had happy memories of growing up in Smelterville: “We didn’t go hungry. We weren’t dirty. We weren’t nasty. We had clean clothes. All the relatives, we lived together. It was like a little community down there like you’d have up in the mountains. Everybody knew everybody in that community.”
Bill is on his bike in the foreground.
“Back then, we didn’t care what nationality you were or what color. We all got along. You’d go out and get into a fight right now, then later on that night, you were all sleeping on a pallet or in a bed together. It didn’t make no difference. You all ate at the same place. If momma cooked something or grandma cooked, or whoever cooked, everybody ate. We didn’t care who you were or where you came from. Even the – they called them hobos that used to ride the trains and such – momma and grandma even fed them.”
Life could be hard
“We had the community pump. Later on in life, we actually had running water in the house, once we ran lines into the house. We still had wood stoves. We didn’t have any propane gas or anything like that. We always moved up north for the floods. Then, when the river went back down, we went in and scrubbed the floors and walls, threw the snakes out and rebuilt what had to be rebuilt to make it livable.”
Looking back at the pictures, he said, “brings back memories. After so many years, you don’t remember, but once you start back looking, yeah, it brings back memories of where we come from and where we are today. You know, what we went through to get where we’re at.”
That’s Bill on the left next to his cousin, Mary Jean Phifer. The baby name is unknown. The two boys at the right are Mark Turner, Margaret Turner’s twin brother, and “Jim Dandy” Wren.