Here for a reason
Hard, bitter times often produce hard, bitter people. But other people manage somehow to emerge with a balanced perspective, a sense of humor, and a positive awareness of who they are – probably because of the influence of balanced, positive people in their lives during those difficult times.
Glynn and Virginia Johnson of Farrell, PA, grew up in Cheraw, SC, during the 1930s and 1940s. Those were indeed hard, bitter times for the African-American people living there. But the midst of all the strife, they saw great examples of how people should act and how they should treat one another.
Virginia’s father, Levi Byrd, was an extraordinary man. He and Thurgood Marshall (later Supreme Court Justice) started the NAACP in South Carolina and worked hard to promote it even though it often made Levi and his family the focus of racial hatred.
“We were afraid every time we saw a cop coming,” Virginia said. “We thought maybe they were coming to kill my Dad. My oldest brother, he would tell us, ‘When I say to hit the floor, hit the floor.’ My dad wasn’t afraid. A lot of people left town because they were threatened. But he told them he wasn’t leaving. He stayed in the midst of it.”
Levi apprenticed with a white plumber who taught him the trade.
“My dad learned everything he could learn from Mr. Pemberton. Then he told him he was going out on his own. Mr. Pemberton didn’t get mad. He said, ‘You know what, I give you credit. You learned what you could learn, and you’re going out on your own, good luck.’”
At first Levi had a hard time because of his work with the NAACP.
“They said stop, we’re going to perish you,” Virginia said. “We won’t let you work. Thurgood Marshall wrote in the New York Times that in Cheraw, SC, brother Levi Byrd was working and trying to get democracy for these people. The the people in C heraw thought Daddy had told him to put that in, so they got mad with Dad. My brother told Thurgood Marshall that they were starving Daddy out because of what Thurgood had said in the New York Times. So Thurgood said, ‘You don’t have to worry. I got friends in New York.’ And every November my dad would get so much money.”
Levi was the only black plumber in Cheraw. Eventually his business took off.
“The people would go to other so-called plumbers,” Glynn said, “and they would charge too much. So the black and the white got her dad because he was a little cheaper.”
Because of her father’s success in business, the Byrds were a bit better off than others in the community. But whatever they got, they shared with those around them.
“We were the first ones to get a refrigerator,” Virginia said. “My momma would make popsicles for the kids. We were the first one to get a radio, and everybody would come and listen to the fights. Then we got the telephone, and the TV. We just shared it with the neighbors. That was a fun time.”
Levi was a cautious man.
“Back then the banks went broke,” Virginia said. “The people who had a little bit of money lost it. So my dad started keeping the money at home in a trunk. And he would say ‘Don’t tell nobody.’ And we didn’t. He said, ‘This is for your education, ‘cause I didn’t have education, and I want y’all to have it.’ My second brother went to junior college and my oldest brother went to Virginia Union. I had a half brother that my mom had before my dad married her. He was five years old when they got married. When he graduated my Dad asked him what he wanted to do. He said he wanted a café. My dad set him up in a café and said now you can make it or break it. And he broke it because them girls would come in there and he would give them food instead of making them pay for it.”
Virginia attended Virginia Union University for only two years, but her older brother continued on and graduated.
“My youngest brother, all he wanted to do was go to the Air Force. At that time, he couldn’t get in. He was the type that wanted his own money. He was like my dad, learning all he could. He worked at the A&P, and my dad found out that they were getting a check from the main office and cashing it and redoing him a smaller check. So my dad stopped him from working.”
Levi was afraid for his children to work because of what the was doing. He thought they would get hurt by it.
“But my brother walked into the post office and asked for a job,” Virginia said. “The man called Dad and said your son was brave enough to ask for a job and I gave it to him. So he got to be the first black driving a mail truck down there. My oldest brother told him to come to Richmond. He said, ‘I’ll see that you get into the Air Force.’ After serving 21 years in the Air Force, he came out in Hampton and got a job at the post office.”
Virginia described her mom as kind of a home body, very quiet. But she served the community as well.
“During that time they didn’t have nursing homes,” Virginia said. “So they would have a room, clean, sheets so pretty and white, and they would just keep that person clean, and the neighborhood would go and take turns taking care of them. My momma would do that.”
Glynn’s family situation was quite different. He doesn’t know much about his father’s family, and he didn’t even know his own mother.
“My grandfather had a farm outside of Society Hill, SC,” he said. “It went on as far as you could see. But you know, in those days people claimed land, and you didn’t have any papers with it. Later on, when people got a little smarter, they started taking people’s land. The land got taxed, and you couldn’t pay for it, so they took it. My grandfather died when I was just a baby. The only thing I remember is Dad showing me the land where he and his father lived. That’s the only thing I know about it.”
Virginia and Glynn met while both were attending Coulter Memorial Academy, a school run by the Presbyterian Church out of Philadelphia.
“Most of my family had moved to Washington,” Glynn said, “so I went there after high school. With the traffic and the trolley cars and everything, you couldn’t go one step without getting run over.”
Glynn went back to Cheraw in 1949 – for a short time.
“Daddy told me I had to go to college. They had a small college, and I wanted to go to Harvard. I didn’t have two cents in my pocket. I said if I can’t go to Harvard, Dad, I’m not going to a small college.”
Instead he moved to Farrell, PA, where his brothers and his uncles were living. He started working in National Castings when I was 17.
“At that time there was no place to stay in Farrell,” he said. “I can remember when all of the Italians were staying on the boxcars sided on the railroad tracks. They had a big heater in there to heat by. I don’t think Sharon liked too many Italians at that time. And the Dutchmen and all. When I was working in the mill, half of them I couldn’t understand their language, but we could work together. We’d just keep doing that work and wouldn’t be chattering all day. I’m not one for standing around on a job eight hours a day. I come here to work eight hours, I worked eight hours. The rest of the people, they wanted to sit down and smoke cigarettes for four hours and work four hours. I wasn’t like that.”
Less than a year later came the Korean War. When Glynn received a draft card, he went to the Air Force recruiter in Sharon.
“I took a test and scored 99.6%. The recruiter said, ‘I’ve got to scratch you out a little bit because nobody’s coming through me perfect. I cannot get you in the Air Force because of the quota for the blacks.’ They only wanted so many.”
Before long he received a draft notice.
“I had to go to the post office in Pittsburgh to be examined. The Air Force recruiter handed me an envelope and said, ‘Take this with you, just in case. After you finish your examination and everything, go to the Air Force recruiting man and give him the envelope.’ After everything they sent everybody back home until further call. I gave that guy my envelope, and he said. ‘You stay here and eat breakfast at the YMCA.’ I said, ‘I’m not going back home?’ He said, ‘No, you volunteered.’ So I was drafted and volunteered. I went from there straight to Samson Air Force Base in Syracuse, NY.”
The Air Force was a different world, and Glynn loved it.
“We looked at one another, we didn’t know race, creed, because we depended on one another and it was wonderful. We traveled a lot – to England, Germany, France, Casablanca, Tripoli, Turkey, even Australia. When the weather changed, we took those jets here and there and trained. I could take an airplane apart, throw the parts out in the field, and put it back together again.”
Once he was on a plane flying over the Mediterranean when it developed a mechanical problem.
“One of our planes had a thump in it. The pilot told us that when you see me coming, you all better be out. I got to the door, and two buddies pushed me out. You had a seat pack and you had a chest pack. They said count Geronimo one two three, pull it. When I left that door, I was pulling it. I fell in a field and the chute dragged me about six blocks. All you had to do was hit it here and release it, but I forgot all about that.”
After leaving the Air Force in 1956, Glynn went back to Cheraw and married Virginia Byrd. He could go back to his job at National Castings, but housing there was still scarce. Glynn dropped Virginia off with his sisters in Washington until he could find a place to live in Farrell.
What he found wasn’t much, but it was a start.
“We were in one room and had the use of the kitchen and bathroom in a house on Louisiana Avenue,” Virginia said. “Me, Glynn, and my oldest child were in the bed together. The other child was in the baby bed, and then one in the bassinet in the same room. Me and my girl friend, who lived in the same house, wanted to move to the project in Sharon. But the man in charge wanted to put me one place and her another. We were so close we started crying. He said, ‘Oh stop that crying. I got some new projects I’m dealing with. I’m going to put you side by side in that project. So she was in 213 and I was in 215.”
Like all mill workers, Glynn had to put up with frequent layoffs. Their families helped when they could.
“My mother would send me like $5.00,” Virginia said, “and me and my girl friend could buy food for a week. If her parents sent her some, she would share it with me. But that $5 was like $100.”
“Her dad had some money,” Glynn said. “He didn’t have lots of money. But me, I’d die first before I would ask him for some money. No way. And I’d die before I’d ask my family for money.”
When Glynn and Virginia wanted to buy a house, her father loaned them some money.
“We told him that we would pay him back as soon as we got our income tax,” Virginia said. “When it came we sent the money to him and he sent us half back. He just wanted to make sure we kept our word.”
At National Castings, he was asked to become the first black foreman. He didn’t want to do it, but their pastor, Reverend Lavigne, urged him to take it.
“That was prestige,” Glynn said. “I never liked prestige. He wanted me to be the first black supervisor in the mill. I didn’t look at it that way. I looked at it what I gotta do. I come out of the union, and when you go to supervision, you don’t have any backing.”
At first the white workers didn’t want to work for him, but his attitude carried him through.
“If someone called me a name, I would just turn around and look at him. I know what I am. A name caller can’t hurt me. You don’t have to get angry. No one is supposed to go to bed at night hating anybody. You’re in good shape that way. I didn’t allow them to say, ‘Those black guys over there, or those white guys over here.’ I said, “No, you don’t come to me that way. You say, ‘Those people.’”
Glynn knew the proper role of a supervisor.
“No boss is supposed to put another person on a job that he can’t do himself. How can you give instructions if you don’t know anything about the job? You walk in their shoes first, then you understand.”
After the mill closed down in 1984, Glynn traveled back and forth to National Castings in Chicago before he eventually retired.
Glynn and Virginia raised four children – Belinda, Anthony, Myron, and Kevin. They have eight grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Virginia served as secretary of the First Baptist Church for many years, and worked with Green Thumb for ten years.
Early in April of this year, Virginia, Glynn, and Anthony were driving to Cheraw to attend her brother’s funeral. Near Mechanicsburg, Virginia, they were involved in a terrible car wreck.
“That car hit us and knocked us around two times,” Virginia said, “and we were facing the traffic. The only thing that saved us was a truck jackknifed and it cushioned us. The cars were still flying around us.”
“I don’t understand how we’re here living today,” Glynn said. “We shouldn’t be sitting here now. We’re supposed to be dead.”
Virginia has a theory about that: “I say God kept us here for a reason, and we should do something with our lives. I don’t know what is that reason.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008