Looking Back: My Friend Ruth

Jefferson County Historical Society submitted the following article:

(Pictured above: Ruth Dunk’s father worked on the road crew building SR28 in the early 1930s. When the Hagadorn went “belly-up” during the Great Depression, the Harris family and many others were stranded in Summerville. (Courtesy Jefferson County History Center.)

Submitted by Carole Briggs:

MY FRIEND RUTH

One sunny day in North Carolina, I drove north from our vacation spot to Kinston to visit Vera Ruth Harris Dunk, and what a visit it was! Ruth grew up in Summerville and was the sister of Doc Harris, a fellow many will recognize from his employment at the Brookville post office and as caretaker of the ‘new’ cemetery.

Doc’s widow, Alice, was a member of the History Center’s consultant group for the exhibit titled “The Journeys of People of Color to and Through Jefferson County.” When Alice told me Ruth lived in North Carolina, I knew I wanted to visit her to learn about her growing up in Summerville and what finally took her to North Carolina.

Ruth told me her father and family left Georgia in the twenties to travel north. I knew then that the Harris family was part of what is known today as the great migration. That mass movement of black Americans northward has been documented in a book by Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

If we were able to look down upon this earth over the long span of time, every now and again we would see great swaths of people on the move—moving like ants from one place to another. Sometimes these moves were caused by war, sometimes by famine, sometimes by greed. Think of the Puritans that moved across the Atlantic Ocean to settle in North America between 1620 and 1641. Think of gold-seekers moving towards California in 1848. Think of the people in a drought region of Africa as they swarm towards water or a refugee camp.

In the nineteen-twenties and thirties, as Jim Crow Laws were enacted in the south, 1.3 million blacks left by car, by truck, and by train. Ruth’s family, along with several other black families, left Georgia in the 1920s and traveled north with a road construction crew. Her elder brother was born in North Carolina. She was born in West Virginia, and her younger brother was born in Pennsylvania, perhaps Summerville, the town the construction crew reached some time in 1929. Then the Great Depression hit, the company disbanded, and the black families were stranded in a community that was primarily white.

Ruth was just a toddler then. Her father died when she was nine, so she was able to tell me about the kinds of things they did as a family. For instance, her father and another man found work away from home, in a place Ruth referred to as Tonkin. The men bought a tent, camped, and worked, and returned to Summerville every few weeks.

“He’d come home for the weekend. I remember he’d bring these big fish and people would fry fish and just have a wonderful time. Hot rolls and all that!”

[email protected] County Historical Society, Inc.


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