I want to thank my Aunt Helen Bondurant and cousin Phyllis Bondurant-Campbell for adding to my understanding of the early years of my mother’s family during a 2011 trip to North Carolina my daughter, wife , and I made; and to Phyllis for helping with this story during its writing.
(This story was amended on 3 December 2017 with additional information provided by my cousin Eugene Bondurant as regards his mother and father Wesley and Dorothy Bondurant.)
This is the story of the early life of the family of
James Abram Bondurant
1880 – 1920
Patti Virginia Richardson
1886 – 1923
Relationship to Fawn: great-grandparents
their daughter, Mildred Louise Bondurant is Fawn’s grandmother
It’s the 10th of November 1921 in Reidsville, North Carolina. My mother, Mildred Louise, was born the youngest child of James Abram Bondurant and Patti Virginia Richardson.
James and Patti started their family as tenant farmers in Meadows township near Walnut Cove, Stokes County, North Carolina. Their two eldest children, my aunts Mary and Beulah, were born there in 1906 and 1909, respectively. The structure below is the remains of the building that was the school to which Mary and Beulah walked. Later they moved to a new farm closer to town, and the family became based on Waughtown Road in South Fork, Forsyth County near Reidsville, North Carolina.
The new baby, of course, was not aware of it, but it was not an auspicious beginning of a life. James Abram had died of pneumonia before my mother was born. By the accounts of the two oldest siblings, my aunts Mary and Beulah, Patti tried to overcome her grief. Patti doted on the new baby, gave her as much love as she could. Patti got very little support from her own family. In fact, some in her family encouraged her to put the children in an orphanage to focus on her own needs.
Patti’s ability to help her children and to shower love on her new baby was short lived. She, too, died of pneumonia in 1923 with Mildred Louise only two years old. Both were buried in the Rosebud Christian Church cemetery in Walnut Cove, Stokes County, where their family started. The siblings later erected the tombstones below.
My mother tearfully told the story her siblings had related to her that when Patti was dying she asked the oldest, Mary, to keep the family together. Mary was 16. “That was a lot for Mama to ask of a 16 year old,” my mother would say. A lot, indeed, but, as my mother also said, what choice did she have?
The Richardsons divided the children among relatives, but ultimately those relatives did not keep them. The boys, Robert, Mylard, Reuban Gray, and Paul were sent to an orphanage, the Methodist Childrens’ Home in Jamestown, North Carolina.
My understanding, and that of my cousin Phyllis, was that Wesley also went to the orphanage. However, my cousin Eugene Bondurant, has reported that his father, Wesley, did not live at the Methodist orphanage. Rather, he lived with a relative in Stokes County, North Carolina, as did the other children. However, he did not get along with them and after a period of time, instead of going to the orphanage, he rode his bicycle to Reidsville and lived with his sister, Mary.
This act of shipping them off to an orphanage and the lack of support Patti got from her family during her final year created a quiet rift between the Bondurant children and the Richardsons for decades, though much later some of the Bondurants started attending Richardson family reunions. The times had been hard for everyone and many people were making hard decisions, for better or for worse.
Mary was too old for the orphanage, so Mary and Beulah lived with a family friend, Minnie Harrelson in Reidsville. My mother was too young for the orphanage, so ended up with a foster family.
Mary and Beulah took their mother’s charge to heart. They visited the boys at the orphanage. They visited my mother at her foster family’s home. They did what they could to keep the ties between the siblings tight. Mary was old enough to work, though I do not know what she did.
Mary married James Brande about 1926, and initially they farmed.
They had a son, Vernell in 1927. Without parents to provide the cohesive center to keep the family from flying apart into different directions, Mary provided that spot. Their house became the center of family operations for many years. Mary and James farmed initially. Beulah also married young, marrying Joseph Wilkins about 1927.
At age 16, the boys and girls in the orphanage had to leave. However, they left with some very long term reminders of the experience. Two of the brothers married girls they met in the orphanage. Uncle Wesley married Dorothy (Aunt Dot) Vernon Bayliff, and Uncle Paul married Annie Mae Dawkins.
Here again, Gene Bondurant’s new information alters our story a bit. Genedoes not know if Wesley met Dorothy while she lived at the orphanage or just after she left. However, Dorothy was best friends with Annie Mae Dawkins, and certainly knew the other Bondurant siblings who were there.
If Wesley was not at the orphanage, it would be Paul who left the orphanage first, and I don’t know what they immediately did, though Uncle Wesley ended up working in the Lucky Strike cigarette factory, maybe the largest employer in Reidsville. He was only 15 at the time. Gene Bondurant reports that he worked at the Belk Department Store prior to the Lucky Strike factory.
Gene Bondurant adds some beautiful personal color to Uncle Wesley’s early life. Paul did meet his future wife at the orphanage. Annie Mae Dawkins was his girl friend and best friend of Dorothy. After they left the orphanage Annie Mae and Dorothy went to Graham, North Carolina to live with Dorothy’s mother, Emma Bayliff. Wesley, who had a car, would take Paul to Graham to see Annie Mae. It was there that he and Dorothy would double date with Paul and Annie Mae, and there they fell in love.
Uncle Mylard left next, coming to stay with Mary and James. To support himself, Uncle Mylard ended up working at Underwood Grocery. At first he hung around, did odd work for nothing. Mr. Underwood took a liking to him, gave him lunch in exchange for odd jobs, then hired him. Later, the store became Underwood Furniture. In the years to come Uncle Mylard and Mr. Underwood remained friends, Uncle Mylard helped him as he got older, and often spoke of what a simply good man Mr. Underwood was. Then Uncle Mylard joined the Army, opening space with Mary and James for Robert as well as the job with Mr. Underwood.
After the army, Uncle Mylard and Uncle Paul tried working in the cigarette factory, but neither liked being inside. Uncle Mylard set up business delivering groceries to country stores all around the area. He ordered from Reidsville Groceries, picked up the goods at the warehouse, and delivered whatever the small far flung stores needed. Eventually, he started doing the same thing for gas. He left Reidsville Grocery Company in the 1950s and worked for the Pure Oil and Texaco distributors delivering gas to area service stations and oil to farmers for use in tobacco curing barns. Later, he could tour around telling you who owned what store when. He just knew everyone.
Aunt Beulah’s husband, Joe, was head of the maintenance department at Annie Penn Hospital in Reidsville. When he moved to Mount Airy, North Carolina to be head of the maintenance department at the hospital there, Uncle Paul took his job at Annie Penn Hospital.
During prohibition, several of the brothers bought whiskey in the mountains and delivered and sold it down in the Piedmont. They would describe it casually, saying they sort of just fell into it. Lots of folks did it then and it was easy to get into.
My mother felt the need to help the family by making her own living and establishing a house. So, she dropped out of school after 10th grade and worked. She married Alley Paschal at 16 and they rented a farm. It was mostly a tobacco farm but grew other crops and had livestock. They would have a daughter, but eventually my mother divorced him and went out on her own with her daughter. I always thought that was a bold move, initiating divorce at a time when most women did not do so. This move actually carried her away from her siblings as she moved on to Roanoke, Virginia and then Raleigh.
Eventually, Mary and James quit farming, bought a lot and built Brande’s Grocery in the early 1940s. They had a house right next to the store. The school bus picked students up at the store. Uncle Mylard helped Uncle James build the store. A business still operates out of the original building, and family members have said if you in the current establishment you can still see ceiling beams they installed. Much later, Vernell ended up with a house and large yard across the street, so there was a bit of family enclave there for awhile.
During the early years of the 20s – the 60s the siblings remained very close, with large family gatherings happening at their different homes. As their children grew up, with many moving out of the area, the regularity of these expanded family gatherings grew less frequent, but, if my mother is representative of the siblings, the sense of belonging to the Bondurants in the North Carolina Piedmont remained strong. She married my father and ended up living in Japan, San Francisco, and Baltimore. I never even met any of my aunts, uncles, and cousins until I was at least 11, but my mother remained very emotionally connected to her roots.
I wanted to give a glimpse of the struggle my mother and her siblings faced because it was such a formative experience for the generation of my mother, uncles, and aunts. One of the outstanding characteristics of them all that I have heard expressed many times was that despite how hard it was they never became bitter. They faced the struggle of remaining a family and moving on with humor, hard work, and a lot of love. I don’t recall my mother or the others ever saying “Don’t ever give up,” or “Nothing can beat you if you don’t let it,” but I think their lives exemplified those sentiments.
This approach to life became most clear to me when decades later, after my mother was dead, I discovered a letter from my Aunt Vivian (Robert’s wife). They had returned to North Carolina after my father’s funeral in Arlington National Cemetery, and wrote immediately. Much of the letter was normal family communication, but one section stood out. Apparently, either my brother or me had asked my mother in front of my Uncle Robert should anything happen to her what would become of us. Aunt Vivian wrote that while no answer to such a question is perfect, my mother should know that she can answer that Robert and she “would certainly see to it that they would have a home with us if they could accept us.”
It must have been very comforting to my mother that after so many years away she could count on her family to such a degree. When I discovered that letter so many years later I realized what a large thing that offer was. They could not have seen me more than a couple times before my father died, but you are never alone because family simply helps family, and you do it with love.