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Look back, but move forward
SoVaNow.com / February 12, 2014At the fine age of 92, Marie Overbey Boswell has seen the good and bad of Southside Virginia over the course of her long lifetime. After she attended a recent lecture on the life of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., memories of growing up in the segregated South came flooding back for the Clarksville resident. Through it all, though, Boswell said she has strived to follow Dr. King’s admonition to keep “moving forward.”
In some ways, Boswell’s life story is atypical among African-Americans in the region. Her grandfather was something of a celebrity in Southside Virginia: born a slave, James Overbey grew up to become chef at the Buffalo Lithia Springs resort near Clarksville.
Buffalo Lithia Springs Resort operated as a health spa with a reputation for healing waters and fine food from 1820 until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers purchased the land in 1949. Much of the resort was later flooded under the John H. Kerr Reservoir.
“The end of Buffalo Springs [Resort] came before the land was bought for the lake,” Boswell said as she recalled an episode that represents an all-too-familiar story in the South. “It happened when a [white] girl staying there [at Buffalo Springs] accused a black man of flirting with her. He was framed, but these white men tied him up and dragged him behind their car. The place was never the same after that.”
Boswell remembers her grandfather as “good looking and very stylish” dressed in pin stripe suits, white shirts and alligator shoes. He drove the countryside in his Model T Ford and on Sundays would come by her home on Cow Road. He would then drive her family back to the resort for the day.
While her grandfather was renowned for his skills as a chef, Boswell said her grandmother was the real cook of the family: “You’d walk into a house filled with smells of roast beef and pound cake. It smelled so good.” In the “parlor,” Boswell’s grandfather would entertain people by playing music of the day on his Victrola.
Despite her grandfather’s celebrity status, in many ways Boswell’s early life was no different from other African-Americans in Southside Virginia.
If Boswell and her sisters and brother wanted to attend school, they had to walk four miles each way. “The white children rode a bus, but we had to walk,” Boswell recalled. She also remembers being taunted by the white children who spit at her and hollered racial epithets out the bus window. The bus drivers were no better, she said: Often they would try to run her and other African-American children off the road. “We would have to jump in the ditches on the side of the road to escape,” Boswell said.
When the children arrived at school in the winter, they were often cold. The coal furnace that heated their two-room school was of little help. “I remember the smaller children crying, their hands and feet aching from the cold.” Their teacher, Mrs. Bell Jones, would cradle the children, rubbing their hands to bring them warmth.
Boswell said her father “wasn’t much into education,” so her formal schooling ended with the seventh grade. West End High School was not yet built, and her father did not see the benefit of sending her or her siblings to the Thyne Institute in Chase City. The Thyne Institute was the only local high school open to African-American students in the early 1930s when Boswell was completing the seventh grade.
This was Virginia in the 1930s and ‘40s — a world filled with pervasive racial prejudice and intimidation.
Schools were not the only segregated places in Southside Virginia at that time. Boswell remembers the local stores and “eating establishments” practicing their own form of discrimination: “If you had money, you could go into the stores, but you could not touch or try on the clothes. If you wanted to try on a pair of shoes, you had to wear a new pair of socks.”
Entrance to the Grace Hotel, which stood on the site now occupied by Wells Fargo Bank in Clarksville, was strictly forbidden for members of the African-American community. If the hotel did not realize a person was black, he or she could enter — as Boswell’s cousin once set out to prove.
Boswell recalled the day her sister, cousin and a friend of the cousin decided to have coffee at the Grace Hotel. “My cousin was from the north. She and her friend both looked very white. Nobody knew them, so they just walked right in. The hotel told my sister she had to go around to the back. When my father found out, he was angry, and asked them why they did that [had coffee in the hotel]. My cousin said she just wanted to see if she could.”
At the age of 21, Boswell married a local man whom she met at church. The two had five children together, but the marriage was not a happy one. In 1954, Boswell became part of the great migration of southern blacks moving north in search of a better life for her family. She spent the next 25 years as a housekeeper for a family in New Jersey, and raised the four sons.
She returned to Clarksville for a brief period in 1979. She came to help her daughter who was in the throes of a divorce, and to care for her aging parents. Family squabbles left her “with nowhere to live.” At the urging of a friend, Boswell again moved north, this time to Philadelphia. She stayed there 20 years working at “the best job of my life,” caring for an older couple.
Upon her retirement, Boswell returned to Clarksville to be close to her children. Looking back on her life in the south, she says, “there were good times and bad times. Sad things went on, things I don’t like to think about” — but she persevered.
Boswell recently reread King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Although the families she worked for over the years treated her with kindness and respect, Boswell said prejudice has always been a part of her world, as the citizen of a nation where all too often people are judged by the color of their skin, not by the content of their character.
These days, Boswell said, she prefers to dwell on the pride she has for her sons who served their country in the military — two in Vietnam — and for her daughter, who retired from “a good career in medical field working for Duke University Hospital.” The same sense of pride is evident with her oldest son, who is following in his great grandfather’s footsteps — as a cook at Cedar Grove Plantation near Clarksville.
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