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Look forward with hope, not bitterness
SoVaNow.com / February 27, 2013When George Sizemore was born in 1919, many African-Americans in Southside Virginia suffered under the twin hardships of segregation and poverty. Yet to Sizemore, the son of a slave, the future marked a time of opportunity for black people in America.
“I knew segregation was bad, but I didn’t live by what had happened, but for what could happen and how I could make things better,” said Sizemore, now 93 and a resident of the Buffalo Junction area.
“I also never felt inferior. Make no mistake, we were poor …. Picture a six foot tall black man in church with no shoes and only a pair of knee breeches.” But rather than hardships, Sizemore recounted what he calls the blessings in his life — a chance for an education, an opportunity to own land and be his own boss, and the love of family and a supportive community in the predominantly African-American town of Averett.
Sizemore’s father was born in 1858 on a farm near Cow Road in Buffalo Junction, during America’s time of slavery. His father, Benjamin Sizemore, who died in his seventies when George was 12 years old, did not dwell on his early years in bondage, except to once recount how his father, George Sizemore’s grandfather, also a slave, was forced to bring him to see a lynching.
When Sizemore was born, his father, by then a free man, had moved from Cow Road to a newly formed community known as Averett. Today the site is marked by a white house at the intersection of White House Road and Highway 49, Wharton Memorial Church and cemetery, and a scattering of houses.
Sizemore says Averett boasted the first black postmaster in the state of Virginia. The community was the “idea and ideal” of a man named George Wharton, who moved to the area from Altoona, Pa. in 1880 to teach school. Soon after his arrival, he organized a Sunday school, out of which was born the church now known as Wharton Memorial. Originally, it was called Beautiful Plains Baptist Church.
Sizemore said Wharton wanted to provide opportunity, independence and self-sufficiency for black families living in the area. Towards that end, he purchased a large tract of land — Sizemore believes it was around 500 acres — which he subdivided and sold to families attending the Beautiful Plains Church.
Sizemore’s father bought one of the tracts, about 64 acres, which he farmed, growing tobacco and cotton, as well as food items for the family and community. Sizemore still lives in the home his father built, but gave up farming three years ago. “It got to be too much.”
He still maintains the cemetery for Wharton Memorial, something he has done for 57 years.
Except for a couple of white families, Averett was an all-black community. Still, Sizemore said he never felt deprived under segregation. There was an elementary school and a general store. Averett had a ball field and baseball club, and of course, the church.
Beginning in 1913, George Wharton created the Rural Realty Company, a corporation owned by people living in Averett that bought and sold real estate. When it existed, the corporation bought and sold over 3,000 acres of land.
The family had little need to travel to Clarksville or nearby Nelson — which was a known meeting place for the local Ku Klux Klan.
You knew who was a member of the Klan and who wasn’t by the way you were treated, recalls Sizemore. “I was never afraid, because we” — his family and friends — “stuck together as a group, and when you stay together people will leave you alone.” His only brush with the Klan came in 1922 when the community was building the Wharton Memorial brick church. “They put Klan symbols on the road by the church.”
Growing up, there was little time for play. In addition to cash crops of tobacco and cotton, his father raised chickens, cows, and hogs, and grew vegetables for the family. “We all had chores,” said Sizemore, referring to himself and his two sisters, Mary and Flora. Two older sisters, Esther and Elsie, were born deaf and were sent to school in Newport News when the youngest was 7 and the oldest 9.
Family members also taught him how to forage in the wild for food such as nuts, wild strawberries, and persimmons.
After graduating from elementary school, Sizemore attended West End High School in Clarksville. From there he went to Drawer Technology School in West Virginia to learn a trade. While at Drawer, he was drafted into the Army.
Trained as a firefighter, Sizemore spent several months in England during the periods of heaviest German bombing. Four days after D-Day, he and his platoon — which was all-black because the Army was still segregated — landed in Normandy. Sizemore spent the rest of the war fighting in France.
After the war and a brief stint in New York, Sizemore returned home to Averett. He said he could have stayed in New York with his three sisters, where there were more opportunities for African-Americans, but realized, “I’m an outdoorsman. When I’m out with the birds and the bees, I’m happy.”
Instead, he returned to Southside Virginia. Despite his wartime service to his country, he was still treated differently because of the color of his skin. “There used to be a train that travelled between Clarksville and Oxford, North Carolina. Blacks had to sit in the front of the train, because that is where the soot fell,” Sizemore recalled. “And we had to sit in the back of the bus, because that is where the exhaust was.” If he wanted to see a movie in Clarksville, he entered through a side door and sat in the balcony.
Again, Sizemore chose to focus on the positive, not the negative. As a veteran, he was able to receive additional education, so he studied agriculture for three years at a school of agriculture in Chase City. He then farmed for two years before accepting a job with Laughlin-Sutton Construction Company in Greensboro, N.C. The company built factories and water plants, including parts of Robbins Mill in Clarksville.
Society may be slow to change attitudes, and individuals may go to their graves clinging to hate and hard-heartedness for their fellow human beings of different races and ethnicities, but not Sizemore. He said he lives by the philosophy taught to him by his mother: “Remember, it starts at home with love and discipline, you can’t fix what’s wrong by being evil, and the only way to improve your life is to be educated.”
- By Sylvia Brinkley on 02 / 27 / 13
CommentsThanks for spotlighting my "cuz" -- one of the wisest people I know.
- By Bill Sizemore on 03 / 01 / 13
CommentsI knew Mr. Sizemore when I was growing up in Clarksville. He and my father, Albert Farrar, were friends.
They would carry on conversations for hours but I never heard them speak evil of anyone. They talked of a better world. Glad to see Mr. Sizemore again.
- By Audrey Farrar Clayton on 03 / 07 / 13
CommentsI worked with George during the summer of 1970 at Cone Mills in Greensboro, NC while in college. He was one of the finest men I ever knew. Glad to know he is still hammering nails somewhere.
- By Steven Honeycutt on 08 / 02 / 13
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