Janie Carlysle Hargrave sat down at her writing desk on that cold winter night in 1939, thinking about the series of tragic events and bad decisions that had brought her to this moment. Furman Williams, Jr., who was currently fast asleep in the Community Home for Children on the other side of Lumberton, N.C., had just become an orphan and a ward of the state. Miss Janie knew there was only one option left –the time had come for her to call in a huge favor from a dear old friend.
Furman Jr. had entered into the world on September 21, 1932 at a strapping thirteen pounds. His birth certificate said he was legitimate, but that didn’t even begin to tell the story. Now six years old, he was of average height, but sturdily built with strong legs and arms. His cherubic, freckled face was topped with a head of tight reddish curls, and the wide-open smile and cheerful disposition he owned seemed far too innocent for a six-year-old who had no mother or father, no prospects, and no place to call home. Her heart went out to him.
Miss Janie looked at the blank piece of paper in front of her, and started writing a letter to her spiritual father and founder of the Eliada Orphanage in Asheville, North Carolina—the Reverend Lucius Bunyan Compton, and his wife Mama Edith.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Compton:
I’ve wanted to write a letter to you about a young boy here. The son of a very prominent family in town, leading people, took to drink, married an Indian woman, and this child was born. The father, an ex-World War veteran and the first commander of the Legion Post here, recently died. His wife died some time ago.
Now, the question is what to do with the boy. Could you, would you take him in? The welfare department will give you papers for him and get him to you. Please pray about it before you say no. They have been after me and after me to try to get him placed, and I want to send him to you.
I wish you’d come and visit me and my husband—oh how I’d love for you to come. Could you? You know I’m one of you’re old children.
Please let me hear from you soon, and do say yes if you feel it is to be his will.
Janie Carlyle Hargrave
Miss Janie sat back in her chair and closed her eyes. She vividly remembered Quitman Furman Williams, the boy’s father. Groomed to take over the family banking business, he was considered a fixture in the community. Energetic and smart, he was also something of a dandy, favoring bow ties with a folded kerchief in his suit pocket. Everyone called him “Snuffy” and he had been one of her favorites–he had assisted her many times over the years delivering the thousands of goodwill packages she regularly sent to the boys in service, as well as to missionaries in Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe.
When America entered the World War, Furman was one of the first men from Lumberton to sign up. He joined the National Guard’s Rainbow Division, a storied unit composed of men from all over the country. He shipped out to France in October 1917 and saw action immediately, fighting on the front lines throughout France and Germany and distinguishing himself in combat. Back home by 1919, he was nominated as the first Commander of the American Legion Post in Lumberton, which he gladly accepted.
An active veteran, he was on the committee that installed the World War Roster Plaque in the City Hall Building. Later on, he proudly stood on the podium next to Miss Janie while North Carolina Governor A.W. McLean dedicated the newly erected World War Veterans Monument in downtown Lumberton.
But Furman had not been the same after he returned from the war. His lungs had been damaged by mustard gas, and nightmares of mutilated bodies jumping out of the trenches haunted him almost every night. Unable to settle back into his prior routine, he was constantly agitated, and began to experience agonizing headaches.
He also began to spend his evenings on the other side of the Lumber river in South Lumberton, a place where he could lose himself to the pleasures of alcohol and women. His aunts, the matriarchs of the family, strongly disapproved of his nocturnal visits, but as the roaring twenties swept through Robeson County, he found himself “across river” more and more frequently.
Miss Janie also discouraged these evening visits. She was widely referred to in town as the “first lady of religious work,” and made sure Lumberton was “dry” during her lifetime–everyone knew she took her duties as the President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union seriously. But despite her efforts, the white lightening still flowed freely on the other side of the Lumber. And it was on one of his visits there that Furman first met Mary Jane Chavis.
Mary Jane was a member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe, a proud group that considers their ancestors among earliest settlers of the region, possibly even related to the descendents of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony. They are very much a people separate and apart in Robeson County, with their own distinct culture and vernacular. Family ties among the Lumbee are valued above all else, and multiple generations often live under one roof, or on family owned land. But when Mary Jane first met Snuffy in 1930, she was a struggling forty-year-old mother with three young children. Her first husband, who knew about trouble and had a long history with the law, was currently doing hard time in prison for first-degree murder.
In his absence, she managed to support herself and the children, including her oldest daughter Carmable, as a cook in Sally Jane Oxendine’s Café in Pembroke, North Carolina. She was also a bootlegger, and many of her clients came from Lumberton, just down the road. A heavyset woman, she had small but calloused hands that knew how to work the cotton fields–and when it was necessary, she could also handle a knife.
The Final Journey
Mary Jane and Furman began to see each other on a regular basis, and in January of 1932 she became pregnant. Unable to get married in North Carolina, they drove across the state line to Bennettsville, S.C. and got married there. Furman Jr. was born that September.
The family set up with Mary Jane’s brother, Sandy Chavis, a few miles down the road in Laurenburg. They moved from house to house over the next few years, never staying in one place for very long. Furman Sr. would float in and out of the family’s life, frequently taking up with other women. Mary Jane would then go and hunt him down in the early morning hours–and bring him stumbling back home.
And then in early 1934, after working a full day in the cotton fields, Mary Jane came home exhausted and complaining of stomach pain. She went to bed early that evening, and tragically died that night in her sleep from a uterine hemorrhage. At the wake, Carmable held her little brother up to see their mother for the last time, but he remained stoic. She didn’t see him cry until they had lowered Mary Jane into the ground.
With his wife dead, Snuffy was now completely cast adrift. Immediately after the funeral, he took Furman Jr. and disappeared. Carmable went to live with an older sister, and then bounced around from house to house for years until she settled down and married John Henry Junerkin in 1944, starting her own family.
Snuffy and Furman Jr. ended up moving into in the carriage house on the aunts’ property in West Lumberton, but not for long. The two elderly women were afraid of him and terrified of his drinking–it was rumored that one time he even went into the main house and shot up the fireplace. The sisters were worried he would burn the house down, or maybe worse. Most of all, they never accepted the boy as part of their family. Furman Sr. had become a complete embarrassment to them.
All the father and son had left were each other. People remember seeing the shy, quiet boy cling to his father as they walked hand in hand down Elm Street in Lumberton, passing the time. His father would buy him a snack at a little hotdog stand called Tom’s Place, where they sold “bread burgers” for 10 cents a piece. Sometimes the two of them would go down to the park and play if it wasn’t too hot. By then, Snuffy had been kicked out of the family business, and he and Furman, Jr. were no longer welcome to come around and visit.
He started drinking more and more heavily, and Furman Jr. soon had to learn to get by on his on wits. Finally, one morning in September 1938, Tom saw the little boy come running up to his hot dog stand. Furman Jr. was crying, saying his father wouldn’t wake up. Tom took him by the hand and went back to their room to find Snuffy dead. He took the boy away and called the police. Furman Jr. had finally reached the end of the family rope, and at the age of six become a full and true orphan.
Up in Asheville, the orphanage was slow responding to Miss Janie’s letter. Social Services couldn’t find any family on the father’s side willing to take the boy, and the idea of placing him with Mary Jane’s family never gained much traction. Her two uncles wanted him, but they both drank, and her aunt was deemed “unfit.” The evaluation report was dismissive of Mary Jane and her family, stating she was “an Indian from Scotland County…and persons here know very little about her relatives.”
But Grace Green, the executive secretary to Rev. Compton, was intrigued by the fact that Furman, Jr. was part Lumbee Indian. Although state regulations at the time required orphanages to remain segregated in North Carolina, this case was an exception–Janie Hargrave was a good and generous friend of Eliada and rarely asked for a favor. Miss Green spoke with Dad Compton and Mama Edith at length about how to handle the situation. Compton finally agreed to take the boy in and raise him, and Furman, Jr. was officially committed to Eliada Orphanage on February 9, 1939.
One month later, Mrs. Vernon Cottingham of the Board of Public Welfare in Robeson County arrived at Eliada with her traveling companion, six-year-old Furman Williams, Jr. He had been silent for the entire car trip, just staring out the window as the Blue Ridge Mountains came into view. As she pulled her blue Pontiac into the parking lot in front of the Main Administration Building, she couldn’t help but notice that the place was a mess. Trees were down, the road was partially washed out, and shingles were missing from the roof of the Little Girls’ Dormitory. It looked like a disaster had struck.
But the place was also buzzing with activity. The older girls were working in the garden, and the younger children were playing with hoops on the front lawn. A boy of about 15 was leading a dozen cows out to graze in an open field. She pulled Furman’s small suitcase out of the trunk, grabbed his hand, and went looking Miss Green.
Grace Green ran the place when Reverend Compton wasn’t there, which was much of the time. He was “The Mountain Evangelist” who supported his orphanage and rescue home by prayer and faith, supplemented with the offerings he received as he relentlessly traveled around the country spreading the Good Word. She stayed at home and managed the operations of the orphanage along with the dairy, the farm, and everything else. It was said she knew when each crop should be sown and harvested, how much each field should yield, and the amount of winter silage that needed to be put up to feed their prize-winning Guernsey cows. She was also able to step into any vacancy in any department at the orphanage, and was always ready to listen to an upset child’s concern or worry.
Mrs. Cottingham quickly found her helping another group of older girls clean the first floor dining room in the Big House. The room was filled with fifteen large wooden tables, and the plain, beat-up chairs had been stacked on top as the girls mopped the floor. One girl was leaning on the window ledge, cleaning the outside panes.
Miss Green looked around and saw Furman. She walked up to Mrs. Cottingham, spoke to her briefly, and then kneeled down and patted him on the head, straightening his coat. “Well, you’re a fine looking little boy, aren’t you?” Turning, she said, “Girls, here’s you’re new little brother Furman. Come over and say hello.”
While the older girls crowded around him, Mrs. Green turned to face his traveling companion. “I’m so sorry about the way we look. A cyclone struck us last month, and we’re only starting to get cleaned up. It was the Lord’s will that no-one was hurt.”
She smiled, and they both turned as the girls fussed over Furman. Some of them couldn’t help but touch his hair. They had never before seen such tight, reddish curls, and how he inherited those locks would become a hotly debated topic, both that afternoon and for years to come. Another girl giggled at his abundant collection of freckles. They were as red as his hair, and completely covered his face.
Miss Green interrupted, “All right girls, you can visit with him later in the playroom. Right now there is work to be done, eh?” She still hadn’t lost her Canadian accent after living in the Southern Appalachians for over a decade.
“Mrs. Cottingham, come with me please, and bring the little curly-haired one with you.” As they walked to the office, the girls called out “Goodbye, little Curly!” They turned to finish mopping the floor, arguing about who would clean up the new boy and get him ready for dinner that night.
Miss Green walked into the office and sat down at her desk. Furman’s paperwork was right on top. Now that Eliada had officially adopted him, this would be his home until he turned eighteen. She looked over the Application for Admission. It stated that both parents were deceased, and there was no caretaker or family home. It also said he had no brothers or sisters, and no relatives. Although Mary Jane’s name was listed as his mother, there was no additional family information given. The Chavis family had ceased to exist.
Miss Janie had also forwarded another letter, which Grace Green promptly read:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Compton:
I think of you both so often, and have meant to write many times, but alas for me, my intentions are often like pie crusts.
Concerning Furman Williams, Jr. there are some here who think he should share in his father’s part of the estate, and I promised to write you. I do not know, but people have ideas. It may be that because of the way his father acted, he may be cut off, but he is the only heir to his father. Anyway, Furman Sr. was a World War veteran, and should not the child receive compensation? If there is anything that should come to the child, some one should see about it, but because of the standing of the family in Lumberton, guess everyone holds off.
Ertel, my brother, is the district solicitor for four counties, including this county, and if the case were presented to him, I’m sure he would know something about it. I just suggest this to you. There may be nothing to it, and if not, anything done about it would be to no avail. But in any case, if you are ever this way, our home is open to you, and our hearts too.
Best wishes, HIS very best to you, not only now, but ALWAYS.
Janie C. Hargrave
Miss Green folded the letter and put it back in the file. Those matters were of no concern to her now. When he returned from his travels, Reverend Compton would pray about it and decide if anything needed to be done.
She looked up. The new kitchen staff needed instruction and there were bills to be paid–not to mention the eighty children that required her full and undivided attention. She needed to get back to work. Smiling, she took Curly’s hand and thought, “And now we have eighty-one.”
More than sixty years passed before Carmable discovered the tale of her little brother Furman. Find out for yourself by reading the MountainX story entitled, “Brother Lost, Brother Found” at: