(This cover story appeared in the Mountain Xpress, Vol. 8, No. 15: Nov. 14 to Nov. 20, 2001.)
The last time Carmable Revels saw her little brother, he was a red-haired, freckle-faced 6-year old. That was not long after their mother died in 1934–a family tragedy that sent the siblings first into different homes, and then into separate lives.
More than 60 years later, Carmable is finally learning what became of the child she affectionately called Sonny Boy, thanks to the efforts of a persistent oral historian at Eliada Homes in Asheville, N.C. –and a bit of luck.
The tale would be worth telling even if her brother hadn’t been such a mischievous, larger-then-life figure to his fellow orphans at Eliada Homes. It would be worth repeating even if he hadn’t gone on to become a decorated soldier who died at 28 while saving a child from drowning. The story of Carmable and Furman Williams, Jr., her brother, contains all of that. But at its heart is an account of a woman who lovingly held onto the memory of her brother, always hoping that one day she’d discover his fate.
Long Ago and Far Away
On a recent bright October afternoon, Carmable is sitting in a hotel room at the Mountaineer Inn in Asheville, N.C., whose owner helped sponsor her family’s visit. But her mind is hundreds of miles and decades away.
A soft-spoken woman with warm hazel eyes and silver hair pulled back in a grandmotherly bun, she is awash in memories of her lost little brother.
“Sonny Boy was always on my mind. Today, he’s in here,” she says, clasping her hands to her heart. Then she adds, in a quivering voice, “Even though he’s gone, he’s still in my heart.”
Though she is physically and emotionally exhausted, Carmable is eager to talk about her brother, the only one of her siblings she really felt close to. She got about an hour of sleep the previous night, before she and seven members of her family set out to drive from her home in Pembroke, N.C. to Asheville. Accompanied by Cliff Davids, the Director of Eliada’s Oral History Project, one of the first stops of the day was at her brother’s grave in Green Hills Cemetery, out near Eliada in West Asheville.
“That was good,” she says, groping for words. “That was something I really wanted to happen for a good many years.”
The next day, there will be a military ceremony at Eliada Homes, where Furman will be honored and Carmable will have a chance to meet his orphanage brothers and sisters.
But on this afternoon, Carmable speaks candidly of her family’s hardscrabble roots in Depression era Robeson County, a time where whites, blacks, and Lumbee Indians had separate water fountains, public restrooms, and seating areas in movie theaters. Though her mother, Mary Jane Chavis Williams, had both Scottish and Lumbee Indian ancestors, she and her children were considered Indian-and disparagingly referred to as “Croatan.”
It wasn’t an easy time on the home front, either. After Carmable’s father died, her mother married Quitman Furman Williams, a white man from a prominent family. Sonny Boy entered the world at a robust 13 pounds, and the 6-year-old Carmable’s new brother was the darling of his father’s eye.
When asked about her memories of Sonny Boy, Carmable brightens at the thought of “a little boy running around” wearing a homemade apron sewn by their mother.
But she also recalls the times when her mother would go off in search of her husband, leaving the children alone in the house. “I was scared of the dark,” Carmable remembers. “She had a big cabinet, and we’d get behind that cabinet until she came back.”
Her mother died when Carmable was 12 and Sonny Boy was 6. And despite her mother’s wish that her youngest children would stay together, Carmable was sent to live with an older sister, while Sonny Boy stayed with his father.
“She never wanted the two of us to be separated,” Carmable says sadly.
For a while, Carmable still got to see Sonny Boy when his father brought the youngster over to her sister’s house. But in 1938, Sonny Boy’s father died.
A family friend looked after the boy for the next few months until he wound up in the care of the local welfare office. Carmable’s uncles tried unsuccessfully to adopt him. So did her mother’s sister, but neighbors reported that the woman didn’t have a “fit home.”
In the end, family friend Janie Hargrave arranged to have Sonny Boy sent to the Eliada Orphanage in Asheville- a fact not revealed to Carmable until the Spring of 2000. He was adopted by Eliada in 1939.
As a teenager, Carmable tried to pump Miss Janie’s housekeeper for information about her brother, to no avail.
“I had nothing,” Carmable laments, “I could do nothing, and I had nobody to help me.” An aunt promised to look up Sonny Boy’s birth certificate, but Carmable now doubts the woman ever made the effort.
And though she felt frustrated for so many years by her unsuccessful attempts to learn what had happened to her brother, Carmable doesn’t question the decision to place him in the orphanage.
“I’m glad he was brought up here,” she says now. “My sister wasn’t a mother to me. I ran away I don’t know how many times… I left when I was 16 and never did go back.”
‘An incredible sense of adventure’
Meanwhile, her brother was making a name for himself at was then called Eliada Home for Children, an orphanage and working farm led by the Rev. Lucius Bunyan Compton. Compton’s first project, back in 1903, had been to provide a home for “unfortunate” women; he later expanded that vision into caring for orphaned children.
An old promotional brochure for Eliada features her brother’s cherubic face, crowned by a mop of red curls. Those ringlets earned him a new nickname: Curly. Another photo shows a row of boys milking cows, with Curly’s smiling face peering at the camera. In yet another, the boy is seated on Blackie, a horse few others could mount.
The stories told about Curly are as lively as his expression in Eliada’s collection of black-and-white photos. As part of his research for the oral history project, Davids has collected some of those stories. (Careful not to take sides, Davids refers to the boy only by his given name.)
In one adventure, Davids tells of Furman leading an Eliada cow into a classroom.
“The teacher got so angry at him that she chased him,” says Davids. And though she grabbed onto his sweater, the boy adroitly slipped out it and ran from the room.
Eliada alumni also report that when a particular “sister” at the home fell ill, Furman faithfully visited her at the hospital.
“This is a kid who had an incredible sense of adventure, “ observes Davids, along with deep devotion to his Eliada brothers and sisters. “He was this very unusual combination.”
At age 17, Furman enlisted in the Army, going on to fight in the Korean War. While stationed in Korea, he received a chest full of medals: The Silver Star, the Bronze Star (with a “V” signifying heroism in action) and a Purple Heart, along with three Presidential Unit Citations.
A certain fearlessness comes through in the accounts of how Furman earned those honors, as detailed in newspaper clippings saved by Eliada Homes. They also detail his progression through the ranks.
The Bronze Star was awarded for his actions on June 2, 1951 near Pangori, Korea. “His squad attacked an enemy-held position and was pinned down by a vicious stream of fire from an enemy automatic weapon.” the article states. “Private Williams disregarded his personal safety, braved the fusillade of enemy bullets and left the safety of his foxhole. He moved forward and killed the enemy soldier with his rifle…Private Williams’ daring and aggressive actions enabled the unit to seize it’s objective.”
On September 7, 1951 his company was attacked near Chorwon, Korea, by a “numerically superior force.” The clipping quotes a citation accompanying his Silver Star, which reads in part: “In one of the overwhelmed sectors, the weapon of an automatic rifleman failed. Corporal Williams, occupying the adjacent position, unhesitatingly left the comparative safety of his dug-in position and attacked the onrushing enemy with grenades and rifle fire.”
A hand injury (the details of which weren’t reported) apparently won the young man the Purple Heart.
When on leave from the Army, Furman would return to Eliada for visits. He always wore his medals, reports Davids, which thrilled the children. Furman also contributed some of his Army earnings to the orphanage, sending donations that were used to help outfit the orphanage chapel.
The last clipping shows a photo of an older Williams, smiling in his uniform. It briefly recounts Furman’s death, reporting that Sgt. First Class Furman Williams Jr. drowned July 11, 1959 while swimming in a river in Germany.
But that was only part of the story. Though Davids hasn’t yet tracked down all the documentation, alumni report that Furman drowned in the Rhine River saving the life of a child who had fallen into the water.
Meanwhile, Carmable married and went on with her life, though she was still preoccupied with trying to find out about her brother.
After his death, an article appeared in Lumberton’s daily newspaper The Robesonian, saying that an unnamed Robeson County native had drowned in Germany. Thinking he might be Sonny Boy, Carmable’s husband wrote a letter to Washington and was given the name of Grace Green, the secretary at Eliada Homes.
Carmable wrote to Green, she says, but never received an answer. The lack of response bothers her even now. But though Davids says he hasn’t been able to find Carmable’s letter in the archives, he does note that then, as now, adoption information isn’t always forthcoming.
Meanwhile, even though she had no hard proof, Carmable says she sensed that her brother had died.
“I’d get him on my mind and cry, cry, cry,” she recalls.
Then in the spring of 2001- nearly 42 years after her brother’s death, a peculiar set of circumstances finally enabled Carmable to learn the truth. The final chapter began when Fred Kurfees, who’d grown up with Furman at Eliada Homes, approached Davids last year. Pulling a bag out of his pocket, he displayed three war medals.
“He told me those medals belonged to one of his Eliada brothers, that his name was Furman Williams Jr., that he was a war hero and that I should check into his life.” Davids says. “And that’s when the journey started.”
From Furman’s Eliada file Davids learned that Furman had come from Lumberton on the recommendation of Janie Hargrave. After following several trails in the Lumberton area, Davids turned to the Lumbee Tribal Enrollment Office. “They were immediately fascinated and interested in helping me out,” he says.
Soon after, someone in the Tribal Enrollment Office pulled out Carmable’s file (one of about 50,000 there) by mistake; it contained the name Mary Jane Chavis Williams, Furman and Carmable’s mother. The director of the office, who just happened to be walking by at the moment, noticed the name and alerted Carmable’s daughter, Joyce Locklear, who also works there.
The director showed Joyce a photo of Furman that Davids had dropped off. Joyce immediately noted the strong family resemblance to one of her nephews.
“He had so many features like Furman, it’s unreal,” says Joyce. “I just freaked out. My God—she’s waited for years, how am I going to tell her”?
Joyce (who also is adopted) thought on it overnight and called her mother the next day to report the good news. Carmable, she says, was shocked.
A month later, Davids drove to Pembroke to meet with Carmable, bringing photos and information that had eluded her for half a century.
“I was able to tell her what happened to her brother,” says Davids. “She told me she had prayed every day of her life to find out what happened.”
Offers Carmable: “I was just overjoyed. I was so overjoyed, I couldn’t cry.”
Curiously, Carmable had remembered her brother as having straight hair, not curls. And even after several months, the emotions that well up make it hard for her to look at her brother’s photos.
Meanwhile, Carmable now has a special regard for Davids, the man who brought her closer to her brother after so many years. “Cliff will never know how much he means to me. He will always be in my heart, too. He feels like family.”
Still, Joyce describes the whole experience as bittersweet. Though her mother was happy to know he’d been successful, it was heartbreaking for her to learn he’d grown up only a half-days drive away in Asheville.
Brothers and Sisters meet
The day after their arrival in Asheville, Carmable and her family are sitting together in the Eliada Homes gymnasium as they wait for the start of the military honor ceremony, staged in conjunction with Eliada’s annual Fall Festival.
The event, held less than a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks, features the Asheville High School color-guard unit, the singing of the national anthem, and remarks by Eliada Homes President Stuart Humphrey, U.S. Rep Charles Taylor, and retired General Donald V. Bennett.
Obviously unused to official acts of kindness, Carmable is marveling that a police officer actually gave her a ride in his patrol car from the parking lot to the gym.
“That was real nice,” she whispers before the event begins. “Back home, I don’t think they would have done that.” (In fact, she will later learn that, in honor of Furman, she and her family were invited to ride in a car in their local Veteran’s Day Parade this year.)
The ceremony begins, and Carmable wipes away a tear as local Eliada alumnus John David Carter leads the group in the pledge of allegiance.
The family listens appreciatively to the speeches and stands proudly to be recognized as Furman’s family. Then, after a rifle salute, the mournful tones of taps conclude the event.
As the smell of gunpowder wafts into the gym, Fred Kurfees, a genial man with a shock of silver hair, approaches Carmable with a smile and an outstretched hand.
“He was a good boy,” Fred tells Carmable, who hangs on every word. “He was a nice gentleman. Be proud of him. We were good friends; we were very close.”
“He enjoyed life,” adds Fred.
“I’m glad he did,” she says.
Carmable peppers Fred with questions, voicing a worry that has been bothering her.
“Was he ever bad to drink?” she asks anxiously.
“No, he did not.” Fred replies reassuringly.
Other local Eliada Alumni gather around to share memories of the boy they knew as Curly, while Carmable recounts her efforts to find her brother.
They also touch on Furman’s death in the Rhine River. “He brought the child up and went back down,” notes sister Christine Tilley Sellers.
John David Carter, who goes by his middle name, remembers how he admired Curly, four years his senior, who would visit Eliada when he was home on leave from Germany.
“I got elected to shine his boots,” David recalls with a smile. “He paid me a dollar.”
His loyalty to his Eliada brother continues to this day. David still has Furman’s dog tags and visits his grave once a month.
“He was something special,” David tells Carmable.
“I’m glad I could meet his family,” she replies.
After the group splits up, Carmable walks with her family to pose for pictures in front of the brick dormitory where her brother used to live. Her face lights up with pride when she’s asked to hold up a portrait of her smiling brother.
After all these years, she seems at peace, finally knowing what became of her Sonny Boy.
“I hope he’s at rest with the Lord,” she says softly. “I think if he’s gone to heaven, maybe we’ll be together one day.”
To learn more about the family tragedy that brought Furman Williams, Jr. to the Eliada Orphanage, please click on the following story at:
Very nice work.
Heart wrenching, but a great story! Its sad to know that the siblings lived so close to each other, yet were unaware. But it has a happy ending because the sister knows the story now and has some priceless medals to remember her brother by.
Finally I’m finding time to get caught up on the Eliada series. This is a wonderful story, albeit bittersweet. It’s gratifying to think that Carmable’s town shows a more tolerant stance than in years gone by. I refer to the parade ride mentioned. Growing up in the South myself, I understand the subtle ways there are to keep people “in their place.” As for you, Mr. Davids, how gratifying it must be for you to know you and your work have made such a difference in Carmable’s life as well as many others probably. A story like this is a wonderful testament.
Finally, I note in the photographs of the residents that the children were well groomed and dressed–way more than the kids in my own grandparents’ families and even my own for many years. I remember flood-length tattered overalls and ill-fitting and mis-matched hand-me-downs (usually from older siblings). Are you able to fill in with any information about how these needs were met?
Thanks for your comment. Lucius Bunyan Compton was proud of the fact that he ran Eliada Orphanage by “faith,” with no governmental assistance or intervention.
The people I spoke with who grew up there during the war years remembered three square meals a day while their classmates often came to school cold and hungry. The Eliada children may have been orphans, but in many ways ways they were better off than so many others during those trying times.
Beautiful story, well done.
What a wonderful story and so well written. I am doing family research and this story is very helpful.