Janie Carlysle Hargrave, widely known in Lumberton, N.C. as “the first lady of religious work,” sat down at her desk one evening in December of 1939, burdened by the series of tragic and unfortunate events that had over taken young Furman Williams, Jr. Both of his parents were now dead, and he was living as a ward of the state in the custody of the Community Home for Children. He had just become a full and true orphan.
His problem had also become her responsibility, and there was no solution in sight. But Miss Janie hoped she could find the boy a good home – the time had finally come to call in a huge favor from a old friend who lived in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Furman was born on September 21, 1932, and weighed in at a strapping thirteen pounds. His birth certificate said he was legitimate, but it was far more complicated than that. He was seven-years-old, average in height but sturdily built and strong for his age. His cherubic, freckled face was topped with a collection of tight reddish curls, and his wide open smile and cheerful disposition seemed far too innocent for a child who had now lost both of his parents. Miss Janie straightened up and then brought herself to the task at hand.
She looked at the blank piece of paper in front of her, composed her thoughts, and began writing a letter to Rev. Lucius Bunyan Compton, the head of the Eliada Orphanage in Asheville, N.C. and a man known far and wide as the “Mountain Evangelist.”
Dear Mr. 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 leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. She vividly remembered Quitman Furman Williams, the boy’s father. Groomed to take over the family’s banking business, he was a fixture in the local community. Energetic and smart, he was also a bit of a dandy, favoring showy bow ties with a kerchief in his suit pocket. They called him “Snuffy,” and he had been one of her favorites. He was always willing to help her to prepare the care packages that she sent to the boys in service, as well as to the Christian missionaries scattered throughout the world.
When America entered the World War in April of 1917, Furman was among 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 distinguished himself in combat on the front lines throughout France and Germany. He returned home after the war ended in 1919, and was quickly nominated to be the first commander of the Lumberton American Legion Post.
Williams was an active veteran, and he served 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 Janie Hargrave while Governor A.W. McLean dedicated the newly built World War Veterans Monument in downtown Lumberton.
But he wasn’t well. His lungs had been damaged from exposure to mustard gas, and he suffered from horrific nightmares almost every night, with agonizing headaches that practically blinded him. He began to spend his evenings on the other side of the Lumber River in South Lumberton, a place where he could lose himself to pleasures of alcohol and women. His aunts, the matriarchs of the family, were both highly critical of his lifestyle, but he continued to venture “across river” more and more often.
Miss Janie also discouraged these evening visits. A committed teetotaler, she took her duties as the President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union seriously. But despite her best efforts, Furman continued to journey across town. It was during one of those visits that he met Mary Jane Chavis.
Mary Jane was a member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe, a group that considers their ancestors to be among earliest settlers of the region, possibly even the direct descendants of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony. They hold themselves to be separate and apart in Robeson County, proud of their distinct culture and vernacular. When Mary Jane first met Furman in 1930, she was a struggling 40-year-old mother with three young children. Her first husband, with a long history of violence, had been convicted of first-degree murder and was serving a life sentence in prison.
In his absence, she supported herself and her children, including her oldest girl Carmable, as a cook in Sally Jane Oxendine’s café in Pembroke, N.C. She also made extra cash as a bootlegger, and many of the clients she served came from nearby Lumberton. She was a tough and capable woman who was handy with a knife, more than able to defend herself and her family if she had to.
The Final Journey
Mary Jane and Furman began to see each other on a regular basis, and she became pregnant. Unable to marry in North Carolina, they drove across the state line to Bennettsville, S.C. and were married there. Furman Jr. was born in the fall of 1932.
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 the same place for very long. Furman Sr. would float in and out of the family’s life, frequently taking up with other women, always with a bottle in his hand.
And then in early 1934, after working a full day in the cotton fields, Mary Jane came home complaining of stomach pain. Later that evening, she died in her sleep from a uterine hemorrhage. At the funeral, Carmable held Furman up so he could see his mother for the last time. The distraught child didn’t cry until she was finally lowered into the ground.
When Mary Jane died, Snuffy lost his moorings. After the funeral, he took his son and quietly left. Carmable moved in with an older sister, moving around between her relatives and family friends. She finally settled down and started her own family in 1944 after marrying a man named John Henry Junerk.
Furman and his son ended up moving into in the carriage house on his aunts’ property in West Lumberton. The two elderly women were afraid of him and terrified of his drinking – the story was told that he once stumbled into the main house in a drunken rage and shot up the fireplace. The sisters were constantly worried that he would burn the house down, and they never accepted the boy as part of their family. Both the father and the son had become an embarrassment.
People remember seeing the shy, quiet child clinging 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. If it wasn’t too hot, they would go down to the park. Furman was eventually kicked out of the family business, becoming a pariah in the community.
He started drinking more heavily, and his son had to learn how to fend for himself. Finally, early one morning in September 1938, Tom saw the little boy come running up to his hot dog stand. He was crying, saying he couldn’t wake up his sleeping father. The coroner determined that Snuffy had died in his sleep due to his severe alcoholism. The WWI veteran had been only 46 years old, and his son Furman Jr. had now reached the end of the line. At the tender age of six, he was now a full orphan.
Back in Asheville, Revered Compton was slow in 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 any traction. Both of her uncles were alcoholics, and her aunt was deemed “unfit.” The social worker at the Welfare Dept. was dismissive of Mary Jane and her family, writing, “She is 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. Although state regulations at the time required that orphanages remain segregated, she considered this case to be an exception. Janie Hargrave was a generous friend to Eliada and rarely asked for a favor. Miss Green spoke with Compton about the situation, and they finally agreed to take the boy in and adopt him. Furman was officially committed to Eliada Orphanage on February 9, 1939. He had finally found a stable home.
One month later, Mrs. Vernon Cottingham of the Board of Public Welfare in Robeson County arrived at Eliada with her six-year-old companion. Furman had been silent for the entire car trip, quietly staring out the window as the Blue Ridge Mountains came into view. As she pulled her car into the parking lot by the Main Administration Building, she was surprised to see that the orphanage appeared to be in terrible shape. Many of the trees were down, the main road was partially washed out, and there were multiple shingles missing from the roof of the Little Girls’ Dormitory.
But the place was also buzzing with activity. The older girls were working in the garden, and the younger children were playing out on the front lawn. A teenage boy was leading a herd of cows out to graze. She quickly pulled Furman’s small suitcase out of the trunk, firmly took his hand, and went looking for the person in charge.
Grace Green ran the home in Compton’s absence. He was known for his fiery sermons, and he supported his orphanage and rescue home by prayer and faith, supplemented with the offerings he received as he relentlessly traveled around the country preaching the gospel. Miss Green knew when each crop needed to be sown and harvested, how much each field should yield, and the amount of winter silage required to feed their prize winning herd of Guernseys. She was able to fill any vacancy in any department at any time, and was always available to lend an sympathetic ear to a distraught child.
Mrs. Cottingham found her helping a group of the older girls as they cleaned the first floor dining room in the Big House. The room was filled with fifteen large wooden tables, and the chairs had been stacked on top as the girls mopped the floor. One of them was leaning far out on a window ledge, cleaning the dirt off the outside panes.
Miss Green looked around and saw Furman. She walked straight 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. Come over and say hello.”
While the older girls crowded around him, Miss Green turned to the social worker. “I’m so sorry about our appearence. A cyclone struck us last month, and we haven’t quite gotten everything cleaned up yet. It was the Lord’s will that no-one was hurt.”
They turned their attention to Furman. The girls were marveling at his thick head of hair. They had never seen such a collection of tight, reddish curls before. One of the girls giggled at his abundence of freckles. They were the same color as his hair, and completely covered his face. The Mrs. Cottingham noted that he was enjoying all of the attention.
Miss Green interrupted, “All right girls, you can visit with him later. Right now there is still more cleaning to be done, eh?” Although she had lived and worked in the mountains of Western North Carolina for over a decade, she hadn’t lost her pronounced Canadian accent, and the children loved to tease her about it.
“Mrs. Cottingham, come with me please, and bring the little curly-headed one with you.” As they walked to the office, the girls sung out “Goodbye, little Curly!” They turned to finish mopping the floor, arguing about who would wash up the new boy and get him ready for dinner that night.
Miss Green walked into the office and sat down at her desk. Now that Eliada had officially adopted him, this would be his home until he turned 18. She looked over his Application for Admission. It stated that both parents were deceased, and declared that he had no caretaker or family home. It also said he had no brothers or sisters. Although Mary Jane’s name was listed as his mother, there was no additional information given. The Chavis family had been stricken from the official record.
Miss Janie had also forwarded another letter:
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 Rev. Compton returned from his travels, he would pray about it and decide if anything should be done. She looked up. The new kitchen staff required instruction and there were bills to be paid – not to mention the 80 children that needed her full and undivided attention. She had to get back to work. Smiling to herself, she reached out to take Curly’s hand. “And now we have eighty-one.”
More than 60 years passed before Carmable discovered the heroic tale of her younger brother Furman. You can find the link to the story below, which appeared in the “Mountain Express.”