“A Full And True Eliada Orphan” – by Clifford Davids

Furman Williams, Jr.

Janie Carlysle Hargrave, widely known in Lumberton, N.C. as “the first lady of religious work,” sat at her desk late one evening in December of 1939, burdened by the series of tragic events that had finally overtaken a child named Furman Williams, Jr. He was currently living at the nearby Community Home for Children because both of his parents were now deceased. He had just become a full orphan, and was now a ward of the state.

His problem had also become her responsibility, with no solution in sight. But Miss Janie knew Furman had one last option – she knew the time had finally come to call in a huge favor from a dear old friend who lived in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

He had been born on September 21, 1932, and weighed in at a strapping thirteen pounds. His birth certificate said he was legitimate, but that didn’t even begin to tell the story. He was seven-years-old, of 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 the wide open smile and cheerful disposition seemed far too innocent for a child who had just lost his last surviving parent. She straightened up in her chair, and then brought herself to the task at hand.

Miss Janie 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. – her spiritual father widely known as the “Mountain Evangelist.”

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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.

Sincerely yours,

Janie Carlyle Hargrave

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Quitman Furman Williams

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.

“Across River”

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.

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A young Mary Jane Chavis (far right), with her first husband’s family

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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.

Mother with her children

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.

A friendly game of checkers

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.

A Homecoming

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.

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Grace Green and Reverend Compton taking care of business

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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.

The Main Administration Building

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.

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Curly (standing in the back) enjoying a watermelon break with his orphanage brothers

Furman Williams, Jr. (standing in the back) enjoying a watermelon break with his orphanage brothers

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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:

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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

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“Curly”

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.”

https://ashevilleoralhistoryproject.com/2013/01/28/938/

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11 Responses to “A Full And True Eliada Orphan” – by Clifford Davids

  1. Pete Sansbury says:

    It was delightful to read the story of “A Full and True Orphan.” The family members of Furman Jr. quickly came alive in a wonderful historical context. I truly appreciated the photographs and your sensitive portrayal of the ethnic and racial factors influencing the character’s lives. Good job!

  2. Reading Curly’s story brings back memories of a friend and a brother from years gone by. When he came home on leave from the Army I had the honor of shining his boots, and he gave me $1.00 which was a lot back then. I really looked up to him and had great respect for his service to his Country. I try to keep flowers and a flag at his grave site. The one advantage he had that I did not was that he got to hold his father’s hand, something I really wanted to be able to do. Many thanks for the great work U have done on this story.

  3. maye45@att.net says:

    I want you to keep writing these stories because there are people out there who will read them, and just maybe their lives will be touched. I sure wish you could or would write Christine Tilley’s story. I bet it would be great. She could also tell you about most of us. I never met Curly, but I heard a lot about him and he was quite the hero around the orphanage. So please keep writing, there are so many stories out there. Please look for them and write them, I know you can do it. You are the man for the job. Thanks again. Sincerely, Maye

  4. Edie Sloan says:

    You write these stories so well and truly bring them to life. It helps so much to realize that these children aren’t just “orphans”—each one has a story, and you tell them well. Thank you. Edie

  5. Mary James says:

    What a heart-warming story! Thank god for the selfless compassion and persistence of Janie Carlyle Hargrave and Grace Green. One has to wonder about the fate of “little Curly” had he not been accepted into Eliada. Bringing his story to life as you have can’t help but raise the consciousness about so many other orphans out there. Beautiful writing, great job! I do hope you write more such stories. Thank you.

  6. Eric Kocher says:

    Wonderful story. Really enjoyed reading it.

  7. Ursula von Fluegge says:

    Thank you for yet another moving story. I can’t wait to read the continuation. With 81 orphans to write about, you’ll have your work cut out for you.
    Ursula

  8. maye45@att.net says:

    It was great see the old picture of Miss Green–that woman had the heart of a saint. I will always remember her. I am sure she was great with Curly. I can’t wait for you to get more of the stories out there. Keep up the good work my friend.

  9. What a beautiful and well written life story. I am pleased to see that there are stories being written of my Indian people, so many Indian children have been lost to adoption and or to foster care programs. This story has a happy ending for Curly’s sister and family. I hope that as time goes by Ms. Carmable will know that she will be with her brother, mother and extended family in a better world than this one has been for them.

    Storytelling is the way of my people, and even though Curly’s family came from the other side of the river this does not mean he did not have a good family. Every family has member who has been lost to dark and painful memories, like Curlys father he went to the other side of the river to deal with the pain. Ms Carmable mother seemed to be the person who could help him deal with that pain. I think that the Creator has a way of bringing people together who have a river between them.

    wind in her hair (Cherokee)
    Beverly Collins-Hall

  10. This story so touched my heart! I have a half-sister that I’ve never met. She was at this home for at least 3 months. I can’t find out much! All my Mom’s people are dead– I need to find my sister! My heart breaks for my Mom.

  11. Debbie Absher says:

    Thank you again for this story. It is very well written and heartwarming. I am so glad Furman Williams Jr. was welcomed into the orphanage with open arms and loving hearts. What a wonderful legacy the people of the orphanage have left.

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