Finding My Great-Grandfather in a Box of Memories

Last year my mother was searching for something in storage when she found a chest that my paternal grandmother had given her when her mother, my great-grandmother (Grandma Della) died. It was filled with old bills, cards, letters, photographs, Bibles, and various knick-knacks that belonged to my Grandma Della. Although it appeared to be junk, I asked her to send the contents to me. The historian in me just knew there would be a great find among all that stuff, and I was right. I found my great-grandfather–not literally of course, but figuratively.

I was very close to Grandma Della. I was always at her house. Among other things, she taught me how to bake and crochet. She passed away while I was in college. Her husband Jim died when I was 5, so I can’t recall very much about him. I called him Jim, not grandpa or granddaddy, but apparently everyone else did too. He had a heart attack and was in the hospital for a week before died. Even though I wanted to visit him, I was not allowed inside his hospital room. I remember his funeral. He was a World War I veteran, and the American flag draped his casket at the gravesite.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

I found some wonderful pictures inside the box, including Jim in his World War I uniform, Grandma Della and Jim together and with their young family, and my great-uncle James as a baby (born in 1923).  My interest was piqued, so I began to gather the documents, Grandma Della’s stories, recollections from other relatives, and research from Ancestry.com to flesh out Jim’s story.

Jim was born in Kemper County, Mississippi in 1894. Not much is known about his early life except that he attended Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. He registered for the draft in June 1917 and was called into military service in August 1918, three months prior to the Armistice. He served overseas, most likely in France. A year later he was discharged from the Army. He and Grandma Della married in December 1919; she was still a teenager. She told me that Jim had come to “court” her, riding his horse with his Army uniform on.

Jim, circa 1950s

Jim, circa 1950s

Grandma Della and Jim raised seven children (and some grandchildren too). They worked  hard and were able to buy several acres of land and build a small house.  Grandma Della was a cook. Jim was described in city directories and census records variously as a laborer, yard man, and a janitor. He apparently had lingering physical and psychological issues resulting from his time in the military. As late as 1939, his physician noted in a letter requesting disability that he had difficulty walking and pain in his knee and shoulder. He also experienced nervousness, difficulty sleeping, and “all manner of bad dreams.” A contemporary diagnosis would probably be that he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Because of Mississippi’s reputation for almost totally eliminating the black vote prior to the Civil Rights Movement, I was surprised to find evidence that my great-grandparents were registered voters, at least as early as the mid-1950s. The box contained poll tax receipts and sample ballots. If they were able to vote, perhaps it was because Jim was a World War I veteran.

Poll Tax receipt, Lauderdale County, Mississippi

Poll Tax receipt, Lauderdale County, Mississippi

I suppose grandchildren can never really know about the lives of their grandparents. After all, Jim was almost eighty years my senior. But I feel as if I know him a little better now, and I certainly enjoyed searching through the box of memories.

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