It was 1981 and we had recently moved into our New Orleans home. Brian was almost two and I was heavily pregnant with Sarah. The mailman delivered a large box wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. FRAGILE was written all over the box and the return address revealed the package was from my Aunt Jean, Dad’s sister in Virginia. These were the days when a package in the mail was an event. Amazon, eBay, even computers were years from development, stuff of the next century. We didn’t even have UPS home delivery.
I looked at the box wondering what Aunt Jean was sending me. I carefully opened the box, and started pulling out sheet after sheet of crumpled newspapers. Finally, I reached an object and letting the paper glide through my fingers, gasped. It was an angel, and there were eleven more, one for each month of the year.
Aunt Jean had called me a few months earlier. My beloved grandmother, Mary Belle Frederick Sykes Roudabush, known to her grandchildren as Grandbelle, died in December 1979, while we were living in Singapore. Aunt Jean was selling Grandbelle’s Richmond, Virginia, home and she wanted to make sure that each grandchild had a treasure or two from our grandmother. What did I want?
What did I want? If my Aunt Jean called today with that question my reply would be swift and sure. Photo albums. Letters. Documents. All the items vital to the efforts of the family historian. I would say to Aunt Jean, “Please. I will treasure them, digitize them and share them. All of Grandbelle’s family will know our family history.”
However, in 1981, I was 28 years old, a young mother who had just moved around the world and back. I lived in a hotel room in New Orleans for three months with my husband and a one year old. I was still settling into a new house and a new city. And I was certain there were more moves in my future. My role as the family historian was in the distant future and not even a twinkle in my eyes in 1981.
When my Aunt Jean asked, “What do you want?”- I had to stop and think. I adored Grandbelle and I particularly loved going to her house. These were rare and memorable occasions. Grandbelle’s birthday was January 17 and mine was January 21, and we usually celebrated with birthday dinners at her house. Grandbelle’s dining room is elegant in my childhood memories. She served dinner in the dining room. There was a large table, lit by a crystal chandelier. One wall was a painted built-in sideboard. The bottom cupboards stored all kinds of china and the top open shelves displayed plates, platters and a variety of fascinating ornaments, including a sparkling glass punch bowl. “Please, Aunt Jean, may I have the punch bowl?” There was a long pause at the other end of the line. “Oh Vanessa,” my Aunt Jean explained in her slow Virginia drawl, “I’ve always loved the punch bowl too. I promise that someday it will be yours, but for right now it is on my dining room table. Is there anything else?”
My mind drifted back to the January dinners. The table was covered with a crisp white cloth, beautifully set with china, silver and matching glassware. I believe we even used cloth napkins. I’m sure my mother was beside herself at those dinners, wondering if my brother would break a plate or glass, but I was enchanted. My grandmother was a fine Southern cook, and I especially remember the homemade applesauce and delicious rice pudding. Martha Stewart would have been delighted with my grandmother’s centerpieces. Seasonal objects graced the table. A large china turkey, the punch bowl, and always in December and January, the china angels. There were 12, one for each month, and they captured my girlish imagination.
“Please Aunt Jean, may I have the angels?” “Oh yes,” Aunt Jean quickly replied, “they are yours, honey. I will send them as soon as I can.”
The beloved angels arrived months later. They were intact but showed some sign of wear. Wings were glued on and bits of spaghetti china adorning the dresses were chipped. But the angel faces still shimmered and evoked warm memories of Grandbelle. She loved yard sales and antique stores and I can see her stopping on weekend trips to the river and finding an angel on a front yard table for a quarter. Her collection was probably complete by 1956 when I was a child of three sitting at her dining room table on Williamsburg Road.
The angels moved with me to California in 1985 where they are a treasured and much-loved part of my Christmas decorating. It’s like having a little of Grandbelle with me for Christmas. My Aunt Jean died three years after mailing the angels. I will always be grateful for her love, kindness and thoughtfulness in making certain that a distant granddaughter received a gift from a beloved grandmother.
I think this photo of my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Collie, is beautiful. She has lovely eyes and there’s just a hint of a smile. Thank you to cousin Wendy for preserving this photo and doing the research on Lizzie.
Little is known of Lizzie’s brief life. Lizzie was born in King and Queen County, Virginia on February 22, 1873; one of eight children born to Mary Jane Carlton and James Collie. She’s found in the 1880 census living on a small farm with her parents and siblings in Petsworth in Gloucester County, Virginia. Lizzie may have moved to Richmond around 1892 with her brother James. Her death certificate reported that she had lived in Richmond for ten years. James Collie sent this letter to his nephew, Raymond, in 1939. I found the letter tucked behind a drawer in an old desk that had belonged to my grandmother. James was a minister and lived in New York City by 1900.
Lizzie married Thomas Leonard Sykes on July 8, 1896 in Richmond, Virginia. My grandfather, Raymond, was born just a year later in Richmond, on August 6, 1897. Thomas was born in Richmond on August 9. 1899. He was always known as Brother Tommy.
The Sykes family lived at 319 North 29th Street on Richmond’s Church Hill. They may have moved here shortly after the house was built in 1900. The house still stands and you can tour it on Zillow.
Lizzie didn’t get to see her children grow into fine young men. She died at home of tuberculosis on April 30, 1902, at the age of 29. Lizzie’s brother Earnest died in 1898 and her sister Eunice died in 1899. Although I have not seen their death certificates, it is likely they died of the same disease. Tuberculosis is highly contagious and it is possible Lizzie contracted the disease from her siblings. Her obituary refers to a “long and painful illness” and Lizzie may never have had the strength to care for her boys.
The University of Virginia digital tuberculosis exhibit explains, “Formerly called “consumption,” tuberculosis is characterized externally by fatigue, night sweats, and a general “wasting away” of the victim. Typically but not exclusively a disease of the lungs, TB is also marked by a persistent coughing-up of thick white phlegm, sometimes blood.” There was no cure and Lizzie would have suffered greatly.
Raymond and Thomas were raised by their paternal aunt, Evy Sykes, and her husband, Robert Davis. The boys’ father, Thomas, traveled for work and moved to Pennsylvania.
Lizzie is buried at Oakwood Cemetery and shares a headstone with her husband and his mother.
I have hundreds of pictures of my children and like most young parents today, they will have thousands of photos of my grandchildren by the time they are teens. Technology has made photography affordable and accessible, documenting the ordinary and priceless moments of our lives. But for my father, those pictured moments were few.
September 22 is my father’s birthday, and this year (2016) is his 93rd. He passed away eleven years ago and the photos I have of him are precious to me, especially since I only have two of him as a boy. I’ve checked with all of our family, and it appears there are only these two photos of Robert Kenneth Sykes (Bobby).
Daddy looks about ten in this photo on the left. His eyes were blue like mine and I think I have the same smile.
A delighted five year old Bobby holds the reins of the goat cart below. Daddy told me the photographer roamed Richmond with the goat cart and every kid wanted a photo and ride. Now I have this joyful, priceless 1928 moment in my father’s life – 88 years ago – to share with friends and family around the world.
I never knew my grandfather, Raymond Harris Sykes, as he died ten years before I was born. I always heard stories that he was killed in a construction accident while building a bridge. Or that’s what I thought I heard. A newspaper account from the Richmond Times Dispatch (dated Sunday, August 1, 1943) reveals that Raymond was injured on July 31 when a board fell from a scaffold and struck him in the head. His death certificate indicates that surgeons at MCV operated and removed fragments of skull. My grandfather lingered until the afternoon of August 3 when he died from his injuries. Raymond was only 45 years old when he died.
Dutch Gap is a large power plant on the banks of the James River in Chesterfield County. When it opened in 1944 it was one of the largest in the country and today its towering smokestacks still stand impressive on the skyline. Raymond Sykes was a steelworker, a dangerous occupation under any circumstances.
Raymond’s widow, Mary Belle and daughter, Jean, were devastated. Sons Tommy and Bobby were at sea on active military duty. Jean was only 14 so Mary Belle was left to deal with grief, funeral arrangements and the hundreds of consequences and details of a sudden death. Mary Belle sent telegrams to her sons to notify them about their father’s death. Bobby , my father, was aboard liberty ship SS Andrew Briscoe in the Mediterranean. It would be months before this telegram (pictured below) would reach his hands. The absence of sons and delayed notifications were among the many hardships and sacrifices made by families during World War II.
Both of my great-grandparents on my paternal side died before my father was born, and sadly, I can’t recall my grandmother ever talking about her family. This is surprising today since her early life seems filled with grief and hardship, but life in the early twentieth century could be cruel, and sadness was something to be endured, without complaint.
Jasper C Frederick was born on 8 August 1871 in Warsaw, Duplin County, North Carolina, the second child of Mary West and John Christoper C. Frederick. John was a Confederate soldier and served as a corporal with Company A of the 38th Infantry Regiment of North Carolina. He enlisted in 1861 and mustered out at Appomattox, 9 April 1865. Mary and John were probably married shortly after the end of the Civil War and had a daughter, Emma, about 1867.
Mary’s father, Daniel West, made a deed on 12 December 1869 giving her 60 acres on Stuart Creek. Mary died shortly after Jasper’s birth because Daniel made another deed in February 1872 placing the land in a trust for Emma and Jasper Frederick. He specified that the trust be managed by his son, Joshua J. West, and was only to benefit Emma and Jasper. Daniel may have been concerned for the financial security of his grandchildren because shortly after the deed was recorded, John Frederick married his cousin, Mary Frederick on 24 February 1872. The deed made in 1869 was not registered until 1875. The 1872 trust may have resulted in some litigation between Daniel West and John Frederick compelling the late registration of the 1869 deed and overturning the 1872 trust.
Young Jasper was living with his West grandparents at the time of the 1880 census and may have spent much of his childhood with them. On 21 September 1892, just after Jasper’s 21st birthday, John and Jasper jointly sold the 60 acres for $3000. Per the terms of the 1872 trust all proceeds were to benefit Emma and Jasper. Since only Jasper is listed on the deed, Emma must have died prior to 1892, and probably prior to the 1880 census since she is also not listed there.
On 11 January 1893, Mr. J.C. Frederick attended the wedding of Zachariah M. Curtis and Mary E Dunn. Other guests included niece and nephews of the groom, Nettie Curtis and her brothers. A newspaper clipping of the event reveals that guests enjoyed a “choice and bounteous feast”, midnight dessert and partied until dawn.” Just over a month later, Jasper and Nettie married February 21, 1893 in Mecklenburg County, Nettie’s home.
Nettie’s father William Carter Curtis, had fought in the Civil War. He lost an arm at Gettysburg and family lore says he had to cut off his own injured arm when it became infected on the way home from Gettysburg. He suffered pain from the injury for the rest of his life. Curtis was highly regarded in Mecklenburg where he published a local newspaper and served as county clerk for many years. After the war the family joined cousins in Marshall, Texas, but soon returned home to Virginia. It seems likely that Curtis and John C.C. Frederick were connected, perhaps having met during the war years. Both men named a son Jasper and a daughter Emma. And Curtis named a son, Christopher C. Curtis, perhaps for his friend John Christopher C. Frederick.
The young couple settled in Manchester, just outside of Richmond. Manchester was growing rapidly after the war, providing jobs and affordable homes to a population displaced by the emancipation of slaves and a new industrial economy. Jasper was working as a laborer for the railroad, but had been unemployed for four months of the previous year. The couple had three daughters, Brenda, Elaine and Ardelle when the census taker recorded the household in 1900. Two more daughters were added to Jasper and Nettie’s family, Mary Belle in 1901 and Audrey in 1902.
Living next door to the young family were two of Nettie’s five surviving brothers, Chesley and Thorpe. Both listed their occupation as “compositor”, another term for photographer. Chesley Curtis and his wife Mattie also had three young children. This was probably a lively family life for the two young families living together in such close association. Sadly, Mattie died in 1908 giving birth to her sixth child. Mother and daughter were buried together in Maury Cemetery.
City directories indicate the family settled at 1019 Taylor Street in Richmond and that Jasper worked as a fireman, machinist or engineer in the years between 1900 and 1910.
Tragedy struck the family in January, 1910. Nettie gave birth to a sixth daughter, Eunice, on 10 January, 1910. Eunice died the next day of “accidental suffocation.” Nettie died an agonizing death two days later, on 13 January 1910, from “septic peritonitis resulting from ruptured gall bladder during or just before labor”. Curiously, Eunice was buried at Oakwood Cemetery and Nettie was buried at Riverview. There was no mention of baby Eunice in Nettie’s obituary.
“Maternal mortality is the result of any number of complications that beset pregnant women worldwide. The most common direct causes of maternal death are severe bleeding (25%), infection (15%), unsafe abortion (13%), eclampsia (pregnancyinduced hypertension, often accompanied by seizures, 12%), and obstructed labor (8%). Maternal mortality ratios were over 600 until the early 1930s, when decline commenced.” Some contemporary writers theorize that the high death rates in the first thirty years of the turn of the century were the result of the transition of labor management from midwives to inexperienced physicians. A ruptured gall bladder during pregnancy is extremely rare and it could be that Nettie Frederick died of eclampsia or infection at the hands of an inexperienced physician.
Eunice’s death must have posed a dilemma for the doctor who signed the death certificate. There is a mostly illegible annotation along the side of the certificate. It appears to state that the certificate was signed after consultation. The accidental suffocation of a day old infant raises many questions and leaves a mystery for this family. Additional research such as checking coroner’s records and Richmond court cases could reveal further information. Eunice’s death certificate incorrectly identifies her mother as Mary Williams, a bizarre mistake when better information was readily available. This may further indicate official discomfort with the death.
Jasper had five daughters and decided he needed the help of a wife quickly because he next married Sudie Bruce Mitchell in Wayne County, North Carolina on 25 February 1910. Jasper probably regretted this hasty marriage. Directory listings show separate residences for the couple in 1916 – 1919, the year Sudie (also known as Susie or Sarah) died. Her death certificate shows a cause of death as “atypical pellagra”. This condition is a basic niacin deficiency, but without the typical skin lesions. Pellagra was very common in the rural south among poor people in the early twentieth century. The most common cause was a lack of fresh vegetables and meats, although pellagra is also common among alcoholics. Pellagra is classically described by “the three Ds”: diarrhea, dermatitis and dementia. Sadie’s condition would have made life with her very challenging for Jasper and his daughters as she could have had an array of emotional disturbances including restlessness, a desire to quarrel and many other unpleasant symptoms.
The girls may have been close to their maternal grandmother, Azelia Curtis. Brenda, Elaine and Ardelle were living with her in Boynton, Mecklenburg County, when the 1910 census was recorded the summer following their mother’s death. There is no record of Jasper, Mary Belle or Audrey in the 1910 census. Perhaps Jasper had left the girls with relatives while he settled in with his new wife and life. Azelia, 69 years old, may have not been up to the care of all five girls.
Jasper Frederick died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 8 November 1920 in Richmond, Virginia. He was 49 years old and may have been ill for years before his death. TB can linger and cause wasting of the body over a long period of time. A research report on TB in Virginia notes, Few diseases influenced American life as much as TB…” In 1915, the newly founded Virginia State Tuberculosis Commission noted with alarm its estimation that more than twice as many people in the state died of TB as from typhoid, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough and malaria combined.”
By now Jasper had three grandchildren but it is unlikely he saw them as by 1920 people were concerned about catching TB, an incurable disease. Many patients were sent to sanitariums in the mountains, but the address provided on Jasper’s death certificate indicates he may have been residing in a private care home.
Jasper’s daughter, Ardelle, provided the customary details for Jasper’s death certificate. She gave his birthday as 8 August 1872, but Jasper was almost certainly born a year earlier as his mother was dead by February 1872 when his grandfather recorded a deed gifting property to Jasper and his sister Emma. It is fairly common for the bereaved to make errors when reporting information or for clerks to record information incorrectly.
Ardelle recorded that Jasper was a painter for the Burton Systems, and that he was married. She didn’t know his mother’s name, but knew that Jasper was born in Warsaw, North Carolina, son of J.C. Frederick. Jasper was buried in Riverview Cemetery and no obituary or funeral notice has been found. The Burton System did outdoor advertising (billboards) in Richmond. There are indications Jasper’s daughters were fond of him. Ardelle handled the death arrangements and named a son Richard Frederick. Elaine named a son Jasper Frederick.
Jasper Frederick’s relatively short life reflected may of the changes that happened as the South struggled to recover following the war. The son of a comfortable farming family, Jasper inherited a relatively valuable piece of farmland from his grandfather. He made a choice to sell the property, and like so many others of his generation, leave farming for more urban opportunities. He worked in manufacturing jobs and appears to have successfully supported a family of five daughters. Jasper suffered the tragic loss of a young wife following childbirth and the mysterious death of an infant daughter. Childbirth even at the turn of the century was especially fraught with danger and his loss was not uncommon. Oldest daughter Brenda died two years after her father’s death from an undiagnosed illness, bringing more sadness to the family. Jasper’s own death from tuberculosis was very common. The new residential closeness of cities made the spread of communicable disease much easier than in rural communities. Pellagra was also endemic in the postwar South and the disease wreaked havoc on families, including the Frederick family.
Surviving daughters Elaine, Ardelle, Mary Belle and Audrey settled in or near Richmond where they raised their families and enjoyed comfortable lives, always maintaining warm connections with their sisters.
Children of Jasper C Frederick and Nettie James Curtis
Brenda May Frederick. 2 May 1895 – 28 April 1922. Married Raymond Thigpen 17 May 1917 in Lenoir, NC. One child: Barbara E. Thigpen.
Elaine Doreen Frederick, 18 March 1896 – 22 January 1981. Married Leroy O’Rork ca 1921. Four children: Jasper Frederick, Mary Jane, Doris Elaine and Leroy Morton.
Ardelle Curtis Frederick, 12 September 1897 – 8 September 1965. Marriage ca 1917 to Douglas Thaw. Two children: Douglas Jr and Richard Frederick.
Mary Belle Frederick, 17 January 1901 – 19 December 1979. Married 1: Raymond Harris Sykes, 1 Feb 1919. Three children: Thomas Leonard, Robert Kenneth and Arielle Jean. Married 2: Whit M. Roudabush, 24 March 1951.
Lillian Audrey Frederick. 1 September 1902 7 November 1979. Married Walter Ernest Stewart ca 1919. Four children: Audrey Anita, Ernestine, Carolyn, Patricia.