Denver businessman finds redemption by buying back South Carolina land where his ancestors slaved, sufferedRUBY, S.C. -- In the land that broke his ancestors' backs but not their spirit, the land where his great-grandfather was born a slave and his grandfather and father were treated like one, Thomas McBride walked proudly over a swath of pine-drenched red earth, acting just like he owns it.
Which, if the man who believes that "God just keeps on blessing me over and over" is right again, is exactly what will happen.
Three days before the nation's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Thomas McBride went back to the place where he was born, put $50,000 into an escrow account and felt freer than he had in a long time -- maybe ever.
The longtime Denver businessman was hoping his seven-year quest to own 30 acres of property on which his people had been treated like chattel was over. All that had to happen was for some legal loose ends to be tied up and a white landowner to make good on his word. If the man could see why McBride wanted the land so badly, so much the better, but McBride didn't expect that.
"A lot of folks probably wouldn't understand, but there's a lotta blood shed on this land, a lotta tears, a lotta heartache, a lotta death," he said, his rich baritone voice growing soft. "If I'm in a position where I'm able to purchase this land and I don't, I believe my foreparents would roll over in their graves.
"You see, God has blessed me with this opportunity to purchase this land in the memory of my ancestors and if I don't do it, it's not only a sin, I'd be disgracing my own foreparents."
He looks down at his hands, then back at his companion with eyes that aren't dry.
"I'm sorry, but this is so meaningful to me, I sometimes get to tearing up. I guess I don't know how to put into words the way I feel so people could understand."
Of course, there are people who understand. People like Estelle Blue, Carlee Moser, Rosa Cox, Mildred Ratliff, Linda Smith, Hunter McBride -- cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, the tapestry of souls who make up Thomas McBride's extended family. A family that holds a reunion every year in Ruby and becomes, as cousin Louise Williams says, "our own city. For three days, there are more of us than there are in the whole town."
Until this year, the reunions were always held in the local Rock Springs Baptist Church, a snug building that was moved up the hill out of Ruby proper in 1940 because, as Redessa Myers explains, "The white community felt our services were too loud to be in the city limits."
There is much food, love, hugging, kissing and shrieking laughter when the 300-plus emissaries of the McBride, Myers, Moser and Smith families coalesce.
And sometimes there is silence, too. Silence when Thomas McBride speaks about their history, their past; when the young ones are spellbound by family lore they are hearing for the first time, and old ones are reaffirmed by truths repeated. And it is McBride who does the talking because it is he who started doing the digging.
"Thomas is the historian of the family," says Williams. "He's the guy who traced the roots and got all the data. He paid to have the genealogy studies done and put it together with the oral histories."
Now each family group has its own thick binder filled with timelines and documents and bloodlines. Now the legend of Humphrey Myers and his three wives and 49 children is legend no more, but fact. Now the legacy of Hattie Moser McCoy and her 11 children, 74 grandchildren and 120 great-grandchildren lives on and on.
Now also the tragic and infuriating way great-grandfather Tony McBride and other slave ancestors were treated by their owners will exist to teach new generations about what hard times were really like and how far the world has come from that sad time of cruelty and stupidity.
"They kept better records on their hogs and cattle than they did on the slaves," says McBride, spitting out the words. "They were always spoken of in a derogatory way; you'll see them mentioned as 'Crippled Charlie' or 'Yellow Sally' "
Thomas McBride says it was an aunt, Queen McBride, who first got him interested in the family history when he was 15. Not that it took much.
"You ask me why I'm interested in my family," says McBride. "I just thought everybody was. And once you get started on something like this, you can't stop; it's a disease. You keep working on it. You have a question, you find the answer. And that answer leads to three other questions."
He stops and smiles.
"But I tell you what -- with genealogy you better be prepared for what you might find."
In McBride's case he was about 40 when he discovered he had an older half-brother, T.C. Myers, the result of a dalliance his father had with another woman, a secret he had never shared with Thomas.
But before you can begin to turn the pieces of information into a jigsaw puzzle of a family history, you've got to have what Thomas McBride had: "For me, it started with this burning desire to find out as much about my family and where I came from."
He was born Jan. 25, 1936, in Ruby, S.C., the son of sharecroppers, although none of the McBrides were ever quite sure of what was actually being "shared." They worked the land -- first cotton, then pine trees -- and got the bare essentials back, but the owners took pretty much everything else. Sharecropping? That was a white man's made-up word.
Thomas' arrival was a blessing for Willis and Glennis McBride. Their eight previous children had all died before drawing a breath; eight tragedies owing to the lack of medical facilities in their rural corner of the world; eight little unmarked graves outside Mt. Airy A.M.E. Zion Church because who could afford headstones.
It got so desperate that when a neighbor told them they should try naming their next child from the Bible just for good luck, they went along. And after Thomas was born -- and lived -- they didn't want to jinx themselves so they named Thomas' little sister Rachel Linda. Finally, they had a family.
Willis -- known as "Bub" -- tried to be a good provider, but sharecropping was often a highway to the poorhouse. For a while, he got a good job helping to build the railroad lines from Ruby to Pageland, about 15 miles away.
But when the railroad was done, Bub didn't want to go back to someone else's farm. What's more, he didn't want his son to have to grow up and break his back for someone else, either. Didn't want his son to live the life that was later described by Bub's brother, Hunter:
"Picked cotton; plowed with a mule from sunup to sundown for 50 cents a day. That's two dollars-and-a-half a week." And the hours weren't negotiable. "The man see the sun coming up, peeping out just a little before you showed, he'd say, 'You a little bit late today, huh?' "
So, stealthily -- the white landowner wouldn't be happy about losing a good man like Bub -- he headed out alone for the North, probably feeling strange and a little bit giddy when the bus carried him across the Jim Crow line, where black folks didn't have to ride in the back.
Four months later, Bub sent for his family. He'd found work at a steel mill in Massillon, Ohio. Thomas was 4 when he began his new life in middle America.
But South Carolina was never forgotten. Every two years or so, Thomas would go back during the summer to visit Marshall and Daisy McBride, his grandparents, in Ruby, 60 miles south of Charlotte. He would spend time in their shack, looking out at the surrounding land where, a cousin would later recall, "As far as God can let your eyes see there was nothing but cotton."
Thomas loved it in Ruby, getting to sleep on the pallets stuffed with straw that smelled "so sweet and good." He loved playing with Clarence "Joon" Moser, his cousin, but more like his brother. They'd toss rocks at the wasp nests, climb the poplar, pecan and magnolia trees, swim in the pond and fetch water from the nearby spring, so fresh and cool it was "the best water I ever tasted in my life."
But all was not idyllic.
There was the road that no blacks dared cross unless they were working the land. "The Road" didn't even have a name -- everybody knew where it was and what it was. And you better not be found leaving Buzzard's Roost, the enclave of shacks where the blacks lived, unless you had business in Ruby. And once your business was done, you'd best get back out of town.
It wasn't much better down in Chesterfield, the county seat of the first county in the South to secede from the Union. Walking Main Street without a reason wasn't something you did if you were black, even well past 1950. And if you were hungry, you could go around to the back of Buck River's restaurant where they'd hand the food out to you. But no blacks ever thought of coming in the front door.
Even if you weren't afraid, you had to be cautious. Thomas would always remember the 3-inch crescent scar on the back of his father's head. Bub got that when a policeman cracked him with a club right outside the courthouse. Bub never said why. Just happened.
On one summer trip to Ruby, Thomas was visiting family members when he was stopped by police officers. Thomas, unschooled in the local protocol, innocently answered the questions with "Yes" or "No," leaving out the "Sir" that white cops expected. Thinking he was sassing them, being uppity, the cops were about to haul him to jail. But, thank God, Joon talked them out of it because there was no telling what might have happend.
Still, the South was just a place to visit. Ohio was home. And it was a pretty good home for Thomas, a home that became even better when he met the woman of his dreams.
At least she would have been in his dreams if he hadn't found her first in real life.
When he was 14, Thomas became smitten with Dorothy Dorsey, a pretty, demure girl whose family had migrated to Massillon from Alabama. He'd known her from classes at Jones Junior High. But when she walked into the teen dance in her pretty dress, she seemed different. Years later he would recall, "Basically, I just run off the guy she was with and we left the dance together."
Right from the start they were going steady. As Thomas grew bigger and became an honorable mention all-state standout for the Massillon High School Tigers in both football and basketball, anytime he looked into the stands, "She'd always be there, making eye contact with me."
In June 1955, they graduated. In July they married. That fall, Thomas enlisted in the Army. He was to be sent overseas, but then the Army changed its mind. Pvt. McBride was about to become a father.
Thomas McBride Jr. was born Jan. 1, 1956, and was instantly nicknamed "Lucky" because, being the year's first baby, he got all sorts of prizes. Thomas and Dorothy were apparently in a hurry to raise a family because in December of that same year, Mark was born. Two years after that, David came along. Then Thomas and Dorothy took a nine-year break: Leila was born in 1967.
By then the McBrides were ensconced in Denver, where Thomas had been stationed during his Army days. He'd tried going back to Massillon after his hitch was up in 1959, but the only jobs available were in the steel mills -- and there were precious few of those. So, just as Bub McBride had headed North two decades earlier, his son headed West.
Of course, things weren't that much better in Denver. Thomas thought about being a police officer or a printer (he'd studied the printing trade in high school), but when he got out West, he learned Denver wasn't hiring black printers or black police officers.
For a while, it was tough finding work. McBride would sell his blood down at Fitzsimons hospital to help the family get by.
Then, one of those heavenly blessings occurred. He answered an ad calling for a vacuum cleaner repairman. He was wary; he wasn't sure if they were hiring black vacuum cleaner repairmen.
The man who owned the store wasn't concerned with color. He told McBride, "I don't care if you're polka-dotted. I want someone honest and dependable."
Over the next four years, Rocky Weiss and his partner taught McBride everything there was to know about repairing vacuum cleaners. They also taught him about running a business. When it seemed clear that McBride was ready to fly solo, his bosses helped him find a good location for The Vacuum Factory. The descendant of slaves, the grandson of sharecroppers, the son of a steel mill worker was his own damn boss.
And a good one.
As he moved to different downtown and near-downtown locations, McBride expanded his area of expertise, getting into TV sales and services as well. He was not only a good earner, but a good saver. And a shrewd investor. Over the years, he bought real estate: a store here, an apartment building there. Over the years he built up an impressive portfolio.
Life had become more comfortable for the McBrides, who were able to have their children grow up in the suburbs. They watched with pride as each moved to a productive adulthood; although maybe they watched their baby a little more closely. After all, didn't Leila fill their hearts with joy when she became Miss Black America in 1987?
But neither beauty pageant victories nor cash in the bank was the real icing on Thomas McBride's cake. Life had never been about money for him. Blood, family -- that's what it was always about.
And then it was about land.
McBride's quest for property in Ruby began seven years ago, when a few other distant family members started acquiring land. But whenever he contacted Jerry Streater about buying his 30 acres -- land where McBride's ancestors were once slaves -- the answer was always no. The property had belonged to Streater's family for generations. But that was only part of it, Thomas knew. White people just didn't sell their land to blacks.
Last year, however, Streater's wife passed away and he moved from Ruby. The distance and McBride's very generous offer began to sway him. Finally, last week, he met McBride in Chesterfield, in the offices of attorney Larry Knox. It was a cordial meeting between the 65-year-old white man, who seemed symbolic of the South's past and the 65-year-old black man, who embodied its future.
And make no mistake about it, times are better. Almost 40 years ago, Ruby's high school became the first fully integrated one in America -- and Buzzard's Roost is long gone. Today in Chesterfield, blacks and whites can eat together at the Olde Towne Restaurant and white deputies say "Sir" and "Ma'am" to people of all colors. Even better, there are black deputies, too.
And McBride's land deal should be final as soon as a survey is completed.
But clouds still linger.
As Knox -- the only black attorney in the largest geographic county in South Carolina -- told McBride, "When the other (white) property owners around find out you own the land, don't expect them to bring the welcome wagon."
McBride may have more need of Knox's services. He already has his eyes on some land in North Carolina, site of the plantation where other ancestors were slaves.
But that'll have to wait. For now, McBride is content.
"I feel very happy, very happy," he said, getting to tear up a little, knowing that the land where his ancestors had worked for a pittance, land they hadn't been allowed to cross over to, is almost "our land now."
No matter that he doesn't have firm plans for it.
"I'm thinking I want to put up some kind of memorial plaque for my grandparents, maybe put a playground or recreation center in their name," he said. "But right now, that's not an issue."
How could it be? The important thing is that the land belonged to family, both here and long gone.
Not that all his ancestors are missed.
Whether it was piecing together the different oral histories he's heard, or using the Universal Genealogical Center in Salt Lake City, McBride has never stopped chasing his bloodlines.
"I've been doing genealogy research for 30 years," he says. "Most blacks, they can go back to their great-grandfather. But I've been fortunate enough to go all the way back to the shore where they came from Africa."
But no further. For when his ancestors arrived in the New World, they were stripped of their African names and cut apart from their tribesman; anything to separate them from their true heritage.
McBride knows who helped do the stripping. He knows because that man is a relative of his.
It was Richard McBride, a North Carolina plantation owner born in 1792 who lent his last name to the "other" family he began. One of Richard's favorite -- though bastard -- sons was Sprat, who was born in 1820. It was Sprat who started the line that would lead all the way to Thomas, his children, and his nine grandchildren.
Through his research, Thomas uncovered much information about his family, some of it tragic and infuriating. He learned about the cruel and demeaning way they were treated. How they couldn't be out at night. How they couldn't enter a house from the front door. And although Thomas is an easy-going man, as he delved into the painful past, he could feel the rage percolating in him. He could feel the need for vindication.
"I always told my boys, if I ever found out about where Richard McBride was buried, I'd p--- on his grave," he said. "Excuse my language, but that's how I felt."
And did he find it?
"Yeah, I found it."
And did he . . . ?
Not that anyone was surprised.
"With my dad, nothing surprises me," said Lucky McBride. "If he says he's gonna do something, he does it."
Still, Thomas McBride isn't always so demonstrative about righting wrongs. He is a soft-spoken man, a religious man, a man about to be ordained as a deacon at his church this coming Sunday.
But his love of life, his family and his God hasn't blinded him.
"Look, racism is still here, it's here in Denver all right; its dirty head still pops up occasionally," he said. "But I'm of a time in my life now that I don't have to take it. And I let people know about it."
He gets upset at slights, like the way Dorothy was treated disrespectfully by a supermarket clerk over the purchase of doughnuts.
"Me, I would've just left those doughnuts there," he said. "Woulda spoken my mind and walked out."
But Dorothy doesn't want to say too much now. She's concerned that the visitor's focus will be distracted. "I don't know that you should be quoting any of us, me or the children," she said. "This is Thomas' story."
Actually, it's the McBrides' story. And the Myerses' and the Williamses' and the Mosers'. It's the story of Sprat. Of Aunt Queen and her wondrous vault of family lore. Uncle Humphrey with his 49 children. Aunt Estelle, her elfin grace undiminished after 81 years. Uncle Hunter beating the sunrise for $2.50 a week. Glennis' miscarriages and Bub heading North for a better life. Of Buzzard's Roost, the best-tasting water in the world and The Road nobody once dared to cross. The story of times both ugly and beautiful; of love, suffering and dignity.
It's also the story of a man who had his own dream and has stayed true to it. And while Thomas McBride is spending a lot of money for the property, maybe it's not too much.
After all, it isn't just 30 acres of land he's buying, it's 30 acres of blood, tears and heartaches. Thirty acres not just of the past, but of the future.
Contact James B. Meadow at (303) 892-2606 or meadowj@RockyMountainNews.com.