Zoel Hargrave Sr. was physically impressive. At six feet, two inches tall, with a big belly and booming voice, he reminded me of Santa Claus. When I was old enough to understand civics, I wondered why my grandfather wasn’t the mayor of our city. He had smarts and common sense, and he cared about people.
He was born in 1892, 29 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lives changed drastically and the times presented a new normal for freed slaves. Sherman’s Special Field Orders for forty acres and a mule symbolized failed Reconstruction policies aimed at compensation for their labor. The transition couldn’t have been easy for people of color. Indeed, life is never easy for those who haven’t escaped the bonds of institutional racism and limited opportunities.
There was a dearth of role models who could lift Negroes to a higher place. Who could they depend on? Zoel’s answer was self-reliance and education. And he realized his dreams in spite of obstacles that might have been in his path.
Born in the small town of Lexington, North Carolina, the desire for a higher education took him to Charlotte, where he graduated from Johnson C. Smith University. After college he made a career of government service. His wife, also a college graduate, was a teacher and principal. They raised three boys and three girls in a home filled with books and a piano for the girls’ lessons.
My grandparents were married for 60 years, owned property and had rental property. They subscribed to two daily newspapers, voted in every election, and were recognized in the community as people who could be counted on for help. A champion bridge player, the results of his skill crowded the living room mantle with trophies; after retirement he taught bridge classes at a local YMCA. He was part of a family tradition that produced four generations of men who belong to Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
I have vivid memories of my grandfather’s gun. When I was a child, it looked like a cannon. In reality, it was a .38 caliber government-issued pistol he carried while working as an employee of the post office. His territory was the eastern seaboard and he travelled by train.
It sounds like the old West, but mail cars on trains were robbed because they carried cash. I always imagined his job was to hold that gigantic gun on his lap and wait for the Jesse James gang to attack. It was only during a recent conversation with Becky Deese, the former Carroll County postmaster, that I understood his job was to sort mail along the route.
My grandfather was forceful while being soft-spoken. Like a huge tree, he grounded the family and guided all his children to college and beyond. That ethic for education endures. Expectations are family driven.
With the Farmer’s Almanac as a guide, he planted vegetables on every vacant piece of land. Toiling in the gardens with him, his grandchildren learned patience, planning, and to love the earth. He taught us little things, like how to play solitaire and not to cheat. And he taught us more important things, like do a job right the first time. He told us we could do anything we set our minds to.
He worked hard, played hard, and there was a live-and-let live quality about him. The weekly dinners he hosted for special friends were memorable. The men enjoyed delicacies, smoked Cuban cigars, and discussed community issues. A toast to their friendship ended the evenings. Those gatherings gave us a glimpse of what life could be like when we grew up.
A great sense of humor fueled his storytelling, which he did well. And he enjoyed hearing a good story. His signature hearty laugh could be heard next door. A cousin was amazed that granddaddy could name all the presidents, and later realized he had lived through most of them. He gave great advice, was always supportive, and had the ability to shape our minds, character and thinking.
I can’t imagine what my grandfather experienced on the road he travelled just three decades after slavery ended. But there’s evidence he wanted his family to have a better life. Was he successful? The facts speak for themselves.
Murphy is a member of the Carrollton Creative Writers Club and the Carrollton Civic Woman’s Club. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.