The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Grapevine Telegraph

By John M. Johnson © 1992

Issue: February, 1992

(A Short Story About The 1940's - 50's & 60's)

Editor's Note: This month we are delighted to once again be introducing writer John M. Johnson to our family of readers. (See "Battle of Cove Mountain", May 1990 issue.) John is a quiet person who has devoted countless hours and days to collecting and compiling the Black history of this region. He is a familiar sight in local courthouses where he meticulously pours over old court records searching for the often forgotten identity of former slaves. He is currently working on a book which promises to be a major contribution to Black history in the Blue Ridge and a valuable asset to genealogy researchers.

When we think of the Grapevine Telegraph, our minds amble back to the days of slavery. Because there was no freedom or privileges allotted to slaves to communicate from one plantation to the other, slaves had to convey information such as deaths and weddings along with other important functions, using the Grapevine Telegraph method. As a young boy in the southern section of Wytheville, Virginia, I had on many occasions witnessed what most thought was a method of communication that faded away with the past, more than one hundred years ago. Only in recent years did I realize that the method which the ladies of my former neighborhood used to communicate (for more than three city blocks distance) was the Grapevine Telegraph system.

Although telephones were a part of the average family during my early childhood, the technology of a "conference call" was absent in those wonderful days of simplicity. If the latter was available for that day and time, one may have never had the privilege to set eyes upon any of these seven ladies of the Grapevine Telegraph network. No, they were not all Negro. The neighborhood in which I was reared was home for all, the white and the black. The community was integrated before my coming into this world, and integrated to this day. There was a great amount of respect for family during those times, and it seemed that we were everyone's child, which means in general that you were corrected and punished by anyone who found you to be contemptuous.

My fond memories were those days during the first part of World War II, shortly after America entered the War. Several of the families had sons and at least one family had a daughter serving in the War. The great planes of War roared overhead both day and night. During the day, planes were plainly visible flying overhead. Their images were from horizon to horizon, and as far as the eye could see. There were planes pulling planes, and there were those which sped on at great speed. The formations in which they flew were most impressive. Some flew in the shape of a "V," and most who witnessed these events conveyed that this was a sign of "victory." Regardless of the way and configuration these great pilots flew, I can still feel the power of WW-II through these formations, sequences which still haunt my memories of War.

I often found myself by the side of Mrs. Lillian Nester, on these occasions. I thought very little (more than forty years ago) why she of all the ladies in our locality stood poised, looking to the sky. With watchful eyes she would stand (with me by her side and arms around my small shoulders) watching the overflight until the last plane flew from view. It was only in recent years that I came to realize that Mrs. Nester had not one, but three son's serving during World War II. At least one was a Marine. Perhaps a silent prayer went out to those who were flying so high over head, or maybe she felt that within the confines of one of those planes, a son may have been looking down.

By night the planes flew also. These were the times of suspense. The "Air Martial" visited every home relaying his familiar chant: "Air raid, lights out." Shortly the neighborhood was void of all lights, none could be seen. Most families of that day possessed kerosene lamps, and as the electric lights were shut off, the kerosene lamps were lit. Sheets or blankets covered the windows to imprison what light may have escaped, and all was quiet in the neighborhood until the warning "all clear" was given.

On the following days from spring to late fall (during the early 1940's and until the beginning of the 1960's), the spring mornings were warm, the summer days were hot and filled with the activity of spring birds, and summer storms. No roads were paved then; the dusty roads on which we both played and traveled were powdery with dust. In Wytheville, Virginia, from Withers Road south, the streets were of dirt, and as the automobiles of that day passed, we children followed in its wake. It seemed that when the traffic began to move, the ladies of my community would start the day with an unbelievable way of conversation. During the War years they asked about: Jimmy, Henry, Bill, Bobby, Garland, Marvin, and of course Leatha. She was the only female of the neighborhood who served. They were all some place in the Pacific, or some other much needed place facing a Japanese, or German threat against "Uncle Sam."

From Seventh to First Streets, both of which paralleled Lexington from north to south, the ladies would begin to emerge about 10 am. Mrs. Hill would start the conversation on Seventh Street with Mrs. Ida Johnson, who resided next door. From there, Mrs. Robinson who resided farther down Lexington (between Lexington and 5th), received the contents of the conversation from Mrs. Ida Johnson, and passed it on to Mrs. Nester, who resided across Lexington from Mrs. Robinson. Mrs. Fisher (who resided across 5th Street), took the news from Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Nester. From this point the contents were relayed from Hill to Johnson, to Robinson, to Nester and Fisher. Now the message had made its way down Lexington and across 5th Street to Mrs. Harriet Johnson, (who resided on the corner of 3rd. and Lexington) who received the news from Mrs. Fisher. Harriet then passed the news on to Mrs. Green who resided between 3rd., and 1st., some four blocks distance from the residence of Mrs. Annie Hill, and Mrs. Ida Johnson.

At that point the reply to the original conversation took an "about face" and made its way back up Lexington Street, via. Harriet Johnson, once again passing the ears of Mrs. Fisher, who relayed the reply to the original communications along with the news to Mrs. Nester and Mrs. Robinson, and on with speed and some accuracy the message flew back to Mrs. Ida Johnson, finally resting again at its point of origin, Mrs. Annie Hill.

The early 50's posed no threat to these ladies, as talk of school's which were being integrated from Arkansas to Virginia were the topics of every newspaper Brown vs. the Board of Education at Topeka, Kansas. A new school for Negro children was being erected in our neighborhood to barricade the need for integrated schools, an "equal but separate" concept was in controversy. All this was news also, but from the lips to the ears of these ladies, these topics did not escape nor enter any conversation. They were concerned about the Korean conflict. There was no threat of "ration stamps" or a shortage of sugar, coffee or cigarettes. This was a new era. The clacking of ancient war machines which soared over head were replaced by the vapor trails which were activated by the fast moving jets.

By the 1960's, the ladies were beginning to gray with age, son's and daughters were home, most now were married with families of their own. Some had children serving during peace time; their nephew's fought in Korea. Schools were slowly being integrated, new homes were being constructed on Lexington Street, and more telephones were in use, but friends were still friends. Nothing to destroy the closeness of these women was discussed, not even the integration of schools. They had fought a War together, and had shared their food during those days when coffee, sugar, and cigarettes were rationed.

Much has changed in the old neighborhood. The turning of the seasons are still the same, the birds of spring still return and announce their presence with renewed melody. All of the streets are now paved to combat the dust. Some of the homes are still standing. The home of Mrs. Annie Hill was destroyed by fire in the 1970's. Mrs. Fisher and Mrs. Nesters', homes both have changed hands over the years. Mrs. Robinson's home now stands vacant, and the home of Mrs. Johnson, is still in the family, occupied by her husband and a son.

No one ever sees the ladies of the Grapevine Telegraph anymore, like the passing of time, all but one has accepted the inevitable. Mrs. Annie Hill, who was born in 1898, died in 1976. Mrs. Betty Robinson, born in 1892, died in 1990. Mrs. Janana T. Green, born in 1904, died in 1987. Mrs. Harriet S. Johnson, born in 1871, died in 1962. Mrs. Lillian Nester, died in the 1970's. Ida D. Johnson, born in 1903, died in 1977. Only one survives today. Mrs. Cleo Fisher, now resides within the confines of a local nursing home.

They were the lights which shown within our neighborhood for many decades. Now all but a slight twinkle is gone. Memories of cookies, candy, love and affection still drives me back to the comforts of their homes. Comforts of the welcome mat, and conversations one could never forget were within this domain, and of all the fond memories. I shall never relinquish from my memory the stories of old, and the use of the Grapevine Telegraph which was implemented during the days of slavery with much effect, and passed on to the times of my childhood, keeping a community alive with news and "gossip."