The year was 1886 and the month was October. My Grandfather had been the foreman of a coal mine in Carbon Hill, Alabama now on two years. Not a surprising occupation, but under the circumstances a very unusual position to be held by a twenty-two year old man…a twenty-two year old half Cherokee Indian man by the name of John Henry Harris. It just so happened, my grandfather could speak, read and write the English language better than most educated white folk in the area, with most of his education coming from his Cherokee side of the family. With the exception of the jet black mustache he wore on his upper lip, he looked the ever consummate Cherokee. It seems the mustache had slipped in through my great grandfathers English blood. Grandfather was very proficient in mathematics, an unusual ability for most folk of the times, especially an Indian. Combined with his mentioned abilities, he had the uncanny skill for getting a day and a halves worth of work out of his men in only one day. The mine he had been working had produced record amounts of coal for the past two years and that was the problem...they had extracted every bit of coal that could be found in that particular mine.
It was now time to move on, so my Grandfather packed all of his and my Grandmothers belongings into a small covered wagon and was about to make a hundred mile journey to the next mine on his agenda.
My Grandmother, Martha Elizabeth Harris, was of pure Irish heritage, standing less than five feet in stature. She had a massive head of red hair, blue eyes and an Irish temper to accompany it. Grandmother was going on sixteen years of age, with a baby in her arms and another on its way. Not unusual for that time in history! To say the least she and my Grandfather made a strange pair to feast your eyes on.
With the exception of my Grandfather every one working in the mine was of the Negro race. In fact the entire community around the mine was made up of people of African descent.
It was now six o’clock in the morning with a steady downpour of cold October rain. To be exact it happened to be the twelfth day of October; coincidently a date when in history another journey had been made. However, the journey being made by my grandparents was being made not only to discover a new job, but hopefully a more stable way of life.
The journey was slow and uncomfortable for the average person, let alone a pregnant lady with a small child. There was no horse or mule power to pull the small wagon…only a pair of very old oxen. At times travel slowed to less than a slow walk. This in itself caused wheels on the wagon to sink down to the axles in the mud on the road – that is when a road could be found. Although the wagon was covered with a canvas top, high winds continually blew rain through even the smallest of openings saturating everything in its way.
As they continued their journey they passed many very old homesteads having empty barns and houses. Signs indicating hard times were slow to die even after all the years that had passed since the war.
Darkness was rapidly closing in on their first day of travel, and the rain had slowed but had not stopped falling. Grandfather made a decision to stop at the next empty farm house they came to along the road. Traveling only a short distance farther, as luck would have it, they came across a large two story house with all of the doors and windows boarded up. The house sat back a long distance from the muddy road they had been traveling, and in the mind of my young grandmother it cast a vision of fear. She protested my Grandfathers decision to stay in the empty farm house and finally admitted she was afraid it was haunted.
Grandfather was more afraid of outlaws, called highwaymen, who had a reputation of robbing and killing innocent travelers on the road alone. Ghosts were the least of his worries, and he knew the greater danger would be to sleep outside in the leaky wagon. So Grandfather hurriedly unhitched the Oxen from the wagon and tied them to a tree in the back yard. He then pried boards from one of the doors leading into the house, lit a kerosene lamp and much to my Grandmothers protesting led her and the baby into the house.
Finding a fireplace in what looked like a very large living room in the front section of the house Grandfather built a fire with the boards he had pulled from the door. The light given off from the fire in the fireplace lit up the entire room giving my Grandmothers imaginary ghosts no place to hide.
Sometime in the middle of the night, my grandparents were awakened by loud noises coming from the second story of the house - noises sounding as though someone was dragging furniture across the floor. Needless to say, my grandmother was almost frightened out of her wits. She knew for sure it was ghosts and the house was surely haunted.
Grandfather tried to console her by saying it was only the wind blowing loose shingles on the roof of the house. He even lit the lantern and walked to the foot of the stairs and yelled to the unidentified noise maker that he was armed and would shoot anyone trying to harm him and his family. Taking his warning one step farther he fired three shot up the stairs, all along knowing in his mind that his assumption about the noise was correct.
His display of force was only to calm my Grandmother and it worked. Unexplainably the noises ceased for the duration of the night and my Grandmother finally fell back to sleep.
The next morning, Grandfather examined the upper rooms of the house finding nothing unusual – just empty rooms.
Returning downstairs he packed everything in the wagon and they were on their journey once again. Luckily the rain had stopped which made the road much more accessible. After traveling the better part of an hour they met a man on horseback that identified himself as a deputy sheriff from Jasper. He seemed friendly enough, but my Grandfather kept his pistol close by on the seat next to him.
The deputy asked my grandfather where they were from and where they were going. Grandfather explained to the deputy about his job running out and everything they had experienced since being on the road - including their stay in the empty house last night.
According to the deputy, the house hadn’t had an owner for over twenty years, and some had giving it a reputation of being haunted. Both he and my grandfather just laughed. They bid their good byes and my grandparents were on their way again.
Three days later they and their rickety wagon finally rolled into Birmingham - thankfully with the last three days being safe and uneventful.
My Grandfather obtained a job with a coal and steel company out of Tennessee, which just happened to be headquartered in Birmingham. My grandfather spent another fifteen years in the coal mining business before moving on. He died at the age of seventy-nine.
Later in life my grandmother became an assistant to one of her uncles who happened to be a medical doctor. He taught her the skills of being a mid-wife - a skill she practiced all her life.
Although this was a very short journey in the lives of my grandparents, it was one neither of them ever forgot, and the story of their journey lived on the lips of my Grandmother until her death in 1956, at the age of eighty-six._____________________________
Author: Joe Spearman