Family's legacy reads like Black History chapter

Virgie Shelton and her son Orson with some of the post cards her father sent home from his Pullman porter job and the Pullman porter hat he wore.
Staff Writer

The family's story reads like a little known chapter in a Black History textbook. The patriarch ran a community grocery store and built a baseball field that was the centerpiece of life in a rural Clay County community.

He was an early cattle buyer and seller and hauled fresh meat around in a wagon for sale at a time when the Bryan family was getting started in the bigger city of West Point.

His son would become a train Pullman porter, joining the first union for blacks and unbeknownst to him, a group that would help develop the black middle class and foster the Civil Rights movement.

As a Pullman porter during World War II, he traveled the country on trains helping soldiers going to and coming from war.

After more than 15 years on the rails, he returned home to take over his father's business. They started the Community Funeral Unit to help families pay for burials for loved ones.

He was active in the Civil Rights movement and the NAACP. He was a Freedom Rider who helped register blacks to vote. And he was active in everything from his church to the Masonic Lodge.

And he never left his native community of Tibbee.

Today, one of the main roads in what once was the thriving community in southern Clay County carries the Bennett name.

They were Ben B. Bennett and his son, Adell Bennett. The son died in 1994 at age 72, but his family still talks about him as if he passed just yesterday.

"He always strived to make things better for whatever he was doing," Adell Bennett's daughter, Virgie Shelton, said of her father.

"He was a model for me and my sister, for everyone. I've tried to serve the community and the surrounding area all my life," continued Shelton, who taught school for 31 years from 1961 until 1992. She started her career in segregated schools and after integration, ended up at East Side in West Point.

Virgie never found out for sure why her dad became a Pullman porter some time in the late to mid-1930s.

"I suspect he was looking for a job," she said of her father.

She was born in 1939 and he already was on the rails. He regularly sent "picture post cards" home to his wife, the former Annie Webber. The cards always started with the same message, "Dear Wife, How are you?"

He worked for Illinois Central Railroad and was based in Memphis and later in his career, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

He only got home for a day or two at a time every couple of weeks, coming from Memphis to West Point and then catching a ride to Tibbee with the postal carrier.

While the history of the Pullman porters is marked with good and bad, Shelton takes pride in her father's work.

"This was his duty for the soldiers during World War II. Adell kept the the sleeping quarters of the soldier cars in good order and assisted them in what they needed," she explained.

And on top of that, he worked during the heyday of American jazz. Along the rails and at stops across the nation, he met music greats such as composer, pianist and band leader Duke Ellington, jazz pianist Count Bassie, and singers Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday.

But he saw the handwriting on the wall as trains faced competition from other forms of transportation. At the same time, his father was getting older.

In the 1950s, Adell Bennett returned to Tibbee and took over the family store. He tore down the original store, where his father lived and also stored caskets for the CFU, and built a new one.

Like many country stores of the era, it had big glass jars on the counter next to the cash register. Oatmeal cookies were a favorite. An in the days when merchandising wasn't as detailed as it is today, pig's feet were just as likely to be in the adjacent jar.

Records were kept in a notebook, who owed what and how payments were made. Sometimes it would be a few cents at a time. At others, it would be two chickens or maybe pork chops or a bushel of corn.

"I used to go to the store and they would put me up there on the counter next to the jars. I'd count money. That's probably why I got into retail," said Orson Shelton, one of Virgie's two sons, who is manager of a CVS store in Birmingham.

The store was the center of the community. Having the baseball field next door made it an even bigger attraction.

"Dad loved baseball, granddad loved baseball. Teams would come from all over and play," she remembered wistfully.

That was especially true on July 4.

"It was definitely the center of Tibbee. At July 4th, you saw everybody. Folks came home from up north and they'd all be at the store and the field. They knew there was going to be a game going on," Virgie Shelton recalled.
"Mom had the barbecue ready," she continued.

"And the Fanta drinks," Orson chimed in.

While the fond recollections flow freely, memories of the controversies of the era aren't quite as clear. And it was meant to be that way. Although his teenage daughter may not have understood it at the time, when Adell Bennett left the rails and returned to Tibbee, he came home carrying membership cards in groups like the NAACP and the porter's union. He had new insights and missions.

That's apparently part of what drove him to get involved.

"He came home with these membership cars in the 1940s and '50s," his daughter said.

Those involved with Civil Rights efforts or marches or voter registration worked in close-knit circles, in those days.

"He would come up here into town. There were three or four others, too. You knew what was going on, but you didn't talk about it," she explained.

"I remember all that," she continued, speaking of his work with the Freedom Riders voter registration efforts.

"I didn't worry, nope, it didn't bother me," she continued, shaking her head slightly.

"But you knew it was risky business," she finally acknowledged.

Information circles were kept small and insular. Retribution from segregationists or even racists was less likely that way.

"Nobody ever came looking for him, thank the Lord," she stated emphatically.

Although those contributions made a big difference in the community, she keeps coming back to his church work, business dealings and the CFU -- the funeral fund.

"It's still functioning, it's still needed. There's always a need," Virgie Shelton said simply.

"That's the problem today, we've forgotten the principles from yesteryear," added Orson Shelton.

For now, Virgie says she continuing trying to live the way her father taught her. She may have been living in the "city" for many years now, but her soul always will be in Tibbee, where Bennett Road cuts a long path.
And she'll return there, where her mother and father are buried in Tibbee Cemetery.

"I'm planning on being buried there. Carry me back to where I left from," she concluded.