Recollections of Rebecca McGinness

From Porch Swings To Patios: An Oral History Project of Charlottesville Neighborhoods, 1914-1980, Wilma T. Mangione, editor, The City of Charlottesville, 1990.

Rebecca Fuller McGinness was born and grew up on 5th and Dice Street SW. She has lived at 517 Brown Street for fifty plus years. When her husband returned from World War I her uncle, who built her present home, was living alone, so they moved in with him. She has lived there ever since as have her mother, daughter, and nephew. Her memories span many years. Both she and her husband finished their schooling at Hampton Institute. She taught school, teaching every grade at one time or another.

"This area was just called Fifth Street. My family didn't call it "Starr Hill." That name has been used a lot since the redevelopment began. The name originated in earlier days when some folks called it Starr Hill because most of the prominent Blacks lived up on the hill here. It was up high, and they prided themselves because they owned their own homes here--no one rented. Quite a few of the ministers lived here. We didn't know anything about "blacks" then. Everyone used the word "Negro." Whites and blacks lived together in the neighborhood until segregation was legally promoted and then the whites moved away. Almost all the houses on Oak Street were owned by whites. My neighborhood was close-knit and friendly. Many of the residents were railroad workers, both black and white.

"When I was young, I knew nearly everyone in Charlottesville, since it was such a small town. My mother was a housewife, and my father was a butler. There weren't any latchkey children because mothers of small children stayed home with them. Most of the blacks in Charlottesville worked around the University, although there were a few professionals. The University was different then. Many black women did washing for students. My grandmother did. She was a former slave, a seamstress, and in her spare time she took in student laundry. She had been a slave out at Chestnut Grove - out past Fry's Springs, near Mountainwood. This is out the Fifth Street Extension. When I was young, Fifth Street ran out into the countryside. My former home on the corner of Fifth Street and Dice Street, in Fifeville, was very old. It was a brick house and my father remodeled it. Most of the older houses were brick. The Updikes had a brickyard in Fifeville. Mr. Fife had a farm at Fifeville. He and my grandmother grew up together and were great friends. He would come to visit her at the Fifth Street house and they talked a lot; they had a lot in common.

"My husband had a tailor shop, cleaning and pressing, near the University on West Main Street where Howard Johnson's is now. Later, he opened a business on Vinegar Hill at the top of Main Street. Most of the black businesses were on Vinegar Hill and Preston Avenue. There wasn't much on Sixth Street. On University Avenue there were a few barber shops and shoe repair shops. A lot of the black women worked as domestics for the white people near the University who kept boarding houses for the students. Most blacks made their living off of the University then, or in a business near the University. Black men once rose early and made fires for the students in the mornings.

"I attend the First Baptist Church on Sixth and Main Streets. My grandmother was one of the founders in 1865. She was a very active woman. I was a Sunday school teacher, a leader of young people's groups, and I'm still working for them. Mt. Zion Church is about 117 years old. First Baptist and Mt. Zion are the two oldest churches, I think.

"When I was a child I used to go on picnics out where Washington Park is now. That was way out of town. It was called Craven's Woods at that time. Below Washington Park was Kelly Town. It was called that because several families named Kelly lived out there. We went to horse shows near Fry's Springs. We attended movies on Main Street for ten cents. There used to be an opera house on the corner of Sixth Street and Main Street where they had plays. There was a barroom on the bottom and a dance floor upstairs in the auditorium. The plays were put on by traveling shows and minstrels. We used to have "lawn parties", gatherings with bands and dancing. Most everybody had a piano and played and gave their children lessons. They'd have little parties in the home under their parents supervision.

"Usually people didn't go out much. Young men and women would hire a horse and buggy from the livery stable and go riding in the country for several hours--sweethearts in the country! The best route was out Nine Mile Circle to where Rio Road is now. You would go out Park Street, and back on Route 29. It was just woods then. Now it's all built up. It was horse and buggy or a wagon if you wanted to go a long distance. People walked a lot then too. Mr. Ellington had the first steam car. The streetcar ran up Main Street to the University.

"When Lane High School was built, the blacks (who lived on the site) had to give up their homes. Their opposition didn't mean anything. There were black homes all the way down Preston Avenue from Beck's Hill on down. There wasn't a Mclntire Road, just fields. My school had it's football games on Wine Cellar field down there. I attended Jefferson Graded School which later became Jefferson Elementary. It was an old building facing Fourth Street and that is where I began teaching in 1915. It has been torn down and replaced with the new Jefferson School and by Jackson-Burley. Children are more disobedient in school now. There are more drugs and drinking now, too. There is less respect for teachers. When I was young, the teacher was "law in the classroom" and was respected. Children respected teachers, and teachers respected children. Moral rules were taught as well as academics. We prayed in school, teachers and children together. At lunch, teachers taught manners and saw that children learned them. That's not done anymore.

"To a great extent, I agreed with integration. Before, we had to supply our children with things that white children got free. Often, we weren't able to buy some things and our children went without. The races have to live together, so they should go to school together and work it out. Before segregation, there was interaction in neighborhoods when children played together and adults worked together. When they made laws to separate the races, then bad feelings set in. It made a big difference to be told you CAN'T do this, you MUST do that. It changed all our lives entirely. Then, the feeling of inferiority began and people had to move to other sections.

"I've been pushed off of streetcar seats by white men. We had Jim Crow laws on trains, yet when you passed into Washington, you could sit anywhere you wanted. And it changed something in you--it created something in you--I know, and I'm not a violent person. In Washington, I went into a drugstore to get a drink and the lady passed it to me in a paper cup. Another person received a nice big glass, and I looked at it and said, 'Why don't I get that?' She said, 'We don't serve you people with a glass.' That did something to me and I got up and walked out. I said, 'Well, is there a difference in the money?'

"These things made people resentful. After a while, that passed on, but you had to work through it to get to that point. Signs saying 'colored' and 'white'--those things did get to you, especially well-thinking people. Of course, some folks didn't pay any attention to it. They just did what they had to do. Traveling on a bus you had to sit in the back. It made you very resentful and you had to control yourself. I've been to places where you had to go around to the back door to get served food. Yet you paid the same price. You had to work through this resentment. The youngsters now can't see that. They don't know these things that other people went through. They can't understand what happened. They are born now with their rights, and they are enjoying the fruits of the previous generation's sufferings. They don't know what their ancestors went through. We had it so much better than what my mother came through and she had it better than what my grandmother came through. It was a radical change. But we all worked through it. We're thankful that things are different. There's still plenty to be done.

"The biggest change in this neighborhood has been from family-owned to rented homes. Few of the older families remain in the neighborhood, and it is not as close-knit as it was. Renting changes the face of a neighborhood because renters don't keep up property as well, and they move frequently. Increased renting changes both the physical and demographic nature of a neighborhood. The housing renovations and the improvement of the streets have helped. The decline of the downtown has been adjusted to. It's not a big problem.

Ella Baylor Recollections Thomas Ferguson Inge, Sr. Recollections George Ferguson Recollections Brief History of the Rivanna River

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Last Modified: Thursday, 28-Jul-2005 17:00:33 EDT