The grandfather I never knew

Published 9:35 pm Saturday, October 26, 2013

By Dennis Edwards

My grandfather was born in August 1856, a month shy of 100 years before I got here.

James Thomas Reid Sr. died almost four decades before my birth. The fundamental math was against my chances of ever meeting him. Yet he fascinates me 93 years after his death.

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He fascinates, because I wonder how much I am like him. A glance in the mirror and I notice my mustache grows like his. So does my hairline. I have a tendency to use my eyes the way he did. I suspect I may get an appreciation for the finer things in life from him.

But knowing him wasn’t meant to be.

My guess is many of us could say similar things about relatives we never knew, major people who played a role in Suffolk’s earlier days. Grandpa was that kind of man. I’m told he was the first Extension agent of color in Virginia. His job was helping farmers profit from the best and newest farm techniques.

He also became a major investor in the Tidewater Fair Association, Crocker-Boykin Funeral Home and other businesses. He and his first wife Ellen were a power couple before anybody knew what power couples were. She taught school in Whaleyville while Grandpa and his brother ran a farm that’s still in the family.

Yet he remains a mystery, a man whose desire for a family, like a scarlet thread, linked one marriage to another.

For most folks, Grandpa would be a great-great-grandfather. Maybe even a great-great-great. He was born seven years before the Emancipation Proclamation. He bought his farm from a woman who didn’t look like him in the 1870s. As the crow flies, his place backed up to his father’s farm in Holland. J.T. was Jeremiah’s middle son. The oldest was John Reid, Aunt Suzy’s dad.

When his first wife, Ellen, died, he was about 56. So he married the middle daughter of his childhood friend, Cornelia Boykin. Maude, a student at Hampton Institute, was still at home, and the firstborn of their May/December marriage was J.T. Jr. The second was my mother, Ellen Lorraine. Grandpa named her after his first wife. Mama never really embraced the name Ellen and unapologetically went by her middle name. Yet I always thought there was a nice rhythm to Ellen Lorraine.

J.T. Reid was a mover and shaker in his day, a powerful and well-off man.

His personal and business relationships were interesting, as well. In later years, Grandpa’s will was administered by a young Mills Godwin Jr. The conversations my mother and uncles had with the future governor were kindhearted.

In Suffolk, relationships like that are more than common. Like the bond between T.E. Cooke and R.W. Baker or Leroy Burke and G.S. Hobbs. Multi-generational friendships run family deep, providing intimate glimpses into life on both sides of a thin racial veil.

There was no secrecy in these bonds. Folks knew the connections and how the wiring ran deep beneath the surface of social restrictions.

Yet we get stuck on the social barriers many of our forefathers found creative ways to conquer. They were limited by more restrictive times, yet still enjoyed authentic relationship in spite of their moment. Makes you wonder why we can’t follow their lead, doesn’t it?

Isn’t it amazing what lessons our relatives can still teach even 100 years after they’re gone?

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at