by Vikki Bynum
“Honey, look what Mama’s got,” Naoma purred as she held up her newborn baby boy for his sister to see. Four-year-old Merle’s eyes popped open wide on this cold November morning in 1917. She’d fussed all night after being banished from her Mama’s bed for reasons she hadn’t understood. Now she understood why. The tiny creature Mama held up to her was her newest brother. Less than six weeks later, Merle was led down the hallway of their house again, this time to view with a child’s horror her mother’s dead body stretched out on a cooling board.
For all her long life, Merle could never erase the twin images of a newborn brother and a newly-dead mother. Little Oma Stanley Bynum, of course, would never know the mother for whom he was named. Neither would he know his father, for in his despair, Aden Gallington Bynum left his infant son to be raised by others.
The infant, immediately nicknamed “Stanley,” was my father. At different times over the years, I learned about the tragic circumstances of his birth from him, his sister Merle, and brother Cerulian. Pretty much all dad knew was that he was born into a large family that already included six sons—Oran, Cerulian, Wendell, Clifton, Harry, and Conrad—and two daughters, Laree and Ilahmuriel (Merle). That within six weeks of his birth a deadly epidemic left him with only four brothers, one sister, and no mother. While still an infant, he was given to his dad’s first cousin, Bertie Mae Bynum, and her husband, Sollie Smith, to raise.
The grim specter of death that hung over the Bynum home ravaged a community, leaving many families decimated by an epidemic likely
connected to World War I. Beginning in winter, 1917, and continuing into the early months of 1918, dysentery, “the bloody flux,” combined with measles to devastate the rural Sweetwater neighborhood of Moselle, Jones County, Mississippi, where the Bynums lived. Only the oldest and youngest children, seventeen-year-old Oran and newborn Stanley, and their father escaped the lethal mixture of infection and disease that sickened family members one-by-one.
The scourge began when twelve-year-old Cliff returned home sick from Uncle Johnnie Shows’ farm where he’d boarded and worked for some time. Cliff’s illness swept through the home. By early December seven sick children lay in beds lining the walls of a single room. Early on, little Stanley was removed from the home to Uncle Leon and Aunt Mat Bynum’s for safekeeping.
Uncle Cerulian, a 15-year-old boy too weak even to lift his legs, recalled lying helplessly among his siblings. He never forgot, he told me as
he looked up and turned away, the pallor of nine-year-old Laree’s face just before she died on the second of December. Two-year-old Conrad was next. He died on the sixth of December, followed by seven-year-old Harry five days later.
“The bereaved family has the sympathy of the entire community,” wrote the community page correspondent for Ellisville’s Jones County News on December 20, 1917, “this being the third child they have lost in ten days.”
Naoma was also stricken. For a time, she appeared on the mend, but quickly relapsed and became “dangerously ill” as she watched her children die one-by-one. Six days before Christmas she cried out in anguish that she could not bear to lose another child before shutting her eyes for the final time.
“It made us sad to learn that Mr. Aden Bynum lost his dear wife and darling children,” reported the Jones County News on December 27th.
Meanwhile, little Merle and brothers Cerulian, Cliff, and Wendell struggled against the same fate. Mercifully, they were spared. On January 3, 1918, the Jones County News reported that the remaining Bynum children appeared “about to recover.” And recover they did, but the family unit did not. Fractured by illness and death, it soon disintegrated.
Father Aden fled Mississippi for Alabama, where he met and married Minnie Henderson in 1920. By that time, his oldest sons Oran and Cerulian were sailors with the U.S. Naval Reservation at Gulfport, Mississippi. The whereabouts of fifteen-year-old Wendell are uncertain, but Cliff, Merle, and Stanley, the youngest children, remained with relatives.
Stanley, the only child formally adopted and taken out of Jones County, did not know his father or siblings for the first sixteen years of his life. On April 29, 1918, the five-month-old infant legally became Stanley Smith, the son of forty-three-year-old Hiram Solomon (“Sollie”) Smith and Sollie’s second wife, who was Stanley’s twenty-eight-year-old cousin Bertie Mae Bynum. The couple had no children together, but Sollie’s son Daniel from a previous marriage lived with them.
In 1920, the Smith family lived in Ward 9 of St. Tammany Parrish in Slidell, Louisiana, where Sollie farmed and Bertie managed a restaurant. Economically, the Smiths were a cut above Stanley’s family of origin. They did well enough to employ black “help,” the ultimate sign of white status in the Jim Crow South. Isiah Smith was their household servant, and Callie Williams cooked for the restaurant that Bertie managed.
Stanley wasn’t told much about his Jones County roots, but he knew enough to ask Sollie occasionally who his real father was. Sollie always
told him that he had a “living father,” which confused Stanley. If he did have a living father, why then didn’t he live with that father? It didn’t make sense to Stanley. Had he been abandoned? Privately, he entertained the comforting idea that this was just Sollie’s way of telling him that he was his real father after all.
Stanley loved his adoptive mother, an affectionate, fun-loving, and stylish woman who bobbed her hair in the latest style. Once, he told my mother, Bertie took him as a child to the Mardi Gras all dressed up as a baby.
With a baby bottle hanging on a string around his neck and wearing a diaper fastened in front with a giant safety pin, off they dashed to the fair.
By contrast, Sollie was stern, quiet, and quick to take a strap to his son’s bottom whether for wetting his bed or telling a lie. Worse than the whippings was the taunting that preceded them. In a mockingly soft voice, the words, “Now, Stanley, you’re going to be the bass drum, and I’m going to play that drum,” menacingly rolled off Sollie’s lips as he ordered Stanley to bend over.
My dad carried fond memories of Bertie, who died when he was fourteen, but I never detected even a hint of affection when he spoke of the man who adopted him. He never referred to Sollie as “dad,” adoptive or otherwise, but coldly as his “foster father.” I never knew a time when my father did not bite his fingernails so far below the quick that they bled. Nor a time when he did not disappear regularly and violently into a bottle of booze. It took me years to understand the trauma of his birth and childhood that haunted him all his life.
In June 1966, on a long drive back from taking my then-husband to the Air Force facility that prepared him for overseas duty in Vietnam, I finally came to know and understand my father. I mean, we had to talk about something while dad drove, so I asked about his childhood. And he answered. The father who always teared up at the corniest TV drama recounted for me, without tears or a trace of self-pity, his Mississippi childhood. It all came tumbling out—the circumstances of his birth, his early years, his running away from home at age sixteen. As I quietly listened, I knew I’d never feel the same about him again. The man I often reviled for his alcoholic rages, who I had blamed for all the evil that ripped at our own family, was transformed into a human being right before my eyes. All because of that long drive we took that day.