Surrounded by Death: My Father’s Mississippi Childhood

by Vikki Bynum

Oma Stanley Bynum aka Stanley Smith, circa 1919

“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

Aden Gallington Bynum and Naoma Shows Bynum. A likely wedding photo from 1899.

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

Merle Bynum, who survived, with older sister, Laree, who did not. Jones County, MS, Circa 1916

Stanley’s brother, Cerulian Bynum, circa 1935. They did meet until Stanley was 16 years old.

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

Oma Stanley Bynum aka Oma Stanley Smith.

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.

Believed to be Bertie Mae Bynum Smith, circa 1907. Bertie was the daughter of John H. Bynum, clerk of the Jones County Court, circa 1880-1890.

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.


22 replies »

    • I’m so pleased that you like it, Lisa! Yes, my father changed his name back to Bynum. He did so after returning from WWII, around 1946. He had already married, and my brother Jimmy was born in 1944, so Jimmy and my mom’s names had to be changed from Smith to Bynum, too.

    • Thank you,Vikki, for writing and publishing this very poignant and personal story of your dad’s early life. I am reminded that all of us are formed by events and circumstances over which we have no control. Glad you have been able to wrest the goodness and grit and tenderness from all that horror and death and sadness. The pic of your dad sitting and looking at the camera…his little body and head of curls…and your grandparents’ picture….Naoma Shows is a striking and formidable woman. Both pictures capture so much!

      Looking forward to the rest of the story!


      • Your words mean so much to me, Cindy; thank you! I’m delighted that you enjoyed the photos, as I spent a lot of time choosing them. I particularly love that you noticed how “striking and formidable” my grandma Naoma appears in her wedding photo. It’s the only photo I have of her, and I’ve been struck since I first saw it as a teenager by her forceful, confident face.


  1. Vicki, I dont know how you connect your Bynums with mine. I knew all of my grandmothers brothers and sisters personally and visited them often with my Mama.

    • Rebecca, I think I once knew the connection, but I’ve since forgotten. Can you give me the names of a few generations of Bynums before you?


    • Yes, his home life is what did it, Sarah. He left the Smith home two years after his adoptive mom died, went on up to Jones County, met his long lost family, and then joined the military before he turned 18. He never lived in Mississippi longer than a year after that.


  2. Vicki, Thank you for sharing this very personal story. The courage it took for you to ask your dad about his childhood was justly rewarded. I never had the courage to ask my dad about his childhood…to do so would have most likely meant another rebuke. The need to know, however, lead me on an incredible journey that remains to this day the focus of my life. What I have learned will never amount to what an honest dialog with my dad would have given me, but what I found leaves me content by giving me understanding.

    • Chuck, I appreciate knowing how you came to the task of writing family history. I’m sorry you never had that dialogue with your father, but the understanding is what’s important, whatever way we find it.

  3. Thank you so much Victoria for sharing! My families from Jones County have experienced much the same as we share our stories. The plight of so many who suffered through Reconstruction and Bible Belt revivals amidst such horrific conditions is telling. And by sharing, we are healed. Blessings!

    • I agree, Robby. And, while I’ve often told people that I finally understood my father after a chance conversation enabled by a long auto journey, writing it up, and reading people’s responses to what I wrote, brought me even closer to a state of healing. Thank you for your words.

  4. VIkki— Wonderfully written and personalized memoir of Stan. The story comes to life for me and seeps with understanding of my husband. This is a treasure and I’m hungry for more.

    • Hello Amber,

      There are many articles about the Collins family of Jones County, MS, and Hardin Co, TX, on this blog, Just type “Collins” into the search box on the front page of Renegade South.

  5. Oh, Vikki, this is truly powerful and heart-wrenching. The things we finally learn about our fathers! My oh my. Thank you for sharing,

    • Thank you, Karen. My father’s story has been in my head and heart since the age of nineteen, when we took took that long drive together. I have told it many times to my husband and a few family members over the years, but actually writing it up was a very emotional experience. I found myself wishing for just five more minutes with my him, though he’s been dead now for almost exactly thirty years.


  6. Thank you for sharing this moving story. The past really does shape us and the next generation. Too often that past is never revealed and there is no understanding. I’m glad he opened up to you. Strangely, it has been on car rides that I have often had things told to me that would not have been otherwise.

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