Mississippi

Oma Stanley Smith (Bynum), A Father’s Day Remembrance

by Vikki Bynum

Adopted in 1918 at age five months by his cousin Bertie Bynum Smith and her husband Sollie, my father did not meet his biological father and siblings until age sixteen after running away from his home near Poplarville to his birthplace of Jones County, Mississippi. An earlier post tells of Dad’s adoption. This excerpt from my family history in progress tells of his life between then and 1942, the year he met my mother in wartime Macon, Georgia

Growing up in Poplarville, Dad was unaware he had several siblings living just north of him in the “old Bynum place” in Seminary (when they weren’t bunking with their Uncle Leon and Aunt Mat). No one told him when his Grandpa Bynum died in 1920, or that his Aunt Bessie moved to the old Bynum place to help Grandma Sophronia raise Wendell, Cliff, and Merle.[1]

Then Bertie died. Her untimely death in early 1932 set in motion events that changed Dad’s life forever. In the wake of Bertie’s death, perhaps at her funeral, he may have gathered bits of family news from his and Bertie’s Ellisville kinfolk. He may even have heard that his sister Merle had recently returned to the old Bynum home with a broken marriage behind her and a baby on her hip. Losing the only mother he’d had ever known also raised old questions about who Dad’s real father was, especially after Sollie married Rachel House less than a year later. Whereas Bertie provided a buffer against Sollie’s stern ways, his new stepmother just made him feel in the way. Bertie had been “blood kin,” and in the rural South, that was important. With her gone, fourteen-year-old Stanley felt alienated from “parents” who neither shared his blood nor had won his love.[2]

Just two months after Bertie’s death, Grandma Sophronia died. That news, too, may have trickled down to Dad’s neck of the woods to keep him thinking about Jones County. Knowing that he had two living fathers, one who whipped him, the other who ignored him, ate at him. Did his real father ever wonder about his youngest child’s life? Sometime in 1933 Dad decided to find out. He hopped the dummy train going north from the coast, and landed in Ellisville. From there, he hitched a ride over to Seminary, where he found Merle, Sonny, and Aunt Bessie living together at the old Bynum place. Merle and Bessie were utterly charmed. Standing before them was Aden and Naoma’s long-lost baby, tall and slim with black hair and black eyes, just as handsome as he could be! Stanley poured on the charm. He playfully sat on forty-three-year-old Bessie’s lap, flirting with her like she was his pretty young girlfriend rather than his maiden aunt. He was finally home.[3]

The first thing Merle did was to throw him a big party. Sixteen-year-old Laura Frances Bynum came from next door to gawk at her cousin. Looking back in 2004 at age eighty-six, Laura still remembered that “I thought he was such a handsome man!” Soon enough, she, Dad, and Merle were eating suppers, talking late into the night, and going on triple dates together. For a while, it appeared Dad might settle down in Jones County. In addition to Merle, Laura, and Aunt Bessie, he met relatives who remembered the family crisis of 1917-1918, including his Uncle Leon, Aunt Mat, and Aunt Teola. Most were still farmers, wage-workers, or homemakers with households of children numbering in the double-digits who now struggled amid the Great Depression. Dad began to rethink his future. All of his brothers had joined the military and were living elsewhere. He finally met his father Aden, though when and where is not certain. They found it difficult to talk. And so, like his brothers, Stanley sought his fortune in military service. [4]

Shortly before his eighteenth birthday, Dad took off for New Orleans and enlisted in the navy. Learning that Bessie had terminal cancer may have hastened his exit from Jones County. When he arrived in Jones County, he’d already lost his birth and adoptive mothers. To personally witness the loss of his newly-discovered aunt might have proved too much to handle.


Stanley Smith’s teenaged naval career, not surprisingly, proved short and undistinguished. Entering as an apprentice seaman, he left as a seaman 2nd class. His first assignment was to the Naval Training Station in Norfolk, Virginia, where he obtained the requisite tattoos expected of a young sailor. On his upper left arm read the word “Mother,” inscribed below with Naoma’s death date. His right arm displayed the image of a long-haired beauty and soon-to-be-forgotten girlfriend identified only as “Jewel.”[5]

Navy life introduced him to the glories of rum as well as women. He soon fell ill. On January 2, 1936, Stanley was admitted to the Norfolk Naval Hospital. After his release, he was sent to New York City, and by September, 1936, he was aboard the USS Mahan (DD-364). Five months later, he was again hospitalized, this time at the Naval Hospital in Brooklyn. After his recovery from an undisclosed “physical disability,” he was discharged on May 13, 1937, “under honorable conditions” (the category just below “honorable”). In his one year, five months, and two days in service, he earned no certificates of training nor completed any school courses. The navy sent him back to New Orleans with one month’s pay and travel money in his pocket. Dad later told Mom that gonorrhea had cut short his naval career.[6]

If Stanley returned to New Orleans or Mississippi, he didn’t stay long. In 1938 he was driving city buses in New York for the Bee-Line fleet at Rockville Center, twenty-five miles east of Manhattan. Before that, his wage work experience, likely in Mississippi, consisted of driving a ten-ton semi-trailer truck and hauling logs, lumber, stumps, coal, gravel, and some freight. Driving a city bus and earning northern wages was a big step up.[7]

Living in urban New York also plunged him into a far different social world. Stanley thrilled to the sounds of Big Band music, but also enjoyed the jazz and blues clubs that harkened back to his early childhood in New Orleans. He shed his Mississippi accent and Baptist upbringing. A great dancer and sharp dresser, he wore carefully tailored shirts and shined shoes out on the town. On the dance floor, he threw his dance partners up over his head, then down between his legs without ever losing the beat. From 1938 to 1942, Stanley Smith, who began to call himself Stan Bynum, was a true city boy.[8]

In March, 1942, Aden Bynum died in Mobile, Alabama. His body was returned to Mississippi, where his funeral and burial were attended by all his children, save one. Aden’s obituary noted that “Stanley Bynum” of Brooklyn, New York, was not present. Two weeks later, with labor unrest roiling the transit industry and World War II beckoning, Stanley enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was soon ordered to Cochran Field in Macon, Georgia. The wartime military town of Macon was bursting at the seams with young people away from home for the first time. What this rural Georgia town lacked in urban sophistication was compensated by a rollicking nightlife of young soldiers cut adrift from small towns and watchful families. [9]

At age twenty-four, Stanley Smith, nicknamed “Smitty” by his new friends, was a bit older than most of the soldiers and five years free of family constraints. With the steady, sober work of driving a city bus behind him, “Smitty” hit the Macon party scene at full speed. There was plenty of alcohol and romance to be had, though neither cured the sadness and anger hidden beneath his darkly handsome features and gregarious, affectionate personality. In the summer of 1942, the soldier from Mississippi met a pretty blonde from Minnesota named Margaret Huckenpoehler. The two immediately fell in love. [10]

————————

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Oma Stanley Bynum, Conversations, passim. Federal Manuscript Censuses, 1920, Pearl River County, Poplarville, and Covington County, Seminary.

[2] Oma Stanley Bynum, Conversations, June, 1966. Bertie Bynum Smith died on 7 Feb 1932 at age forty-six.

Merle Bynum married Charles Dial around 1929. In 1930, the couple lived with his aunt and uncle in Rockford, Coosa County, Alabama (Federal Manuscript Census, 1930, Coosa County, Alabama). Merle left Charles Dial shortly after their son, Charles Aden, “Sonny,” was born, and returned to Mississippi.               

[3] Obituary of Sophronia Tisdale Bynum, 10 April 1933. Description of Stanley’s train trip to Ellisville by Laura Bynum Sanford (Wayne Wingate, email to Author, 27 Sept 2004).

[4] Laura Frances Bynum Sanford to Author, September 2004. Laura was the granddaughter of Leon and Mat Bynum. Aden Bynum briefly worked as a cabinetmaker in New Orleans, where he lived with his second wife, Minnie Henderson (New Orleans city directories, 1925, 1927). They later moved to Mobile, AL, where Aden lived for the rest of his life (Mobile, AL, city directories, 1939, 1940, and 1941). Stanley enlisted in the navy on 4 September 1935, two months and 10 days shy of his 18th birthday.

[5] Military Records, Oma Stanley Smith.

[6] Margaret Bynum, Conversations, passim. Consistent with gonorrhea, Dad’s discharge papers described sores on various parts of his body (Military Records, Oma Stanley Smith)

[7] Military Records, Oma Stanley Smith.

[8] Stan Bynum, Conversations, passim.

[9] Aden Gallington Bynum died 23 March 1942. Although his obituary stated that Stanley “Bynum” lived in Brooklyn, Stanley’s military enlistment records of one month later show him living in Lynbrook, Nassau County, NY (Obituary of Aden G. Bynum, unidentified, undated newspaper clipping).  

[10] Stanley enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on 8 April 1942 and was discharged on 11 April 1946 (Military Records, Oma Stanley Smith).

4 replies »

  1. Wonderful writing and history of Stan, Vikki. I didn’t know you were posting these. I look forward to reading them all.

    Love — sis-in-law.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful tribute to your dad Vikki. My dad also chose to live in New York City for a while in the late 30s. He was a Marine stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and was discharged about 1938. He found employment as a clerk in a bank in the Bronx. He met my mom, who was born and raised on Webster Avenue in the Bronx. As war approached he reenlisted in the Marines. He never returned to Jones County except to visit family.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Chuck. I meant to answer your message much sooner, but got distracted a deadline. It sounds as though our father’s followed very similar trajectories in their early adulthood!

      Vikki

      Like

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