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David M. Fryson: An Appalachian eulogy

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My amazing mother, Mrs. Dorothy Ross Hawkins Fryson recently passed away at the age of 102 leaving over 120 linear decedents. The loss of a loved one is a compelling life event and causes reflection on the meaning of existence.

Mom was born in 1911, a time when limitations were placed on her because of her gender, race and residence, Appalachia. Nevertheless, together with my father, Sim Fryson, who was born in Alabama in 1896, they forged a compelling slice of the American dream.

My parents were fiercely independent, intelligent, caring and devout Christians who were community minded. My father, a World War I veteran, left Alabama sometime in the early part of the 20th century on the threat of being lynched. So intense was the persecution of African-Americans under Jim Crowe laws, he had to assume a new name and eventually moved to West Virginia.

Perhaps his earlier experiences in the Deep South provided him a different perspective on West Virginia, a place he absolutely adored until the day he died in 1971. Part of the West Virginia enigma is that many African Americans from the South found solace here; even though Appalachian racism was and is undeniable. However, there was a somewhat different racial dynamic here, perhaps born of shared oppression.

My mother was born in the coal town of Belmont, which was near Montgomery but no longer exists. She had an elegant perspective on life and a lifelong drive for significance, perhaps born of her father’s early success as an independent coal contractor. While my grandfather died before I was born, my mother would sometimes talk of the days during the coal boom when her father enjoyed the peak of his business success. Unfortunately his, like many coal boom enterprises, was not sustained long term. She shared, with a delightful twinkle in her eyes, the memory of the holiday train car that would back up to their home filled with food and gifts paid for by this African-American contractor’s income back in the 1920s.

Our mother insisted that her children never live below privilege as equal partners in the American experience. The sterling education she received at the segregated Garnett High School made her a stickler for correct English and proper manners and she demanded that we always dress appropriately, a trait that has served us well. One of her favorite sayings was that “you should always leave home dressed like you just stepped out of a bandbox.” While she was a demanding personality, her intelligence, humor and personal deportment was well known. Looking back, I realize that both of my parents were amazingly disciplined people.

My father was 58 years of age when I was born. He was an uncompromising gem of humanity. Daddy was wise in manner and stature with a dignity that was never diminished by his lack of schooling or his job at the old Charleston Transit Bus Co. This was at a time when African-Americans were not even allowed to drive buses but only clean them. Deacon Fryson was a praying man who lived out his Christian experience in word and deed. He modeled the meaning of unconditional love. He married my mother, a divorcee with five children, and loved my five siblings as his own as my parents eventually sired three more from their union.

We deliver eloquent eulogies for our parents and ancestors whenever we make contributions to the American freedom experiment. My family history is one of the myriad of untold stories of achievement and connection through difficulty and sacrifice. Legacies of people such as Mary Snow, C.H. and Lucia James, Ben and Nancy Starks, Lottie Prillerman Morris, Della Brown Hardman, James “Jimmie” and Rose Morris, Lewis Smoot, Leon H. Sullivan, Harvey Brooks, Booker T. Washington, Edward and Eulalia (Yankee) Peeks, Carter G. Woodson, Byrd Prillerman, James Tolbert, Herbert Henderson, Mary Barnes, J.R. Clifford, Moses Newsome, Frank Cleckley, T.D. and Serita Jakes, and allies such as James and Virginia McIntyre, John Brown, Paul and Mary Kaufman, Helaine Rotgin and untold others provide the shoulders on which the West Virginia diversity movement stands.

The American experience is complicated and compelling as we continue to move toward full participation. I devote my life to the area of diversity and inclusion in order to participate in revealing the mosaic of the authentic Appalachian story.

Fryson, a lawyer, pastor and Chief Diversity Officer for West Virginia University, is a Gazette contributing columnist.

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