Cora. The Girl on the Porch.
The last white Crews resident of “Tally Ho at Tar River” Plantation, original home of James A. Crews (aka “Tar River Jimmy”) was his son, LeRoy Lafayette Crews. LeRoy was my great-great-grandfather. His first wife was Fanny Evelyn Johnston. Their daughter was Constance Hall Crews; my great-grandmother, who was born in 1878.
Connie’s mother, Fanny Evelyn, died in 1886 when Connie was just 8 years old. After her passing, Connie was sent away from the plantation at Tar River. She spent the next twelve years living with distant relations, and often being passed around among various families over the years. Her childhood was difficult, and she didn’t return home to Tar River often.
When she was twenty, Constance (Connie) Hall Crews married James Thomas Benn, of Halifax County, North Carolina. He worked for the Weldon (later Seaboard Coastline) Railroad as a telegraph operator, and his base was in Thelma, North Carolina in Halifax County, near the Virginia/N. Carolina border. It’s been passed down through the family that Connie’s Crews’ relations didn’t approve of the marriage, believing that James Thomas Benn was of a lower class of people than the prominent and wealthy Crewses of Granville County.
Nevertheless, she married James and theirs was a lifelong love affair. They were happily, passionately in love, in marriage until his death in 1944.
When Connie married James T. Benn, she moved from her Aunt Rebecca’s home in Halifax to James Thomas Benn’s home in Thelma, N.C. It has been passed down that at the time of her marriage, she was “given” a servant woman named Cora (Cora was an adult at the time, and may have had a husband and children) to accompany her to Thelma and help her set up her new home. Interestingly there is a photograph, taken about 1917, of LeRoy Crews in front of the lovely house at Tar River, and Cora is standing on the porch in the background. This image has always been my closest connection to her.
Cora was born on the plantation at Tar River. Her parents were born into slavery on the place, under the mastership of James A. Crews (“Tar River Jimmy”.) Despite her lifelong and familial ties to Tar River, Cora (and possibly her whole family), relocated to the tiny railroad depot town of Thelma, with their young mistress, Connie.
Many of the details of this relationship have been lost, but the essentials are intact. What is known is that Cora stayed at Thelma with Connie. She raised her family there and had several children, at least two daughters. Connie and James Benn had children, all of whom moved out of Thelma. When Connie and James’ last child, my grandmother, Mary Hall Benn married and moved to nearby Weldon, NC, Connie followed her – leaving Thelma for good. The house that James Thomas Benn built for his young wife in 1898 was left to Cora and her family – and there they stayed.
Cora and her husband raised their children in that home, located just across the road from the old railroad depot. Cora and Connie, and later my grandmother Mary Hall, continued to stay in close contact over the decades. I recall meeting Cora in the early 1970’s, and she seemed a truly ancient creature to me then. Years later, when I was in my 20’s, we visited Cora’s daughter at Thelma, where she operated a general store. She welcomed us and she knew more family stories than we did, and then she told us proudly that her oldest son was just about to graduate from Shaw University.
Since that time my family has lost contact with Cora’s children and grandchildren. I think this is a terrible shame, but I do understand that generations pass and things change, and I am less brave about looking up these relations than my mother was. I hope with all my might that Cora’s grandson – the boy who was about to graduate from Shaw in the early 1980’s – has gone on to have a successful, fulfilling, and prosperous life! I think of him very often, even though I don’t know his name. He is never far from my thoughts.
PLEASE CONTACT ME if you are or know of any descendants of any of these individuals. PLEASE CONTACT ME if you can add new individuals, named or un-named, or can contribute any former slave narratives (or anything else) to this collection.