Apppeared in the March 2010 issue of The Southern Genealogists Exchange Quarterly

MY NUMBER ONE HERO — Robert Henry Sessions

J. G. Braddock Sr.

I have ancestors on my father’s side who were bona fide heroes. One fought Indians in King Philip’s War. Another, who commanded men-of-war and successful privateering ships, was called one of colonial South Carolina's most intrepid seamen by historians. A third commanded men-of-war and privateering ships and served in the colonial Georgia assembly. And another commanded a Georgia galley that helped capture three British men-of war in the Revolution. Yet, for all their dauntless acts, they are outranked in hero stature in my eyes by a nearly deaf wisp of a man who stood no more that 5 and half feet, weighed about 110 pounds, did not know how to read and write until his wife taught him after their marriage, and spent most of his working life as a lowly saw filer. He was Robert Henry Sessions, my grandfather.

Henry, the name he went by, was born July 7, 1884 in Waynesboro, Burke County, Georgia, the youngest child of Reuben James Sessions and Susan Hicks. According to the census taken four years earlier, he was preceded in birth by the arrival of Frances in 1866, Ella in 1869, Willie in 1872, Reuben James Jr. in 1874, Rosa in 1877, and George Washington in 1879. The census shows Reuben Senior to have been a 33 year old farmer born in South Carolina and lists Susan as a 33 year old housekeeper born in Georgia. They were married in Richmond County, probably in the Augusta area, April 27, 1864 when both were seventeen.

The 1860 census for Richmond Factory, Georgia, which was located on the southern fringe of Augusta near where Tobacco Road passes, lists 14 year old Reuben J. with his parents, 40 year old Israel Sessions and 34 year old Mary A., and 8 month old sister Esther. Israel is listed as a carder, probably in a nearby textile mill, from South Carolina. Mary is listed as a seamstress from Georgia. Although there is a multitude of genealogy records of South Carolina Sessions, mostly in the Georgetown area, no records connecting Israel to them have been found. Nor could Susan Hicks be traced back to her parents. Unverified family legend says she was of Indian origin. This may be more than a wishful myth: Henry had an olive complexion and some facial features similar to those of Native Americans.

Henry’s mother died when he was three years old. His father’s second wife did not like him and his siblings. One night, after overhearing her threatening to kill them, some of his older brothers ran away and took him with them. They were taken in by a Dr. Wood near Portal, Georgia.

Henry began working with his two brothers as a laborer in saw mills in his teens and at some point learned to file saws. By the time he reached twenty, harvesting cypress timber out of Okefenokee Swamp in South Georgia had reached fever pitch. He and his brothers found work at one of the many saw mills that sprung up around the fringe of the swamp. Making the 150 mile trip to South Georgia became considerably more worth the trouble when he found the love of his life in the area. On July 17, 1904 he married Sarah “Sallie” Elizabeth Clark, daughter of Napoleon Bonaparte Clark and Mary Angeline Smith, in Waltertown, Ware County, Georgia. Reverend B. F. Bryant performed the ceremony. Sallie recorded the marriage in their new family Bible. Henry did not know how to read and write when they married. Sallie taught him over the next several years, but it was too late to fulfill his burning desire to be a preacher. Yet, the kind of man he was preached many a sermon to others.

He is enumerated in the 1910 Beach, Georgia census as a 26 year old saw filer in a shingle mill living in a rented house. Sallie is listed as his 24 year old wife. Apparently Sallie fudged on her age by three years: Her Bible and death records both give her birth year as 1883, one year before his. By the time of the census, Sallie had recorded in their Bible: “Rollie Hazel Sessions was born August 1, 1905;” “Delta Idonia Sessions was born October 17, 1907;” and “Susan Blanche Sessions was born March 1, 1910.”  For some unknown reason, 2 and half month old Susan Blanche was enumerated as “Rita V.”

Henry moved his growing family from one saw milling outfit after another over the next few years trying to stay employed. I often heard my mother and her siblings speak of the towns and places not big enough to be called towns in which they lived in South Georgia. Many of them bordered on the Okefenokee: Fargo, Council, Beach, Thalmann, Willacoochee. The porch of one house in which they lived extended out over the Suwannee River and they would sit on the porch and feed alligators congregating under it. Sallie recorded in their family Bible somewhere along the way: “Henry Floyd Sessions was born January 12, 1912.” A few months later, she added, “Henry Floyd Sessions died June 1, 1912 and was buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery June 2, 1912.” Two years later, she recorded, “Edna Alma Sessions was born April 14, 1914.” In another two years she added, “Mary Lou Sessions was born August 28, 1916.” And in another two years she recorded her last child, “Bruce Hilton Sessions was born December 16, 1918.”

By 1920, Henry had taken a job in Mendes, in Tattnall County. The 1920 census for Mendes lists him as a 37 year old saw mill laborer living in a rented house. Sallie again fudged on her age, but only by two years this time, reporting her age as 36.

Henry packed up his family in the early Twenties and headed for Miami where a building boom was in progress. Saws he filed there helped build numerous houses before he moved took a saw filing job in Jacksonville. While in Jacksonville, Sallie wrote on the marriage page of the family Bible: “Rollie Hazel Sessions to Ouida Norrine Harmon on April 16, 1927;” “Susan Blanche Sessions to Arnold Lee Braddock on July 22, 1928,” (my parents); and “Delta Idonia Sessions to Wiley Futral on December 23, 1928.”

The sojourn of Mama's family in Jacksonville lasted only a few months before Henry took a saw filing job with Georgia Creosoting Company in Brunswick. According to the 1930 census, the family, now consisting of him, Sallie, and their three unmarried children, lived in a house at 729 Norwich Street, for which he paid $15 a month rent. Alma, the oldest of the three children, worked as a theater usher. Sallie fudged on her age on the census by only one year this time, reporting it as 47, the same as Henry’s, although she was more than a year older than him. Five years later, Sallie recorded in their family Bible: “Edna Alma Sessions to John Robert Wells May 1, 1935.”

A short time later, Henry became head saw filer for another Brunswick firm, Georgia Veneer and Packing Company, manufacturers of orange crates. He stayed with them until he retired. He took me there once when I was just a little fellow. I vividly remember the fascinating sight of a raft of logs being maneuvered up to the dock where a crane fished them out, one at a time. His better paying job and filing saws on the side, plus Sallie’s earnings from making dresses, enabled them to buy the first and only house they ever owned. It was located at 1701 Niles Avenue at the corner of G Street.

Because he was among the best at filing saws, the business he ran at his back yard work bench kept him busy much of the evenings and Saturdays. My classifying him as “being among the best” is only partly prompted by the exuberance of a proud grandson. When I learned that the planing mill superintendent for the company for which I worked years ago as chief clerk had worked in sawmills in Georgia as a young man, I mentioned that my Grandfather Sessions had been a saw filer in Georgia sawmills. He responded, “Do you mean Henry Sessions? He was the best saw filer in all of Georgia.”  

Henry had a wooden sign advertising his saw filing business in the edge of the woods along U. S. 17 between Darien and Brunswick. Highway 17 served as the main north - south artery along the East Coast before the advent of Interstate 95. Seeing the sign on trips down that way, even after he died, always brought to my mind pleasant memories of him. However, each time I saw it, its lettering had faded a little more and vines had pulled its aging frame a little closer to the ground. Finally, on one trip, I looked for it in vain as I chided myself for not having photographed it while it yet stood.

I spent the year 1938 with Sallie and Henry. I thought for a long time that it was the toughest of my growing up years because of Grandma Sallie’s demeanor. She was a no-nonsense woman, and I was a full-of-nonsense eight year old. I spent most of the year in her dog house hearing homilies such as “Stand up on your hind legs and play the man,” “Be sure your sins will find you out,” and “Whatever your hands find to do, do with your might; things done by halves are never done right,” and being dosed up by her with cod liver oil and castor oil. But as I faced more and more of life’s challenges in later years, I came to view my stay with them as the best year of my youth, partly because of Sallie’s man-molding exhortations, but mostly because of my moments of fellowship with Henry. Seldom did he scold me are quote homilies to me—I don’t think he knew any. He would physically chastise me only after Sallie threw up her hands in exasperation and cried, “You’ve got to do something with this young man! He is in incorrigible!” Thankfully, he didn’t use Sallie’s skin-marking pecan tree switch. He used his razor strap, but with a light hand. He was so tenderhearted that the thought of having caused hurt would bring him instantly to tears. I learned very quickly to scream bloody murder on his first lick, which usually succeeded in making it his last. Once, when I got too close to his work bench while he used a ball peen hammer to align the teeth of a saw, the hammer head flew off and hit me square on the forehead. It hurt but, thanks to a hard head, not near as bad as I made it sound. He grabbed me up and hugged me and sobbed, “I’m sorry,” over and over and over. He continued to apologize to me for several days. He was so tender hearted that he left wringing the neck of Sunday dinner’s chicken to Sallie.

Henry had become prosperous enough during my stay to buy a new automobile, a 1938 Ford. He made every Sunday after church an occasion to drive Sallie and me somewhere, usually to Kingsland or Vidalia or Woodbine or Kingsland to visit relatives. Once he drove a considerable distance south on US17 just for me to see the streamlined train Silver Meteor go by. Our most memorable excursions occurred on the way to Vidalia. For some unknown reason, Henry reached out and turned the ignition key off as we motored along. Instantly, an earsplitting backfire blew out the muffler. In a voice almost as loud as the backfire, Sallie yelled, “Why in the world did you do that, Henry!?” She reminded him of his dastardly deed for weeks.

At the time I lived with them, Henry was 54. He had begun slowly going deaf in his mid-thirties. By now, his hearing had deteriorated to the point where he had to stand close and cup one hand to his ear to carry on a conversion. On top of having to contend with a bratty grandchild, Sarah had to repeat almost everything she said to him. The second time she repeated it, the neighbors knew what she said. It is easy even now for my mind’s eye to see him sitting hunched over the radio each evening with his ear almost in its speaker. The cause of his deafness was not known until several years after his death when one of his sons began going deaf. Doctors diagnosed it as otoscleroses, an ear disease in which the connection of the stirrup, or stapes, bone to the outer side of the inner ear gradually hardens and, little by little, ceases to transmit sound vibrations. Henry’s defective hearing gene was passed on to five other of his descendants—including this writer. Fortunately, an operation was developed in which the stapes bone is replaced by a stainless steel wire, allowing sound to be once more transmitted to the brain.

Anytime Henry had to run up the street somewhere, he asked me to ride with him, an honor I always enjoyed. His trips were usually to the feed store to get chicken feed. Sometimes on rare, rare occasions, when we are in the presence of someone we know, something unexpected happens that sweeps from our mind all the accumulated knowledge on which we had heretofore based our view, good or bad, of them as a fellow human being, and we are given an unhindered glimpse almost down into their soul. What we are allowed to see in that instant defines to us the kind of person—good or bad—he or she really is. Only a few exceptional subsequent acts can redefine them in our eyes. Henry’s defining moment in my eyes came on one of our trips to the feed store. My earlier experiences with him had already defined him to me as a gentle, caring person. In one of these experiences, just to entertain me, he took out his false teeth and showed me he could touch the tip of his nose with his chin. He had on several occasions brought boxes of food to my mother and out-of-work stepfather when we lived in Brunswick earlier. But he had loomed no larger in my eyes than a number of other relatives who had demonstrated their care. This particular day was unusually cold, especially for a deep-South town like Brunswick. We had to cross a railroad track along the way, near where many Black families lived. As we drove across the tracks, a young Black boy walked along the edge of the street. He was barefooted. I saw Henry’s head turn and look at him as we drove by. Within the next two blocks tears formed in his eyes and streamed down his cheeks. Suddenly, he made a U-turn and headed back the other way. He slowed as we neared the neighborhood around the tracks. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Henry’s tears now flowed freely. I’ll never forget the words with which he chastised himself: “I knew I should have stopped,” he said between sobs. “That poor little fellow had no shoes. I could have bought him a pair.” At that moment, he defined himself to me as the first in-the-flesh saint I ever knew.

Sarah later made two more entries on the marriage page of the family Bible: “Bruce Hilton Sessions to Hazel Leona Dobson July 18, 1939” and “Mary Lou Sessions to Andrew Francis Harrison June 28, 1947.”

By the time Sallie died in 1952, Henry had become totally deaf. His children took turns in caring for him until his death April 8, 1956. He is buried next to Sallie in Palmetto Cemetery in Brunswick.

Nothing is known of Henry’s sisters Frances, Ella, and Rosa beyond the 1880 census. The only things known of his brother Reuben James Jr. is he was born April 23, 1874 and died August 9, 1962 at the age of 88. This information came from his tombstone in Poplar Springs Baptist Church Cemetery in Bulloch County, Georgia a few miles outside Portal, Georgia.

According to the 1920 census of Nicholls, Georgia, Wille Sessions was a sawmill manager married to Clara (last name not known) and had 20 year old Clyde and 7 year old Pearl.

The research of Lucille McKain Sessions uncovered the following genealogy on Henry’s brother George Washington: George Washington Sessions was born December 12, 1879 and died October 23, 1974. He is buried In Poplar Springs Baptist Church Cemetery. He married first Annie Elizabeth Taylor, second Stella Woodcock, and third Lessie Bolton. He and Annie Elizabeth Taylor had Mattie Arlene,  who married Ottie Benjamin Oliff; Blonnie Belle, who married Isaac Marvin Farrar; William Lewis, who married Mamie Elizabeth Jones; Ethel Inez, who married first Carlos Rule Wells and second Robert Henry Bradley; and George, who married Conceida Smith; Cecil James, who married first Mary Livingston and second Florence Dotson.

Because of the debt of love I owe this fine man I knew as “Granddaddy,” I want to make certain my unskilled pen has not written an image of a carefree, unstable nomad who kept his family at the mercy of his aimless wanderings. His lack of education and having experience in only one trade made him virtually a prisoner of saw-milling, a precarious business in precarious times. “Going broke” was a common occurrence back then, forcing those who plied the trade into a life style not much removed from today's migrant workers. Saw milling folks were constantly on the move to wherever rumor said work could be found.

Needless to say, his role as provider had not been an easy one. As I sit here and think of the frustrations, the disappointments, the feelings of hopelessness, the heartbreaks he must have endured in continually seeing his meager earnings fall short of his aspirations for his children, and knowing that he never faltered in spite of having, by today's standards, every reason to give up trying, I have a much deeper appreciation of having his blood in my veins.