Dunn family history


My father, James Calvin Dunn, Sr. was born in 1920 in Glenwood, Florida in Volusia County, some two miles from DeLand. His father was William Dunn of Dunn North Carolina and Cora Patterson from River Junction, Florida just above Tallahassee.  The place was called River Junction because folks from there preferred that name to the real name of the town which is Chattahoochee where the Florida hospital for the mentally ill was located. As my brothers and I grew up, one of the threats from our father was, “I’ m go send your little behind to Chattahoochee”.

His body was his currency. Like most black men who were born in the 1920s in the South, my father had limited choices in his life. He dropped out of school before the eighth grade, although it may have been even earlier. Rumor was that he hit his teacher. As I said, his body was his currency.

But the currency of his body was better spent in the orange groves in the rolling, sandy hills of central Florida and not in a crowed, underfunded one room schoolhouse with a teacher who was not only authorized to hit you but was expected to do so. Young J.C. took to the orange groves that sprawled across central Florida until freezes finally forced the industry south to the Indian River and Fort Pierce areas.

My father had a sister named Elnora. She had a classmate named Corinne Williams which is how my parents met. The problem was, dad was a drop out and Corinne was on her way to being the valedictorian of her class at segregated Bronson High School, the black school in DeLand which was later named Euclid High School.

By this time, Buck Williams was dead or had moved on because no one ever talked about visiting his grave as they did those of other deceased family members. Some who knew them whispered that they never married.

My parents married in 1937 as soon as my mother graduated from high school. Leona had plans for her daughter. After graduation, Corinne was going to mortuary school in Jacksonville (I am so glad that never panned out). My grandmother never forgave my dad for spoiling the plan and as the years went by, she was not beyond reminding my father, if he raised her hackles sufficiently, “If it hadn’t been for you…….”

If it bothered my father, he never showed it. When his mother-in-law lit into him, he took a walk. I never heard my father cuss my mother nor she him. He never raised his hand to my mother although domestic violence thrived around us in that little community. By his example, my brothers and I learned that a real man does not hit women. They walk away.

My parents had six children, all boys. James Jr., me, Vernon, William, Raymond and Robert LeVon. Vernon died in infancy. People said it was “the colic”, an explanation that I never really understood. Black babies died often in DeLand and other poor black communities because of ignorance and the lack of medical care.

Blacks were not admitted to the white hospital in DeLand unless they were near death and even then, blacks were hospitalized in what had been a shed behind the hospital and were operated on at night or on weekends when whites were not so present on the premises. Black doctors (DeLand had one) were not allowed to operate unless a white doctor was in the operating room. 

My father was drafted into the navy in 1944, as the war was ending. Because of the size of his family, he was among the last men Roosevelt sent to war. Except my dad did not go to war. He went to the kitchen. His limited choices as a black man in the navy was to be a cook or a steward, the men who cleaned up after the officers and served their meals. He was stationed in a navy base in San Bernardino, California.

A few months after my dad was sent to California, my mother joined him leaving us with our grandmother on my father’s side, Cora Patterson Dunn who lived out in Glenwood in the country. I was five. Leona was furious that we were not left with her. The mothers- in law “didn’t set horses”, a term I heard said about them many times. It was one of those sayings that you don’t have to understand the words to get the meaning even as a child. I knew that Leona and Cora did not set horses, mules or exen.

My father never really did the whuppings, of which there were many raising five boys. (“If I have to hit one a you little niggers you won’t be getting up”.) The whuppings were left to mom. My mother was not sadistic, but she tended to save up the whuppings for Saturday and you got one whether you did something or not. “I know you didn’t do it, but  you are going to get a couple of licks for not telling me what these other little devils were doing’” She used an electric extension cord (a lot of black parents did) and we had to remove our jeans to take the whupping. “I’ m not gonna hurt myself trying to beat through those pants. Take them off!”

The thought never occurred to any of us to tell a teacher whose response may well have been to offer to my mom her own extension cord the next time.

My father was not a well educated man, but he was one of the most intelligent men I knew. He read incessantly, always voted and knew well the segregated world in which we lived and how to protect us from the dangers of it.  “Never trust a cracker”, was his mantra which he did not adopt without reason. A lot of “crackers” mistreated my father in the course of his life. He mellowed (somewhat) as he aged.

Food was rationed during the war. My Aaunt Viola, Leona’s younger sister who also moved to DeLand, used to say, “I am going downtown to get my rations.”  Funny how something like that sticks with a child. People had rations cards or some such things, and among the things you had trouble getting was sugar and coffee.

My parents had an understanding about money: My mother was in charge of it. My father brought his earnings home every Saturday and, after taking what she needed for the household, my mother gave him a little of the money to go gambling and clubbing. She eschewed that kind of life since she was sanctified by the late 1940s.

I saw my father cry twice. The second time was when his mother died in the 1960s. The first time was when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. “He took care of the little man”, he said at the time. Dad felt that way because the president had opened opportunities for blacks that had never been available by establishing what were called “CCC camps (Civilian Conservation Corps) all over the nation where unemployed people like dad could go and work building parks and roads. It was his first job outside the orange groves.

Starting in 1949, our family joined the migrant workers trek north from Florida to New York’s Lon g Island in the summers to pick potatoes or   anything else that was coming in along the route. Pop always had his own car and so we were spared having to travel on trucks that were used by field bosses to take workers north. 

We had no “Green Book” for the three- day trip. We used U.S. One all the way. There were no interstate highways. Construction of the Florida Turnpike did not begin until 1957. The toilet was the woods, and our food was whatever my mother cooked for the trip, usually a huge pot of rice and chicken. Our father would not allow us to go to back window sof the white eateries to get our food as was the custom of the time. Blacks could not be served inside white establishments. They had to “go to the window”.

The most frightening part of the trip was the passage through the Holland Tunnel that connects Lower Manhattan to New Jersey. It was terrifying. My brothers and I could not conceive of a road that ran beneath a river. When our 1937 Dodge entered the tunnel, we closed our eyes and prayed we would not be met by a torrent of water. That old feeling comes back to me even now every time I am required to use that tunnel. Some scary childhood experiences never leave us.

But those trips on the migrant trail allowed our parents to be able to buy a home in segregated Bunche Park in Opa-Locka, Florida, just north of the City of Miami. The homes were set aside for black veterans. Pop may have been a cook in the navy, but it entitled him to buy that house. The family moved to Miami in 1951. I was eleven years old.

I had never taken a bath in a bathtub before that move. Our dad became a member of the Longshoreman’s Union, which with its health and retirement benefits and predictable wages, delivered the Dunn family from migrant workers to blue collar status. My father died in Miami in 2001. I still use his blue, tattered bathrobe.

William Dunn

My grandfather, William Dunn, was born in Harlett County, North Carolina just one generation out of enslavement. . The largest town in the county is Dunn which today has a population of under two thousand people, forty-six percent of whom are black and some of whom are surely related to me.

The town was established in 1873 but before taking the name Dunn, it was known as xxxxxx My great grandfather, William Dunn’s father was Lafayette Dunn who was slave on one of the Dunn plantations in the county of which there were more than one given the number of whites who carried that name. I was never told Lafayette’s wife’s name but I do know that they had more than one child together. A decade or so following the Civil War, many black Dunns were leaving Harlett County. At least one, William, headed to Florida which at the time was still a wilderness.he ended up in Glenwood.

We are not certain of when William Dunn entered Florida, but we do know that he arrived before the Great Freeze of 1893-94., the cataclysmic even that led to the establishment of Miami in 1896 as growers tried to move south below the freeze line in the state. According to my father, “Papa told us the orange trees were the same after that freeze. He told us the oranges were never as sweet and the trees never regained their beautiful shape. But whites kept replanting their groves.

 And so, there was work for William and many other blacks who were but one generation from enslavement. Blacks flooded into Florida where their backs and sweat was needed but not their minds. Whether his was wanted in Volusia County or not, William Dunn brought his from North Carolina, as did just about every other black person who came into racists Florida. To survive they had to pretend that they had lost their minds. This is not hyperbole. White people expected blacks to be mindless which meant that they were safe to be around. A black with a mind scared white folks. Playing dumb was a way of surviving.

But William Dunn did not play dumb. And he survived.

Upon arriving in Florida, William worked in the orange groves as did almost every black man and many black women. He saved his money and eventually built (yes, built) a house in Glenwood. He married a woman whose name I believe was Ethel Dunn who died after giving William three daughters.

The widowed William Dunn was a catch in the eyes of the black matrons of Glenwood. He had his own house, and it was a well built one at that. He owned lots in DeLand and nearby DeLeon Springs. He was a Mason and, was well read. “Papa did not talk foolishness”, our father told us. “When the men would start cussing and talking trash, he would get up and go someplace else. He didn’t talk much but when he did, folks listened to him.”

He was an accomplished barber. Most of the men whose hair he cut were white. My father told us that every Sunday white men would be waiting on the front porch for a haircut. He was also an accomplished, self-taught musician. “Papa could play any instrument you laid in his hand”, our father told us. Every Fourth of July, he led the white parade through tree-shaded Glenwood.  

Then William met Cora Patterson from River Junction where the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers meet to form the swift-moving Apalachicola. And the black matrons of Glenwood were not happy.

The problem was that William was entering his forties by now, and Cora was barely fifteen (some rumors have it that she was fourteen.)  Predictably, tongues began wagging on Union Street. “Why he done gone and married dat chile?”, .the tongues wanted to know. “All dese womins heah, an he done married data chile?”

Marry her, he did and in 1920, Cora gave birth to my father, James Calvin Dunn. But the tongues on Union Street kept wagging. William Dunn died in the early 1940s. I was too young to remember him. Cora outlived him by many years.

Cora Patterson Dunn

Young Cora Patterson had a good reason to want to get out of River Junction. That reason was her father, Pat Patterson. The man who was my great grandfather (who we heard called “Old Man Pat Patterson) was an abusive, violent, narcissistic man who beat his wife, Martha in front of their children. Pat was not a former slave although his parents certainly were. I never knew their names.

Patterson married a gentle woman named Martha whose maiden name I never knew. She was much younger than he, in fact, Martha, who we came to call “Grandma Martha” athough she was our great grandmother, was not much older than the children she and Pat had together which included a younger daughter named Lucinda and a son named Gabriel, who was the only person I knew who ate ammadillos. I knew this about Uncle Gabriel because after marrying Cora, William Dunn moved them all to Glenwood, and had houses built for them. Even Old Man Pat Patterson and Martha moved to Glenwood and into a home that Dunn had built for his in-laws.

When Pat married Martha, she was barely into her adolescence. Pat would leave the house on a Monday morning and according to my father, “might be back by Friday, IF he felt like it.” The family was probably share cropping. My father said Pat assigned work to be done by Martha and the children while he was gone. “He wore those old spats”, my father recalled. pats covered the ankles and instep and were popular with men before the turn of the century.  Pop said Patterson would dress up in his fine clothes that the labor of Martha and the children had enabled him to get and get in his buggy and take off.

When Cora was about fourteen or fifteen years old, she came down to Glenwood to visit a distant relative. William Dunn saw her and according to family lore said, “I am go marry that one.” I was not given the privilege of knowing about their courtship except that it was brief. Cora was so glad to get away from River Junction, she would have married Santa.

Grandma Martha, the abused wife, could not so easily leave River Junction and Pat Patterson. Like most abused black women of the era, her options were limited. She suffered Pat Patterson even after they moved to Glenwood. He died before I was born and thankfully, I have no direct memories of my paternal great grandfather. But I do remember Grandma Martha!

She lived in a comfortable little house that still stands between Glenwood and DeLeon Springs. She was re-married to a man who was the total opposite of Old Man Pat Patterson. She (and therefore, we) called him “Honey Bunch.”  They raised hogs and chickens and had a mule and a couple of horses. Honey Bunch raised watermelons. These were not the kind of watermelons you find in Publix today. These were first-world watermelons. A grown man had trouble carrying two at the same time. When my brothers and I first went out to Glenwood that winter of 1944 we thought the watermelons were for selling for Honey Bunch to make some extra money like Uncle Gabriel did. We were wrong. Most of them were meant for the hogs.

Every family has a character or two that would best be swept under the rug. Old Man Pat Patterson deserves that distinction, but why?  How are families to improve if they don’t recognize their bad apples. Old man Pat Patterson was not just a bad apple. He was rotten to the core.   

I really think that a lot of that kind of thinking came out of slavery when it was believed by overseers, masters and mistresses that slaves ought to always have something to do lest they get into devilment.  I never knew Old Man Pat Patterson, but his daughter Cora certainly took that work ethic from him. You could not sit around doing. She would find something for you to do. You couldn’t sleep late either. When the sun came up, you got up. And please, don’t have wet the bed. Of course, sleeping with four brothers, it was hard to identify the guilty party so everybody could get it.

Mama was one of those grandmothers who made you go out and bring back the switch she was going to use to whip you with. And you dared not bring back a paltry switch. As one exited to take on the task, you might hear, “Don’t let me be the one to go out there and get one.” On the other hand, if anyone criticized any of her grandsons you had to deal with Cora’s wrath, another trait she got from her father.

Mama put up vegetables in mason jars. She raised hogs, cows, chickens and other farm animals to eat and sell. In the cool of the late fall, people slaughtered hogs and put the meat up in smokehouses, small sheds with a perpetual, slow fire. Grandma Martha had a smokehouse that sat some distance behind the house. My brothers and I were afraid to enter it despite the alluring smell of curing pork because a huge snake lived in the smokehouse and had, by all accounts, lived there for many years. I saw it once; an incredibly large black snake that must have been six feet in length and as thick as a large man’s wrist was coiled in a corner, peering out. I never entered that smokehouse again, even in later years when I was nearly grown. The adults to whom we complained never bothered the snake, saying it served the purpose of keeping the rats out. It must have worked because even though we would spot a rat here and there on the property, we never saw a rat near that smokehouse.

When Mama left us with Grandma Martha, she went out and “pulled moss”. Some folks made a little money by pulling Spanish moss  hat hung so heavily from the tress of Volusia County  to sell to local buyers who sold it to companies that made  furniture. 

I never knew Mama to work for any white people. William Dunn made sure of that. He left his properties to Mama and sometimes she took us with her to collect her rent. One of the houses was in a black area of DeLand called “Red City.” The backyard abutted the boys dormitory of Stetson University. It was an enormous red brick building, and I knew that is belonged to Stetson, but it never occurred to me that I could ever go there. It was amazing upon reflection, how limited our horizons were. I knew that if I went to college at all, which was doubtful (my dad picked oranges) it would be to Bethune -Cookman or Florida A& M.  White Stetson with its manicured lawns and imposing buildings along Woodland Boulevard was a forbidden world. Founded in 1853, Stetson University did not admit black students until the 1960s. And, the first one was, of course, an athlete.

William Dunn’s daughters from his first marriage were not pleased with the marriage either. William’s two older daughters whose names I do not recall, never came to the house. They were about the same age as Cora and saw her more as a peer than a stepmother. Only the youngest of the three girls, who I think was named Ethel after her own mother, actually had contact with their father. She married an insurance man named Saint James Williams. Her grandson became one of the first black police officers hired by Volusia County. At least one of the daughters lived in Jacksonville. I never met them.

Adapted from “A History of Florida Through Black Eyes” by Dr. Marvin Dunn