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Interview with Virginia A. Smith K. Bjorlin

Bjorlin, Virginia A.S.K.
Smith, George
Date of Interview: 
Overcoming Obstacles; Relationships with People and Places; Cultural Identification; Stories and Storytellers; Tolerance and Respect
Virginia Bjorlin talks about growing up in Union County, NC during and after the Depression, and the changes that took place in the area. She also talks about her pursuit of becoming a teacher and her current job as a historian.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
George Smith interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
Interview Audio: 
Note to reader: At least once in these commentaries I am referred to by my nickname, I.V., which stands for the Roman numeral 4, given that my full name is George Marvin Smith, IV. VB (Virginia Bjorlin): My name was Virginia Alexander when I was born here in Monroe, North Carolina. Uh, I guess I'd like to talk about growing up white in a small southern town during the Depression. Uh, we, everybody knew there was a depression but, we didn't think we were poor 'cause everybody else was poor, so, that didn't seem to matter back then. My father was a veterinarian and he was pretty good at trading things so we never went hungry. He often got paid in hams, or whatever was growing in the farmer's garden, and, uh, my mother was a stay-at-home mom. She, uh, came from a fairly well-to-do family and had never worked in her life and never worked period. Uh, she majored in music at Salem College and she sang in our church choir for, way over fifty years. But she was from, a, prosperous family. Her father was a lawyer and went on to be a Superior Court Judge and he, um, he saw that all five of his daughters got the grand tour to Europe. My mother went in 1913 after she finished at Salem College, and I think that would take a lot of guts to go on a trip like that just a year after the Titanic had sunk in the North Atlantic. Um, but, uh, Granddaddy didn't send his three sons to Europe. He said they could go on their own, and they eventually did. My father was reared on a farm up in Mecklenburg County. He was an Alexander, and so, you know what a popular name that is in Mecklenburg County. He probably never knew who all he was related to. Um, his mother was a Rea, R-E-A, and at Providence Road, where Alexander Road meets Rea Road, that was the family land. The Alexander, Alexander Road was Daddy's, uh, family farm from the 1830s on, and, uh, his mother was reared on Rea Road. And, uh, so, the families go way, way back. But I was the second of four children and the only girl. And, uh, I took piano lessons and things like that. Um, we, had minimal contact, I guess you would say, with the black inhabitants of Monroe. Monroe was laid out, I guess it was peculiar. It may have been typical of small southern towns. There would be a white street and then there would be a black street, so behind us lived our cook, Dora and Old Jim, who did our yard work and had worked over at Daddy's stable and, uh, the washer woman, I don't remember her name, but she did the washing for our family of six, for, I think it was three dollars a week. And we would take all the clothes over there on Monday and then come pick them up about Thursday. So, and Mama had a cook until WWII kind of took everybody-, it turned the world upside down for lots of people, so far as employment, and, um, people moving away and, uh, actually strangers moving in. Um, but Monroe was, is the county seat of Union County and has always been kind of the shopping center of the county. And, uh, so we have, um, I, I volunteer at the Heritage Room, which is a family history, uh, resource here in the old courthouse. And we have two old films taken of Monroe. One was pre-WWII and one was about 1947, and it's very interesting to see all the people uptown, the ladies shopped with their hats and their white gloves on. And, uh, it's a little bit different after the War but, um, uh, I know lots of people in both of the films and it's, it's very interesting to see something old like that. The War really changed this area, because we had Camp Sutton. It was a temporary camp, training camp for engineers. In the latter part of the war it wa-, housed some German POW's, and then, a little bit later, some Italian, um, they were not POW's because Italy had already, uh, gotten out of the War, but they were, um, political detainees, I guess, interns, yeah. But the Germans, um, I vaguely remember them, I was a little bit too small, but, uh, to, to go out there and look at them and, and they didn't encourage that type of thing. Some of the Germans, uh, worked, like picking cotton in, on the local farms because, of course, farm hands were almost non-existent. Everybody who was able-bodied and that age was in the Army or the Navy, or something, and gone. And, uh, I'm told by people who remember that the prisoners really loved getting outdoors and they, I think, got paid a small amount. Um, a, a interesting story, one cold night during the Christmas season my mother and some of the choir, church choir members went out to sing to and with the prisoners. And the prisoners were most unresponsive until my mother started singing Silent Night in German. Um, since she was a voice major she had studied German and that seemed to break the ice and everybody sang. And that's one of the tales that we all remember from Camp Sutton days. Camp Sutton changed Monroe and Union County just as much as the railroad did when it came in 1874. Those two events were the highlights of this, of the history of this area. Um, [pause] the soldiers who came really felt that the Civil War was finally over. They were welcomed by the local residents with open arms and many marriages were performed by the local preachers and, uh, some of them would sing in our church choir, and all the churches had recreation centers and did everything they could to, uh, entertain the soldiers and, uh, welcome their families. Many a dining room was turned into a bedroom, as we rented all the available space to soldiers' families. And many, over the years, have kept in touch. In fact, many of the soldiers married local girls and came back here to settle down and, um, that's when our Catholic church started, for instance. Um, a lo-, a lot of changes that made Monroe and Union County much less provincial, I guess you would say. And a very positive effect after the war, was that the acreage that was Camp Sutton had streets and water and sewer and was sold to the town of Monroe, and part to Union County, and became an industrial park with all the infrastructure ready for industry to move in. So, um, as a result of that and some forward-thinking leaders that we had, primarily a mayor named Ray Shute, we have moved from an agricultural economy to, um, probably beginning in the early 50s, gradually to, uh, have many manufacturing and industrial sites here. Um, agriculture changed in that they, the price of cotton bottomed out in the Depression and farmers had to look around for other crops. Um, the poultry industry was started about then, the beef cattle industry, um, and small grains, other than, uh, raising just cotton, which, uh, depletes the land anyhow. And so, uh, the 30s and 40s and 50s were really a changing period for this area. Um, part of my knowledge comes from personal experience in part from researching to write the history of Monroe when it was a 150 years old, and I had researched and written the book on our church, which was also 150 years old the same year, 1994, uh, the same year that Monroe celebrated its sesquicentennial. And I've always loved history and in writing the books, I found it much more interesting to write about things I did not remember. When I got to writing the Monroe story starting about the 50s, I'm sure it reflects my kind of boredom [laughs] because it has lots of statistical data and stuff and not as much personal, um, remembrances. There were some, very, uh, cooperative people including Blanche Benton, who is my aunt by marriage. She is now a hundred-five but she has helped me with all of my books and such, a rich source of his-, things historical. And she knew everybody and she knew who their parents were and who their grandparents were and, uh, she could just remember a lot of things. She taught history so she's always been interested in history as well as knowledgeable about, uh, local affairs. Uh, the, we also did a book that, uh, gathered 853 family histories together and we call that our Heritage Book. So that's kind of been my focus of late, I guess, writing about dead people. But, um, I, I, and the Chamber of Commerce calls me about any question about history, thinking I know. I can usually find out though, and I think that's a very valuable part of, of any education, knowing where to find something, rather than trying to remember everything. Uh, I have six grandsons and one of them is sitting here with me and I'm very fortunate that both of my children settled here and, um, went to school here. And my grandsons are the fourth generation to come through Monroe High School and I'm very proud of that. Um, my first husband, the father of my two children, uh, was a native of Monroe and his father was one of the family doctors and delivered thousands of babies. They don't even know how many because his records burned in 1927 and uh, uh my first husband was in the Korean War. He, uh, left me and our son of four days old in the hospital and went to war and was in a M.A.S.H unit, and I often think, when I see ?MASH? re-runs on TV how, much he would've enjoyed that. He died about the time that he movie ?MASH? came out, so he never saw that. And, um, my present husband is also a Korean War veteran so, uh, one thing we do at the Heritage Room is try to get, um, as many veterans' records as we can for all of the wars, really. And, uh, even though my husband was reared in Minnesota he's been here for long enough certainly to be included here. Um, I see the changes in the black people. Many of them have, um, have tried very hard to make a better world for their children. Though many, many of them moved away. And when you read the obituaries it will be Dateline New York or Detroit and it will be somebody that was born and reared here in Union County but moved away for better employment. Uh, the schools, of course, have been integrated since the early 1960s and, uh, that has made a lot of difference to the black students and I think it makes a lot of difference to the white students too, because they realize that the real world is going be like that. It's not going to be all lily white like many of the private schools are. And so I think that when you go to elementary and secondary education, you should learn a lot more than what's in the book. You ought to learn to get along with people and to get along with all kinds of people and I think that's been a very valuable lesson, but kind of a hard lesson for some adults to adjust to because it simply wasn't that way when we grew up. Um, the blacks had their schools on the other side of town, and other than the people that lived right near us, um, I just simply didn't know any black people. And so when I wrote my history book, I apologized for not putting much black history. I apologized in the preface, because I, I had a deadline on the History of Monroe book and I didn't have time to go and talk to black people. But I see, uh, the city council members and police department and all, the people who were, uh, natives from around here and have really pulled themselves up and taken advantage of, uh, the opportunities for education and for employment that are available around here. Um, what else you want me to say, IV? [Laugh]
RECORDING PAUSED THEN RESUMED VB: Pictures of it, so it, it really wasn't any problem. When he came back he was not discharged from the Army. Let's see, he came back in April and he wasn't discharged until August, so, um, he was stationed at Fort Bragg, and, um, at Fayetteville, and so we took Daddy's cattle truck and moved the minimum amount of furniture and George and I went down there to stay, even though I think it was, a lot of the family thought it was so foolish for me to move down there for two months. But, uh, anyhow, then when, when he got out of the Army, he got a job at the local bank. We had just one bank from the Depression until 1960 here. And, um, so he worked for the bank and pretty soon, uh, George's sister, Becky, was born and that was our family. Uh, I was a stay-at-home mom until, uh, Becky was in the eighth grade and I decided I would go back to college and finish college. That, you never knew when a woman would have to support herself and Daddy was very encouraging there. He thought everybody ought to be able to support themselves if they had to. So Becky and George, um, were our whole life. And we took them places and tried to do things with them like going on trips and, um, going to museums and places like that. And I sewed a good bit and entered some sewing contests making some things for George but mostly for Becky. Little boys are not very inspiring to sew for. But, uh, George was, um, active in Boy Scouts and went on to be an Eagle Scout and Becky was active for a while in Girl Scouts. But when they were younger, I had volunteered as a Scout Leader for some girls who were several years older than George and that was a good experience for me when I finally went back to school and decided that I would be a teacher. Um, but, um, we had the usual run of dogs and, and things like that with, we lived in a neighborhood that, um, was fairly close to the school. The children walked to school. It had, the neighborhood had lots of children, and that made a lot of difference. And it was not fully developed, so we would go just a block or so and pick blackberries out in the woods and get chiggers and all with it, but, uh, it, it was really a good life. And most of the ladies that I knew did not work, they were stay-at-home moms. And, um, uh, but when I think back to how little we had, when we started housekeeping, for instance, didn't have the, a washing machine. I would go to the laundromat and sit and read a book and wash. When I think of the things we didn't have, we didn't even have a car at first. And then I see the young people now start off with a big house and two cars but a big mortgage and they have a washing machine, dishwasher and all that stuff that we didn't have at first. But it was because most families nowadays have, uh, two incomes. The-, they have to have two incomes to makes ends meet and, uh, to, educating the children is a lot more expensive now. I don't remember what we paid when George and Becky went to college but it was nothing like what college tuition is now. And, um, Spud did a lot of, uh, civic work, was president of the jaycees and, uh, he helped to open the first branch of American Bank outside Union Company, the one over in Pineville and he made some good friends over there. He was a very caring person and, uh, made friends easily and, uh, I was just amazed at the number of people, even from New York, that came to the funeral or came to see me after the funeral. And, uh, he had-.
GS: What year was that?
VB: He died in '72. And, uh, I think it was, two people gave a tree in Israel in memory of him. Uh, so some of the Jewish friends that he had made, he was not with the bank when he died. He had, was with a textile firm and, uh, had a lot of Jewish contacts in, uh, New York and otherwise. And, uh, so that was a, a real blow to the whole family, as you can imagine and, um, it, uh, I had been teaching about three years and so it was really good that I had gone back to school and finished so I could earn a living and, uh-.
GS: At Parkwood at that point?
VB: Well, I taught at Monroe for, I think it was six years, and then out at Parkwood. And then, my, I remarried. After we'd been married about five years, my second husband had a stroke. That pretty much incapacitated him in lots of ways for the rest of his life. Uh, and with that marriage I acquired four wonderful stepchildren and now have five step grandchildren from them and, um, they don't, none of them live here but they come back home to see me and see other members of the family right often. And, uh, so that, that has been very gratifying. Their mother had died in a car wreck about a year before, uh, their father and I married. So, um-. [Pause]
GS: Talk about, uh, your education-.
VB: I, of course, went through 12 years in the Monroe City Schools and I was salutatorian of our great, big graduating class, all of 42 people. And, um, it was a very smart class. About a third of the class had, uh, averages of 90 or above. We had, um, all of us remember one particular teacher, Miss Baker, and she was just as sweet as she could be, but she ruled the classroom with an iron hand. And even when we were taking tests and her back was to us, we knew we better not misbehave. Somehow, she knew everything that was going on. Um, she taught French, at first, and Latin. And she would teach Latin, I took Latin under her in a class while she was teaching French. I never did understand how [laugh] she could teach both of them at the same time, but there weren't that many Latin students and so she wanted off that. And then later on she was an English teacher, but she, uh, was just an outstanding teacher and is still living in a nursing home. Um, but after I finished Monroe High School, I went to UNC Greensboro, which at that time was called Women's College. And, uh, I left there after a year and a half, uh, because Spud and I got married. The Korean War had started and, uh, so, uh, I had to go, when I started to go back to school, my credits were kind of mixed up, because the, um, everything was year-long courses back then.
GS: Not on semesters.
VB: And, uh, so I had stopped, I had gone three semesters to Women's College and, uh, so, it was kind of hard to figure out where I was in my, uh, education. But I went to Wingate, it was Wingate College at that time, for a year just kind of to see if I could do it after all those years. And, you know, the students were all much younger, of course, than I. Not many people at that time went, uh, back to school. And so, um, the, uh, I hope this is [pause] turning. Yeah, I think it is. But then, um, it was at that time I decided to major in math, uh, because I thought I could do it. I wasn't going to set the world on fire on anything, but I realized that as a math teacher, I would always have a job [laugh].
GS: Yeah.
VB: And I could go back today and teach math, uh, if I remembered it.
GS: Yeah.
VB: So, um, after a year at, uh, Wingate College, then I went to UNC Charlotte for two years. I finished the year before their dorms were finished. So it was all day students up there at UNC Charlotte at that time. And I did my practice teaching at Garinger High School, which was much larger than UNC Charlotte! [Laughs] It was kind of a, a shock.
GS: Where was it?
VB: Garinger High School.
GS: When was that?
VB: Um, 1969. And so it was the fall of '69 that UNC Charlotte opened its first dormitories.
GS: Uh-huh.
VB: And, uh, they've grown ever since. And then, um-.
GS: Was that the high-rises that they were building?
VB: Yeah, I guess so. I don't even remember because, you know, once I finished I didn't go back for a number of years, and then I decided to go to Winthrop and get my Master's, but that was 1977 so, you know, a lot of time had passed. I did take some courses one summer at UNC Charlotte that counted toward my Master's.
GS: Yeah.
VB: And so, I've got, I'm an alumnus of lots of colleges [laughs].
GS: Yeah.
VB: Four of them! And, uh, so going to Winthrop, um, was, was kind of different. That, commuting over there, because I was teaching at the time, so I would go two nights a week. And, uh, Uncle Morehead was living here at that time with Mama and he had lived in the Rock Hill area and belonged to the Elk's Club. So I would take him and drop him off at the Elk's Club so I wasn't by myself riding at night.
GS: Yeah.
VB: And that was, that was nice for him, too. But, uh, I remember one of the teachers and I honestly don't remember what she taught. Uh, I guess it was a history course, but I don't know why I would have been taking history, necessarily, for my Master's-.
GS: Oh yeah.
VB: Uh, when I was a math teacher. But her love was Russia and Russian history and she talked about it all the time! And so in the Spring of ?76, I guess it was, I had taken a year off from teaching and so, um, I went to Russia with a group. And, um, of course it was very different-.
GS: Yeah.
VB: From what it is now. You felt like everything, even the bathrooms were bugged-.
GS: Yeah.
VB: You know. Um, it was a, uh, a very different situation, though, to some extent they're still kind of paranoid over there, uh, now, kind of a holdover. I was in St. Petersburg, um, in June and I, I could see some changes but I don't think there'd been many repairs since I had been to St. Petersburg then Leningrad 25 years earlier. It, it was still in bad need of repair.
GS: Yeah. I can imagine.
VB: Yeah. And so, uh, after I finished my Master's then I went on teaching and taught a total of 21 years. But see, it took me 20 years to get through college, so [laugh] I didn't have that many years-.
GS: Yeah.
VB: To teach. And since my husband was not too well, I decided to go ahead and take early retirement and, uh, I'm glad I did because he lived two more years. But that, that made it much nicer than trying to hire somebody to take care of him. But, um, I, teaching math all those years, people think I must have taught history because that seems to be about all I do these days. But, um, family history and family histories of other people. But, um, I've always loved history, but I just figured as far as employment was concerned, it was better to be a math teacher.
GS: Yeah.
VB: [Laugh] More demand! And so history's always been kind of a hobby, I guess you would say.
GS: Yeah.
VB: But, uh, well should we see if it recorded?
GS: Yes.