ORAL HISTORY: A Chat with Alston Godwin

Alston Godwin as a young adult

Alston Godwin as a young adult

January 26, 2014

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Cape Charles Historical Society has for more than a decade been recording oral histories of the area’s earlier days.  In 2008, Bill and Jan Neville interviewed Alston Godwin, who was then 96. Mrs. Godwin lived to be 101, and her obituary may be read by clicking here.

A grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities enabled 15 interviews to be transcribed, and the Historical Society has made this one available for readers of the Wave.  All the transcriptions may be read at the Cape Charles Museum.)

Excerpts from an interview with Bill and Jan Neville, March 12, 2008

Entering the Funeral Business

The Funeral business started, my aunt and uncle [Mills Grey] established that business.  I don’t think Uncle Mills was born here.  But anyway, he and my aunt were very lovable people, lovable to each other and all the people they came in contact with.  He learned people and he worked to do that.  He established himself and his memory was good for everything he had ever heard or seen.  And so then, he got married and established his business.  It was the first black business in Cape Charles.  They had one white undertaker.  This was in 1895.  My aunt stuck right by him.  She learned from him what he was doing, but he didn’t have her embalm and she didn’t want to embalm.  And you know, I didn’t either!  I’d work to do anything but that.  I didn’t care for that.  My daughter, Jennie Marie, used to hang around them.  She wasn’t afraid of no dead people.

Now I’ll tell you how I came to [enter the funeral business].  My first year in college, we were having our Christmas vacation and I came home and Uncle Mills had just died and been buried.  He hadn’t been buried very long and I said to my mother, ” Mama I think I would like to go spend a couple nights with Aunt Jenny.”  She said, “I think Alston that’s a good idea.”  So I went there and I was an excellent driver.  I could drive anywhere.  So then I went and when I got there, sure enough, she had a call out.  And I drove the hearse for her.  And she and I went and got the body.  She went with me.  Because she worked with her husband, too.  She was with him all the time.  So then I saw a need that I had to stay longer.  I was going to stay there until this body was buried.  My aunt wasn’t up to it.

Bill Neville: She didn’t have anybody else to help her after her husband died?

Oh yes, back then that’s one good thing.  There was not a neighbor, white or black, that wouldn’t come if you called and do anything to help you.  And they’d come and cook for her.  I didn’t have to do any cooking.  But I wanted to because I didn’t want to forget how to cook.  Then I used to give them dinners and things to eat.


Bill: Where did you grow up?

I was born in Fairview and my daddy bought a….  You see when he and Momma first got married, his father, they owned a big plantation land.  And because some people wanted to do that and land was sort of free at the time.  He just took what land he wanted.  And I remember Poppa said to me one time, “The man said, ‘I see you walking every morning.’  ‘Well, I just came from my farm and I walk over to the farm every morning when I get up and this little place is just about the size of my farm.”  That’s Cape Charles.  He would walk around Cape Charles because it was about the same size as his farm.

Bill: [Thomas Godwin] said he grew up in this house.  Did he tell me he was born here?

Yes, he was born right here.  In fact, I lived here almost all my married life.  My husband started building this house as soon as we got married.  A funny thing, Poppa and Momma didn’t have but two girls, my sister, Della, and me.  Her husband started building their house before they got married.  His daddy owned up on this side of Belle Haven.  He saw a house he liked and he showed it to my sister and she said “Oh, I think that is beautiful.  Let’s build a house like that when we get married.”  So he went and talked to the man who owned the house and he said yes you can build a house like this.  He started building before they got married.  They had a big wedding because both families were known in both counties and they had big families.  Bill Henry Collins was the family.  Not many of his family still live here.  They had a lot of children and grandchildren.

I was born in Fairview and my Daddy bought that big farm in Seaview.  George Henry Joynes and my mother was Jenny Joynes.  I had two children, Jenny Marie and Thomas George. [My] grandson is Keith Ansel and he has bought a boat.  He’s grown up now and made us feel really proud of him.  He lives in Washington, DC.  He has worked up to where he goes up to the White House and talks to the President.  He does computer stuff and . . . he’s doing real good.  I tell you, we were strict with our children and I guess maybe too strict.  We got little Tommy here and he’d say, “Momma, why do you ask me so many questions?”

Bill: How did you meet your husband?

He was a cement contractor, he worked for a cement man.  His name was Thomas Godwin.  He worked for the cement man in Cape Charles and when he died he got his business.  The cement man was white.

Bill: So you’ve lived here ever since you got married.

And this was beautiful then.  Jen and me caused it to look like this.  She came home from Michigan and I had a fall downstairs and she said, “Mother, I hope you won’t be dissatisfied with what I want you to do.  I can’t go back to Michigan thinking about you falling up and down those steps.  Let me move your bed downstairs.  Your friends can come to see you and it won’t make a difference.”  She’s the one who put pictures around and put the little dogs.

Grandson Tommy: I don’t mean to interrupt, but her husband, my grandfather, you’ll see his name on sidewalks. 

Bill: Yes, he’s the one who did the concrete walks in town.

I was telling you about me becoming a mortician.  I asked Momma do you think I would be all right, I’m not that old.  Do you think after I got Jenny established, could I go back to college.  They talked it over and thought yes.  My Daddy said you don’t just drop out of school, you go back.  Go back and talk to the principal. That was a boarding school, but I lived at home and we drove a little horse to school.  A horse and buggy.

Bill: Now where was this?

Tidewater. We drove our horse and buggy there.  And Poppa built a stable for the horse.  And the horse was put in there and his food was always carried by — fodder and some corn.

Bill: So every day you took a horse and buggy from Fairview to Seaview.  How long did it take you to get there?

No time.  Seaview was where Tidewater was, near Cobb’s Station. We went there.  My parents would take us sometime.  We had a surrey.  We didn’t have no cars back then.

Bill: So your parents would take you up there and then come back and pick you up in the evening?

Oh, no, they didn’t do that!  We drove the horse ourselves.  Me and my sister.  My sister did the driving of the horse and the feeding of the horse.  She didn’t have to do much feeding because the boys would be there to meet us as soon as we got to school.  They liked her.

Jan Neville: Did you have other people ride with you or just the two of you?

Just the two of us.  Barely anyone lived closed to us no how.  We drove to school and as soon as we got there the boys would meet us and they were told how much food to give him.  I’d go and see him in the day sometimes.

Bill: Did you know Dr. Johnson?

Yeah, Dr. and Helen Johnson.  He married Helen.  He was in my class, but he was a little older than I.  They were both older than I.  But you see, when I came down here to help my Aunt Jenny at the time on that funeral, the people had a fit over me.  They told my aunt, Mrs. Grey, don’t you get rid of that child, you keep her.  She acts better than some of the undertakers that have been here a long time!  She’s friendly and she soothes the family and tells children, don’t cry.  She quotes passages of scripture to us and said she acted so nice all during the time we were getting ready for the funeral.  She gave us the price of everything, she said now, I know it’s right much, but that person deserved it.  I know they deserved it, because you wouldn’t be living like this now if they didn’t deserve it.  Said she knows things to say.

Bill: Did you ever go in Taylor Jefferson’s store?

Oh, yes.  His son was running it then.

Bill: I understand Taylor Jefferson lived almost right across the street here and then I guess maybe his son moved in there after he died.

They built a big house (right by Wendell Distributing).  Somebody told me they tore that house down.

Bill: Yeah, they have. It’s gone.

They didn’t have to do that.  Because the house that Aunt Jenny lived in on 641 Randolph Avenue — that looks good now.  They had to work it over.

Bill:  I stopped by today to see if I could take some pictures of the original business location and there were some contractors there.  You know, my mom grew up almost right across the street from there.  My mom was Albertice Fulcher.  My grandfather was named Willie Fulcher and Lydia, he was an electrician.  And their children were Lance Fulcher, Rupert Fulcher, Bill Fulcher, Agnes Fulcher, Deborah Fulcher and my mom, Albertice Fulcher. 

Yeah, I knew the Fulchers.  Somebody gave Aunt Jenny the lamp that is in the hall.  She liked that lamp; I didn’t think so much of it.  But after I worked for her so long, she left me it when she died.  She never paid me any money.  But she gave me anything she thought I wanted.  Because I worked for her.  I just ran the business.  You didn’t remember me, did you?

Bill: No, I’m ashamed to admit it.  Your face looks familiar.  I left here.  We were born here in 1941.  Went to school here, but I left here after I graduated high school.  I come back a fair bit.  I can remember the Joynes.  “Do Tell” Joynes.

Roxy Joynes and I were so close we called each other cousins.  She married Roy Campanella, the baseball player!  I have a picture of her.  “Do Tell” was her brother.  They were second kin to me.  “Do Tell” and Oliver, he married Lucy.  Lucy’s been sick.  Oliver Joynes he’s still living.  They have property in Williamsburg and lives with one of his daughters.

Jan: He ran the store that had the filling station down on the corner where the real estate place (where Kim Starr) is now. They called him “Olive Boy.”  He ran that back in the 70’s.

I didn’t pay much mind to that [Olive Boy’s] station because I was so caught up with Raymond Spady’s business.  Raymond worked with us in the funeral business and everything.  He was a really good man.  His was good and smart and a good businessman.  And when I had to go long distances to go get bodies, sometimes he would be my driver.  And he was just as Thomas George is to me, my son.  And he was good all the time.  He and his family just loved us and we loved them.  And his wife, she just could talk herself to death.  We called her Geesey.  Raymond’s sister, Vivian Spady, married Arthur Dent.



2 Responses to “ORAL HISTORY: A Chat with Alston Godwin”

  1. Tom Morris on January 26th, 2014 3:06 pm

    What a beautiful lady, inside and out!

  2. Jodi Outland on January 26th, 2014 9:08 pm

    Thank you! Wonderful article! She obviously was an amazing person!