Queen Elizabeth Norwood Thompson has tirelessly researched her family’s history, discovering stories of tragedy, success, strength and perseverance.
One of those stories features her great-great-great grandfather, Jesse Ruffin, a slave in Orange County who drove a coach for Thomas Ruffin, chief justice for the North Carolina Supreme Court before the Civil War. The small out-building Jesse Ruffin lived in was recently restored and dubbed “the coachman’s quarters” after its new owners found a date – Dec. 5, ‘65 – that historians believe he inscribed on one of its old bricks. The date is significant, Thompson said, because it was the day after North Carolina ratified the 13th Amendment, ending slavery.
“My great-great-great grandfather, Jesse Ruffin, drove Thomas Ruffin to the signing of the 13th amendment,” she said. “He drove him there as a slave, and he came back a free man.”
Thompson and other Jesse Ruffin descendants traveled to Hillsborough in December for an event celebrating the amendment’s 150th anniversary. She said they felt profoundly moved by the experience because of the connections they felt, to each other, to their ancestors, and to God.
In 150 years, Thompson’s descendants may be researching her story, which includes becoming Union County’s first African American social worker in 1968, after graduating from Johnson C. Smith University. Her responsibilities as a social worker varied, and involved working with and helping people of all races.
“In rural Union County, the social workers had territories,” she said. “You did everything for your territory. I had from the Mecklenburg County line to Monroe. I had Indian Trail, and I had the Wingate community.”
She worked in public assistance, in child welfare and protective services, and as a juvenile probation officer. For public assistance recipients, she visited homes, opening closets and cabinets to look for evidence that funds were being used wisely. After the county’s surplus food program was replaced by food stamps, people regularly called to complain that they had seen someone in the grocery store using their food stamps to buy ice cream or cookies.
“All day, you’d be bombarded with complaints about what people had in their buggies,” she said. “But everybody got a home visit. Nobody got on public assistance without a home visit.”
During her two years as a Union County social worker, she also was pulled into some difficult court decisions initiated by families or doctors who thought a handicapped child should be sterilized.
“We couldn’t do anything unless a doctor consented,” she said. “And the doctor would have to sign off that this child was…too low in intelligence to be able to have children.”
She also helped rural residents transition into the county’s first public housing project. One of her responsibilities was teaching them how to use modern conveniences, such as indoor toilets and electric stoves. Many of them had no furniture, and she worked with other county employees to use donated fabric and other items – often provided by Belk’s Department Store – to help residents turn their public housing into homes.
She said she never experienced “any overt racism” as an employee, but did recall being discriminated against at the Center Theatre in downtown Monroe.
“One time I went to the movies after work with some of the other social workers, and the movie owner said I couldn’t come in,” she said. “And, if I did come in I had to sit up in the balcony.”
Her coworkers said if she couldn’t sit with them in the theater,” they weren’t going to go,” she recalled. “That was in 1968 or ’69. I don’t remember any discrimination except at the movies.”
In 1970, after her husband, Melvin, returned from Vietnam, they moved to Delaware, where she also got a job as a social worker. They later returned to Charlotte, raising their two daughters in the same community where they had grown up.
They live on Lawrence Orr Road, which was named for her grandfather, born in 1883.
She says she has learned a lot about her ancestors – and her husband’s – through her involvement in the Olde Mecklenburg Genealogy Society, as well as through family stories. Her own experiences of growing up in rural Mecklenburg County could fill a book. She said living in a rural, integrated community of families who had known each other over generations built a foundation of trust and acceptance.
She played with white children who lived across the street, but went to different schools. In the summer, “everybody left doors open at night when (they) slept,” because there was no air conditioning.
“That’s the way the rural south was,” she said. “We had friends that we grew up with who were of a different race…We knew the realities of racism. But we also knew the realities of feeling blessed and grateful for what we had.”
Jane Duckwall is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.