A Gentleman of Color

 by Constance Mroczkowski for Porch Stories™ Summer Tour 2009, Hudson, Ohio

I, Seth Bridgman, recite this eulogy in honor of Mr. William Branch, unarguably one of Hudson’s most charismatic residents and my dear friend.  Although schooled by life on a multitude of subjects, Mr. Branch was illiterate, and I often read to him from the many newspapers sold at the train depot, where I apprenticed as a telegrapher.

I’ll start my story with an article I read to him on a dreary April day in 1865.  I read the story slowly, chocking out the words as if I were standing right in the middle of the acrid air and soot.  The article said, “The evacuation of Richmond, Virginia, commenced Sunday night. Monday dawned to a horrific conflagration, kindled when Confederate authorities torched Shockoe Warehouse and other tobacco storage buildings.  A breeze from the south swept the fire from one building to another in short order. Naught was seen of the noon sun through the great plumes of black smoke that reeked of burnt cigars and charred timber.  Richmond is now a wasteland.  Many prominent buildings and hundreds of homes are lost, and, more sadly, are some lives.  Officials are certain that more poor souls are yet to be discovered under the smoldering rubble.”

Mr. Branch had received no word of his sisters, Miss Charity and Miss Patience, both in Richmond at the time of its demise.  When I read to him about the abandoned state of the General Jefferson Davis mansion, his face took on the sunken look of despair – very uncharacteristic of that jovial man. You see, Mr. Branch and his sisters were slaves of General Davis, sold to the man when he first came to Richmond as President of the Confederacy.

General Davis had an untold number of Negro servants and slaves, and rumors that some were spies for the Union Army circulated without restraint. After Davis’s wife was injured when her carriage plummeted into a deep gully, speculation arose that William Jackson, the coachman and a slave, was one such spy.  Soon after, General Davis sent some of the strong and sharp-witted Negro men to the iron works at Grace Furnace to make cannon for the Confederacy.  Mr. William Branch was counted in their number.

“Lawd, we workt ten hours a day smeltn’ tons o’ pig iron in the heat o’ Hades,” Mr. Branch once told me.  “They was nothin’ but fiery furnace an flamin’ torch t’ see by, an they cast ghost-like shadahs in da sky. Now ah see they was omens.”

While living at the foundry, Mr. Branch had limited communication with his sisters and aged mother at the mansion.  One soggy evening a muddy rider brought him woeful news from that house.  General Davis’s son, Joseph, just weeks shy of his fifth birthday, fell from the railing of a Confederate White House portico and broke his neck.  Lucinda Branch, Mr. Branch’s mother, died shortly thereafter of a weak heart. Young Joseph was her most beloved charge.

In June 1864, just two months after Mr. Branch buried his mother, Union General David Hunter pounced upon the Grace Furnace facility and laid it to waste.  Mr. Branch seized the opportunity for freedom and came north to Ohio with a returning regiment of the Union Army, arriving in Hudson, unceremoniously, in January of 1865 on a train from Cleveland. I immediately assessed him to be a notable man in an unassuming guise.  My first thoughts were vindicated when time proved him a polite and honest businessman, philosopher and occasional mystic.

Within a few weeks of his arrival, Mr. Branch had wrangled near all of the drayman business right out from under Jimmy Taylor – not by hook or crook, but by his industriousness.  An astute businessman, he attended to his commerce with urgency, always in a hurry.

“Has no time t’ swap jackknives, boss,” he would say.

Starting with just a wheelbarrow, he hauled, for twenty-five cents, whatever needed hauling, even carting trunks from the depot to Western Reserve College,  a half mile uphill, for the students. Then he carried the heavy trunks on his back to the rooms, sometimes on the fourth floor.

Wise in the ways of thrift, it didn’t take him long to save enough money to buy a horse he called Fred and a wagon equipped with a device for hoisting the trunks through the college’s dormitory windows.  The gaily-colored paint on the wagon’s boards reflected the man’s personality.  Not four years after he arrived, Mr. Branch had become a janitor at Western Reserve College (later called Western Reserve Academy), a job he held for twenty years, forming lasting friendships with both students and faculty.

The students held affection for Mr. Branch and they began to call him Uncle Billy.  He remained loyal to their fondness, never snitching on a student.

“Ah’s an old coloret man and ah just kaint remember,” he would say when questioned by school officials about a student’s dereliction.

Our close friendship formed when he asked me to write a letter for him inquiring about the status of his sisters in Virginia.   Although I wondered why he did not have a faculty member of the Academy to do it, I never questioned him.  His trust in me outweighed my curiosity.  When a reply came several months later telling him that Miss Charity and Miss Patience were last seen evacuating Richmond with General Davis’s wife and children on the eve of the city’s destruction, Mr. Branch said he would conduct a séance.

“If they’s gone over,” he said, “they’ll contac me, an if they doesn’t, then ah’ll keep searchin’ here on earth.”

Mr. Branch had an eye for the ladies, and they seemed to find him captivating.  He spoke fondly of Miss Molly, his first wife who died in slavery just before the war, and his second, Miss Harriet Carter of Hudson. There were two women in his life, however, who sparked a lot of gossip:  Miss Sabina Hunt and Miss Amanda McCoy.

Whether Miss Hunt was real or just a figment of the collective imaginations of Hudson residents remains a mystery.  Gossip about her spread, including that she ran away from the family that brought her from Kentucky to Stow and hid out with a renegade tribe of Wyandot Indians.  Although married to Harriet Carter, a dear woman who worked as a housekeeper for the Ellsworth family in Hudson, Mr. Branch did spend considerable time in Stow during that period.

When advanced age had turned his neat beard white and his once sturdy body more stooped, Mr. Branch went to live with Amanda McCoy in Cleveland. He must have been over 90 by then.  She was a well-to-do colored lady in her 80s, who ran a very successful hat making business. She eventually took up with a young grifter named Garland.  Miss McCoy lost everything in one of Garland’s schemes, including her two homes and a home Mr. Branch built in Hudson that was in Harriet Branch’s name. Good thing Miss Harriet was not on this earth to see it.

After Miss McCoy died from the shock of being bamboozled by Garland, Mr. Branch was sent to the Home for Aged Colored People in Cleveland (later renamed the Eliza Bryant Home). Hudson’s very generous benefactor, James Ellsworth, paid for his stay.

While visiting him there one frosty day in November 1913, I had, again, the opportunity to read to him from a newspaper.  The Hudson Independent reported that his home on Brown Street was being put in first-class condition for the new school superintendent.

“Ah’s pleased,” Mr. Branch beamed.

Mr. William (Uncle Billy) Branch passed away 1 October, 1920, with nothing more or less than he had when born to a slave in the antebellum South:  a pure heart and the love of those who knew him.  Some claim he has not yet left but works as a heavenly drayman, carting souls to the other side while keeping an eye on the pretty ladies.

by  Constance Mroczkowski

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About Kathleen Franks

Kathleen Franks is a writer, artist, storyteller, and community volunteer based in Berkeley, CA
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