My father, Alonzo Clifton Russell, is my hero. He quietly resisted the Jim Crow requirement of accepting a subservient consciousness. Alonzo was the second of five children born to Lelia and George Russell on May 18, 1918, in Smyth County, Virginia. He was a tall, unassuming, and a gentle man. He belonged to the American Legion and the Oddfellows but was not much of a churchgoer.
Daddy was always a very giving man. He helped out those in need. His most interesting service to others was to drive the family of the bereaved each time there was a funeral among the colored. I can never remember a time that he did not take off from work to perform this service. I thought it odd, but perhaps he was only abiding by the traditional African custom of paying tribute to the deceased.
My father and his younger brother, Thomas, were drafted to serve in WWII, while the eldest, James, kept the farm running. Daddy was assigned to an all-black regiment, as was the case for all blacks during the War. He was stationed at Ft. Myers and Venice, Florida. During this time, he met my mother in Punta Gorda, where all the black soldiers would come on the weekends.
Daddy never talked much about the war, only to say that his lung became infected as a result of sleeping on the damp ground in the camp and that he met his brother Thomas on the ship on the return to the United States. Daddy was very lucky. He did not see combat; on the day that he was shipped out, the end of WWII was declared. He never had to die or become maimed fighting for the freedoms of others, that he did not and would not enjoy fully in his lifetime.
Daddy didn’t talk about race. The only time that I ever heard of his reaction to the issue was when he quit a job because of unequal pay. Daddy got along well and had genuine relationships with both coloreds and whites. For many years drove and delivered bricks for the brick factory in Marion. For coloreds, this was a good job providing a decent blue-collar salary.
He and another driver, Ferguson, who was white, became good friends and often shared beer and conversation. One weekend evening, while talking over a beer, Ferguson revealed how much he made; he and Daddy had the same identical job title and Ferguson made twice as much as Daddy. He was livid, not at Ferguson, but at the idea of his being paid less. He walked into the Office on Monday, asked for equal pay, was denied, and calmly walked to his car and came home. As I can recall, despite the uncertainty of the situation, my mother supported my father in his decision, and I, only a youngster, thought of him as some sort of hero for being so brave.
As a good worker, my father found a new job almost immediately. Daddy worked as a bartender and chauffeur for years. In the 1960s, a new opportunity came for him. He was hired as a Driver at the Blue Ridge Job Corps for Girls in Marion. Daddy, known at the Job Corps as “Lon,” received employee recognition awards over the years, but it was his passion for baseball and a new talent coaching the girls’ softball team and often being in the role of surrogate father that led to his greatest achievement as a colored man. Even today, girls whom he counseled praise him for his assistance during their years of transition.
One year after Daddy’s death, the activity building at the Blue Ridge Job Corps was named “ Russell Hall” in honor of my father. Because Daddy had resisted following the prescribed colored subservient role for him, but instead, by simply leaving in his quiet manner, he displayed his authentic identity as a man who honored his self-worth. My father taught me the power of knowing and respecting my self-worth as a colored.