Treasured Letter from an Uncle

I read this letter often, and get kick out of it at each reading.

That’s what my great-grandfather, Robert Frank Alexander wrote in beautiful cursive penmanship on the outside of an envelope.  Makes you curious what’s inside?

Hello there.  I am guest blogger Ruth Marie Ballance, daughter of the Shovelmaster, Lynn Bridge.  And here’s the letter, composed on a typewriter, from the  90-year-old uncle, Frank McCord Alexander, to his 72-year-old nephew.  It was written in small-town Texas just a few months before the lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights Era began far away to the east:

Dilley, Texas

May 28, 1959

Mr. Frank Alexander

San Marcos, Texas

Dear Nephew:

We greatly enjoyed your visit down here on my 90th birthday, and hope you will make us another visit before too long.

You mentioned that I have a good memory, and in that connection I will say that I can remember trivial incidents of 75 or 80 years ago better than I can remember more recent happenings of the past few years.

I can remember the names of the two dogs that I used to take hunting for rabbits and possums.  I can even remember the name of the “nigger” boy who when hunting and fishing with me when I was a small boy.

You will note that I used the word “nigger” instead of “negro” for there is a big difference in a “negro” and a “nigger”.  A “negro” is a black man with a little smattering of an education and a poll tax receipt.  A “nigger” is a black man who has no education and no poll tax receipt, but if you want to hire a black man to do any work, you had better hire a “nigger”.

I am glad I asked you to ask the blessing before we began eating dinner.  We are thankful for all our blessings, but do not always tell the Lord about it.  When you were here, we had so much to talk about that I did not tell you about having met an acquaintance of yours not long ago who said you do more for the Baptist Church in San Marcos than any other member of the congregation.

I greatly enjoyed looking over the old photographs and tin types that I had not looked at in over 70 years.  I remember the photograph of my sister, Ida, when she was a small girl in short dresses.  You also showed me the picture of her when she was a grown young lady, and her dresses then were from a foot to a yard longer than some women are wearing now.

You showed me a picture of my mother.  I well remember that she rode horse-back to the old town of Round Mountain where a photographer had a tent where he was taking pictures.

I have not forgotten that after my father’s death my mother went to your father’s house where she lived the last nine years of her life.  Nor have I forgotten that all of your dad’s children and the children of my brother, Oscar, had a part in taking care of her.  I am sorry to say that I lived a long way off, and did not visit her as often as I should have done.

With best wishes to you and to all of your family, I am


F.M. Alexander

Several things struck me about this letter, aside from the what was probably a quaint comment, rather glaring in 2013, about different terms for African-Americans:

  • The uncle had just had a 90th birthday party, and he mentioned the nephew’s deep involvement at the San Marcos Baptist Church.  I remember as a child attending that nephew’s 100th birthday party at the very same church.  And earlier this month, I attended the 90th birthday party of that nephew’s son, Rufus.  Long lives seem to be a tradition in the Alexander family.
  • I am tickled that these men looked at old family photographs together on their visit.  My mother has astounding amounts of old family photographs and letters, hence this blog, and when various members of our clan get together to visit in the 2010’s, we look at old family photographs together, too.
  • The uncle’s good memory of his earlier years reminds me of the good memory of the nephew of his earlier years.  I remember in the 1980’s that nephew telling me stories of his childhood from the late 1800’s.  And my grandmother, Roberta Mitchell, who is the nephew’s daughter, still tells me well-remembered stories from the 1910’s and 1920’s.  For that matter, my mother and I have very clear early memories, as well.
  • The uncle commented on changing women’s fashions over the decades, and those changing fashions have helped the Home Archaeologists to date a lot of unlabeled photographs.
  • I love the uncle’s very warm and affectionate tone with his nephew.  You can feel that although these people must have been physically reserved in good Texas ranching fashion, they had a great fondness for each other.

In conclusion, I will say that though I was born too late to have met the letter writer, I most certainly feel related to him, because so many things he references are still a part of the family culture more than fifty years after the letter was written.  It is amazing to think about how each of us is shaped by our genes and our family environment.  Though some things change (e.g. women’s fashion, photographic and letter-writing technology, and racial attitudes), so many things stay the same.