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If you’d like a definition for the modern euphemism, food insecurity, or to really understand the feel of day-to-day poverty, and the desperation it engenders, read my Grandmother Johnson’s personal letters to her daughter, Carol, who left Upper Glade, West Virginia, to move to Akron, Ohio in 1953, the day she graduated high school to find a job at Goodyear. 

Virginia’s weekly letters tell a story about her struggle to hold her family together during years of joblessness. The UPPER GLADE LETTERS are poignant and warm, weary and heart breaking. Virginia DeVaughn Johnson’s determination is the only glue she had to hold the family together.

Whipped by an economy that had too few jobs, and a husband who was afraid to tiptoe into the world, a son who slowly was lost to her through schizophrenia, and my father, who she feared was a failure because he dreamed dreams that didn’t include working in a coal mine. The letters are a daily correspondence written by my Grandmother Virginia DeVaughn Johnson during the family’s often joblessness between 1953 – 1968. The letters characterize my childhood, and chronicle my father’s climb from poverty to the middle class.

Neither she nor my Grandfather were born to poverty, in fact he was born in a house locally known as the Johnson Mansion. A college stands now where that house stood. The land for the college was donated by the Johnson family. My grandmother was a writer, a poet, and a musician. Poverty engulfed them the same as it has many talented middle class people of the recent economic crisis.

My father, Hays Johnson, made it out of the grinding poverty. He, my mother and my brothers and sisters, built an impressive home from the ground up with their hands and sweat, and my parents income from both their jobs. All of his children became productive, well-respected members of their community. His sisters migrated to Ohio to jobs and husbands. My Grandmother died in that horrible lifestyle in 1972.

Now, once again, I’m watching as others quietly trudge along rationing their groceries so they can stay in a rented home, but this time migrating to a new state will probably not find new jobs for the mass of people who are out of work, and have run out of unemployment compensation. Some, especially the well-educated are leaving the nation. Brain-drain. Brain drain is catastrophic for any country.

Noam Chomsky tells us there is a class war against the poor and the poor has been redefined as the middle class, and is even encroaching on the upper middle classes. Those are fine sentiments that mean something to those who stand up against corporations, and laws that make us less well than well off, and those powers that encourage joblessness, but those words as true as they are do not get down to the floor, and scrub up the nittty-gritty, dirty bottom of the poverty of soul, heart and stomach of joblessness that degrades our humanity in a nation that has sponsored democracy with our ancestors blood, and sometimes personal financial ruination.

Poverty for black & white and all colors between isn’t lack of initiative. It is the result of skilled predators who are good at privatizing others wealth, and ignoring the betterment of the whole. It’s time it stopped. As I read my Grandmother’s letters again, I feel sickened at the waste that was her life. She may or may not have become famous but she could have lived her life, and died with some dignity, if there had been adequate jobs. Jobs wouldn’t have solved all the Johnson family problems, like a son’s schizophrenia, but it sure as hell would not have been hell on earth for her, the idealist.

EULOGY

June 29, 1910 – March 8, 1972

Virginia Devaughn Johnson, mother, poet, writer of philosophy and above all, companion and friend to those around her.

During her life she tended to the sick of body as well as those of spirit, asking nothing in return. She was a totally unselfish person.

Her life style was that of a lover of all things and activities. Matter not, they be eccentric, for her philosophy was: no human activity is alien to me, for I too am human.

She did not follow a particular religious doctrine but instead imparted her own wisdom to those who would accept it. Many did and they are here today, be what they be.

Hays Johnson

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