‘They’re Old; You May Want Them’

Working at the Fenton History Center is not boring or even routine. We never know what questions we will be asked or what donation may come through the door.

One day a young woman arrived with a shoebox of letters, all tucked back in the envelopes. The conversation was similar to what we often hear. Essentially, it was, “We found these, and they are old so we thought you may want them.” Our director, Joni Blackman, and I were the ones at the desk who fielded this particular question.

As I looked through the envelopes, Joni asked a few more questions, and we found out that the shoebox had been found in the woman’s grandfather’s things after he died. They meant nothing to the family, but the grandfather had had a number of rental properties in Jamestown, and these letters were probably left behind by a tenant at some time.

Most of the envelopes were addressed to Mr. William Quickle at various addresses in Jamestown and in Cherryville, N.C. Many of the return addresses were Cherryville and other locations in North Carolina. The postmarks were dated in the late 1910s into the 1920s. I decided that there was probably a story here linking Jamestown and Cherryville, so it would be interesting to read some of the letters and find that link.

Then a return address imprinted on an envelope jumped out, and I quickly put two and two together and hoped that I was correct. The return address was the “Colored Republican Club of Jamestown.”

So did we have a cache of letters that may tell a story of an African-American family moving from the South to the North. The time period was right. The locations were plausible, so the answer to the question of, “Did we want the letters?” was a quick “Yes.”

At the time I looked at a few of the letters. They were not easy to read as many were written in pencil, and the spelling was phonetic, so reading required sounding out what was written to “hear” the word in some cases. There were a number of names in the letters as family or friends gave news of the people “back home” or questions were asked about people in Jamestown.

Later, after putting the letters in chronological order, I began to read them. William Quickle had been in Jamestown and was employed apparently at the Jamestown Shale Paving Brick Company. Another letter refers to him working at Gurney Ball Bearing Company, which later became Marlin-Rockwell. Some letters are asking him if they can come with him when he goes North again. Some letters are from family and tell news of family members and other people.

William’s wife writes to him, and it is evident that she also came to Jamestown. These letters did indeed document the migration of some African-American families from the Cherryville-Lincolnton area of North Carolina. The time period saw a large migration of African-Americans leave the South with its Jim Crow laws and segregation and arrive in the industrial North to find better jobs and less discrimination. A number of other families in Jamestown were part of this migration. Names mentioned in the letters include Wilson, Bess, Young, Childs and Hamrick.

William Quickle, his wife, Henrietta, their son, Docious, and their daughter, Lillian, all moved to Jamestown permanently. Docious never married, served in the United States Army and Navy during World War I and is buried in Soldier’s Circle at Lake View Cemetery. Lillian was married twice but had no children.

A small exhibit of “Moments in Jamestown’s Black History,” now at the Fenton, includes this story.

The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County’s history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.

Visit www.fentonhistorycenter.org for more information on upcoming events.

If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street bridge.