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The Graves of John Tucker McMillan’s Children

Grayson County, Virginia

Location: Baywood, south of Little River

Directions: The exact burial site is unknown. The children are buried beside a line fence, near where the large power lines cross Cold Springs Rd (Rt 632). It is possible that these graves are at or near the Johnson Family Cemetery Site.

GPS Coordinates: N36.56832 W81.03382I was first told about this tragic story by R N Andrews, who lives near the location of the graves. The children are buried beside a line fence, near where the large power lines cross Rt. 632 (Cold Springs Road). A neighbor, Major Johnson, buried the children there and marked the graves with field stones. In recent years the stones have been moved and lost by a logging operation in this area.

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The following story, written by Ida Dean Cock, was published in the Galax Gazette on Monday, September 17 1956.

Transcribed by Buford C. Wilson

John Tucker has lived for century; he began his long life as a slave

Ten years a slave: 90 years of freedom. Such is the story of old John “Tucker” McMillan, who is one of the few Negroes living, affected directly by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

The Gazette staff had been told about an old Negro fellow living in the Little River section, near Baywood, almost two years ago, but no one had time to trace the story down. But a beautiful day and the desire to leave the typewriter for a while sent this reporter out to try to find him.

A friend and I set out for Baywood, visiting friends on the way, a little pessimistic about finding our story. But as we drove deeper into the beautiful hills surrounding Little River, asking questions along the way, we discovered that old “Tucker” was still living.

A stop at the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Herman Willey, who had given us the lead in the first place, was the encouragement we needed. Mrs. Willey sent us further along to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Quincy Willey and there our story began.

Tucker´s home was to be found at the back of the Quincy Willey farm, nestled between two big hills. From here on it would be a matter of walking, loaded down with heavy camera equipment.

Down a hill opening gates and climbing fences, crossing a creek on stepping stones, up another hill, through a briarpatch, and we saw the weather beaten home of the McMillans.

Lula McMillan, the daughter of old Tucker, greeted us. She assured us that the little black and white dog, which kept snarling at us wouldn´t bite. That was encouraging. We had come a long way to be run off by a dog.

Lula and Tucker live alone in the little three room house, which Tucker built himself about 40 or 50 years ago. “We just have a little stake place, about 12 acres”, she told us. This is the material possessions of a man who has seen about 101 years of life.

Lula Who was dressed in a plaid cotton dress and tennis shoes, is between 60 and 70. “No one never put my age down, so I´m not sure. It´s about thar somewhar.”

We began to talk about her father, who was lying inside on the bed. “He hasn´t been feeling well and is getting very feeble.”

“Dad don´t know when he was born, but he says he was about ten at freedom. He´s lived about and about, most anywhar he could find work. He believes he was born near the old copper nines in the Glendale section up in North Carolina. When he was just a little feller, his Mammy gave him away.”

This is the way I piece the story together: “Tucker´s mother must have belonged to a McMillan family near the Glendale section at the time of her son´s birth, since many of the Negro families took the names of their owners. During the War Between the States, the family became separated, and “Tucker” was given to Bill Fields who was a lawyer in Alleghany County, North Carolina. When he grew older, he came down into Virginia, around the Baywood section, and began working there.

Tucker never found any trace of his family. He married a woman who was working for an Edwards family in that section, and started his home in the vicinity of here he now lives.

According to his white neighbors, some of whom have known him all their lives, and heard their parents speak of him, Tucker was a hard worker, honest and wise. He could neither read nor write and became deaf about 40 years ago.

“He was a great worker when it came to clearing land and grubbing it,” said Quincy Willey. “I bet he has cleared more land in this section than any other man.”

Tucker´s work was not confined to farming. In the fall, after the crop was up, he would walk down to Chestnut Yards, below Blair, Carroll County, and catch a train for West Virginia. He would stay there all winter, working at the coke furnace in the coal mines, returning to his home in time to do the spring plowing.

Since he couldn´t write, Tucker never heard from his family during those winters, and this situation led to a terrible shock for him when he returned one spring.

During the winter, a diphtheria epidemic had struck the Little River section. Tucker had left his wife and six children in the fall and when the disease came, Mrs. McMillan found herself alone, about two miles from the nearest house.

Major Johnson, who is the father of Mrs. V. I. G. Hampton, Baywood, lived near the McMillan home, and was the one who dared to go into the middle of the deadly contagious disease. When one of the little children would die, Mrs. McMillan would hang out a white sheet as a signal for Major Johnson to come and bury it. He made five little wooden boxes for Tucker´s children that winter and buried them on the hill near his home.

The youngest child, who was Lula lived, but the sickness had crippled her.

When Tucker returned in the Spring, the children would run up the hill to meet him because he always brought them candy and presents. I wonder now, what his reaction was when just one, Lula came hobbling out to meet him.

Tucker had one more child after this. She is Mrs. Tiny Brown and lives near Baywood. Mrs. McMillan died about 12 years ago.

His deafness has been a handicap to him, but it also gives us an idea of his imagination. Since he could not hear the names of the people with whom he worked and knew, he made some for his own use. He has names for almost everyone in the neighborhood, and it seems that in all the names he has caught something in the character of the person. When these neighbors call on him now, Tucker greets them with the names of his personal choosing.

Not being able to read and write has been a handicap, too, but Tucker´s imagination served him here also. He likes comic books because he can look at the pictures. And the pictures hold a story for him because he invents one. For example he was very fond of a Superman book. To him, Superman was a prince and the men around him were all kings.

He had imagined a very nice story, which probably was much better than the one written down.

Tucker didn´t talk very much because he couldn´t understand what we were saying to him. However, it seems that his mind is still quick.

“I can´t understand you” was the answer to our questions. “She (pointing to Lula) does everything.”

He didn´t understand just what was happening when we started taking his pictures, so Lula brought out an old photograph to try to explain what we wanted. Then he became interested in the cameras. “That box makes pictures?” was his question.

Lula explained that good white neighbors´ gifts and a small Old Age pension are the only income they have. They had a cow, but it died. “The neighbors divide milk with us.” Too, Tucker is fond of beef, and when the people around him kill a beef, he isn´t forgotten.

“Got a watch keeps time, he said, as he pointed to a gold Elgin pocket watch hanging by his bed. “Something got the matter with it in the spring thar.” He was right. The watch has a broken spring.

He can still see very well and seems very alert. I wanted to hear him talk more, but he seemed content to just lay and watch us.

In leaving, my friend slipped some money into his hand. He nodded his head, and said “Thank you.” Lula was quick to say “Dad ´purserates´ anything you give him. He really ´purserates´ it.”

He waved good-by to us as we left the house, and we started the long hike back to the road.

When the people of this section are approached with questions about Tucker, a trace of warmth and appreciation pass across their faces. They like to tell about the old man, and probably there is no end to the richness of his story. As one said “It would be a better place if more men were like him.”

Though nothing spectacular adorns his life and his end will be in the shades of poverty, Tucker is a credit to his race and mankind. He literally cleared his small place in the world, asking little, gaining little, a gaunt monument to hard working men.