You couldn’t be a black male from the Piney Ridge area of Remington, VA. and NOT work for the Charles N. Davis Masonry Contractor company at some point in your life, it just didn’t happen. Working for the “Charles N. Davis Masonry Contractor” company was a rite of passage for every African American male child born within a one mile radius of the business. This rite of passage helped boys become men, as they hauled bricks, blocks, stone, mortar and concrete for at least one summer during their formative years. Some of our most auspicious community members started their careers by working for Charles Davis or his father, Newt Richard Davis. My father acted as the foreman on the job until Charles’ son, Charles Edward or “Cubby” (as he was sometimes referred to on the job), earned his wings and took his rightful place as heir to the vast brick and block empire. When it finally came time for me to take my turn as a summer laborer, Mr Davis saw a unique opportunity and moved on it. The second day I was on the job, he presented me with a fully stocked mason’s tool bag. Inside were new trowels of various sizes and uses, brick hammers, levels, plum bobs and the like. These were all spanking new tools and Mr. Davis had plans for me to follow in my father’s footsteps, little did he know.
It didn’t take very long to find out that I had neither my father’s immense talent nor his desire to work in the masonry trade. I had much bigger plans, I intended to graduate from college and become a high school physical education teacher. I was only working construction to make enough money to apply to Norfolk State. I hadn’t strategized beyond that point yet.
I enjoyed working with the crew, there was a lot of horseplay, gossip and general instigating to see how far you could push the envelope before someone pushed back. The job was ok, but it became fun whenever we did a job for Claude W. Ritchie. “Toad”, as he was called by everyone I ever knew, was partners with his brother C. L. Ritchie, in the business their father started, Ritchie’s Millwork & Building Materials, Inc. As far as I was concerned, Mr. Ritchie was a genius, the Frank Lloyd Wright of his time, I liked watching him work. I enjoyed watching him explain his vision to my father on intricate brick work. The fun part was the carpenters that worked for Mr. Ritchie, they would keep you laughing all day. One of the larger than life characters on the job was “Foots” Southard, there was never a dull moment with him around. The other great thing, even though I did not partake myself, were the times when we worked with Toad’s crew and a job was completed on a Friday. Finishing a job on Friday for those guys usually meant that someone was going to make a beer run and the old ice chest would come out. Our boss, “Mr. Cha’ Newt” would have never allowed drinking on the job, but when those boisterous carpenters yelled “grab one” to anyone in listening range, Mr. Davis would give a nod that said “go ahead, get one” and our guys would happily dig in. Everyone would sit around laughing with a cold one for a while until my father or Charles Edward said it was time to head home. My father only drank when he added ‘a taste’ to a bowl of ice cream, that was the extent of his drinking when I was growing up. I may have had a beer or two by then, but not in the company of my father, that’d never happen. Young Charles and my father both drove company vehicles, hauling men and supplies to and from our meeting place in front of Archie Edward’s general store, so they did not imbibe and wouldn’t have anyway.
Our dad had served in the Navy during WWII as a cook on a battle ship. He served honorably with no chance for advancement even though he had the mind of an engineer who could build almost anything. When he came home from the war he couldn’t get a loan to build a home for his family so he bought what materials he could buy each week until the home was completed. I was five years old with two younger siblings when we moved into that new home in Remington, VA. The good news is when we moved in dad didn’t owe anybody a nickle because he built the entire house with his two bare hands.
My mother says that they did receive some help in the early years. She says that Mr. Archie Edwards “carried” her and my father for the first two years of their marriage. They were just starting out, dad was building the house at the time and they didn’t have a penny to their names. Mr. Edwards let dad put two years worth of food and supplies on credit at his store until the house was completed. After completing the house, Dad paid it all back almost immediately. My mother said that she has always been grateful to Archie Edwards for being there for them.
Speaking of being there for them, a lot of families depended on Haught’s store for everyday needs, “Put it on the bill” was a common expression heard at the counter. Mrs. Haught would pull out the box of index cards, thumb through the names and jot down, yet again, another purchase with a promise to pay. I could never figure out how Mrs. Haught was able to give so much credit to so many people. You could sometimes see the weight of maintaining that store written across her brow. We always kept our bill paid up, but not everyone was that considerate or fortunate, I suppose.
One day at work while I was standing at the mixing machine “shaking up” a fresh mixed batch of “mud” (making sure the mortar did not set and hardened), a truck drove up to the job site and a white man climbed out of the passenger’s side. As the pick-up pulled away, I noticed the man who’d gotten out had a tool bag under his arm. The bag was flat and appeared to be completely devoid of any tools. He walked up to Leonard and I and asked if the boss was around. We explained that Mr Cha’Newt didn’t worked as a mason much anymore and was probably out drumming up new business. Someone told him that the boss usually came by the job site at least once a day, so he could wait around if he wanted. The gentleman, who looked to be about 45 years old, placed his bag on the ground and took a tour around the construction site, saying hello and introducing himself.
At some point during the day the boss stopped by, that’s when the man approached him. “Mr. Davis, my name is Earl Hager, I’m an experienced brick mason and I’m looking for a job”. Just about everyone heard him and they all stopped working at once, turned and listened. Reading this now, you may not know this but, in the sixties, no self respecting white man that I knew of, would ask for a job working for a black man. I can’t say it never happened, because it did that day, but it was rare. And I can state freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, that it had never happened on our job before.
Earl Hager appeared to be an accomplished brick mason, but there was something that just didn’t seem right about him
Earl Hager got the job and began work immediately. From the very start something didn’t quite feel right about him. He was very quiet, almost to a fault. He didn’t join in the horse play, he never spoke at all about himself. He didn’t even call out for brick and mortar when his supplies ran low like all the other masons did. “Little brick, little Mud!!!”, Charles Edward yelled out, but not for his station, he was yelling to get us to set up Earl. “Shake’em up over here” came a cry from Jesse Mason or my father, “Doc Brown” (that’s what everyone called my dad, “Doc”, I never knew how that got started). “Shakin’em up!” was echoed by one of the laborers and they would again bring Earl’s supplies up to par. The “eagle (payday) didn’t fly” for a new employee until they’d worked a full week on the job, the same applied to Earl. When payday rolled around, something very strange happened. On Friday’s, dad and young Charles would pull up in front of the State Bank of Remington and we would all pile out, run in and get our checks cashed or deposited. I jumped out of the truck to go into the bank, looked back and noticed that Earl was just sitting there looking toward the other side of the street, he never got out of the truck. After we all returned from the bank, Sonny Newman, who worked with us at the time, asked Earl if he was going to get his check cashed. Earl explained that he didn’t have a drivers license or any other identification for that matter, so he couldn’t get his check cashed. Sonny told him that he should have asked the boss to pay him in cash, then he offered to go in and have the check cashed for him. Earl agreed and that’s what happened, Sonny had the check cashed that week and from then on Earl’s little manila pay envelop had cash in it rather than a pay check. The next time we worked with Toad’s carpenters you should have seen the look on Foots’ face when he saw Earl Hager climb out of our truck. If you knew Foots at all you can imagine the expression on his face, he didn’t say anything, he didn’t have to, his expression said it all. He looked at Earl, then at us, then back at Earl again. That collective crew didn’t seem to have a prejudice bone among them, it was always a joy to share a job site with them. Somewhere around the third or fourth week of Earl’s arrival, we received a huge surprise. The day started out just like any other. We arrived in front of Edward’s store, went in, bought snacks and other supplies needed for the day, then went off to the job site. At around 10 am, a green 1965 Ford Fairlane pulled up next to the mortar mixing machine where I was working. Two men in black suits climbed out, walked over to me and introduced themselves as deputy U.S. Marshals looking for one Earl Hager. I pointed Earl out and they approached him. They identified themselves and immediately placed him in handcuffs. Apparently Earl was an escaped convict from a Tennessee correctional facility and had crossed the state line into Virginia. That made his apprehension fall under the jurisdiction of the U. S. Marshals service.
No wonder he was so quiet, stayed to himself and couldn’t cash his own paycheck, he was a fugitive from justice. Earl was always pleasant and quiet, but he’d made one fatal error in his quest to remain free. There was no way he could ever be inconspicuous working with us. What could draw more attention than a white man working in an all black construction crew in 1968? Not much. Thus ended the story of Earl Hager, but the story and success of the Charles N. Davis construction company continued. The black owned and operated business flourished and carried on as a rite of passage for young men in the community for many years to come.
If you think the brickwork on your home may have been done by the Charles N. Davis Masonry company, there’s one sure way to find out. Here’s how you can tell:
My father ALWAYS signed his work.
1) Get a ladder
2) Climb to the top of the chimney
3) Somewhere around the flue, etched in the concrete, will be the initials A.E.B.
4) That’s it! If its there, you have an Ellsworth Brown original fireplace/ chimney in your possession, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to sell it on eBay