Mr. John Redd Was Bridge's Watchman

Published 4:08 pm Thursday, March 1, 2012

RICE – As she does twice a week every week, Urscille Hamlin parked her car by the mailbox and got out to collect The Farmville Herald, along with her mail.

The newspaper, as she pulled it out, was folded to perfectly reveal the photograph at the top of the front page on the February 22 edition.

She expected to the see The Farmville Herald.

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She expected a photograph atop the front page.

Ms. Hamlin did not expect to see her late great-uncle John Redd, however.

“I was so shocked when I opened the mailbox. I said, 'What's he doing up there (as the lead photo)? John Redd what are you doing up in here?,” she recalled during a Tuesday interview this week. “I was shocked because I never would have thought I would ever have seen him on a paper anywhere around.”

The black and white photograph was taken in 1914 and showed a man, identified on the negative only as “Uncle John,” standing on the train tracks on High Bridge, hands on hips, determination on his face, just as one would expect from Norfolk and Western's watchman for the bridge.

The Farmville Herald printed the photo, asking anyone who could identify the man to contact the newspaper.

“I knew it was him by the picture,” she said.

No need to read any identification.

The last time Ms. Hamlin had seen the photograph, a copy of which has been in the family for decades, was eight years ago at a family funeral.

Prior to that she'd seen it many times among the family photos kept by relatives in Maryland.

The first time as a 13-year old visiting her aunt.

“Oh yeah. A lot of times, when we were going through pictures, fixing our scrapbook and things up, we always looked back at the old ones, trying to put the family together in the book,” Ms. Hamlin said.

“I was in Maryland with my aunt, with my mother's sister, because I went down when I was 13 and she had the picture,” Ms. Hamlin said, folding back the years to the first time she saw the photograph of her great-uncle while visiting her mother's sister.

Along with the family Bible and the carefully recorded dates of family births and deaths, Ms. Hamlin holds a very old postcard of the photograph. It has been passed down through the family.

Copies had been made by the family many years ago.

Not much is known about the man, John Redd, who died on April 10, 1938, the year after Ms. Hamlin was born, and is buried at Starhope Church near Sailor's Creek. No family member is alive who can recount any firsthand stories about the man who was the father of nine children. “The last living child, Charles Redd, if he was living he could probably have told you a lot,” she said.

But there is something, a handful of words that tell much in a flurry of syllables.

“This is what my daddy gave us,” she said, holding a piece of paper with typed words, a paragraph, John Redd's biography. “That's what my daddy gave me.”

At a July 2003 family reunion these words were shared with family members:

“Out of two slave parents with the last name Winfield were two children born, Homer and John Winfield, born into slavery. Therefore they took the slave owner's last name which was Redd. Homer Redd had two children and John had nine children. As far as we can trace, John and Homer were the children that started the family tree (Redds).”

A few crucial facts.

Gemstones of information for the family.

Ms. Hamlin knows nothing else about John Redd, whose photograph and likeness will live on, undoubtedly included in any photo display of the famous negatives when the High Bridge Trail State Park visitors center is eventually constructed.

“I think it's great. I think it's great. A lot of them are going to come down there and see it,” she said of the day when relatives can make that pilgrimage.

And the photo is already part of the powerpoint presentations of Robert Flippen, the state park's Education Specialist.

But she does know this about the family:

“I know all of them were hard workers,” she said.

Looking at the photograph of John Redd, his character stands out through his body language and the look on his face, speaking of hard work and determination, of pride, too, in an important job done well.

When Ms. Hamlin read the caption beneath the photograph atop The Herald's February 22 edition, she learned community help was being sought to learn the identity of the man in the picture.

“I couldn't wait to get home. I couldn't wait to get back to the house,” she said, telling of her excitement to telephone the newspaper.

She was so excited that the first attempt to call produced a wrong number.

“I messed up,” she said, smiling. “I called the wrong number first…and then I looked in the telephone book again.”

Front office staff answering the newspaper's phone told her “we put it in the paper hoping someone would recognize it,” Ms. Hamlin remembers.

“I said, 'Well, I recognized him right away,'” she said.

The photograph was taken during construction of the steel viaduct in 1913-14 and is from a glass negative, number 1794, taken on April 10, 1914-24 years, to the day, before his death.

Inscribed on the sleeve of the glass negative were the words “Uncle John.”

The photograph, recounts Flippen, had been recently sent electronically as a digital image by Jim Gill, of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The original negative is in the possession of a collector in California who shared it with Gill. Gill subsequently routed a copy to Flippen.

“Upon close examination,” Flippen observed, “one can see the pocketwatch in his top pocket, a cord leading out to a makeshift fob at the top flap of his overalls, the weave of his sweater, the holes in his knees and felt hat, even the wrinkles of his skin in his weathered hands. Just below his right hand on his hip is a light area that represents the fill dirt for the abutment on the east end of the bridge.”

The eyes of John Redd hint at much, as does his posture, the determination exuding from those hands on his hips, standing smack dab in the middle of bridge.

John Redd's bridge, in many respects.

He was the watchman.

Even the train, his countenance seems to declare, had better have permission to cross.

The son of slaves.

A former slave, himself.

And now, in a particular and meaningful way, the human face of historic High Bridge, which is the focal point of High Bridge Trail State Park.

A free man.

Standing tall.

High above the ground beneath his feet.

Without the bridge upon which he stands, a bridge upon which so many tens of thousands of people in future generations will cross from one side to the other, standing in the middle above the Appomattox River and its valley to revel in the sublime, there would be nothing but a separating chasm.

“That's true,” Ms. Hamlin says, reflecting on life's winding twists and turns, like the ones which brought her great-uncle John's photograph to the top of The Farmville Herald in her mailbox seventy-four years after he left this world behind. “You never know.

“You never know.”