The train tracks slice through Alabama like a pair of outstretched fingers, snaking from the Mississippi line up through big-city Birmingham before splitting toward Pinson to the east, Blount Springs to the west.
From the window of his great-grandfather’s bedroom, 4-year-old Seth Robinson would watch the trains roll by, shuttling shipping containers of cargo from one end of his little world to another. The small white house on Ketona’s Pine Hill Road sat so near to a set of tracks that it would sway and rattle as the locomotives lumbered past, the air filling with a hoarse, metallic roar.
“Granddaddy, the train is here! You see it!” Seth would yell.
Charles Avery Sr., age 89, could not see it — had not been able to see even a bright light in a dark room since going blind in his later years. But he, like most in the Avery family, did not need to see the trains to know what they carried. His own grandfather and great-uncle had jumped a train car headed north from Bibb County, Alabama, two generations before, riding that same track away from a former slave master and a hundred years of cruelty before hopping off 60 miles down the line in Irondale and walking eight miles northwest to a tiny Tarrant community named Ketona. Alexander and Lee Avery had heard talk about a Ketona neighborhood named Rushing Spring, rumored to be a safe haven for freed slaves.
It was a story Charles Sr. and his siblings — sisters Sena, Odell and Lottie Mae and brothers Acie, Verbine, Mathew and Rector — had heard all their lives, and one that he passed along to his own children and grandchildren. It became a thread that wove the Averys so closely to their community that the two eventually would become synonymous.
“Yes, baby! Granddaddy can see the train,” Charles Sr. would tell Seth. “Look at it go.”
Telling the story
The Avery family history was an oral one, mostly, before it was told to Dina. As one of Charles Sr.’s granddaughters, Dina Avery was tasked by her grandfather of fulfilling what she calls “his only regret” — not chronicling the stories their family and the community created in Ketona. An assistant professor of clinical and diagnostic sciences at UAB, Dina was familiar with research methods and writing projects, so she jumped into the project with fervor. Ten years later, “Jumping the Train” was completed.
Published in 2019, “Jumping the Train: An Extraordinary True Story” is the realization of Charles Sr.’s lifelong dream — the transcription of the Avery family story told from not just his perspective, which imparts gems such as the story about Seth, the small train-watcher, but from other family members, friends and neighbors. Bound in about 225 pages, “Jumping the Train” is the naturally told and transcribed story of a family that turned 60 miles of train tracks into a legacy and community that continues today.
A family history
This Avery family’s story begins, best as anyone knows, in Chesterfield, South Carolina, where they were owned by a white family — whose name was Avery — that later relocated its plantation to Alabama, in Bibb County, situated east of Tuscaloosa and south of Birmingham and home to towns with names like Green Pond and Eoline and Lawley.
In “Jumping the Train,” Dina relates the titular story in her grandfather’s own words, telling the tale of two young boys, Alexander and Lee, who “left there running,” more than a hundred years ago, when slavery was illegal by law but continued in practice. Freed slaves were not permitted to move away, recounted Charles Sr., and they still were required to report their work progress to their former masters.
So, Alexander and Lee fled Bibb County on a northbound train car, landing in Irondale after a 60-mile trip. They trekked to Tarrant in search of the Ketona community.
“’We rode that train at night and had to be real quiet,’” Charles Sr. remembers his grandfather saying. “’We jumped on that train together and would jump off that train together.’“I remember him saying that the white folks would have killed them if they had been caught.”
Instead, Lee Avery married a woman named Mamie, and the pair had five children: James Lee, Willie, Retta, Wesley and Mattie Pearl. Alexander Avery, who later changed his name to James Manuel and was known to his family and friends as just Manuel, met and married Jenny Goins. Together they had seven children — Levi, Hannah, Nannie, Pearl, Shepherd, Jessie Mae and Rector Alexander, Charles Sr.’s father.
“We jumped on that train together and would jump off that train together.”
Jenny was a small, often sickly woman, Charles Sr. recalled, with a “little voice” that could sing a soft soprano. When she was sick, he remembered, she would stay in bed under a quilt, and Manuel would bathe her in boiled spring water fetched by her grandchildren. But when she was well, “she could cook anything.”
Alexander, Jenny and their children lived in a small house near the springs, with wooden-plank floors and a front porch flanked by fruit trees.
“You ought to remember that house,” Charles Sr. told Dina,” because it sat there a long time, way after they died.”
Bound in about 225 pages, “Jumping the Train” is the naturally told and transcribed story of a family that turned 60 miles of train tracks into a legacy and community that continues today.
What followed that train ride is more than a century of community-building, Dina says, centered mostly around one thing: Rushing Spring Baptist Church, founded by his parents-in-law, Alexander and Hannah Goins, and the Goins family in the early 1890s, and the neighborhood that built up around it, known simply as Rushing Spring.
What started as several Ketona families traveling home-to-home with a prayer band grew into a weekly gathering of folks under a brush arbor, an informal structure made of tree branches that was also known as a hush harbor, a relic of the antebellum South, in which slaves would meet to practice religious traditions in secret. The church was formally founded in 1891; named for the springs where members fetched water and cleaned their clothes.
The Averys were hard workers. They were day-laborers, farmers, handymen, washerwomen. They tended horses, mules, cows, pigs, goats and chickens. They grew their own vegetables. When Manuel earned enough to buy a buggy from a shop in Eastlake, he was met with incredulity by the white owners.
“’How are you going to buy this buggy?’” Charles Sr. recounts the salesman asking. “Grandpa pulled out his cash and just looked at him. That buggy meant everyone in Rushing Spring and Ketona had something to ride in.”
Children’s Crusade in 1963. More than 800 students ages 5-18 walked out of Birmingham’s Hooper City High School and marched more than four miles to downtown Birmingham to protest racial injustice. Charles Jr., his cousin, Harold Booker, and other members of the Hooper City football team led the procession.Dina grew up in Ketona and spent every Sunday in Rushing Spring Baptist Church, as did her father, Charles Avery Jr., best-known for his role as a leader in the
Charles Sr. had just been granted the right to vote by a city judge after passing the required voting test peppered with inane questions.
“How high is high?” the judge had asked. “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?”
Then the judge set Charles Sr.’s voting location in Cullman, Alabama, instead of his hometown, Tarrant. That unfairness sparked something inside of Charles Jr., now 74, which he recounted to Dina for a chapter in the book.
“If my Daddy was willing to vote, I knew I had to march.”
“Due to the racial tensions in Cullman, Daddy always had a male neighbor to ride with him,” Charles Jr. said. “If my Daddy was willing to vote, I knew I had to march.”
“Jumping the Train” is filled with similar stories, each rich with detail and told in first-person. The Averys are born storytellers, Dina says, as are the other members of the Ketona and Rushing Spring communities. Dina interviewed Stanley Peterson, who remembers his uncle, Jesse Peterson, sending his nephews to gather pokeweed near the train tracks so he could cook poke salad, and two sisters named Janice and Cheryl, who remembered how their Aunt Lozzie would sometimes cuss in church if someone stepped on her bad toe. Dina tells the stories of her great-uncle, Charles Sr.’s brother Mathew Avery, who was drafted into the Coast Guard during World War II and eventually lost at sea. Of the neighborhood kids who used the Averys’ Funk & Wagnall’s New World Encyclopedias to do their homework. Of the times the sheriff brought the Ku Klux Klan onto Pine Hill Road and Charles Sr. would stand behind the front door, shotgun in hand, his family huddled under the dining room table.
Today, Tarrant has a population of about 6,100. More than half of those residents are black, and in 2018, the median household income was $29,981. Nearly 30% of its citizens live in poverty. Still nestled in Tarrant’s northern section, Ketona is smaller than ever before, Dina says. The three streets that comprise the Ketona Neighborhood — Pine Hill Road, where Charles Sr. and Charles Jr. lived, and Long and Rose streets — are home to just about a dozen people. In their heyday, Dina says, they housed more than 150. Rushing Spring Baptist, which held two services each Sunday until the 1970s, had around 60 attendees in the 1960s, Dina says. The church still has about 140 regular attendees, many of whom split their time between Rushing Spring and Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church less than a mile away.
“The vibrant Ketona we once knew is gone, but we can’t let go of the good times we had,” she said.
That Ketona still influences Dina today. Growing up in a close-knit community informs the work Dina now does at UAB. She started working at UAB in 1999, fresh out of college, as a temporary office services specialist for James Kirklin, M.D., professor of cardiothoracic surgery. Dina’s mother, Jerri, insistent that Dina find a job at UAB, drove her to the front doors of UAB’s Administration Building herself.
“Mom drove by UAB and said, ‘Dina, go in there and put in an application,’” Dina recounted. “And the rest is history.”
Dina worked as a temp for Kirklin for all of two weeks before he hired her full-time, and she began working her way through the ranks, eventually moving into a data information coordinator role. She worked in administrative roles in UAB’s ophthalmology, neurology, preventive medicine and Sponsored Programs units before moving to Atlanta in 2011 to work at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute.
She returned to UAB four years later as the operations manager for the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, where she worked until joining the School of Health Professions as an assistant professor in 2018 and an associate scientist with UAB’s Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC) in 2019, a comprehensive research, training and community-engagement center to reduce health disparities of vulnerable populations and disadvantaged communities.
Along the way, Dina earned three master’s degrees, including one from UAB in applied sociology and a doctorate in health sciences from A.T. Still University, and founded A’Nid Global Solutions LLC, which provides regulatory affairs, medical-writing and direct-hire services. In 2017, Dina directed and produced a short documentary about her family’s story, “Crossing the Track,” which has been shown at UAB and other venues across Alabama and the Southeast.
“Mom drove by UAB and said, ‘Dina, go in there and put in an application. And the rest is history.”
But it was working with Kirklin, Dina said, that influenced her the most. Working in his department helped Dina learn to write and research, which she says helped her search through physical and online archives for information about her family.
With the MHRC, Dina worked in the Black Belt and rural Southern towns to educate women on breast and cervical cancer prevention and reduction. Growing up in a small town like Ketona gave her a specific kind of perspective when she traveled to the Black Belt and other small Southern communities across Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky and Arkansas to conduct research, she says.
“In many of the environments I encountered and with many of the people I encountered, it reminded me of the people I grew up with. It looked so much like Ketona and Rushing Spring, because the core of these communities were the church and a few streets of people who’d known each other forever,” Dina said.
On June 23, 2014, Dina Avery mailed exactly 83 letters, each addressed to a church or family in Bibb County.
“In many of the environments I encountered and with many of the people I encountered, it reminded me of the people I grew up with. It looked so much like Ketona and Rushing Spring, because the core of these communities were the church and a few streets of people who’d known each other forever.”
Each letter contained her phone number and a simple request: If you have any information about the Avery slave descendants, please call.
Forty-two days later, she and Charles Jr. rolled into the parking lot of a Bibb County meat-and-three restaurant, scheduled to meet two descendants of the family that had once called her family property. A neighbor of the Bibb County Averys had heard Dina’s letter read in church and notified them.
The pairs first encountered each other in the parking lot.
“Hello cousins!” one of the men said. Dina calls the men Henry and Hector in the book; she does not want to use their real names in order to protect their identity.
During the course of several hours, Henry and Hector Avery listened as Dina told her story, Charles Sr.’s story, Rushing Spring’s story. Charles Jr. showed them family photos from his cell phone. Henry and Hector shared documents full of familiar names — names like Lydia “Lide” Avery, Dina’s great-great-great-great grandmother, and Sevie Avery,” who was Lide’s daughter.
Then came an unexpected invitation.
“I live on the Avery land,” Hector said. “I want you to come by the house.”
“The vibrant Ketona we once knew is gone, but we can’t let go of the good times we had.”
Hector shared his memories of growing up on the land in the 1930s, which was worked by both black and white sharecroppers alike, and gave Dina copies of documents such as last wills and testaments and other property records, which have helped confirm her family’s genealogy and many of her grandfather’s stories. His daughters stopped by on their lunch breaks. They all prayed together — Henry, Hector and their families are faithful attendees of their own local Baptist church, too. Dina and Charles Jr. left with an armful of homegrown vegetables to take home.
“There was no hate,” Dina said.
During one of their long conversations that afternoon, Dina asked Hector about any nearby train tracks. Based on what her grandfather had told her, she explained, she reckoned they must be on or at least close to their property. Train tracks did once run by his home, he explained, and pointed outside in their general direction.
But they’d long since been removed.
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