Column – On the eve of Black History Month, meet two IW giants
Published 5:37 pm Tuesday, January 30, 2024
Each generation has its giants, and here in Isle of Wight County, they have been abundant.
Black History Month offers an opportunity to focus on the contributions of African Americans whose courage and determination have helped shape who we are and, hopefully, how we might make our future better than our past. Hence, a reflection on a couple of those giants:
Fred Wren Sr.
The Jim Crow era was just getting into full swing when Fred Wren Sr. was born in rural Isle of Wight County in 1887.
Mr. Wrenn’s parents died when he was quite young, compounding the barriers he faced. And the rigid apartheid rules then emerging ensured there would be few opportunities for a young Black man. Nevertheless, at age 23, he followed one of the few professional paths available and opened a barbershop in Smithfield, and there he cut hair, mostly for white men, for the next six decades.
He’d had no opportunity to go to school, but his wife, Norma, taught him to read and write, using the Bible as a text. Education, so difficult to come by for him, became his life’s passions. He saved sufficient money from his barbering business to send his three children to a boarding school in North Carolina. In time, all three would earn a college degree.
There remained a historic fear, rooted in slavery, of Black people becoming educated in those days, and according to his granddaughter, one of Mr. Wrenn’s customers told him pointedly, “If I knew you were going to educate your kids, I would never have come” to the barbershop.
What little education was available to Black people of that era was meted out in tiny rural one-room schools, and Mr. Wren joined other prominent African Americans who were determined to change that. He and a group of like-minded men each put up $100 to buy a piece of land on which to build a proper public school for Black children. They deeded the land to the county School Board, which agreed to build Isle of Wight Training School.
Mr. Wren was a quiet activist for civil rights. One day in the early years of the civil rights movement, he shocked the Smithfield community by walking into Little’s Drugstore and sitting at the lunch counter, which was barred to Black patrons. There were no riots, no massive protests, but the message was received. Within a few years the rigid segregation in public places began to disappear. His small protest had helped.
Fred Wren Sr. died in 1981. He was 94. During his long life, he witnessed and did much to quietly bring about improved conditions for the African American community here, and in doing so, he helped create a better community for all of us.
Ben Jones was an entrepreneur, almost from birth, and certainly until his death.
He was born in 1918 in Isle of Wight near Blount’s Corner and moved to Smithfield with his parents when he was 7 years old.
In recollections published in the county’s “Many Voices” interview book, Mr. Jones recalled that he was too young to work, but he appealed to Vincent Joyner, who owned a Shell service station in town, to let him sweep the floors regularly. So, at 7 years of age, Mr. Jones launched his business career. He was paid $1.50 a week for pushing a broom.
When he was old enough, he landed a job at Newport News Shipbuilding, but wasn’t satisfied with just his daily wage. So, he bought a truck, built an enclosure on the back, complete with roof, a woodstove and benches, and provided early bus service for other shipyard workers who paid him a daily fare.
Ben Jones’ signature venture, though, was ice. He went to work for two local men who owned an icehouse, learning how to cut ice blocks, store and deliver them to homes.
In time, he asked the two owners if he could deliver ice to places they didn’t serve. Within a few years, he had bought the ice plant in Chuckatuck that provided ice to the area. Bear in mind, most people back then still used ice boxes, particularly in rural areas that didn’t yet have electricity.
Mr. Jones opened his own icehouse, together with a restaurant and barbershop, on the south bank of the Pagan River, where the Smithfield Station hotel now sits. When Virginia Power was building the Surry Power Station, ice was needed to control the temperature of the massive amounts of concrete being poured. Ben Jones had suddenly found a source for all of the ice he could produce.
His daughter, Maurice Seaborne, recalled years later that Mr. Jones wasn’t all business. He was the go-to man within the Black community when someone needed help. When people needed food, rides, money or a place to stay, Ben Jones was the person to see. His brick home in Riverview, the most substantial in the community, became a point of contact whenever there was need.
Throughout it all, though, there was that entrepreneurial streak. His motto, passed on to his children, was simple. It reflected his business spirit but also served as a not-so-subtle defiance of the world in which Black people back then were forced to compete: “Don’t beg for nothing,” he told them.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.