I didn’t know how I felt standing in front of my adoptive dad’s childhood home on the corner of 3rd & Federal St., Lynchburg, VA. It was strange to be here without him, visiting a place he didn’t feel inclined to take me to or spend time talking about. I think we may have driven by once after my grandmother died in 1988, but it’s more of a supposition than memory. He simply felt no need to revisit this place.
And yet this is where it all started – which is why it’s the first place I visited after arriving in my dad’s hometown on April 6. I had to spend time where he first lived and experienced the world, even if he personally had been done with it.
This home was built by his grandfather, William R. Smith Jr (1856-1928), who was one of the first successful Black merchants in Lynchburg. He ran his store out of one part of the home (the black door with awning on Federal street) while his family lived in the rest. He had been given land on Tinbridge Hill, a mostly Black neighborhood, by his father William Sr, who had moved his family from a nearby rural area to Lynchburg after the end of slavery. Billy Jr. and his wife Rosa ran their store and raised four children in this house. Their youngest child, Fannie, was my grandmother. She named her only son, my dad, after her father.
Fannie and her older sister Hermione, both schoolteachers, raised my dad Bill in this house – keeping him razor focused on academic success. He wasn’t allowed to go outside and play much, in part because of his asthma and other childhood illnesses, and in part because they didn’t want him to mingle with other “lesser educated” children in the neighborhood. It wasn’t a very light hearted or fun childhood from the little my dad told me, but it was here that my dad developed a lifelong love of fantasy and sci fi books, as it offered escape from being a sickly only child upon whose shoulders fell all of his mom and aunt’s expectations. Their efforts paid off: he was incredibly successful in school, and later in his career as a doctor. But at what cost? As I said, my dad didn’t like to talk about it.
So I stood outside of 301 Federal Street, missing him, wishing I could ask questions, and staring at an empty home being readied for another sale. A house that now only was an echo of three generations of Smiths, unable to tell me about the daily lives it once witnessed. But I was glad to have come. It meant something to be here, a connection to the past. And a start to my days exploring the roots of the man who became my adoptive father, and who influenced me so many important ways.
Photo at top: Bill at age 20 in front of the family entrance porch, when the house was still covered in imitation brick.