His Eye Is On the Sparrow: Remembering My Great-Grandfather James Lee Richards
My great-grandfather was born 125 years ago today.
His family knew him as Daddy Son. I remember him as a man who had a big laugh, an unshakable devotion to his church First Baptist Mahan Street, and deep roots in his community of Suffolk, Virginia. I have since learned from family memories that he was a determined father who fought to keep his family together in the face of life tragedy and uncertainties.
James Lee Richards was born May 16, 1898 in Suffolk, Virginia to James Richards and Martha White. He descends from a line of James Richards tracing back to his grandfather who was born enslaved around 1849 and who lived his life in Northampton County, North Carolina, just below the Virginia Border. His Suffolk roots trace back through his mother to his great-great grandmother Patsey White a free Black woman born in the late 1700s.
He could read and write and attended school through the seventh grade. By 1918, at age 20, he married my great-grandmother, the sixteen-year-old Annie Biggs, and they started a family together. He supported them by working as a porter for Ballard and Smith, a department store for white shoppers in segregated Suffolk founded by Walter Ballard and Otis Smith. There were only three Black people who worked for the store; two women who wrapped parcels of purchases for delivery and Daddy Son, who checked the furnace daily at both the store and at the Otis Smith’s house. He delivered parcels of purchases to customers after store closing. I often wonder if he met my great-grandmother while he was out and about in the community, delivering packages. Ballard and Smith were very generous towards Daddy Son and treated him with respect.
After a beautiful beginning, his family story soon took a heartbreaking turn. My great grandmother Annie Biggs Richards, died tragically in 1930 at age 28, leaving him a single father of six children. Years later he faced another life trial. Otis Smith was the brains of the department store that employed him, but suffered from depression from his time in World War I and ended up committing suicide in 1938, which triggered a decline of the business. Daddy Son soon lost his job as a result.
After the death of his wife and later the loss of his job, friends and family offered to help by taking one child each. Daddy Son refused to let his children be separated. He re-married, and found work. His oldest child Ernestine grew into a mother figure for her younger siblings. By the mid-1940s with the ramp up of World War II and at the suggestion of a neighbor and friend Reuben Privott, Daddy Son secured a job as a driver with the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia. He worked there for the next 20 years and retired with a full pension.
He was the only great grandparent I can remember. I remember trips to Suffolk to visit with him and my grandparents. I remember the stories he told me and my sister while sitting on his front porch. I remember that whenever we visited him he always had a gift for us, often popcorn. I remember how much my grandfather, James “Doc” Richards, whom we all revered, revered his father, Daddy Son.
He was a dedicated, lifelong member of First Baptist Church Mahan Street. When we visited Suffolk, we would attend church with him on Sundays. During service when the spirit moved him he was known to break out into song. His favorite hymn to sing was His Eye Is On The Sparrow.
The song is meant to remind the listener to maintain faith and hope in the midst of the struggles we face in everyday life. I am thankful every day for the strength of Daddy Son and my ancestors for enduring life’s challenges to build the family to which I am proud to belong and this life I am privileded to live.
I sing because I’m happy I sing because I’m free
For His eye, his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know, He watches me.