Everyone has a black sheep in their family (some may have more than one). There are probably varying degrees of black sheepness (a child who decided to drop out of school and avoid the family business is probably lower on the scale than the long-lost cousin in jail for murder), but whatever has put the family member on the outs with everyone else, the black sheep make for very interesting research. This is a good thing for genealogists. You don’t get to choose your ancestors; I might not have chosen this one. And now, introducing my family’s favorite “black sheep”:
Andrew Hamilton Rohleder, Sr.
My paternal great grandfather was born 31 July 1870 in Wilson, North Carolina, the fourth child of Frank William Rohleder (1833-1904) and Susan Ann Elizabeth Gentry (1842-1919). Andrew’s older siblings were born in Petersburg, Virginia, but during the reconstruction Frank had probably gone to Wilson looking for work. Jobs were hard to find. Frank managed to find work as a butcher. Before Andrew turned two, though, the family moved back to Virginia and Frank resumed his work as a tailor. Andrew’s six younger siblings were born in Petersburg, though not all survived. One brother, James, had died three years before Andrew was born. Two younger sisters, Frances and Susan, died in childhood, while another sister, Rosa, died at birth. Andrew dropped out of school after completing the sixth grade, the same year his youngest sibling was born. By 1888 the family had moved to Richmond.
Two years later, on 27 July 1890, Andrew married Lillian Cordelia “Lillie” Ford (1873-1941). Preston Nash, Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, performed the ceremony at the rectory. And the children started coming:
- Susie Dallas Rohleder (1892-1976)
- Milton Earl Rohleder (1894-1917)
- Eugene Carlyle Rohleder (1896-1981)
- Grace Mae Rohleder (1898-1934)
- Andrew Hamilton Rohleder, Jr. (my grandfather, 1900-1974)
- Frank Elwood Rohleder (1902-1967)
The 1900 census has Andrew working as a “bookkee” (from what I can find, this is a bookkeeper). He eventually got a job with Southern Air Lines Railway, working his way from clerk to claims adjuster.
The First Signs of Black Sheepness
In 1908 Andrew’s sister-in-law Florence (wife of Richard “Dick” Rohleder) brought suit against People’s Pleasure Park. Well, it wasn’t really Florence’s idea. Her husband, instigated by his brother Joe, brought the suit. People’s Pleasure Park Company was created for the purpose of providing a park for African Americans in Richmond, and all the members of the company were African American. The land was encumbered with covenants restricting its sale to African Americans. But Fulton Park, as the land in question was called, was purchased by the company and not an individual. This land was adjacent to land owned by Florence Rohleder. Dick and Joe Rohleder were exceedingly bigoted, and they pitched a fit. They roped Andrew into swearing out arrest warrants on the management on the park’s opening night. (Of course, that might not have been too difficult considering Andrew’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan.) The suit—People’s Pleasure Park v. Rohleder—was the subject of an article in the Columbia Law Review (Vol. 106) by Richard R. W. Brooks entitled “Incorporating Race.” Brooks explains the law, compares it to modern times, and gives a description of the proceedings. In the end, the court decided a corporation did not have race and the purchase stood. The Rohleders appealed, but didn’t win.
Moving to North Carolina
Around 1910 Andrew was transferred from Richmond to Charlotte, North Carolina. His eldest son was close to graduating from high school, so Lillie and the kids stayed in Richmond until Milton finished high school when they joined him in Charlotte. To help occupy his time away from work, Andrew joined the Elizabeth College Choral Society. The college itself was for women, but the Choral Society was open to men as well as women. In May 1911 he was part of the performance of Flowtow’s Martha, a romantic comic opera (you might recognize “The Last Rose of Summer”). When the family joined him, Andrew and Lillie bought a house in the section of Charlotte called Seversville. For the next five years life moved along like most lives do. His eldest daughter, Susie, married Baxter Johnston (1890-1978) and they eventually had four children, a boy and three girls. Grace married Paul Abernathy (1891-1949) and they had six children. Carlyle, Andrew, and Frank got jobs as they got older. And Milton went off to college.
As I wrote before, Milton was ready for law school when he drowned in the Catawba River on 12 August 1917 at the age of 23. This was a horrible blow to the entire family. Andrew and Lillie’s marriage didn’t survive. They did see two of their remaining sons marry during the 1920s: Andrew, Jr. married Myrtle Primm (1897-1959) and had four boys; Frank married Margaret Sledge (1907-2002) and they had three girls and a boy.
Andrew and Lillie were bereft and they must not have been able to take consolation from each other. Andrew sought comfort from a mistress (or two). Lillie would have none of that and told him he could live in the house, but had to stay in the basement. Sometimes he lived with one of his children, either Susie or Frank. These living arrangements went on for years, until 15 October 1929 when Andrew filed separation papers and moved out of the house. Except for the piano and his personal items, Lillie got the house and everything in it, plus $50 a month for support. In 1930 Lillie was living with her daughter Susie’s family, but Andrew’s name appears under hers. His name also appears by itself on a street across town. Their separation was filed with the Register of Deeds on 4 April 1931, but neither took the next step.
Andrew met Mary Sproules around this time. They were pretty serious, but he was still legally married. But that didn’t seem to be a problem for Andrew. He obtained a Mexican divorce from Juarez, Mexico, on 11 May 1932. The document itself looks very official, with ribbons and seals. I have no idea how legal it is. From what I can ascertain, a plaintiff was required to reside for a certain length of time in the place where the papers were filed. I can’t find anything that might lead me to believe Andrew actually lived in Mexico, or even El Paso, for any length of time leading up to May 1932. Mary and Andrew married in Washington, D. C., on 1 August 1932. It was not wedded bliss. The couple separated in June 1933. No one in the family talked about it, so they may not have known. They had heard rumors about the Mexican divorce, though.
Andrew was back in the Charlotte area and in October 1934 began divorce proceedings against Lillie. This act brings up several questions about the validity of the Mexican divorce and his marriage to Mary. These proceedings began around the time Lillie had decided to go visit her family in Virginia. In November 1934, their daughter Grace Mae died in Atlanta at the age of 36, leaving six children ranging from age 16 down to three years old. Repeated tries to deliver a copy of the complaint to Lillie were unsuccessful until May 1935. She didn’t contest the divorce and everything became official on 26 June 1935.
All this marrying and divorcing didn’t stop Andrew from pursuing female companionship. In the late 1930s he met Alice Poole, a stenographer and 13 years his junior. I expect Andrew was a charming man. He was handsome (at least before he got really old and pruney) and enjoyed music. He had a good job so he probably could take someone out to a nice restaurant. Alice died in March 1939 and Andrew had her buried in his family plot, where she rests next to his son Milton.
Several years ago while searching the Charlotte Library website, I found two sets of divorce papers. This is when I discovered Andrew had a second wife. In February 1943 Mary finally filed for divorce. This time it was Andrew who was hard to find since he had moved to Chester, South Carolina, after Alice died. Andrew offered no objections to the divorce and it was decreed on 30 March 1943. I had often wondered why Andrew had not married Alice; his marriage to Mary explained it. Although he could have tracked down Mary if he had wanted to.
The Final Years
In the fall of 1943 Andrew’s grandson Andy was home on leave. The entire family got together at Susie’s house in Charlotte. It’s possible some sort of reconciliation was in the works. Lillie had died in 1941 and at least one of Andrew’s grandchildren didn’t even know he was still alive until this time. In his later years, a granddaughter reports, he would sit quietly reading the Bible. As his health stared failing he went to a nursing home in Concord, North Carolina, and that’s where he died on 26 January 1950, a few months short of his 80th birthday.
Andrew is buried in the family plot next to Lillie, but there is no marker (nor is there one for Alice Poole). When the children were discussing it, Carlyle said he didn’t think his father was worth the money for a marker after the way he had treated their mother. His opinion prevailed. After almost 70 years, maybe it’s time to get that marker made and placed on the grave.