A snapshot of four generations of a Black American family | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A snapshot of four generations of a Black American family

Dissecting 'The True Life Story of Helen Fagan Mosley Poole'

click to enlarge Fagan family memorabilia - PHOTOS COURTESY OF TERENEH IDIA
Photos courtesy of Tereneh Idia
Fagan family memorabilia

Walking up the stairs of my father’s house, you’re greeted with black and white photographs from various historical moments — recognizable people and places. The Negro League Baseball teams of the 20th century, jazz great Ahmad Jamal as a child, and Sarah Vaughan sipping champagne with the Nicholas Brothers.

However, when you reach the top landing, there are images of people whose names do not come readily to mind. If you ask, some are unknown even to my father. Most are unnamed —unknown cousins, aunts, uncles from the 1800s and early 1900s. Photos rescued from shoe boxes found under beds and in basements.

In an attempt to uncover some of the mystery, I read a 20-page handwritten account from my paternal grandmother entitled “The True Life Story of Helen Fagan Mosley Poole,” and interviewed her only son, my dad, Thaddeus Gilmore Mosley, Jr.   

Helen Fagan was born on June 7, 1903, in Thurmond, West Virginia, the daughter of Rosa Lee Graves and Richard Fagan, a former slave and civil war veteran. Rosa and Richard were married on September 10, 1902, in Warfield, Virginia. 

Rosa Lee Graves was said to have been a secretary in New York or New Jersey. To use my dad’s words, he is not sure how she “ended up in West Virginia married to a coal miner.”  

In the early 1900s, Thurmond was a small but thriving coal mining town of 300 people, named after Confederate soldier Captain W.D. Thurmond. He died in 1910 in the town that bore his name, which means my great-grandparents and grandmother were in Thurmond while Captain Thurman lived.

Rosa and Richard had two other children, Floyd and James. Rosa Lee died in 1908, cause unknown. Richard Fagan continued to work in the coal mines and hired women to care for the children while he was at work. In my grandmother Helen’s words: Some worked out, others did not, one woman “dranked and smoked too much ... My father didn’t like that.” The children had other caregivers, including a stint living in Warfield, Virginia with their grandparents - my great great grandparents — where they attended the Episcopal Saint James School.

Richard Fagan wanted the family back together and found a way when he was invited by his brother, Robert Fagan, to a plot of 68 acres he owned in Weedville, Pennsylvania. There, the two brothers and their families worked on the farm, during the years of World War I. In 1918, the influenza pandemic that claimed the lives of 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the United States also took the lives of Robert Fagan and Floyd Fagan, uncle and brother to my grandmother Helen.  

By then, Richard Fagan had remarried. Helen did not get along with her stepmother. Helen wrote that she was “very mean” and favored the children from a previous marriage over her stepchildren. 

Meanwhile, in nearby Elbon, Pennsylvania lived Fleming Mosley. Originally from Alabama, Fleming was said to have attended Hampton University but had to drop out because his father passed away and he had to take care of his family. 

One day, Mr. Mosley, as my grandmother Helen always called him, visited the Fagan Farm in Weedville with his three sons. It was there that she met her future husband, Thaddeus Gilmore Mosley. 

To be continued next week.

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