Katherine “Kitty” Hamilton and her husband, Alphonso “Al” Hamilton lived four houses down from my wife and me on Coalter Street in Staunton, Virginia. They were several years older than us, but two of our best friends.
As our relationship grew, Kitty and Al shared some of the troubling, unpleasant experiences they had encountered growing up in North Carolina during the Jim Crow era. As African Americans, they told us they had to sit at separate sections of theaters, libraries and train stations. They were banned from restaurants, could not use water fountains, bathrooms, or swimming pools used by whites.
In Staunton, once a year on Memorial Day, they said all “blacks” were invited to swim in the large, clear blue swimming pool in popular Gypsy Hill Park. Immediately after the swim, the pool was drained and “blacks” were relegated to the segregated Montgomery Hall Park, far on the other side of town, for the rest of the year.
We learned in Staunton, Virginia high schools were segregated until 1966. Booker T. Washington was the name of the school where “people of color” attended. The white students attended Robert E. Lee High School.
Al and Kitty had moved to Staunton in the 1950s. Al worked at Booker T. Washington High School where he taught science and served as head basketball coach, leading the Golden Eagles to numerous wins, including two state championships.
Both of the Hamiltons were musically inclined. Al’s assistant at Booker T. Washington H.S., and later at Robert E. Lee H.S., was another African American with a magical tenor voice by the name of Ernie Holley.
One afternoon Al told me a story. In 1982, one of the original members of the Statler Brothers, Lew Dewitt, left the group after he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and was no longer able to travel. The Statlers held auditions to replace Lew. “I know they picked Jimmy Fortune, but I always thought Ernie should have tried out. Wouldn’t that have been interesting?” Al said with a sly grin.
One fall day, Brenda and I made reservations to travel on the Auto Train to Disney World during Thanksgiving week. We booked a first-class sleeping room for our trip south.
Kitty and Al, both deeply religious, came over to our home to see us off. “We will pray that everything works out for you on your trip,” Kitty said.
The big day came and we arrived in Lorton, Virginia where the Auto Train departed outside of Washington, D.C. We entered the luxury coach and were greeted by a very polite and accommodating attendant who took our tickets.
“Sir, I am sorry, but you do not have a sleeping compartment. These tickets are for coach seats,” the attendant told me.
Our hearts sank. Uncertain what had happened, we knew our tickets would be forfeited if we didn’t go, but we did not look forward to a 14-hour train trip sleeping in a seat.
“Where are you from?” the attendant asked us.
“We live in Staunton, Virginia,” I replied.
The attendant’s eyes grew wide. “Do you know Al Hamilton?” he asked.
We were flabbergasted that this stranger in Washington, D.C. knew Al Hamilton, “Yes. We sure do. He is our neighbor,” I stammered.
We chatted for a few moments before the attendant said, “I will be right back.”
The man returned within a short period of time and said, “I have everything all straightened out. Here are your tickets for a first-class berth. We must have shaken that man’s hand for three minutes before he finally pulled away and laughingly said, “Have fun. And please tell Al and Kitty ‘hi’ for me.”
A few months later, Brenda and I went to our local Lowes and had purchased a large, heavy fountain for our recently remodeled back yard. Unfortunately, we quickly realized we had no way to transport it home. We didn’t want to pay the extra $100 to take it a couple of miles across town. Moving outside and looking perplexed, suddenly Al and Kitty appeared before us.
“What’s the problem?” Kitty asked.
Sheepishly, I admitted purchasing the large fountain without having the means to transport it. Kitty and Al quickly chimed in saying, “You need a truck, don’t you? Let’s see.”
It was a busy Saturday morning, and we were surrounded by many shoppers going in and out of the store. We were discouraged thinking we’d have to get a refund and forego the purchase of the fountain.
Just then Kitty grabbed Brenda and my hands and said, “We are going to pray.” Frankly, Brenda and I both felt a little self-conscious as shoppers were staring at four people, praying in front of the main entrance to Lowes.
“O Lord, please help Pat and Brenda move this lovely statue to their Christian home. We ask this in Your name, Amen.” she said.
Just as Kitty said ‘Amen’, a man in a pickup truck pulled up alongside us and yelled, “Kitty, Al, what are you doing?”
Kitty smiled and said, “Jim, we’re so glad to see you. Will you load up this fountain for our good friends, Pat and Brenda, and take it to their home, just a few doors down from ours?”
The man said, “Well, sure. Sure, no problem.”
Brenda and I stood transfixed looking at one another in sheer amazement. Chills ran up my arms and neck.
Then I remembered, Kitty and Al had been tested by fire most of their lives.
And the warmth of their souls has warmed our hearts, forever.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner.