What Breaks a Man

I came across a picture of Theodore Roosevelt Kellogg, Junius’ father, not all that long ago. He could not have been too old, possibly in his late 20s, or early 30s, all decked out for a portrait. The “snapshot” does not reveal the man’s size (about 6″ 2″) nor his massive body. Junius once described his father as “being like Joe Louis before I knew who Joe Louis was.”

Not long after that, I came across a picture of Mr. Kellogg in Jet magazine from 1959. It was a mention of Theodore’s passing. He was in his mid-50s. He was old and “worn out,” crushed by years of hard labor, diabetes and hypertension. His face had a bitter edge to it. I am not saying he was bitter, only that he had an edge to him, a look.

Who could blame him?

Of his young life, we know little of Theodore Kellogg. We know he had grown up in North Carolina and that his father had been a tenant farmer and laborer. Theodore was raised in a religious household and in a society bounded by segregation.

I have to remind myself that Theodore undoubtedly grew up around old-timers who might have been slaves and who witnessed the Civil War. Theodore’s father died from a self-inflicted gunshot. How brutally hard could that life have been? Even I, a white man, can fathom that to some degree.

Knowing the way Junius was raised, I must assume that Theodore was educated to the extent that his poor family could afford to teach him, for education was important to him.

Where my story of Junius Kellogg begins, his birth in 1927, Theodore had already moved up north with his wife Lucy Lee (Williams) Kellogg to Haverstraw, New York. Haverstraw was at once bustling and broken. The industry was brick-making, and it was hard, back breaking work. There were as many as 41 brickyards in Haverstraw, across the Hudson from booming New York City. The factories belched smoke into the air, and the workers, a mixture of African-Americans and immigrants worked for near poverty wages as they mixed,formed, baked and hauled brick. The workers slept in shacks and grew their own vegetables. Thousands of town homes and offices in New York City were built on the backs of men such as Theodore.

I am skeptical when I hear New Yorkers, especially Manhattanites, proclaim the deep progressive roots of the city. For it was not so progressive for all associated with it, and inconvenient facts were all too frequently overlooked.

How long Theodore and his bride lived in Haverstraw before Junius’ birth is not easy to say, but we do know that they had had enough and moved back to North Carolina shortly after he was born. All of his other siblings were born in the south.

Upon moving back to the Carolina-Virginia border, Theodore worked as a tree farmer and laborer, supplying Christmas trees for the holiday trade and landscapers, lumber and even turpentine for builders and painters. It was hard, dangerous work for poor wages. Theodore was a man who got used to working several jobs to make ends meet and to support his growing family.

Junius told his good friend Bob Otten that he did not see his father all that much as he grew older because of his father’s work schedule. We know that during the war years Theodore found work as a laborer in the Portsmouth, Virginia shipyards and that after the war, he worked for the City of Portsmouth.

Over his lifetime, Theodore Kellogg had substandard healthcare, poor wages and virtually no benefits. Everything he encountered, was defined by race.

To not be angry by “what could have been,” as opposed to “what was,” is to have no heart.

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