Grandmother Ellen Whitehead Black
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Try To Remember...

Grandmother Ellen Susan Whitehead Black (1885-1964)---daughter of William Wilson ---'Willie' of 'Raisins and Almonds---a Civil War Story'--- Whitehead and Maria McCullon Whitehead, sister of Della Whitehead Smith (1882), Alice Whitehead Lisk (1887), and Robert James Whitehead (1889), wife of Michael Edward Downey at 16 (divorced at 30 in 1915), wife of Sherman Butler Black in 1918 at the age of 33 (widowed in 1936 when Sherman slipped and fell through a section of open flooring to the fruit cellar below of the family's cabin outside of Norfork, Arkansas), mother of E. Phay Downey (1902), Eugene H. Downey (1904), E. Gerald Downey (1906?), Ervin Downey (1910?), and twins Robert B. and William W. Black (1920)

Sherman Butler Black & his Ellen Sue Whitehead--- after divorcing Michael Edward Downey in 1915.


Pictured above is a recent (2009) aerial view of the address:--- 6959 S. Union Ave., Chicago, IL.  The building of interest is clearly shown as being on the southeast corner of South Union Avenue and West 70th Street--- directly across the street from the old Lutheran Church just as I always remember it.  The apartment building still features its curved corner windows all the way up to the top floor--- the fifth floor.  It is here that I would go to see my Grandmother Ellen Sue Whitehead Black when I was a kid throughout the 1940's.  My Uncle Ervin, a bachelor in those days, also lived with her throughout this period except for his war-time duty as a Navy Seabee.  South Union Avenue was one block east of Halstead Street, which Grandmother Black loved to shop...even if she only 'window-shopped'.  Back then Halstead Street was nicknamed the "Great White Way"  for all its glittering lights.  As this photo confirms, its buildings have since been leveled and Halstead Street at 800 West bears a new name:--- South Emerald Avenue. 
written by Grandson, H. Bruce Downey, April 2009


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Grandson H. Bruce Downey playing "Morning Has Broken"


STORY # 1.... H. Bruce Downey (in his own voice): Here is a story recorded in August, 2003 about Bruce's recollections of his Grandmother, Ellen Whitehead Black. To start this story simply left click  the link immediately below, and if that doesn't work for you, then try playing either of the media players below the LINK--->
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Description of Pictures in Slide Show...
1. Then Grandmother Ellen Sue Whitehead Downey with her first-born sons, Faye (below) and Gene (on top step).  This is the earliest known Downey family photo.
2. Then Grandmother Whitehead Downey with her first three sons, Gerald (on top), Gene and Faye left to right below.  This is the earliest known picture of Gerald.  The fourth and last of her Downey boys, Uncle Ervin Downey, would be born later.
3. And the Sherman Butler Black era begins with this picture of the Black brothers, William Harless Black (at left) and Sherman Butler Black (at right) shown here at their 'deli' on the corner of 59th Street and Normal Ave. in Chicago, circa 1917.  The Black brothers' partnership lasted only a few months and ended with a fistfight! This photo was taken a short time before Sherman married Grandmother Ellen Whitehead who, after obtaining her divorce from Michael Edward Downey in 1915, went to work as a domestic in the Sherman Butler Black household.
4.  Sherman Butler Black and Grandmother Ellen Black on their wedding day in 1918.  Grandmother was 33 years old in this picture.  They moved from Chicago to Craddock, VA where the twins, Uncle Bill and Uncle Bob Black were born in 1920.  The family would move back to Chicago again in 1922.  And then with the depression in full swing, in 1934 Sherman Black moved his family to Arkansas where Sherman died in October, 1936 from an accidental fall through a section of unfinished flooring to the cellar below of the family's log cabin just outside of Norfork, AK.
5.  'Oh, what does this Honeymoon picture tell us without words?'  How happy our Grandmother must have been, now in a marriage with a kind and gentle man (Sherman Black), who before the Depression, probably made a tidy sum compared to her struggling financial condition of being a single mother of four Downey boys--- She divorced Michael Edward Downey in 1915. No more bruises and no more booze. 'She's on the top of the world. Literally so!' ---
Words written by granddaughter, Julie Black Rolak in October, 2003
6.  Sherman Butler Black and Grandmother Ellen Black standing in the side yard toward the back of their home at 12 Cushing St., Craddock, VA just prior to war's end in November 1918.
7. The Army men and their ladies get together in the side yard toward the back of Sherman and Grandmother Ellen Black's home at 12 Cushing St., Craddock, VA just prior to the end of WW I in November, 1918.  From left to right: Aunt Alma and Uncle Bob(Ellen's brother) Whitehead, Grandmother Ellen Whitehead Black and Sherman Butler Black, and Clara and William Harless Black (Sherman's brother.)
8. Back-side of the preceeding photo--- Grandmother Ellen Black telling us that she was wearing a hair-net in that photo which she would never do again...and so she apparently never did.
9. Sherman Butler Black in his World War I uniform in 1918.
10. 1920--Craddock, VA.  That's Sherman Black standing at far right with the coveralls and that's my father, Eugene H. Downey at 16 in a crouched position on Sherman's immediate right.  Not pictured here was my Uncle Phay Downey who worked in the office of this tank car company.
11. 1921--Craddock, VA.  That's Sherman Black in coveralls at 2nd from right, standing with the Portsmouth Cotton Oil firefighters.
12.  1920-21---Craddock, VA.  The Black family residence at Number 12 Cushing Street.
13. By 1922 Sherman and Grandmother Ellen Whitehead Black had moved the family from Craddock, VA back to Chicago.  Pictured here are their twin sons---Uncle Bob (left) and Uncle Bill (right) with a Black family cousin, Margaret, in-between.
14.  At left---Grandmother Ellen Whitehead Black's father, William Wilson Whitehead, standing with Sherman Black with one of their twins, Uncle Bob, in the foreground.  At right is Sherman Black with Grandmother Ellen Whitehead Black seated in the  background.  The other two seated figures must have been the twins, Uncle Bob and Uncle Bill.  I think this picture may have been taken on a family trip to Arkansas in the mid-1920's.
15. Grandmother Ellen Whitehead Black standing to the left of Clara Black, wife of William Harless Black---Sherman Butler Black's brother---in Locksburg, Arkansas in 1929.

16. 'The Deliverance Hunting Party'---That's Almer Rowell at left with brothers, William Harliss  (center)and Sherman Butler Black (right) somewhere near Norfork, AR in 1936.  Almer Rowell is Valeria Black's husband--- brother-in-law to William Harliss and Sherman Butler Black.
17. Grandmother Black, photographed here in Uncle Gerald and Aunt Alice's front yard in Tinley Park, IL sometime in the 1940's.
18. Grandmother Black with grandson, H. Bruce Downey, in Bruce's backyard at 198 Hawthorne Ave., Elmhurst, IL around 1942 when Bruce was about 7.
19. Grandmother Black, just as I remember her.  This photo was professionally done and was a gift from Aunt Jackie Arnold Black to her husband, Uncle Bob Black--- Grandmother Black's son.
20. The later years--- Grandmother Black pictured here sometime after her cataract surgery.
21. Location of Grandmother Black's and Uncle Ervin's apartment for many, many years--- 6959 So. Union Ave, Chicago, IL.
22. Grandmother Black's Memorial card, February,1964.
23. Grandmother Ellen Whitehead Black (1885-1964)"
24. VA Hopital in Fayetteville, AK letter notifying Grandmother Black of the death of her husband, Sherman Butler Black, in October, 1936.
25. Sherman Butler Black (1888-1936).
26. Grandmother Black's younger sister, Alice Whitehead Lisk.  In her later years, Alice and a third sister, Della Whitehead Smith, the oldest of the Whitehead children, lived together in Pittsburgh, PA.  NOTE:  Their mother, Maria McCullon Whitehead, originally came from Allegheny (now called Pittsburgh), PA.
27. Alice Whitehead Lisk was for many years an evangelist in Tennessee.  May God rest her soul.


STORY # 2....The Life and Times of Sherman Butler Black


Sherman Butler Black (1888-1936), a quiet and reserved man, was the son of Sol and Margaret Victoria Black of Arkansas.  Sherman's mother as a child arrived in Arkansas by raft on the Mississippi River, but that is another story.  Sherman had one brother, William Harless Black, and a sister, Valeria Black Rowell.  In 1910 when Sherman was 22 years old he and a close friend of his, DeWitt Smith, followed closely thereafter by Sherman's brother William, left Arkansas and came to Chicago, IL to seek their fortunes.  After some initial success Sherman sent for his parents, and so they too moved to Chicago in 1916.  However, shortly after their arrival Sherman's mother, Margaret Victoria Black, fell ill and Sherman found himself in need of domestic help within his household.  Grandmother Ellen Whitehead, then recently divorced (1915) from Michael Edward Downey, applied for the job and Sherman was willing to take her on, including her youngest child, Ervin Downey, then only four-to-six years old.  During that same time frame Sherman and his brother, William, went into business together---they owned and operated a "deli" or general store at the corner of 59th Street and Normal Ave on Chicago's south-side---see the photograph of their store included in the slide show above.  Sherman's mother never recovered from her illness and she died in January, 1917, shortly after Grandmother Ellen Whitehead was hired to help out.  And Sherman's partnership with his brother, William, ended in a fist fight later that same year (1917).


Sherman answered his call to duty by joining the U.S. Army during WWI.  Sometime before war's end in November,1918, Sherman married Grandmother Ellen Susan Whitehead.  Judging from their honeymoon picture at Lookout Mountain in Tennessee where Sherman is pictured in civilian clothing with short sleeves, it would appear that they were married in either late spring or summer or even as late as early fall of 1918---see their honeymoon photograph included in the slide show above.


Sometime after his discharge from military service, Sherman and Ellen gathered up all the Downey boys---Uncle Phay, who had been living with her brother, Robert Whitehead, since just prior to her divorce from Michael Edward Downey, my father, Eugene H. Downey, and Uncle Gerald Downey, both of whom had been living together in a $1 a-week boarding house also due to Grandmother's divorce from their father, Michael Edward Downey, and together with Uncle Ervin who had remained with his mother throughout this period---and they all set out for Craddock, VA.  The Black family, which now included the four Downey boys, moved into a two story frame house at 12 Cushing Street in Craddock.  And Sherman, along with my father and Uncle Phay, got jobs working together at the Interstate Tank Car Company in nearby Portsmouth, VA---see their photograph together in the slide show above..  At some point Sherman also found work at the Portsmouth Cotton Oil Company, which later became known as Lever Brothers. The Black twins, Uncles Bob and Bill Black, were born a short time later in July, 1920 at the house on Cushing Street.


But by 1922 when the twins were about 2-years old, Sherman moved his expanded household back to Chicago where they were to remain until 1934.  It is thought that upon their return to Chicago, Phay, being the oldest Downey boy, must have left home ---he would have been 20 at the time---by enrolling as a live-in student at Blackburn College in Carlinville, IL---a small college in southern IL, which at that time may have been affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, as Phay was to later become a Presbyterian minister.  My father, being the next oldest Downey boy, may have continued living as a member of the Black household during this Chicago period, but for only a short time as he too followed his brother, Phay, to Blackburn College.  That left Uncle Gerald and Uncle Ervin who probably remained in the Black household for yet a few more years.  Uncle Gerald might have been the next to leave by say 1926 when he would have been 20...and later, Uncle Ervin may have left, perhaps by say 1928 when he would have been 16-18 years of age.  So I suspect that Sherman's ebony player piano that Uncle Gerald learned how to play by ear was in the Black household during their Chicago years when Uncle Gerald still lived with them.


Not much is known about either Sherman's livelihood or his family's well-being during the Black family's Chicago years from 1922 to 1934.  However, we do know that during this period the Black family made several trips to the same Arkansas that Sherman loved as a boy and young man.  And we also know that despite the general period of prosperity that the nation as a whole enjoyed throughout most of the 1920's, such was not always the case with respect to the Black family.  During these Chicago days Sherman tried his hand at starting and running a heating repair business.  Sherman's heating business grew steadily, but it also had its ups and downs and never did generate the stable income he had enjoyed when his family lived in Craddock, VA.  For example, Uncle Bill in his unpublished manuscript regarding the life and times of his half-brother, my Uncle Gerald Downey, tells it this way---" One thing I will always remember Jerry for was the Christmas of 1926.  My parents were dead broke and after paying the rent and buying food there was nothing left.  Mother told Bob and I there would be no presents from Santa, but they would come after Christmas.  When Jerry found out he bought two large fire trucks, one a wrecker and one that actually shot water out of a built-in hose.  We were the envy of all the kids in the neighborhood.  They were expensive toys.  I never forgot that act of kindness by Jerry, even though I guess I paid him back many times over in later years.  On two occasions I loaned him several hundred dollars and he always paid back."


In 1933 Grandmother Ellen Whitehead Black's brother, Robert James Whitehead (known throughout the family as Uncle Bob Whitehead and by some as Uncle Rob Whitehead), was instrumental in landing a rush contract for Sherman to replace the entire heating system  at the Willett Trucking Company where he (i.e., Uncle Bob Whitehead) worked. With the $500 he cleared from that job, Sherman headed to Baxter County, Arkansas, and purchased 50 acres of land some four miles outside of Norfork, Arkansas. The Black family then moved from Chicago to Norfork in 1934.


In Norfork times were tough.  By 1934 the Great Depression was well underway.  Work was hard to come by in those days regardless of where you lived.  The unemployment rate was up to around 35%.  In addition to the economic difficulties facing them, while Sherman was happy to be back in Arkansas, Ellen was not.  She was having a difficut time adjusting to small town life in rural Arkansas almost from the moment they arrived in Norfork---perhaps even before. At first the Black family lived within the town limits of Norfork, but in order to save the $8 a month rent and the monthly electricity bill, Sherman decided to build a log cabin on his fifty acres situated in a remote area just outside Norfork.  Faced with the prospect of living in a cabin with no running water, no electricity, and no central heating system, combined with the reality of dirt roads---if indeed, there were any roads at all--- outhouses, kerosene lamps, spring water, spiders, snakes, and the like, Grandmother Ellen Whitehead Black, being a big-city girl at heart, decided she would rather return to Chicago and find work for herself.  And so she did, despite the prospect of a separation not only from her husband, Sherman, but from her children, Bob and Bill, then teenagers.  I think for Grandmother Black to have made such a decision, the ensuing separation was more a response to a way of life than a reflection of any marital difficulties between her and Sherman.  He was at long last "home" in Arkansas, whereas she was not, for "home" to Ellen meant Chicago, not Norfork, Arkansas.


When Grandmother Black returned to Chicago, she stayed with Sherman's brother, William Harless Black and his wife, Clara and their daughter, Margaret.  Grandmother's then remaining unmarried sons, my Uncles Gerald and Ervin Downey, by that time were sharing a small, two-room apartment at 6502 South Harvard Street in Chicago.  And Grandmother's own mother, Maria McCullon Whitehead, was still alive, having been institutionalized at nearby Dunning State Hospital.  And as previously stated, Ellen's brother, Robert James Whitehead and his wife, Alma, were living in nearby Blue Island, IL and her son, Gene Downey and family (I was all of two years old at the time) were living in the nearby Hillside-Villa Park-Elmhurst area.  Grandmother Black found work at the Becker Ryan Department Store in Chicago, where she had previously worked before Sherman moved the family to Arkansas in 1934.


Meanwhile, Sherman and the twins pressed on by first building, then moving into their cabin out in the woods.  The twins continued their schooling in Norfork and found work wherever they could find it.  In addition to odd jobs here and there, they started cutting down huge pine trees, trimmed them up, and sold them as telephone poles, while their father, Sherman, found work building the bridge across the Norfork Dam.  They all lived off the land, eating roots and berries, and they fished and hunted game that was quite plentiful in the area.  Despite the hardships they endured as a typical American family trying to make it through the Great Depression, Uncle Bill remembered those times as being the best of times insofar as his own childhood was concerned.  But sometime after school started up again in the fall of 1936, both Uncles Bob and Bill contracted typhoid fever from drinking unsafe water from a nearby old, and all but dried-up, spring.  The twins received both care and food from friends and neighbors who would make the long trek from town out to the cabin, and Sherman did what he could with the situation, working long hours during the day at the Norfork Dam Bridge and then sitting up with the twins long into the night.  But without proper medical treatment, delirium and unconscious periods soon set in.  Sherman became increasingly concerned and sent word to Ellen of the boys' worsening condition.  For a time Sherman made arrangements for the twins to be moved into an in-town house where they could be looked after on a bit more frequent basis by both friends and neighbors and by the doctor.  Here's one account obtained just recently (October, 2003) by Julie Black Rolak, Uncle Bill's daughter, from a relative of Jackie Arnold who would later become Uncle Bob's wife---" When Bill and Bob were moved into town I went with my mother to visit them.  She took food, changed beds, etc. washed clothes and maybe spent nights with them. Their mother was in Chicago.  I remember them as having beds in the living room.  The house was across the street from Virginia Harvey's old house which was backed up to the log hut where we went to school. "


When Ellen first received word of the twins' worsening condition, her response, or lack thereof, remains somewhat of a mystery to the family, for Ellen did not return to Arkansas to nurse her children back to least not initially. In his unpublished manuscript of the Black family history written many years later, Uncle Bill is somewhat evasive on this point, but that is explained by his daughter and my cousin, Julie Black Rolak's observation that her father's way of handling any hurt was always "quietly and non-judgmental...for he had an uncanny way of being able to pretend something never happened.  After speaking his peace one time, from then on, it was ignored---like if you don't talk about it, it never happened."


But Ellen did return to Arkansas, not initially in response to the twins' typhoid, but subsequently in response to an even worse tragedy that struck the family.  Only 3/4 of the cabin's flooring was in place because Sherman was digging a combination storm and fruit cellar underneath the cabin.  Despite a heavy rope he had put around the open area, Sherman, while sweeping the floor, accidently fell through that section of open flooring to the unfinished cellar below, crushing several ribs.  As fate would have it on that particular day, October 14, 1936, the twins, with their typhoid and all, were also at the cabin.  So too was a local townswoman who was looking after the twins when Sherman fell through the open floor joists---a distance of only three feet to the cellar below. Apparently as she was helping Sherman out of the cellar one of Sherman's broken ribs pierced a lung and one of his kidneys.  Sherman felt pain in his rib cage and had trouble breathing.  The townswoman made him as comfortable as possible before making the 4-mile walk into Norfork to summon the doctor.  The doctor and the townswoman returned to the cabin, and the doctor made his preliminary diagnosis---Sherman had broken five ribs and, after listening to Sherman's labored breathing with his stethescope, he concluded that one of these broken ribs had punctured his lung.  The doctor informed Sherman of the seriousness of his injuries and that he needed to be transported to the VA Hospital in Fayetteville for treatment ASAP.  Unable to move himself, let alone care for the twins' typhoid, Sherman asked the doctor to get word to Ellen of the seriousness of his condition and to tell her that arrangements were being made for him to be transported to the VA Hospital in Fayetteville.  The doctor returned to Norfork and made that telephone call to Ellen.  Ellen, upon hearing of Sherman's life threatening injuries, finally came to the realization that the twins' own health and safety was truly in jeapardy should Sherman die from his injuries.  So she told the doctor to assure Sherman that she was on her way.  Ellen called Gerald and the two of them hopped in Gerald's 1932 coupe and began their two-day automobile trip from Chicago to Fayetteville.  Unknown to Ellen at the time, it took these same two days for Sherman to be transported to Fayetteville---a distance of 135 miles over dirt roads that connected Norfork to Fayetteville through the Ozark Mountains. Presumably Sherman had to be transported by stretcher over 4-miles of rough terrain even to get him from the cabin into Norfork.  And ambulance service from Norfork to Fayetteville was presumably non-existent in those days, so arrangements had to be made to transport him to Fayetteville probably by pick-up truck, as he had to lie prone throughout the entire journey.  Ellen and Gerald arrived at the VA Hospital in Fayetteville on October 16th only a few hours after Sherman himself finally began to receive the hospital treatment he so desperately needed two days before.  However, the previously undiagnosed damage to his kidney proved to be fatal and Sherman Butler Black died from his injures that same afternoon at 5:45 P.M. on October 16, 1936, just 9 days short of what would have been his 48th birthday. 


Fortunately, Ellen did make it in time to reconcile with Sherman, as Sherman, then on his death bed at the VA Hospital in Fayetteville, whispered his final words to Ellen, " You've come back, Honeybunch."  And come back she did, for after Sherman's death, Grandmother promptly returned to Norfork, rented a house in town, and assumed responsibility for nursing the twins back to health.


At the time of Sherman's accidental death Uncle Bob had already pretty much recovered from his typhoid, whereas Uncle Bill's case had been dragging on for months.  Being delirious and at times even unconscious with his typhoid, Uncle Bill later recalled that he thought he remembered hearing his father's moans, but he never realized that he had already seen his father for the last time, and so when he finally did recover a month or so after his father's death, his mother, with Sherman's WWI Veteran's flag on her lap, told Uncle Bill, then just 16 years old, of his father's tragic death.


It took another couple of months to wind up the family affairs in Norfork, Arkansas.  The fifty acre site of the cabin was not sold, however, as there was then no market for it.  NOTE: The title to the Arkansas property remained in the Black family until the 1980's when Uncle Bill finally sold it, distributing the proceeds among Uncle Bob's then surviving children, Roger and Jay Black, and among his own children, William G. Black and Julie Black Rolak.  But in late 1936 an auction was held of all the Black family belongings, which auction yielded the sum total of $125, including the sale of the family's ebony player piano that Uncle Gerald had learned to play back in the 1920's.  The proceeds from this sale undoubtedly went to pay for Sherman's funeral expenses and any other family debts they might have had at the time.


Penniless and heartbroken, in early 1937 they left Arkansas behind them and set out for Chicago in Uncle Gerald's 1932 coupe.  There they were---Grandmother Ellen Whitehead Black, Uncle Gerald Downey, and the twins, Uncles Bob and Bill, with no possessions other than the clothes they were wearing on their backs---each one exhausted, hungry, and wearisome by the time they pulled up in front of Grandmother Black's brother's place (that would have been Uncle Bob and Aunt Alma Whitehead's home in Blue Island, IL), as they had no other place to go.  And to this day Uncle Bob's and Aunt Alma's only son, Robert Whitehead, Jr., remembers being there to greet the weary Arkansas travelers and tells the story this way--- "They looked like they hadn't eaten anything for days " ---and they probably hadn't.  Uncle Bob and Aunt Alma willingly took them all in and provided them with a safe haven, just as they had done years before for Uncle Phay Downey, ---a haven from which they could build their future on.  And their future did begin when, shortly after returning to Chicago in 1937, Robert Whitehead found jobs at the Willett Trucking Company for all of them--- Uncles Bob and Bill Black and Uncles Gerald and Ervin Downey---and he found his sister, Grandmother Ellen Whitehead Black, a third-floor, three-bedroom apartment (or was it a fifth-floor, three-bedroom apartment as I remember it ?) at 6959 South Union Ave. on the south-side of Chicago.  And thus began the 6959 South Union Ave era, whose first occupants became Grandmother Ellen Whitehead Black, the twins, Uncles Bob and Bill Black, and both Uncles Gerald and Ervin Downey who by then had lost their lease on their small apartment at 6502 South Harvard Street.  And so in 1937 the Sherman Black household that had first returned to Chicago from Craddock, VA in 1922 was once again back together, albeit some 15 years later, but of course this time without the head of the Black family---Sherman Butler Black.


...Story told here by H. Bruce Downey, Grandson of Ellen Whitehead Black, in October, 2003, supported by Uncle Bill Black's unpublished manuscript of the Black family history---a copy of which, interestingly enough, I had not yet read at the time of this writing---and aided principally by Uncle Bill Black's daughter, my cousin Julie Black Rolak, and partially by Julie's mother, my Aunt Juanita Black, surviving widow of my Uncle Bill Black, and partially by my second cousin and now retired General of the USAF, Robert J. Whitehead Jr., all of whom provided me with enough information to enable me to write this story of The Life and Times of Sherman Butler Black (1888-1936).

Grandmother Ellen Susan Whitehead Black (1885-1964)---daughter of William Wilson ---'Willie' of 'Raisins and Almonds---a Civil War Story'--- Whitehead and Maria McCullon Whitehead, sister of Della Whitehead Smith (1882), Alice Whitehead Lisk (1887), and Robert James Whitehead (1889), wife of Michael Edward Downey at 16 (divorced in 1915), wife of Sherman Butler Black in 1918 at the age of 33 (widowed in 1936 when Sherman slipped and fell through a section of open flooring to the fruit cellar below of the family's cabin outside of Norfork, Arkansas), mother of E. Phay Downey (1902), Eugene H. Downey (1904), E. Gerald Downey (1906?), Ervin Downey (1910?), and twins Robert B. and William W. Black (1920)