Jemmie Ray Campbell was my grandmother’s brother. She gave my father the middle name “Ray” in his honor. The 71st anniversary of his death was yesterday: July 8, 1939. Poverty was not uncommon during the Depression, and Appalachia was particularly hard hit. At the time of Jemmie Ray’s birth on June 17 and his death only 21 days later, my great-grandmother, Martha Trusty, and her husband Osa Campbell were living in Vicco, Perry County, Kentucky. Even in the year 2000, the most recent year for which statistics are available, almost 50% of the residents of Vicco lived below the poverty line1. My grandmother was nine years old when her little brother died—old enough to have helped her mother take care of the little baby, perhaps changing his diapers. Old enough to hold him in her arms. Old enough to be sad about his death.
Jemmie Ray is a little bit of an enigma. My grandfather spells his name Jimmy Ray, and his birth record on Ancestry.com says his name is Donnie R. Campbell. I haven’t ordered a physical copy of his birth certificate, so I’m not sure why there is a discrepancy. His birthdate is also listed as Jan. 17 rather than June. I have a suspicion that it’s a transcription error. I could see an archivist easily mistaking Jun. for Jan. Depending on the legibility of the handwriting, Jemmie and Donnie could look a great deal alike as well.
I believe this to be the same child for which this death certificate was recorded:
When I found the death record, I was struck by the tragedy of a small, three-week-old baby dying of dysentery and malnutrition. It’s something that shouldn’t happen in what we consider to be modern times—we associate such deaths with the most poverty-stricken parts of the world. I think many people forget about the poverty right here in our own country. This area of Kentucky still suffers.
I honored poor little Jemmie Ray after a fashion in a novel I wrote called Quicksand. It’s loosely based on family stories. My protagonist Imogen has a little brother named George, the infant son of her mother and stepfather, who dies under similar circumstances. Imogen is profoundly affected by his death. I remember crying the first time I saw Jemmie Ray’s death certificate. For my grandmother to use his middle name in my father’s name showed me how important this poor little baby, who survived only three weeks, must be to his older sister.
- Wikipedia entry on Vicco, Kentucky