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Friday, March 10, 2023

Black History is Personal for Many of Us: Virgelia "Jill" Ellis, a.k.a. "Mama Jill"


Article by Jeff Fleming, courtesy the Kingsport Times-News for Black History Month, 2023

Virgelia “Jill” Ellis was a Kingsport treasure.

She freely shared her life stories of growing up in times that are hard for us to imagine and uncomfortable to discuss. A time of segregation and the struggle for civil rights. She was kind, optimistic and focused on leaving a better world for future generations. And she did. Her smile and the brightness in her eyes always drew a similar response from all she met. She was the personification of God’s grace — freely given and totally undeserved.

Her stories were authentic, important and priceless. She always spoke so matter-of-factly. This is the way it was. And this is what we did. She channeled her energy into improving herself and those who knew her. She didn’t dwell on the things that divide us, she focused on our shared humanity and the common struggles we all face in trying to find our way in this world. She made life better one person and one life at a time.

I am one of those lives. I was her student. She was my counselor. And I take her life lessons with me every day. She lives on in the hundreds and hundreds of people she influenced.

She was the last living connection to the founding fathers of 1917. Neither John B. Dennis nor J. Fred Johnson had children or descendants. Kingsport was their legacy. And she was their self-described “little girl” and only child living in Rotherwood Mansion during modern Kingsport’s formative years.

As my mama used to say, “Oh to go back in time and be a fly on the wall.” She was an eyewitness to history. And thankfully she shared her memories and passed along her stories to the community and her family.

She recalled daily life in Rotherwood Mansion as the hub of development in early Kingsport. She observed the steady stream of visiting investors who were being recruited to build this city of industry. She recalled her father walking into the room, announcing “Mr. Dennis, New York calling.”

She remembered the fine, horse-drawn hunting carriage that her dad brought out for special guests — including George Eastman.

While she lived in Rotherwood Mansion among Kingsport’s elite, she attended the segregated Douglass school. Her dad drove her to school in Rotherwood’s limousine. She would get out of the car with a big bow in her hair — and as you might expect, the kids would tease her because she was different. She was caught between two worlds.

And each evening she would return to the mansion.

She shared that John B. Dennis would save up his pocket change and give it to her when he returned to Oyster Bay, New York, each year. Yes, the same Oyster Bay as President Theodore Roosevelt.

That pocket change later paid her tuition at boarding school after her father passed and could no longer drive her to Kingsport for school.

She recalled John B. Dennis’ library and his insatiable appetite for books and knowledge — geography, literature and science. He admonished her, “Read! Read!” So she did.

And she began a lifelong thirst for knowledge that led to a college education and a distinguished career. She taught at Douglass and moved with integration. Of all the many distinguished teachers that ever taught in the history of Kingsport City Schools, she was in the inaugural Hall of Fame. It was no contest.

She often spoke of her first encounter with God at Rotherwood. It came in the form of an echo. She found a spot in the courtyard and yelled, “Hello, I love you” and she heard an echo come back, “I love you.” She told her mama she talked to God, and He answered. It was an experience so vivid she remembered it the rest of her life. She said there are forces in play all around us every day that we don’t comprehend and can’t explain. They’re bigger than us. That’s why it’s called faith. It’s about believing something we cannot prove.

One thing’s for sure — an echo is a reflection. You get back what you give.

And Mrs. Ellis’ echoes are truly timeless because the children of the children of the children that she influenced will make it so.

In 2019, Jeff Fleming retired as Kingsport city manager after 35 years of service. He is a board member of the Kingsport Friends of the Archives.

Coincidentally, your Douglass-Riverview historian and website administrator, Calvin Sneed, is also a board member of Kingsport Friends of the Archives, in fact he came up with the motto for the organization, "Where History Lives."  He is also on the committee to establish a Douglass-Riverview Historical and Cultural Museum.