CHATTAROY – When Thomas Allen moved to Mingo County, West Virginia, he did it because he heard the coal mines were paying $13 a day.
He had married a Mountain State girl and they moved here from his home town in Tennessee. Allen met his late wife Audrey in Chattanooga. She had finished school in West Virginia and had traveled south. That is when they met and fell in love.
Allen, who will turn 92 on August 29, was an excellent baseball and basketball player back in the day.
“When I starting playing basketball, they had the center jump after every basket,” Allen recalls. “You had to have a good center and play good defense.”
He had a YMCA near where he lived and he and his friends spent a lot of time playing there. He honed his skills there, especially his defensive ability.
“It was a different game back then,” he recalls of the early days on the hardwood. “It was a no contact sport.”
“I was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee,” Allen said while sitting in his living room at Chattaroy. “I felt like I could get me a barrel of money here. Plus, I wanted to get back to Ohio (where he had lived for a while) because it was closer. I had heard Ohio was a good place for black people.”
“I only had one child at that time, but I ended up with six,” Allen said with a smile. “We made the money – but there is somebody out there waiting for it all the time.”
There are always bills to pay. Allen knows what it is like to grow up during hard times. He was a youngster during the depression era.
“When I was born, I never did sleep in the house with my daddy. There was nobody but me and my momma,” he recalls. “We moved six times before I was old enough to go to school.”
For a short time he lived on a farm. His mother married a man who had a farm, but there were no black schools in that neighborhood – “so he got behind” with his education.
His mother died when he was just 10 years old and he went to live with an aunt and uncle back in the city.
“When I got to junior high school – I was chosen as the best all-around basketball player in Chattanooga, Tennessee,” Allen said with a gleam in his eye. “I went to East Street School. There were four black junior high schools and one high school.”
“We beat the other junior highs so bad that the public demanded we play the high school and we beat them,” Allen remembers. “I’ve been following sports all of my life. I played while I was in the Army.”
That was during World War II when the military was still segregated. “They told us that the best team was going to New York City and the second best would go to Washington, D.C. We went to New York,” Allen said with a smile.
He also played baseball growing up and in the Army.
“When I came here, I didn’t want to work here because everything was still shovel, so I went to Eastern Coal,” Allen said. His father-in-law said it would be a better place to work. “They had a good baseball team up there. The people at Red Jacket had seen me play. I got cut off at Eastern so they gave me a job at Red Jacket so I could play baseball for them.”
During that era the coal companies had their own baseball teams and they would compete against each other in the old Coalfield League. That is how many men got jobs at a particular coal company – if they were good baseball players.
Allen “loved to catch, because that way he had the whole game in front of him” and he was involved in every pitch and almost every play. He also played a lot of third base and other positions in the infield. He never liked playing in the outfield.
That was after WWII ended and Allen had moved to West Virginia around 1948. He spent almost four years in the military.
He said the Chattaroy community had a good softball team.
“There was a guy who lived up here named Tee Dexter,” he recalls. “He had originally lived here – but then he moved to town (Williamson). He didn’t have anything but high school players. If you got to playin’ the game and you were beating him – he would start an argument and take your mind off the game.”
“But, when Thomas Allen got to town - that was the end of that - we beat everybody – including him,” he recalls with a chuckle. Chattaroy had a black softball league and they had a field up the main hollow they played on. They also played at a field up Cinderella Hollow, which is where he broke his ankle sliding into base.
“We also had a softball field up in the area where the old Williamson High School was located,” Allen recalls.
“For me to stay in touch with the ball team, they made me manager,” Allen said, after he had the injury.
Unfortunately, this was still a time of segregation and they didn’t get to play against any of the white softball teams.
Allen recalls the time he broke his ankle. (The ankle still gives him problems.) He was a player-manager at that time. He inserted a young 12-year old named Preacher Galloway. If you haven’t heard of Galloway, he moved to New York a few years later and became a softball legend in the burrows of those inner cities. (This writer wrote about Galloway in the past.)
Allen said he was a “pretty good athlete” and that is where his children got their skills,” he said modestly.
His daughter Alvena Allen is perhaps the best female basketball player Williamson High School ever had. She went on to play at the University of Charleston. His son Erwin “Erky” Allen also played for the Wolfpack. Both are members of that school’s Hall of Fame (HOF). Allen proudly displays their HOF plaques on his wall.
“After we would go to church on Sunday, we would come home and change and go up to the school yard and play,” Allen said. “That was every Sunday - me, Erky, Alvena and my baby girl Felicia Gail.” Felicia passed away a few years ago.
Eventually black lung got the best of him and Allen retired from the mines. But, he went to work at ARH in the kitchen. He always worked two or three jobs supporting his family through the years. Allen also worked as a custodian for Bob Harvit at the old WBTH studios in Williamson.
“I had three children in college,” he stressed.
His oldest son is Tony, who became a colonel in the Army. His oldest daughter Debra became an assistant superintendent of schools in Ohio. Beverly was the next daughter. She was married to Raymond Houston, who was a manager at the old Kroger grocery store in South Williamson many years ago.
Allen has so many fond memories of playing ball and watching his children participate in basketball.
“I can hardly rest for thinking about them,” Allen said of the good old days.
Allen said there were some tough times growing up. “I had to quit school in the 9th grade because I didn’t have food to eat or clothes to wear,” he remembers. Growing up in the depression era 1930s was hard on many Americans – especially some black families in the south.
He had to grow up too fast – but he never complained.
“But it made a man out of me,” he says proudly. “Those hard times helped make me a man.”
“The children are not satisfied with me staying in Chattaroy by myself, but I would feel like I was in jail if I were anywhere else,” Allen said of his adopted hometown.
“I can still travel within a 20 mile radius and I’m my own boss,” he said. “I trust in the Lord to take care of me until it’s my time to go.”
He knows that father time catches up with everyone.
“I ain’t complaining – I’ve had a good run,” Allen concluded.
(Kyle Lovern is the sports editor for the Williamson Daily News. Comments or story ideas can be sent to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org)