Andrew Dys

November 23, 2013

Rock Hill family tries to find owner of watch given as restitution 80 years ago

A pocket watch was given as payment for an accident in 1931. Today, the Rock Hill family that received it wants its original owner to get it back.

The black man arrived on the dirt road just outside Rock Hill in 1931 and walked up to the old white farmer with the cast on his leg.

The farmer, David Taylor Gettys, was born in 1864, during the Civil War. His father, a Confederate soldier named Ebenezer Gettys, died in that war from wounds suffered in battle at Spotsylvania, Va. He died the same week the son he would never meet was born.

The black man – his name is lost to history – wearing his Sunday best walked up to Gettys, his right hand dug deep in a pocket. Without question, the grandson of slaves.

In the old car nearby sat the black man’s wife and children, watching him show what it means to be noble – when laws and customs said he was not worth as much as a white man.

They watched the farmer, the 12th and last child of Ebenezer Gettys, just as noble in a segregated world. He looked at the black man as an equal and recognized a man when he saw one.

The black man pulled out a watch, an Elgin pocketwatch. The gold of the cover shined in the Indian summer sun.

He gave the watch to Gettys, admitting he had hit him with a car sometime before. The man knew he had hurt someone and wanted to make it right. He knew he cost that man money from farm labor that could not be done with a broken leg.

That watch was believed by Gettys’ daughter, 9-year-old Mamie, to be the “most precious” thing the black man owned at a time when many black people owned almost nothing.

Still, the black man gave it away to square a debt.

He did not know that when he hit Gettys, the farmer had been walking to square a different debt.

David Taylor Gettys accepted the watch – to not accept would have made the black man who wanted to right a wrong less of a man in the eyes of his family.

Today, 82 years later, the daughter and granddaughter of David Taylor Gettys want to find that black man’s family – and give them his watch back.

“It is only right to find this family and give back the watch that paid the debt,” said Mary Stripling, 72, Gettys’ granddaughter. “Both men were honorable. They were on errands of honor.”

Different worlds

In the early 1930s in South Carolina – during the worst of the Great Depression – there were three worlds.

The first was the white world for those with money. The rich held onto their money with both hands and pushed away everybody else with both feet.

Then there was the white world for those without money. There were so many hundreds of thousands in that world – tough farmers who owned a little land, mill workers, tenant farmers and sharecroppers.

That was the world Gettys, 67 at the time, lived in. He owned property, but worked it himself with his wife. Money was hard to come by, earned through eggs and vegetables and cotton.

Finally, there was the world for blacks. Segregated. Apart. Less than whites, by law. Poorer than poor.

Gettys was known as a character in what was called the “blackjack” of the old Ogden community, a few miles south of Rock Hill.

“My husband called him Uncle Dave, and all knew of him,” said Mary Phillips Gettys, widow of the late U.S. Rep. Tom Gettys.

Known as “Davey,” Gettys drove his mule and wagon to town and sold his goods. As he went, he was known to call out in a voice that was loud as a dynamite blast.

He was loud because he could not hear but a lick – he had gone deaf in his 50s – but he worked his whole life just like the mule that pulled his cart. He had a reputation as a fair-minded man with all who met him. This was a man who plowed fields behind a mule well into his 80s.

“He would bring his produce into town and sell what he had,” said Paul Gettys, the family’s unofficial historian. “His brother’s name was Gillam, my grandfather.

“Gillam would wait for him to come from selling downtown, and both would yell to be heard as they walked out of town, and people would come out to see what all the racket was about.”


David Taylor Gettys was hurt one day around sunrise. He had been walking toward old Route 2 (today’s Saluda Road) along a pocked track to pay a man named McPherson a quarter – 25 cents owed for change from a crop purchase.

To Gettys, owing a quarter meant paying a quarter when he got it. If that meant walking miles on a Sunday to pay a debt, that’s what he did.

On that walk, a car came along, swerved to try to keep from hitting Gettys, but clipped him. The leg was broken, and a neighbor sharecropper nicknamed “Big Early” carried him to the porch. Gettys was hustled off to the hospital by a doctor who had been fetched.

“Go easy on my pocketbook,” was what some remembered Gettys telling the doctor who set the leg in a cast.

Gettys went home, where there were crops in the field. Crops reaped and sold were all that kept him and his family from starvation. Family and neighbors helped bring in the crops that kept the Gettys family from the Depression food lines.

That much is remembered. The watch is all but unknown or forgotten.

Except to Mamie Gettys Atkinson, David Taylor Gettys’ daughter, and Mary Stripling, his granddaughter.

Because in 1931, not long after Gettys was hit, the black man, his wife and kids showed up.

The man had no money, but he had a debt to pay.

“The man pulled out an Elgin pocketwatch,” Stripling said. “The man got out of the car, wearing a suit. Nobody knows for sure, but in those times, it was probably the only suit he owned.”

The man offered to pay what was called “restitution.”

“He wanted to pay his debt for hitting my grandfather,” Stripling said. “And he did.”

The man gave Gettys the only thing of value he had in the whole world. A watch, one of millions made in those days, but still something.

“He paid the restitution with that watch,” Stripling said. “Amazing.”

A check of old, dusty, court records from those days at the York County courthouses found no criminal charges from the broken leg incident in the files. No lawsuit stemming from the broken leg could be located.

Atkinson knew that the black man gave her father “the most precious thing he had” to try to square a debt.

Return to sender

The watch was accepted with gratitude and thanks by David Taylor Gettys – then it fell away into history.

When David Taylor Gettys died in 1954, at the age of 90, the president of a bank in downtown Rock Hill opened up a safe deposit box and gave Atkinson the watch.

Today, the watch remains in a safe deposit box in a bank near Atlanta, Ga., where Atkinson, 92, and her daughter live.

Nobody in the Gettys family knows the name of the man who paid that debt with a watch in 1931.

In 2003, Mary Stripling, an accomplished poet and writer, penned a beautiful story about the whole thing for the “Cup of Comfort” anthology of true parables meant to warm the heart. “Errands of Honor” was about both men paying debts.

Stripling described the man who gave that watch as a way of ridding himself of the “heavy burden” of hurting someone and not paying for it.

A decade later,

Atkinson and Stripling want his family to have the watch back.

Stripling said the watch has been a “burden” all these years. It belongs with the family of the man who paid the debt 80-some years ago, she said.

“My mother wants it back with his family, and I do, too,” Stripling said. “It is the right thing to do, and we want to do it – if we can just find them.”

But finding them without a name is not easy. Maybe, Stripling said, the story was passed down among the children and grandchildren of the man who gave her grandfather the watch.

“It would be an honor to give that watch to the family,” Stripling said. “Mother and I still have an errand of honor to accomplish.”

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