Gone….never forgottenPublished 8:41am Tuesday, September 24, 2013
By Caroline Stephenson
MURFREESBORO – In 1943, upon graduating from Water’s Training School (later re-named C. S. Brown) Emma Ruffin of Murfreesboro headed north to Philadelphia.
Like many African Americans in those days, she was in search of a good job, better opportunity, and a better life. In Philadelphia, Ruffin resided with relatives and got a job working in a large cafeteria. She had plans to get a college degree by attending night classes. Her time in the big city, however, was short lived.
“I didn’t stay too long up there,” she said.
One December, she came home to Murfreesboro for Christmas, to visit family, and enjoy the holidays. Her father, Jacob Ruffin, Sr., mother Lula, and younger brother, Jacob, Jr. had recently opened a small shop on the east side of town. They sold watermelons, dry goods, and shined shoes.
“My daddy asked me to stay. They had started the little place and he wanted us home,” she said.
After the holidays, she returned to Philadelphia to gather her belongings.
“I really didn’t want to come back here,” she recalled. “I hadn’t planned on coming back to Murfreesboro any more. I was sitting on the train crying. Who has ever seen somebody cry because they were coming home? Most people cry when they have to leave home. I am glad I did (come home) because all of us were able to stay here together until death. We could see each other every day.”
For almost 60 years, the Ruffin sisters and brothers – Mary Lou, Emma, Samuel, Jacob, Jr. – worked side by side running their family business: Ruffin Brothers Grocery and Furniture Mart. The store closed in December of 2012.
The business started out small, built from lumber salvaged from an old frame building that was located on West Main Street. From its humble beginnings of shoeshines and watermelons, gradually the family was able to add groceries and expand the building bit by bit to accommodate their growing business.
“We have added on so much. You couldn’t borrow any money so we worked and saved a little money, then we would add on a little bit. Didn’t have anything to borrow it on. They wouldn’t loan you no money and I guess it was a good thing they didn’t,” Ruffin said.
The last expansion came when the Ruffin’s acquired the former Stephenson Cleaners building that stood was just west of the store. That enabled them to do the final enlargement and add more furniture and household items.
For six decades Ruffin Brothers Grocery served as a cornerstone in and around the Murfreesboro area. From linoleum to a new sofa to those small, white chickens, Ruffin Brothers had what you needed.
“It was a community gathering place. That is its greatest legacy to me,” said local historian Alice Eley Jones. “It was a place not only for people to get the grocery items they needed, but also a hub of information for African Americans and others in the community as well.”
It was also a place where folks could purchase groceries on credit.
“We would give credit,” Ruffin said. We probably lost some (money), but then if you help somebody I don’t even consider that a loss. I was glad to be able to do what we did because back then if you run out of money you were just pitiful.
“Mother said always treat people right because you never know who are you going to need in this life,” she continued. “We can’t just say that we were good to the community because they were good to us. If it had not been for them we could not have gone as far as we did.”
In addition to running the store, Jacob Ruffin, Jr. was a bail bondsman and the first African American Town Councilman in Murfreesboro. He served for nearly 30 years. Jacob passed away in 2009.
His brother, Samuel Ruffin, opened Ruffin Motor company located just across the street from the grocery.
Emma is the sole surviving Ruffin sibling. Does she miss working?
“Well, I did at first, I guess if everybody was living I would be right there, but after everybody deceased and all, then no,” she said.
Until it closed, Ruffin Brothers Grocery was the longest running business in Murfreesboro operated continuously by the same family.
One person who was there with Miss Emma until the end was Dallas Lee Carter. He started working at the store unofficially as a child.
“When I was a little itty bitty boy, I would go up there and help out,” he said. “Rake the front, pick up paper in the yard, straighten up the shelves.’
He got a full time job at the store after graduating from high school in 1972 and worked there for the next 39 years. He recalls the regular shoppers who came in routinely on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays and also the children. Ruffin Brothers Grocery was always a favorite with children – from jack rocks to snow cones to marbles to candy.
“They would come in after school and Miss Emma would give them a little something,” Carter smiled.
“I have got good memories,” said Ruffin.
Upon closing, the store inventory was cleaned out and the building is up for sale. Ruffin Brothers Grocery may be gone, but it will not be forgotten.