Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
PREFACE: Who would believe that the family of Frank & Jesse James had cousins with origins in the Aboriginal outback of Austrailia? The idea is unimaginable, despite the fact that the brothers’ uncle, Drury Woodson James, married a woman who came to California from Austrailia. Uncle Drury’s wife, Maria Louisa Dunn, however, was of Irish ancestry. Today, new research documents that our American-Aboriginal family is not just a fanciful imagining. It is fact. The love story of Robert Lee James & Susan Anne Syron extends the diversity of the Jesse James family further than known while continuing to offer unique insights into our James family character and persona.
Our American-Aboriginal Family
The Love Story of
Robert Lee James & Susan Anne Syron
By Elizabeth Lee James-Brown, their daughter
Sometime in 1969, my parents Robert Lee James and Susan Anne Syron met in Sydney, Australia. Like other military in the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army sent Robert to Sydney for R&R – rest and relaxation. He was twenty-four. At twenty-six, Susan was older than Robert. They were just two young people about in the city to have a good time.
When Robert was a teenager, his grandfather, John Oliver James, called Jack, adopted him and his younger brother George. Jack’s daughter Virginia abandoned her two sons. The brothers lived in Midland, Texas with Jack and his second wife, Goldie White. Jack’s first wife, Dimples Hite, was Virginia’s mother. Although they were not affectionate people, Jack and Goldie provided well for Robert and George. Interaction with extended family was limited to holidays and special occasions.
Robert joined the army straight from college, intending to make military service his career. During his second tour of Vietnam and his visit to Sydney, he was considerably older than many of the other servicemen at the time. He served with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment -“Blackhorse Regiment”.
Susan was the youngest of eight children in her family. She grew up in the inner city suburbs of Sydney. Houses were close together and so were the people. Her godmother lived next door. The extended family visited often. Susan spent time daily with her mother and siblings, even as an adult. Susan’s mother was an English migrant. When she came to Australia, Australians called them £10 POM’s, slang for English people who paid £10 for boat fare from England to Australia.
Susan’s father was an Aboriginal man from the Biripi Nation. According to a Biripi historian, before Anglo contact, Biripi women kept the history of their lives. Today, many still do. Healing sick children were the job of Biripi women. Aboriginal women took their children into the bush to teach them about medicine. They taught children to observe and mimic rather than to question. Kin relationships among Biripi were complex. Every known and unknown Aboriginal person had a relationship with everyone else. Biripi women kept alive their bitter history of dispossession and oppression by their colonizers.
Susan Comes to The U.S.
Robert and Susan were married on September 20, 1969, in Kings Cross, Australia. In 1970 when Robert returned from Vietnam, Susan met him in San Francisco. They drove to Kentucky where Robert was based at Fort Knox, as a drill sergeant. Robert and Susan bought a house trailer and lived off base in a trailer park in Radcliff. Later, they bought five acres of land and moved there. Soon after, Robert’s brother George was sent to live with Robert and Susan. George then was about age fourteen.
Susan soon was pregnant. She gave birth to a healthy girl, me. I was born in February of 1971 in Ireland Army Hospital on Fort Knox army base. I was named Elizabeth after my Aboriginal grandmother, Susan’s mother Lizzie. My middle name of Lee comes from my father, Robert.
While Susan was extremely homesick for her Aboriginal family and Australian homeland, all other things seemed well and good. Living in America was a very different lifestyle for Susan. Not only was it the other side of the world in another country, there were multiple cultural differences, too. Army culture for one. White versus black culture in America for another. The only family that Robert had in Kentucky was his Aunty Catherine, who we called ‘Annie’ as that was how the children pronounced aunty and her brother Uncle Lee. Robert and Susan regularly had Sunday lunch with Annie and Lee.
In early 1974, Robert was posted to Germany for peacekeeping duty. He refused to take Susan and me. Robert believed that women and children had no place in another country in such times, and said so strongly. Susan felt very alone and isolated. The way she put it was, “I was alone with two kids, miles from the nearest neighbor, in a house trailer, on the top of a hill in tornado season.” Late one night, Susan called her mother and burst into tears. Her mother asked each of Susan’s brothers and sisters to contribute what they could to pay for airfare for Susan and me to come to Australia. When Robert would return from Germany, Susan planned she and I would go back to the States
My Big Trip andAboriginal Family
Now it was September of 1974. I remember much of the travel from America to Australia, although I was only three years old. I remember feeling very sad. Mum agreed that I did cry quite a lot. I cried for “my Annie” and told everyone who spoke to me that my daddy is in “Germawee.” I had a deep southern American accent and my family back in Australia laughed when I spoke.
My Australian grandmother Lizzie wrote to Annie in Elizabethtown, Kentucky at some stage. I think Lizzie must have appreciated that Annie and Lee accepted Susan and me as their family. Annie and Lee were simple and kind people. Susan loved Annie and Lee very much. Susan spoke of a conversation where Robert said that Jack had not realized that Susan was Aboriginal and he didn’t think that Jack would be happy if he knew. Lee said, “Robert did you marry who you wanted to?” Robert said, “Yes, sir!” And Lee said, “Well I reckon that’s all that matters, then.”
Susan and I arrived in Australia with a suitcase of clothes between us. We had nowhere to live, and we owed our airfare to Susan’s family. We stayed with Grandmother Lizzie for some time, until one of Susan’s brothers told Susan, “Mamma’s too old to live with a small child.” We then lived with Susan’s sister, my Aunt Betty, for a while until our welcome was worn out there too. Susan and I moved on to another sister, my Aunt June and our welcome was soon worn out again. The problem was simple. Susan needed to pay back the cost of our airfare before we could afford to pay rent. Susan’s minimal wages as a barmaid were just not enough.
Until I was about ten, I had thought George was my brother. No one told me otherwise. I just assumed this because he was there when I was born and he was there when we left Kentucky. My mother was horrified to think I believed she had left her child behind. I think I thought that he stayed with our father. She later told me that she spoke to Jack and asked permission to bring George to Australia with us. Jack refused and George stayed with Annie and Lee in Kentucky. I guess when Susan did not return to the U.S., George eventually was sent back to Jack and Goldie in Texas.
In 1977, doctors diagnosed Grandmother Lizzie with terminal cancer. Susan wanted to be with her family until Lizzie died. Robert was not pleased about this. In 1978 before Lizzie died, Robert and Susan divorced. Afterward, Robert married twice more. Susan never remarried. She bought a house; and, in female Aboriginal tradition, she fostered over 100 Aboriginal children, for thirty-five years until she passed away in 2015.
I believe that the only real issue within the relationship between Robert and Susan was one of cultural difference.
My Life Moves On
My father’s contact with me was intermittent and very much influenced by his second and third wives. He also focused obviously on his lost relationship with Susan. Robert had long conversations with Susan, but short conversations with me. Our conversation often went like, “Daddy loves you pumpkin, now put mommy on.”
I did not see my father again until I was 30 years old. Contact between Susan and Robert was lost during Robert’s divorce from his third wife Geraldine, particularly after an incident where Gerri called Susan accusing her of being the reason that her marriage to Robert was failing. Susan called Robert, saying please keep your drunken wife off my phone. An argument ensued. Then, contact ceased for the next 10 years. About a week before I was to be married, Susan called local police in Texas asking that a message is delivered to Robert to urgently contact Susan. However, this message was never received by Robert.
I had finished high school at a local public school and in 1991 started as an administration trainee at a government television station, the Special Broadcasting Service. By 1994, I had bought a house and attended university part-time in 1995. At university, I met Craig Brown, an Aboriginal man from the Gumbainggir tribe. We were married in 1997.
Although a doctor diagnosed me with cervical cancer, I was concerned that treatment might affect my ability to have children. However, we had four children in quick succession. Marlyn Bruce Ronald Brown was born in October 1996, Desmyn Francis Gregory Brown was born March 1998, Leeroy James Peter Brown was born January 1999 and Adina Sussanne Vite Marie Brown was born February 2000.
After the birth of Adina, I searched for Robert again. In all the years since Robert and Susan separated, Susan never spoke badly to me about my father. I asked Susan where she thought Robert might be. Susan foreshadowed, “He won’t be well. Vietnam will have impacted his health. Look near army hospitals.” Susan knew Robert first had tested positive and subsequently inconclusive for Agent Orange maybe around 1987 to 1989.
In 2000, the internet was primitive but helpful. I so recall the dial up sound. With four children under age four, it was often very late at night when I sat down to search for my father Robert. What I found was the old address: 1200 Alpine Way in Midland and a phone number. Could it really be this easy? This was the address were Robert and George grew up. it was the home of John Oliver James, where Jack died. Jack built this house. He lost in a bankruptcy. He bought it back. Robert inherited this house. Robert fought Gerri for this house during their divorce.
I called the phone number. To my surprise, it rang; but it rang out. Again the following night, I stayed up due to the time difference. Into the wee hours, I called and called again. Finally, I told Susan that I had been calling for a week. Susan said, “Why don’t you let me call? You don’t need to be awake all night.” Two weeks later, Susan called me and said, “Sit down…I spoke to your father.”
Robert “On the road again”
Through tears of joy, I asked question after question. Susan laughed as she told me how Robert proposed to her on her call, and quite seriously too. The big news was that Robert was terminally ill. He had lung cancer. The reason there was no answer for three weeks was, Robert was driving trucks for the
The big news was that Robert was terminally ill. He had lung cancer. The reason there was no answer for three weeks was, Robert was driving trucks for the Landspan trucking company. He was on the road for twenty-eight days. He was back in Midland for only four days, then back out again. When in Midland, Robert would see his oncologist on Monday morning, do chemotherapy treatment on Tuesday, and go back on the road on Thursday evening. Robert had been doing this for two to three years. Now, Robert owned his home. He had no debt, expect a store account for his furniture.
I called Robert. He agreed to send me money to come to Midland. After a conversation with my husband Craig, we agreed I also would take Robert’s first-born grandchild, our son Marlyn who was age four.
I and Marlyn visited Robert in late July of 2001. The following Christmas, Susan also visited with Robert. Susan was concerned that Robert would not be alone for Christmas. She thought correctly. It may be his last Christmas. Robert was very honest about his intentions in paying for Susan to come visit. Susan had said it was obvious that Robert was still trying to win her back.
On the 14th of December 2002, Robert passed away after a long and brave fight. He is buried in the Resthaven Memorial Park cemetery in Midland Texas where his father Jack is buried. In Robert’s dying days he proposed to Susan again, which she refused with a laugh, saying, “I did that once before and it didn’t work”. My father once told me that divorcing my mother was the greatest mistake he ever made.