Freedom Friday – Black History Month: Part 2

Introduction

Thanks to my blogging friend, Imani, for Freedom Friday. This  year for Black History Month, I chose to use my four Freedom Fridays in February to share excerpts from Hubby’s published memoirs, “The Son of A Sharecropper Achieves the American Dream.”

Last week, I posted Part 1 of this four-part series and, as promised, this week I share excerpts from the book about his early childhood.

Childhood in The Big House

“Shortly after my birth, the plantation owner acquired some additional land and a 13-room house from a white man named Mr. Morris.  This was the largest house on the plantation and my grandfather was asked to move his family into it.  We called it the “Big House.”  Even though we had no indoor plumbing, this house was far better than other sharecropper homes, which were basically two or three-room shacks.  They had roofs made of corrugated tin, and the floorboards had enough space between them that you could see the dogs and chickens running under the house.

On Christmas Eve all the sharecropping families who lived on the Ralston Plantation would gather on the boss man’s front lawn and wait for his wife, Miss Blanche, to hand out gift bags to each family.  The children got a brown bag with one orange, one apple, several loose pieces of rock candy, and mixed nuts in the shell.  We didn’t get any toys.  This may seem like nothing to the average person, but when you were as poor as we children were, growing up in the south during what I call “the second phase of slavery,” a present like this was a big deal.  

When I was six or seven years old my mother married L.C. Childress, who became my stepfather.  

I had mixed feelings about him, I knew he wasn’t my biological father, but I loved this man who was there for me when I needed a father figure in my life.  Maybe he wasn’t the perfect father, but he did the best he knew how, and for that I am ever grateful to him.  

He wasn’t an educated man, but he was hard-working and modestly artistic.  He built me a wagon made of wood and taught me how to make wooden tee toddlers and tractors from hay baling wire.  

My mother and stepfather had to work in the fields gathering the crops so my sister Shirley and I had to take turns babysitting the younger children.  She would go to school one day while I did the baby-sitting, and the next day we switched.  I was in the fourth grade at the time.  At the end of the school year she graduated to the next grade and I was left behind.  We were told that I needed a minimum number of days to graduate.  My sister qualified on the number and I was one day short.  This was devastating to me.  As a result, I was always one grade behind my age group in school.  

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, something unusual happened.  A group of white people came to my elementary school.  All of the students were asked to stand in line and give blood.  Many years later, I learned they were from the Mississippi Department of Health.

Approximately two weeks following their visit, we received a letter stating that my mother and I had to report for treatment in Meridian, Mississippi.  A special bus picked us up in Coahoma along with a number of other people, some familiar and others I had never seen.  I was scared to death.  My mother tried to explain by telling me I had “bad blood.”  I sill did not understand why we were on this old raggedy bus to  a town I had never heard of.  What was this bad blood?

We traveled all that day.  It was a traumatic experience.  At days end we finally arrived at an old decommissioned army base.  They gave me two sheets, a pillowcase, and a blanket.  I was a 9-year-old living in a large army barrack without my mother or any other family member.  A situation like this was ripe for a young kid to be molested.  Thank God it didn’t happen to me.

I was really afraid when they took me to the infirmary.  They had me sit on a clinic stool, lay my head on the table,  and gave me a spinal tap and lollipop.

One week later, we were on the same raggedy bus heading home.  I learned that my mother’s test came out negative. She didn’t have to take those shots.  How could a nine-year-old who was not sexually active have “bad blood”?  Where did I get this “bad blood”?  What did these white people do to me? Was I part of some type of Tuskegee experiment?  Since then, there have been times when my blood tests have been positive.  Other times, they have been negative.

My early “bad blood” experience has never been explained.   I pray that I was not part of some nefarious experiment by our government.

In next Friday’s post, I will share HIS STORY about COMING OF AGE IN COAHOMA 

Black Travelers

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I chose to re-publish this post from last year where I shared one of my personal experiences, as an elder, who lived through Jim Crow.  Let us not forget the suffering and indignities Dr. King and other civil rights activists were subjected to in the fight for fair and equal treatment in this country.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and

narrow-mindedness.”Mark Twain

One of my happiest childhood memories were family summer vacations.    Every year, we traveled by car from Chicago to my parents’ hometown in Coahoma, Mississippi.    Members of our closely-knit extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins joined us for this thirteen-hour drive.    We were journeying home, traveling by night, in a caravan of three to four cars through the states of Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi staying “visibly” connected to each car in the caravan along the way.    Why, because of the Jim Crow Laws in the 1950s.

  •  Reports of racial harassment and intimidation of black people while traveling were common.
  • Threats of physical harm, especially vulnerable, were cars with license plates from “up north.”

As a black traveler, you understood the restrictions and limitations under Jim CrowBlack travelers were:

  •  prohibited from using public facilities — water fountains and bathrooms.
  • barred from eating in restaurants or ordering food to go.
  • banned from staying in hotels and motels.

The children never questioned.  The adults never complainedWhy?  This was our reality.   We bypassed Jim Crow and survived.

  • We carried our supply of water, soda, paper plates/cups, napkins and plastic silverware.
  • We ate food prepared, with love, by my mother and the other women travelers.
  • We dined on homemade rolls, deep-fried pork chops and southern deep-fried chicken.
  • We consumed large bowls of macaroni and potato salad chilled on ice in coolers.
  • We lunched on ham, bologna and/or salami, placed between slices of white bread lavishly splattered with mustard and wrapped in tinfoil.   Along with the sandwich, potato chips, an apple, and cookies were packed in individual small brown paper bags.
  • We devoured slices of sweet potato pie, pound cake, coconut cake, and my favorite at the time, caramel cake.

As for using the bathroom, we carried a supply of toilet tissue, found an isolated area adjacent to the highway and the person would relieve themselves in the bushes.    However, there were times when the only option for privacy was to have someone stand in front of you.

Many of the inconveniences experienced by my family as black travelers might have been avoided had they known about The Negro Motorist Green Book:  An International Travel Guide.”   The Green Book was published by the Victor H. Green & Company annually from 1936 until 1964 when the Civil Rights Law was enacted.   An 80-page publication, it was considered as the black man’s guide to traveling.

The purpose of the Green Book is best described by the following statement from the publication:

  • “With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.  For many travelers, many places are not available, even though they may have the price, and any traveler to whom they are not available, is thereby faced with many and sometimes difficult problems.  The Negro traveler’s inconveniences are many and they are increasing because today so many more are traveling, individually and in groups.  There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published.  That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.  The Green Book with its list of hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, beauty shops, barber shops and various other services can most certainly help solve your travel problems.”     

                       

In a 2010, New York Times article entitled, “The Open Road Wasn’t Quite Open to All,” Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture stated:

  • “The lack of knowledge about the Green Book also tells us about the lack of knowledge many Americans now have on how segregation really worked – how it had impacts dramatic and impacts small.  But all the impacts hurt.  The more people understand that through the Green Book, the more they’ll understand how things have changed. “

What a blessing it was to travel black, as a child, unaware of the Jim Crow limitations and restrictions.   Even though Jim Crow Laws are no longer in existence, my early experiences as a black traveler shaped how I view traveling by car today.   My phobia, as an adult, is the emotional and mental stress I may have to cope with as a black traveler on the highway.   

I am sick and tired of being sick and tired….

I struggled with writing this post; but I had to speak out after the Travon Martin trial.

A young military wife, in 1963, with two toddlers, sitting in our cramped living room, watching the March on Washington, listening to Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech; and, realizing, his dream was the “dream” I wanted for my son and daughter.

I HAVE A DREAM that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true

meaning of its creed:  We hold these truths to be self-evident,

that all mean are created equal.

I HAVE A DREAM that my four little children will one day live in a

nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by

the content of their character.”

Back then, I was hopeful and optimistic that a change was gonna come.  Today, fifty years later, I am disappointed and pessimistic wondering how long is it gonna take.”

I am sick and tired of being sick and tired[1]of the racial injustices where people continue to be Judged by the Color of their Skin.”    

Emmett Till

I lived in FEAR throughout most of my teenage years.  Though, only 13-years-old, even today, I vividly recall the murder of Emmett Till on August 28, 1955.  He was a 14-year-old African-American male, from Chicago, visiting his grandfather in Mississippi.  Two white men decided to end Emmett’s life.  Why, because he either, whistled at, flirted with, or touched the hands, of a white cashier at a grocery store.

Brutally beaten, mutilated, shot in the head; his young body was tied up with barbed wired and dumped in the river.  Despite overwhelming evidence, on September 23, 1955 his two assailants were acquitted.   The Jim Crow Laws allowed Emmett to be “Judged by the Color His Skin.” 

With the exception of gender, Emmett’s life pretty much mirrored mine.  I, too, lived in Chicago and visited my grandparents in Mississippi every summer.   During those visits, they schooled me on what was acceptable behavior for a young black girl in Mississippi.  On the first day of my visit, they reminded me to “say yes mam, no mam, look down, speak quietly, never question or talk back to white folks.  They don’t play here you ain’t in Chicago.”

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Travon Martin

On February 26, 2011, this seventeen-year-old boy was shot and killed at about 7:00 p.m. while walking home on a rainy night in the gated community where he was visiting his father.   Killed because “HE WAS JUDGED BY THE COLOR OF HIS SKIN,” Mr. Zimmerman assumed an African-American male teenager, wearing a hoodie was a thug; and, therefore, a threat to him and others who lived in this gated community.

Loud voices cried out for justice and after some 45 days he was finally charged.  A jury trial resulted in a Not Guilty verdict.   Under Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, Mr. Zimmerman had the right to shoot rather than retreat.

As the grandmother of three young African American males, ranging in age from 13-24, I identify with what happened to Travon.  Living in a gated community, about 20 miles from where Travon was killed, we now have “safety guidelines” for our three grandsons to follow when they visit.  I am frustrated that my grandchildren are forced to deal with the FEAR of DEATH because someone

  • Chooses to  Judge by the Color of  Skin; and
  • Understands the protection afforded under the Stand Your Ground Laws.

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Like Jim Crow, Stand Your Ground Must Go

“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired”


[1] Fannie Lou Hamer, Civil Rights Activist

In His Own Words

My husband of fifty-two years never ceases to amaze me. Most recently, after a three-year project — on-again and off-again — he completed writing his memoirs and family history.

Married at the young ages of 17 and 18, I have watched him go through the many phases of life. The challenges sometimes seemed insurmountable, but he always kept pushing forward — failure was not an option.  At each stage, his goal was to move our family forward.  He had a strong commitment to ensuring our children were given opportunities that had not been available to us.   Together, we accomplished this.   There were some bumps in the road.  But, I can honestly say we have been fortunate.  In our fifty-two years together, we have shared more lemonade than lemons.  I ask my five Blog Followers, you  know who you are, to join me in congratulating first time author, James Cameron Thomas, on the January 12, 2013 release of his first book, “Son of a Sharecropper Achieves the American Dream.”

In His Own Words

I am a 70-year-old black male who was born in Mississippi in 1941 to an 18-year-old unwed mother with one child.  My parents were sharecroppers.   I did not know my biological father until I was 15 years old.  I grew up in dire poverty in the pre-Civil Rights south, chopping and picking cotton for ten hours a day, eight months of the year.  I was a high school dropout and had my first child, out-of-wedlock, at the tender age of 17.  One year later I married my beautiful 17-year-old childhood sweetheart and by the age of 26 I was the father of four children.  By age 33, I had obtained Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  I overcame many difficult beginnings to become the succesful person I am today.

This year my wife Yvonne and I celebrated our 52nd anniversary.  Thanks to a lot of hard work and God’s blessings, I now live in a suburb of Wisconsin and have a winter home in Orlando, Florida.  I live in a beautiful house , have a large collection of African-American art, photographs and mementos and I am not without resources and material comforts.   I am surrounded by treasured books by William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Barack Obama, and numerous other authors who have written about the African-American experience in America.  I am truly blessed with a rich network of friends going back to elementary school including my best friend, my loving wife Yvonne.  I have four children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, all blessed with good health and sound minds, and pursuing careers.

My story and my family’s story is about being black in this country — an honest story about how much progress has been made, but also about how much progress still needs to be achieved.  I faced many hardships and struggles as a poor black boy growing up in 1950’s Mississippi.  But my struggles and hardships didn’t end when I moved to the north and began my professional career in business and government service.  While I was no longer chopping and picking cotton ten hours a day, I was still in many ways treated like a second class citizen.  This book, then, is a cautionary tale for black people about attitudes that have not changed fast enough and the progress that still has to be made.

At the same time, this is not a memoir by an angry black man.  Rather it is a story of hope and perseverance — about how I overcame tremendous odds to achieve success and the American Dream.  Despite the problems I describe, I’ve had many more victories, and I am thankful to my family, friends, colleagues, and country for the opportunities and achievements that have blessed my life.

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