Freedom Friday – Black History Month: Part 3

The freedom to speak freely is not always free from repercussions.  When blogging friend, Imani, created Freedom Friday, I saw this as the first-step toward freeing me from ego and self-judgment about what I write, embrace, or critique on this blog.

With this newfound freedom every Friday, during Black History Month 2015, I chose to recognize an “unknown man” to many but a “Black Hero” to me.  The Hubby that I have loved and respected for almost fifty-five years, who stepped outside of his comfort zone, to write his first book, “The Son of A Sharecropper Achieves the American Dream.”  

The following are excerpts from his book of memoirs.

 Part 1  – Introduction:  February 6

Part 2 – Childhood in The Big House: February 13

Part 3

Coming of Age in Coahoma

After living on the Ralston plantation for about two or three years, we moved to another house on the Parker plantation in Coahoma.  I was about ten years old at the time.  This was exciting I had more kids to play with and I could go to town on the weekends.

Coahoma consisted of three general stores, three cafes, a dry goods store, a train station, a post office, a doctor’s office, two churches and a cotton gin.

As a teenager, I worked in the fields, babysit my sisters and brothers, and attended school.  I had begun working in the fields at age 5 or 6, chopping and picking cotton, but now I was getting paid.  I worked 10 hours a day to earn money for school clothes and other personal needs.  The rate was 25 cents an hour if you worked on the plantation where you lived, and 30 cents an hour if you worked off the plantation.

Going to the fields to chop cotton was a lot of fun.  It was extremely hard and dirty work, but it gave us an opportunity to enjoy our good friends, sing, tell jokes and trash talk.

From age 12-17, I worked five days a week, ten hours a day, for about eight or nine months of the year.  I was in school only four months of the year,

One could earn about $12.50 a week if you worked all five days, ten hours a day.  I gave some money to my parents and kept the rest.  Sometimes the owners would let the grownups work more days than the kids, so they could make as much money as they could to provide for their families, while the work lasted.

One week after working in the fields chopping cotton and getting paid, I took my fist bus ride by myself, a 13-mile trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi, a much larger town.  Clarksdale had many big stores and three movie houses.  The bus line only ran on Saturdays, at noon, five p.m., and 10 p.m.  If you missed the last bus, you had to walk home.  I couldn’t have been much older than 12 or 13, and I took this trip all by myself.  I watched a Class B western and bought a shirt for the first time in my life.  I remember the shirt was blue with pink designs, and I was surprised that it was a good fit.

On this trip I bought my first hamburger at the cafe on Issaquena Street.

During the summer of 1956, I met Yvonne Burks.  Yvonne was born in Mississippi but grew up in Chicago.  She was in Coahoma visiting her grandparents for the summer.

During her summer visits we went on hayrides and the annual community trip to the zoo in Memphis.  I can remember sitting on her grandparents front porch trying to be Mr. Big Stuff, rapping to her that the stars and the moon reminded me of the power of our love, how much she meant to me, and how our lives would come together as husband and wife when we were older and got married.

I met my father, Willie Brown, for the first time when I was 15, in 1957.  One day he and his wife showed up in Coahoma, where he had grown up as a kid.  He was in the army and was en route back to Chicago.  I was in school and some people came in the classroom and said my father was out there and wanted to see me.  I went out and he introduced himself.

It was such a shock, I didn’t now how to deal with it.  I was happy that he was here, but at the same time I never expected to see him.  He showed up at my school, without writing, sending a smoke signal, or some other form of communication.  You do not walk up to a 15-year-old and say, “Hey boy I’m your daddy.”  You must remember that I had not heard from him or spoke with this man during my entire life.

We talked and got in his car.  He drove me home and visited with my mother and stepfather.  He talked about his army career in World War II and Korea.  He gave me an old pair of army tennis shoes, and the next day he left.  I didn’t see him again until I moved to Chicago in 1959.  I stayed in touch with my biological father from time to time, until he passed away in 1970 from throat cancer.

When I finished the 9th grade, I enrolled at Agriculture High School, located outside of Clarksdale.  Aggie was the only school and junior college that Blacks could attend in Coahoma County, Mississippi.

I played on the basketball team.  This created a problem for me because all of the games were held at night and I didn’t haves a ride home.  If you didn’t have a car your only transportation was the school bus.  If I wasn’t lucky enough to catch a ride after the game with a kid who was using his parent’s car, I was forced to sleep illegally in the back of the gymnasium on a dirty mat with no covers.  When I got up the next morning, I had no soap, toothbrush or toothpaste.  If I wanted to eat breakfast, I had to sneak into the cafeteria.  The coach let me get away with it for a while, but told me I would have to pay for breakfast.

You have no idea how hard life can be when you’re poor.  In high school everyone was poor.  We had no means of income during the non-farming season.  Sometimes a bus would come by from Florida to pick up people for migrant work, but that was it.  There was no other work.

There were days I went hungry in school.  I’d stand outside the lunchroom and beg for nickels and dimes from the kids coming out of the cafeteria.

In next Friday’s post, I will share His Story about Chicago and Joining The Army.

 

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 

Freedom Friday – Black History Month: Part 1

February 1 marked the beginning of Black History Month; and, the theme for 2015 is a “Century of Black Life, History and Culture.”

On this Freedom Friday and for the remaining three Fridays in February, I choose to celebrate Black History Month by recognizing  and celebrating my Hubby and BFF (Best Friend Forever) for all that he has endured, overcome and accomplished during his lifetime.

I am grateful to have this blog platform to tell HIS STORYHIS HISTORY and IN HIS OWN WORDS by sharing excerpts from HIS published memoirs, “The Son of A Sharecropper Achieves the American Dream.”

“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.  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 childhood sweetheart and by the age 26 I was the father of four children.  By age 33, I had obtained a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  I overcame my difficult beginnings to become the successful person I am today.

My story and my family’s story is about being black in this country — an honest story about how much progress we have made but also about how much progress we still need to make.  I faced many hardships and struggles as a poor black boy growing up in 1950s 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 we still need to achieve.

At the same time this is not a memoir about 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 county for the opportunities and achievements that have blessed my life.”

James C. Thomas, December 2012

In next Friday’s post, I will share HIS STORY about HIS CHILDHOOD.