Sunday, May 15, 2011

Growing Up in The South

My great uncle, Arnold Estes, and his wife, Inie Estes, were peddlers, and went through what they called The Quarter, every Saturday, and sold black hair care products.  I would ride to town with them,and stand in the back of their grass-green, Ford,  pick-up truck.  Seat belts were not required then, and standing in the back of a pick-up-truck was not illegal, so that is where I rode most of the time; hands on top of the cab, face to the wind, hair blowing all around me.

While they went about their peddling, they would drop me off in town (Union, Mississippi), and I would shop, go walking with friends, occasionally find a little mischieft, and eat.

 My favorite diner was a great little restaurant called, Driskels Cafe.  Their hamburgers were to die for, and I've never had a hamburger that tasted so good since then.  There was a wall right down the middle of it; the blacks ate on one side, and the whites on the other.   One particular day, as I was chomping down on my hamburger, I noticed something that struck me as strange. Even though the black people sat on one side of the wall, and the whites on the other, the plump woman doing the cooking was black.  I remember thinking, "I wonder why they can't eat with us, but we can eat what they cook."

We went to different schools, drank from different water fountains, had walls dividing us at the restaurants, and at the movie theatre; the blacks sat upstairs, and the whites downstairs, and if a black person rode in the car with you they had to sit in the back, but the daily life at home was much different.

We had black neighbors on the rural country road we lived on,  and they were good people.  Lilly Mae, was one neighbor, and as a kid I would wander all over the place, including her house, which was so clean you could have eaten off of the floors.  There was, what we called the sand road, that separated our house from hers, and  led to what we called, The Old Place.

Lilly Mae let us pick all the blackberries we wanted from her property, and slide down the red mud banks on her side of the road, which I often did on my way to The Old Place, (my mother's family homestead that sat on about 80 acres of timber land). 

When I close to one, just learning to walk, our family moved from The Old Place, and built a new house on the highway.  I missed out on the well water, and the outhouse (unless I went to my aunt's house in rural Neshoba county), but I still got to swim in the creek, and at an early age, I was free to roam, barefoot, if I choose, all over that sand road, and those eighty acres of pure Heaven on Earth.

One day, as I was walking, I heard helicopters overhead.  A plane flying over was a rareity, but a helicopter was ever more so.  When I returned home I remember my mother saying the helicopters were out searching for three missing Civil Rights workers.  I had no idea what that was, or why it was so important, but I knew it wasn't good.

Back behind our house was another black family, Amos, Mary Lou, and their son, Bobby Joe.  To the right of their house was a little, one room, shotgun house that Amos's mother, Ader (probably spelled Ada, but everything in the south that ended with an A, had an E put on the end of it), lived in.  I got a peek inside of it one day, when my mother cooked Sunday dinner, and had me carry a plate to Ms. Ader, and I saw it was fully equipped with a bed and a fire burning stove.  However, Ms Ader was either a little suspicious of white folks, or me, or she was just a little cantankerous (which may be why our mule was named Ader), and when I handed her the food she told me, "You got the devil in you, I can see it in your eyes." 
My father, and Amos were both little-bitty men, (probably didint' weight 90 pounds soaking wet), and they both liked to booze it up. Mom said a full moon made them act crazy, and it was proven when, one full moon night, they took turns firing their shotgun into the air.  Mary Lou, a tall slender woman, and my mother, (who at that time was fairly plump), were both God fearing, Christian women, were best of friends (we always called Mary Lou her black sister), and they often met, at what we called the gossip fence, to discuss, among other things, what to do with their wayward men.  On one such occasion, Amos got on a good drunk, and Mary Lou came over to our house, and my mother hid her in our closet, while Amos shouted, "I'm gonna burry her underneath those rose bushes, so she can smell roses for eternity."  Amos never killed Mary Lou, and they remained together, true to their vows, "Till death do us part."

My mother, on the other hand, was always going to leave my dad (we fondly called them Maw and Paw, after the cartoon, Snuffy Smith), and move us to Philadelphia, Mississippi.  She never did, but instead, built a new house, a little further on down the road, with the wages she earned at US Motors in Philadelphia, leaving my dad alone in the old house.  However, she occasionally went to spend the night with him, and faithfully walked down the road and carried him a Supper plate (now called dinner), and when we were all grown, she let him move in the new house with her, as long as he quit drinking, They stayed together, until he died in her arms from a heart-attack, and inspite of his faults, he was the only man she ever loved.

The N word was a word that was used quite often in this area, and even though my mother occasionally said it, it was never used in a deragatory way.  The only time I remember her ever saying the word was when she was referring to a sweet little black man named Sunk. She said, "He is a good old N*****".

However, I undoubtly heard it used in another way, at school or somewhere else.  One day, my little sister, Brenda, had done something, and all I remember was I wanted to catch her and grab a handful of that long brown hair she had.  She flew out the back door, running down the concrete walk-way that led to an old school bus that was used as a wash house.  I tried to catch her, but she was way ahead of me, so as a last resort to get her good, I called out, "N*****".  Right as I said it, there stood Sunk, and all I had to do was take one look at him to know what I said was wrong.  I didn't have to have someone tell me, I didn't have to get a switching from the peach tree, I knew in my heart, it somehow was not right.

When I was in about the 5th or 6th grade, our school was intergrated.  There were no burning buildings, crosses burning in anyone's yard, or people being hung from tree's.  I never saw anything like that at any time.  Our school was a small community school, and for the most part everyone got along.  Fights were not between black's and whites, but rather simply between school kids that may or may not be of a different race.

Most of the kids, black and white, were respectful, came to school well groomed,  in clean clothes, and if you were a guy, and you came to school with your shirt tail out, you were sent to the office for a paddling or home.  Kids didn't come to school with their britches down around their thighs,

When I was in high school, we had a young black man named Lamar that had trouble reading, because he had to miss a lot of school to help work, and support his family.  Our English teacher, whom I will always respect for this reason, would let Lamar read a loud in class to help him learn.  No one ever made fun, or so much as made a snicker, but quietly read along with him as he tried to pronounce the words.

My next recollection of the N word was when I was about 19, and moved to Jackson, Mississippi.  I had a flat on my car and a nice black man stopped to help me, and put a new tire on for me.  He looked at me and said, "Some nigger must have put this on your car". Me being from the country and not use to hearing black people say such a thing, my mouth dropped wide open, and it was obvious from the expression on my face, I was in a state of shock.  Then he looked at me and smiled and said, "Wells, you know, there be some black ones, and there be some white ones."

Years have come and gone since those days, and many things have changed; Mom, dad, Ader, Mary Lou, Clifton, and Sunk, have all passed away. Family members have moved off to Ohio, Chicago, Michigan, Tennessee, Georgia, and Louisiana. Although our lives are quite different now, some things have remained the same, just different faces.

Lilly Mae still lives in the home she and Clifton built, and I now reside in the brick house my mother built, and on down the road, Mary Lou and Amos's oldest son, Billy, and his wife Rose, reside in what was Mary Lou and Amos's house. I still occasionally drop by to see Lilly Mae, and sometimes carry her some fresh muscadines, and Rose, Billy's wife, is pretty much my black sister.  She often stops by to see me to let me know she has been praying for me or a family member, and sometimes we play a little dominoes.  The gossip fence has been changed for a front porch swing where Rose and I, swing and talk.

Mississippi and other Southern states have been given a bad rap for being most prejudice, when in fact, most blacks and whites got along just fine.  In fact, there is more prejudice in many Norhtern states than there is here.  You have mean people wherever you go, but that doesn't make everyone that way.  Prejudice exist in all races, but is normally directed toward the poor.  Itallians were called WOP's, Scotch Irish were called, Crackers, and the list goes on.

This is history, and discussing the truth of history, brings about understanding, forgiveness, and hope for the future.  If you have a story you would like to tell, I'll be happy to write it for you.

This story and others will eventually be incorporated into a book Rose demands I write, so this is a overview of the beginning.

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