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The memoir of a fearless black leader in the civil rights struggle in Mississippi
The Bible, The Almanac,
and the Sears Catalogue
White people used to say we didn't mind that hot Mississippi sun, beatingthe strength out of our backs and drawing the sap from our souls. Theysaid our black skins kept us from knowing that suffering—that we didn'tmind working fifteen hours a day in thick heat and stinging dust. They saidwe were able to withstand the drudgery because we were made that way andwere capable of little else besides that work.
When I was growing up in Mississippi, on the Flowers brothers' plantationabout twenty miles east of Clarksdale in Coahoma County, the sharecroppingsystem was firmly established. Its tap root ran straight downthrough history to the first time man discovered what tactics could be employedto press his fellow man into servitude. The branches of the systemwere entangled in every field Negro's brain, back, and soul, and we neverquestioned it, because it was all we knew. We had to work all day in thosegreen-and-white blistering cotton fields if we wanted to live. It was work orstarve or get run off the place, and the work was simpler than the uncertaintyof the outside. Nobody ever asked how we felt. They would hear ussinging about the heat and the work and the life, and they would turn andtell each other how happy we all were. Of course, singing and religion wereabout all we could do for entertainment, and I think most people will admitthat we got pretty good at those two things.
The Mississippi Delta was developed by the constantoverflow of the Mississippiand Yazoo rivers over hundreds and hundreds of years. The continuousoverflow created a swampy, wooded area, sparsely inhabited until late inthe nineteenth century. After the Civil War, Negroes could not buy land inmany areas in Mississippi, and the first land that became available to thefreed slaves was in the Delta. Few whites were willing to suffer the hardshipsof almost uncivilized country, the undeterminable factor of an unmanageableriver, and serious health problems. The flooding rivers would often destroyan entire year's labor, and the heavy infestation of mosquitoes mademalaria and yellow fever recurring and deadly problems. As methods weredeveloped to control the almighty river, more whites began moving in. Thatuninhabitable swamp had been cleared and was soon cultivated into themost fertile cotton land in the state—the Mississippi Delta.
As far back as I can trace, my family has been in Mississippi. I remembermy maternal grandmother telling stories of slavery days, of murders andlynchings and white authority that went completely unchallenged. When Iwas born in 1922, my father had about forty acres to farm on the Flowersplantation.
Thirty or so members of our family also lived there, including ten ortwelve adults and the rest children. My mother died when I was three, andmy father two years later, and I was raised by Mother's brother, Ed Henry,and his wife Mattie. I considered them my parents and Merryll, a niece theywere also raising, as my sister. All of my relatives on the plantation—auntsand uncles and cousins—pitched in and helped each other in the endlessplowing, chopping, and gathering of the cotton—it was our life. Betweentimes dictated by Master Cotton, the family operated as a unit, banding togetherto go into the woods and cut trees for fuel for winter. The men andboys made sure they left a load of wood at each of our houses.
When working in the fields, we were up before the sun, and Mother fixedus eggs if we had them and filled our empty spaces with grits. That was tohold us until dinner. On special occasions we had butter for our grits, butusually it was just salt. Sometimes after hog-killing time, we would have abig treat of bacon.
If it was time to plow, before going to the fields each day, we would goget our mule from an enclosure called "the lot." All of the plantation muleswere kept there, and I can still see what looked to a child like an acre ofmules. We would get ours hooked up and go to the field and plow and bringthe mule back to the lot at noon and again in the evening.
Usually the walk to the fields in the early morning would be at least comfortable,if not cool. But by the time we got there, the sun would be risingand the sweat would be coming. When I dressed in the morning, my clotheswere usually damp and cool from the previous day's sweat, but they werewarm and sticky again by the time we reached the fields.
As far back as I can remember, I have detested everything about growingcotton. When we would pick, I was one of the slowest workers. My handswere never as large as the other boys', and one time a white man told methat I might make a musician some day. He said that my hands were smallerand my fingers longer than those of most white men. I told him that maybethat was the reason I detested cotton working so much. I never learned toplay an instrument, and maybe dreaming about it slowed me down evenmore. I just know that I would start down my row picking that cotton andstuffing it into my sack and never looking up. The older field hands alwaystold us that once we bent over, to stay down as long as we could, because thebending and unbending made your back the sorest. So, I went along the rowpicking as best I could, head down, and, after a while, I would just know Iwas halfway to the end of the row. Then I would look up and see that I wasonly about twenty yards from where I had started, that I was twenty yardsbehind everybody else, and that my sack was only about half as full as theothers.
There were two or three white families on the plantation who worked assharecroppers and lived under the same conditions that we did. We had acommon bond in our impoverishment, and color made no difference betweenus—no segregation and no white supremacy. We all stood in the sameline to get our goods at the commissary. The men sat around and chewed tobaccotogether and drank whiskey that they sometimes made together. Thewhite and Negro women frequently had quilting bees. The families sharedwhen bad weather was expected or any sort of emergency existed. A Negromidwife on the plantation named Granny delivered white and Negro babies.No courtesy titles entered the picture, because white and Negro sharecropperscalled each other by first names.
As a child, all of this seemed perfectly natural, but later, when I operatedmy drugstore, I fully understood the absence of racial prejudice among thesharecroppers. Race simply made no difference as long as you were dirtpoor—white and Negro tenants simply suffered their destinies together. Ifound in my own store that the really poor whites were just as humble as Negroesat that economic level. I have known whites so poor that they didn't objectto going to a Negro's home, sitting at his table, and even sleeping in thesame bed with him.
One of the white sharecropper families on the Flowers place was namedSmithers, and they had a son, Randolph, who was my age, and a daughterabout the age of my sister. My mother later told me that when Randolphand I were babies, I sometimes was left at the Smithers house, and Mrs.Smithers nursed us both. When Randolph was left at our house, my motherdid the same. I cannot remember the time that Randolph and I were not theclosest of friends.
The manager of the plantation, Mr. Baker, was a short, fat white manwith a red face and a thick neck. He sweated a great deal, and when he heldhis chin up, I could see black lines of grit across his neck where his doublechins had folded in the sweat and dirt. We all accepted Baker as the head ofthe plantation, but he never interfered with family units. My father was thehead of our family. My parents were hardworking and loyal people. I wasnever directly abused in any way by the Bakers, and I don't believe my fatherwas. However, if he was mistreated, Father would not have told us, becausehe always tried to spare us from unpleasantness. Baker had a son, about myage, and he was usually a part of our nuthunting and berrypicking. We alwaysfelt that the son was a little above the rest of us, white and Negro, becausehe had so many more things and did not have to work.
Life support on the plantation was meted out from the heart of the system—thecommissary. We got our food supplies and clothing here and atthe same time wrapped ourselves in debts from which it was nearly impossibleto escape. We were charged for the supplies, and, at the end of the cropyear after the cotton had been harvested and ginned, Mr. Baker would informus what sum our part of the crop had brought. If we earned more thanwe owed, we got the difference. If we owed more than we had earned, thedifference was charged to us. There was only one set of records, which werekept by the plantation owner, and we had to pay or get whatever he said.There was no contract, and, over the years, many tenants found themselvesso deeply in debt that they could never leave the system.
We bought rice and flour, salt and pepper, and salt meat from the commissary.We ground corn into meal ourselves, but it was never enough to lastthe year, so we had to buy meal, too. We bought cloth, and Mother madeshirts and dresses and underclothes. Trousers, coats, and caps were purchased.
We had room on our forty acres to raise chickens and hogs. The hogs wereslaughtered and salted down, but chicken was a delicacy because we usedthem mostly for eggs. Pork was the only fresh meat until September, whenthe first bales of cotton were ginned. Then, if we got a share of the money,we went to the butcher shop in town and bought beef or liver. Steak andgravy were the treats at this time of year.
There are other pleasant recollections of fall when everybody, young andold, went blackberry picking or hunting for muscadines, persimmons, hickorynuts, and walnuts. We also dug up peanuts that we had grown, but, oncethey left the ground, they were kept by the adults so the children wouldn'tget stomachaches from eating green peanuts. The raw nuts were spread outon the flat roof of the house to dry.
One time after my father had spread the nuts to dry, he took the ladderup to Mr. Baker's storehouse so we couldn't use it to climb onto the roof. Iwas determined to get up there and get a pocketful of peanuts, but I knew Icouldn't get the ladder. My father had planted a tree beside the house aboutthe time I was born and had taken every precaution to protect it so thatsomeday we would have shade. I guess the tree was six by then, and itreached well above the top of the house. It wasn't very big around, but I figuredit was surely large enough to hold me. I waited until my parents hadgone away, and I started to shinny up the tree. I got almost to the pointwhere I could have moved over onto the roof when the tree started bendingand swaying. I knew that I was bound to go down with the tree, but I didn'tknow if it would be a gentle fall or if the tree would simply break and dropme straight to the ground. So I lunged toward the roof and grabbed it by theedge, and the tree swung away from me. There I was, hanging by my fingertipson the edge of the roof, unable to draw myself up and unsure if I coulddrop without hurting myself. I was trying to decide how to get down andthinking what my father would do if he caught me.
Just then someone came along laughing to beat hell. Because of the way Iwas hanging, I couldn't look down, but I asked the boy to help me down tothe ground. The rogue just kept laughing and accusing me of trying to stealpeanuts and finally told me that there were rocks and broken glass under meand that if I dropped, I would cut my feet badly. I was tired of hanging andterrified and started bawling as hard and as loud as I could. I started yellingfor my mother while the boy below kept laughing—almost as loud as I wascrying. Before long I heard my father calling my name, as he ran towards thehouse. He reached up and grabbed me by my feet, and I let go of the roof. Iwas thankful to be down, but when my father realized what I had beendoing, I got one of the sharpest whippings of my life. The other boy was stillstanding there laughing, and I told Daddy how he had lied about the glassand rocks beneath me. As was the custom, my father didn't lay a hand on theother boy and went straight to his father to tell what had happened. I couldhear the other boy getting his whipping, but Daddy said he would whip meagain if I went over there and watched and laughed.
During those years, the Bible, the Ladies' Birthday Almanac, and theSears and Roebuck catalogue served as standard references. They composedthe family library. The Bible was the basic guideline, and it could work eitherway—to tell us what we couldn't do and then to show that our parentshad done the right thing. It usually didn't work too much in my favor, but Iheld the Bible in complete respect. The almanac told us what to do andwhat not to do according to phases of the moon. We planted vegetable cropsonly on certain days that were indicated in the almanac. We were careful notto get our teeth pulled at times when the blood was in the head.
The Sears catalogue was the real treasure as far as the children were concerned.We would sit for hours and look at the pictures of trains and trucksand hats, and we would talk about wanting this or that more than anythingelse on the page. Then we would turn the page and find something else thatwe wanted even more. Our parents would laugh at us and tease us when wetold them we were going to order from the catalogue. But when we weren'tlooking they would spend more time than the children, looking at the picturesand wishing. Sometimes, it sounded like a ladies' church social whenseveral of the women would get together and all be trying to look at the catalogueat the same time. They would talk at the same time, and then theirvoices would get louder and they would be scrambling around, each one tryingto point out what she wanted most on the page. I guess one of the mostjoyous times of the year was when the new catalogue arrived, but I cannotrecall a single time when my family ordered anything through the mail.
Many of the sharecroppers on the plantation were improvident in handlingtheir money. After a long year and dull days of hard work, many tenantswould take their settlement money and toss it away frivolously ratherthan save it to buy their own land. That's one reason why there were so manyautomobiles in rural areas, even when there was no money to buy gas. A carwas a symbol—"we have arrived; we have amounted to something." Laterthe symbols would be indoor plumbing and a radio. Or some sharecropperswould buy whiskey and drink it immediately. Perhaps because the plantationowner controlled their lives so completely and sometimes capriciously,many sought to get what little pleasure they could the moment it was available.Others were more disciplined, and my father, in fact, was something ofa penny-pincher.
Most plantation owners did not deal honestly with their tenants, and thisformed the basic inequity of the sharecropping system. The owners weredealing with people whom they felt were subhuman, and they felt no moralobligation for fairness in the treatment of their tenants. The Bakers consideredus only as instruments or machines that were needed to help themmake a living. They were quite willing to take care of every need that wasessential to our full productivity. In another respect, they treated the Negroeslike mules—kind to them when the animal worked hard, but, if themule balked, he was in trouble.
The system was not a condition of actual servitude, but escape meant awillingness to throw basic security to the wind the basic plantation securitythat assured food, clothing, and medical attention. Forget about the littlethings that often aren't actually needed but would be so very nice to haveanyway. I remember that I always wanted a white wide-brimmed felt hatlike Mr. Baker had, but I was told that a yellow wide-brimmed straw hatwas good enough for me, and it was a long time before I even had that.
I was not aware that plantation life was a peculiar way to live. It was allthat I had ever known and appeared to be the way the whole world operated.If my father had been satisfied with only basic securities, I might have spentall of my life on a plantation, never knowing if I would have had the initiativeto break with the system.
One major weakness of the sharecropping system, however, was the whiteman's failure to recognize the factor that could destroy this bondage—education.The roots of the system, so tangled up in the generations of black ignoranceand white supremacy, sometimes produced an almost childlikeinnocence, where a white planter found it acceptable, if not useful, for aNegro tenant to learn a trade. When my father realized this and the near impossibilityof prospering within the system, he learned the cobbling trade,and we moved into the nearby town of Webb. Our family was relativelysmall, and I am not sure how valuable we were to Baker. Perhaps Bakercould have prevented my father from learning the trade, but I rather believethat Baker did not realize the full significance of even a smattering of education.Whites used to laugh and say that we bred like flies, but they were notaware of the multiple progression that comes when tiny bits of education areconnected and put to use.
I don't know why my father decided to try shoe cobbling. I suppose thatit was either from reading about it in a magazine or hearing people talkabout it. It was the era when Tuskegee Institute in Alabama taught cobblingand other trades of the hands following Booker T. Washington's philosophythat Negroes should be content to work with their hands. Perhaps someonewas talking about Tuskegee and convinced my father that cobbling was atrade that he could learn. He toyed around during his spare time putting togetherpieces of leather and saw that he had a talent for it. He got in touchwith the Southern Leather Company in Memphis who sent a white representativeto talk with Father. The company was interested in setting up a cobblerin Webb, and we moved from the plantation in the spring of 1927.
Father drove a borrowed truck up to our house one hot September morning.Behind the truck was the rest of our family who lived on the plantationand a host of neighbors. We had packed our belongings in boxes, done thebreakfast dishes, and dismantled the beds. Everybody helped us load up,and, when the truck was full, Mother made us wear our shoes and hats andcoats to save space. We were hot and uncomfortable, and at first Fatherwanted me to stay in the back of the truck to make sure nothing fell off. Iwanted to ride on the front seat—the second time in my life—but, before Icould complain, Mother told him that I was too little to ride in back, andMerryll rode there instead. As we drove off, I heard someone holler, "Aaron,they ain't got no flat roofs with peanuts on them in town." It was the littlerogue who had left me hanging off the roof the time I was trying to stealpeanuts. Word about that incident had spread, and I had been teased withoutmercy. Everybody was laughing at the remark, except for me and Father—Istill didn't think it was funny. Father seemed to understand, and Ifelt as close to him as I ever had.
We drove off amidst the hollering of good-byes and best wishes. I was betweenmy parents in front and turned to look out the back window of thetruck. Our belongings were piled too high to see, so I just hollered mygood-byes at the top of my lungs until Mother told me to hush. I am suremy father had dreamed for years about the day when he would put down thehoe and cotton sack, stop walking behind a mule, and have no need to prayabout enough wood for the winter. We had all of the money from the lastcrop, all the meat we had was cured, and all the provisions we had werestored. We were more free and economically secure than we had ever been.After we moved from the plantation, the family left behind also began tomove. My grandparents moved to Clarksdale, and the rest scattered to St.Louis and Chicago. They had been talking for years, and, after we did it,they took heart and followed.
Excerpted from The Fire Ever Burning by Aaron Henry. Copyright © 2000 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Chapter 1. The Bible, The Almanac, and the Sears Catalogue||3|
|Chapter 2. A Boy Scout General||16|
|Chapter 3. "As Good As Anybody"||29|
|Chapter 4. The Cotton Boll Court||45|
|Chapter 5. The Lie of "Separate but Equal"||58|
|Chapter 6. People Get Ready||78|
|Chapter 7. An Empty Box||85|
|Chapter 8. Mr. Doar's Promise||104|
|Chapter 9. The Diabolical Plot||110|
|Chapter 10. "Father, Forgive Them"||129|
|Chapter 11. Clarksdale Garbage||152|
|Chapter 12. The Freedom Election||156|
|Chapter 13. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party||162|
|Chapter 14. Atlantic City—Heartbreak and All||180|
|Chapter 15. From Freedom to Politics||199|
|Chapter 16. Who He Was||206|