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The Fight for FreedomA Memoir of My Years in the Civil Rights Movement
By John Reynolds
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 John Reynolds
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLife on a Plantation
My story has to begin with my maternal grandmother, Susie Ginyard, the strong, loving, dominant figure in my life while growing up. Susie was born in 1894 in Bullock County, Alabama. A single mother, at the age of thirty she moved to Pike County with her children, hoping for a better life in the farm country outside the city of Troy, where cotton, peanuts, and sugar cane were grown in the rich red clay. Troy was the county seat of Pike County, located in the southeastern section of the state and named after Gen. Zebulon Pike of New Jersey, a soldier in the War of 1812, an explorer who discovered Pike's Peak in Colorado, and to the best of my knowledge, a man who never set foot in Alabama.
Susie soon found work on the plantation of Walter Curtis. She and her young children lived on the Curtis plantation in a house that was a little bigger and little nicer than most of the houses occupied by black families in that area. The house was on a quiet, unnamed country road with no neighbors in sight. The closest black family lived a couple miles away. The house sat back a little from the road, surrounded by fields. Next to the red dirt driveway stood a large oak tree with hanging moss. Several large pecan trees towered beside the house. The house had five rooms–a living room, a kitchen, and three bedrooms. The large living room had a fireplace which heated the front part of the house. A wood stove in the kitchen also provided heat and was where food was cooked. Behind the house were an outhouse and a chicken coop.
The mother of seven children, Susie was the matriarch of the Ginyard family. She was like a hen with young chicks. She protected and guided her flock, which in time included grandchildren. Of middle height and slightly overweight, she was dearly loved by her family. In spite of her difficult life, she was easy-going and joyful. She was the heart and soul of the growing family. Her strength came through her faith. She was a strong believer in God and the power of God. She often said, "God can make a way out of no way."
Susie was a faithful church-goer. Almost nothing would stop her from going to church. She went to church on Sundays and then would often return later that night. I remember many summer nights when revival meetings were held during the week that I would have to accompany her on the two or three mile walk to church. We would talk on the way and she would tell me stories. Often under the darkness of night, we would take a shortcut to church through the pastures, laughing and telling each other, "Watch your step!" One night during a revival meeting, I had fallen asleep while the guest pastor was preaching. I was awakened just in time to hear the preacher ask me whether I believed in God. What was a thirteen year old boy to say in front of his faithful grandmother, but "Yes, I believe." Before I knew it, I was a member of her church.
Life was not easy for my grandmother, and she struggled to raise her seven children on her own. She gave most of her children Biblical names. The oldest was Moses (known as Lee), then Aaron (Buck), Esther (Sister), my mother Mattie (Honey), James (Jabbo), Elijah (E.L.), and the youngest, Nora Pearl (Pearl). Susie worked in the fields with her children for years until she was physically unable to do it any longer, and then she began to do domestic work for the Curtis family.
Most of her seven children worked on the Curtis plantation for a good part of their lives, although a couple of them were able to escape the hardship of field work at an early age. Uncle Lee was able to get away by going into the service and settling in Florida instead of returning to Troy. The two youngest, Pearl and E.L., felt that there had to be something better than living the rest of their lives on the five dollars a day they would get working in the fields or doing domestic work. My grandmother saw the truth of what they were saying, and when Pearl reached eighteen years of age, she let her move to Florida to live with Lee. She persuaded E.L. to stay, however, to help support the family. While in Florida, Pearl met her future husband Mitch, a career military man. After they were married, she had the opportunity to see more of the world, living in the different places where he was stationed, including Germany for awhile.
I was the third of Susie Ginyard's many grandchildren. I was born in the hospital in Troy on November 2, 1946, the oldest child of my parents, Henry and Mattie Lue Reynolds. I almost did not make it into the world. My mother had difficulty delivering me, and I had to be pulled from her womb with forceps and suffered deep dents on each side of my head. My difficult birth foreshadowed the difficulties to come in my life.
Life for my parents meant working hard on the plantation, and early on it seemed as if that would be my future as well. My mother, a tiny woman just over four feet tall, worked in the fields on the Curtis plantation, as did my father, who at first was a day laborer but later became a sharecropper. He began sharecropping because he thought he would be able to make more money to provide for his family. Men earned five to seven dollars a day as day laborers. Women made even less, usually no more than four dollars a day. Children only made around two dollars a day.
My father borrowed money from Mr. Curtis to lease land on the Curtis plantation, and he began to work for himself. However, it was not really for "himself" because he was not in control of selling the cotton he raised. Mr. Curtis would pick up the cotton that my father had harvested and bring it to the cotton gin where it was sold. My father never knew how much the cotton truly earned because Mr. Curtis kept the books. He was dependent on Mr. Curtis to be fair and honest with him. But no matter how hard he worked, my father was always in debt at the end of the year. The expense side of the ledger, which included the repayment of the loan from Mr. Curtis, was always greater than the revenue. It was a vicious cycle. My father did this for two or three years until he realized that he would never make it on this or any other plantation. He finally got the courage to say that he wasn't going to do it anymore, and he left the plantation.
And it did take courage for a man to leave the plantation, because few other options were available. Jobs for black men in a segregated society were extremely limited. Troy had no major industry, so most blacks labored in the fields, picking cotton and chopping peanuts. Eventually, however, my father found work as a laborer in the construction field, and he and my mother moved into a small house in the city of Troy. We lived there for two or three years, but unfortunately, when I was about seven years old, my parents separated and I moved with my mother and two younger sisters, Mattie Jean and Susie, to my grandmother's home on the Curtis plantation.
My grandmother still had three of her children living with her: Jabbo, E.L., and Pearl, who had not yet left. When eight people live in one house, it means that you have to share rooms, or even share beds. I slept in a room off the kitchen with my Uncle E.L. Pearl slept in the room with my grandmother until she left for Florida, and then my youngest sister Susie moved in with Grandma. My mother and my sister Matt slept in the living room. Jabbo had the third bedroom.
I had a number of chores around the house. Early in the morning, I collected wood for both the kitchen stove and the fireplace, and then I started a fire in the fireplace. When my mother or grandmother washed clothes, they did this in the yard in a large metal pot with legs. I would collect coals from the fireplace, carry them out to the yard in a metal container, and place them under the pot with some wood to start a fire. The fire would heat the water in the pot to boiling and then the clothes would be put in the boiling water. One day, while carrying the hot coals, a coal fell in my shoe and I was unable to get the shoe off to remove it. I wound up with a severe burn on my right foot which to this day still bears the scar. For months while it healed, my sisters would tease me. They made up a song, "Here comes John with his rotten foot" which they would sing as I cried.
On the plantation it was expected that the parents, the children, and even the grandchildren would work in the field. That was true whether you were a boy or a girl, but boys were definitely expected to work. We were viewed as labor tools, not much else, and that's the way we were treated. My mother put me into the fields to work at the age of nine. I chopped peanuts from late spring to summer. In late summer to early fall, I picked cotton. As I picked the cotton, I would put it into a large bag. Because we got paid by the pound, it was important to stuff as much cotton as possible into each bag. Even as a nine-year old boy, I would be dragging a bag stuffed with forty to fifty pounds of cotton behind me. After the cotton crop was picked, then it was time to cut sugar cane. I used a machete to cut the cane.
I missed a lot of school because of having to work in the fields. I would go and register for school on the first day, but it might be months before I was able to return to the classroom. Both my two sisters and I worked in the fields, but the burden was lighter on them. They were able to go to school sooner and more often than I could. But it was important for my family that I work, and I realized this. I respected my mother for working so hard to provide for us, and I did my best not to add to her problems.
Often I could hear my mother or grandmother in bed crying because there was not enough food to feed all of us. But then, somehow Uncle Buck would know that we needed help and would walk the three or four miles from his house to ours to bring us food. My grandmother knew that once again, "God had made a way out of no way." I will always be thankful to Uncle Buck for all he did for our family. Even though he and his wife had many children of their own, he always made sure that we did not go without. He continued doing this even after my grandmother died, and Jabbo, E.L., and Pearl had left. My mother, my sisters, and I remained in the little house in the country by ourselves, but we always felt secure knowing that Uncle Buck would be there if we needed him.
Even today, I have powerful images of that period. Black people were exploited and were considered little more than commodities. We worked from sun up to sundown, and if we were lucky, we had an hour off for lunch. We tilled in the hot sun and struggled to get the work done when the weather was cold. I remember once being dragged behind a pickup truck. Mr. Curtis had come to the field to drive us home for lunch. He would pick us up an hour later and bring us back to the field. That day he was in a hurry and figured the sooner he got us home, the sooner we would be back at work. I was just about to get into the back of the truck when he took off without checking to see if we were all on. I held on to the rear bumper and although I tried to pull myself into the back of the truck, I couldn't. As I was being dragged through the red dirt in the field, my mother and Uncle E.L. beat on the top of the cab, trying to get Mr. Curtis to stop. Finally I had to let go. I was more angry than afraid. I realized in that moment that Mr. Curtis didn't really care about us, and I determined then that this life would not be my future. The incident reinforced the anger and humiliation that I felt for what my grandmother had to endure.
One of the domestic jobs that my grandmother performed for the Curtis family was to wash their clothes. Usually, this was done in their yard in the same way that she washed our clothes at home. A large pot was set over a fire and the clothes were heated to a boil. After that they were transferred to a wash tub filled with cold water. My grandmother would then hand wash the clothes in the cold water. Usually during the winter it was in the mid-thirties, but sometimes early in January the temperature would be at or below freezing and the cold water would form icicles. As a child, I often watched my grandmother while she washed the Curtis' clothes, and one day as her hands came up out of the cold water, I saw icicles forming on her fingers. That was my impression as an eight or nine-year-old child, although I'm aware that some might ask, "How is that possible?" But that was what I remember seeing, and that image remains with me even today. I loved my grandmother and felt she deserved more consideration and compassion from her employers.
These two incidents made me angry, and I wished that somehow we could get out of this hell that we found ourselves in. I knew that I was not the kind of person to smile and be agreeable when unpleasant things were done to me. Unfortunately, many black men, including my father, had to do that in order to survive. But even at that age, I had a temper and reached a boiling point very quickly. At school, my nickname was "Big Crook" because of my temper, and I was often in fights. I knew I would be in danger as I grew older because sooner or later I would react unwisely to a white man who was disrespecting me.
I saw how Mr. Curtis treated my Uncle Buck. Buck was a strong man with a large family, and Mr. Curtis exploited him. Mr. Curtis knew that he would work hard to provide for his family, so he gave him tasks that normally would take the strength of two or three men. Mr. Curtis expected all of my uncle's children to follow him into the fields. He would talk to Uncle Buck about my paternal grandfather, Richmond Reynolds, whom I never knew and had never laid eyes on. My grandfather had a reputation as a ladies' man and according to local legend had ten wives–at the same time! My father's mother, Mandy Hicks, was one of those wives. Mr. Curtis used this story of my grandfather in an attempt to create more laborers. He wanted my uncle to produce more children so that he could have more hands in the field.
Mr. Curtis had three children. Like my mother, he had a son and two daughters. His son, Wayne, and I shared the same birth date, although Wayne was a year older. Since they were our closest neighbors, with the little leisure time that I had, I would often play with Wayne, and occasionally with the girls. But one day, my mother came home and told me that I could no longer go to the Curtis' home and play with the children. I asked why, but she just said, "You can't anymore." I kept pushing for a clearer answer, but for whatever reason she was unable or unwilling to explain. As I grew older, I realized that the answer was that I had reached the age when it was no longer acceptable in the segregated South for a black boy to associate with white children, especially females. I did stay in contact with Wayne over the years. Occasionally when I returned home for a visit, I would stop by his office at Troy State University, where he was a professor.
Because Troy and Pike County were segregated, my sisters and I went to a separate school from the white children in the community. I rode the bus to school with the younger brothers of John Lewis, who was already involved in the Civil Rights Movement and who later became a U. S. Congressman. Not only were John and I from the same town, but we were almost "family." My cousin James Crawley was married to one of John's sisters, and they had several children together before divorcing. I'm not sure that John ever realized the connection since James and I have different last names.
Our school was clearly inferior to the white school that we passed every day in terms of its structure, equipment, and teachers. At the beginning of my junior year in high school, I decided to transfer to the city school in Troy. I felt that the city school for blacks was better academically than the one I had been attending. The city teachers stressed the importance of education, and they motivated and encouraged students to strive for a better life. They were able to do this because they were not intimidated, as were the teachers in rural areas. Many of the rural teachers lived on farms owned by whites in areas where there was Klan activity. Even those who owned their own homes were vulnerable to the threat posed by the Klan outside of the city.
My father stayed in the city of Troy after the divorce. I usually saw him on weekends when I came to Troy to visit him and pick up groceries for my mother. Occasionally, he came out to the country and brought food for us. I looked a lot like my father, except that he was taller and stronger. I looked up to him and valued his guidance and influence. His continued presence in my life was important to me. Unfortunately, at this stage of his life my father did not see the importance of education. He had very little education himself and had gone only as far as the third grade. He had moved from the plantation and had gotten into the construction trade. To him, what was important was work and making a living. If I wanted to get an education, it would be up to me to do it. Although I had begun to dream of going to college, this was truly a pipe dream.
Excerpted from The Fight for Freedom by John Reynolds Copyright © 2012 by John Reynolds. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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