Author Barbara Gray Armstrong came of age during Jim Crow when the color line was clearly drawn and America was divided into black and white. Black people were denied rights and endured discrimination. In Honoring My Journey, she weaves together both personal and public events as an exploration of what it was like being black in America.
In this memoir, she shares stories from her youth, growing up in the 1950s and ?60s in the South and prospering despite widespread bigotry. Representing just a slice of her life, Honoring My Journey narrates experiences with her parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, and classmates and of working as a nanny for a white family.
Armstrong blends the details of her family and family history into a larger, societal context to tell a story that is both personal and universal. Honoring My Journey provides insight into what it was like growing up during such a turbulent time in the nation?s history.
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Honoring My Journey
Memoir / Family History
By Barbara Gray Armstrong
Abbott PressCopyright © 2014 Barbara Gray Armstrong
All rights reserved.
I Was "The Help"
As far as I knew, White women were never lonely, except in books. White men adored them, Black men desired them, and Black women worked for them.
I was not born to serve. However, no one told my mother that. That is why when she heard of a young woman who needed a nanny for her two-year-old daughter, she hurried and made sure I was first in line for the position. I had babysat a few times, and I was good at it; therefore, Mommy was confident I could handle the job for three months.
When Mommy was a teen, Papa did not want her to do domestic work for whites; however, she didn't have any qualms about such work. She was not partial to black or white. Her favorite color was green. She painted her living and dining rooms a soft mint green, and her bedroom avocado. Her first car was a light-olive-green 1969 Ford. I can still remember the nubby feel of her moss-green coat. Mommy lived for the new and fresh greens that signaled spring.
In later years, as I was going through Mommy's things, I discovered a Gladiator composition book she had used for a "Maid's Course in Home Economics." Her home economics teacher, Miss Fuqua, taught the twelfth-grade girls how to work in white peoples' homes. Mommy was eager to learn domestic work then, because that was all that was available to her; she wanted to earn her own money. She worked on the family farm, but she received no money for that. Black women could work few places during the 1930s and 1940s. Domestic workers were always in great demand.
Mommy did not bother consulting me to see what my plans were for the summer. She decided the job was mine as soon as she heard about it. I had to pack away my summer plans like winter clothes. Mommy wanted me to earn money for clothing and things I would need for college. She was struggling just to pay household expenses. Therefore, I had to step up and grow up. That summer, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons sang "Big Girls Don't Cry." I did not.
John Glenn orbited Earth three times that year in the spacecraft Friendship 7; Albert Sabin licensed the oral polio vaccine; and Kmart, Wal-Mart, and Target eased upon the American landscape to define a new way of shopping. My favorite writer, William Faulkner, died that year, and so did Norma Jean Mortenson, better known as cultural icon and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. The civil rights movement was evolving after 1955, when a group of white men beat a black boy, Emmett Till, to death and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River in Money, Mississippi. The movement gained momentum when they arrested Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were yet to come; therefore, America remained greatly divided along the color line.
It was 1962. I was participating in a rite of passage designed to propel me into the adventures, challenges, and joys of adulthood. I had been staying in Memphis and attending high school for two years, and I thought I had one more summer to spend in Somerville before I moved on. All I wanted to hear was my name called so I could quickly walk up and receive my diploma from those people I would not miss. Both Mommy and Daddy were there, sitting together as if they were a couple; I was anxious to get the formalities over and collect my gifts. After everything ended, I hurried to the designated classroom and flung my gown onto the black pile, silently promising to never step foot inside that building again. With that, I closed the door on my carefree days and opened another to the uncertain, but desired, future that lay ahead.
Once the opportunity for me to earn some money came across Mommy's radar, she contacted the right person, and before I had a chance to spend a few mornings sleeping late and a few lazy afternoons reading True Confession, I had joined the workforce. My mother believed in putting us to work when we were old enough to walk and pick up our toys. We worked in the house, the garden, and, later, the fields. She wanted no one around who wasn't working. When there was a paycheck at the end of the week, that made it even better. Our uncle, whom we called Brother, was a farmer and raised many different crops. Daily, Mommy ushered the boys off to Brother's fields to plow, chop, or hoe cotton, okra, soybeans, or some other crop. I had been responsible for the domestic chores, including cooking; however, all that changed when Mommy realized there could be money if I did the same work for someone else. Sure, she would miss my free labor that summer, but she would make do as long as I was earning a paycheck.
I felt trapped, caught up in a plan I did not know was in the making. The summer of 1962 was supposed to be my last summer of freedom. However, I wouldn't get to spend hot summer nights sitting in the theater while crunching popcorn, slurping orange soda, and living vicariously through the actors who paraded across the silver screen.
My brother Malcolm and I had spent many nights at the Fair Theater in previous summers. It was my place to escape the heat of our house, which lacked air conditioning. We would sit in the balcony, the place designated for black patrons, and sometimes contemplate what would happened if we let a cup of soda pop flip over onto the patrons below. Malcolm was the mischievous sort who could have easily done that if given some encouragement. Both of us knew better.
In the theater, I could visit faraway places, such as Egypt during the time of Moses in The Ten Commandments. On the other hand, I could see other parts of the United States, such as New York City, and imagine myself singing and dancing alongside Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno in West Side Story. For only twenty cents, I could see a world very different from mine. Nevertheless, my favorite summer activity would have to wait because the world of work was demanding my participation. It would be another year before I would enjoy the antics of Scout and Jem in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Although published in 1960 and already an academy award–winning movie, I had not read the book. I had it on my reading list for the summer of 1962.
Spending summers in the country was difficult for me during my teen years. I would escape through reading any kind of romantic magazines and comics I could get at the Rexall drug store. I didn't know that my time reading such was about to end abruptly.
Off to Memphis I went to live in as the help for a young woman I will refer to as Miss Ann. She hired me to provide care for her two- year-old daughter, Missy. Miss Ann was not a professional or a single mother who needed to work, but like many southern white women during that time, she enjoyed the services of a maid, a nanny, or both. She was not the typical southern belle or lady of leisure. She didn't lunch with the girls or shop. Neither did she do charity work. She did not read or have a hobby. Miss Ann simply was not into mothering or cleaning. Sometimes she would help "Mr. G" with his houses. He was a contractor and her lover, who, much to my displeasure, also lived there. I didn't like the idea of living with him, but I only learned of that arrangement after I had accepted the job. I think if Mommy had known, she wouldn't have let me take the job.
Miss Ann hired me as a nanny, but I soon became victim of the old bait and switch. In a short time, I was "chief cook and bottle washer." That is to say, I was the maid, cook, shopper, laundress, hairdresser, bartender, and chauffeur. It didn't take Miss Ann long to discover I had skills and was willing to learn others. All that cooking, cleaning, and laundry I had done at home had prepared me well. Miss Ann showed me what I didn't know, such as how to polish silver and clean carpet. We would get down on our knees with a soft brush and scrub the light beige carpet together. I was not fond of carpet cleaning or polishing silver, which I did every two weeks; however, I enjoyed the gleam of the silver and looked forward to the day I would have my own.
Miss Ann was particular about how she wanted things done. It was no different with her laundry, especially her undergarments, which she wanted me to wash by hand. That was where I drew the line. I put those delicate items right into the washer with the rest of the clothes, and she was none the wiser. She sent me to the liquor store, which was within walking distance, to buy vodka, vermouth, and Burgundy wine until the store manager looked at me on about the third trip and asked, "How old are you?"
I didn't know why he was asking, but I answered proudly, "I'm seventeen."
"Well, you gonna have to stop coming here gitin' liquor. You underage. What's your boss lady's telephone number?"
I gave him the number, and he called Miss Ann while I waited.
"Ma'am, I'm the manager at the liquor store. You gonna have to stop sendin' this girl here to get liquor. I cain't be selling to nobody under twenty-one. I'm gonna let her have it this time, but I cain't do it again." With that quick phone call, my trips to the liquor store ended. I could strike that chore off my list.
Miss Ann was a little disappointed that I could no longer get liquor, but it was not long before she realized I could drive her to the store, and she could run in and get it.
At first I felt like Milberry in Langston Hughes's short story "Berry." I felt that I was being imposed upon "in that taken-for-granted way white folks do with Negro help."
Miss Ann was a perfectionist, which worked well for me. I liked the idea of order and beauty. She wanted everything in her environment to be in perfect order—her home, her clothing, and her appearance, as well as her daughter and her meals. Miss Ann's apartment looked like a spread from House and Garden magazine. I got a sense of arranging a home attractively because of Miss Ann. I took much from her that I would later incorporate into my lifestyle. She was a good cook. I think she enjoyed the few times she joined me in the kitchen. I loved the taste of Italy in her use of garlic, oregano, and olive oil.
One time we were making crab cakes and one of them fell apart. She said, "Throw that out. It's not right. Get rid of it." It wasn't shaped perfectly and didn't hold together right. I grabbed it and looked at her to see if she was serious. I reluctantly threw it in the trash can thinking how Mommy would never throw away good food.
When Miss Ann sent me to Montesi's Supermarket to get steaks, she would say, "Tell the butcher to cut them exactly two inches thick." Her instructions on how to prepare them for the grill were "Rub them with olive oil, split open a fresh garlic clove and rub it on the steaks, and then sprinkle salt and black pepper on them."
Mr. G would grill them so they were charred on the outside and bloody in the center. They smelled delicious, but that bloody meat was such a turnoff that on those nights Missy and I would eat tuna or chicken.
The twice-baked potatoes had to be perfect in shape and color. Miss Ann showed me how to rub olive oil and a fresh garlic clove inside the wooden salad bowl to season it before I filled it with lettuce, perfectly sliced green peppers, carrots, red onions, and ripe tomatoes. With that fare, they would have Burgundy wine served at room temperature. I would have set the table with good china, crystal, and cloth napkins. No matter the menu, the table setting would be exquisite, elegant, and inviting.
Shortly after I arrived, Miss Ann told me to make two BLTs and bring them to the bedroom. I said, "Yes ma'am," and into the kitchen I went to look for a box or a bag with "BLT" on it. First, I looked in the cabinets, and then I looked in the refrigerator. I couldn't find anything with BLT on it. After a long search, feeling somewhat embarrassed, I knocked on her bedroom door and asked unapologetically, "Miss Ann, what is a BLT?"
She said, "Bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich." She probably had wondered why she wasn't enjoying the aroma of bacon frying.
I should have known that, I thought. I felt stupid for a minute, but Miss Ann didn't respond with sarcasm or act as if I should have known. Therefore, I got over my embarrassment, went back to the kitchen, and fried the bacon to the right crispness, sliced the tomatoes, washed and dried the lettuce, and toasted the white bread to perfection. When I presented the sandwiches on a silver tray, Miss Ann smiled and offered a simple "thank you." I left smiling because it was then that I knew I had the ability to do the job well. I felt obligated to do well to please Mommy, and I didn't want to let down the woman who was instrumental in my getting the job.
The first time Miss Ann told me to make a Bloody Mary and martini, I had no idea what they were. Daddy drank whisky, and I had seen homemade wine during Christmas at my grandparents' home. Beer was common enough. I knew nothing about cocktails. Miss Ann told me exactly how much gin and vermouth to pour for the martini, how many olives to add, and the proper glasses to use. The Bloody Mary was more complicated. It contained vodka, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, lemon, hot sauce, and a stalk of celery for garnish. Neither drink enticed me; therefore, I never tasted them. Miss Ann gave good instructions, and I followed them exactly. I enjoyed doing those tasks more than I enjoyed taking care of Missy, because I felt more grown-up while doing them.
Miss Ann paid me $25 each week. She would sign the check, and I would write it. The average salary at that time was $5,500 a year, but I don't think this included the salaries of African Americans. At any rate, I was way below average. I also wrote checks to the grocery, drug store, liquor store, landlord, and whatever else she needed. I learned fast. She would sign the checks and send me on my way. Her rent for the luxury apartment was $375 per month. The average rent in America in 1962 was $110 per month. Again, I don't think black people were included in that statistic.
Young professionals, such as pilots, stewardesses, nurses, and some older people with money, lived in the complex, which encircled a courtyard with a pool as its centerpiece. It was exclusive.
One afternoon as I was going across the courtyard around the pool to the laundry room, I saw some high school girls laughing, talking, and slathering on suntan lotion. They looked at me as if I had drunk from the "whites only" water fountain or entered the "whites only" waiting room. I was also curious about them. After all, I lived there and they didn't. They had come to visit someone in the complex so they could get some sun and swim. As I passed, one girl asked, "How old are you?"
"We thought you were older."
They were giddy girls who wore too much makeup and red lipstick and had nothing more to do than lounge around the pool laughing and talking and enjoying their leisure. I, on the other hand, was slaving from dawn until dark, enjoying no leisure, not even reading or watching television. I guessed that their maids were older women with husbands and children of their own who had decided to make caring for white people their vocation. So perhaps they thought it odd that someone near their age would be doing such work.
To add to my more mature status I said, "I'll be going to college in the fall."
That pronouncement caused them to look at me with a bit of awe and maybe a little respect and envy. I smiled as I hurried off with the laundry basket to the sounds of Chubby Checker singing "The Twist" on the transistor while leaving them to wonder why a colored girl was even thinking about going to college. Marriage was the goal for many white girls after high school in the 1950s and early 1960s.
I have fond memories of the people who lived near Miss Ann. They were nice to me, not at all condescending. They didn't live or act like southerners and were to me avant-garde. I think they had come from California. I was glad to meet white people who didn't fit the stereotypical southern way of being regarding matters of color and race. They and Miss Ann are the reason I didn't lump all white people together and judge them as being prejudiced. My early interactions with them allowed me to relate well to other white people and to enjoy many good relationships over the years, from Nashville to Charleston, Louisville, Mobile, and Atlanta.
Excerpted from Honoring My Journey by Barbara Gray Armstrong. Copyright © 2014 Barbara Gray Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAuthor's Note, xi,
What's in a Name?, xix,
I Was "The Help", 1,
Glorious Good Hair and Lovely Light Skin, 20,
School Daze, 36,
Where Are You, God? And What Are You?, 83,
Get a Job!, 97,
Family Hammond / Branch / Gray,
From Young Slave to Oldest Minister in America, 120,
From Whence I Came: Big Daddy and Big Mama, 134,
Virginia Ardis Gray Westbrook, 150,
I Am My Brothers' Keeper, 165,
Daddy's Girl, 173,
Jefferson / Howell,
From Slave to Landowner, 191,
On Whose Shoulders I Stand: Papa and Mama, 199,
Dear Mommy, 227,
My Journey Home, 255,