This morning, I read some of your entries on Views from Medicine Spirit Ranch. I was intrigued and entertained by the few writings that I read, choosing to preserve some of the others for my reading pleasure at a later date. However, there was one entry that, for me, really struck a chord, stirring feelings and memories from days long since passed. The entry was “Reflections on Greenville, Texas: The Blackest Land And The Whitest People”.
You see, in the early 60s, my family and I were living in the very small town of Emory, Texas, located just about 30 miles southeast of Greenville. Population: just over 500. Though very young at the time, I have vague recollections of that slogan. These memories probably come from an occasional trip to eat barbeque at the joint in Greenville that had sawdust on the floor. Being that I was but a youngster, I recall more about the characteristics of certain places than the actual names. Nevertheless, that memory was there, and it was brought fully to my consciousness by your story.
There are two memories that really flowed to the forefront as I sat thinking of those days in that small town in northeast Texas.
Racism in the South
I grew up in the south, as did my parents. I have never considered my parents, nor my grandparents, to be racist in any way. However, I do recall the use of the “n-word” during my upbringing. Even to this day, I will, on occasion, hear my dad or my in-laws use the word. Growing up in the south during the 1920s and 30s, being different than black kids, even being BETTER than black kids, was simply an accepted norm. Right or wrong, it was a sign of the times in America. It was an aspect of life that, though dark, was years away from any realization of meaningful change.
During my youth, my parents and grandparents would use the term much as they would use any other identifying noun. It seemed, during those days of my youth in the early 60s, to be no different than referring to a man as a “plumber” or a “Baptist”. It simply identified the person with some aspect that may or may not have been immediately apparent.
As I said, I do not consider my family elders to have been racists. Case in point: Well before my birth, my grandfather, who was an auto mechanic, was working diligently in his shop one day. Into the shop entered a young, black boy appearing to be in his mid-teens. The young man approached my grandfather and indicated that he was a very poor boy and needed a job to help his family. It took but only a minute for my grandfather to understand that this young, black man was mentally handicapped. On that day, J, C, Harris would become an employee in my grandfather’s repair shop. He would quickly learn the name of every tool; he would clean them after use and place them back in their proper location after use.
We never knew exactly how old J. C. was. But, my dad was a young teenager when J. C. first came around, and they could tell that he was just a couple of years older than my dad. J. C. would become, and remain, not just an employee, but a part of the Hayes family until his death when he was somewhere in his 60s. I remember going to his funeral. I recall feeling just how sad it was that there were only a couple of members of his own family, the Harris family, in attendance. But I was proud of the fact that my family was there to give J. C. a proper send-off. My dad and his sisters, even my grandmother, who had always had a love-hate relationship with J. C., cried like babies for the loss of their “brother” and “son”. My grandfather, who had also grown to love J. C., had died a few years earlier.
So, I have learned to forgive my folks, and even others of their generation, for their verbal indiscretions. I know in my heart that they are capable of loving their fellow man, regardless of the color of his skin.
They grew up in a different environment than I did, and I, in turn, grew up in a different environment than my own children. On rare occasion, I will still hear my dad use the “n-word” in front of one of my daughters, and they are quick to chastise him for what they deem to be his insensitivities. It makes me proud to know that they will stand up and correct someone for whom they have such love, admiration and respect.
Times have, indeed, changed. We have been witness to that. And, like the sign that once hung on Main Street in Greenville, some things need to go into the shop for repairs, never to be seen again.
More Lessons from a Southern Upbringing
Please allow me to refer you to a very specific date: November 22, 1963. It is a date that you, no doubt, recall. I was but 5 years old, but it was a date that, for all Americans of the time, will reside in our memory banks as the day our country went through a dramatic change. My dad, who was the county agent for the U. S. Department of Agriculture in Rains County, had come home for lunch as was his usual routine. Following lunch, he and I took our usual position lying on the couch in the living room. For the next five minutes, I would scratch my dad’s back. I would keep my eye on the second hand of his watch to ensure that he got only the allotted amount of time. At the end of the five minutes, he would reach into his pocket, pull out a nickel and give it to me. For the life of me, I have no idea what I did with those nickels. I do not recall having any reason to spend any money at that time of my life. Entertainment for my brother and me was usually comprised of gathering with friends and strolling through the old cemetery, or going hiking in the nearby woods, all of which cost exactly nothing.
But this day would be different. Following our daily business transaction, my dad returned to work. The black and white TV in its large wooden box was still on. Suddenly, a man whom I had seen many times before, came on the TV. I would later recall that his name was Walter Chronkite. He made some sort of announcement. Though I heard his words, I did not really understand the meaning. But then I looked at my mom, standing there in front of the TV, and she began to cry. Though I did not understand what was happening, my mom had suddenly become very sad. For that reason alone, tears began to well up in my eyes. She immediately got on the phone to my dad and told him that some man had died. Within minutes (Emory was a very small town, so everything was within minutes), my dad was back home and consoling my distraught mother.
Again, at five years of age, I did not understand what had happened, but I filed that memory away and, a number of years later, I would come to appreciate the significance of the events of that day. I grew to understand that, not only had my mother cried that afternoon, but my whole country had mourned; and they would continue to mourn for years to come.
One of the things that I learned that day, even as a young boy, is to file away the memories of events that seem significant, even if you do not understand exactly why. Experience, I would come to realize, is the great teacher, and lessons are not always immediate. Sometimes it takes time and reflection to learn life’s lessons.
It would be another 38 years before I would witness something on TV that would so materially impact my life and the lives of those around me. September 11, 2001 would become, for my children, that moment in time, that memory, which would change the way they view life. My children were a bit older at the time, and the impact was more immediate. But that day would become their November 22.
I firmly believe that we are all products of our experiences. While some events will resonate with great sadness, they are, nonetheless, key moments that shape who we are as individuals; possibly more so than all of our other experiences. These are the moments that define who we are and what we will become.
In November of 1965, Dallas would become my home and would remain so for the next 15 years. To this day, I take pride in knowing what happened there and how I was able to take something positive from such an overwhelmingly unfortunate experience.
Thank you, Tom, for sharing your thoughts and stirring old memories of my own.