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My Beginning – The Early Years by Mary Haralson Coleman with Starkishia
I was born in 1933 in Harperville, Scott County, Mississippi during the Great Depression. I lived with my Stepfather Wiley, my Mother Luella, and my seven siblings: Macie Lean, Ever Lean, Bessie, Lizzie, Lola, Floyd Henry whom we called Bud, and Fannie, the youngest. I don’t remember much about my mother since I was only five years old when she was called home at age 39 in 1938.
I distinctly remember mama was a very beautiful lady with naturally straight, long hair. I often stood behind her at night and helped roll her hair on strips of brown paper; she needed no pressing comb or hot curlers. By age five, mama was ill and weak most of the time, so her sister, Aunt Virgie took me home with her often.
When mama died, I was in Carthage, Mississippi with Aunt Virgie. A family friend picked us up and took us to my sister Bessie’s home in Harperville where my family was living. Upon our arrival mama’s body was still in the bed. Due to my young age I didn’t have a clear understanding of death. I was more afraid of seeing a dead body than anything. Because I was reluctant to go in to see mama, I was picked up and carried into her room. Not many emotions ran through me as I viewed mama’s lifeless body. I was just too young to understand I would not see her again.
Aunt Virgie was an awesome lady who always looked out for mama’s youngest children: me, Lola, Bud, and Fannie. Daddy didn’t remarry. Aunt Virgie played a big role in our lives. From time to time, she took one of us home with her and bought us clothes and shoes. She kept whomever she took for a few months at her house; then, she started all over again. We took turns living with her until we were old enough to help ourselves. While looking at mama bewildered I noticed someone placed quarters over her eyes. I asked why and was shushed out the room. However, years later I was told that was how they close peoples’ eyes when they die with them open. Though I can’t recall many of the events following mama’s death, I do remember being bused to the funeral in the white children’s school bus. After the funeral we were brought back home; there was food for everyone. Later that day, Aunt Virgie took me back to Carthage. This is the only remembrance I have of my mother.
Aunt Virgie ran a juke joint out of her five room wooden house which sat by the railroad tracks in the Negro living quarters on the edge of town. She rented two rooms out by the hour, we lived in two of the rooms, and the other room was turned into a café where she sold corn whiskey and made a good living at it. We children weren’t permitted in the café, but at her house there was always something fun to do.
On one occasion, I recall playing in a ditch beside the club and finding a gallon jug of what I thought was water. I made mud pies with it. It wasn’t until I came in the house smelling like alcohol I realized the water was corn whiskey. Aunt Virgie hit the ceiling; she was going to tear me to pieces, but her husband, Uncle Jessie refused to let her whip me. I was grateful to him for saving me.
Aunt Virgie was a chef in the kitchen; when it seemed there was nothing to cook, she stirred up a meal from nowhere. She taught me how to fish in creeks, but it was boring to me. I made up games to play to pass the time while she fished. At first I did not like fishing because we left home at sun up and returned at sun down. She always stopped at noon to clean and cook fish then return fishing.
I hated fishing and said, “I will never go fishing again.” But I’ve been fishing ever since; it’s an addiction.
Aunt Virgie later moved to Brandon in a log cabin surrounded by woods. Living in Brandon was fun times for me even though I was the only child at her house. There were no houses nearby, nor children for me to play with, so I made up games to play by myself. I jumped rope, went exploring, and played jacks.
One day I went exploring in the woods and got lost. After walking for miles, I came to a road not knowing which way to go, I sat down and started crying. A kind white lady stopped to see what was wrong.
“What’s wrong?” she asked softly.
“I got lost in the woods,” I sadly replied.
“Where do you live sweetheart?” she asked.
“In a log cabin on Highway 80,” I answered.
With the information I gave her she carried me home safely. The experience taught me an important lesson: all white people are not evil; it could have been the other way. Thank you, Angel Luella for watching over me.
At age six, I, along with my siblings attended school at Union Grove Methodist Church out in the country in a one room, wooden building with glass windows. The church congregation was Black, but the school was funded by the county.
One teacher, Mr. McCarter, taught first through eighth grade. We sat in the pews to learn using our laps as desks. We carried our lunch to school in small molasses buckets containing whatever we had leftover from the previous day. We did not eat sandwiches like children do today; we ate peas, greens, salt meat, and cornbread. Sometimes we had a sweet potato for dessert.
Later, the county started delivering our lunch: pork and beans and soda crackers. The beans were heated on the stove that kept us warm during the winter. We walked five miles to and from school every day. There were buses running, but not for children of color because to whites we were not good or clean enough to ride in buses. So, we walked while white children rode, but we enjoyed ourselves. We walked awhile and skipped awhile until we made it to and from school.
White children threw rocks and spit at us as the bus passed by. We often jumped in ditches to avoid being hit or spat on; whenever we asked why colored children had to walk when whites rode we were always told, “That’s just the way it is.” Even as a child the explanation didn’t make sense to me; it wasn’t fair that the color of their skin gave them privileges we didn’t have.
We lived in a small two room wooden house on the side of a dirt road. The front room served more than one purpose, it was not only the room we entertained in but also our bedroom; there were two beds in the room. Daddy Wiley and Bud slept in one, Lola, Fannie and I slept in the other. We had a small kitchen with a wood burning stove. After school we helped daddy pick cotton, peas, pull corn, dig sweet potatoes in the fields, and perform other tasks sharecroppers had to do to survive. The plantation owner, Mr. Hampton, permitted daddy to put on his credit tab anything we needed during the year, and when the crops were ready daddy had to pay him back.
Although we worked all year round at the end of cropping season Mr. Hampton always told daddy, “Wiley, you almost got out of debt.” It seemed no matter how hard daddy worked he always owed more than he made. We finally got out of debt when my older sisters started marrying and leaving home.
Because Mr. Hampton wanted to rent his house to a larger family we had to move out. More field hands meant more profits for Mr. Hampton. He had no loyalty to us for working his land for all those years. Nevertheless, Daddy moved us to another white owned plantation home, but things turned out the same.
We lived through hard times, but we made it. We each received one pair of shoes per year, and when they were no longer of good use we improvised. We used large wood chips, padded them with rags, placed them under our feet, wrapped our feet with a burlap sack, and tied a string around our legs. My siblings and I were making Eskimo shoes long before we even knew there were Eskimos.
Our dresses were made from flour sacks which came in printed varieties or flowered designs. We made homemade cakes and biscuits with the flour. My sisters sewed the flour sacks together by hand using a needle and thread because we didn’t own a sewing machine. Daddy and Bud usually wore overalls to school, work, and church which were purchased from the General Store.
For Christmas we acted extra good for Santa. We couldn’t afford a Christmas tree or decorations, but that didn’t crush our holiday spirit. We all received one apple, one orange, 10 pecans, two sticks of peppermint candy, and a yoyo or jacks. We were as happy as if we received a new car. All Black families experienced the same trials back then as they do now, but it is more secretive now. When times got too bad we moved in with one of my older sisters.
We were living with my third oldest sister Bessie, whom we called Bess, when mom died in a small three room wooden house with wooden doors. The windows were glassless containing wooden shutters that we opened and closed as needed. There was no bathroom, so we relieved ourselves in the nearby woods. The living room was transformed into a bedroom to make room for us. Bess was not married, and she had one son named Houston, whom we nicknamed “Cushie.” He got all of us in trouble, but when it came to chastising him, all of us, except Fannie, asked to take his whipping.
Bess was a single mom, who did her best to provide for her son and younger siblings. I remember her working for 50¢ a day. Sometimes her boss couldn’t pay her in money, so she gave her leftover food from their dinner or old clothes we could wear, but Bess never complained; she accepted their charity; she didn’t let pride stand in the way of getting what we needed.
Three of our maternal cousins lived up the road from Bess’s house. One day they stopped by while Bess was in the field chopping cotton. Essie, who was my age and whom I always fought with, hit me and ran. I chased her, and when I could not catch her to get my lick back I sat down and started hollering.
Bess heard me, thought something was wrong, and ran all the way from the field to find me sitting on the edge of the porch hollering and slobbering like a mad dog because I did not get my lick back.
After resting she asked me, “What’s wrong with you girl?”
“Essie hit me and ran,” I replied.
“So, you did all that screaming for nothing,” Bessie snapped.
“I thought something was really wrong,” Bessie complained.
Then she got a switch, and the race was on. I ran as fast as I wanted to when I saw a switch. She sent Bud to catch me, but he couldn’t; so, he gave up and went back to the house. I refused to go home until it was dusk dark.
Because I was and still am afraid of the dark I crept closer to the house the darker it got. I came closer and even got close enough to sit on the porch which was a big mistake. Bud came from behind the house and grabbed me. I could not get away from him. He held onto to me and called Bess. She only weighed about 90 pounds, but she hit with the force of a 300 pounder. She tore me up. From that day on I stopped running when she said switch, but my bladder reacted even before she gave the first lick.
When she was working, Bess often sat on the porch and dipped snuff. She looked so cool doing it I wanted to try it one day, so I asked for some.
She said, “Okay, let me show you how to put it in your lip so you won’t get it on your clothes.”
“Okay,” I happily agreed.
Bess filled the lid with snuff and told me, “Lean your head back.”
I obeyed, and she filled my mouth with snuff and rubbed it in. I tried to get away too late and swallowed some of it. It was summer time and very hot, I laid out on the porch to die. I was so sick I longed for death. The incident took my taste for snuff, but I took up the habit of dipping chocolate. Back then chocolate came in powder form, and I placed it in my lip as if I were dipping snuff. Dipping chocolate gave me the illusion I was grown up like Bess.
Bess’s weakness was thunder and lightning. During a storm, she woke us up in the middle of the night if she heard thunder. In her mind a place of safety was at the Hamptons who lived across the Street. Whenever there was a storm Mrs. Hampton went outside and rang the bell for us to come over because she was scared too. I hated getting out of my warm bed to sleep on the living room floor at the Hamptons on blankets. Living with Bess was one thing after another, but through it all we had a good childhood.
My sister Lola was four years older than me; she was big, tall, and domineering. She often did bad things then dared us to tell Bess because if we did everyone was getting a whipping. I decided I was not taking a whipping for what she did, so I started telling on her. Every time I told on Lola she beat me up when Bess left the house.
She turned Bud and Fannie against me by describing them as brown skinned and me as the dark member of the family. I was blackballed from playing with them when Bess left for work, and they wouldn’t allow me eat with them either.
For a while Bud and Fannie listened to her and did whatever she said. I couldn’t even sleep in the bed with Lola and Fannie. I had to sleep on the floor. Whenever Bess asked why I slept on the floor I lied and said I wanted to.
Then one night something happened to Bud while he was sleeping. I don’t know what it was, but he woke me up and apologized to me; he told me, “I’m not going to be mean to you anymore.” After that night he went to war for me when my sisters messed with me. Pretty soon they changed their minds about how they treated me too.
I will never forget the day my siblings and I were playing with the neighbor’s children in the pasture. We found a small sapling tree, pulled it down to the ground, let someone get on it, then, and let it go, so the person could ride it back up.
I realized this was a bad idea when it was my turn. When they let the tree go I went flying through the air like a bird, but I didn’t fly long. I fell to the ground and was knocked out. When they could not wake me up they went to find Bess. The switch action was on again. I was not able to outrun her, and she whipped me all the way home. No more tree flying for me.
We often went rabbit hunting in the woods using sticks of wood instead of guns; we gathered around the rabbit’s nest and made a lot of noise to scare drive them out of the brush. When they ran out of the bushes, Lola aimed by pointing a finger and threw the wood knocking the rabbit out. Lola had a great aim, and she sure knew how to use a stick of wood. In her hand the wood was as good as a gun.
One day we made the big mistake of stealing daddy’s gun to go hunting. When we got in the woods Lola pointed out that she was the oldest and had the right to shoot first. She cocked the gun, put it up on her shoulder, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The shotgun kicked back and hit Lola in the face. She fell to the ground. We ran off and left her lying there.
When Lola got up she forgot to grab daddy’s gun and returned to the house empty handed. Once home none of us said anything about what happened. Later that evening daddy came home and quickly noticed the gun was not in the rack on the wall.
“Where is my gun?” daddy asked. No one said anything. After a moment we started lying and making up excuses. Lola lied and said, “We took it to kill a wild dog that came in the yard.” We tried to keep the story together hoping he believed us. After listening to our lies daddy ordered all of us to go find his gun. It was dark outside, and we had no idea where we were when we left the gun in the woods, but we knew we had to find it. Without a flashlight to illuminate the darkness we lit pine sticks and cried as we stumbled through the woods. Every noise we heard frightened us more than we already were. Finally, we found the gun; oh what joy we felt; we never stole daddy’s gun again.
My baby sister Fannie was my protector, my friend, my confidante, and my cheerer-upper. Fannie was short and thin with sandy red hair. Though she was small she moved really fast. Being the youngest of eight children she sometimes had her way.
During the Christmas season Bess arranged a fruit bowl in the middle of the bed for decoration and aroma. One Christmas Fannie took a bite from each apple; then, she turned them around so no one could see her teeth marks. When Bess found out the apples were bitten on the back side she asked us who was responsible. Since no one admitted to the charge everyone got a whipping.
I pleaded with Fannie not to do bad things, and she always said, “She may kill me, but she can’t eat me. She only whips us because we don’t have a mother; we are motherless children.” Fannie always knew how to make me cry; her words made me feel as if we were the only motherless children in the world. She knew how to get on my soft side.
I didn’t like to fight, and whenever someone picked on me as my protector Fannie always came to my rescue. As soon as she started fighting I ran leaving her to fight my battle. After the fight she fought me for running. My feet wouldn’t allow me to stand still and fight. I always hollered and depended on Fannie to come save me.
Although Bud was only two years older than me he was my big brother and being ‘Big Brother’ I expected him to take my side in a dispute. Walking home from school one day, a boy named Bill, who had a crush on me, asked, “Who carried your books yesterday?” In those days if a boy liked a girl he asked to carry her books. I remarked slyly, “If you were at school yesterday you would know who carried them.”
I guess that was the wrong answer because he slapped me. Now, I was always afraid of fighting girls, but when he hit me my body reacted instantly. I started fighting like a crazy person, and we both fell into a muddy ditch which didn’t stop me. Bill wasn’t fighting back during my attack. Bud ran over, pulled us out of the ditch, and separated us. Resuming our walk home Bud looked at me and said, “When a boy slaps a girl it means he loves her.” His words didn’t make sense to me, never have and never will. The fight ended there, we were friends the next day, and Bill continued carrying my books.
When we were growing up most of Mississippi was rural and people didn’t have running water, and didn’t take baths is tubs. We carried water in buckets from the well, warmed it, and bathed in a washing tub. One day Bud decided to bathe in the pond with lye soap which we used to wash our clothes. Within minutes he started burning; the soap was too strong for skin, so it burned his body. We didn’t have Vaseline, but thank God for the cooking lard we had in the kitchen. We greased Bud’s skin with lard, and wrapped him in old rags like a mummy. It took weeks, but he healed.
On one occasion daddy purchased a goat for the Fourth of July. Bud fell in love with it and took him for a pet which was not daddy’s reason for buying the goat. Daddy warned him not to get attached to the animal, but he didn’t listen. The day daddy was to kill the goat Bud took him and ran away. After hiding all morning he came home because he was hungry.
Bud pleaded with daddy to spare the goat but it had to die that we might live. Bud sat on a stool hollering and howling for hours, but we ate goat for days. Bud refused to eat any which left more for the rest of us.
Bud wanted to be a chef, and he decided to test the waters. One day he decided to make us some biscuits. He really didn’t know what he was doing, they didn’t turn out right. The biscuits were rock hard, but he kept trying. He made more and more until he used all the flour. Bud literally buried his mistakes in the yard to hide that he used all the flour from Bess. After Bess discovered what happened she tore his behind up.
Even though he got a whipping Bud was not deterred. Another day, while Bess was working, he decided to cook us some greens. Bud picked the greens, got a slug of salt pork, and put them in a pot. They looked delicious. When Bess got home she sat down to eat the greens he prepared. Midway through I guess she tasted some grit because she stopped eating and asked, “How many times did you wash them?” Oops! He didn’t wash them he just picked and cooked them. She didn’t whip him that time because his intentions were pure.
Later on, we moved in with our oldest sister Macie Lean who lived a few miles away. She had a son named Percy, but we called him “Sonny.” Only three months separated Sonny and I; we had a lot in common. We shared many of the same interests. Whatever I thought was fun he did too. When Macie Lean gave birth to Sonny she still lived at home. Macie Lean told me whenever mom left she breast fed me like she did her son when I got hungry. How gross. But I survived. Back then it was common for nursing moms to feed other children from their breast.
Macie Lean and her husband Jessie lived in a three room wooden house with a wide front porch. There was a front room, bedroom, and kitchen; we transformed the front room into a bedroom to make room for us.
Sonny was hard headed and stayed in trouble with his mother. I hated to see him get a whipping. When he got a whooping, I cried as if she was whipping me. I would have taken his whipping, but that did not work. Macie Lean planted a garden in her front yard, and one day we were playing outside when she called Sonny and told him to go pick her two ripe tomatoes. Fifteen minutes later he was still playing.
“Didn’t I tell you to pick me two tomatoes?” she asked.
“Get in that garden and get em’ right now or else!” she retorted.
She scolded him and sent him in the garden. Mad because he had to stop playing Sonny wanted to get even with her, so he picked five or six green tomatoes and carried them inside.
He made a big mistake. Macie Lean started hollering and grabbed the gun as if she was going to shoot him. Sonny started running, and she fired over his head; he stumbled and fell. Thinking she shot him Macie Lean dropped the gun and fainted on the porch. We didn’t know how to bring her around, so we all started crying. We thought she was dead. We were relieved when she came to. Macie did not get the gun at him anymore, but there were other times she used drastic measures to keep him in line.
One time Sonny was being bad Macie Lean pretended she was going to hang him by his neck. She told the rest of us to say our goodbyes and pray for him to go to heaven.
“Please don’t hurt him,” I cried.
“Please help him Lord,” Fannie prayed.
“Naw’ this is it. I told him time and time again,” Macie Lean declared.
After we prayed and cried she gave him another chance. We were glad and thankful our prayers worked, but looking back I know now she was not serious. Macie Lean was as good as gold, but don’t push her because you wouldn’t want to see her angry.
Macie Lean’s husband, Jessie was so evil. She use to cook and go to church, but he wasn’t the church going type. He ate all he wanted then hid or threw the rest of the food to the hogs. One day she heard popping coming from the loft and went to find out what the sound was. She found peas he hid to keep her from eating. What a life.
After a while they divorced and she remarried. Her new husband, Toy was a heavy drinking, and came home drunk late at night demanding she get up, start a fire in the stove, and cook him something to eat. He didn’t want leftovers. Though he was small sometimes he pushed Macie Lean around; he scared us, and we all knew to stay out of his way whenever he was intoxicated.
One night about 2:00 a.m. Toy came home drunk and woke her up to cook him something to eat; she’d had enough. Macie Lean started a fire in the wood burning stove then sat him on top of it and held him there for a second. The flame burned through his pants; he definitely felt the heat. That particular incident ended their marriage, but she did not give up on love.
For a short while I stayed with our fourth oldest sister Lizzie; she had a full house with 13 children; she and her husband J.C. made 15 people living in a three room house in the country on a white man’s plantation. There was no room for extras. I spent a lot of time visiting with her and sometimes the visits turned into weeks. On occasion I babysat her children when she went somewhere. Her oldest child Lonzie Lee was five years younger than me and very hard headed. I managed to handle him by locking him outside and not feeding him.
We lived with our second oldest sister Ever Lean, whom we called Pat, and her husband John the longest. They were sharecroppers as were most African Americans in Mississippi in 1943. They had six children, plus us which made a total of 13 people living in a small, three room house. You can imagine there was a lot going at home.
We lived on Mr. Lester’s farm, a dark complexion Black man who considered himself white because he owned land. He lived in a large house with a big yard. We walked a short distance up the dirt road to his cotton field to work. The children picked the cotton left in the field after the adults finished. Pat took that cotton and put it in the mattresses to make them softer.
One day my siblings and I were in the field picking cotton when Mr. Lester approached me and asked, “Can I feel your tomatoes?”
We were picking cotton and there were no tomatoes around. I really didn’t understand his request until he attempted to touch my breast. I pulled off the cotton sack and ran home. The occurrence was terrifying because even at age 10, I knew his touch was inappropriate. I was afraid to tell what happened and decided I wasn’t going back to the field because I didn’t want to pick cotton anymore.
Pat insisted I go back to the fields, but I rebelled. I got three whippings in one day because every time she whipped me I sat on the side of the road. After the third whipping she left me alone because John said, “That’s enough.”
When I didn’t want to go the next day John insisted I tell them what the problem was. Even though I was scared they wouldn’t believe me I told them the truth. To my surprise they believed me, and all hell broke loose. When confronted Mr. Lester tried to deny what he did, but my brother in-law knew I would not have taken those whippings if he didn’t do it. I learned a valuable lesson that day, always tell if someone attempts or touches you in an uncomfortable manner.
John was a good provider, a loving husband, and he loved his children and those of us who lived in his house, but he had a drinking problem. On weekends he had to have his booze; sometimes he came home loud and threatening. We were afraid of him, but he never harmed any of us; he was just loud.
One Saturday night he came home drunk, and Lola was fed up with him. She found a stick of stove wood and beat him to sleep. The next morning he was sore all over and did not remember what happened. He decided if he was too drunk to realize who beat him up he needed to slow down his drinking. From then on, he came home peacefully and went to bed.
Later, we discovered he had a still where he made home-brew which is illegal. The Choctaw Indians, who lived off Highway 35 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, often came by to purchase alcohol from him. One afternoon I cared for the children while John and Pat went to town. We were sitting on the porch when I saw the Indians in their flatbed truck, nothing but seats and windshield, coming down the road. I grabbed the children, ran in the house, closed the door, and we hid under the bed.
They knocked on the door and peeped in the windows, but they did not see us. The baby wanted to cry, but I muffled the sound with my hand. I was scared to death! After a while I heard them say, “I know she’s here, she’s scared.” They left. And how right they were because I was, and still am, afraid of Indians even though my grandmother was half Indian. The horror stories I heard about Indians scalping people put a fear in me which I haven’t been able to shake to this very day.
One day we were left alone and found where John hid his brew. Home-brew is sweet to the taste and does not burn your mouth, but it will get you drunk. When he and Ever Lean returned home everybody was drunk from the baby to me. We passed the brew around until we were all intoxicated. We didn’t get a whipping; they just let us sleep it off, but we had an awful headache and hangover for days. That particular incident made me hate the taste of alcohol. Shortly afterward John closed his still.
There was an older lady who lived down the road and gave all the neighborhood children baked sweet potatoes whenever we passed her house. Everyone in the neighborhood called her “Mother El,” so she became Mother El to me too. I didn’t find out she was my paternal grandmother until I officially met my biological father Miles for the first time in 1944.
I did not know he was my father, but I saw him every summer when he came to visit Mother El. He sometimes drove or road a train home; you could tell he lived a fancy life up north because he wore suits and hats. Daddy and men in the area usually wore overalls, even to church, but he dressed like a businessman. In 1935 when I was two years old Miles and his wife Emora moved to Chicago, Illinois in search of a better way of life.
We were living with Pat the summer of my 11th birthday, and Miles was in Harperville. My stepfather Wiley spotted him and immediately approached him downtown and bluntly asked him, “When you gonna’ start helping take care of Mary?”
Daddy Wiley’s approach shocked Daddy Miles because he didn’t know my stepfather knew he was my biological father. But he replied, “Well, I guess I will.”
There were no differences in the way Daddy Wiley treated me, and to me, he was my father because he loved me. My fathers had a private conversation later and determined I would be better taken care of if I moved to Chicago. My time was up picking cotton in the fields at Pat’s house because I was being carried up north.
The decision was hard on me because Fannie and I had never been separated. I didn’t want to go, but Daddy Wiley assured me the move was in my best interest. I was obedient, and after a lot of crying and hugging I was taken to Chicago by my father’s cousin Joe who was visiting Harperville.
We travelled by train which was a nervously, exciting experience for a country girl who had only ridden in a wagon. I arrived in Chicago in February 1945. It was extremely cold, and everything was covered in a thick blanket of white snow. I had never seen snow before, and I wanted to play in it, but I was not permitted to.
The beautiful snow is one of my first memories of moving to Chicago at age 12. We lived on the second floor of a three story apartment building which included two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and bathroom. We even had a telephone! I assumed things would be similar to Mississippi, but everything was different in Chicago.
Life was better. I wore store bought clothes and shoes purchased from Sears or Montgomery Ward. From the moment I set foot in Chicago I was met with new experiences I hadn’t even thought of; my whole world changed. This was exciting to me because in Mississippi we didn’t have running water. We hauled our water from a spring; we didn’t have a bathroom with a toilet or bathtub, nor electricity.
Upon meeting my stepmother Emora, at first, there was no connection between us. I was small and afraid, and to me she was large and domineering. I was used to living and doing things a certain way, but with her it was her way or no way. I tried to do and be what she expected of me, but we did not get along at all. I always felt like she was trying to change me, but as time passed she became the mother I needed. She taught me the important things in life: how to be a lady, how to cook, how to clean house, how to be honest with myself and others, and most of all she taught me about God and how He can work miracles in my life which He did.
Mother Emora dragged me to church not just on Sunday but all through the week. In Mississippi, we only attended church one Sunday a month, and a couple of days, once a year, for Revival. After six months, I was saved and joined the church; it was then I realized my stepmother’s efforts were to make a woman of me. I began seeing and feeling that she loved me, and our relationship flourished. There were times I thought to myself I will never go to church when I get grown, but look at me all these years later and I am still praising God.
Eventually, I learned there had been a misunderstanding between her and my birth mother. There was resentment between the two women because mama stepped out of her marriage to Daddy Wiley and conceived me with Miles, but Emora was never able to have children with him. Nevertheless, the past did not stop her from loving me as her own.
Adjusting to life in Chicago was challenging; it was cold, I did not know anyone, and I didn’t fit in. I stuck out like a sore thump with my southern drawl and country ways. I soon learned to adapt to the weather, the people, and my family. Eventually, my father enrolled me in Betsy Ross Elementary School which was on the same block we lived on Wabash Ave. on the city’s south side.
The school was a big, brick building and it took up an entire block. My teacher, Mrs. Cadillac, was Caucasian. This was a first for me. She was a very nice person who spent a lot of time with me to help me catch up with the rest of the class. We changed classes for each subject. My favorite subject was reading. I read any and everything I could find.
I made friends and enemies at the same time in school. There were five girls in my class who were bullies. I was always taught to share whatever I had, but they took my kindness for weakness. If I carried a pickle to school one of them asked for a bite and passed it around and when it got back to me there was nothing left but a nub. This same thing happened with pencils, apples, or whatever I had.
There was a girl from Georgia in my class who informed me they were trying to get me to fight if I refused to go along with them. The day I got up enough nerves to say no the fight was on. I did not fight in Mississippi, Fannie always fought for me, but now I was on my own. After they threatened me I was so scared I left school running. I had to learn to defend myself. It was difficult, but I had to stand my ground and not be afraid.
One day, as I turned a corner, all five of them were waiting for me. I closed my eyes and started swinging with a pencil in my hand. One of the girls was hit in the eye. When they saw blood the other girls ran. My father had to pay the doctor’s bill, but I became a hero. They invited me to join their gang, but I knew my father wasn’t going for that. We did become friends though.
I made friends with identical twins. I couldn’t tell apart; they were about my age and lived across the street from us. My Aunt Vinnie and I were invited to their birthday party. We were allowed to go, but we had to be home before 10:00 p.m. We missed our curfew, so we decided to make up an excuse; our excuse was our coats were locked in the closet, so we had to stay until their parents got home at 11:30 p.m. That didn’t work, and we had to face the belt action.
Daddy didn’t believe that excuse. I wonder why? These were some of the good times and not so good times I experienced while living in Chicago. Two years passed, I missed Fannie, and I wanted to go home. The summer of 1947, at age 14, my stepmother and I went home for a visit.
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