Life in the north eastern part of Texas in the last 70 years, can teach a lot of things.
Over those years, many changes have taken place here and in people all across America.
A lot of which may be hard to understand, but I hope to open a window here for a moment and try to let the light in.
The world I grew up in was not complicated on the surface, at least if you were white. “White Only” signs were an everyday thing. I never noticed them for years. Every place had a white-only restroom and some places had “Colored Restrooms.” Wherever there were water fountains, you usually found two. A clean one marked “white only” and a dirty one marked “colored.”
Black people were everywhere in this area, but they lived only in certain areas, often on the other side of the railroad tracts. Any hard or dirty job was done by black people. Of course, if it required skill and paid good money, you seldom found blacks at those jobs.
As a kid, they called me “Mr.” and “sir.” Even the ones who were older than my grandparents. One black woman in particular had a hand in raising me and most of my cousins. Her name was Lula Mae. I never knew her last name. She had diapered my mother and every one of her family in her generation and mine. I loved Lula Mae; she was the kindest and most loving person I had ever known.
Whenever there was a special event in my mother’s family. Lula Mae was always there working in the kitchen or setting the table or sweeping the floors and keeping us kids in line. Now this wasn’t like the movies, we were NOT very well off at all. But as I learned later in life, Lula didn’t cost much, and many times she helped for free.
She was closest to my mother’s older brother and his wife. They lived forever in the same area my mother’s grandfather settled in when he came here at the end of the Civil War from Mississippi. Mom’s grandfather wasn’t wealthy. He was 16 when he came here on an ox wagon after both his parents died. But he had inherited part of a section of land in Mississippi and sold it, carrying the proceeds here with him.
My mother’s older brother was an extremely nice and easygoing fellow. Worked at the local cotton gin as a foreman for 46 years without ever missing a day. He also lived his whole life without ever borrowing money. That was the result of seeing his parents lose what little they had in the depression, while trying to scratch out a living raising cotton.
Uncle Allen was tall and bald-headed and always had a twinkle in eye. A great fun loving man who never drank, worked hard all his life and smelled like chewing tobacco and cotton. Growing up, I thought he was as nice a guy as there was. Especially in his dealings with black folk. All the people who had ever worked for him were black and he had known them most of his life. Most of them seem to a kid as really liking him. He called the older ones Mr. and Miss, but always followed it with their first name. No one else I had ever heard did that.
He brought them food when they needed it. Lent them money and carried them to the doctor. He said many times, when he had the money, it was better to pay one of them, than try to do something himself because they needed the money more. From time to time, if Uncle Allen was busy, and I would need to be somewhere else, he would have Mr. Guffy take me in his white Convertible Chevrolet, covered with fancy chrome.
Mr. Guffy, was a remarkable man in that small town. He was a huge man with big wide shoulders and I had seen him more than once handle a 500 pound bale of cotton like it was made of air. One thing that made him so usual, was he had a college degree they said.. But he could never find work where it was important. Mr Guffy was a great guy, every time he saw me he would pick me up and give me a big bare hug. Many a time I rode on his big shoulders as he carried me around the cotton gin.
Many times I would stay all day at the cotton gin with Uncle Allen. Mr.Guffy would watch me out of the corner of his eye. If I wondered off where he couldn’t see me, he would come scoop me up onto his shoulder and take back to play where he could keep an eye on me.
It was a wonderful time to be a kid in that place. All the adults, white and black, treated me like little prince. But my Uncle, Mr. Guffy and Lula Mae were my favorites. I guess I actually felt loved by them more than I did my own family.
But I grew up, as we all eventually do. When I was about 11 or 12, staying with my Aunt and Uncle as a summer treat, I started to catch glimpses of that world not being exactly what I thought. On Fridays, if I was at the gin, Uncle Allen would load me in his Ford at noon and Mr. Guffy got in the back to go to Rose’s Café to eat lunch. I never noticed it before, but as soon as we all got out of the car Mr. Gufffy disappeared. In the past, when I asked my uncle where he went, he would say Mr. Guffy had a special place he liked to eat with other “colored folks,” and he would be back at the car when we got ready to go. This one day, as we sat in a booth inside Rose’s, I happened to look up toward the end of the counter just as someone swung the kitchen door wide open. There in the kitchen at a long table sat Mr. Guffy eating by himself.
Uncle Allen reached over and grabbed the back of my belt as I headed for the kitchen, and said “Whoa there, partner … you shouldn’t go back there. You ain’t allowed.” Pulling me back, he pointed to my seat, and I sat back down. This really bewildered me. My uncle said nothing else as I sat back up to the table, and for the first time, I felt it better not ask any questions. This was the beginning of discovering a world I didn’t know.
After learning to read, there was more to discover … the water fountains I was not allowed to use often had the word “colored” on a sign near them. Every public restroom had another with the sign colored on it. Places you went to eat had little signs on or near the door saying “No Coloreds.”
Some of the older black people would refer to me as “mister,” which in innocence, I always thought was a tease about me being a kid. As I eventually learned, truth was far different, it was required by white society and it was a way of having white kids indoctrinated to believe they were superior to blacks.
Whenever I was going along by myself with any of our “colored” friends, it was fun and different. In the white world adults always seemed determined to make sure I did and said things properly. But in the “colored” world, all I ever received was love and gentle correction. I still can’t help but attribute that to black people having a more accepting culture.
In time I would learn that Mr. Guffy, was threatened with his life if something ever happened to me while in his care. Lulu Mae was never threatened, but she knew it instinctively. Black people didn’t eat in the kitchen to be close to their people who worked back there; they had no choice. They used the back door of white people’s houses to knock on and never entered a white home unless there was work for them to do.
“Colored Only” restrooms and water fountains were always dirty. I learned many years later from a black friend, no one cleaned them because why take care of something which was used to enforce how inferior you were and you hate so much.
Some kids took this all in stride and accepted it was just the way things were: Blacks were an inferior race, they stank and were dirty. God had made them that way and who were we to challenge God’s will?
I am ashamed it took till I was grown by the time this was debunked in public with great attention. Not until the 1960s did it become clear that most of the things I had grown up accepting about minorities were pure lies. What wasn’t an outright lie was a culturally reinforced strategy to keep whites in position of authority. My own families, who I thought were so good to black people, were just as racist as the rest. I still don’t think they truly understood what they were doing, but nonetheless, they never really looked on black people as equals.