As told to From Generation to Generation: Linking Lifetimes in our Quest for Freedom conference of the Southern Network of African-American Organizers]
What really got me inspired was back in those days when school opened, they would close the schools at certain times so you could go work on Mr. Charlie's farm. I couldn't understand why they would close the school and make us go and pick cotton, hoe potatoes, or pick up sweet potatoes. I thought that we should be trying to learn something.
My grandmother raised me, and she was born in 1882. An old lady who couldn't read or write. But, boy, she was as wise as they came. She had alot of what she called "mother wit." She said to us (it was four of us), "Children, I don't have an education, but I want to make sure that you all go to school and get an education. I'm going to do the best I can for you."
One day, this old man, a White fellow, came by and said, "I want those kids to hoe some sweet potatoes for me."
My grandmother said, "Well, how much are you paying?"
He said, "I'm going to pay them $1.75 a day."
My grandmother said to him, "No, I can't let them go for $1.75 a day."
Back in those days you couldn't talk back to those White folks too much. But his old lady was strong and she believed in doing the best she could and setting examples for us. "I'm not going to let them go for $1.75." she said, "You've got to pay 'em at least $2.00."
My sister was a little older than I, about two years older. He said, "My goodness, that's enough money to make a dress out for that little girl."
She said, "Well if you want them to work for you, you're going to have to pay them that $2.00."
So, I looked at her and said to myself, "If my grandmother can talk back to Mr. Charlie like that, then that says to me that I can go on to school and be whatever I wanted to be, and say whatever I wanted to say and whenever I wanted to say it."
After I got up about 21 — back then you couldn't register to vote until you were 21 — I said I'm gonna go down there and register in a little town called St. Francisville, Louisiana, West Feliciana Parish. Those of you from down that way know what I'm talking about. I went up to the desk and I looked around and this old lady came and looked to the little peep hole at me and said, "What do you want?"
I said, "I'd like to register to vote."
She looked kinda of mean at me and she reached back behind her and pulled out a piece of paper. She said, "Read this for me." That was part of the United States Constitution. I thought I was a pretty good student in civics and government.
She said, "Read that and tell me what it says."
So, I read it and I explained it to her. She looked at me and said, "No, that is not what it means." I had finished college then. She said, "That's not what it says."
I said, "Well, I tell you what, you tell me what it says."
She said, "I'm not gonna tell you nothing."
I said, "I don't believe you know what it says."
She said, "Well, you sure ain't gonna get to register."
I said, "Well, I'm sure going to keep trying."
From that day until this day, I said to myself that we got a long way to go, but I'm going to be part in the making of history. I went back in the next couple of days. She said, "You back again?"
I said, "Yes, ma'am, I'm right back."
She said, "Well, you got to wait at least another week."
I said, "Well, I'll be back in a week's time."
So, another week passed and I went back again. She gave me that piece of paper; she didn't give me the same part to read this time, she gave me another part. I read that part to her. She said, "No, that ain't what that says."
I said, "Ma'am, you can just keep giving them to me, I'm going to keep coming back."
She said, "Well, you going to have to come back."
I went back three times. Finally, she decided, "Well, I guess you can read."
She finally gave it to me. It was something about the whole scenario that caused me to try to stay involved and keep pressing on. I want to say to the young folk, that things are not so rosey today. We still have a long way to go. It's not as open and hostile like it was back in the '60s and '50s, but we still have the prejudice; we stilI have the racism just as bad, or even worse, now.
We made some tremendous strides in the '60s and '70s. I happened to be appointed as one of the magistrates in Buford County. That's a judge for those of you who don't know what the magistrates are. Do you know what they are trying to do now? They are trying to figure out a way to get rid of a lot of us. I just talked to Mr Jenkins the other day and he told me one of the fellows who has been a magistrate for 17 years, a Black magistrate, and they got a new senator who had responsibility to reappoint magistrates every four years. Don't you know this new senator on Johns Island — white lady, Republican — decided that this magistrate after 17 long years sitting on the bench is no longer qualified to hold that position. Therefore, she recommended and appointed a White fellow.
We got a long way to go, folks. It ain't over and I'm just so happy to see you all so riled up and saying that we got to go back and start organizing again because it ain't over, folks.
Copyright © Joe McDomick. 1991
Copyright © 2011
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