My brother and I were toddlers when dad and mom plunged into debt to buy an
80-acre farmhouse east of Columbia. Henry and Annie Williams were the
neighboring farmers on the west, and their children, George and Maudie, were
among our earliest playmates. Maudie was several years older than I, but that
didn’t matter because she knew a lot of fun things to do. The children would
walk across the fields occasionally with Annie if she came to help mom with
the gardening, canning, laundry, etc. George and brother Jim would take turns
pulling the washing machine handle back and forth, and when George was hungry,
he’d say, “Mama, my belly’s tired.”
Maudie and I would hitch Nanny goat to our little wagon, dress the kittens in
doll clothes, play neighbors under the big maple tree and do things like that.
Arthur Williams worked regularly for dad, helping with field work, milking and
other chores around the dairy farm. Henry and his other boys helped dad at
busy times, but they were usually involved with their farming operations.
Henry and Annie had taught their children to be hard-working, fun-loving and
honest individuals. Besides George and Maudie, there were Tommy, Robbie,
Leonard and Willa May. I knew Tommy because I once played a sort of mean trick
on him. It was Halloween and mom had made me a black cat costume with a
manufactured cat face. Tommy’s wife knew I was going to “trick or treat”
them, but when I scratched on their door and made some cat noises, Tommy
cracked the door, then slammed it shut. He came right back with a broom and
poked at me. His wife yelled, “It’s Sue,” but he didn’t understand. He
grabbed a bucket and doused me with water. The trick was on me -- that time.
The cat mask melted and sent black water over my head, which ran down my neck.
I went in and apologized. We laughed together, and Tommy explained that he
never did like a house that had only one door.
Dad enjoyed the delivery part of the dairy business because he liked people.
He’d set the bottles on the porch and call, “Milk.” Customers often greeted
him and discussed the weather, news, etc. However, as his business grew, he
needed more time on the farm, so he asked Arthur Williams to take over the
retail responsibilities. It would be his job to load crates of glass milk
bottles into the Model T Ford truck early in the morning and make deliveries
all over town. He said, “I’ll do my best.”
In those days, customers bought books of tickets and returned the tickets, one
for each quart desired, in the clean bottles each day. No bookkeeping was
needed with this ticket system. Because Arthur was black, new customers
sometimes called mom and asked, “Is it OK to pay cash for my ticket books?”
She would reply, “Giving cash to Arthur Williams is the same as putting it in
my own hands.”
My brother and I attended the University Elementary Laboratory School in
Columbia. Maudie and George, however, walked about two miles each way to a
one-room rural school called “Grindstone Colored.” They made new friends and
so did we, yet nothing destroyed our respect for our early playmates. It
bothered me that black children had to walk so far to reach their school and
that they had so few their own age plus all those big kids up to
We took it for granted that black people sat in “second balcony” at the
picture show, and we sat in “first balcony.” People in second balcony had
more fun, and they got to go directly outdoors and down an open stairway while
ushers steered us into the slow-moving crowd down indoor stairs. I was old
enough to recognize that my conscience wasn’t in favor of that.
When mom and her helpers served lunch for a large crew of men at silo filling
time, dad, Mr. Lowry, the Paces, Esteses and Colemans ate quietly in our
dining room. The Williamses, Warrens and Johnsons ate under the shade trees.
They laughed and joked and had a lot of fun during lunch, but my conscience
gnawed me about that, too.
Our beliefs, traditions and customs are passed down from generation to
generation. We often are timid about changing customs even when our
consciences signal the need for change. Chub and I took advantage of the
opportunity to help make major changes in our rural school district in the
1950s. Maybe that’s for next Tuesday.