“Somerville” – Honoring My Journey: A Memoir/Family History
Somerville had a courthouse in the center of town with stores on each side. The courthouse faced Highway 64, which we took when we traveled to Memphis. We lived in Fayette County two miles north of Somerville. Around the Square was Farmer’s Hardware, which still operates today. Two Sisters was a few doors down. My favorite store was Cooksey’s, which came to town when I was about twelve. There were offices, Rexall Drugs, Powers Jewelry Store, and Shinault’s Grocery Store. We would buy groceries at Shinault’s or at Taylor’s grocery, which was located just off the square.
The 250-seat Fair Theater, built in 1935, was on Market Street. They now use it for a number of community events, such as plays, puppet shows, graduations, religious services, and movies.
Somerville was a neat little town built around the courthouse square like many other towns in the South. Its appearance, however, contradicted its character. People who embraced the customs of the segregated South ran it. Black people didn’t have the rights and privileges that white people enjoyed.
One night Mommy and I were driving back home after a day of shopping and visiting in Memphis when we noticed a group of people gathered near the corner of Market Street and South Main in front of Farmer’s Hardware. There was music playing. It was a festive event. Mommy was curious and wanted to see what was going on. I wanted to go home. She parked the truck; we got out and walked toward the crowd. A booming voice came toward us: “Y’all go on home, girl. You don’t belong here. This ain’t for you.”
“The Gray Family” – Honoring My Journey: A Memoir/Family History
Uncle Frank grew more animated as the stories kept coming.
“There was a time when Daddy went to Indianapolis, Indiana, to work. I don’t remember where Mother was, but we had to get our own dinner. O. D. had a rifle or a BB gun, and he was sitting on the porch when a chicken started across the yard. O. D. took his gun and shot that chicken. Clinton cooked it, and we had chicken for dinner.”
I laughed and wondered whose chicken they ate, but Uncle Frank was on a roll. I let him continue.
“Before Thanksgiving one year when we lived on Ayers Street, either Clint or O. D. worked at a store and bought a live rooster. The rooster got in with the neighbor’s chickens, and the neighbor kept it. Clinton and O. D. had been watching the rooster all the time. The night before Thanksgiving, they went over to the neighbor’s yard and got their rooster. We had rooster for Thanksgiving dinner that year.”
“Daddy and Uncle O. D. were chicken thieves, huh?”
“Were you all ever without food, ever hungry?”
“No, we never went without food. Mother was resourceful. We could take a quarter during the Depression and buy neck bones for a penny a pound. Five cents would get enough cornmeal to make a big pan of cornbread. We always had food to eat. Mother and Daddy saw to that.”
“Glorious Good Hair and Lovely Light Skin” – Honoring My Journey: A Memoir/Family History
If you were one of the fortunate few Americans of African ancestry, you had light skin and good hair. Light skin alone was a plus; the good hair just moved you to a higher plane. For a woman with light skin and kinky hair, the hot comb along with some Bergamot, Royal Crown, Hair Rep, or Lover’s Moon hair oil or grease could create good hair.
The hot comb was made of metal and was heated on a cook stove, a hotplate, or in a little unit designed for it. It was important to heat the comb to the right temperature. If it was not hot enough, it would not straighten resistant kinky or nappy hair, and if it got too hot, it would burn the hair. Mommy used to test the temperature by wiping the comb on a white cloth. If it was too hot, it would scorch the cloth. She would let it cool a little before using it.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the underlying motive for wanting to eliminate kinks from our hair was to imitate white people and be more acceptable to them—anything to get a pass. The intention was not to cross over the color line and pass for white, as did some light-skinned blacks in the early part of the twentieth century, but to have easier access to the American institutions. Black people had better chances of getting into top colleges and universities if they looked more like white people.
“Daddy’s Girl” – Honoring My Journey: A Memoir/Family History
In a letter to Daddy, Sterling W. Fisher, then director of public relations at Reader’s Digest magazine wrote, “As Wilma Rudolph’s first coach, you share the glory handed out by Alex Haley in his tribute to ‘The Girl Who Wouldn’t Give Up.’ The article was published in the May 1961 Reader’s Digest.” Sterling sent the letter to Daddy along with a copy of the magazine with compliments and good wishes.
Daddy got a congratulatory card from his mother and father after his mother read an article in a Nashville newspaper. Big Mama wrote a note in the card that read, “I am so very glad for you … I am sure you are proud of what you have done. Of all of my children, you are my greatest. I have been watching the Olympics in Rome. I have seen this girl run. She is great … I can say for true, you have done great.”
“School Daze” – Honoring My Journey: A Memoir/Family History
As a young woman, my aunt was involved in many activities. She was a high school and college cheerleader. She played the piano at several churches, sang in the Lane College Glee Club, and in 1941 she had the honor of being the first young woman chosen as the Memphis Cotton Makers’ Jubilee Spirit of Cotton. Her picture still hangs in the Pink Palace Museum as part of that history.
When I asked how she got such an honor, she said to me, “Dr. Venson, who started the Cotton Makers’ Jubilee, was looking for a young girl with high moral standards.” Ta-da! Look no further, Dr. Venson; Virginia Gray is the one. I don’t know if I told her that my teachers selected me to compete for Miss Bronze Queen in 1961. Jubilee evolved throughout the years continuing as Kemet Jubilee into the twenty-first century.
“I Was the Help” – Honoring My Journey A Memoir/Family History
On another occasion, Missy and I were alone in the apartment when there was a knock at the door. I opened it thinking it was one of the neighbors, but there was a man I had not seen before. He didn’t wait for an invitation; he just barged in and closed the door.
I said, “I’m sorry sir, but Mr. G is not in.” I was so unnerved that I repeated, “Mr. G is not in.” Then I added, “I don’t know when he will be back.” I wished I had said, “He will be back soon.” However, I didn’t think of that until afterwards.
He planted himself in the center of the living room. His pasty skin was sweating from the summer sun; he was breathing heavily, nostrils flaring like a bull about to charge a matador. No, not the matador. The muleta. I felt like the muleta, the red flag that attracts the bull, inhuman. I was an object to contemplate, not a thinking person who could choose for herself. I knew I had no choice.
There he was in a drab colored suit that hugged his rotund body. He surveyed me as a hungry man would a table full of delicious foods prepared for someone else. Should I grab some and run was the question I saw in his eyes.
All I could do was stand still while my mind scanned its inventory for something that would add immediacy to the situation. I had been in similar situations before with white and black men. This time seemed different.
One afternoon during my senior year, I came home from school and headed towards the steps to my cousin’s apartment where I was staying during the week. Three neighbors, all black men, were talking and laughing until I approached. Then they got quiet and started watching me. I was going up the open stairs. They were sitting on a bench at ground level a few feet away. I started up, but I became incensed at the unwanted attention. I backed down, turned around and walked over to where they were sitting. I was wearing my favorite dress, a red shirtwaist with a full skirt and the red leather flats that I had bought at Bakers shoe store. It must have been the color red, which brought out the fire in me that day. I walked up just close enough, pointed my finger in their faces and shouted, “Why are you looking at me like that? How would you like for someone to look at your daughters that way?” They sat stunned, looked at each other, and didn’t utter a word. I backed away, turned around and ran up the stairs as fast as I could.
I thought it perverse for old men to look at me the way a boy my age would. I considered them old men, but they were probably no more than late twenties. They were black men who I felt had no right looking at me that way. I felt free to express my feelings to them.
I didn’t understand what was going on with white men. It was common for them to cruise black neighborhoods looking for women for sex. I don’t think they were necessarily looking for women who worked as prostitutes. They viewed all black girls and women as available for their use. Being female was scary.
The telephone rang and brought both of us back from the place the mind goes to weigh all options and possible consequences. Since the telephone was located in Miss Ann’s room on the far side of the bed, I was afraid to answer it. But I had to. It could have been Miss Ann checking on Missy, who I wished would wake from her nap and call out for me. I never feared for Missy’s safety. I thought if she woke, then I would go to her and he would leave. I turned and walked to the bedroom. He followed. I was trapped. My fear was rising as the mercury in a thermometer on a feverish patient. I was imagining what was going on inside of that fat man’s head. He stood there leering and assessing.
One thing I appreciated about Miss Ann was that she didn’t talk down to me or speak in any manner to demean; however, I cannot say that about some who came around. I became invisible to them as they spoke disparagingly of black people, even using the term “nigger” on occasion. Of course, I pretended not to hear. I kept on serving drinks and sandwiches and taking care of other chores. Mommy had already told me that the word “nigger” did not apply to me and I was never to answer to it. She said, “If a white person calls you ‘nigger,’ just ignore them and keep on walking.” She taught me early the art of ignoring people who were unkind. Young whites hurled that word my way a few times during my youth, but I never looked at them. I always looked straight ahead and kept on walking. It was my mother’s way of protecting me. She must have believed as Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
The fall of 1962 found the world on the brink of disaster with the Cuban Missile Crisis bringing us close to nuclear war. Russia was building nuclear bases in Cuba with missiles aimed toward the United States of America. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were beating drums and doing their war dance, a black man named James Meredith entered the University of Mississippi on his third attempt, and I was at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, stumbling through the beginnings of college life.