CALLING FORTH MAMA’S VOICE
One early spring afternoon I found my mother sitting in the darkened dining room of her brownstone, dressed in black, head bent in depression. Despite the problems that had cascaded through our lives when Mama was raising me—my father leaving when I was an infant, my mother working three jobs to support us, Mama’s siblings borrowing money they never repaid—I had never seen her depressed. When I asked what was wrong, my mother told me that it didn’t seem that her life had come to much. I told her that wasn’t true, but it did no good.
I had finished a play and had been looking for my next writing adventure. Here it was, staring me in the face. I told Mama that she had a story that would interest others.
In the 1960s, this sharecropper’s daughter became, as far as I had been able to discover, the first black woman in management at a Fortune 500 company. The company was Standard Brands, which produced Chase & Sanborn Coffee, Royal Gelatin, and Planters Peanuts. It is now Kraft Heinz.
My mother also raised me as a single parent working six, and sometimes seven, days a week so that I could go to private schools and later to Yale and Columbia. In addition, Mama was a community activist in Harlem, encouraging young people and helping to restore a formerly drug-saturated block.
Why was education so important to her? How did my mother’s attitude toward education affect my life? How did she come to be the person she became?
Her life was directly affected by the Great Migration, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gentrification of Harlem, and the AIDS epidemic. Mama’s story was an American story, a Great Migration story, a New York story, a black family’s story, a mother-daughter story, and the story of a woman’s fight for creativity in the workplace.
Not only the circumstances of her individual life but also policies, laws, and practices specifically targeting black Americans and black women had opposed her. Mama had triumphed over all these obstacles. Hers was a life story worth telling.
My mother was born to Anna Nance and Scott Ebaugh in 1920, in Cross Hill, South Carolina, on two borders of human time: near the end of the month and early in the morning, before daylight. And there was one more border: the border between life and death. Because Mama was a breech birth, Big Ma almost died. From the moment of her birth, my mother insisted on doing things her way. This approach to the world would continue throughout her life.
In addition to the colored midwife already present, a white doctor was called. This was clearly an emergency, but why would a white doctor deliver the baby of a black sharecropper in 1920 in South Carolina? When I asked Mama about this, she said, “People thought a lot of my daddy.” When the doctor asked Big Pa which one he should save, his wife or the baby, my grandfather answered, “Save them both.”Big Ma and Big Pa in their name choices connected her to both family and community. Josephine Willie Beatrice was named after her father’s mother, her mother’s brother, and the midwife. Mama was the fifth child and the fourth daughter born alive. By the time the family was complete, she would be one of nine children—seven girls and two boys.
When the doctor had done as requested, perhaps some sleep-deprived friend or family member, since Big Pa was illiterate, wrote my mother’s name and birth date in the family Bible by the light of the kerosene lamp.
At the age of twenty, she found out the date was wrong. The doctor had compounded the error by listing her birth date as the day he filed the papers. This mistake landed Mama’s birthday in the following month. It became her legal birthday.
Whenever I’m doing business on my mother’s behalf, bank and government employees look at me with suspicion when it takes me a beat to give this legal fiction as Mama’s date of birth.
As Mama tells this story, she’s smiling. She is particularly gleeful that this mistake meant she was able to work an extra month before being legally declared sixty-five, the traditional retirement age when she was working. It was just like my mother to rejoice in a longer working life. She was fortunate, for most of her life, to have had work that she loved.
Sitting down to tape Mama’s story, I tell her to begin at the beginning and imagine that her grandchildren are listening.
FARMING WITH FATHER
Emerging as a superpower after World War I, the United States was a country of 106 million people in 1920. For the first time, the nation had more people living in cities than on farms or in small towns. Eight million Model T’s were scaring horses and buggies off the dirt roads. At the same time, all white women and black women in the North—25 percent of the three million black women eligible to vote—had won the right to vote in 1919 with the Nineteenth Amendment. In 1920—despite active opposition from most white suffragettes during the 70-year battle for enfranchisement—Northern African American women cast their first votes in a national election.
The year of my mother’s birth was bracketed by horrible events of racially motivated violence toward black people. The summer before—1919, dubbed “the red summer” by the African American writer James Weldon Johnson—was the scene of white-initiated race riots in 26 cities in both the North and the South, including New York City, Chicago, Illinois; Elaine, Arkansas; Washington, DC; and Charleston, South Carolina. In 1921, a white mob in Tulsa, Oklahoma, set fire to and totally destroyed the black neighborhood of Greenwood—known as the Black Wall Street for its superb business district—killing 300 people.
There was happier news in 1920 in the world of popular music. The black singer Mamie Smith made the first blues record with the word “blues” in the title, “Crazy Blues.”
Cross Hill, South Carolina, where Mama was born in 1920, was near the path the Cherokee used to reach the fish dams on the Savannah River before the Europeans came. Laurens County, where the village is located, is in the Piedmont area of South Carolina. This northwestern corner of the state receives its name from its location at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Despite what most of us have heard about the 1920s, there were no flappers flapping in Cross Hill. At that time, Laurens County had over 42,000 residents, about 60 percent of whom were black. Most people earned their living either growing cotton or turning it into fabric in the textile mills. My mother grew up using kerosene lamps, which cast their glow on walls covered with newspapers and pictures from the Sears catalog. Her family had created this “wallpaper” to brighten up the cabin that was their home. That day in April, Mama began her story.
The first thing I remember was when my father went away in 1922. I remember watching and waiting for him to come home. He had gone away to work up in Buffalo, New York. It was a year when he was having a hard time with the farm. The boll weevils were eating up all the cotton, so he went up north. He started working at the headquarters of the Lackawanna Railroad Company. Pa laid crossties for the railroad, which started in New Jersey and ran all the way up through Lackawanna until it got to Buffalo.
The day he left, I went part of the way with him, as far as the mailbox. There he told me to go back. Pa had been gone a month or so before my family realized that I had stopped eating and playing. I just crawled into a shell.
When Mama took me to the doctor, he looked at me and asked where my father was. My mother told him that he’d gone north. The doctor told her that that’s why I wasn’t eating; I was emotionally sick. He told her the family would have to do things with me to get my mind off him. If she didn’t, she would lose me. I was grieving myself to death.
Mama showed me the fall colors of the leaves and a running brook, where I saw a fish. When she showed me these things, it helped me get over my grief. She also told me that my father had just gone to work and he would be back. I thought maybe he was dead. When I knew he would be back, I got over my grief.
In the meantime, we started getting letters from him. My mother would always read the letters to us.
It wasn’t Christmas yet, but I know it was cold because we had a fire when Pa came back. He brought a lot of balloons and had something different for each of us. He gave me what we used to call a glass doll, but I guess it was a china doll. It was beautiful. Naturally, it was white. We didn’t have black dolls then.
My sisters—especially my older sisters—kept telling me to get the doll so they could see it and play with it. They kept pushing and jumping around and kept me going back and getting it. This one wanted it and that one wanted it, until . . . it got broken that night!
Then they all said, “Oh, she doesn’t have a doll now.” I cried about it for three or four days. I got more dolls, but I didn’t get that doll back. I realized then that they always wanted what I had and not what they had. Pa didn’t do any more for me than he did for the rest of them, but he encouraged me. I saw how he did things, so I patterned my life after his.
When Pa left again, I crawled back into a shell. He was just home on vacation. I was three years old. That was 1923.
I don’t know when my father came back home to stay. I guess it must have been about two years altogether that he worked on the railroad.
He had planned to go north and not come back because there wasn’t anything on the farm for him. He was making good money in Buffalo. Pa had a good offer to bring his family there. The foreman in charge of the crew wanted my father to come—my father was the leader of the work gang—so he could make Pa a foreman, too.
The company wanted to turn the big house they had in Buffalo into a boardinghouse. My mother would take care of the men who worked on the railroad and we would live there.
But Mama was an only child, and she wouldn’t leave her mother. She said it was too far away. My father told her she could always come back because he would be working for the railroad; the employees and their family rode the train for free. But she still didn’t want to go, so Pa came back to the farm. My father said he couldn’t live any longer without his family. We were living in Cross Hill, South Carolina, on Route 1 between Cross Hill and Chappells. This was still in Laurens County.
Right after my father and mother got married in January 1911, he worked in Greenville in some of the mills there. He didn’t want to farm. Black men were porters in the mills; that’s the only thing they were allowed to do, was low-level jobs. My mother never went to any white people’s house to cook, wash, or iron. Even if he had to work on two or three jobs, Pa supported us, without my mother having to go to work.
Greenville was noted for its cotton mills. I don’t know how many, but at least eight or nine, maybe more: Poinsett Mill, Union Bleachery . . .
They made cloth out of cotton after it had been picked and ginned. It was turned into cotton batts. Then cotton rows. Then it was sent to the factory where they made cloth out of it, dyed it, and printed it. Only whites were allowed to operate the dye and print machines.
That’s why the poor white people in the Southern states had a level of education that was much lower than the poor blacks. Their kids came out of school at ten and twelve and went into the factory. The black children weren’t allowed in the factories, so they went on to school. By the time most white children were fifteen years old, they had worked two years in the factory, both the boys and the girls. So being white was a disadvantage. They kept the blacks out of the factory, but they also handicapped the white children.
At first, Pa was not a sharecropper. This was in 1916. When he came back to the farm from working in the mill, he bought himself a fast mule and rented land. The white owners of the property wanted him to sell the mule. Then he would have had to become a sharecropper. Because he wouldn’t have his own livestock. He refused to sell.
We don’t know how the house caught on fire. My mother had gone to my grandmother’s to spend the night, and she took the children with her. There hadn’t been any fire in the house all day, no one cooking. About four o’clock that afternoon the house went up in fire and smoke. Everything was lost except what my mother had on her back and the three children she had with her. That’s how my father got behind. The children kept coming about every two years, so Pa was never able to get out from under that setback.
Eventually he did have to sell the mule to plant. This was May, the beginning of the planting season. He had to plant cotton and rent a house from somebody and come back to farm the land. Pa was sharecropping now.
Sharecropping means that for every dollar you make, you give the owner, usually a white man, one dollar. You did all the work and the owner furnished the land, the animals, the seeds, and the guano; that’s bird droppings we used as fertilizer. You bought the groceries from the company store. Sometimes the prices were higher than elsewhere and sometimes they weren’t.
My father was always a lucky person. People knew he meant what he said, that he had a good character, and was responsible. Basically, we didn’t have any trouble. My father got whatever he needed.
If you were renting, you’d just say, “Well, I’ll give you three bales of cotton for renting this land.” But you made thirty bales of cotton total, so the rest was yours. There were three categories: owning, renting, and sharecropping. Sharecropping was the most dependent category. As a sharecropper, you were least likely to be able to buy your own land.
I don’t think he was cheated within the system. But if you’re giving somebody half of what you make, there is no way you can get ahead.
In the thirties, during Hoover’s time, the government had a program to get the farmland back in production. If you had a son (he had to be twenty-one), they’d give you so many acres of land and a house. You would pay the government so much back in cotton, but you’d become the owner of this property.
My eldest brother said he wasn’t going to be around. So we didn’t have anyone to sign up to get this farmland. At that time we were living maybe ten miles out from Gray Court near Route 1. I was going to buy Pa a small farm so he’d have enough land to have his garden and his house, but he died before I was able to.
In my early remembrance of farming, I was running behind my father. By the time I was five years old, I was getting up early so I could go to the field with him. I wanted to ride the mule. He was usually up at four o’clock in the morning to get his breakfast: bacon, molasses, and bread. My oldest sister would get up and make breakfast. Then he went to the field.
If I didn’t go to the field, I was there in time to ride the mule back at twelve o’clock. But usually I took him water around ten o’clock. Then I stayed in the field until noontime, so I could ride the mule back to the house. I don’t know what was fascinating about riding the mule—now I’m afraid of them.
To let us know it was noon, the white owner of the land in the big house—which we weren’t allowed to go into—rang a bell. Another way to tell it was noontime was when your shadow stood up beneath you.
When I came back at noon riding the mule, I was coming in for dinner. We called the midday meal dinner. We cooked string beans or peas and had meat that was cooked in a pot. We’d have some bread, rice, or potatoes along with these vegetables. We usually had to have something sweet because my father always had to have dessert. We’d make some kind of pie: apple, peach, or sweet potato.
We had a bench around the fireplace where we sat and ate. We would sit there and listen to stories that Mother and Dad would tell before we went to bed. The bench was long enough for five of us to sit on. But the others always pushed me off the end. Then I would cry.
Dad finally eliminated that. He cut a block off a tree for me to sit on, like a stool. They couldn’t push me off of that.
When I was five, the oldest sister, who was 14, did the cooking. We used to have to take turns. One sister cooked one week and one took care of the wash one week. All of us had to take care of our own beds. We had to do the dishes after we got big enough to do them. The girls took turns making the boys’ beds. The boys didn’t do anything in the house. Oh, they dirtied it up, but they didn’t clean anything.
Pa cooked Sunday dinner with Ma. He was born late in his mother’s life, so he was the only child left at home. His mother taught him to do housework to help her around the house. He even taught me how to embroider.
My brothers would cut the wood and bring it in for the stove, for the fire to heat up the water. They would go get water when we had to go to the spring to get it. When we’d drawn it out of the well in the yard, they might bring it into the house. And they would get water if they wanted some and there wasn’t any in the house. The boys had to work in the field, but they did the bare minimum. Any extra work that was needed, my father did it.