Originally, I had planned to write one blog article about some of the negative experiences during my youth as I watched racism operate, as well as one containing more positive memories. I decided to skip the negative parts, since those are so readily available from a number of sources and I have already shared some of them from my youth. Suffice it to say that I had racist friends and relatives who said and did things that were cruel at best. Their actions led to me distancing myself from some who had at one time been in the “best friend” category, and led my immediate family to distancing ourselves from more distant family members with whom we previously had a pretty close relationship. Sadly, they were products of their time whose other relationships bolstered their attitudes and actions rather than corrected them. I have had to pray not to have prejudice against prejudiced people, and that malady is not easy for any of us to see, much less to overcome. God help me; God help us.
A Real Louisiana Boy
I grew up as a real Louisiana boy. The state license plates started carrying the inscription “Sportsman’s Paradise” back in the 1950s, and still do. It is an apt description of a state chock full of huge wooded areas, lakes and bayous. Like many boys born in that era, I grew up loving the outdoors and did more than my fair share of hunting and fishing. My father was a bricklayer, and most of the common laborers who assisted them were black men. My dad, an avid hunter and fisherman, knew which of the laborers had knowledge of good places to hunt.
At age 9, I shot my first squirrel. We were hunting on the property of a laborer named Jake, or perhaps he just had access to the property. At any rate, he was known for his hunting prowess, and my dad took me to hunt with him as our guide. He took me as his trainee of the day and helped me locate and shoot my squirrel. All I remember about the day is the one shot I made and the friendly relationship my dad had with Jake. My father was big on kids showing respect for adults, so for me, it was “Mr. Jake.” I feel quite sure that my answering him was in my normal terms of “Yes Sir” and “No Sir.” He was tickled to be the one to help me enjoy my first hunting success, almost as excited as I was.
Parents Without Racism
When I say that my parents weren’t racist, I say it from the memories of my experiences with them and African Americans, not from being sat down and instructed about racism. I just remember that black people liked my mother and father, and I don’t believe for a moment it was because they thought they had no choice in order to stay out of trouble. As I continue, I believe that this point will become obvious.
When I was perhaps 12 or 13, I had a great-uncle do me a great favor, in spite of the fact that his racial prejudice came out of the pores of his skin. My great-uncle didn’t hunt, but he loved me and knew how much I loved to hunt. Thus, he introduced me to an older black man with the last name of Hollingsworth who owned a hunting dog. They all lived in the “sticks” as we called it, deep in the piney woods of Louisiana about a hundred miles from my home. I loved it there and went to visit every time I had the chance (and I made many chances).
Mr. Hollingsworth just went by the name “Man.” I think his name might have been John, but I never knew for sure. He just told me to call him Man, and he called me Gordon ─ friends on a first name basis. In the 1950s, do I have to mention that this was a very unusual relationship for a white kid? Older black people were often expected to say “Mr. Bob” (or whatever their first names were) to teenagers. That sounds weird to the younger generation now, but sadly, it was common when I was a teen (although not appealing to me personally at all). That is why I say that my relationship with Man was both special and unusual.
Loving and Being Loved
By the time I started hunting with Man, he was somewhere on the other side of seventy years old. He was a widower and lived in a very small, plain house. I suspect he was quite poor financially. I remember that there was no grass in his yard and no paint on his little house. But the inside of his house was immaculately kept. He didn’t have much, but what he had was well cared for. I honestly don’t think he liked much of anything about hunting at his stage of life, but he “took a liking” to me, and would take me hunting any time I wanted to go.
He would invite me over for breakfast, and cook a very nice and very delicious breakfast. Thinking back to that brings me both joy and pain. I loved it, but it must have put a burden on his very low income. We had a special bond built by spending many days hunting from daylight to dark together. When I think of that part of the state, where a number of my relatives once lived, the memory of Man ushers in the most pain emotionally. I really miss him. I wish I could have known what I know now, for perhaps I would have found more ways to encourage him.
Many stereotypes of black folks were common during my childhood, some so ridiculous that I could easily see through them as a kid, and others that were dissolved one at a time through experience. I remember that great-uncle of mine saying that black people smelled differently than white people ─ in a bad way. Of course, many black people in those days didn’t have indoor plumbing, so they had hygiene issues as would anyone who couldn’t bathe or shower regularly. For example, when I was quite young, that same great-uncle didn’t have indoor plumbing either. We took baths on Saturday nights in a #2 washtub with water drawn from a well and warmed (somewhat) on a stove, and our odors were none too good either. I guess Unk in his old age couldn’t smell himself or the rest of us! More to follow on this hygiene point.
A Hard First Job
When I graduated from the ninth grade, my father informed that he had a summer job lined up for me. That was a day of bad news. I wanted to fish and swim all summer with my buddies, like I usually did. But to say that my dad was old school would be to make a serious understatement. “Yes Sir,” I replied. I started a nine year long summer job track, working as a laborer for bricklayers and carpenters. That put me in the role of working with black men. The first summer’s co-laborer came to work every morning in freshly washed gray colored kakis and a pressed short-sleeved white shirt. I had on clean jeans and a white tee shirt, which were filthy by the end of the day. We worked hard all day, really hard. We had to build scaffolds for the bricklayers, stack them with bricks, mix mortar and keep the mortar boards filled with it, plus do various other related jobs. The maximum number of workers was supposed to be two laborers for every three bricklayers, but on my first job, we had four bricklayers to keep up with. It was a long, hot summer.
Three Lessons Learned During Summer #1
First, I learned that the odor stereotype was absolutely false. My laborer friend (and he quickly became a friend and mentor, a very good one) came to work as fresh as a daisy, smelling of some kind of aftershave. I came to work at least clean. At the end of the day, my co-worker still smelled like that after shave, and I smelled so bad that we kept the windows on my dad’s truck completely rolled down until we reached home where I hit the shower immediately. I couldn’t stand myself, I stunk so badly!
Second, I learned the value of hard work. My old school father evidently told both the boss on the job, the other bricklayers and my co-laborer not to take it easy on me, and trust me, they didn’t. As the years passed and I kept doing the same kind of work, I was just one of the “black” guys. I did the same work they did, and got cussed out by the boss when I messed something up, just the same as they did. I am so grateful for that, for many reasons. Can you imagine what my black friends would have thought of me if I had been treated differently than they? Thank you, Daddy!
Three, I learned that my black friend loved fishing as much as I did. We made a plan to fish together after work one day, for there was a bayou just behind the house we were helping build. He had a small boat and brought it to work in his truck, and after everyone else left, he and I went fishing. The house we were building bordered on the water as did the other houses in that neighborhood. It was the rich man’s part of town, which meant that a black guy and a white kid were fishing together in their back yards.
About that same time, my uncle in Central Louisiana told me about someone killing a black man with a long-range rifle who was fishing in the boat with a white man. The killer probably would have liked to have shot the white guy too, but knew the chance of being seriously investigated would have been far greater than for shooting the black guy. That, sadly, was the Louisiana I grew up in. But I didn’t care if my fishing buddy was black or white, as long as he would take me fishing, and he did. Then he took me over to the poorer white man’s part of town where I lived way after dark. Thinking back, that actually was probably risky for him. I’m just glad that my father had not the slightest hesitation about my time with my black co-worker and friend. If you are younger than 50, you have little idea of how unusual such relationships were where I was raised.
Long Hot Summers Continued
I continued to do that type of construction work as a common laborer until I graduated from college, and even the summer after I graduated. I had just gotten married and was going to start teaching school in the fall, but we needed money to survive the summer, and so I was back working with the black guys. From that first summer, we got along great. I never once had any relationship trouble with the black guys. I can’t say the same about a few of the white guys I served, but most of them were fine too.
An Unusual Recent Realization
As I said already, I worked as a common laborer for nine summers (and sometimes during school breaks) with black guys. Both they and I thought it was pretty cool. They respected my work ethic and liked my crazy humor, and I loved hanging out with them. My recent realization was rather surprising: in those nine years, I was the only white kid that ever worked as a common laborer on those jobs, and some of the jobs were big ones with many workers. I know the other skilled labor guys had kids my age, and I know that they didn’t have any more money than my family, but I was the only white boy who did it. I wonder now about why that was? Prejudice? If so, did they ask my dad why he let his son work with N____________? Since my dad was hot-tempered and a former boxer and street fighter, with the reputation to go with it, I doubt they said much. But it makes me wonder, and it certainly makes me appreciate my father more.
A Family Thing
It makes sense that I have been comfortable with black people for as long as I can remember. Daddy didn’t have social relationships with African Americans off of the job, except for hunting, but they respected him and he respected them. My mother was no different. We didn’t have much money, but at times we would have a black woman come to our house to help with the ironing. Mother’s relationships with them were nothing like the mess in the movie, “The Help.” They laughed and joked together, and I suspect had their tea times together. Mom just loved people ─ of all types.
I remember one day our ironing lady couldn’t find anyone to leave her son with, so she brought him to our house with her. He and I were about the same age, probably 10 or 11 years old. It must have been in the summer time, since we weren’t in school, but we had a fun day together. We went out in our front yard and played tackle football most of the day. That’s not easy with such small teams, but we did it ─ tackling and wrestling each other for hours on end. What did the neighbors think of this unusual sight? I don’t know and didn’t even think about it then, and certainly my mother didn’t care. So you see, when I say that my parents weren’t racist, I think the facts speak for themselves. Thank you, Mother!
Passing a Big Test!
I was a college undergraduate student from 1961 to 1965. That was right in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and tensions were high. Dr. King’s march on Washington was in the summer of 1963. My youngest uncle was still single at that time, and he and my favorite grandmother lived about 40 miles from where I was attending college in Louisiana. I didn’t have a car, but loved visiting them on the remote little farm on which they lived. Public transportation to that part of the state was non-existent, which left me with one option of transportation ─ hitch-hiking.
Although hitch-hiking was fairly common in those days, catching a ride to remote areas was pretty difficult. Once a friend of mine was going with me to my grandmother’s place (the hunting and fishing were off the charts good). A black middle-aged man stopped to offer us a ride. Keep in mind that this was in about 1963. That was a first for me, but we didn’t hesitate. As it turned out, our only problem was that he had enjoyed far too much to drink, and drove extremely fast on two lane, curvy roads frequented by very large and long logging trucks. He was very friendly and we survived the wild adrenaline rush. That trip made roller coaster rides feel tame!
Another time I was hitch-hiking alone, and a station wagon with four or five young black men stopped to offer me a ride. That one gave me pause, given the tensions and violence common in that era, but only for a moment. After all, I worked with black men every summer, and hunted and fished with some of them. In fact, Man Hollingsworth lived very near where I was headed, so I hopped in the car.
Then the talk started, and it was scary talk. These young guys talked about which of my body parts they were going to cut off first, and they were not laughing or smiling. I honestly gave myself about a 50-50 chance of dying that day. I was a non-Christian at the time, and had a serious gambling addiction which lasted about two years. Thus, I put on my best poker face during all of the threats and acted as if I weren’t afraid. I was faking it, but at least I didn’t wet my pants, so that should count for something!
When we reached the old country store in the little town where I was supposed to get out to meet my uncle, they pulled the station wagon over and let me out. I think I heard them laughing with glee as they pulled away, but I’m not completely sure. I had one huge emotional reaction ─ relief! I wasn’t angry, I didn’t say bad things about them, I couldn’t pull the stereotyping card because I had black friends that I knew well from working with them. I remember thinking to myself that given what those young men had likely experienced at the hands of white folks, I would probably have done the same as they did. I was just thankful to be alive, really thankful.
I understand much more now about what it must have been like to be black in those days (and in our day), but I knew enough then to realize that their lot in life was tough and many (not all ─ no stereotyping in either direction!) white people treated black people pretty badly. In thinking back to that time, I’m grateful to have been spared from angry racist attitudes, and grateful to have felt empathy for the very ones who had scared me out of my wits. Those young men were about my age, so some of them may yet be alive.
A Dream-Worthy Thought
I would dearly love to find one or more of them and sit down over a cup of coffee or a meal and relive that experience. I’ll bet I have been used as an illustration by them with their children and grandchildren many times, accompanied with many laughs. It would be fun to hear their stories and to just be thankful that times have changed for the better. Yes, I know they haven’t changed nearly enough, and this blog attests to that fact, but it would be a wonderful experience to laugh about that time together. Passing that one prejudice test was far more important than passing any test in college that I ever took. Thank you, God!
A Pat on the Back?
Some who are reading this might wonder if I wrote this article to give myself a pat on the back because I had relationships with some black people in a day when that was quite unusual. No, that wasn’t my reason for writing it, not at all. I was a very worldly, sinful young man who didn’t deserve pats on the back. I wrote this only to demonstrate what those times were like in my very young years and to describe why I am so thankful to have been raised as I was – without racist attitudes. The pats on the back are reserved for my mother, my father, the black folks who were willing to befriend me, and God. Somehow by his grace, I escaped one sin at least, racism, and I am most grateful.