I Married a Black Man
As a white college student in the 1960s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. In Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which we wrote together and was published in 2009, he shared his experiences in the black community during the 1950s. Here are excerpts about sharecroppers.
My First Wife’s Parents were Sharecroppers
When I first told Ruth I’d like to meet her sharecropper parents, she told me, “Oh you won’t like ‘em. They live in the country in a house with no bathroom. They bathe in the kitchen in a large tin tub.”
After I arrived in Humboldt by bus, Ruth and I walked to the outskirts of town. By the side of a narrow country road, stood an old, unpainted clapboard house with a zinc roof. The back extension was the kitchen. In the yard, an old Model T was parked by the side of the house. There was an outhouse in back. Inside, the floor was wood plank. Wooden shutters hung on the windows. Pictures of family ancestors hung on the wall along with the Salmon’s “Head of Christ.”
John and Penny were in their very best – he in suspender pants and she in a cotton print dress with a bib apron. They provided for their seven children on six acres of land by planting and harvesting an enormous garden and by raising their own hogs and chickens.
As Ruth and I walked out to the back yard, she showed me the huge iron pot her parents put her under as a baby while they worked in the cotton fields. Penny said, “Well, she was so little and we all had to work all day.”
Bible Verse Recitation
John and Penny were illiterate. When I first visited them, I suggested, “Let’s recite a Bible verse each time we eat dinner.”
The next two nights in a row, Penny recited, “Jesus passing by.”
On the second night, I said, “Where’d you get that verse?”
“I told you I don’t know how to read but I listen to them preachers. Of all things in the Bible, the greatest is when Jesus passes you by. The poor blind man, he couldn’t go to Jesus. So if Jesus hadn’t passed by him, he wouldn’t have gotten his sight. Jesus passed by me. Hallelujah! I’m his daughter and my husband is his son because He’s in our heart.”
White Folks Just Don’t Have Any Manners
During the 1950s, when I visited my sharecropper in-laws, I was sitting on their front porch engrossed in a book. I heard someone say, “Boy, where’s John?” I hardly raised my eyes and said absentmindedly, “I don’t know.”
I then heard, “Well get up and go look for ‘im, Boy. I wanna see ‘im.”
I looked up to see a toothless old white man in overalls. His matted hair poked out of his straw hat. His shoes looked as if you could scrape off a bucketful of mud. He stood there stoop-shouldered, one strap of his overalls hanging down. I thought he was drunk.
I said, “What did you say?”
“Hey, Boy! Come here. I said, ‘Where’s John?’ ”
I walked to the dirt road to get a closer look. He stood there glaring at me and said, “Do you hear me? Do you understand me, Boy?” I wanted to choke him.
Suddenly Penny came around the corner of the house and said, “Ben? Whatcha doin’? Who ya talkin’ to?”
When she saw the man, she told him, “This is my daughter’s husband. What can I do for you?”
“I’m askin’ him to get John.”
“Oh, I’ll do that!” And she went to get him. The white man stood there glaring as I went back to the porch and my book.
Penny later apologized, saying, “That’s the way these white folks are. They don’t respect anyone. They just talk and expect you to do somethin’. We’re sorry, Ben. That’s the problem with this country. White folks just don’t have any manners.”
Distrust of Whites
In Humbo, Penny told me about their life as sharecroppers. Although we were alone in the house, she whispered, “We grow cotton too but the white folks don’t pay us much for it. They cheat us. They don’t give John near the money he should get. And they go to church too. You know, Benjamin? God’ll punish ‘em for that because He’s just. That’s what the good book says.
“I’d like to see ‘em on that Judgment Day. I’ll say, ‘Lord, these white people tried to drive John and me and the children out.’ I’ll report ‘em all and the Lord knows. They can’t deny it.”
Our Love Story
After my husband’s death in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.