Catalogue


Aaron Henry : the fire ever burning /
Aaron Henry with Constance Curry ; introduction by John Dittmer.
imprint
Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, c2000.
description
xxi, 263 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. ; 24 cm.
ISBN
1578062128 (cloth : alk. paper)
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
imprint
Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, c2000.
isbn
1578062128 (cloth : alk. paper)
general note
Includes index.
catalogue key
3757549
A Look Inside
First Chapter


Chapter One

The Bible, The Almanac,

and the Sears Catalogue

    White people used to say we didn't mind that hot Mississippi sun, beating the strength out of our backs and drawing the sap from our souls. They said our black skins kept us from knowing that suffering--that we didn't mind working fifteen hours a day in thick heat and stinging dust. They said we were able to withstand the drudgery because we were made that way and were capable of little else besides that work.

    When I was growing up in Mississippi, on the Flowers brothers' plantation about twenty miles east of Clarksdale in Coahoma County, the sharecropping system was firmly established. Its tap root ran straight down through history to the first time man discovered what tactics could be employed to press his fellow man into servitude. The branches of the system were entangled in every field Negro's brain, back, and soul, and we never questioned it, because it was all we knew. We had to work all day in those green-and-white blistering cotton fields if we wanted to live. It was work or starve or get run off the place, and the work was simpler than the uncertainty of the outside. Nobody ever asked how we felt. They would hear us singing about the heat and the work and the life, and they would turn and tell each other how happy we all were. Of course, singing and religion were about all we could do for entertainment, and I think most people will admit that we got pretty good at those two things.

    The Mississippi Delta was developed by the constant overflow of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers over hundreds and hundreds of years. The continuous overflow created a swampy, wooded area, sparsely inhabited until late in the nineteenth century. After the Civil War, Negroes could not buy land in many areas in Mississippi, and the first land that became available to the freed slaves was in the Delta. Few whites were willing to suffer the hardships of almost uncivilized country, the undeterminable factor of an unmanageable river, and serious health problems. The flooding rivers would often destroy an entire year's labor, and the heavy infestation of mosquitoes made malaria and yellow fever recurring and deadly problems. As methods were developed to control the almighty river, more whites began moving in. That uninhabitable swamp had been cleared and was soon cultivated into the most fertile cotton land in the state--the Mississippi Delta.

    As far back as I can trace, my family has been in Mississippi. I remember my maternal grandmother telling stories of slavery days, of murders and lynchings and white authority that went completely unchallenged. When I was born in 1922, my father had about forty acres to farm on the Flowers plantation.

    Thirty or so members of our family also lived there, including ten or twelve adults and the rest children. My mother died when I was three, and my father two years later, and I was raised by Mother's brother, Ed Henry, and his wife Mattie. I considered them my parents and Merryll, a niece they were also raising, as my sister. All of my relatives on the plantation--aunts and uncles and cousins--pitched in and helped each other in the endless plowing, chopping, and gathering of the cotton--it was our life. Between times dictated by Master Cotton, the family operated as a unit, banding together to go into the woods and cut trees for fuel for winter. The men and boys made sure they left a load of wood at each of our houses.

    When working in the fields, we were up before the sun, and Mother fixed us eggs if we had them and filled our empty spaces with grits. That was to hold us until dinner. On special occasions we had butter for our grits, but usually it was just salt. Sometimes after hog-killing time, we would have a big treat of bacon.

    If it was time to plow, before going to the fields each day, we would go get our mule from an enclosure called "the lot." All of the plantation mules were kept there, and I can still see what looked to a child like an acre of mules. We would get ours hooked up and go to the field and plow and bring the mule back to the lot at noon and again in the evening.

    Usually the walk to the fields in the early morning would be at least comfortable, if not cool. But by the time we got there, the sun would be rising and the sweat would be coming. When I dressed in the morning, my clothes were usually damp and cool from the previous day's sweat, but they were warm and sticky again by the time we reached the fields.

    As far back as I can remember, I have detested everything about growing cotton. When we would pick, I was one of the slowest workers. My hands were never as large as the other boys', and one time a white man told me that I might make a musician some day. He said that my hands were smaller and my fingers longer than those of most white men. I told him that maybe that was the reason I detested cotton working so much. I never learned to play an instrument, and maybe dreaming about it slowed me down even more. I just know that I would start down my row picking that cotton and stuffing it into my sack and never looking up. The older field hands always told us that once we bent over, to stay down as long as we could, because the bending and unbending made your back the sorest. So, I went along the row picking as best I could, head down, and, after a while, I would just know I was halfway to the end of the row. Then I would look up and see that I was only about twenty yards from where I had started, that I was twenty yards behind everybody else, and that my sack was only about half as full as the others.

    There were two or three white families on the plantation who worked as sharecroppers and lived under the same conditions that we did. We had a common bond in our impoverishment, and color made no difference between us--no segregation and no white supremacy. We all stood in the same line to get our goods at the commissary. The men sat around and chewed tobacco together and drank whiskey that they sometimes made together. The white and Negro women frequently had quilting bees. The families shared when bad weather was expected or any sort of emergency existed. A Negro midwife on the plantation named Granny delivered white and Negro babies. No courtesy titles entered the picture, because white and Negro sharecroppers called each other by first names.

    As a child, all of this seemed perfectly natural, but later, when I operated my drugstore, I fully understood the absence of racial prejudice among the sharecroppers. Race simply made no difference as long as you were dirt poor--white and Negro tenants simply suffered their destinies together. I found in my own store that the really poor whites were just as humble as Negroes at that economic level. I have known whites so poor that they didn't object to going to a Negro's home, sitting at his table, and even sleeping in the same bed with him.

    One of the white sharecropper families on the Flowers place was named Smithers, and they had a son, Randolph, who was my age, and a daughter about the age of my sister. My mother later told me that when Randolph and I were babies, I sometimes was left at the Smithers house, and Mrs. Smithers nursed us both. When Randolph was left at our house, my mother did the same. I cannot remember the time that Randolph and I were not the closest of friends.

    The manager of the plantation, Mr. Baker, was a short, fat white man with a red face and a thick neck. He sweated a great deal, and when he held his chin up, I could see black lines of grit across his neck where his double chins had folded in the sweat and dirt. We all accepted Baker as the head of the plantation, but he never interfered with family units. My father was the head of our family. My parents were hardworking and loyal people. I was never directly abused in any way by the Bakers, and I don't believe my father was. However, if he was mistreated, Father would not have told us, because he always tried to spare us from unpleasantness. Baker had a son, about my age, and he was usually a part of our nuthunting and berrypicking. We always felt that the son was a little above the rest of us, white and Negro, because he had so many more things and did not have to work.

    Life support on the plantation was meted out from the heart of the system--the commissary. We got our food supplies and clothing here and at the same time wrapped ourselves in debts from which it was nearly impossible to escape. We were charged for the supplies, and, at the end of the crop year after the cotton had been harvested and ginned, Mr. Baker would inform us what sum our part of the crop had brought. If we earned more than we owed, we got the difference. If we owed more than we had earned, the difference was charged to us. There was only one set of records, which were kept by the plantation owner, and we had to pay or get whatever he said. There was no contract, and, over the years, many tenants found themselves so deeply in debt that they could never leave the system.

    We bought rice and flour, salt and pepper, and salt meat from the commissary. We ground corn into meal ourselves, but it was never enough to last the year, so we had to buy meal, too. We bought cloth, and Mother made shirts and dresses and underclothes. Trousers, coats, and caps were purchased.

    We had room on our forty acres to raise chickens and hogs. The hogs were slaughtered and salted down, but chicken was a delicacy because we used them mostly for eggs. Pork was the only fresh meat until September, when the first bales of cotton were ginned. Then, if we got a share of the money, we went to the butcher shop in town and bought beef or liver. Steak and gravy were the treats at this time of year.

    There are other pleasant recollections of fall when everybody, young and old, went blackberry picking or hunting for muscadines, persimmons, hickory nuts, and walnuts. We also dug up peanuts that we had grown, but, once they left the ground, they were kept by the adults so the children wouldn't get stomachaches from eating green peanuts. The raw nuts were spread out on the flat roof of the house to dry.

    One time after my father had spread the nuts to dry, he took the ladder up to Mr. Baker's storehouse so we couldn't use it to climb onto the roof. I was determined to get up there and get a pocketful of peanuts, but I knew I couldn't get the ladder. My father had planted a tree beside the house about the time I was born and had taken every precaution to protect it so that someday we would have shade. I guess the tree was six by then, and it reached well above the top of the house. It wasn't very big around, but I figured it was surely large enough to hold me. I waited until my parents had gone away, and I started to shinny up the tree. I got almost to the point where I could have moved over onto the roof when the tree started bending and swaying. I knew that I was bound to go down with the tree, but I didn't know if it would be a gentle fall or if the tree would simply break and drop me straight to the ground. So I lunged toward the roof and grabbed it by the edge, and the tree swung away from me. There I was, hanging by my fingertips on the edge of the roof, unable to draw myself up and unsure if I could drop without hurting myself. I was trying to decide how to get down and thinking what my father would do if he caught me.

    Just then someone came along laughing to beat hell. Because of the way I was hanging, I couldn't look down, but I asked the boy to help me down to the ground. The rogue just kept laughing and accusing me of trying to steal peanuts and finally told me that there were rocks and broken glass under me and that if I dropped, I would cut my feet badly. I was tired of hanging and terrified and started bawling as hard and as loud as I could. I started yelling for my mother while the boy below kept laughing--almost as loud as I was crying. Before long I heard my father calling my name, as he ran towards the house. He reached up and grabbed me by my feet, and I let go of the roof. I was thankful to be down, but when my father realized what I had been doing, I got one of the sharpest whippings of my life. The other boy was still standing there laughing, and I told Daddy how he had lied about the glass and rocks beneath me. As was the custom, my father didn't lay a hand on the other boy and went straight to his father to tell what had happened. I could hear the other boy getting his whipping, but Daddy said he would whip me again if I went over there and watched and laughed.

    During those years, the Bible, the Ladies' Birthday Almanac, and the Sears and Roebuck catalogue served as standard references. They composed the family library. The Bible was the basic guideline, and it could work either way--to tell us what we couldn't do and then to show that our parents had done the right thing. It usually didn't work too much in my favor, but I held the Bible in complete respect. The almanac told us what to do and what not to do according to phases of the moon. We planted vegetable crops only on certain days that were indicated in the almanac. We were careful not to get our teeth pulled at times when the blood was in the head.

    The Sears catalogue was the real treasure as far as the children were concerned. We would sit for hours and look at the pictures of trains and trucks and hats, and we would talk about wanting this or that more than anything else on the page. Then we would turn the page and find something else that we wanted even more. Our parents would laugh at us and tease us when we told them we were going to order from the catalogue. But when we weren't looking they would spend more time than the children, looking at the pictures and wishing. Sometimes, it sounded like a ladies' church social when several of the women would get together and all be trying to look at the catalogue at the same time. They would talk at the same time, and then their voices would get louder and they would be scrambling around, each one trying to point out what she wanted most on the page. I guess one of the most joyous times of the year was when the new catalogue arrived, but I cannot recall a single time when my family ordered anything through the mail.

    Many of the sharecroppers on the plantation were improvident in handling their money. After a long year and dull days of hard work, many tenants would take their settlement money and toss it away frivolously rather than save it to buy their own land. That's one reason why there were so many automobiles in rural areas, even when there was no money to buy gas. A car was a symbol--"we have arrived; we have amounted to something." Later the symbols would be indoor plumbing and a radio. Or some sharecroppers would buy whiskey and drink it immediately. Perhaps because the plantation owner controlled their lives so completely and sometimes capriciously, many sought to get what little pleasure they could the moment it was available. Others were more disciplined, and my father, in fact, was something of a penny-pincher.

    Most plantation owners did not deal honestly with their tenants, and this formed the basic inequity of the sharecropping system. The owners were dealing with people whom they felt were subhuman, and they felt no moral obligation for fairness in the treatment of their tenants. The Bakers considered us only as instruments or machines that were needed to help them make a living. They were quite willing to take care of every need that was essential to our full productivity. In another respect, they treated the Negroes like mules--kind to them when the animal worked hard, but, if the mule balked, he was in trouble.

    The system was not a condition of actual servitude, but escape meant a willingness to throw basic security to the wind the basic plantation security that assured food, clothing, and medical attention. Forget about the little things that often aren't actually needed but would be so very nice to have anyway. I remember that I always wanted a white wide-brimmed felt hat like Mr. Baker had, but I was told that a yellow wide-brimmed straw hat was good enough for me, and it was a long time before I even had that.

    I was not aware that plantation life was a peculiar way to live. It was all that I had ever known and appeared to be the way the whole world operated. If my father had been satisfied with only basic securities, I might have spent all of my life on a plantation, never knowing if I would have had the initiative to break with the system.

    One major weakness of the sharecropping system, however, was the white man's failure to recognize the factor that could destroy this bondage--education. The roots of the system, so tangled up in the generations of black ignorance and white supremacy, sometimes produced an almost childlike innocence, where a white planter found it acceptable, if not useful, for a Negro tenant to learn a trade. When my father realized this and the near impossibility of prospering within the system, he learned the cobbling trade, and we moved into the nearby town of Webb. Our family was relatively small, and I am not sure how valuable we were to Baker. Perhaps Baker could have prevented my father from learning the trade, but I rather believe that Baker did not realize the full significance of even a smattering of education. Whites used to laugh and say that we bred like flies, but they were not aware of the multiple progression that comes when tiny bits of education are connected and put to use.

    I don't know why my father decided to try shoe cobbling. I suppose that it was either from reading about it in a magazine or hearing people talk about it. It was the era when Tuskegee Institute in Alabama taught cobbling and other trades of the hands following Booker T. Washington's philosophy that Negroes should be content to work with their hands. Perhaps someone was talking about Tuskegee and convinced my father that cobbling was a trade that he could learn. He toyed around during his spare time putting together pieces of leather and saw that he had a talent for it. He got in touch with the Southern Leather Company in Memphis who sent a white representative to talk with Father. The company was interested in setting up a cobbler in Webb, and we moved from the plantation in the spring of 1927.

    Father drove a borrowed truck up to our house one hot September morning. Behind the truck was the rest of our family who lived on the plantation and a host of neighbors. We had packed our belongings in boxes, done the breakfast dishes, and dismantled the beds. Everybody helped us load up, and, when the truck was full, Mother made us wear our shoes and hats and coats to save space. We were hot and uncomfortable, and at first Father wanted me to stay in the back of the truck to make sure nothing fell off. I wanted to ride on the front seat--the second time in my life--but, before I could complain, Mother told him that I was too little to ride in back, and Merryll rode there instead. As we drove off, I heard someone holler, "Aaron, they ain't got no flat roofs with peanuts on them in town." It was the little rogue who had left me hanging off the roof the time I was trying to steal peanuts. Word about that incident had spread, and I had been teased without mercy. Everybody was laughing at the remark, except for me and Father--I still didn't think it was funny. Father seemed to understand, and I felt as close to him as I ever had.

    We drove off amidst the hollering of good-byes and best wishes. I was between my parents in front and turned to look out the back window of the truck. Our belongings were piled too high to see, so I just hollered my good-byes at the top of my lungs until Mother told me to hush. I am sure my father had dreamed for years about the day when he would put down the hoe and cotton sack, stop walking behind a mule, and have no need to pray about enough wood for the winter. We had all of the money from the last crop, all the meat we had was cured, and all the provisions we had were stored. We were more free and economically secure than we had ever been. After we moved from the plantation, the family left behind also began to move. My grandparents moved to Clarksdale, and the rest scattered to St. Louis and Chicago. They had been talking for years, and, after we did it, they took heart and followed.

(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Fire Ever Burning by Aaron Henry. Copyright © 2000 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Summaries
Unpaid Annotation
The memoir of a fearless black leader in the civil rights struggle in Mississippi
Main Description
Although Aaron Henry (1922-1997) was one of the nation's major grassroots fighters in the freedom movement on local, state, and national levels, his name has not yet been accorded its full recognition. This book reveals why Aaron Henry should be acknowledged, in the ranks of Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers, as a truly influential crusader.Long before many of his contemporaries, he was a civil rights activist, but he preferred to stay out of the limelight. A certified pharmacist and owner of Fourth Street Drug Store in Clarksdale, he considered himself a down-home businessman who must not leave Mississippi. Although he was a key figure in bringing Head Start, housing, employment, and health service to his state, his tact and his quiet diplomacy garnered him less attention than more radical protesters received.Born in the age of segregation in the Mississippi Delta, the son of a sharecropper, he became state president of the NAACP in 1959. He was able, more than any previous leader, to unite Mississippi blacks, despite diversities of age, ideology, and class, in confronting white supremacy. He spearheaded the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Some activists criticized him for urging protesters to take the middle ground between the NAACP's conservative position and SNCC's militant activism. Facing recurring death threats, thirty-three jailings, and Klan bombings of his home and drugstore, Henry remained stalwart and courageous. John Dittmer describes him as a "conservative militant," willing not only to risk his life but also to compromise on issues of strategy even when doing so led to alienation from outspoken activists.Constance Curry has shaped this personal narrative of a brave and underacknowledged man who helped to change his state forever. To his candid story, transcribed from interviews he gave two young historians in 1965, Curry adds new material from her own interviews with his family, friends, and political associates. Henry's prophetic voice documents a momentous period in African American history that extends from the Great Depression through the civil rights movement in the pivotal 1960s.Constance Curry is the author ofSilver Rights, winner of the Lillian Smith Book Award in 1996. She lives in Atlanta.
Main Description
The autobiography of an unheralded African American crusader for freedom in Civil Rights-era Mississippi.
Main Description
Although Aaron Henry (1922-1997) was one of the nation's major grassroots fighters in the freedom movement on local, state, and national levels, his name has not yet been accorded its full recognition. This book reveals why Aaron Henry should be acknowledged, in the ranks of Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers, as a truly influential crusader. Long before many of his contemporaries, he was a civil rights activist, but he preferred to stay out of the limelight. A certified pharmacist and owner of Fourth Street Drug Store in Clarksdale, he considered himself a down-home businessman who must not leave Mississippi. Although he was a key figure in bringing Head Start, housing, employment, and health service to his state, his tact and his quiet diplomacy garnered him less attention than more radical protesters received. Born in the age of segregation in the Mississippi Delta, the son of a sharecropper, he became state president of the NAACP in 1959. He was able, more than any previous leader, to unite Mississippi blacks, despite diversities of age, ideology, and class, in confronting white supremacy. He spearheaded the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Some activists criticized him for urging protesters to take the middle ground between the NAACP's conservative position and SNCC's militant activism. Facing recurring death threats, thirty-three jailings, and Klan bombings of his home and drugstore, Henry remained stalwart and courageous. John Dittmer describes him as a "conservative militant," willing not only to risk his life but also to compromise on issues of strategy even when doing so led to alienation from outspoken activists. Constance Curry has shaped this personal narrative of a brave and underacknowledged man who helped to change his state forever. To his candid story, transcribed from interviews he gave two young historians in 1965, Curry adds new material from her own interviews with his family, friends, and political associates. Henry's prophetic voice documents a momentous period in African American history that extends from the Great Depression through the civil rights movement in the pivotal 1960s. Constance Curry is the author of Silver Rights , winner of the Lillian Smith Book Award in 1996. She lives in Atlanta.
Table of Contents
Introduction
Prologue
The Bible, The Almanac, and the Sears Cataloguep. 3
A Boy Scout Generalp. 16
"As Good As Anybody"p. 29
The Cotton Boll Courtp. 43
The Lie of "Separate but Equal"p. 58
People Get Readyp. 78
An Empty Boxp. 85
Mr. Doar's Promisep. 104
The Diabolical Plotp. 110
"Father, Forgive Them"p. 129
Clarksdale Garbagep. 152
The Freedom Electionp. 156
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Partyp. 162
Atlantic City - Heartbreak and Allp. 180
From Freedom to Politicsp. 199
Who He Wasp. 206
Acknowledgmentsp. 250
Indexp. 253
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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