Once upon a time when we were colored /
Clifton L. Taulbert.
1st ed. --
Tulsa, Okla. : Council Oak Books, c1989.
153 p. : ill. ; 19 cm.
093303119X :
More Details
Tulsa, Okla. : Council Oak Books, c1989.
093303119X :
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A Look Inside
First Chapter


Long ago when southern plantations were plentiful and colored sharecroppers still dreamed and the agrarian South was making a significant contribution to the gross national product, small southern towns were springing up almost daily with designs on becoming southern ladies of commerce. Glen Allan, Mississippi was such a place and was physically positioned to achieve that goal. And although she had much of what was required - a long lazy flowing lake framed with towering cypress trees and cypress stumps, mansions with white imposing columns that seemed to reach for the sky - she never quite became the lady. She remained a country girl with a few southern charms that would hold our attention while we called her our hometown.

Growing up as a young colored boy in Glen Allan, I didn't pay much attention to her lack of industry or the slow decline of cotton as king. I just lived for Saturdays when Poppa would take me to Greenville, the Queen City of the Delta, where we would buy hot French bread and frozen custard ice cream.

When I think of Poppa today, I am reminded of a colored southern Buddha. He was robust, very imposing and his head was as clean and shiny as that of an ancient Chinese god. Being a well-known and respected Baptist preacher, he was looked to for his wisdom and in many instances served as a go-between for the coloreds when problems arose involving whites. You could always count on Elder Young. I was too young to appreciate his intervention, but I was old enough to understand and feel his love for me, his great-grandson. And every Saturday morning during the summer and early fall, I could look forward to joining Poppa for out traditional ride to Greenville.

Poppa and I were very close. I had been born in his house, as were my mother and her mother before her. My mother was unmarried and just out of high school when I came into this world, and when she later married, it was felt that I would be better off living with Poppa and his wife Ma Pearl. Even though I was not raised by my mother, she lived within walking distance of Poppa's house. I spent a great deal of time with her as well as with my other aunts and uncles, enjoying the benefits of an extended family. By the time I was five, Ma Pearl had become too sick to take care of me and I went to live with my great-aunt, Ma Ponk. Over the years, my relationship with Poppa continued to grow even though I had gone to live with Ma Ponk. I built my world around Poppa and he protected me from the harsher realities of our complex social environment.

Poppa was more than my best friend; he was also the essence of Christmas. For colored children in Glen Allan, Christmas was the only time of year we got fresh fruit and toys. We each got one toy at Christmas, and today it seems amazing how those toys would last forever - or at least 364 days until Christmas came again. December 24 was a big night for us, and we didn't care whether Santa Claus was white, green or yellow, just as long as he came down our chimney. Poppa always made sure that something special happened in our lives at Christmas. We'd go around to his house early on Christmas morning and he'd have eggnog and bowls and bowls of fresh apples and oranges and pecans and walnuts - all the things that we rarely saw during the rest of the year. On Christmas it seemed we stepped into a fantasy land of new toys and good food, and Poppa was at its center.

Getting to go to Greenville with Poppa on a Saturday morning was almost as exciting as Christmas. I'd be up early in the morning, long before seven o'clock. I didn't want to miss the Saturday trip. I'd grab the car rags from the screened porch and a broom from the storehouse and I'd do my best to clean the old '49 Buick that served as a small field car during the week. I would work hard to get a good shine on the outside and all the field dirt from the inside. I was going to Greenville, and I couldn't wait. Poppa would never be ready as quickly as I expected him. He would always take his time.

Impatient to go, I'd ease into the front room, where Poppa would be putting the finishing touches on his shaving. He shaved his face and head every day. There he'd sit in the big black leather parlor chair by the door to the small bedroom, sharpening his razor on the long razor strops hung by the door. I would watch in complete silence as the long blade of the razor, expertly handled, removed all signs of hair from his face and head. Afterwards Poppa would rub alcohol all over his scalp with a hot towel, then he would rub oil over his face and head, creating the shiny image of Buddha that I had come to love. With the shaving complete, I knew it wouldn't be long. Poppa would put on his best white shirt and black suit. He'd chain his gold pocket watch across his belly, then get his hat. While he was finishing this careful process of dressing, I sat on the tall steps that led to the front porch. With my arms wrapped around my knees that were bent up to my chin, I would just sit and look as far as I could see. And my eyes could see no farther than Greenfield, a series of cotton farms and sharecroppers' homes. Because I could see no farther, I always thought Greenfield was the end of my world. I knew the colored colony was behind Greenfield, but I didn't understand why I couldn't see it. The colony was mostly colored, a self-sufficient community established by blacks after the Civil War and expanded through the purchase of land from the Illinois Central Railroad.

At the screech of the screen door behind me, I jumped up and looked into Poppa's face. There he stood with his hat in his hand and his ever- present pipe in his mouth. Together we walked down the steps from the front garret (as he called the porch) to the '49 Buick parked by the side of the house. Poppa got in and turned the key. The Buick never would start, however, until Poppa got out again, raised the hood and did some tinkering. Usually the tinkering didn't work either, and Poppa, as a last resort, would always hit something under the hood with a chinaberry stick. Then the motor would leap to life and we'd back out of the yard and head toward Greenville.


Excerpted from Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored by Clifton L. Taulbert Copyright © 1997 by Clifton L. Taulbert. Excerpted by permission.
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Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1991-07-12:
Taulbert tells of growing up in tiny Glen Allen, Miss., in the 1950s; although relations between blacks and whites were generally amicable, he did not escape discrimination's sting. PW called this ``funny, sweet, touching. . . . A book about poor families who shared joys, sorrows and occasional treats in celebration of their heroes--Jackie Robinson, Marian Anderson, Joe Louis et al.'' Photos. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 1989-07-01:
Black businessman Taulbert has written a brief, affecting, deceptively simple memoir of his youth in Glen Allen, Mississippi in the 1950s. On the one hand he emphasizes, ``the important values . . . conveyed'' to him in his ``colored childhood'' in the segregated South--the closeness of the extended family, communal assistance, and religious faith. But this is more than a gentle assault on the ``oppressed blacks as miserable'' myth. Segregation still stings in the world of Taulbert's youth, as he recalls stepping aside for whites, entering through back doors, and watching whites with fear and caution. In spite of its syrupy idealism (which tends to portray all blacks as warm and wonderful) and its lack of coherent organization, this is an important, moving work. Recommended for major public, university, and college libraries.-- Anthony O. Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, Ind. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews,
Publishers Weekly, May 1989
Library Journal, July 1989
School Library Journal, December 1989
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Authored Title
A touching autobiography of a black man and his family in a small Mississippi town during the 1940s and 1950s.
Main Description
A son connects to his father's history by the author of Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. A journey home to the Mississippi Delta community of his own humble childhood became Clifton Taulbert's Christmas gift to his son -- a trip to meet the people who had mentored and inspired Clifton as a boy, to see first-hand the value of family, community and love.
Unpaid Annotation
Clifton Taulbert's loving memoir of life in the colored section of a little Mississippi Delta town has won praise and stirred hearts across the nation, and was turned into a moving and memorable film.

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