Two sons of a sharecropper return to the Texas town where they grew up.
Standing outside his grandmother’s farm, my father recalled the happy times he spent there .
“When I was in school I was a member of the Future Farmers of America ( the black segregated version of the 4H Club), I got a $40 loan from the bank for an agricultural project. I grew an acre of sweet potatoes on my grandmother’s farm but I got sick. I couldn’t tend to my crop but it grew anyway. My father dug up the sweet potatoes and took them to town. He sold enough of them to pay back the loan. We stored the rest of them in a kiln made from corn stalks. Boy, we ate sweet potatoes for awhile,” he said with the shining pride of accomplishment.
We pressed on, cruising down back roads that took us past abandoned farm houses overgrown with trees and vegetation.
“Mr. such and such lived there,” Uncle Bennie would say or “The such and such family lived there,” my father would say, conjuring up phantoms from the past I couldn’t see.
“Everyone knew everyone else around here. We were po’ but we worked together and helped one another. If someone butchered a hog, we all got meat from it,” my father said.
We crossed the interstate in search of the primary school my father and uncle attended. Unable to locate the school along the road familiar to them, my father pulled over to ask a local if he knew what happened to it. A disabled man was walking to his mailbox across from where our car was parked. My father climbed out of the car and walked over to speak to him. When he returned, he turned the car around and headed back down the road.
“The man said we passed it already. It’s on the left side of the road going this direction,” he said to my uncle.
“Brother, do you see how rundown things look around here?” my uncle asked
“Sure do,” my father replied, “And that crippled guy I spoke too wasn’t very friendly.”
They both seemed troubled by the area’s decline but said nothing more about it.
“There it is!” my father said excitedly.
He pulled into the driveway of their former school, which was now a church.
School had been an important part of life in the New Summerfield black community.
“We wouldn’t be able to attend school until half-way through the semester most times because we’d have to help Daddy pick cotton,” my father said,
“But we went whenever we could.”
The State of Texas employed three teachers and a principal at the segregated Pinehill School. Titles, however, had little to do with work assignments. The principal worked as an administrator and taught school. The math teacher also doubled as the school bus driver. The dedicated staff taught grades 1-8 using cast off equipment and books from area white schools. My uncle and father insisted that while the school building, books and equipment might have been second rate, the teachers gave them a decent education under the circumstances.
“The teachers were strict. They expected us to do our best and we did.” my father said.
“I remember when school let out for the summer, we’d take off our shoes and walk around barefoot all summer long,” he said, “We saved the wear and tear on them. Clothes were expensive so you’d patch them up and pass them on down.”
My uncle said he had a reputation among their classmates for being a good fighter.
“I didn’t care how big you were, if you started a fight with me, I was going to finish it.” he said, “It got to a point where people knew to leave me alone.”
In fact, it was my Uncle Bennie who did most of the fighting for his siblings when they were growing up.
“Bubba, here, was too sensitive. He didn’t like to fight,” my uncle said.
The “protectiveness” my uncle felt toward my father when they were children is still evident in the special bond they share even today. Their “bromance” runs deeps and, after spending days in their company, I found it surprisingly endearing.
The sun was about to set when we made a final stop at a local cemetery. A segregated cemetery where former and current residents of New Summerfield’s black community are laid to rest. My father and uncle wondered among the graves, calling out the names of the deceased, remembering their exploits. My two old guys searched for their cousin Lily’s grave but instead discovered their Uncle Arthur’s and Aunt Ernestine’s—buried side by side. My two old guys paid their final respects to their family and friends ( a few of those moments are captured on the video clips below) then we drove back to the hotel.
My father and uncle talked about going back to New Summerfield to take more pictures and visit other places but we ran out of time. Now back home in Arizona, I think about the incredible journey we shared on the road trip to East Texas. Their stories and memories enabled me to rediscover a part of my history: rural Black Americana; a strong, resourceful, vibrant community of black people who, against the odds, laid a solid foundation for the future. They may have been invisible to the outside world but they weren’t invisible to each other. The proof of their existence lives on in the memories of their children and grandchildren; and, in some small way, perhaps the memory of the people who read this article.
Read more on The Good Life.
Images courtesy of the author