One Man's Battle
One Man's Battle
Being at play with other children, when three or four years old, I was telling them something which my mother overhearing, said it had happened before I was born... others being called on were greatly astonished...and caused them to say in my hearing, I surely would be a prophet.
It was 1947 in America.
This was the year a young African American ballplayer with the Brooklyn Dodgers named Jackie Robinson won the inaugural Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award. It was the year Richard Nixon was sworn into the House of Representatives. The year Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, the year Henry Ford died. 1947 was the year the Marshall Plan was launched, Miracle on 34th Street was released, and Hillary Rodham Clinton was born.
So was I.
In 1947 in deeply, stubbornly Southern, rural Louisiana, 116 years after Nat Turner's insurrection, 82 years after slaves were proclaimed free, Robinson's award gave a faint glimmer of the changes that lay ahead for America. But in 1947, the only thing Richard Nixon, Chuck Yeager, Henry Ford, George Marshall, or Hillary Clinton and I had in common was that we were born in the same country.
A different universe perhaps, but amazingly enough, the same country.
I came into the world courtesy of my parents, Percy and Beatrice. I was the first of their ten children (in addition to my mother's three kids from another relationship, Honey, Charles Henry, and Mac, and my father's three sons by a previous marriage, Little Percy, Charlie Scott, and Jessie). We lived in a little shack tucked into the turn-row of a Helena Plantation cotton field alongside a dusty gravel road just off Highway 65, about six miles from Waterproof, Louisiana.
Passing vehicles were followed by waves of swirling dust that engulfed everything in sight, momentarily blotting out the immediate world. Then, as the dust swiftly settled, our house and a few other similarly small, tattered tarpaper shacks, all occupied by equally poor Black families struggling to eke out a living, snapped back to reality with a suddenly startling clarity.
There were five small homes here, clustered within 300 yards of the highway our gravel road was connected to, in an area known as Upper Helena. Ours was the fourth perched along the road. While the first four shacks sat droopily in close proximity to one another, the fifth dwelling was set apart, nearly 200 yards down from our place and well back from the road. This shack was nestled near the graveyard where Helena's Blacks were buried. The ground here was somewhat raised above the level of the road and the adjacent cotton fields. Two very large oak trees stood sentinel over the plots, their branches reaching down like outstretched arms, straining to embrace the fallen.
A further 200 yards beyond the graveyard stood The Big House. No tarpaper shack this. Surrounded by a neat white picket fence, this was the substantial home of the Helena Plantation's owner, one Henry Butts.
The majesty of the Butts home was marred somewhat by the existence of several old, broken-down structures clustered outside the fence at the back of the Butts property. Now used to store farm equipment, they were originally slave quarters.
Helena was typical of many mid-twentieth-century plantations in the region. Blacks lived in small dwellings that belonged to the plantation's owner. Barely a step above in size and quality of construction from the dilapidated former slave quarters at the back of the Butts spread, tiny, rickety homes dotted the landscape like spindly wooden mushrooms.
These shacks represented a key element in the socioeconomic arrangement that made the local economy tick. Working Black families were offered a roof (often a leaky one) over their heads. They in turn offered the planta