I knew a number of small farmers who owned their own land. Most of them were white, of course, and it was their children who came to our church and were my classmates in school. Many of them were as poor as black day laborers, but they were expected to maintain better houses, wear mostly store-bought clothes, and keep their children in school more days each year. The income of small landowners, who cultivated about forty acres, was approximately the same as that of tenants with an operation of the same size. Paying taxes and the full cost of livestock, seed, fertilizer, and other supplies ate up the advantage of not paying rent. Even those who owned enough land to work their own crops and to support a few sharecropper families quite often made very little profit. They bore the full risk of low harvest prices, and nonpayment of the tenants' debts was their loss. In fact, with very few exceptions, everyone in our rural community was in the same economic boat. All of us had a chance to prosper when the weather was good, particularly when the cotton price was high. Obviously, local merchants welcomed good years, which brought a chance to collect old debts and to sell new shoes, overalls, and perhaps even a sewing machine to their usually destitute customers. Such years were rare.
Although I was born in Plains and actually lived next door to my future wife, Rosalynn, when she was a baby, the first thing I remember clearly was when I was four years old and my father took us out to show us our new home on the farm. There were four of us, including my sister, Gloria, who was two years younger than I. The front door was locked when we got there, and Daddy realized that he had forgotten the key. He tried to raise one of the windows that opened onto the front porch, but a wooden bar on the inside let it come up only about six inches. So he slid me through the crack and I came around to unlock the door from the inside. The approval of my father for my first useful act has always been one of my most vivid memories.
Our house was typical of those occupied by middle-income landowners of the time. Set back about fifty feet from the dirt road, it was square, painted tan to match the dust, and had a broad front porch and split-shingle roof. The rooms were laid out in "shotgun" style, with a hall that went down the middle of the house dividing the living room, dining room, and kitchen on the left side from three bedrooms on the right. We also had a screened porch that extended across the back of the house, where we worked and stored things such as well water, corn for the chickens, and extra wood to keep it dry. The front porch was where our family congregated in warm weather, which was about nine months of the year. We had a swing suspended from the ceiling and some rocking chairs out there, and Daddy often used the slightly sloping floor for a quick nap after dinner and before going back to work in the afternoon. I relished lying beside him as a little boy, long before I could do useful work in the fields.
There is little doubt that I now recall those days with more fondness than they deserve. We drew water from a well in the yard, and every day of the year we had the chore of keeping extra bucketfuls in the kitchen and on the back porch, combined with the constant wood-sawing and chopping to supply the cooking stove and fireplaces. In every bedroom was a slop jar (chamber pot) that was emptied each morning into the outdoor privy, about twenty yards from our back door. This small shack had a large hole for adults and a lower and smaller one for children; we wiped with old newspapers or pages torn from Sears, Roebuck catalogues. These were much better facilities than those I knew when I was with the other families on the place, who squatted behind bushes and wiped with corncobs or leaves.
It was a great day for our family in 1935 when Daddy purchased from a mail-order catalogue and erected a windmill with a high wooden tank and pipes that provided running water for the kitchen and a bathroom with toilet. We even had a rudimentary shower made from a large tin can with its bottom perforated by nail holes. One extra benefit was that the top platform of the windmill, up near the fan blades, gave a good view of the nearby fields.
Copyright © 2001 by Jimmy Carter
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