The Education of Oral Lee Brown
Even though I acted as a surrogate parent to twenty-three kids, I didn't
always understand what they were going through growing up. I couldn't compare my
childhood to theirs at all. Even though I'm just in my early sixties, and was
only in my forties when I made my promise, the world of my childhood has
disappeared. Well, in most ways, I hope!
I was born in Mississippi in the early 1940s, in a small town just outside Batesville. At the time Batesville, which is on the Tallahatchie River about fifty miles southwest of Memphis, Tennessee, had a population of about 15,000 people. The most interesting thing about Batesville when I was growing up was the fact that it was on the main train line that wound through the country, so we got to see all kinds of people coming and going when we were children. We also got to dream of leaving on that train, and believe you me, did I dream of leaving Mississippi! Even as a child I knew that there had to be a better life for me somewhere else, somewhere with racial integration and economic opportunity.
I am the ninth of twelve children born to Walter and Nezzie Bivins. My parents are old-fashioned farming folk: we grew cotton and corn, and we were very proud of the fact that we were one of the only black families in Batesville who owned our own land. Almost every other black family worked as sharecroppers, which meant that they did all the hard work on another man's land and then had to give most of the profit right back to the owner. That's why black people in the South stayed poor.
My father worked as a sharecropper for years and years before he saved up enough money to buy that land, and then we cleared and tilled it ourselves. When I say "we," I mean all of us--even at the age of eight years old I was picking fifty pounds of cotton a day, and then going back in the house to cook for twelve people. This was the time in my life when I learned a lot of the discipline--not to mention the penny-pinching--that it took to put an entire class of children through college.
You see, when you're picking cotton, you're doing it with the understanding that there's not a lot of money to be made in it. In fact, you're breaking your back for almost nothing. I'll give you an example: my family was so disciplined about working our own sixty acres that some years, we finished our crop in time to work on another farm that hadn't finished all the picking. We were paid every day for the amount of cotton that we picked, and so I can tell you exactly how much the fifty pounds of cotton that I picked every day at the age of eight years old was worth: two dollars. I remembered that later on when I was struggling to save enough money to put my babies through college: Oral Lee, I said to myself, you used to work for two dollars a day. You can get through this. And I always did.
It was a hard life in Mississippi. It was hard not just economically but socially, too. Thanks to segregation, black people had to live in a part of town called the Vance Bottom, down by the river, while white people lived up the hill in Batesville proper. Every few years the river flooded and destroyed many homes, and do you think any of those white people ventured down the hill to help out? That's right--they didn't. But they still expected black people to move off of the sidewalk when a white person passed by, and to keep their mouths shut after a black person was lynched by a white mob. That happened fairly often, too. Mississippi was a violent place to be a child.
In many ways, I'm one of the lucky ones. I left home when I was twelve years old. What happened was that one of my older sisters, Willie Bea, married a young man named Paul and followed him to Newburgh, New York. They had heard there were good jobs up North, and they wanted to escape segregation. They also started having children nearly every year of their marriage, including two sets of twins! They eventually had eight children in all. That would have been far too many babies for Willie Bea to manage by herself, so I lobbied my mother to be the one who got to leave Mississippi and help out.
Excerpted from The Promise by Oral Lee Brown with Caille Millner Copyright © 2005 by Oral Lee Brown. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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