Summerton, South Carolina
As a result of haphazard record keeping, i started out life with two “official” birthdays, but not much else. Legend has it that in the early 1930s down in Summerton, South Carolina, a midwife named “Mrs. Jessie” rode around Clarendon County in an old buggy pulled by a white horse. The horse was reliable, knew the roads by heart, and took her to the farms of the colored families. Mrs. Jessie delivered all of the colored babies, and I was no exception. I was born in 1931.
Local people still share tales today about the lady with the white horse. The elders say Mrs. Jessie would hitch her horse outside the courthouse door, strut past the onlookers, and enter, waving a long list of kids’ names for all to see.
“Here they is!” Mrs. Jessie would proudly proclaim. “Here’s all the babies I brung into the world since I seen you last!”
The clerks permitted Mrs. Jessie to put the names into the record book herself, using her jagged scrawl on the pages to list the health, weight, and other physical descriptions of the baby. That was a big honor for a colored person. Nobody was allowed to touch the record book unless they were white. When Mrs. Jessie came to my entry, the comment listed beside my name, Bertie Herbert Bowman, was in big letters: “wate—much as 10 bag flower—long like daddy arm.”
The courthouse ledger showed my birthday on May 5, 1931. In her usual state of frenzy and haste, Mrs. Jessie recorded thirty-two other births, but obviously she did not midwife all those babies in one day. She might have been a legend with a constitution of iron, but she wasn’t superhuman.
In Summerton, a hamlet of nearly 2,000 people at the time, important events were always noted in the family Bible. Since Mrs. Jessie often possessed the sole responsibility for making the critical notations in the Bibles, many families still have her printed comments in their Holy books. Sadly, our family Bible burned, so I have no way of knowing what was written inside, but I do recall that Mrs. Jessie’s penmanship in it was a direct match to that in the county record book.
I would later learn from my father’s cousin Celestine Gregory that my birthdate was not May 5 but April 12, a fact of which she was certain because I was born on the same day as her brother, Billy Nelson.
I was the fifth child, my father’s fourth son in a family that would eventually grow to include fourteen children. My father’s side of the family originally came from Bertie County in North Carolina, which may provide a clue as to the origin of my first name.
Mary Ragin was my mother’s maiden name. I was told that she was uncommonly beautiful. My mother, with her glowing brown skin and her Indian-black straight hair, drew stares from men and women alike when she walked down the street. I don’t remember her too well. She died when I was little, her heart stopping suddenly in a difficult childbirth. I don’t remember how old she was when she died because I was so young.
my father, robert bowman, took another wife, Mary Rosa Richardson, a woman, like my mother, of strength, kindness, and compassion. Our family already had a full complement of children: John, Robert, Bertha, Charlie, and Annie before me, and then my two youngest brothers, Rufus and Ernest. But now our blended clan included Rosa’s children: Charlotte, Larry, Wilhelmenia, Dorothy, and Jimmy Lee, who was adopted by my mother as a baby. My family counts the loss of a girl who lived for only one month as a part of the family as well. Rosa didn’t replace my mother in my heart, but she was the woman who mostly raised me, and I loved her. My father made a very wise choice in choosing a mate. In contrast to my father, with his steel will, Rosa made us think that everything was possible and guided our household through some very tough times. She was pretty, with a smooth, fair-skinned complexion, and was unassuming even though she ruled us kids with a soft, firm command. If she couldn’t make you obey her just by appealing to your sense of what was right, a well-placed threat would usually do the trick.
Of course, I wasn’t perfect as a child. If I did something wrong, she would give me a little smack on the hands. Her discipline wasn’t very much at all, compared to my father’s. “I’m going to tell your father ’bout you being bad,” my mother would warn our group with a stern face. “And you know what he will do to you if you don’t do right. He’ll heat your rear ends up with a switch and I know you won’t like that.”
My father laid down the rules to maintain the household, a set of tough regulations that would control a whole brood of youngsters and keep order. We cooperated and never challenged him. If the rule of law had broken down, everything would have dissolved into mayhem, and neither of my parents was going to stand for that foolishness. No back talk was tolerated. Chores were divided by gender. In the early mornings, it was the boys’ responsibility to start a fire and keep it going. The girls were not allowed to make fires, but they were permitted to cook and bake. The menu was standard and routine: bacon and eggs or ham and eggs, grits or cornbread and syrup. We had it daily and were glad for it because it filled our bellies. A lot of people around there didn’t have that. Sometimes during the winter months we ate mush, which was the same as oatmeal, but consisted of cornmeal.
Mom and Dad loved to take late walks, talking low and giggling, on summer nights when the moon was out shining. We children would sit on the porch and watch them go down the road holding hands, teasing each other, for as far as we could see. We loved to see them like that. Now, don’t ask how long they stopped, where they went, or what they did. All I know is that they loved to take walks in the moonlight. Neighbors have since told me that my father was a real romantic. I know he loved his wife and family, but I knew him as a very tough man.
Home was a wooden farmhouse with a tin roof under a big oak tree that still stands today. I hear it is one of the biggest oak trees in all of South Carolina. In our simply constructed house, the bedrooms seemed very big to me during my childhood. The boys had one bedroom, the girls another, and my parents slept in their own bedroom. The girls had a much bigger room because my parents said they needed their privacy. We eight boys, restless and noisy, slept in big iron beds, four to a bed, and when it was cold we covered up with very heavy quilts made by our relatives. We each had our place in the bed, but we had to take turns getting up to put wood on the fire during the chilly night. Sometimes we would huddle in the dark, hands outstretched, warming ourselves near the blaze. Occasionally, one of us would wet the bed. To this day I don’t know which boy did it and the culprit has never admitted it. Still, I do know that often when it was my turn to put the log on the fire, I would rise out of a dry spot in the bed and after my departure, my brothers would all roll over. When I returned, I was forced to sleep on the wet spot.
My family was no better situated than everybody else. These were rough times, during the Great Depression, and even white people were suffering. Every black person was in the same boat, trying to eke out a living, keep their family fed, and maintain the land. My family was poor, but we kids did not know how poor we were. We had a kitchen stove that we cooked on, and a potbelly stove we used to burn wood for heat. It could get really cool during those long winter nights. I cannot remember ever sitting around the dinner table talking and eating, because we all couldn’t fit because of the sheer number of all of us. In fact, I cannot recall family conversations anyway. The rule in my home was that children talked with children, adults talked with adults, and no breach of the law was tolerated. We were never to talk with grown-ups until some adult asked us a question. And at mealtime we lined up and got our food, then ate it either on the porch in the winter or out in the yard during the summer when the house was too hot.
In the sweltering heat of the summer, nothing could outdo a bath. I remember taking baths underneath the big oak tree, its large branches forming a canopy over the two tin tubs in its dark shadows. Before we went into the field, we put the tubs on the ground and before long, the bright yellow sun had warmed the water into a hot soup. My mother supervised the bath activities, making sure that everybody got a decent share of time. Nobody hogged the bathwater with my mother looking out. There was one tub for the girls and one for the boys, with heaps of fun. My sisters got in and out of the tub quickly, proud and modest, and then we boys would have a good time jumping from tub to tub, splashing and acting a fool.
Winter was the harshest season of all. During the winter months, the wind would whistle through the wooden boards of the house, sending a chill through you if you were not standing directly in front of the fire. The water was cold when it was time to wash up. We didn’t take baths in the wintertime. To generate enough heat, we burned oak most of the time to warm the house. We took turns spinning and circling our bodies to take advantage of the glow. It was a rotating kind of warmth.
There was an old saying we all learned as kids: “Do you know why people from South Carolina wear long underwear in the winter and the summer, too?
“Because what will keep you warm in the winter, will keep you cool in the summer,” people used to reply.
In the winter, I worked in the barn, getting the hay and feeding the animals. Everyone in the family shared in the hard work. We had to get ourselves out of bed before dawn every day to do the chores while our parents slept. The rooster would wake us up. We never had an alarm clock and didn’t know any people who had clocks in their homes. I didn’t even know that clocks had alarms. The only place where I saw a clock was in town.
None of us owned wristwatches either. We told time in different ways, by the angle of the sun and its rays, by the position of the moon in the night sky. We knew it was getting past noon when we felt the temperature rise. We knew the hottest time of the day was from the period of noon to 2 p.m. After that, we told time by how far away the sun was from setting in a shimmer on the horizon. You knew when winter was going to set in, around the first part of December, because you would see a beautiful full moon come up in a silver glow just after sunset. Coming from a farming background, people were close to nature and its season. Everybody paid close attention to the wishes and demands of the earth. Not so today.
In the still of the night, you would have all kinds of sounds coming from the woods, but you usually didn’t know what animals or things were making the sounds. Creatures of the dark. Night was a very happy time for me, since I could just look up into the sky and dream about somewhere else.
After the morning chores were completed, we’d walk a tiring three miles to school, while the white children passed us on the road to their well-equipped classrooms and modern textbooks. Some of the black parents hated the bright-yellow school buses that were packed with the white children who cruelly waved to us as we trudged over the dirt roads. Many of the school officials said blacks did not pay enough taxes or show enough interest in quality education, so such luxuries or conveniences were not budgeted for the black schools.
Officials called this type of school system “separate but equal,” which was part and parcel of the Jim Crow process. As a southern black farm boy, I did not look at Jim Crow as oppressive; it was a way of life that I was raised in and in whose grip I probably would die. Every black person tolerated its isolation, its hatred, its way of regarding colored people as inferiors. When I was young, I and the other black kids walked to school with sore feet and dusty clothes to the building in St. Paul many miles away from home. Sometimes we could catch a ride in a wagon pulled by mules or, if we were lucky, a black farmer would drive us in the truck owned by the white boss.
In one of my best school memories in the early grades, I was so eager to be cast for the school play, “Little Red Riding Hood,” and got the part of the “Big Bad Wolf” character. I loved acting. During the rehearsals, I proceeded to huff and puff but nothing much came out because I could not stop laughing. Following a few rehearsals where I continued to laugh nonstop, my teacher, Mrs. Blackwell, concluded that I was not good for the part. She did not like my clowning around. Instead, she permitted me to sing “God Bless America” before the start of the play. I did all right. At least, no one laughed.
My favorite thing to do at lunchtime was to play marbles. With the one-room schoolhouse in the background, we would all stand in circles in the rocky yard, hunched over and propelling the marbles against one another. The gang was all there, the little kids in one corner, the medium kids in another, and the bigger kids in a prized area. I was very good at this game and used to win all of the marbles.
One day, when I was deep into playing, I placed the marbles in a bag and some of the older boys approached me from behind and snatched it. I was so sad and angry. Running inside, I went to the principal, Mr. Shannon, and asked him to get the marbles back. He called the boys over, questioned them about the incident, and looked into their faces. The older boys replied they were just “funning,” and only teasing me because I won so much. I learned a lesson from that: “Take nothing for granted. What you think you have in the bag can get taken away quickly if you take your eyes off it.” I didn’t put it in those words back then, but I took the message to heart.
I found it difficult to “keep up with the Joneses” at school. Some of the older kids owned more clothes and had parents who gave them more money to spend. Some classmates made fun of me, the poor farm boy, because I didn’t have much and never had a lot of money. After a while, I realized that I just had to ignore them, go to school, and work on the farm.
The teacher was strict about us reading, writing, and spelling. She would call on us to read sentences from the frayed readers, spell out certain words, and give the meanings of the words. If one child failed to wither under her questioning, she called on the next one in the row. The boys sat on one side of the room, while the girls sat on the other side. I’m sorry now that I didn’t pay more attention in school. I really didn’t focus on school and book learning. I was not a bad boy, but I did get into my share of trouble. Mr. Shannon constantly told me that I was a good kid. “You’re not as bad as people say that you are,” he said to me. “But I have to keep my eye on you anyway.”
I had a master strategy, a clever plan to charm my teachers and distract them from looking at what I did not accomplish in school. Smiling sheepishly, I would present them with eggs and sweet potatoes and told them that my mother sent the gifts. If I hadn’t done the homework, I would just grin and explain that I forgot to bring it. I would give them a long explanation and they would tell me to bring it later, which I never did. I hated homework. When the presents ceased to work, I picked colorful flowers from the yards of my neighbors and put together tasteful bouquets to set on their desks. Many of my teachers got so caught up in the flowers that they forgot all about my homework.
Going to school was an outlet, an escape from home and the farm, but sometimes I was very tired by the time I got to school, after getting up at five in the morning and doing my chores and walking three miles to class. I liked my school, my teachers, and friends and would have liked to spend more time with them. As I got older, I liked the girls, but the only time I could really talk to a girl was on Sunday, because after school I always had to hurry home and do the evening chores. I wonder now whether I would have married one of those girls if I had stayed.
Other than school, church was the occasion where boys and girls could sit together without their parents fussing. “Going to meeting” was the big event of the week because it brought us all together as a unified community. Whenever people who had gone away came back for a visit, they always came on a church day so they could see everybody and be seen. They could let everybody know they had succeeded in life, had “made it,” and done well for themselves.
Church was where we could sing and laugh and worship as we pleased. Church was one of the only places where the signs of Jim Crow in public places, for colored and for whites, were not present and did not matter. Church was the place where kids could look nice—hair combed, faces washed, and clothes neat.
Traditionally, folks stayed at church all day on Sunday. When we came home Sunday night, we looked forward to eating some more good food, and we were still charged up from playing with our friends at church. That was the one time my father did not say anything about our excitement. He just let us play.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Step by Step by Bertie Bowman. Copyright © 2008 by Bertie Bowman. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.