By: Garland Davis
I was five years old when I first met John.
In 1949, my dad bought a ninety-acre farm north of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The house consisted of a living room, kitchen, a large bedroom downstairs and a huge unfinished attic above. We moved into the house in the autumn of ’49. It had no electricity, no running water or indoor plumbing. The power company refused to run electricity from the main line, (about a mile away) until the following spring. There was a well below the back porch. Water was lifted out of the well by a bucket on a rope using a windlass and pulley system. The privy (also known as the outhouse, the shit house, etc.) was located about a hundred yards behind the house. There was a fireplace on each end of the house and my grandmother’s wood burning cook stove to provide heat.
We lived that winter in conditions that would be considered primitive by today’s standards. We used the fireplaces for heat and kerosene lamps and lanterns for light. The winter of ’49 was an extremely cold one. At times I believed we would freeze to death. That house was so cold that a glass of water would freeze over on the night stand. The following spring, my dad and uncles learned that the main room of the house was made of logs and had been covered by oak boards. During 1950, electricity, running water and an indoor toilet and bath were installed in the house and the attic was converted to three upstairs rooms. A wood or coal burning stove was installed in the living room and the cook stove reigned in the kitchen.
There was another house on the farm. It was a very small, one room log cabin. It had a spring for water, an outhouse and a fireplace. John lived there. John was an elderly Negro man. When my dad bought the farm, one of the conditions of the purchase was that John would be permitted to live there as long as he lived or as long as he wished.
The farm had an allotment of ten to twelve acres for tobacco. The allotment fluctuated yearly. There was a government agency that mandated the allowable acreage of tobacco that could be grown. This was supposed to control the market price of tobacco. My dad had no desire to farm tobacco and leased this acreage to “share croppers.”
John lived by working for my dad, the sharecropper, or other farmers in the area. He had a one horse wagon and a mule that he used for transportation. He had a garden and sold the produce in the colored section of Winston-Salem from his wagon. He also sold catfish and carp that he caught in the creeks and the river. John was especially busy during hog killing time; he would help with the work for the intestines and feet. He cleaned these and peddled them in town.
John was always available to help my dad with the chickens. There were eight houses of eight thousand chickens each. My dad bought them as chicks; we fed them for eight or nine weeks and then shipped them to the meat packers. John also helped my mother with the garden. There were over thirty acres of woods on the place and the cutting and hauling of firewood was a yearly ritual. In 1951, dad and my uncles built a one room cement block building near John’s cabin and helped him move into it. Over the years, John used the logs of the old cabin for firewood.
My dad was of the opinion that boys should have work to do to prevent them from getting into mischief. I spent many days working alongside John with whatever job my dad had us doing. John kept me working by reminding me, “Mister Buster (my childhood nickname) if’n you don’t git that done. Yo Daddy gone take his belt to yo bottom.” I also learned many things from John by watching him. I learned how to forge a mule shoe. I learned to make elderberry and dandelion wine. I learned how to plow with a mule-drawn plow and how to drive a mule-drawn wagon. My dad had about fifty bee hives and I learned beekeeping from John.
On Saturday evening, John would hitch his mule to his wagon, put on a white shirt and his best overalls and go to town. On Sundays, after my Mom and Dad were finished with the newspaper and after John had returned from church, I would take the paper to him and he would have me read the funnies to him. He especially liked the Uncle Remus’ B’rer Rabbit strip.
I was thirteen when my father suddenly died. John was a godsend to my mother during those trying times. He took care of the work while she arranged to sell the chickens and rent the chicken houses to another farmer. After she sold the bees to my uncle, about the only work left was to tend the garden, haul wood, and milk the cows.
By early ’58, John was moving slowly and could no longer do heavy work. My mother asked me one morning if I would walk over and check on John, he hadn’t come to milk the cows. I walked over, knocked on the door and when I got no answer, went in. John was still in his bed; he had died in his sleep. I ran back to the house and told my mother. She sent me over to the colored preacher’s house to tell him. The congregation of his church collected John and prepared his funeral.
I wanted to attend John’s funeral but was told that it wasn’t fitting for white people to be going to a colored person’s funeral because colored people worshiped differently than whites. I guess the same applied to white peoples’ funerals. I remember seeing John across the cemetery at my daddy’s funeral, but he was not part of the actual funeral party.
(I have substituted “Colored People” throughout this narrative for the word that was commonly used when referring to John’s race.)
I once asked John his age. He said, “Mister Buster, I don’t rightly know. I remembers we was owned by Mister Glenn and I was a little young’un and jist started workin’ with the hosses and mules. I remembers Mister Glenn whoopen’ tha othas ‘cause they was celebratin’ when Mister Lincoln wrote his paper sayin’ we was free. I determined that at the time he died, John was between one hundred and one hundred two years old.
I grew up in an age and a society where the races were segregated and a family where bigotry was rife. I learned early from a man who had once been the property of another man that we all have value.
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A native of North Carolina, Garland Davis has lived in Hawaii since 1987. He always had a penchant for writing but did not seriously pursue it until recently. He is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University, where he majored in Business Management. Garland is a thirty-year Navy retiree and service-connected Disabled Veteran.