OPINION — Growing up under Jim Crow rules

Published 9:27 am Thursday, June 17, 2021

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Being a Black man in this country has always been hazardous to a man’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being .

When you are constantly being called “Boy,” the “N word,” or some other dehumanizing names, it is difficult to be who the divine created you to be.

Yet, there are some who found a way to grow and not only survive but thrive no matter what. Rev. John Henry Brown was such a man.

Born into the Jim Crow south, he kept his mind focused on a better way, and a vision of better circumstances to come. His unwavering faith and trust in God kept him moving forward.

Until he was 16, John never knew how it felt to eat three meals a day. He never had a new pair of boots nor clothing that was new. Instead, he wore hand-me-downs that had been mended by his mother, Lena Brown .

His family was so poor that at one point he was hired out to work on a chicken farm. He slept in the house with the chickens, he fed them corn, watered them, and made sure they had heat. After the white family that employed him had their breakfast each morning, John was given the leftovers.

At other times John’s mother took him along when she went to the house of the affluent whites in the neighborhood to clean. He was given tasks like taking water to Black field hands, or even when he was too young to reach, washing dishes standing on an old Coca-Cola crate at the kitchen sink. The lady of the house did not call him John but instead used the “N word” when she wanted to get his attention.

To John’s unending, unspoken dissatisfaction, his mother’s pay many times was a ham bone. She used this to cook a pot of beans for the family of nine kids.

In 1941, at the post office, John overheard a conversation about President Franklin Roosevelt’s program, the Civilian Conservative Corps. It sounded like a dream come true and it would enhance the quality of his life. So, though he was only 16, he decided to apply and tell them he was 17. His mother didn’t object, and each month she received $25 which she used to feed her family. John retained the balance of $5.

John worked as a member of the 1390 Civilian Conservative Corps (CCC) located at Camp Gallion in Prince Edward County. Members of this company built the dams and recreational area which was for whites only. This beautiful site could not be enjoyed by the people who built them, for this was an era of rigidly enforced racial segregation in the south.

At the CCC camp in Burkeville, all the Blacks were housed in racially segregated Army barracks. The segregated showers and toilets were outside, to be used early in the morning just before exercise class. The class was followed by a hot breakfast of oatmeal and eggs. Each morning, every worker received a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches packed in a brown paper bag to carry to the worksite. In the segregated mess hall, they received another hot meal of mashed potatoes, and spinach, which John hated, along with some type of meat at supper time. This was the first time John had ever eaten three meals a day. He also had new brown khaki pants, a shirt and a pair of new Army boots.

In racially separate work gangs, John worked hard all day swinging a pick to remove rocks or shoveling sand to build the beach area. Sometimes the workers were given an axe to cut down trees. Sometimes it took them several days just to cut down one tree.

On the weekends there were dances where he even had fun because all the pretty girls came from Drakes Branch, Charlotte Court House, and surrounding areas. Everyone danced to “race music” and looked forward to this weekly activity. Under these segregated conditions, he reports being happy. Not suffering from hunger was a gift.

Rev. John Henry Brown is my father. He is now 96 years old.

He sometimes talks about how he, as a Black man, had to accept what was done under Jim Crow. He says he did a lot of listening, never voicing his concerns for fear of being shot, beaten, or killed. So, building a recreational park for whites-only, served him well because it provided the means for him and his family to be feed. Even under these conditions being in the CCC was an answer to a prayer.

Yemaja Jubilee is a poet, author, inspirational speaker, creative consultant, and TV/radio personality.