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GROWING UP WITH JIM CROW

South Boston News
Daffodil Graham is a member of a large extended family of African-American Sizemores, descendants of the people enslaved by the author’s great-great-great-grandfather. She is shown here with her great-uncle George Sizemore.
SoVaNow.com / September 20, 2018
(Editor’s note: This is the second of two excerpts from the new book Uncle George and Me: Two Southern Families Confront a Shared Legacy of Slavery, by Bill Sizemore, a retired journalist who grew up in South Boston and Clarksville. His prior piece in the N&R was published Sept. 3. For more details, see the author’s website, billsizemorebooks.com.)

Looking back on my youth in Southside Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s, I can count on one hand the opportunities I had to interact with African-Americans.

In South Boston, where I spent my childhood, my parents employed a series of black women as maids. The term for such workers in my parents’ social circle was “colored woman” — as in “My colored woman comes in on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” I never heard my parents use the N-word. They were too genteel for that.

Then there was Charlie Williams, the kindly man who delivered groceries to the house from the small store he ran across town and who always had a lollypop or stick of bubble gum in his pocket for me. And in the summer, black children showed up at our door selling fresh blackberries they had picked in the wild.

Those pleasant memories aside, my perception of African-Americans was filtered through societal prisms of stereotype and ridicule. My father once took me to a minstrel show at the local high school in which white men in blackface indulged in exaggerated caricatures for laughs. I was too young to understand the racist mindset behind such a display, but looking back on it today makes me cringe.

In May 1954, a year before I started first grade, the US Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional. The high court directed that the schools be integrated with “all deliberate speed.” But it would be more than a decade before Virginia fully complied. Well into high school, my classes continued to be lily white. US Sen. Harry Byrd, longtime boss of the segregationist political organization that controlled Virginia’s government, declared that the Brown ruling created a “crisis of the first magnitude” and urged “massive resistance” to school integration.

Among Byrd’s closest confidants — and one of the key architects and staunchest advocates of Massive Resistance — was Bill Tuck, Virginia’s governor in the late 1940s and later a US congressman. Tuck was a Falstaffian, cigar-chomping, bourbon-swilling country lawyer who grew up in Halifax County near my father’s family. My grandfather’s general store in the Aaron’s Creek community served as the neighborhood polling place, and Tuck was a frequent visitor, especially on election days when local farmers would congregate to cast their votes into a weathered wooden ballot box under a towering oak tree. In 1949, during his governorship, Tuck was one of the guests at my grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary.

In a 1955 speech in Halifax, Tuck made it crystal clear where he stood on the Brown decision: “I intend to resist with all the might I have this effort to distort the minds, to pollute the education, and to defile and make putrid the pure Anglo-Saxon blood that courses through the innocent veins of our helpless children.” In another speech, Tuck said integrated schools would lead to a “merger of the races” which would ultimately result in a “hybridized human, if human it would be.”

In 1958, Gov. Lindsay Almond closed schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren County rather than let them be integrated, locking nearly 13,000 pupils out of their classrooms. The state offered publicly funded tuition grants to white parents who enrolled their children in segregated private schools. Black families were left to fend for themselves.

That lockout didn’t last long. The closed schools were reopened in 1959 under court order. But in one Southside Virginia county the defiance continued unabated. Prince Edward County, where one of the Brown cases originated, managed to keep its public schools closed for a full five years, denying a generation of African-American children an education.

By the time my family moved 20 miles east to Clarksville in 1965, Virginia school systems had established what was euphemistically called a “freedom of choice” policy that allowed black children to be admitted to white schools if their parents chose to send them. The result was token integration by a handful of brave African-American families. There were only two black girls in my graduating class of 100 at Bluestone High School. Looking back, I can only imagine that daily life for them was a living hell. When they were not being ostracized, they were being humiliated as the butt of racist jokes and pranks. I recall white boys on my school bus singing “Bye-Bye Blackbird” when the bus dropped off a black student at the end of the day. Even some teachers participated in the persecution. My senior English teacher — an otherwise capable and dedicated educator — mercilessly embarrassed the single black girl in the class in front of her peers when she couldn’t come up with the answer to a question.

I didn’t actively participate in the pervasive racist behavior, but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t actively resist it either.

Ultimately, it wasn’t until after I graduated in 1967 that full integration was finally achieved by the wholesale reassignment of students.

Readers might wonder how I escaped the pervasive prejudice of my small-town Southern childhood and emerged with an antiracist mindset. I don’t have a pat answer to that question. One factor undoubtedly was the liberalizing influence of my college years. Many of my friends and classmates at the College of William and Mary came from metropolitan areas and states outside the South where their minds had not been poisoned by bigotry. But I think I should also give some credit to my parents. Politically, my father was a typical Southern conservative, but I never heard him or my mother express racist views around the house. They both grew up on farms before the rigid segregation of my youth had fully taken hold. The children of black sharecroppers were among their playmates. One of my father’s most cherished childhood memories was of spending time with the African-American blacksmith who lived in a log cabin on my grandfather’s farm. After my grandparents died and their estate was split among their children, my father held onto the little patch of land where the cabin stood and kept it intact for many years. If only by osmosis, I must have absorbed some lessons in tolerance.


As I glided through my segregated childhood in South Boston and Clarksville, Daffodil Graham was growing up 25 miles away in Roxboro, N.C. — across both the state line and the color line. Neither of us was aware of the other’s existence, or of the historical connection between our families. Daffodil is a member of a large extended family of African-American Sizemores, descendants of the people enslaved by my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Sizemore on his Mecklenburg County tobacco farm.

Daffodil’s full name is Margaret Daffodil Graham. She long ago embraced her whimsical middle name, and that’s how she is known by everyone in her family. Jovial and straight-talking, she hands out business cards featuring a drawing of a daffodil blossom.

I visited Daffodil on a crystal-clear spring day in 2013 at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she retired after two careers as a teacher and social worker. Dressed in a navy blue running suit, a yellow T-shirt, and a colorful scarf that wrapped around her gray curls, she minced no words recalling her life in the waning days of Jim Crow. Her father, whom she described as “the original deadbeat dad,” was largely absent from her life. She was raised by her mother and a great-aunt. She went to school during the “separate but unequal” era, she told me. She could see the white high school from her back porch, but had to walk across town to all-black Person County High School. No bus was provided. When she passed the white elementary school, she would cross to the other side of the street, trying to get out of earshot of the racial epithets that were hurled at her from the playground.

One of Daffodil’s most memorable walks home from school occurred during Hurricane Hazel, which brought a rare onslaught of drenching rains and howling winds to our inland region in 1954. I remember huddling with my mother and brother in the central hallway of our house until the storm blew over. Daffodil, meanwhile, made it home OK.

Daffodil told me she has nothing but admiration for those African-American children who first broke the color barrier by attending white schools during the “freedom of choice” era — but she wouldn’t have wanted to be one of them. “I praise God for them,” she said. “But there’s no way I would go through that. I’m not that good. I’m not a trailblazer. All that stress! A lot of high school is socialization. For those kids, their socialization was zero.”

Daffodil’s mother worked in a chicken processing plant in Roxboro. After putting in a full shift, she would come home for a few hours of sleep and then go back at night to catch chickens in the brooder house where young chicks were raised. She also did housework and cooking for white families, setting aside part of her earnings in a college fund for Daffodil.

“She told me from the time I was a little girl, ‘You will never walk in the back door of a white person’s house,’” Daffodil said. “She was dead set that I would be a teacher. In that day, the highest pinnacle of success for an African-American was to teach.”

Daffodil’s mother acquired a set of encyclopedias, one volume at a time, as a premium for buying groceries at the local A&P, stimulating a lifelong love of books in her daughter.

Like everything else in Roxboro, the public libraries were segregated. “The black library was a tiny one-room log cabin on the other side of town with a few raggedy books,” Daffodil told me. “But the white library was just down the street from our house. I would send my white friend Bill Short with his Radio Flyer wagon, and he’d fill it up with books. We’d split them up, and when we’d finished them, we’d trade off.

“You had to be inventive.”

Jim Crow was ultimately dismantled piece by piece, propelled by the nonviolent activism espoused by the Rev. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. A sit-in by four black college students at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960 spurred similar protests around the country. Those actions — and the sometimes violent reaction by white authorities in the Deep South — paved the way for two key federal laws: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning racial discrimination in public accommodations and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 assuring African-Americans access to the ballot box.

After graduating from Fayetteville State University, Daffodil taught world history and geography at her alma mater, Person County High School, before going into social work. Divorced now, with a son and granddaughter, she is an active retiree who spends much of her time traveling. On a world map in her study, pushpins mark the 45 US states and four continents she has visited. She traces her wanderlust back to those A&P encyclopedias. “That’s when I started reading about faraway places with strange-sounding names,” she said.


The African-American Sizemore clan is full of teachers, reflecting that many share Daffodil’s mother’s profound faith in education as the path to a meaningful and satisfying life. That faith manifests in other ways as well. At the Sizemore reunion each year, donations are solicited for the family scholarship fund for aspiring college students.

Another teacher in the family — and another descendant of my ancestor’s slaves — is Daffodil’s cousin Evella Hutcheson. Evella’s father, Ervin Watkins, was a sharecropper who died when Evella was 12. The family lived on a series of farms in Mecklenburg County, including that of my uncle Roy Hobgood. “I always said ‘I’ll never work on a farm,’” Evella told me. “My daddy never could get out of debt. He pushed me to be something better. I remember him urging me to do my math homework the night he died.”

After getting her bachelor’s degree, Evella became a science teacher. She helped break the color barrier at Halifax County High School, a once all-white school I attended before moving to Clarksville. In 1972 she was one of just seven African-Americans on a faculty of 135 teachers.

“I always had to prove myself,” she said. “Everything I did, I had to do it three times better than everybody else. I didn’t think I was going to survive my first year there.

“Some white people aren’t as smart as they think they are. Why have we been feeling we’re inferior to them? I learned we’re all the same.”

Five years later, Evella was chairwoman of the science department. She won a full scholarship from the National Science Foundation and, while continuing to teach full time, commuted three days a week to Virginia State University in Petersburg, where she earned a master’s degree in science education. “I told my students, ‘You can do anything you set your mind to,’” she told me.

Widowed and retired now after 40 years of teaching, she still lives in Clarksville. Like Daffodil, she stayed in the South when many African-Americans were migrating north.

“My best friend in high school had her bags packed for New Jersey the day she graduated,” Daffodil told me. “Kudos to those who stayed and tried to change things. All we were looking for was to be treated like human beings and to have the opportunity for a good job.”



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I grew up in Cluster Springs Virginia during those times when Bill Tuck was the government of Virginia. In my household i would hear that name often. Come find my mother was the housekeeper for one of the offspring of Bill Tuck. She worked for the Dillards for many years. I remembered as a child my mother was crying one day and we as kids asked her why was she crying and she said that her son had died so we asked who her response was Tuck had died from a injury playing football. After that is when i learn a little bit more about Bill Tuck and who he was but i don't recall her mentioning anything about his dislikes of blacks because i believe she had work for him a time or two. I'm telling this Mr Bill Sizemore since you are a writer you may want to hear more incite about Bill Tuck and the family my mother worked for during those times of civil rights movement etc:. My mother is very much alive and is living the rest of her days in Virgilina. Hope to hear from Mr Sizemore

Comments

I, too, spent my formative years in Cluster Springs and we left when my Dad was killed in a collision with a train in 1956. I remember the prejudices of other citizens and my participation in the racist behavior. Govenor Tuck wrote a recommendation for me for my first job as a juvenile probation officer in Chesterfield County.
He had many good qualities AND he was a racist. My life has followed a similar path as Mr. Sizemore. I learned some time ago that we are all children of God regardless of skin color. Until we learn that we are all equal, we will be bound and limited. Freedom is for everyone, and one person who is not free binds us all. Conventional spiritual wisdom is that you must take your brothers and sisters with you if you want Heaven.
Bill, you did a good job. Keep writing to expose the truth.
Luther


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