By Margaret Edwards
Chapter One – Story Time
“Quit it—t… stop, stop it.”
I was almost four years old and scrambling to my feet, trying to escape the tip of that hot poke iron my seven-year-old sister Ruth jabbed at me. My other siblings—Junior (twelve), Mae (eleven), Leeah (nine), and Jean (five)—were sitting on the floor in the front room of our house. They were enjoying the chase . Frank (two) and the baby, Helena, were sleeping.
“Put dat poke iron down, Ruth, an set you butt down.” Daddy grabbed the switch from the side of the fireplace. He swatted Ruth once across her legs but she dodged a second swat.
Daddy warned her, “I ain’t gon tell you no mo.”
We resettled in our places on the floor. It was wintertime in Grenada, Mississippi, and planting season was over for now. In the evenings, we sat in the light and warmth of the fireplace waiting for Mama and Daddy to tell us stories about the old days and waiting for those sweet potatoes roasting in the fireplace to cook.
We sometimes had to go to bed early, because Ruth messed everything up, but not tonight.
“Mama, tell de one ‘bout de haint.”
Ruth knows that story is scary. She liked to see me cover my face when Mama said, “Wen I wuz a lit’l girl, a haint would git in bed wit me. I know it wuz Grandma ‘cause she jes died. I knowed she got in my bed—the matress would go down. She didn’t say nothin. Jes stay awhil den git up an go.”
I heard that story so many times before. But still, when I went to bed, I couldn’t sleep. I was watching and waiting for that haint to make my mattress go down.
“Daddy, kin you tell us de one ‘bout de bird dat took Junior?” This was my favorite story, because it had a happy ending.
“Well,” Daddy began, “a bird or somethin picked up Junior off de road an took him away. He wuz jes two yeahs old. Me, Cora Mae, an de baby wuz walking home on dis dirt road we walk on eveyday. De baby wuz jes learning how ta walk, so he wuz walking real slow ret behin us. But wen we turned ‘round, he wuzn’t dere. We went back ta de field, walked all thu de grass—no Junior. We wuz looking eveywhere, calling ‘Junior—Junior.’
“Den we wuz coming back on de road an dere down de road wuz dat baby walking. We run down dere an we could see three or four footsteps in de dirt, lak somebidy jes set dat baby down. I wuz neva so skared in my life. We still don’t know who took dat baby an den brung him back.”
I was happy after that story. I could tell eveybody else was, too. Junior was looking around and smiling and sitting a little taller. While we took a sigh of relief that Junior was brought back, Mae raked the cooked sweet potatoes out of the fireplace. She rolled one to each of us. We peeled and ate real slow.
Daddy had one more story to tell about when he was a little boy. We didn’t ask him to tell us this one. He liked telling it anyway. “Der wuz dis big famly jes lak us, but dey wun’t po lak us. I seed dem girls in dey pressed white dresses always carrying theirselves lak dey wuz somebody. Der wuz five girls. Dey looked smart, went ta school everyday, an wuz at church evey Sunday. Dey had dey heads up high, an dey wuz real intelligent lookin. Dey got in dey wagons, set up strait behind dey parents, an went home. I never seed dem run ‘round wit nobody, ‘specially dem ‘no-good ’ boys. Dey wuz beautiful. When I seed dat, I use ta wish dat wuz my family. I say dats wat I wont my family ta be lak, an dat’s wat I wont my chillun ta be lak.”
We loved listening to Daddy’s story about his “dream family” and his “dream girls” from when he was a little boy. We had heard the story over and over again. But we never thought the five of us girls would be part of that “beautiful” family of his childhood. But we were.
When I look back on my childhood, I grew up in a family with a strict, rules-driven, hard-working father who seemed determined to create his ‘dream girls and dream family’ despite the changing times around us. Sisterly rebellions, old and young men “playing nasty”, trifling relatives and ministers, and racial segregation was the environment of my childhood. To carve out a space for me to thrive, I had to be audacious.
My Daddy, William T. Edwards, was born and raised in Grenada, Mississippi, in a destitute sharecropper family. Unlike his father, who was a “lazy, womanizing , philanderer who was away from home days at a time chasing skirt tails,” Daddy was the man of the house at a very young age. In addition to working the fields, he worked in the sawmills, and on the railroads. He wanted to go to school, but his father wanted him to work to make money for the family.
My mother was born Cora Mae Hill in Grenada, Mississippi, but raised in Hawkins, Mississippi, after her father died and her mother re-married. Mama loved her short, good life with her father who farmed and worked for the army. When her sister, Erma (thirteen) and Daddy’s brother Lester (fifteen) ran off and got married, Mama welcomed Daddy’s courting overtures. They got married in December 1934, four months after Lester and Erma. Mama was fifteen years old; Daddy was nineteen.
Daddy wanted to create a life very different from that of his childhood. By working as sharecroppers, day and night for four years, he and Mama were able to save up enough money to buy a 240-acre farm from the sons of rich White farmers who “just wanted to get rid of it.” They became landowners. And for the next seven years, Daddy and Mama worked land that they owned.
But times changed, WWII happened and yet, their hard work persisted. The family grew from one son, to five girls in a row, to two more babies in diapers. It was going to be impossible to maintain the productivity of the farm. From not having enough “hands” to farm, to constant urging from The Chicago Defender and from Big Mama, Daddy made the decision to heed the call and leave Mississippi. He followed the throngs of other Colored families migrating north for jobs and better schooling.
From Mississippi to Big Mama
“Cora Mae, we leaving Mississippi.”
“Wat you talkin ‘bout, Willie T?” Mama asked.
I was watching, looking, and listening.
Mama switched baby Helena from her left hip to her right. Daddy was on the porch yelling to Mama through the screen door. “I’se been tryin to sell this place fer two yeahs, and dese peckerwoods wont to give me nothin fer it. I know wen dey cheatin me.”
Daddy came in the house. “I work like a damn dog. I gotta git outta dis heah place.”
Mama was still asking, “We cain’t leav jes like dat—wat ‘bout da crops? I thought we wuz goin wait a whil longa.”
Daddy started sweeping out the fireplace with a bunch of straw reeds tied together with string. He turned to Mama, “Don’t jes keep asting questions. We been waiting all our life fer peckerwoods. We ain’t gon wait no mo. I better git outta Mississippi ’fore I kill dem damn bastards. Dis heah is prime property, and all dey wont to give me is wat I paid fer it eight yeahs ago?”
Daddy dumped the ashes into the trash bucket.
“For years, these peckerwoods been cheating us. I ain’t goin’ keep werking my ass off an giving eveythang ta dem White bastards. White folks do everthan they kin to keep colored folks from doin better than dem.”
Mama was staring wide-eyed at Daddy, like she was trying to see inside his head.
“Mama, where we goin to?” Ruth asked.
“Hush, y’all gon’ outside,” Mama said to Jean, Ruth, and me. I could tell Mama was scared, because she started talking to herself. Her lips were moving in a whispering conversation.
Daddy was still making the case for leaving. “Cora Mae, ain’t Mrs. Bertha been talkin ‘bout all de jobs up dere in Mt. Vernon? I seen the kind of money I kin make. You seed the money I come home wit from Milwaukee. I made mo money in dem two monts den I made all yeah on dis farm! The Chicago paper say all da time ‘bout wat Negroes is doin up dere. Dey say Illinois is gonna free everbidy. I wanna fin me a job where I kin make a livin like a man. I ain’t gon let dese White folks ‘round heah push me ‘round no mo. We leavin heah.”
We wouldn’t be the first in the family to leave Mississippi and head North. Mama’s family started it. Big Mama with Uncle John and Aunt Belle left to follow Cousin Willie Mae, who left two years before. “Up North” for them was Mt. Vernon, Illinois.
Nobody knew anything about Mt. Vernon, except what Big Mama said, “The best schools and jobs everywhere.”
Margaret was one of 15 children who migrated as a family from Mississippi to rural Illinois in the 1950s. They were part of the Great Migration of Blacks moving from the South to the North for a better life. Most people moved to the larger cities like Chicago and Detroit, but Margaret’s father had other ideas and moved to Mt. Vernon, IL.
Margaret dealt with family strife and racial discrimination with determination and purpose.
With a PhD. in hand, she spent 30 years of her life working in International Schools in India, Sudan and South America. In each location, she organized a community theater, her passion.
Margaret now resides in Florida with her husband.