Son of a sharecropper

I first learned about sharecroppers in my 7th grade, US history class.

I remembered studying about these poor Southerners, black and white, who after the Civil War contractually bound themselves to the plantations they worked on. The landowners allowed the sharecroppers to the rent their land in exchange for a portion of the crop.

“How large of a cut did the landowners take?” I wondered.

I never found out the answer.

What I did find out was that about two thirds of all sharecroppers were White and only one third Black.

In my history text books, I saw photographs of these poor, hungry, deprived sharecroppers living in ramshackle shotgun houses.

I thought, “Their lives must be unbearable. They’re fighting droughts, hurricanes, hail storms, frost, insects and vermin that are all trying to destroy their crops. And the Black sharecroppers also had to fight off racism.”

And as a 13-year-old Yankee with liberal roots, I felt sorry for these downtrodden souls.

But it took another 60 years for me to meet and talk to the son of a sharecropper.

I met Jim, in 2023, at the Santiago, Chile’s Sheraton Hotel. After ordering a bucket of Coors, we chit-chatted by the pool in the shade of an blue and yellow umbrella.

When I looked at Jim, I saw a big gregarious guy, over six feet tall, with a beer belly, a bald head and a good-old-boy North Carolina accent. I thought, “This guy is a friendly, big- hearted dude, who loves talking, listening and imbibing.”

So after talking about the basics: jobs, family, education and football, I asked, “Jim, what was it like to grow up in the South in the 50s?”

“Mort, I’m going to start my story sometime around 1954, when I was seven years old. I lived in rural NC but only about three miles from the city of Fayetteville—it may as well have been 100 miles because I lived the same way my parents had lived, and my grandparents had lived. I was frozen in time, living like people did during the depression years.
To say my family was poor would be the ultimate understatement.”

“Jim, how large was your family?”

“Well, there was my dad, Robert, my mom, Becky, my sister, Elaine, me James, and my younger brothers, Kenny and Rocky.”

“With that big of a family, how did they make ends meet?”

“Dad worked at a poultry processing plant and made $35 a week. Our rent was $30 a month, the electric bill was $1 or 2 a month. My mama had a strict budget of $15 a week for groceries. She made a list each week and my dad dropped it off on his way to work at Jeff’s Place, a small grocery store on the way into Fayetteville. He picked up the groceries on his way home in the evening.

“Do you remember the items on those lists?”

“Yup, the groceries consisted of 25 pounds of Robin Hood flour, Blue Plate Peanut Butter, jelly, mayonnaise, 6-8 pounds of pinto beans or other dry beans, lard, canned vegetables, fatback meat, a box of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti, Sugar, Lipton Tea, a head of cabbage, potatoes, and tobacco products for Mom and Dad. We ate cereal for breakfast, but we never had whole milk—always made it from dry powder. Pinto beans and biscuits
several times a week, cabbage and corn bread, potato salad and biscuits, and the Chef Boyardee Spaghetti occasionally. I remember always seeing a green ticket with the groceries, that meant we had bought the groceries on credit. My dad never had enough money to pay cash so everything he bought was paid by making payments.
We had an ice box next to the stove where my mom kept margarine and little else because the ice melted rapidly. Fridays were special because the ice man came on Friday morning. My mama would chip off some ice with an ice pick from a 25-pound block, and we’d have iced tea or iced water with our supper. The fish man came on Friday afternoon and if mama had the money, she bought some fish, and we’d have fried fish and coleslaw for supper. Sundays, we had fried chicken with a vegetables for dinner. Dinner was the noon meal back then and the evening meal was supper. We got most of our protein from beans and peanut butter.”

“Did your dad own a car?”

“Yup. My dad drove an old green ’50 GMC pickup that served as our family car. Gasoline was about 17 cents a gallon.”

“Wow, 17 cents a gallon, I remember when it cost 25 cents. Did your family go on road trips in that green GMC pickup?”

“Dad, Mama, and one or two of the smaller kids would sit in the front. We always rode in the back in the pickup bed. In the winter, we huddled up together under a quilt to stay warm. Sometimes we visited family in Vass, NC. On other times, we’d all pile in and go to the drive-in theater to see a Western. I remember being frustrated with my dad because we never saw the end of the movie—he always would leave before the ending because he didn’t want to wait for the mass exodus after the movie.”

“G-d, leaving before the end of the movie would have really pissed me off.”

I took a long sip of my Coors, finished the bottle and belched.

Then I asked, “By the way Jim, how did your dad dress on those road trips?”

“Well, I always remembered my dad wearing Big Mac bib overalls, a khaki work shirt, with brogans having hooks near the ankle for the shoestrings instead of eyelets. I don’t know if it was because of his bald spot or something else, but he always wore a grey fedora anytime he went outside.”

“Fedoras are so cool. I always wanted one. When I think fedoras, I picture Bogart wearing one. Please tell me some more about your dad and his hat.”

“His hat was old and dusty. A faint sweat ring around the hat band showed the age of the hat. Dad was not an educated man. He only finished third grade. I remember his stories about going into the woods and chopping down a tree. Then he would hew out a railroad cross tie and lugged it out of the woods on his back for 15 cents each. He could only do one log a day and he suffered back trouble for the rest of his life. He was a religious man and a disciplinarian. Since he was not educated, expressed himself by cursing, ranting, and raving. He was quick to use his hand or his belt to punish.
Living with my dad wasn’t easy, but my mama was an angel on earth.”

I decided to ask a tough question, “Was your dad a member of the Klan?”

“I’m not sure but as a little kid, I once attended a cross-burning rally. I remember how exciting it was when they lit those crosses.”

As Jim spoke, I flashed back to my memories of the TV news about the South in the Sixties. A reel of photos flashed before my eyes: men in white hooded robes, cops thudding billy clubs on black heads, German shepherds snarling and biting protestors, burning churches and temples, murdered children bodies and lunch counters where students were cursed and spat upon.

While rubbing a cold glass bottle of beer against my face, I decided to move on and asked, “What was your mama like?”

“Mama rarely got upset and took care of things around the house. She did her best to look after us. She was a simple woman and was a stay-at-home housewife. I say simple because she never wore makeup that I remember, she had no jewelry, she wore shapeless dresses, and went barefoot most of the time. I seem to remember that she always had an apron around her waist.
Us kids never went anywhere much except school, church, and home. Come August, my mama would pull out the Spiegel Catalog and tell us to pick out two shirts, two jeans, and a pair of shoes. We knew to take care of these clothes because there would not be any more until the next August. I remember wearing holes out of the knees and then my mama would patch them. It was so embarrassing to have to wear patched clothes, but we had no choice. Sometimes our shoe soles would rip away from the shoe and it made a “ka-pow” sound as we walked through the halls at school.”

“I remember those Sears and Spiegel Catalogs. I wanted to buy a donkey from one of them; I heard that poor folks kept them in their outhouses for toilet paper.”

Jim went into silent or thought mode as if  he didn’t like my tone.

So I remained silent for a few seconds, then changed the subject. “Jim, what did your home and neighborhood look like?”

“We lived on a bumpy, dirt country road. Every week or two, Mr. McCaskle, who worked for the state, drove his motor grader over the road to smooth out the bumps, but they always came back after a day or two. We lived in a rented house that stood about 50 yards off the dirt road. It had a green shingled roof and was painted white. I remember it had a front porch that ran across about three-fourths of the front of the home. On the right side of the home was a chimney because there was a fireplace in the living room. Just on the other side of the chimney were two 100-pound propane cylinders.  My mama cooked on a propane stove. It was built on brick pillars, in the building style of 30’s and 40’s, so that there was maybe three feet between the ground and the house. We’d go under there in summer to play and get out of the hot sun. Our house was surrounded by five or six chinaberry trees that provided excellent shade. Later that year, we lost all these trees during Hurricane Hazel in 1954.”

Jim, paused to take a long sip of his Coors. Then he continued, “The house had 4 rooms and a small back porch. Each room had a three-foot twisted cord hanging in the center of each room with a light bulb socket attached. This was the only source of electricity as there were no wall plugs. Each room had a 100-watt bare light bulb that we turned on and off with a pull chain. In the kitchen, my dad had added an adapter to the light bulb socket so that we could plug the heater fan in one side and our AM radio in the other. We didn’t have a TV or telephone, so the radio was our only form of entertainment other than our imagination. I remember listening to the Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke.

I interrupted Jim, “Wow, my dad and I also loved those Westerns. We watched them all the time on our old black and white Zenith TV.

Deciding to prove to Jim that I hadn’t lost my long term memory, I bellowed:

A fiery horse with the speed of light
A cloud of dust and a hearty hi-o Silver
The Lone Ranger!

Jim laughed.

“Jim, you know that every time I hear the William Tell Overture by Rossini I think about that masked man and Tonto.”

“Me too.”

And Jim added, “I loved Marshal Matt Dillon, Miss Kitty and Doc.”

“I bet you wanted to get under Miss Kitty’s petticoats when she wasn’t taking care of the marshal’s needs?”

Jim laughed again, scratched his head and closed his eyes.

I wondered, “Is he thinking about diddling Miss Kitty?”

Then he jumped back into his story.

“Did I already mention that in our a living room there was a fireplace?”

“Yup, I think you said that,” I replied.

“Well, that fireplace was sealed off because the bricks had cracked, and it was unsafe to use. A hallway led from the front door to the kitchen in the back. The first door to the left upon entering the front door opposite the living room was a bedroom—that is where my parents, the baby, and my sister slept in two different beds. The beds were the old bed spring types with the thin mattress that had the blue and white pinstripe covers. The pillows had the same pinstripe covers. The beds were more comfortable than sleeping on the
floor—but not much.”

Again, I thought, “I was really lucky to not have been a poor child.”

“I remember if someone turned over, the mattress squeaked so loudly, that everyone knew it. The beds sagged in the middle, long overdue for replacing, but we just made do.
Further down the hall to the left was where my brother and I shared a bed. The bed was the same as the others. I recall hearing the patter of little feet inside the walls and I would ask, “Mom, what was that?” She calmly replied, “It’s just rats—they won’t bother you.” For some reason that made everything alright, and we just didn’t dwell on the fact that we co-existed with rats and mice.

As Jim spoke, I cringed at the thought of living with rats.

Using his napkin, Jim wiped the sweat off his brow and continued, “The last room and where we spent most of our time was the kitchen. It had an antique propane kitchen stove that my mama cooked on that had a white porcelain plated finish with blue trim. There were four burners with quarter turn handles to turn them on in front. There was a double oven on the left where my mama baked biscuits in the top one. I only remember her using the bottom as storage for biscuit pans. The top oven had been used so much that the door latch was broken. My dad had attached a screen door spring to the back of the stove and stretched it over the top to hook to the oven door. This kept the door closed, but it was difficult for my mama to unhook it to open the oven, and then stretch it back to close it. She kept a box of matches on a shelf over the burners because there was no pilot light, so she had to light each burner and the oven when she cooked.”

“Jim, you’re one helluva storyteller and one descriptive son of a bitch.”

Jim let out a belly laugh while eating up my compliment.

Then he started again. “There was a bowl of fat beside the box of matches that she cooked with because that is how poor people cooked in those days.

There was a bare kitchen table with several straw bottom chairs that we sat in around the table to eat our meals. As you entered the kitchen from the back door to the left was a two by four frame with sides of plywood or some other thin covering on the back and the sides.

There was a curtain hanging in front that hid the dish pan and other kitchen items. Coming up through the floor to the right side of this frame was a two-inch pipe that terminated at the top of this frame and had a rusty hand pump attached to the pipe that was mounted to the top. To the left of the pump was our kitchen sink. The drain was another two-inch pipe that ran down under the sink parallel to the pump pipe about five inches apart and exited through the floor and dumped under the house. Sounds unsanitary, but we never had any problems. The pump had a leather valve that was supposed to keep the pump primed so that when the handle was pumped, water would come out. Like so many things, this didn’t work either.

There was a Mason quart jar sitting on the top of the frame top that housed the sink. It was an unwritten law that when you used the water in the jar to prime the pump, you must always refill it. Every time I forgot to refill the jar, I got my butt whipped—I only forgot two or three times!

On the opposite wall from the pump sat an old kerosene space heater. That was our only source of heat, and my mama or dad would light the heater first thing every morning.
Our bedrooms were cold, and I remember sleeping under so many quilts that the weight of the covers made it hard to move. It was so cold that we could see the vapor from our mouths when we exhaled. I remember that we had a slop-jar or poop-bucket in our room in case we had to use the bathroom.

Now our bathroom was an outhouse that stood about 25 yards from our back door. I remember that I didn’t like going and I was always afraid of wasps or snakes. Taking baths meant filling a pan with water and washing yourself with a washrag and soap. We could not be modest because everyone had to bath next to the heater in the kitchen.

Summertime brought some relief because we had a garden and got fresh vegetables and some
watermelons. My mama would put a galvanized No.3 tub on the back porch and fill it with water. The sun would heat the water and we could all take a bath on Saturday afternoon. All us kids used the same water to bathe with.  You did not want to be last. We had a fan to move the air but mostly we just dealt with the heat of summer.”

“Was your dad a sharecropper?”

Yup, my dad always had a side hustle to help feed us kids. In addition to working at the poultry plant, the house that we rented included 44 acres of cleared land. I don’t know what kind of deal he had with the landlord, but I just know he farmed the land. Back then farming was a lot more labor intensive than it is now, and my dad employed some of our Black neighbors to help with the farm work.”

“Tell me about your Black neighbors?

“In 1954, in rural NC, life was much the same as it had been for the black people since the turn of the century. Blacks were still suppressed by the Klan and treated with little respect by most whites. Educated white folks called them, “colored people” and the uneducated called them the “N” word back then. They had to ride the city bus in the back, they had to use a separate restroom, they had to go to separated schools, they went to separate churches, and they had to eat in designated areas in restaurants. Now I have mentioned that we didn’t go anywhere so all of this was going on without us kids knowing it. My parents treated the black neighbors with respect, and I viewed them as our equal. We called my black
friends Tonyboy and Peterboy. I never saw a man or other women in their lives except their
grandmother, who we called, “Aunt Evalina.” We certainly didn’t mean any disrespect because we didn’t know any better.

You know how some things happen in your life that have a memorable impact that you never forget like 9-11, Kennedy’s assassination, or the Shuttle Explosion in “86—I had my first memorable moment in 1954.

That memory is seared in my brain like those events I mentioned.

It was getting late and there was a knock on the back door. My dad opened it and there stood 12-year-old Peterboy.

He seemed on the verge of tears, Peterboy said, “My grandmother ain’t home yet, it’s getting dark, and I’m afraid to stay by himself and I’m hungry. Mr. Robert, can I stay with you folks until my grandma comes home?”

“Of course, you can stay here. Ma prepare a plate for Peterboy.”

Then Dad put one of those straw bottom chairs near the back door and said, “Peterboy, you can wait right here.”

My mama was cooking dinner—the usual, pinto beans and biscuits. And as it got dark, my mama said, “All you kids get ready to eat.”

Then she did something that I just could not comprehend at the time—she turned on the back porch light and set a place on the back porch. She moved Peterboy to the back porch and he ate there alone and in silence, while we talked, laughed and ate at the kitchen table.

I asked my dad, “Why isn’t Peterboy eating with us?”

In a hushed voice, he said, “Sh-sh-sh, I’ll tell you later.” He never did. I didn’t know what I witnessed at the time, but I knew it didn’t feel good and I never forgot that night.”

I wondered, “Did Jim notice the tears rolling down my cheek, as I tried to relate to what 12-year-old Peterboy felt like on that back porch.

I felt his pain on being treated as a nonhuman by his poor White neighbors. I heard his brain asking, “Why are these White folks treating me like this?  Why can’t I eat at their table? What have I ever done to them? Why do they hate me? G-d, why did you make me Black?”

Jim paused as I wiped away my tears.

Then he continued, “As time passed, I realized that that was the first time I had experienced racism. Over the years, I saw it raise its ugly head many times but then the sixties came bringing civil rights and integration. I thought by this time we would all be living in harmony, but I have always been a dreamer. I am still appalled at the way we treat one another and how cruel humans can be to each other. Will it ever change?”

“Jim, that a great question and I certainly don’t have the answer. But thanks for sharing a portion of your interesting life with me. Now I’m going to tell you about mine.”

About the Author
Florida's Jewish short-story writer, speaker, film producer and retired attorney. He has authored, "A Hebraic Obsession", "The Hanukkah Bunny" and "The Greatest Gift." He produced an award-winning short film entitled, "The Stairs". Movie can be viewed on my TOI blog. ChatGPT says, Mort is known for his works that often explore themes of love, loss, and the human connection. Laitner has published several books , including “A Hebraic Obsession.” His writing style is characterized by its emotional depth and introspection. Laitner’s works have garnered praise for their heartfelt expression and keen insight into the human experience.
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