This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 3, "Growing Up Southern." Find more from that issue here.
This account is excerpted from a book about her life that Mrs. Fields is preparing, called Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Black Woman Remembers. Mrs. Fields’ grand-daughter, Karen Fields, serves as her editor.
I was born in 1888, right here where I am living now, in my great-uncle J.B.’s house. It used to be called “The Parsonage,” because Uncle J.B. was a minister of the Methodist Church. Next door were J.B.’s sisters Lucinda and Harriet, their husbands Jeffrey Frazer and David Izzard, and their children — Lucinda’s children Thaddeus, Benzina and Middleton; Harriet’s only child Anna Eliza, whom we called “Lala.” Lala excelled in school and was in the first graduating class of Avery Normal Institute. Later she had her own school, which was the first that I attended.
Lala’s father, my Uncle Izzard (“Dee-pa”), kept the carpenter’s trade and did contract work around Charles ton. He used to ride about in a wagon pulled by a beautiful brown horse named Mike. Whenever he turned into Short Court, we children used to run and jump on the wagon just to ride that short distance with Dee-pa and Mike. Uncle was also a local preacher. He later became a full minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and was given the assistantship of the Morris Street congregation. Dee-pa was very fair, by the way, and wore his hair long. When he got in the church with all the black people, you could think maybe he was white. Aunt Harriet was dark. He and Aunt Harriet had 13 children born, but only Lala survived.
Lala’s mother, my Aunt Harriet, had been a seamstress during slavery, a “manshee maker,” as they said. She did fine sewing in the Middleton family. One of her jobs was to teach the owner’s girls to sew. I remember the little mahogany benches Aunt Harriet kept in her dining room, which she had used in teaching the white girls. You could sit on them. Then beside you were little drawers for your work and for little silver or gold thimbles and scissors, threads and what-not. She used those same little benches when she taught us.
Old Auntie had many other fine things besides. When Reverend Izzard came home, he would wash up and change for dinner. Then she would put a beautiful white linen tablecloth on her dining table, which was solid mahogany and had two long leaves that almost reached the floor. She would set it with silver cutlery, which Aunt Lucinda cleaned once a week, big cloth napkins, and colored goblets — the only ones I had ever seen. She would serve from a big troll-foot buffet. Each night Aunt Harriet prepared as if she were expecting the king. Then she called in her husband and all the children, and they would have their meal at the table together.
She was a good-looking woman — tall, slender and always dressed neatly in her long skirts and apron. Both she and Lucinda dressed well. In those days women wore skirts that nearly touched the ground, with a gathered lace around the bottom under the edge to protect the tail of the dress. The hems were about eight inches and set up pretty, sometimes with crinoline around. They often wore basques, which were blouses that fit tight around the waist and then came on the outside of the skirt. The sleeves were long, puffed at the top and then small down the arm. Sometimes they had lace around the top of the sleeve, around the neck and down the front. Harriet and Lucinda made these beautiful clothes for themselves. And whenever they went out, they would wear a bonnet and gloves. Both were very ladylike, but Harriet was stern and fearless, while Lucinda, whom we called Sister Much, was sweeter. Sister Much did most of the cooking. She always baked something nice for the children. Old Auntie could be tough. Sometimes the children would run from her.
She used to do what they call social work now. She didn’t only take care of her children and her next-door neighbor’s (which meant my mother’s), she took care of all the children around, it seemed. If they didn’t do what Aunt Harriet thought they should, she’d whip them good and then tell their mother what they were doing and that she had whipped them. Many times you could see her bringing children by the hand up to her house. If mothers around the neighborhood lost their children, people would say, “Go on down to Miss Izzard’s.” Nobody paid her. She’d just take that child out of the sun and bring it to her house. “Don’t be walking around in the sun. Go to bed, go to sleep.” And the mothers would find them resting or playing on the porch.
I recall once when she broke up a crap game. Some of the older boys would go into a small alley between Short Court and Spring Street, putting a boy at each end for a lookout. Not even the policeman could stop them. But when Aunt Harriet found out about it, she broke up that crap game. It didn’t worry her that some of them were supposed to be “bad boys,” rough. She went right in and pulled them out. Old Auntie stood for no nonsense. Lala took some of these qualities of her mother’s.
Lala was educated to be a school teacher, but in her time, black people could only teach in the country, and even then only in some of the schools. Because she was their only surviving child, her parents were very careful about her. They were afraid for her to go in the country, where she might get sick. So when the time came, Uncle Izzard built her a school in the back of the house; Miss Anna Eliza Izzard’s school. He saw that everything was first rate. He made benches and desks, divided the rooms, hung a blackboard — a “modern” thing to have in those days, since most schoolchildren only had slates. And he bought other equipment. Lala kept maps and a globe, schoolbooks of all kinds, storybooks, songbooks, magazines. She had no piano in the school, but when she wanted to teach a new song, she would bring a few children over to my mother’s house, where they would use the organ to learn the song and then help her teach the rest of the school. Naturally, most of the cousins were taught by Lala, and many children from around the neighborhood came. Really, she carried on from Aunt Harriet, who was a teacher before her, first to the owner’s girls, then in a way to the neighborhood children. By the time Lala started her school, the children were used to coming to No. 7 Short Court. After a while, Miss Izzard’s was well-known around Charleston and very successful. There was no other like it in Charleston.
At three years old, I got tired of staying home while everyone else went to school, so one day I took over my potty-chair, asking to be allowed to stay. Lala let me sit by her that day, and I was admitted. She gave us a very good basis in spelling, arithmetic and especially in geography, which she loved. Her geography lessons made us feel we were going all around the world. We knew what rivers we would cross where, when we would have to go over the mountains, what cities we would find. Sometimes we would find the places on the maps or the globe and then look at the pictures in the National Geographic. Geography wasn’t boring with her, as it is with some teachers. Lala made it easy for us to learn even the difficult foreign names by using songs and rhythm. The same in arithmetic. We learned the times-tables with songs. And I can remember her teaching us the Roman numerals by a song and hand-claps: “One-i-one, two-i-two, three-i-three, i-vee-four,” right on up to “M-one-thousand!” Some children in Charleston never learned these at all, but I did before I was six. At six, I went to the public elementary school and made the third grade.
My school had only two black teachers, Essie Alston and Sally Cruikshank, whom Charleston hired just to stay in the law: the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial School for Negro children had to have some Negro teachers. But most of the teachers were white. Two of them resembled Lala in being strict and finely dressed, and in remaining unmarried all their lives, but beyond that they were not like her. Sally Walker was short and very stern, never smiled, no warmth at all. If you missed one word in spelling class, you got a caning. We sang a ring-play after her: “Little Sally Walker, sitting in a saucer, waiting for some young man to change your name! Rise, Sally, rise, and wipe your weeping eyes. And fly to the east, and fly to the west, and fly to the very one Sally loves the best!”
Miss Walker was just mean in general. Another teacher I remember, a Miss Dessisseaux, was from one of Charleston’s “aristocratic” white families. Dessisseaux was a Rebel, a pure Rebel! Her job was to teach little children, but it seemed that she couldn’t stand the little black children she had to teach. She always walked with an old-time parasol, rain or shine, and used that parasol to make sure you didn’t come too near her. If you wanted to say anything to her, she would say, “Come!” and stretch out her arm with the parasol in her hand. When you reached the end of the parasol, which was at the end of her arm, then she would say “Halt! Right there! Now, what do you want?” Rough, like that. Then you would say, “Miss Dessisseaux, I want to be excused.” Then, “Pass!” And that’s that. You had to talk to her from that distance, from out there. I can see her now, stiff, very stout, tall, frowning in her long black dress at the black children she had to teach. You may not believe it now, but we had to fight to get black teachers to teach in our segregated black schools. When it came to the teachers, our black schools were “integrated!” For the longest time, they didn’t want black teachers to teach black children in the Charleston public schools.
When I was coming along, history was the only lesson I didn’t want to study. One reason was that it was taught by another old maid, a Miss Dixon, in her black dresses and her black sateen apron that she put on in the morning. One funny thing, though She had false teeth — which tickled all of us in the class. I can remember once, when she was teaching a history lesson after her fashion, they dropped out on that apron. How she fumbled to get them back in.
Fortunately we had some nicer teachers, too. There was a Mr. Muller, with an accent, who came from Germany, and Mr. O’Driscoll, who came from Harvard. Because of Boston and the Robert Gould Shaw connection, Harvard sent a good many teachers. You could tell these Northern teachers from our Charlestonians. For one thing, those from the North never punished us like the Southerners did, the cane for this and the cane for that. Those from the South were always beating the children. But Mr. O’Driscoll would punish you and make you learn at the same time. He would send you in what we called the Main Room, so that everyone would know that you weren’t behaving. But then he would make you fill up the blackboard with the hardest math problems he could find in your age group. So even though you were ashamed to be in the Main Room, when you came out you knew you had learned something. I always thought Mr. O’Driscoll was an excellent teacher.
Walker, Dessisseaux and Dixon were the opposite. Miss Dixon was supposed to teach history, but I never knew what it was all about. All you did was read. In the class she would say, “So-and-so, turn to page such-and- such. Read!” When you finished, then she would call the next one. And so on like that. Sometimes you had to commit a certain part to memory. While you recited, she would follow along in the book. If you made a mistake, the cane. And you never could ask a question. I wouldn’t say I was taught history at Shaw School.
One thing they did drill into us was the Rebel tradition. They had a great many Rebel songs and poems. All had to learn “Under the Gray and Blue” and recite it once a week. The whole school did it, in all the classes. We stood to recite, lined up between the benches and the desks in our classrooms. Then we would sing “Dixie,” the whole school, in unison, “I wish I was in de lan of cotton,” in dialect, too. Then they were fond of songs like “Suwanee River,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Massa’s in de Col, Col Groun.” This was what they wanted to instill in us. But you never heard these songs and poems at Claflin, which was established by Northerners. And you never heard them at Lala’s.
Lala gave us things that you didn’t get at public school, not from the Southerners or from the Northerners. Every Friday we had Bible reading. The children on the back bench, who were the highest in the school, would read, while the rest of us listened. Then Lala would interpret, since the language was hard for us. Right in that little school I learned about the 12 brothers of Joseph, that beautiful story of Benjamin, about Aaron, whose rod turned into a snake, the story of Moses. We learned to recite certain parts by heart. Lala started us off, so one day we could be Bible teachers in our church schools.
She also liked history. It was from her that I learned about slavery as our relatives had experienced it and what it meant. She told us about her grandfather, who had gone to England as a valet with the Middleton boys; how he studied right along with them and then taught his own sons, Uncle Abe and Uncle J.B., to read and write English, Hebrew and Greek; how abolitionists sent them to school after the Civil War to become pastors. She taught us how strong our ancestors back in slavery were and what fine people they were. I guess today people would say she was teaching us “black history.” Most of all, she taught us not only to read but to love to read and love to learn. So when Governor Ben Tillman pushed the Jim Crow laws through the South Carolina legislature, although I was just a little girl, I was reading it in the paper. The headline in the News and Courier said, “Jim Crow Law Passed in South Carolina.” Of course, it got into my head to fight that thing: “I’m a little girl, but I’m going to fight that thing!”
The next morning, early, a white man came to our door and knocked. He had a big bundle over his shoulder. “Is your mother home? I got some things to sell.”
Well, although a little girl, I was ready. I said, “Yes, my mother is here, but this is a Jim Crow house and we got Jim Crow money, and we don’t buy nothin from no white man! So, now, get away from here!”
Then I ran through the little gate that separated our house from Aunt Harriet’s, to head him off before he got to their house. When the man got next door, he was shocked to find that same little, sassy girl meet him again. While I was there fussing with the man, Benzina said, “What you doin, Mamie?”
I said, “That white man is here and we are Jim Crow,” so then Cousin Ben got on him too. “We don’t want anybody here but Jim Crow people. Go.”
Then the man began to say he was not for the law and don’t punish him. “I don’t like that law,” he said. In fact, he was a foreigner and talked with such an accent that it was hard to understand him. (I later knew who he was, though. When I took the Clyde Line ship up to New York, I saw the people at Ellis Island. I thought this peddler must have been one of those who came through Ellis Island down South.) There he was with a big bag over his shoulder, trying to talk to these two black girls yelling about Jim Crow. “Like it or not, you’re white,” we said. “Now go!” This was the fruit of Jim Crow.
But to tell you really what the law meant to us, I must tell you more about our family, because it was actually some of our own relatives who were doing this to us, and because some of the Jim Crow spirit, as you could say, came right through to our own Negro people.
My mother had four children to live and four to die. Richard and Maude were very fair. Hannibal and Eva were dark-skinned. These were the four who died. Then there were Herbert, Har riet, Ruth and myself. Herbert was dark and handsome, with soft, black, curly hair. My sisters were both lighter than I was, and Hattie was lighter than Ruth.
It’s strange how these skins, these colors, can come along, but they did in our family. My mother was much lighter than all of her sisters, but her brother Richard was about the same color. Uncle George was a handsome fellow! Handsome and black, with straight hair. Mother was light, but her hair was the same as Uncle George’s, long and dark. When my sister Hattie was born, the people came from all around to see her, because she was so light and had gray eyes and brown hair, which she kept all of her life. This was from my grandfather Bellinger, I guess, who was a mulatto and looked more on the white side than the black. Grandpa Bellinger had long, light, straight hair, which he wore to his shoulders, like Jesus. Of course, it also came from my white great-grand father Bellinger. I had to smile one day, in fact, when a friend and I happened to visit the white Bellingers’ graves up at Adams Run. A Richard, a Maude and a Ruth Bellinger all are lying up there: white Bellingers. So our family had not only the same blood but the same names. You could say we learned about integration right there in our house on Short Court.
But we also learned about segregation. When I was a little girl, I recognized that there was a difference, because my brother Herbert used to tease me and call me black — “blackymo” — although he was as black as I was. It used to make me so mad I would almost fight him. He would say, “Well, we are the black ones and they are the light ones. They can do this and that.” We used to joke this way, but it wasn’t all joke either. One reason why I didn’t go to our private high school for Negroes in Charleston was that, back then, honors were always given to mulatto children, light-skinned half-sisters and -brothers, grands and great-grands of white people. It didn’t matter what you did, if you were dark. Used to leading my class up through elementary school, I hated this idea, so I began to say I wanted to go somewhere else. As it turned out, my parents didn’t have the money to send all of us. So Herbert, Hattie and Ruth were enrolled there. But our church gave me a scholarship to go instead to Claflin, in Orangeburg, for high school. Then Hattie changed her mind so, in the end, we both went to Claflin.
The Jim Crow law made friends into enemies overnight. Our neighbors across the street were the Groens, who had come from Germany. They had two girls and two boys. We were all friendly. This is the kind of friendship we had. When they didn’t have sugar, or when they didn’t have tea or coffee, they’d send over to borrow some. My brother Herbert was the same age as Kruger Groen, and the two of them would shoot marbles together in the sand between our houses — Short Court wasn’t paved then. They would play “onesies” and “twosies,” and so forth. Every marble had a name. When they got tired, they would come over and have lunch.
Now, here comes Jim Crow. The day after, we got to be enemies, and we began to fight each other. That Kruger was always a hotheaded little boy, and he came over to fight Herbert, who was hotheaded too. The marbles that they had played with on the ground they now used as weapons. Kruger took the marbles and threw over to break the front window; my brother took the marbles and threw back and broke up their window pane, if you met Kruger in the street, he would call you nigger. Then we would shout cracker back. That quick the children who had been friends changed.
By Pam Hancock, grade 6
The noise of a test is like
sitting in a dungeon. It’s
so scary. And I’m afraid.
I feel like running I’m
so afraid. I hate taking a test!
TO THE OFFICE
By Joyce Green, grade 7
I remember when Miss Smith sent me to the office because she
told me to got sit down and I started to dance and she carried me
to the office. She made me so sick I can kill her with her flat
rear end. She made Mr. Jones take my pecans and I haven’t got
them back yet. Miss Smith told Mr. Jones I was dancing in the
room and called her a name and that’s a story. When I got back
she thought sure I had got a whipping. Miss Smith told me if I
didn’t stop talking I was going back to the office. I told her I was
not thinking about her.
A WORLD BY MYSELF
By Antonio Walker, grade 6
When I be looking out the window at the rain
It seem like I am deaf
It seem like I am in a new world
And I don’t know anyone then.
When I be doing my work in class
I look at a word so hard
I be in a world by myself.
Mamie Garvin Fields
This account is excerpted from a book about her life that Mrs. Fields is preparing, called Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Black Woman Remembers. Mrs. Fields’ grand-daughter, Karen Fields, serves as her editor. (1980)