Confessions of a cracker

MY GRANDPARENTS were born in the 1890s and late 1880s, about 25 short years after the Civil War ended, and they were Southern to the bone.

They were, as am I, Georgia Crackers, but that’s not as simple a thing as you might think.

It’s popular these days to remove statues of Civil War participants, done with the silly notion they were all evil people, but they were not. Gen. Lee, for instance, opposed slavery, but he joined Confederate forces because he wouldn’t fight his native Virginia.

His dilemma was a 19th Century version of “it’s complicated.”

As a youngster I spent far more time with my maternal grandparents than with my father’s folks due to physical proximity, my mother being an only child, and my father not being overly fond of his own father, a Baptist deacon.

As a result I know nothing about my paternal grandparents’ racial attitudes, though I suspect they were extremely liberal, even from a modern perspective. They took Christian values very much to heart. There was nothing hypocritical about them.

My mother’s parents were another matter. My maternal grandfather died when I was 12, so I had little first-hand experience with him, which I did have, quite a lot, with my maternal grandmother who didn’t die till I was 22.

Of my four grandparents, my favorite by far was my maternal grandmother whose name was Osie Moree Powell. I spent weeks, sometimes months, alone with her on her South Georgia farm during school vacations when I was an adolescent.

There were two double beds in the bedroom. They were situated head to head with a small walk space between, and the two heads were beside an open window where we slept summer nights with an incoming breeze and the sound of crickets.

Confederate_Flag_3650She had two full-time employees for decades. One was the maid, Willie. The other was the handyman, Cap. They lived as man and wife in a house owned by my grandmother. It was down the road a piece.

The house down the road aspired to being a shack. Its unpainted, wooden walls were sieves, and it leaned ominously on brick footings. When I was about 15, my grandmother built them a new house almost directly across the clay road from her own home. She built this simple but sturdy house because she cared about them.

Willie was like part of our family when I was growing up, and my grandmother took care of all her needs. She took care of Cap’s too, which included bailing him out of jail after his frequent weekend benders. Cap was fond of bourbon.

My grandmother owned a Ford sedan. Sometimes, she would need Cap for a chore elsewhere, perhaps in nearby Sylvester, the town. They would get into the Ford, her up front driving, Cap sitting in the back seat, just like in buses in those times.

Driving Miss Daisy but with the roles reversed.

I cannot imagine that she told Cap to sit in the back seat, but he did, and she never indicated that he should do otherwise. It’s just how things were.

Though my grandmother was the sweetest woman imaginable, beloved by all, especially me, she reflected her times. I once asked her how she would view a daughter marrying a black man. She said she’d prefer the daughter be dead, and she meant it.

I grew up in segregated public schools. There were no black classmates though I did not finish high school till 1962, which was after schools were integrated in areas of the South. This was due in part because there simply were no black neighborhoods near me.

I didn’t come into normal contact with blacks till I joined the Air Force at age 18. Before that, my contacts were just with Willie and Cap and the occasional black kids with whom I played near my grandparents’ farm. But that was infrequent.

Moving down one generation to my parents, we find a couple of flaming lefty liberals, especially my father. My mother got that way, I imagine, because of my father. It certainly was not due to the home she grew up in.

My mother, who spoke like Scarlett O’Hara, never voiced one kind word about “the Yankees.” And my father was not very keen on them either.

I wonder how my parents, who were hardcore Democrats of the “civil rights” variety, and union fans, would view the nutty political and racial conflicts of today.

‘Touch me, Lord!’

THIS VIDEO, made in 1965, is very interesting to an old Southern boy like myself. From 1945 to 1951, I lived on my grandparents’ farm in southwest Georgia. Those grandparents were born in the late 1800s.

In 1951, my parents, my sister and I moved to Jacksonville, Florida, but we often returned to visit the farm. My mother was my maternal grandparents’ only child, and they were thick as the proverbial thieves.

My youth spanned the years between the old way of Southern life and the Civil Rights Era that exploded in the late ’50s and into the 1960s. I remember well when blacks sat in the rear of buses, went to “separate but equal” schools and had to kowtow to varying degrees before white people, including my young self.

My grandparents had two black servants who were a part of my early life almost as much as my grandparents were. It was a couple named Willie and Cap Williams. Willie was the housekeeper, and Cap was the gardener and handyman.

The earliest house I remember where Willie and Cap lived was a decrepit shack about half a mile down the dirt road from my grandparents’ large home. My grandparents were the owners of the shack. Around 1958, my grandparents built a new home for Willie and Cap that was directly across the street from our main house. It was a simple wooden affair but a huge improvement over the shack. The bath was indoors.

In the early 1960s, both Willie and Cap died in that house, first Willie and then Cap whom my father found one day lying on the floor. I don’t know the circumstances of Willie’s earlier demise. Both Willie and Cap were buried in the “Negro Cemetery” a few miles down that same dirt road.

Many years later, I went looking for that cemetery. I found it in a forest, covered in weeds, but I never found the graves of either Willie or Cap.

Looking back, I see a boy and later a very young man who took them for granted, so much so that I know nothing of their history or personal backgrounds even though we considered them almost part of our family.

Now I realize they were like part of the furniture, and that saddens me. Their graves are gone. They had no children. I suspect the people who remember them now can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The video seems very familiar to me. In the black church near the video’s end, they’re singing, “Touch me, Lord.” I hope God is touching Willie and Cap. Lord knows we didn’t, not very well, not back then.