Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Remembering My Daddy

On Father’s Day I think about my Daddy, who died in 1964 when he was 57. Daddy was an Alabama country boy from the black belt, 25 miles Southeast of Montgomery. Daddy was a self-described Southern Conservative and segregationist, but not nearly as outspokenly racist about black folks as his Father, who was known within our family as Big Daddy. Big Daddy was a Klansman who was convicted by an all white jury for killing a black teenager who had “sassed” him. I was so influenced by my family’s traditional prejudices that I became Executive Director of Alabama Governor George Wallace’s National Campaign and named my only son Jefferson Davis Turnipseed in honor of the Confederate President.


Daddy was a down-home person and proud to be a country boy. He was quiet mannered, like his Mother, who was known in our family as Mammy. I felt proud of my Daddy as a young boy when grownups would go out of their way to tell me what a good man he was, even if it was intended at times to make me feel ashamed when I misbehaved. My friend Jim Laney and me were about seven years old when we were caught slipping a couple of apples into our pants pockets at the grocery store. The store manager said, “I can’t believe the son of as good a man as your Daddy is would steal and I hate to have to tell him what you’ve done”. I hated he had to tell him too, because Daddy took off his big ol’ belt and whacked me a few times across the butt so I “would remember not to ever steal again.”


Daddy was good to his family and friends and was kind and sympathetic to the underprivileged, but followed in the foot steps of Big Daddy by adopting some of his racist beliefs. Daddy told me that separate-but-equal, racial segregation was the only system that would work in the South. Daddy said that "folks up North claim to like nigras as a group, but they don't know and like them as individuals like we do down South."


Daddy’s favorite black leader was Booker T. Washington, the President of the Tuskegee Institute, an all black, state supported college located 20 miles from Daddy’s childhood home, and about half way to Auburn where Daddy went to college. Daddy admired Washington because he exhorted blacks to work hard at the jobs they were given and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”. Booker T. Washington was invited to make a speech at Auburn when Daddy was a student. Daddy said Washington drew applause when he said about the two races, "In all things social, we shall be as separate as the fingers of the hand, but joined together as one hand to do the common purpose."


Daddy told us stories about his black friends he played with as a young boy growing up on a Alabama farm in the early 1900's that sounded much like The Tales of Uncle Remus. Daddy said they would all go rabbit hunting and his black buddies used sticks as weapons to throw and hit the rabbits as they darted from the clumps of weeds and underbrush where they were hiding. Daddy said he and his young black friends also enjoyed fishing and just playing together. Wary of going over the line by describing forbidden racial bonding to us, Daddy said he never, ever, shared a meal with the black boys except when he slipped some food out the back door and they had their own little picnic outside, away from Mammy's view. They were Daddy’s friends--in their place. Good Southern white folks simply did not eat with nigras, especially inside the house at the same table. Black cooks and servants ate in the kitchen.


While growing up in the rural South with his black friends, Daddy was also influenced in his manner of speaking. If a stranger heard Daddy’s voice on the phone, with its inflections and soft mellifluous Southern accent, they would swear it was a black man's voice, because Daddy talked like and sounded like the black folk he knew as a youth. His favorite food, like many other Southern whites, was soul food (called home cooking back in his day) prepared by black cooks.


He was far from being a political activist, but believed very strongly in conservatism and advocated a realignment of the Democratic and Republican parties into a Liberal and Conservative Party. Daddy told me that Hitler wasn't all bad and did a lot of good for the German people. Daddy was proud of his German ancestry and said Hitler instilled pride in the German people, reduced unemployment and put people to work. But Daddy was not anywhere close to being a Hitler sympathizer. He supported the United States effort in World War II and wanted to be in the army himself, but was 4-F due to his heart condition from rheumatic fever he had as a child. Big Daddy, his beloved Father, was virulently anti-Jewish and anti-Negro, but Daddy never really bought into the Klan’s malignant message of hate. Daddy was an everyday family man and devoted churchgoer who always sat down front in church.


With his farm and ranch upbringing he wanted to be an agricultural scientist. After graduating from Auburn in 1929 Daddy went to work for them and for the State of Alabama Extension Service at an experiment station in Spring Hill, a western suburb of Mobile. Daddy was an entomologist who did experiments with insecticides to control bugs on citrus fruits and ornamentals like azaleas and camellias.
He worked with Japanese American nurserymen who grew camellias. At a reception of The Men’s Camellia Club of Mobile attended by some of his Japanese friends, Daddy told a woman who made a racist slur against one of his friends telling her that she should be ashamed and apologize. Daddy let her know the man’s son was a US soldier fighting against Japan.


In 1945 Daddy was offered a large salary increase to go to work for Shell Oil Company and we moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia so Daddy could test Shell's new, oil-based insecticides on vegetable crops. Daddy and his fellow researchers successfully concluded tests of the insecticides which made billions for Shell. When their research for the giant corporation was completed, Shell let them go. Daddy applied for jobs at many colleges and universities. I remember how much anxiety my brother Sam and I shared when Daddy got a tentative offer to become a staff member at Penn. State. We did not want to live in Pennsylvania – it was Yankeeland.


Daddy took a faculty/research position with the Entomology Department of North Carolina State testing insecticides and developing a spray program in Wilkes County in the mountains of Northwestern North Carolina that would control insects and diseases for apple growers. We moved there when I was a 13 year old eighth grader and Daddy vowed never to leave the public sector again, because the big corporations put profits over people.

Daddy was good to me and just about everyone. I liked his unsophisticated manner and ability to be friends with and understand the farmers, fruit growers and everyday people he worked with. Much to my Mother’s chagrin, Daddy was even fond of having a chew of tobacco with the apple men.


I had bipolar disorder as a young person and Daddy went into debt to provide me health care. He came down to Chapel Hill to help me when I suffered from depression and was hospitalized. Daddy persuaded my German professor to reconsider a borderline failing grade. When I was down he always reached out to lift me up. Without his help I would probably be either dead or institutionalized. I realize that Daddy’s simple kindness was a big influence for me changing from a racist-in-denial and George Wallace’s aide to an activist for racial justice about 35 years ago. I was co-counsel in a suit against the Klan for burning a church in South Carolina in 1998 that resulted in a $37,000,000.00 verdict. I’m a life member of the NAACP and have been a leader in efforts to remove the Confederate flag from our State House in South Carolina. As a former racist, my message to racists who continue to deny their racism, is----if I can change, anyone can. It makes me feel good to remember my Daddy whose love brought me here and taught me to become a better person.

3 comments:

  1. Your memories are vivd and clear. They give me a real taste of what it was like for you growing up. You are a great writer. I am awed by your candor about the racism which was deeply embedded in you and that you were able to outgrow. Thanks

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  2. Thanks, Tim.

    Not only was racism embedded in me, I did a lot of racism as the first executive director of the South Carolina Independent Schools Association(SCISA)which was formed to enable the establishment of private, segregated academies in South Carolina and as Wallace's campaign director. I also wrote copy for his "Stand Up For America" racist crusade.

    Judy and I have said the same thing about your excellent writing ability.

    Hope you are feeling better.

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  3. Sorry I haven't been by lately but I've been fighting the good fight at my place. Sometimes I think it is my Waterloo!

    You are very lucky to have had such an influence in your life. My dad and his side are/were ignorant and redneck to the core - my mom's, highly educated and 100% liberal. Thank heavens she and my dad (alcoholic) divorced when I was two, so I never had a chance to be a hater of man, regardless of color.

    Also share your BP - not the oil giant.

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