I was born in Osceola, Arkansas a small southern town of 2,000 hard by the Mississippi River. Historians have said that Mark Twain referred to the city as “Plumb Point”. It was the site of one of the major battles of the Civil War called the “Battle of Plumb Point”, and near the end of Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan had a presence in the town helping to disenfranchise blacks.
My small town values — honesty, industry, kindness — were formed there, and in the small Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. This church had an evangelical spirit. Shouting, singing, jumping. Baptism in the Mississippi River I can remember walking from religious services over the levee returning home thingking about Sunday dinner — mashed potatoes, brown gravy, fried chicken, golden biscuit. Walking from the mighty river, I recall holding my grandfather’s hand as stunned religious observers watched medical workers placed a body into an ambulance. Later, we learned that it was the body of a state trooper who had been shot by a black man who believed the officer was raping his wife. My house was located across the street from the jail, and I recall a large white mob assembled as they brought the terrified man to jail. I don’t ever remember a trial, or hearing. My grandfather later told me, he went into the lock up and never came out.
Segregation, “Jim Crow”, was the tenor of life in this town and all across the South. I attended segregated schools that were financed by Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. The teachers and students were hard working and dedicated to fulfilling the mission of providing basic education for blacks, even though we had few resources.
A part of southern culture for boys was learning to fight, and fire weapons. You were around guns and rifles all your life in the South starting with B.B guns. You had to learn the manly art of boxing in the South. My first fist fight was with a kid named Emerson White who was a seasoned puncher. I don’t remember what the fight started over – it could have been over a game of marbles, baseball, who knows — but Emerson whipped my ass. I ran, and ran until I got home.
When I reached home terrifying and breathless, my grandfather was waiting on me, and he calmly said “I got a call that you were fighting and that you ran! You can either go back and fight like a man or you can fight me!” I turned around and walked slowly back to the scene of the butt whipping. I was hoping Emerson had left, but of course, he was still there waiting on me because he knew I had to return.
I had disrespected my family by running. Honor was important in the South!
I still lost the fight, but regain the family’s name.