Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Boy From Down East - A Trip to the Tobacco Market

Growing up I went to the tobacco market with Granddaddy every opportunity I got.  Even if it meant spending hours there I was never bored.  Well, maybe a little bored, but I always enjoyed it.  I can still vividly remember the smells and sounds of the market. 
The song of the auctioneer walking down the rows of tobacco with the buyers following him is hard to forget.  There was row after row of cured tobacco with each group of bundles brought by a different farmer hoping to get the best price of the day for his sale. 

Several years ago when I worked as an account manager for an industrial maintenance service provider I visited a cigarette plant near Macon, Georgia.  I had to park my car near the raw material receiving docks at the back of the facility.  As soon as I stepped out of my car I could smell the dried, cured tobacco and a feeling of nostalgia washed over me in a flood of memories of the tobacco market and Granddaddy.   As a long time ex-smoker who hates the smell of cigarette smoke I truly love the smell of cured tobacco.

Most years being the first to the market was very important, not as a point of pride but because the best money was paid for the early crops. By that time of year money was tight and the income was needed to keep going.  The first markets to open were the South Georgia markets. Usually Granddaddy and a couple of the other local small farmers would get together, put a load of their tobacco on a large truck and drive from North Carolina to the Georgia markets to get in on the first sales.  I never got to go on those trips.

There were many local tobacco markets in eastern North Carolina. When they opened Granddaddy would listen intently during lunch time to the market reports on the radio and read the reports in the newspaper trying to find which market was paying the best price.  I can remember him saying after the report, “We are going to the market in Greenville tomorrow with a load.  Do you want to come?” My answer was always “Yes.”  We got up before sunrise the next morning and loaded the truck with cured, sorted tobacco and off we went.  We had to get there early because we wanted to get a spot near the beginning of the auction line, not at the beginning but near it.  Granddaddy knew all the little tricks to help get a better price for his crop.

When we arrived and checked in we were given a lot number for our sale.  The buyers from the different tobacco companies would spend the first part of the morning walking around and looking at the various lots and making notes for the auction.  When the auction started the auctioneer began moving down the rows of tobacco and hesitating, not stopping, at each lot and never missing a beat of his bidding song.  The buyers followed behind him indicating their bids with a nod, a hand wave or some other special way.  There were other people next to the auctioneer who wrote up the sale as soon it was indicated and would leave a couple of copies of the sale paper on top of the lot.  One was for the company buying the lot and the other was for the farmer to cash out with.  Granddaddy would take his copy to the cashier window and they paid him on the spot.

There is one particular trip to the market that sticks out in my mind and Momma still gets a little aggravated every time it comes up.  I was around 5 or 6 years old and had been sick.  I had a follow-up visit scheduled that particular morning with my doctor, Dr. Malene Irons, in Greenville, NC.  Granddaddy was going to the market and agreed to take me to the doctor as it was near the market.  All was good as I got to go to the market with Granddaddy again.

On the way to Greenville that morning I guess Granddaddy got to thinking about what time my appointment was and what time he would get to the market and what space in line he would get.  After a lot of scheming and steaming he asked me if I knew where the market was to which I replied yes.  He went in with me to the doctor’s office, checked me in and told the receptionist, “When he is done call him a taxi. He knows where he has to go.”  He left and everyone was happy.

An hour later when I was done the receptionist made the call and I got into the taxi.  The driver looked at me and asked, “Where can I take you little man?”  I replied in my big man voice, “To the ‘bacca’ market.”  “Ok, which one?” he asked.  “In Greenville” I answered.

Now you have to understand that there were a lot of tobacco markets in Greenville not including the nearby communities.  But, to a 5 year old there was only the tobacco market that he went to with his Granddaddy.  The driver tried to get more information from me but to no avail so he began to drive by the various markets hoping I would recognize the right one.

After driving by 4 or 5 different markets we went past the old Pitt County Hospital and I remembered the market was near it.  The driver started laughing and said something like, “thank goodness.”  We pulled up in front of the market which I recognized immediately and we both walked in to look for Granddaddy so he could pay the driver.

On the way home Granddaddy got to thinking about what had happened and told me it might be best if I did not tell my mother about the taxi and our little adventure.  Now telling a 5 year old not to tell his mother was not the smartest thing to do.  As soon as I got home I ran as fast as I could and told Momma all the fun I had that day in every detail.  I have never seen my Momma get so mad and yell so loud.  Even Grandmomma got mad and yelled at Granddaddy and I believe this is one of the few times I ever heard her raise her voice.

As for me, I could hardly wait to go back to the tobacco market and have many, many more great adventures with my Granddaddy.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Boy From Down East – Segregation

I was watching a show on “The History Channel” recently about the turmoil of the 1960’s and saw a sign over a water fountain that said “White Only”. This brought back memories of when I was a young boy in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Growing up in eastern North Carolina segregation was the way of life in the 50’s and 60’s. Because it was predominantly a rural farming area a large percentage of the population was “colored”. At the time this was the polite way to referring to African Americans as oppose to the “N” word, which was also widely used. Segregation affected all aspects of life. You knew the unwritten rules and you followed them.

One event that I clearly remember occurred at my great granddad’s funeral. A few of the black people who had worked for him for many years asked Granddaddy if they could go to the funeral. He said yes. When they came into the church they sat on the back pew. I still remember people in the next pew getting up and moving. When my grandmother died in the 1980’s the black woman who had worked for them and help her for years sat with the family. Different times.

I still remember the signs over the water fountains / coolers in Washington and other towns, designating them as “White Only” and a few, in out of the way places, marked “Colored Only”. This was one of the rules I always found a little funny having worked on Granddad’s farm. All the people who worked for him where black except me. When we were out in the fields working on a hot day Granddad would bring water out in a gallon glass jug and we would pass it around, everyone drinking out of the same jug. When you left the field the rules changed and you were white and they were colored again.

There were “White Only” signs on all the public bathrooms in the stores and other places. I remember behind “the dime store”, on Main St, in Washington there was a wooden building which was marked “Colored Only” and I was told that was the bathrooms for them.

A lot of the department stores had dining areas but they were for “Whites Only”. You never saw colored people sitting in them. Usually there was one small corner of the counter where they could place a “to go” order but they could not set while they waited. This is one of the reasons these became a target of early civil rights set-ins.

I can remember going to the movies at the Turnage Theater and blacks had to set in one small section in the back of the balcony. This was after they went to a separate entrance marked “Colored Only” to buy there tickets. This was not unusual as there were separate entrances and waiting rooms for “Colored Only” for bus and train stations, doctor’s offices, and hospitals. Almost all public places and businesses were segregated.

When the county fair came to town in the fall you never saw blacks there. During the week long event there was one day designated for the colored people to go and you new not to go on that day.

This all began to slowly change in the late 1960’s but not without issues. There were very vocal people on both sides of the issue voicing their opinion whether right or wrong. When I was around 13 or 14 it was announced Aurora High School would begin partial integration the next school year. I remember this is when the negative talk became the loudest even to the point of a large KKK rally being held in the Aurora area. Times were changing and nothing was going to hold back progress. The next school year Aurora High School was partially integrated.

Even though it only involved approximately 12 black kids coming to our school it was a major change. The kids were all from the Porters Creek area and I had work with some of them on Grand Dad’s farm but I never acknowledge them. I still remember the first day when they came into school and we all look at them wondering what was going to happen especially after seeing all the integration trouble on TV. Thinking back you could see fear in both the black kids and the whites because our world was changing. There were no issues that day and for the next two years. We were fortunate that the change went smoothly unlike some schools.

Then in September of 1968 full integration began. The SW Snowden High School, formerly the colored school, became the elementary school with grades 1 through 6. Aurora High School became the high school with grades 7 through 12. Again there were no real issues. There were a lot of changes in the mindset of many people which had to be made by both sides. Once we fully integrated the white kids became the minority as there were approximately two black students to every one white student. It was different.

Even though the schools were integrated old beliefs and ways held on. I played basketball on the high school team and we went from an all white team to just Craig and I being the only white boys on the team. This made for interesting comments when we played all white, none integrated, schools in the area. One of my good friends from school and basketball was Kelvin. We played ball together for three years and became close friends at practice and at school. I never invited him to my house or ask him to go hangout with my other friends because deep down I was conditioned that this was not done. Old ways are hard to change and I look back with remorse and think how ridiculous those beliefs were.

A lot of people would like to forget about this and erase it from their minds and our history. Yet, it is just that, our history. We need to remember our good times and our bad times, not to dwelling on them but learning from them. History that is forgotten or lost has a way of repeating itself until we learn the truth from it. Slavery, segregation, and the mistreatment of our fellow man needs to be remembered. Teach it to our children so the same mistakes will not be made again.

This too was part of growing up in Aurora NC.