Interviewer: Matthew Christie
Interviewee: Joe Smith
I interviewed Joe Smith, who is my step-grandfather on my father’s side. The interview took place on the phone. He was never a wealthy man. He grew up on a farm, in a part of the country, which at the time, was filled with poor colored folk. He moved away from the farm, and did repair work on air conditioners for a living before retiring. Even though he lived where he did, he had very little contact with colored people. This just shows you how badly segregated it was.
One thing Joe remembers best from his past was how little he ever saw a colored person. They had separate schools, neighborhoods, entrances, restrooms, eating areas, and a lot of other segregated places. Because of this he never really had a chance to see any confrontation between the races. These are his few but shocking memories.
While he was a child, his parents and he would go into the town of Dewitt to pick up groceries every Saturday. At a stop light, he saw a nigger man being beaten with a one-inch thick stick by a white man at a construction site. The colored man had done something wrong, so the white man was beating him. The white man would yell at the colored man, hit him with the stick repeatedly until it broke, yell and swear some more, then break the stick on the colored man’s back again. This happened multiple times. Even being a little kid, Joe understood that the white man wasn’t following the law, but still no one was stopping him. He saw how terrible and cruel the white man was being. He was humiliating the black man and beating him like you might a stubborn plow-horse. The colored man just stood there, receiving the beating, and didn’t fight back at all. Joe saw true courage and strength that day.
At the time of the war, Joe’s family still didn’t have electricity in their home, so they used batteries to run the radio. The problem was that the radio batteries were rationed. So they would go down to this black man’s house, and have him splice together lamp batteries, that weren’t rationed, to be used in the radio. While his father took care of business, Joe would play with the little black boy there. They would take old tires up the hill, and roll them back down. This was one of the very few times that Joe ever played with a colored child.
When cotton chopping season came to the farm, Joe was sent out to pick up the colored folk who would help with the harvest. They didn’t own cars, so Joe had to pick them up in the family car. Even though they worked hard jobs, Joes’s family and neighbors still paid a decent wage to the colored workers, and the were never mistreated. They earned the same pay as any white worker who worked beside them; Joe was one of the workers as well. The colored folk back then worked much the same jobs that a lot of Hispanics work today.
During Joe’s six months of basic training before starting with National Guard, he saw a place where racial discrimination wasn’t apparent towards blacks. It was 1961 and this was the first sight of what it was like to see blacks being treated fairly, and not being segregated. He even had a number of sergeants who were black. Many black men joined the army at the time rather than stay civilians because this was one of the few places where their race wasn’t held against them. Even here, however, racial discrimination occurred. But this time it was towards Puerto Ricans.
I learned that the whites separated themselves from the black people mostly so they would see, deal, or confront them as little as possible, also so they could have cheap labor. The working towards the African Americans obtaining civil rights was a process where the blacks were even more put upon, but it was for the cause of gaining the basic rights that any person should have. I learned that the Civil Rights Movement was something that the African Americans in our country had to face if they ever wanted true freedom.