Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe. -Frederick Douglass
Fred Montgomery was born in Lauderdale County, Tennessee, on November 22, 1916. Back then, cotton was the resource that fueled the county's economy. It furnished the capital that built houses, sent children to school, paid bills, underwrote businesses, and tied black families to the earth as sharecroppers. Black men, women, and children planted, then tilled, and finally harvested each year's crop to share on supposed "halves" with landowners, whom many sharecroppers often called "boss man." The sharecroppers always owed the boss man money for rent, for food, for loans on last year's harvest. With the law in their pockets, landowners kept sharecroppers working on the lands until the debts were paid. Basically, sharecroppers were no more than twentieth-century slaves. Fred and his family were among them.
His father, "Papa," also Fred Montgomery, was a neatly dressed, reddish-colored man who stood close to six feet tall. He didn't say much, and he didn't express himself well. But even though he didn't say it, his family knew he loved them. Papa worked hard, spending all his time trying to make some kind of living. The best he could manage to do was to sharecrop and barber on the side.
Papa's wife, Ionie, Fred's mama, was a petite woman who stood no more than five feet tall and weighed less than a hundred pounds. But her spirit and hot temper made her appear seven feet tall. Nobody messed with Mama.
When Fred was born, Papa sharecropped on Mr. Bob Lewis's farm and made about $150 a year. That wasn't a lot even back then, so sometimes on weekends if he didn't go to the field, he worked at the barbershop in Henning, giving haircuts and shaves for thirty-five cents.
Fred was the seventh of thirteen children, and he and his family lived on the Lewis farm for about five years. As young as he was, Fred was determined to do something to help his family make ends meet. At five, he was thought to be too young to endure the laborious task of picking cotton in the extreme heat from early in the morning to late in the evening. He realized this the first day when he went to the field and didn't get a sack to pick like the older folks. His mama had said he was too small and couldn't pick enough. Well, Fred set out to prove her wrong. He got a bucket and started picking. Each time it got full, he emptied it into a large basket. His activity got the attention of Mr. Lewis, who decided to weigh the basket after he saw it was nearly full.
"Well, I'll be dogged. You lacking three pounds of having a hundred," he said. "I tell you what you do. You go back out there and pick as hard as you can, so you can have a hundred."
A good picking was about two hundred pounds, so Fred considered one hundred admirable. Running back out in the field, energized by Mr. Lewis's challenge, Fred picked as fast as his little hands would let him. By this time they were bloody from cuts caused by the sharp edges between the hulls, a common misfortune cotton pickers came to accept. But that didn't slow him. When he thought he'd reached his mark, he ran back over to Mr. Lewis. His mother had begun walking over after noticing the spectacle.
"Ionie," Mr. Lewis called.
"Yes, sir," she replied.
"This boy go' be a goodin. He done picked one hundred pounds. Come here, boy, and get this nickel."
Now that was quite a bit of money for a five-year-old. Lye soap couldn't have washed the grin off Fred's face. Ionie also smiled, reluctantly. It wasn't the future she wanted for her children, but her little boy's determination let her know that he wouldn't be afraid to face life's challenges in the future. He would be a survivor, as would his siblings. And Ionie was determined to do her part to help them succeed. Even though she didn't have any schooling, she was full of wisdom. One day she called all her children to her and gave each one a wooden match. She then told the youngest one to try to break it. He did. Then she took about ten of the matches, put them together, and tied a string around them. She told the oldest of the siblings to try to break the bundled matches. When he couldn't, she said to all of them in a sweet, motherly voice: "Together we stand; divided we fall."
It was this belief and their trust in God that sustained most black families, especially under the tough conditions in which they lived. The children often got colds from water leaking through the roof and wetting the bedcovers when it rained. Snowflakes slipped through in the winter. But Ionie did her best to provide warmth by piling quilts and cotton sacks over the children. She'd move from one to the next, asking if they were getting colds or had fevers. If they were congested, on the spot Ionie became Dr. Mama, and with her mouth she sucked the cold from their noses so they could breathe.
Sometimes she put tar on a rag and pinned it around their chests, as well as green leaves from a peach tree. It was an old healing remedy that had been passed down through generations. As the rag and leaves dried, they were supposed to take away the fever. Finally, she knelt at their bedsides and prayed, often fighting tears. All the children lay still, none of them daring to make a move or a sound while she prayed. Her crying let them know she had made contact with God, and they would be well soon. Her faith was a balm for their troubles.
Excerpted from FINDING THE GOODby LUCAS L. JOHNSON II Copyright © 2007 by Lucas L. Johnson II . Excerpted by permission.
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