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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William Gordon, January 19, 1991. Interview A-0364. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Sharecropping and race relations in the rural South

Gordon sketches a portrait of what it was like to grow up in an African American sharecropping family in rural Mississippi and in rural Arkansas. According to Gordon, his family's experience as sharecroppers in Mississippi was distinguished by distinctive racial hierachies in the 1920s and he vividly describes the use of terror tactics by white overseers. In contrast, he suggests that when his family moved to Arkansas to work as sharecroppers there, they enjoyed much more amenable relations with the white overseer. Because of the less rigidly stratified racial hierarchy in Arkansas, Gordon explains that he had the opportunity to attend school and was encouraged to continue his education in Memphis as a teenager.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William Gordon, January 19, 1991. Interview A-0364. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

The other thing that struck me was the attitude of the people. Of course, this takes in most of the South, I guess, how those things have changed over the few years in contrast to when I was there. When we moved away from there I was about eight or nine years old. We moved to a place called Ruleville, Mississippi. Of course, we were farmers. My parents were sharecroppers. In those days I still remember a man riding around on a horse with a gun on his hip. He was the overseer and you never argued with him about anything. He just said this and you did it. We would be in the fields chopping, my mother and others. My mother married again-I was her child and I had three stepsisters and one stepbrother. All of them are gone now except one. We would be working along in the fields and this man would ride up on his horse. This was not only true in our case but true for just about everybody there. I remember one day we had just started to school-I was about eight-and it was held in a rural church for blacks, and the whites went into town where they had their school. We came across a house and there was a big sheet lying over a man's body and his feet were protruding, we could see that. That frightened the heck out of us and we ran all the way to school which was about another mile. When we got there the teacher told us that this was a man who was killed because he had some words with the overseer. Nobody ever investigated the killing.
JOHN EGERTON:
That must have frightened you to death.
WILLIAM GORDON:
Yes. That's the kind of atmosphere we grew up in. About a year later we moved away.
JOHN EGERTON:
What year were you born?
WILLIAM GORDON:
1919.
JOHN EGERTON:
You were born in 1919?
WILLIAM GORDON:
Yes, 1919.
JOHN EGERTON:
The year 1919 came to be called the red summer because of all the blood that was shed by blacks in riots and whatnot right after the world war I.
WILLIAM GORDON:
Yes. All those cases were down in Texas.
JOHN EGERTON:
Yes. A huge big riot in Texas and in Chicago and Detroit and in Knoxville, Tennessee.
WILLIAM GORDON:
I didn't remember that. Isn't that interesting!
JOHN EGERTON:
Also, across the river there in Arkansas up around Elaine, Arkansas, there was a big riot. It was over essentially what you're saying that somebody dared to . . .
WILLIAM GORDON:
You didn't talk back, you never talked back to. . . . No blacks could ever talk back to whites. When a white person said something that was it and you'd just say, "well, sir, what do you want me to do?", or something like that and go ahead then you'd mind your own business. We left Ruleville. I remember one night we heard a knock at the door and it was one of our neighbors' who came from a nearby farm. He told my mother that he had heard from Oliver. See, our father left quickly after that because he had had a word with the overseer and it was best for him to get away quickly.
JOHN EGERTON:
Out of Bentonia or out of Ruleville?
WILLIAM GORDON:
This was Ruleville. We had moved to Ruleville. We hadn't heard from him in two or three weeks. He just disappeared and that was pretty typical of the black sharecroppers in those days, you just went away and then send for your family later. He said, "I'll come for you and take you to Ruleville so you can get away." About three nights later, about midnight, he came with a wagon and we loaded a few things on it. Then we drove to Ruleville and escaped that way by train. We went into Helena, Arkansas, and from there over to a place called Forrest City and then from there to a place called Marked tree. In Marked Tree-I was getting older-we met a different kind of overseer. This man was a white man, Mr. Shaw, who ran a small farm near Marked Tree. He worked in the fields with everybody else.
JOHN EGERTON:
This would have been about when?
WILLIAM GORDON:
This would have been in the early 1980s.
JOHN EGERTON:
You would have been about eleven years old?
WILLIAM GORDON:
Exactly. We worked on the farm there. There was a church school not far from where we lived. Whenever the crops wer laid by and there was a break in the spring or summer, we could always go to school. He was very liberal in that respect. He had three kids himself, a daughter and two sons. They went into Marked Tree to school. He used to say, "Learning is good for you, so go to school. I send my kids to school, so you go." We went to school and we had no problem there. We stayed with that man about four or five years. Then, a few of the young fellows-older than I was at the time, seventeen, eighteen or twenty-would disappear, go some place and come back and say, "oh, we found work here, work there, where you can make money." Then we heard about Memphis. I did very well at the school I was attending. The teacher, Miss Olla Walker, whose name I will never forget, came by to see my parents. She said, "Why don't you see if you can arrange for Willie to go to school somewheres I have taught him just about all I can teach him and I think he has good possibilities. If you can find a school for him someplace in a big town where he can live with somebody until school is over, do that." My mother and father agreed to that. About a year later when I was fourteen I left Marked Tree one Saturday with a couple of other boys and we caught a cotton truck heading to Memphis.