“I’m 102 years old. I was born October 13, 1918, and spent my early years on a farm in Choctaw County, Alabama. My dad owned about 60 acres and grew corn, greens, cabbage, collards, sweet potatoes and turnips. My parents had ten children: Magnolia, Odessa, Nayola, Olivia, Alfa Omega, Grover, Brown Lee, Leroy and Roosevelt. We did hard labor in the fields as soon as we were old enough. We hoed the garden and picked corn.
When I was 10 or 11 years old, I rode our horse or mule to take dried corn to the grist mill to make cornmeal and grits. We strapped the bags of corn to the saddle, and it was a long distance to the mill. I had to pass white neighbors and the boys would run out yelling n—–r and throw rocks at me to try to knock me off the horse. It was terrifying, but I always held on and kept going. I got in and out of there as fast as I could.
My family moved to Harrison County, Mississippi when I was 12. I wanted to do better for myself and went to Civilian Conservation Camp, a training camp for jobless young men. At CC Camp we cut timber, cleaned ditches and made roads. The camp was operated by the Army but overseen by the Department of Agriculture. When I was working for the CC Camp in Wiggins, Mississippi, I saw white men drag Wilder McGowan through the streets behind a Model T pickup truck. They drug his skin off and shot at him with shotguns and pistols. They said he insulted a white woman. A mob of hundreds of people lynched him for it.
It was a tough time. We couldn’t enjoy friendship with a person of another color. This was a disgrace to the world. Racism is the bomb that still mangles this nation.
After CC Camp, I was drafted into the Army and served in the 92nd Infantry Division. I was a Buffalo Soldier and went to Italy, Germany, France and Belgium. White troops got priority over the colored troops. We didn’t receive camouflage or walkie-talkies. They didn’t give us earplugs or anything to protect our ears, and the explosions damaged my hearing. They just gave us a compass, a rifle and a snack bag. I was a rifleman and sharpshooter. It was terrifying to go on patrol in a foreign country with enemy soldiers and their artillery all around you. It was awful to see someone you knew blown up by a mine we didn’t see.
The nights were so dark. Moonlight was a blessing, but we had to watch out for ‘Bedcheck Charlie.’ It was usually a single German plane trying to locate the position of our troops, then signal our location to the German artillery to attack us. You couldn’t strike a match, smoke, or make a fire because Bedcheck Charlie would see the light. They started firing and you thought the world was coming to an end. You don’t ever want there to be a World War III.
I returned to Gulfport and fought for freedom and equality and helped bring the Head Start program to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Neighborhood Watch program to Gulfport. I was vice president of the NAACP and fought for freedom and equality. My brother and I started a construction business and built houses and churches around the Gulf Coast. We also operated two movie theaters during segregation so all kids could go to the movies. Some of the civil rights groups met at our movie theaters. A bomb threat was once called in and the FBI had to escort us out.
After the war, a group of us veterans went to vote. They told us ‘n—–s vote after the polls closed.’ One of my veteran friends went to vote early and was badly beaten. I kept my poll tax receipts for a long time. I am 102 years old and I still vote. I know what voting means, and I will exercise my right to vote for as long as I live. I’m going to wear out, not rust out. I want to do all I can to make life better for all people.
Your life is ahead of you. You’ve observed what’s good and bad. You know a human is a human and the color of their skin doesn’t have any effect on who they are. Civilized people of any color can work together to make a better world.”