Accessibility Navigation:

Interview with James Israel Gaither

Gaither, James Israel
Wright, Christina
Date of Interview: 
Rockwell Elementary School; Derita; Farm Life; Sharecropping; Himphill Heights; Pot Belly Stove; Huntersville High School; Rations; World War II; Discipline; Community; Segregation
Mr. Gaither describes his experience living in a farming community in Derita and his attendance at Rockwell Elementary School. He describes his various household chores, his responsibility to light the pot belly stoves in the classrooms and efforts within the classroom to collect assets during World War II
Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, NC 1940-2004
Before Brown Collection
Interview Audio: 
CW(Christina Wright): Today is February 24th, 2004. This is Christina Wright interviewing Mr. James Israel Gaither for the Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Mr. Gaither was a pupil of Rockwell Rosenwald School during the 1940's. We're conducting the interview in the Rockwell AME Zion Church, Derita, North Carolina. First of all Mr. Gaither if you could talk a little bit about your background? When-what--where were you born?
JG:(James Gaither): I was born January the 24th 1936 here in Mecklenburg County.
CW: Right was it right here in Derita area?
JG: No it was a little west of Derita over off of the Old Statesville Road. CW: Now you were very young when you moved from there but can you describe what you remember of family memories of, of that place where you grew at the farm?
JG:Well it was typical farm atmosphere we were--my father was a farmer and all of my sisters and brothers worked there on the farm. I was too young to do any work but I saw a lot of it firsthand. Dad was--I was three years old at the time of my father's death and we spent an additional five years after his death there on the farm. We left the farm when I was eight years old so I did get to do some small things there on the farm. I remember the brother that was two and a half years my senior Zachariah that was the next above me. The two of us would have the chore of carrying the cow to the pasture in the mornings and turning him loose for grazing and then we'd go and get him in the afternoons. We did have milk cow, mule and the things that you had on a farm at the time. We'd not heard of a tractor at that time. But I did not actually plow or till the ground because I was too young to handle a plow. So I was confined to feeding and helping take care of the livestock. I never milked a cow because they felt I was too young to do that so my older brothers and sisters had that chore.
CW: Did you have some crops too?
JG:Yes we did have. And well I guess it wasn't a big farm after Dad died but we did do some farming. I guess you would call it a large garden. But-
CW: Was it mainly things that you ate that you didn't sell then?
JG:Yes, no, no we didn't. We raised what we ate. And just about made what we used--for an example with the cow we had a churn and we would churn the milk to get our butter. And of course our buttermilk. There was some making of our own mattresses and I don't know where they got that cloth to put it together but they'd fill it with straw and they'd call it a tick. And of course I remember our making those and lying on them and I thought at the time I guess maybe because I didn't know any different but I thought they were very comfortable. And then--well, general farming atmosphere. I remember our raising cane and I remember going into the fields peeling, peeling it back and getting the sweet juice out of it that they normally make sugar out of. And of course I helped gather crop and helped shell peas and shuck corn and little things an eight year old--a seven and eight year old boy could do. I don't remember my father I was too young when he died to have any memories at all of him.
CW: What was your father's name?
JG:George Edward Gaither.
CW: And your mother's name?
JG:Was Lizzie Jones Gaither.
CW: And they haven't been born here in North Carolina but South Carolina.
JG:South Carolina in Fairfield County, South Carolina. They were not born in the same city but in the same general location. And Dad only met Mom after his first wife had died. And I don't have a whole lot of information on his first marriage except that he married a woman that was considerably older than him. And they didn't have any children together. But after her death then he some year or two later met Mom and they married and he brought her here to North Carolina he was already here. He ended up in North Carolina because his mother died and his father had fathered eight children by his first marriage and his first wife died and soon after that he married again a lady that was much younger than him and he started a second family and I think he fathered nine children in that second marriage. But the children from the first marriage felt that the stepmother was not going to be kind for them--to them so they sought somewhat to get away and Dad was one of the first ones. He left South Carolina my Granddad his father had a brother here in North Carolina and he came here to live with his uncle and that's how he happened to come to North Carolina.
CW: Oh. What was the uncle's name?
JG: I don't remember it. It may come to me. But his father's name was Abraham Gaither. And--but he came here to live with his brother and with my Granddad's brother which was his uncle. And he somehow got the property where we were farming--where he was farming later years. Over off of 115. And had a big farm and he worked real hard on it.

CW: Is the house still there?
JG:No, no. We had to move. He didn't own the property he was in-I guess what you would term a sharecropper. But he had some special setup with the owner of the property who made him a very generous offer. He was able to work, maintain the land free of charge and the only thing expected from him was half of his corn crop. Anything else he grew was his. And he made a fairly good living at it. It was very hard work. But five years after--and the owners of the property gave my mom the same setup. And she and my older brother who was ten at the time of dad's death tried to carry the farm on and there was a neighbor who was very helpful. His name was William Spears. And-
CW: Related to Janet Spears?
JG:Yes. It was her uncle her dad's brother. And he came and helped with the running of the farm a whole lot. And I guess he said this little ten year old boy just can't do it and I'll just chip in and help and he helped tremendously. But then the owners of the property had an offer made to them for the property. There was a gentleman who was dealing in small aircraft and he wanted to develop an airfield on that property. And so he made the owners an offer to buy the property and the owners accepted it which meant we had to move. So I don't know we weren't being successful as a farmer anyway. And so that may have been some relief but we moved to the Himphill Heights Community in 1944.
CW: Why to there, do you know why your mom chose that?
JG:[Cough] Excuse me. It was the closest Negro community development to where we were living. It--we were a mile and a half west of this community and--during our farming days. So I guess this was the nearest community. I don't know how that happened to have been selected they never told me. But I do know that was the closest community and, and maybe that had something to do with her choosing to live here. And then I don't know how they selected the house that they--that we moved into and I don't know who she got it from. All I remember is that we moved here and in 1944 all our belongings were on a wagon pulled by two mules and we came into the Derita community and passed a house where a lady named Louetta Gray lived and had two children Roger Gray Jr. and Elizabeth Gray. And we moved I think a few houses down below them. And so I was--and we lived in that community actually throughout my school days--remaining school days. I was a second grader when we moved and lived in that community actually ten, ten years I guess after I graduated from high school. So I never left the community yeah.
CW: Can you describe the community?
JG:Himp--Himphill Heights-
CW: Heights right.
JG:The gentleman who-who--I won't, I won't use the word developed and maybe he did. He was selling property in that area and his name was J. R. Himphill H-i-m-p-h-i-l-l. So then development was named after him. And so they use his name and call it the Heights H-e-i-g-h-t-s.
CW: How far from the school was it?
JG:A lot closer than when we were on the farm. I'd say a half a mile from the school. And my first two years in school I walked to school as did my sisters and brothers who attended Rockwell Elementary School. I use the word "walk" they never tied that to me because I always ran. [Laughter] But we--I would run or walk or run or a combination of the both everyday to school from, from our farm home.
CW: How far was that?
JG:It was a little more than a mile and a half. And of course we'd get to school and-in the winter time the--well the spring was fine but in the winter time you--I would be frozen when I got to school and it would take quite a bit to thaw me out before I could begin to start lessons.
CW: Uh-huh.
JG:But it was I still look at it as a rich experience. And-
CW: What do you remember about that little journey to school? Well that long journey to school?
JG:Well I wasn't alone there were other children walking to school there-
CW: Did you sort of gather together as you passed by people's houses?
JG:Yes, yes we'd get together, yes. But I--as well as I remember I thought maybe I would be--I wouldn't get quite as cold if I got to school a little quicker and that initiated the running. Yeah. [Laughter]
CW: Did anybody else run?
JG:Yes, yes. We had--well I don't remember who all was going with us at that time I'm thinking of some other people who always ran to school but then they didn't live in that area they lived in Himphill Heights area. And now I remember walking and running to school with them after we moved on the Heights as we called it. But I don't remember who all made that journey from 115 over to the school with us. There were some other children but I don't, I don't remember their names now.
CW: Maybe some Spears' children?
JG:No the Spears lived in a different area so-
CW: Because they were coming down Sugar Creek of course yeah.
JG:Were they were coming down Sugar Creek?
CW: Yeah, yeah.
CW: Yeah. JG: This gentleman I referred to Mr. William Spears had--I always thought she was his daughter but it was a granddaughter he was raising Dorothy Jean who would come out to the road because we'd come Gibbon Road straight out to Nevon Road and then come across the railroad track and we were at school then. So she would come out and she'd walk with us some but I can't think of anybody else who lived along the route that we had to travel to school. If you call walking traveling. [Laughter]
CW: Did anybody have the luxury of riding to school at that time?
JG: No nobody did. None of us at the time for the most part had any automobiles and if they did have it wasn't during a time that the parents could carry their children to school. Parents were tied up on the farm or with some other chore. And children were used to walking and they got a lot of it. They got a lot of exercise. [Laughter]
CW: So when you got to school--can you describe the school the way it used to be?
JG: Well it was a three room school and of course we would come in the front door and make a left turn and go into that first room and that was the room for the first, second and third I believe the first three grades were in that first room. And then after you got out of the third grade then you moved across--directly across the hall to a room that was just about the same size that was for the fourth and fifth grades. And once you completed the fifth grade then you go to the back room which was also on the right of the hall and it was the larger of the three rooms and that was the room for the sixth and seventh grades. And I really don't remember a whole lot about my experiences in the first and second grades or for that matter for the fourth or fifth except that the teachers were extremely nice and they really seemed very interested in each of the students getting a good education and they spent a lot of what I call one on one time with the students so if there was a plus to the segregated school it was that you got a lot more personal time from the teacher. I don't think teachers in today's atmosphere has time to do that but those teachers really did and I don't know what they were paid but I think they earned their money well.
CW: Probably not nearly enough? JG: No. [Laughter]
CW: So what was it that about the teachers do you think--you saying they gave you a lot of individual attention. What was it you admired about them?
JG: Well I don't remember what teacher I had in the first grade but I do remember every morning when I came to school that teacher worked with me vigorously to try to get me thawed out. I was just about frozen and she was so nice about doing the right things. I don't--she wouldn't let me stay around the heater very much she said that wasn't good for me what I'd really needed to do was wash my hands in water first. And I don't know what affect that had but or the reasoning for it but it was effective once I did that, that seemed to have thawed me out to where the heat rays from the heater seemed to get me in pretty good shape. [Laughter] But then in our--when I went to the sixth grade I had a teacher there named Mrs. Maxwell. And I never knew her first name all I knew was Mrs. Maxwell. And I was always impressed with the personal time she spent with me and she worked with me a whole lot on pronunciation of words and she would have frowned if she had heard me stumble through that and in general I could go to her with any kind of concern I had and she would really spend a lot of time with me on it. I remember she--we used to have the little plays and she would always seem to involve me in the plays though I didn't have any intentions of being any kind of actor nor did I feel that I would fit in that field very much but she would involve me in the plays and we, we would carry our lunch to school. No, no cafeteria certainly at that time but some of the students were not fortunate enough to be able to bring lunch to school and so the teachers had a way of doing things as to where those students weren't made to feel small while the others were eating she would involve those who didn't have lunch to stand in front of the class and we would eat right there at our desks stand in front of the class and tell them stories about personal experiences at home or whatever you chose to tell a story about and so those who didn't have lunch would to some degree entertain those who did have while they were eating. And--but they had a way of making everybody feel apart and that was really impressive. In the sixth grade and of course I looked at this picture with a big pot belly heater and there were one of those in each of the three rooms and I don't remember who was caring for those but whoever it was they started the year in my sixth grade without somebody to do that and I begged for the job and Mrs. Maxwell said "Well Gaither you're just too small for that." And I said "Oh no I can do it I'd love to have it." And I was so persistent that they decided to give me a try she talked with the principal Mrs. Hunt and they decided to give me a try at it and as I say I was half mile from the school so I would get up at 6 o'clock in the morning and run up to the school and take the ashes from the day before out of the stoves with a grate that you would wiggle and shake all the ashes down and then scoop them out. Put them in a bucket and carry them out and then put paper and kindling--we weren't allowed to use Kerosene into the stove and get your fire started and we had out back of the old building an old coal house and my job was to start the fires, get them going and get them going good, take the ashes out, sweep up around the stoves to have them perfectly clean and then get two five gallon buckets of coal after the fire was going and set in each of the three rooms that's right so that was six buckets and once I had done that, had the fire going good and had cleaned up then I was to go back home and then dress for school and then come back the same distance again to school. At the time we had a high school and the children in this area were going to Huntersville High School and the buses would carry them to Huntersville and I do remember there was one bus driver and I don't remember the name but each morning when I finished at school and he was going through the community to pick up high school students he would let me ride back home and then I would change clothes and then walk back to school and did that for two years and was able to do that and still be in the classroom on time. And--
CW: How early did you have to start to get that done?
JG: At 6 o'clock in the morning. And I don't remember the starting time of school. It either was 8:00 or 8:30 but I think it was 8:30 so I had two and a half hours to do that get home, dress, and get back to school on time.
CW: So you were the first person at the school every morning?
JG: Oh yes, yes, yes.
CW: You had a key?
JG: I had a key and I would unlock the door. The county was not funding that so--and I don't know where they got their money from maybe Elizabeth remembers but they would pay me out of some petty cash they had I don't know whether it was from.
CW: PTA maybe?
JG: Could very well have been I don't know where the funds came from. I do know that the job I begged for and did for two years I was paid four dollars a month and I was glad to get it really thrilled to get it. And if you're apart of a family that has nine children and you're without a father. People who moved off a farm and didn't know very much about--and it seemed like city living to us--city living. The scuffles you had of making ends meet. And each my sisters and brothers when we were able to earn a little money we would give it to our mom for her to use in the household. And I was real glad to be able to give her four dollars a month and she was tickled to death to give me a nickel back out of it to get me some candy. [Laughter] So it may have seemed hard but it was a rich experience for me.
CW: Did you save the nickel or did you spend it?
JG: No I'd spent it. [Laughter] No.
CW: Where would you spend it? Was there a local store that you went to?
JG: Yeah there was a gentlemen had a store his name was Roger Gray. And he would take all the nickels you wanted to carry to him. And I gave him everyone I got. [Laughter] That was Elizabeth's father incidentally.
CW: Where was that store?
JG: It was on the same street where I lived actually it was on Howard Street. And it was about three houses from where I lived. And so--and of course that's another story that family had a lot to do with my upbringing. And neighbors were real good about helping you. I will say when I was walking to school in the mornings and I was an eighth grader then I would leave home and start down the street--down Howard Street to Sugar Creek to walk up to school and there was this lady Louetta Gray who most mornings would come out on the pouch and speak to me and say, "Do you have money for milk today?" and I would usually say "No" because we had very little money and she said "Well you wait right here" and she'd go in the house and bring three cents out for my milk and that's what they charged for it that day. And later years she reminded me that "You know I furnished you your milk money when you were going to school" and I reminded her and you know I was really grateful for that but I paid you dearly for that because you worked that daylights out of me at your house after school. [Laughter] So we would laugh about it. But neighbors were that way and they were very neighborly everybody was. And I guess that's one of the good things of those experiences. Nobody had anything but they generously shared what they did have with each other.
CW: How were the parents involved in school?
JG:I don't remember. I really don't. I know we'd have the PTA meeting. I don't ever remember my mother going. And I'm sure she had her hands full at home she probably had a desire to go but probably wasn't able to. But I never had any input from the PTA meetings back at that time.
CW: Communication between the teachers and parents do you think there was good communication?
JG:Oh yes very good communication.
CW: Did the teacher ever come to your house?
JG: Yes they would come to your house.
CW: Well when would they come and what would happen when they came to visit?
JG: I don't know except they would come and talk about that particular student's progress and I don't remember any of us getting any negative reports from the teacher. So when the teacher came to our house and I don't know how they were at other houses but it was a pleasant experience. And I guess just to talk in general I guess they did most their visiting to the homes when there was a problem with the student and mom didn't allow us to create any problems. So I don't remember a whole lot of visits of the teacher to our homes. But they did go around to the homes at that time yes.
CW: Do you remember much about homework?
JG: No, no I don't.
CW: No. JG: No we did have some and the students that were in my grade and in my class that was in my community we would go to each others homes and work on our homework. That was a pleasant experience too. So--but we were all close knit. And don't remember any trouble for the most part that students caused it was just a real pleasant experience. We fellowshipped together even in our homework. It was wonderful.
CW: Do you remember any projects you were involved in together? What kind of things did you do?
JG: I don't remember any of those no.
CW: Now Mrs. Hunt seemed to think that she didn't have to use discipline as a teacher [Laughter] but I think of her students think she used some but how do you think teachers did discipline the kids at that time in this school?
JG: If according to my memory and if Mrs. Hunt would have been the person for it. But if a teacher had a problem with a student in the classroom their routine was to carry them to the principal. Mrs. Hunt was the principal and she did the discipline whatever that was but I don't remember her ever being--disciplining me and so I don't know a lot about discipline back then. Some teachers would deal with the problem in their own classroom. I remember in our sixth and seventh grades that was the one room the larger room in the school but it was the one room without a closet to where you could put your they call them wraps--your jackets and your caps and so forth. And then when you brought your lunch you had to have somewhere to put it until lunch time and those other two rooms had a closet. But this particular room had what we call a screen which was a partition that sat four or five feet from the back wall and on the classroom side of that partition they would display your school work. They used it as somewhat of a bulletin board. And on the opposite side they had the hooks into it and I guess it was plywood. But they had hooks into it to where you could hang your--your coats, your caps and so forth. Now I don't--it had a shelf that was I can't say how high it was but you would put your lunch bags on that shelf and then your coats and caps were hung underneath it. The only problem I remember with that was and we called the back side of it the screen but sometimes when people went to get their lunch or personal belongings behind the screen they were gone. And of course the teacher had to try to get to the bottom of it and find out who the guilty person was so it had to be somebody in the classroom. But the thing I remember distinctly about that is if something got missing it was always assumed that the boys did it. And the teachers would have the girls search the boys looking for the missing item and often time they would find it. But don't remember there ever having any of us boys search the girls. They would always have the girls search the boys. [Laughter] And I guess they had their reason for suspecting that and usually they were right. But so as far as discipline they were not reluctant at all that time to use a belt. They used the type of discipline you aren't allowed by law to use now. But they didn't have to do a whole lot of that.
CW: What do you remember the lessons were like? What kind of things did you learn and how did you learn? Did you stay pretty much in your desk? Was it a lot of note taking? Did you use the board a lot? Was it a lot of memory work?
JG: It was a combination. Our textbooks--I don't ever remember particularly in elementary school of having a new textbook. Our textbooks were used books from the other schools the white schools. So we got somewhat of the hand me downs but we were able to learn out of those and I also remember the first thing we did in the morning before we started our school work was that we had to--we had a flag in our classroom and we would have to do the Pledge of Allegiance every morning that was the start of our day and I don't remember about the other issue that is an issue now a days about prayer in the school. But I know they had no hang ups at all if a person wanted to pray. It's not allowed now but you could do any of those things then as a matter fact they were welcomed back then.
CW: You probably did devotion?
JG:Oh yes we would have devotion. I'd love to go in the classroom now and see what they do at the start of their day. [Laughter]
CW: They do the Pledge of Allegiance.
JG: They do that even now?
CW: Uh-huh.
JG: OK good.
CW: So the lessons what do you remember? Math, Eng--a lot of writing and mathematics? Did you have much art?
JG: Yes but I was never very good at art and I didn't get involved in it very much I did what I had to do along that line. I liked Math and so I really gave a lot of attention to it because it was something I enjoyed doing. And English and the basics were in elementary school. Reading, writing, English and arithmetic and we didn't do very much of anything else. In the Rosenwald School you know when we got into high school then we got into the science and the other subjects. But I viewed it as a very pleasant experience. As I said I can't remember many details of it but I remember the experiences and they were enriching experiences and I really did enjoy them because of the personal attention you got and I guess it meant a whole lot to me because of being from a large family you couldn't get a whole lot of personal attention at home so I was glad to get it wherever the source. [Laughter]
CW: Uh-huh and how many students were there in the class? JG: I don't remember but having two grades in one classroom and they would divide that up and have the teachers taught under that setup I don't know but they did a very good job of it. The first and the second grades-the teacher would go to one grade and then she would spend some time with the other and-during the period of the day. They worked it out they really did I have to admire them I will tilt my hat to all of them.
CW: Do you remember any fun things that you did that you just loved doing? Maybe just did them once a year or special events? Anything like that?
JG: No--.
CW: Parties did you ever have a party to celebrate the end of the year or anything? JG: I don't remember that I remember they used to have one big event at school that they called May Day and it would be some big celebration out on the playground that usually lasted all day and we normally didn't have classes those days we spent the day out on the playground in a celebration style. Specifically what we did I don't remember I just remember that the May Day and what a joyful event that was that we looked forward to on an annual basis.
CW: Sounds like fun and that had been going on a long time? JG: Yeah.
CW: Holidays did you--around Christmas time have things that you did or was it just business as usual? JG: I'm sure they did something special at Christmas but I don't remember what they were.
CW: What were your-I mean you've talked a lot about the teachers so maybe you've already told us this but your greatest joys at school do you think? Friends? JG: I think a combination I had a lot of friends but that wasn't only at school there were schoolmates and then there were neighbors that we would spend time together with. And we had to do so much as I said we raised our own food and we would get-there was one family whose grandparents raised them and there were several of those children and their grandparents were far more strict on them then was my parent. And-but she would have them after school to get a crockersack and go on the railroad track and walk up and down the track to pick up coal that had fallen from the railcar and there was a lot of coal being hauled by train then and during the bumping on the railroad track they would fall off. I do remember this lady kept a minimum of 2 tons of coal in her coalhouse and she never bought a bit her grandchildren went out and picked it up. And one of her grandchildren who was a good friend of mine would always ask me to go with him and I did that. Mom didn't require we do it but it was useful when I found some but his grandparents required them to do that.
CW: How did you carry it? Did you take a barrel?
JG: No you had a crockersack and you'd just throw it across your shoulder and carry it home yeah. And then when school was out she'd require they'd go out and pick berries-blackberries. And he would urge me to go with him and I remember we'd go 5 o'clock in the mornings and gather berries and if we'd gather more than our family needed then we'd go and sell them for 25 cents a quart.
CW: Did you do that on the side of the road or would you sell them to a local shop?
JG: We'd go to communities and knock on doors to see if they wanted to buy them and usually people would buy them from you. But there was always something to do there was always something to keep us busy and because of that it might have been an avenue for keeping us out of trouble because we never had time to get into trouble we were always so busy.
CW: Uh-huh.
JG: But life was busy at that time and enjoyable. I also remember shortly after we moved up here because we moved in Himphill Heights in '44 World War II had started and that caused the government to ration most of the necessities and in the schools students were urged to gather any ways to-for the government to sell to get access that they need-there was some jingle we would sing in school everyday and I don't remember the extent of it Elizabeth does but I do remember I was singing "We bring rags, rubber, any-what we can discover to help our country win. We love America to her we will be true. Sing hail to our land sing hail to our flag. Our own red, white and blue." But you'd gather rubber, waste paper, empty cans, anything that could be converted into assets and students in school were very much involved in that.
CW: Did you have a collection place in school where those things were deposited? JG: I'm sure they did but I don't remember a whole lot about that. I do remember that the government put rations on necessities and as I said we didn't have very much money at that time but the end of the way in '45 and for a year or two after the war had ended the government would issue stamps to purchase your necessities and it wasn't enough to have money you also had to have the government issue stamps to get things like sugar and shoes and other things that you needed and I remember mom getting those stamps and she would send me to the store up into the big Derita because Mr. Gray who had the little store there he didn't sell meat so any of the real necessities just a little snack stand. And so I would go to the store with the money and with the stamps to purchase the things that mom had the money and the stamps to buy and then walk back home and carry them and it was one of the chores that I had in my growing up.
CW: You went to the general store?
JG: General store it was McCoughlin's Grocery store at the time and I think it was the only store in the general area the supermarkets had not come into being at that time.
CW: Did you ever have occasion to go downtown to buy things too?
JG: Only after I had gotten into high school and this young man that enticed me to go with him to pick up coal and gather berries also invited me to go with him to look for jobs to earn money and we would get out on the street and thumb rides downtown. This side of town and we would go and knock on doors of affluent people and ask if they wanted their lawns cut or in the wintertime if they wanted their leaves raked and many of them would say "yes" and we would earn money that way. We didn't have any equipment we'd use their lawnmower or their hose or their rakes depending on what they wanted us to do and do the job and really never-and this gentleman Robert Williams who I was with he was good at getting jobs he was-he was sort of funny and he talked sort of funny and I think that sort of gathered some admiration for people who would say "yes" when normally they would say "no". But he could get the jobs and he wanted me to help him and so we would earn money that way usually on Saturdays and then we'd do it until about one o'clock then we would catch the city bus and ride downtown and go to-go and see a movie which was a luxury for us. And usually a western movie which we were both crazy about and then after we left there we would find us a way back to Derita and we would've had a good day. And that was the way of most Saturdays.
CW: Very enterprising.
JG: Yeah he was and he had a lot of influence on my life and I guess in a way helped my mom. Because of him I was able to start buying my own clothing at age 13 with the little money I earned that way. I graduated from the janitorial job at school at that time and I was getting into big money then. [Laughter]
CW: So you were paying your own way--.
JG:Yes I was paying my own way at 13 yes and then was still able to help the family a little there and then there were still farms-as I said we moved off the farm in '44 but there were a lot of farmers around who needed help and we would go and pick cotton or help them on the farms and earn money that way. So that was a way of making ends meet and we always had fun in doing so.
CW: Well with talking about the community it seems as though the community was indistinguishable from the school.
JG: That's right.
CW: How do you see the two? I mean you've described it to me but are there any other ways that they were connected that we've missed?
JG: I'm sure they were connected from my standpoint what I did in school and those students that I fellowshipped with in school overflowed into the community and so after the school would close the day the fellowship would go on even into the evening hours because those classmates you still had the exposure to and we would come up with ways of earning money and also with ways of having fun and we just got a real big joy out of life back then. We knew no other way.
CW: And besides going down into town when you were older how would you have fun in the evenings with your school friends?
JG: We always had games to have fun in my earlier years in school back in the early 40s we'd get together the boys and the girls and we'd play a game called-there were several games we played one that stands out in my mind was Spin the Bottle. You'd get a soft drink bottle and everybody would stand in a circle and you'd spin the bottle and wherever the-well usually I guess it was girls because you'd spin that bottle and when it stopped spinning wherever the top of the bottle was pointing you had the opportunity to go and kiss that girl. [Laughter] And then we'd shoot marbles we'd play pickup sticks little simple inexpensive games. They had to be inexpensive. And pitch some horseshoes yes I didn't do a lot of that I wasn't good at it. But we had a lot of ways of having fun then the churches had their programs that involved us and then the schools and the churches worked well together and even at a time-and I don't want to overemphasize our atmosphere of poverty-even at a time when there wasn't very much for anybody I think we experienced a very rich life because of our experiences and our fellowships with one another.
CW: How was the church involved with the school? This would be this church the AME Zion.
JG: Yeah this was to my knowledge the only church in the community at the time we were attending that school. Yes and I don't remember any specific projects that they had going on together with each other but the people who were attending church here were also people who had children attending school there. And so-and they didn't know a whole lot about what our parents were doing among each other but certainly we children who attended this church and attended that school and the adults would get us involved in programs here at the church certainly. And I guess the thing that impressed me more about that set up was that you seemed to have had more than one parent. Any adult seemed to have been your parent they would show concern for you they would correct you when you were wrong and they would discipline you. So it was a real close knit community so a wonderful experience.
CW: So now just around the time when you finished high school was the time when the country started paying attention to the necessity to integrate the schools and surely as students you probably discussed that quite a lot. How did you feel about the local white school? Did you think about it much?
JG: Didn't think a whole lot about it because at the time of all my years both in elementary school and in high school the only school atmosphere I ever knew was a segregated school and it may have seemed degrading to a lot but I never looked at it that way because it was the only way I knew. Certainly we were in an atmosphere where we had separate facilities. You'd have the drinking fountains and the bathrooms that would say "White only" or "Colored only" they used the word "white" or "colored" they didn't use the word "black" then. And you had the set up as to where if you rode a bus downtown you had to seat from the rear and even at the bus station if you wanted to catch a bus and they in the later years had a bus coming all the way out in to this area while you were waiting for your bus you had to wait in separate waiting rooms but separation was a way of life and we didn't look at it as degrading because it was the atmosphere we were born into and didn't know any other way. Certainly after they integrated the integration came in both in the schools and in large part into the society then you can look back and see how degraded you could have felt at that time but you didn't. We had gotten together as a family I remember one Christmas and we were talking about these old experiences and my younger brother who is ten years younger than I am and went to school for the most part of his school days in an integrated society said "You know if I had seen those separate facilities there is no way I wouldn't gone and gotten water out of a fountain that said 'Colored Only'. I would've gotten water out of the very first one I came to." But we reminded him that he would not have if he had been born into that atmosphere and it had become a way of life to the one that was designated to you he would've done just as we had done. It seems terrible after that phase had ended and then you see how degrading that should have been but you didn't have that degraded feeling and the only way I can explain it is that you grew up not knowing any different.
CW: Do you think your parents put forth any effort to make sure that you didn't feel in any way degraded?
JG: Probably I don't know but I do know when we were staying on the farm our house was adjacent to a white family's house who also had a large farm and all of those people in that area it never seemed to be a white or black issue it was just neighbor.
CW: Uh-huh.
JG: I remember playing with the white children at that house and we played like sister and brothers and we played with some neighbors down the highway from us. I was small I couldn't do work but my older brother and the older boys from this other family would go out into the field and work together and I was out in the field with them and this older white boy came up to me and said "Boy what's your name?" And I was maybe four or five at the time and I looked at him and I smiled and said "You know" and he said "What's your name" and I kept saying "You know" and the next two years until we moved off of that-the next three years I guess until we moved out of that area he always called me "You know". [Laughter] And I was a station last year-a service station getting my car inspected and there were a few gentlemen talking and I was standing there waiting for them to finish my car and I happened to look up and this fellow looked familiar so I wouldn't barge into their conversation, but I walked over near and when they reached a break in their conversation I said "Pardon me but aren't you Fred Hunter?" And he looked at me and said "You know!" [Laughter] And that did me the most good out of all these years you know he hadn't forgotten. Here I am in my 60s and we moved from there when I was 8 and it did me a lot of good to hear him call me "You know" but we were very close knit. And I lost my mother last month and some of those families came and paid their respects to us so segregation is a word but it was something that we never experienced in a negative way we were just close knit and just enjoyed each other and we helped each other and as a matter of fact when dad took sick these boys from this adjacent farm did more than anybody else by gathering dad's crop for him and chipping in and helping the family through the ordeal so I never looked at them as white people I looked at him as neighbors.
CW: Those are wonderful stories. I'm just wondering what we might've missed. But I think you've covered it all. Are there any memories that you think we might have missed? Any anecdotes?
JG: No you could always think of something later but no nothing that comes to mind now.
CW: Yeah.
JG: I-along the subject on teachers spending so much time with you I mentioned they liked to try and involve me in acting parts and plays and one teacher who dealt with me on speech. Pronunciation of words and so forth involved me in a play and we were in the classroom reading the parts and we had not gotten into the acting part because we had not learned that part but she had us reading our parts and there were about 5 of us and this particular play that they were going to present to the school at large and I was reading my part so carefully and confidently reading and I don't remember what it was all about but I remember reading very emphatically "Minister-preted" and she goes "Gaither wait a minute" and I'm wondering what was wrong and she said "Read that again" and I started reading from the beginning and I got to that part again "Minister-preted' and she said "Lord Gaither that's 'misinterpreted'." [Laughter] Well it looked like "Minister-preted" to me. But that was a wonderful experience for me because something that looked like one thing to me she put me on the right track otherwise I might have gone through my whole life calling it "Minister-preted". [Laughter]
CW: Well thank you very much.
JG: OK. But I have to summarize it by saying that it was a very enriching and warming experience and though there may have been things that should have appeared as negative or degrading I never saw any of that that way. Thank you.