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Interview with James E. Johnson

Johnson, James E.
Littlejohn, Carlos J.
Date of Interview: 
Overcoming obstacles; Relationships with people and places; Childhood adventures; Tolerance and respect; Then and now
James E. Johnson talks about being raised mostly by his mother, and getting through college.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Carlos J. Littlejohn interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
CL (Carlos Littlejohn): OK, I'm Carlos Littlejohn, I'm the interviewer.
JJ (James Johnson): And I'm James Johnson, the interviewee.
CL: How are you doing this evening?
JJ: Fine and you?
CL: Pretty good. Pretty good. I want to ask you a series of questions. Are you a father?
JJ: Yes I am.
CL: As a father, how many children do you have?
JJ: Two.
CL: Two. As a father, do you recall, telling your children any stories, or, as a child, do you recall any stories being told to you by anyone, or do you, can you recall any personal experiences that, you encountered?
JJ: I can't, uh, recall any stories per se, as, either way, one, you know, being told to me or, me telling my kids, but I can, I can tell you about some personal experiences, uh, that, uh, in my life.
JJ: I, I'd probably like to just start through a quick synopsis of my life because, uh, for maybe the first twenty years of my life, um, I was born and raised in Sumter County, South Carolina, um.
CL: Where exactly is that located in South Carolina?
JJ: That's central South Carolina, um, about forty-five miles to the, east of, Columbia. I'm the tenth child of twelve. Um, born to, um, Christine and John Johnson. [Clears throat] Uh, I guess my first, uh, remembrance came when we lived on Phillips Street, which is in, on the north side of Sumter. It was me, Mama, Daddy and, basically, um, there were ten, eleven sisters and brothers. I never knew my oldest brother 'cause he died when he was a baby. We lived in a, four-room house. And, uh, had a wood stove to heat by and a wood stove to cook on.
CL: So that means you had to share a room, with like, your brothers or your sisters?
JJ: With several brothers and sisters [laughs]. We had, uh, really was about two bedrooms but we ended up sleeping in the living room, and two bedrooms, so, normally I shared a bedroom with my two brothers, possibly a sister or two [laughs], uh, [clears throat] 'cause we, we, we had limited space. We didn't have any, uh, we didn't have any rooms to sleep in so you slept where we could, where the beds were. Mama cooked on, by wood stove. [Pause] I remember some of the meals that she cooked. I guess if Mama was cooking and if the meals tasted good, I didn't care where she cooked them. Like I can remember, you know, I can remember, I can, I can visually see, um, her cooking over the stoves now when I was small growing up. We, uh, heated by wood stove. We had electricity but you didn't have any, you know, of course, you didn't have central heat. The house had a, uh, a tin top. And I can always remember when it rained and how, seeing as you would just, you know, sat down and it would just put you to sleep, the, the rain on top of the tin, it was just like, just like some kind of drug, it would just put you to sleep.
CL: And did someone actually build the house, or that's, that's how it was?
JJ: Uh, we moved into it, it was already built. It was a house that, uh, I think at one point, uh, my granddaddy owned. So we ended up living there after he lived in it. And, uh, I think we stayed there until I was, in, fourth or fifth grade. Then we moved on the west side of town, which was actually, closer to town.
CL: So was there a difference between the, north side of town that you stayed on and the west side of town?
JJ: Uh, yeah, most of, um, well I guess you had [pause] African Americans staying on both sides. It was more, densely populated where I moved, than where we, moved from. It was more like, in, it was on the north side of, town but it was like in the country, or in the countryside. Uh, we moved from there to a, a two-story house. Uh, we, we had more room, but, um, it was, me and my two brothers shared a room, uh, it was just the two of us. We had a double bed and a single bed. Two of us slept in the double bed, and one of us slept in the single bed. But the only thing is, it was a bigger house, but we basically still heated by, either fireplace, or a wood stove, which means, uh, in the wintertime it was pretty cold [laughs]. And we, uh, we took turns, uh, you can be certain we took turns, uh, bringing in the wood or, coal. Because we had no money to buy the coal, coal was a luxury.
CL: So with all those people in the house, were your parents like fairly strict, very strict? Or, just tell me about, like the rules of the house.
JJ: They were strict, certain things you did and you couldn't do, uh, you couldn't go, uh, we couldn't go places you, you know. My daddy was, definitely, strict. We had just, he was, abusive in some ways. When he disciplined he usually, sometimes he used a rope, sometimes he might use a belt [laughs]. He was just, that kind of person [clears throat]. Rules were, were rules, uh, I don't know whether you'd call it strict or not, it was just the rules of the house [laughs], you know, and you, you knew, what you could and couldn't do.
CL: So were there any times that you, that you actually, broke those rules or went beyond what was expected of you?
JJ: Uh, yeah, I did I specifically, huh [laughs], when I was fifteen years old, uh, I came home one day from school, and, my mama was at work and my daddy wasn't home with me much, so, I wanted to go over to the college, uh, to the local college, which was Morris College, uh, // and the guys. //
CL: // That's a historically black college right? //
JJ: Yes, uh, yeah. And the guys would go over there after school, on hot afternoons, and just play basketball, I wasn't, I wasn't doing anything wrong, we were having, we were just having fun together playing basketball. But nobody was at home. So I went on anyway and, uh, I think I got back about dark. [Laughs] And Mama greeted me at the door, and, uh, asked where I was, and I said, "I was over at Morris College playing, basketball with the guys." She said, "Who did you ask to go?" I said, "Well there wasn't nobody here to ask." She said, "Oh now you think you're grown? You can just, do as you want to do?" And I [laughs], and I was, uh, you know, about that time, you know, I'm, I'm getting a little, angry now 'cause it wasn't, it was something innocent. You see it wasn't, that wasn't the point, the point is that, nobody knew where I was. And that's, you know, you know, later in your years you understand then that, it wasn't about whether you got the permission or not. It, it really was about getting permission. 'Cause at that point, then, somebody would know where you were, and not knowing that, your parents worry about you when, you're not there. So, um, she told me just to, you know, go ahead and go upstairs, and [laughs] I kind of gave her one of them funny looks on the way up. And she smacked me real good [laughs], on the, on the left jaw. I, [laughs] I saw stars for about five minutes. You know, but, um, again it wasn't because of what I had done, because I disrespected her by how I looked at her. And, uh, and, and, and Mama was, Mama was the best, you, you know, as easygoing person you'd ever meet. But, the rules are the rules. And if you broke, or you did other than what you were supposed to do you got punished. And, uh, and everybody knew that. Uh, and, and, and how she would do it, uh, uh, a lot of times she would not punish you when it happened. It might be two weeks later, when you do something else, you know, uh, so, thus, you know, you kind of half way had to be, pretty, pretty straight in those terms, and, uh, and, I can never, remember her doing anything that was not justified. Now my daddy, he'd just come home sometimes on Fridays, 'cause he had other families, too. You know, one of his other woman made him, women made him mad, he would come home and just take it out on the whole family, just beat everybody. I remember when we were on Phillips Street, uh, um, Mama would often, if not often, on occasions she would, she'd go away and just be gone for two or three days at a time, um, because her and my daddy would get into it, um, get into a fight and she'd just, she'd be gone. She didn't know what was going on, she'd just leave the house.
CL: So how did tha-, how did that affect you, like growing up? How did it affect you as a child seeing that growing up?
JJ: It scared me mostly 'cause when they had got into it, especially, I mean, at, at first, but the older you get, then the more resentful you became towards your father for that stuff. Uh, you know, you get to the point where you become a certain age, [pause] you best not say too much because then, I, I'm at, at the point now that I can deal with you. You know, but uh, you know, you, you're, you're frightened at first, at least I was at first, and as, as the older you get, the more resentful you get. And, and, and I deal with kids now, uh, and you can see the same things in them, towards, parents or one parent or other who mistreat them, uh, versus, this fear, and then the older you get the more resentful you get, and after a while, it can turn into violence. And then I'm not like a little child anymore. You can't say and do to me as you want to anymore, 'cause now, I'm a size that I can handle myself. And, and, and that's the way it was, um, but, um, you know from that, uh, uh, really then, I was in maybe high school, ninth, tenth grade. We had moved out to, uh, a, a house that my granddaddy had bought and he had owned. So, we were staying on, um, you know, property, owned by family. And at that point it was just me, and my two younger sisters, my brother, who was next to me, was at Johnson C. Smith. He was, the only time he would really come home was like, you know, the weekends, or occasionally on, on holidays, so it was basically me, and my two younger sisters. By that time, Mama had, had, had, gone to, um, New York and then was in Philadelphia and did, like, live-in housework for people [clears throat]. And when she got to the point she, um, she moved in with my, with her cousin. And I can remember when I was in tenth grade, ninth or tenth, she wrote me. She wrote, and told me that she would, uh, would be sending me money, to put, you know, my two sisters on the bus and send them to Philadelphia too [clears throat]. And, I came home from school one day, packed up clothes, caught the bus, went to the bus station, and put them on the bus. And they took the bus ride on up. That's when they'd left and went to Philadelphia. That was my tenth grade at the time. I was in tenth grade, second string quarterback to my brother. I didn't want to go nowhere because I was going to be starting quarterback next year. Again, // I didn't want to leave Sumter. //
CL: // So instead of going to Philadelphia you decided to stay. //
JJ: Yeah, I stayed, uh, you know, because, again, my friends or whatever was in Sumter High School, with me, so I didn't want to go. Plus, two, I didn't know what kind of competition I was going to have in Philadelphia as far as football or basketball, I played football and basketball in high school.
CL: So you were a good athlete in high school?
JJ: Yeah. Football, basketball, track, basically.
CL: So did, did all those athletics, did that lead to something bigger in college?
JJ: Well, I, I got an athletic grant to Smith in football. So, basically, that's how I got my education at Smith, through athletics and we could not afford, you know, economically, we couldn't afford to go, um, to school, uh, but I had three sisters that graduated from college and my older brother did, my older two brothers did. My brother who was, was a year older than me was the first boy in the family to graduate from college and I was the second. Uh, but from, uh, from there, I stayed there with my daddy, until my sophomore year. It was just me and him. Uh, he never put up a dollar to give to me.
CL: Did he visit you while you were in college? Or did you all have any, I, I'm pretty sure you all had contact in college, yeah?
JJ: My first two years, 'cause I used to go home. On, uh, on, uh, breaks or holidays I used to go home, and, uh, it got to the point that, financially, I needed something and he, and I know what kind of money he'd make 'cause I used to see his pay stub. But, uh, he never had any money and I just got to the point, I said, you know, 'cause, you know, I used to go on transactions, because he couldn't, Daddy couldn't write, couldn't read or write, but I used to go home and just, stuff that had to get done, I used to go read it for him. And, uh, and, and, and, and I was of the mind then that, you know, if I am doing these things to help you, at least you could give me a dollar or two every now and then, and I remember one winter I was coming to, Charlotte, and I knew, that this winter was cold, so I know I needed an overcoat. My overcoat cost $19.95. That's when, during that time it was a London Fog, for $19.95. And, uh, he said he didn't have the money to get it. And I know he had the money because I saw his pay stub, and I know how much he made. Like I said, from that point on I said, "Hey, if I can't at least get, he wasn't paying anything else. Financially, if I couldn't get you, at least, you know, to give me something that I need, then I don't need to be here." So from that point on, when I, whenever I left Charlotte I went to Philadelphia.
CL: So you went to your mom's?
JJ: Yeah, my mom's, and I'd come home and, uh, it was years and years and years before I saw him again. And I think [clears throat], I went down there, a couple times and he'd moved. And I didn't know where he was, so finally, me and my brother who was in Columbia, my oldest brother, we finally tracked him down, uh, but, I don't know how many years went by that, I just, just didn't care to see him. And, uh, my biology teacher told me something that, uh, I, I'll remember always, he said, "Despite of how bad you thought your daddy was with eleven kids in the house, what kind of, order, do you think your mama could've maintained if he wasn't there?" See [laughs], everybody was afraid of him. Uh, when he was in the house, hey, you sat where you sat and you, didn't say much or do much. The only time you had any kind of fun or whatever is when he wasn't there. But, um, you always knew he was going to be there. [Laughs] And, and, and I look at some kids that I work with now, and I can say, "Yeah, at least for no other reason, we had discipline in the house." It may have been out of fear, but it still was there. A lot of kids that I work with now, they need that. 'Cause a lot of them get into trouble, a lot of them, um, go through all kind of changes in school and otherwise, they'll grow up like this, a lot of bending over backwards, you know, and, and, and, and, and basically, my family turned out all right, despite it. It had a lot to do with my mama because, of who she was, it was also, based on that. Then you had, whether it was, somebody thought it was negative or not, but it still had an influence, that, um, turned out to be, pretty positive. You know, after you grow up and you, you look back over to the, certain things you didn't agree with, but it was there, based on what you know now. But, of course, as kids you don't see that kind of stuff, you know, you don't see that. And, and, and, and, and, and that's one thing my mama always used to tell us, say, you know, "You, you don't know what, what I'm talking about now, but when you start having your own kids, you'll understand." And, sure enough that's the truth. But, most parents know [laughs]. Most children don't think their parents know, but most parents know, and, uh, and, and, and those are the kinds of things that she would say, but, you know after I, had my kids and I said, "Yeah, that's exactly what Mama said." And see those things you remember. You know the good Lord made it such that, when it's time to, to, to, to know, that old brain will kick it up to you. It says, "Remember it now?" And I say, "Yeah, I see now." You see what you try to tell kids these days, is that it ain't for you to understand now. It's just for you to obey. But by and by you will understand, if you live long enough. And, so, um, you know, whereas we didn't have a whole lot, with our meals, uh, sometimes, uh, breakfast, breakfast was the grease from fatback meat, not the fatback meat itself [laughs], but the grease, and bread. Uh, it was grease that you had. We, we had a, a, a fairly good dinner. But, the only time you ate lunch was if your teacher had a ticket left over, and gave it to you. Otherwise, you couldn't afford lunch. You really couldn't even afford to take anything to lunch. You know, we didn't have anything to eat for ( ), but, um, in spite of that, in spite of that, we could have done better, if my daddy was such, because he was making, good enough money at that time he could have taken care of, even, even the, the eleven of us. But he also had two other families [laughs] outside. So, um, things were tough, but, you know, you, you know, I tell kids, I say, you know, "Y'all don't know what tough is. Tough is eleven kids in Sumter, South Carolina [laughs], with no food stamps." Back then you, you had a, a pretty good dinner. And, you had a good Su-, Sunday dinner, but between those times, you ate what you had. Sometimes that wasn't a whole lot. You talking about thirteen people, you know [laughs], that's just, that's just not a whole lot. You had a lot of chicken neck bones and whatever [laughs], 'cause those were the cheapest things to buy, you grew your own chickens. And, you know, when you're out on, um, Phillips Street and, uh, North Main, you had a yard out in the country. You had, you had, you raised your own chickens. Plus you had eggs. You could raise your own garden, you, you, whatever you wanted to eat. Corns, peas or whatever you grew in the garden. So, uh, where, where, whereas it wasn't, like, a lot of other people, it wasn't, um, a lot of people were worse than we were [laughs]. But, um, [clears throat] that basically, um, I guess it was a great, um, had a great influence on my life because, uh, I just, I like working with people. And I guess, you know, that has to do with growing up in a large family, and I'm used to being around people, I'm used to dealing with people. I have seven sisters and, uh, three brothers. And as I said I was the tenth out of, twelve. I had older sisters and all that used to beat the crap out of you sometimes [laughs]. But again that's, that's, that's part of growing up. We're pretty close now, all of us. What happened then, happened then. We're still family. And there ain't nothing that one of us won't do for the other. So, basically, that's, you know, that's, that's, that's my life. And that's how it was up until I went to college and a few years after.
CL: Thank you for your interview.
JJ: Appreciate it.