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Try Me?

Page 1

Chapter 1, Black Gold Texas Tea

I never had any intention of staying in Tyler, Texas. Never in my life. My first thoughts were, "I 'm going to be somebody in my time and get the hell out of here." When I was ten years old, I knew I was ready. I had been singing since I was five and from the day I started singing I just felt that I was going to be a singer.

When I was coming up, black people didn’t dare do a thing. Most of them wouldn’t have even thought of it. Not at that time, and definitely not in that town. Tyler was a prosperous town located in hot and humid east Texas. It was extremely racially segregated during that time. You probably would have considered Tyler the deep south or even worse, called it Dixie. However, it did have one redeeming feature for some. Unlike Mississippi, Georgia, North and South Carolina, the state of Texas had gone and passed one good law for blacks. As I remember, that made it just a little different for us living there during those horrendous times of blatant racism and almost total segregation.

Strangely enough, the law had to do with food. As I recall, any colored person, as we were called at that time, could go right into any of our local restaurants and purchase food right at the counter. Mind you, we didn’t dare sit down and eat it there, but we could get it to go. An added bonus was you could also enter and leave by the establishment’s front door. In any other part of the south, if you would have been crazy enough to try something like this, you would probably have been murdered or worse, dragged through the streets and hung like a piece of fruit from a tree by your neck until dead. In that day, southern trees were known to bear strange fruit. Publicly, my father, Robert Gardner, was very much a gentleman. He never went down the street without a shirt and tie on. Some of the neighbors said he had a little spirit that lived in him that they called Uncle Tom. But the things that he did for white people in our town I didn’t think were terribly Uncle Tom-ish. He wore a hat everywhere he went, when he saw a white man or a white lady, he’d go over to them and say, "Good evening, ma’am. Good evening, sir. How are you today?" He tipped his hat to one and all, black or white. He was a hell of a gentleman. And even if he was Uncle Tom-ish in his ways, he fed his family. Sometimes he would embarrass me. He would go around to some of the rich people in town and say, "Good evening, Mr. Grayson. Nice day today. Don't forget, it's Christmas coming up. "And I used to get very angry with Dad when he would do things like this. But Mr. Grayson would say, "Bob, I won't forget you. "Everybody called him Bob. When Christmas would come, Mr. Grayson would give him a twenty dollar bill. Some of his other white friends that he had been kind to would give him a ten, a twenty, and that was one way that he knew of getting money in that time and in that town.

Dad came from a family of an interracial heritage. My dad would often say he really didn't know how old he was. Some of his family were so white in appearance that they were often mistaken for white people. I can remember his one cousin, Alice, that was so white looking that as a young child I was afraid to walk downtown with her. People of any color would always approach her as a white woman. Dad would often comment, it how he and his brothers and sisters had almost been born into slavery. When I asked my father what he meant by this, he began explaining to me what life on the plantation had been like for those in his family that were born before him. "Well, you know," he'd start, "if you go back into our years of slavery, you'll discover that many of the white slave owners would split their slaves into two groups. The lighter ones worked in and around the plantation house, thus earning themselves the title of "house niggers." They were taught to serve the owners graciously and also to be gentlemen and ladies to the owners' guests. They were trained in a very genteel manner and some received a very minimal education. The darker slaves were placed to work hard in the fields and were called "field hands" and received the roughest and cruelest of treatment from the master. He continued explaining to me how black people came in so many different colors and hues. He said, "Almost always, if you had a particularly good and sexy looking young black girl, or even a black boy, for that matter, working in the mansion, they would usually become the bed partners of either the master himself, his wife, his daughters or his sons, and sometimes both. More often than not, children were conceived from these various unions. These children would usually be very light in complexion and color. They would have the fortune of being raised within the plantation house itself instead of in the fields with the other slave children." My Dad felt this is how his family had come to be so light in complexion.