In Mississippi, the Civil War and Reconstruction incited bitterness among many whites, who used other means to maintain white supremacy following the end of slavery – and, Byhalia was no exception! Of the four million slaves that were freed due to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, over four hundred and thirty thousand of them lived in the state of Mississippi – over half of the population of the state. Their new found freedom left them penniless – without jobs, without homes. Needless to say, my grandmother was always apprehensive of white people. You could not blame her. It was the times she lived in. The stories of the systematic and blatant racism, bigotry, and prejudice she witnessed and endured during her lifetime would make you quench.
TAKE A PEEK INTO NAOMI’S LIFE. Born in Byhalia, MS in 1912, she was only one generation away from slavery. And, although slavery was abolished in 1865, in 1912, blacks were still denied access to hospitals, doctors, medicine – and when they did, they had to use the colored only section where you rarely received any service or adequate treatment. Neither did they have the same access to housing and jobs as their white counterparts. Her parents, my great grandparents, Robert and Ada Hardaway, lived under Mississippi’s Black Code of 1865 which was instituted by whites in order to control the black population.
Be mindful that Mississippi did not officially ratify the amendment to abolish slavery until 2013!
Although the Black Codes were countermanded a year later in 1866, the South still held to the principles of white supremacy (the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should, therefore, dominate society) and put into place the practice of racial control known as Jim Crow that forced racial segregation and exclusion – whites over blacks. The practice of Jim Crow accomplished this by denying blacks the means to rise to a higher status in society – locking and barricading them into a position of inferiority and servitude. Jim Crow Laws prevented blacks from using their rights under the constitution and subjected them (by force) to physical violence and undignified racial etiquette that strengthened white supremacy.
In every sector of their lives, condoned by the Federal Government, Jim Crow Laws mandated the separation of races (segregation)! In public or in private, blacks and whites were not allowed to intermingle – except, of course, when they were serving their tables, breastfeeding their babies, cleaning their houses, or forced into sex. Inter-racial marriages were prohibited. Blacks had to live with inferior facilities, access, and service. The objective was to deprive blacks of key economic and social opportunities. They were also deprived of adequate food, shelter, clothing, education, and health care. The laws also limited black voting rights through various discriminatory voting requirements, including literacy tests and poll taxes. Whites controlled political power.
Even hospitals did not admit black patients, and if they did admit them, they treated them on an unequal basis, and white physicians refused to treat black patients. They had separate facilities for blacks and whites. Because they were not valued in society, blacks had a very slim chance of obtaining adequate medical treatment. Well into the 1950’s, midwives attended the majority of black births in Mississippi – including mine in 1958. This contributed to higher infant mortality rates and childbirth, being the leading cause of death among black women.
The Jim Crow Laws were finally abolished on July 2. 1964, five years after I was born when President Lyndon Johnson historically signed the Civil Rights Act. It cited the commerce clause, outlawing discrimination in public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act followed in 1965; effectively giving black people the right to vote.
Living through eighteen presidencies (from William Taft to Barak Obama), my grandmother was born, lived, married (at the age of sixteen), and reared her family during an era when blacks in the United States were oppressed and systematically considered inferior, and many whites believed that blacks did not deserve an education. Blacks were treated like animals and property which explained her distrust of whites and hospitals. Read about the “The Tuskegee Experiment” that lasted from 1932 to 1972, and about Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, whose cells were harvested without her consent, and to this day, are being used in medical research. Read about the Scottsboro Nine of 1931.
All white people are not racist and bigots. There were some white activists who heeded the call of black leaders and joined them in their quest for equality and freedom – risking their lives, social status, and livelihoods. For instance, Juliette Hampton Morgan, Reverend James Reeb, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Walter White, William Lewis Moore, Reverend Bruce Klunder – just to name a few. They are white activists who freely offered to campaign to bring about political and social change, but blacks, we were guilty-by-skin color, guilty-at-birth – we had no other recourse but to resist the status quo.
So, looking back at our history and the things my family had to struggle through Growing Up Black in the South, taking a peek into my grandmother’s life, I can understand why they felt the way they did. Why the urgency to put as much distance as possible between them and Byhalia, MS. Why the need to send me to a better place, in hopes of a better life. I used to resent them for it, but I don’t anymore. I understand now. They were trying to save a generation, and I hope I have made them proud. (Chapter Five: “Shaped My Life”) (Not Yet Published)
Chapter Four: “Growing Up Black in the South” About Yvonne’s Life ~~~ Yvonne James | https://www.yvonnejames.com