When I Didn't Know Life was Black and White


Photograph by J Gerald Crawford, who grew up on a farm near Webb, Alabama.

It was a better time back during the 1950s.  Well, maybe it wasn’t, and we were simply too ignorant to know the difference.

The world was full of strife, but none existed beyond the barbed wire fence that enclosed our little twenty-two-acre farm in East Texas.

Men were dying in Korea. But we didn’t know any of them.

Tornadoes were stalking the countryside, but they had left us alone.

A drought had crept across the land, dried the creek, and left a mud bog where my father’s stock pond had been.

We hired an old black man on the far side of the hill to dig us a well. If nothing else, old Bond knew how to dig a well and hit water.

“How much do you charge?” my father had asked.

“I keep the clay,” old Bond said.

“Fine,” my father said. “But how much money do you charge.”

“No money,” old Bond said. “Just the clay.”

He carefully kept the clay moist and took it home at the end of the day.

Old Bond ate the clay.

“It’s got minerals,” he told us. “I eat ‘em, and I don’t get sick.”

He was right. Old Bond would die someday but it wouldn’t be because of sickness.

“Why don’t you dig up the clay in your back yard?” I asked him.

Old Bond shook his head. “I don’t work for myself,” he said.

Old Bond dug holes in every yard on the south side of Pitner’s Junction.

We had a well, and I hauled buckets of water for a mile to keep the five cows and two hogs that occupied our bottomlands from getting thirsty during those hot summer months.

And I played baseball with Bay, Ray, and Stein. They lived just across the oil road and up on a small rise, just high enough to keep them from being bothered with mosquitoes.

I was white.

They were black.

We didn’t pay any attention to it.

They went to their school.

I went to mine.

I was envious. Their school was closer. I had to ride seventeen miles on the bus to mine. I would have gone to their school if anyone had let me.

During the summer months, their father hired me to pick cotton for a penny a pound. If I did real good, I would come home in the shank of the afternoon with a dime and a couple of pennies in my pocket.

When my father hurt his back and couldn’t work for a month, their mother came down to the house every Saturday morning and brought sacks of vegetables she had taken from her garden.

She didn’t want to see us go hungry.

Every time her husband’s car broke down, which was quite often, my father carried their family to church on Sunday mornings.

He didn’t want them to miss the meeting they had scheduled with the Lord.

We didn’t act white.

They didn’t act black.

We all simply acted like neighbors, which is what we were, and that was all that mattered. We depended on them, and they knew they could depend on us, and we all slept well at night.

Long after I left the farm, the schools integrated, and the schoolhouse nearest my home was closed down. The last time I saw it, the windows had been broken out, and the decrepit yellow brick building was encased with weeds and vines.

Several years ago, I read that my old school at New London had a new board member. It might have been fate. It might have been justice. It was probably just the changing of times. I only knew that the school had itself a good man. Ray was now helping run the school he had never been allowed to attend.


Caleb Pirtle III is author of Chasing Love and Other Ghosts.

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  • A perfectly wonderful story, Caleb! There’s still hope for the world with people like you and your family. Exquisite photo!

    • I liked those times. I sometimes wonder if they were really as good as I remember them.

      • That’s why we remember them, because they grow in goodness. Wonderful, Caleb!

      • I’m guessing that our past was maybe not better than our present, but what has truly changed is the media exposure. In my mind, We get to see too much too often of the suffering of humankind. I don’t know that we were ever created to withstand that exposure to the degree to which we now face, and it feels like many people are shutting down around it and live life looking backwards.

        • The media has indeed removed the mystique and the great unknown from our lives. Personally, I’m quite fond of the unknown.

  • I love spending time with the people you knew or heard tell of. You personalize a history and the people that made it in a special way -people I either never knew of, or ones I’d known only through others who didn’t see them with the love that directs your eyes. I do enjoy and appreciate your stories, Caleb.

    • You are most kind. It’s just that I’ve run across some fascinating people because I can’t help but walk up to strangers and say, “Hello.”

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