Nancy Stevens Reflects on Growing up White in Segregated Mississippi
May 13, 2011 by renegadesouth
Nancy Stevens wrote the following memoir some months after we began communicating about our mutual descent from the Bynum family of Jones County, Mississippi. Nancy was kind enough to send me excerpts from the Bible of her distant ancestor, Drury Bynum (b. circa 1806), the brother of my own ancestor, William Bynum II (b. circa 1795). A discussion of our ancestral roots followed, and, soon, Nancy decided to read my book, The Free State of Jones. Like so many descendants of families that participated in Jones County’s inner civil war during the nation’s Civil War, including myself, Nancy had very little knowledge of this incredible time of upheaval, or of the cultural and political history that led our ancestors to take the stands they did. Her reflections remind us that history not only shines a light on how we got to this place in time as a society, but also illuminates who we are as individuals by stimulating memories that place us in the stream of that very history.
Vikki Bynum, Moderator
The history of the Free State of Jones has given me so much insight into the ways that my values were formed and why. My family never fully bought into the “Lost Cause” mentality as did so many of our neighbors and my peers. I always thought that my mother’s being from Appalachia was the reason for our family being a bit more “liberal” than our neighbors; however, I now realize that my thoughts on this were much too simplistic.
I was born in 1945 and grew up on a farm in Clarke County. We had to build a new house “up on the road” (gravel) so that the school bus could pick me up and take me to school. Daddy was a farmer and had 2 black tenant families living on our land. Because our house was so far back in the woods and my playmates all black, I did not realize the significance of my being white and my best friend being black until it was time for us to start first grade. When mother told me that because my best friend was black she therefore would not be attending my white school, I threw a fit. I can still remember our school bus passing the black school and my wishing I could be in that school with my best friend.
Florene left Mississippi for Chicago when she graduated from high school and has remained there living in a middle class neighborhood. We continue to keep in touch and visit each other from time to time for we alone share a common history that we share with no one else. Recently, Florene reminded me of how much she always enjoyed going into Quitman, the county seat, with my mother because mother would take her into all the white establishments with us – even have her eat at our table in restaurants! I guess my mom was considered a “foreigner” by Clarke County standards!
After reading The Free State of Jones, I now realize that intermingling of whites and blacks in remote areas of MS was not such a radical thing. Although by the 1950s, intermingling on an “equal” basis was quite controversial and not socially acceptable.
I also remember an old judge, last name Fatheree, speaking to our Methodist congregation in the ’50s about the supposed racial and intellectual inferiority of blacks, citing the difference in the white brain vs. the black brain. Now, my mother forbade my brother and me from attending this lecture, but we walked up to the church anyway and stood under the windows listening. I left quite puzzled and frightened; but because I had disobeyed them, I could not ask my parents about Judge Fatheree’s comments.
Reading about the Free State of Jones has brought all this back so clearly. I have so many tales to tell; maybe I should jot them down. I realize how fortunate I was to have been raised by parents with an accepting value system although I did conform to most cultural rules in order to survive. However, to quote Van Buren Watts: “As soon as I realized where I was, I got out” (Free State of Jones, page 177).