Mississippi

Nancy Stevens Reflects on Growing up White in Segregated Mississippi

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).
 
Nancy Stevens
 

2 replies »

  1. Hi Nancy,

    Neat that there is consanguinity between you and Vikki. via your Bynum ancestors. I very much enjoyed reading your story about your on going friendship with Florene. And of your other friendships with black kids while growing up in MS. This speaks volumes about your good hearted mother and her ideas of equality and justice for all.

    I too, have Applachian roots. (Eastern KY) However, I was born and raised in San Diego. 1941. My Dad had already enlisted in the Navy, met and married my mother in San Diego before Pearl Harbor was attacked.)

    As a kid, my parents and I lived in one of the numerous housing projects that were constructed as soon as we Americans entered World War 11. And yes, these projects were segregated. Black families lived on one side of the street and were not welcomed on the white side. Still as kids we all attended the same elememtary school. However, even some of our teachers warned the white kids against playing with the black kids duirng recess.
    So much for integration. But even then, I knew something was wrong. I had a picture of Jesus surrounded by little kids of all colors hanging above my bed. And I could sing the song, ‘Jesus loves the little children, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” Actually what all of this segregation taught me was how to be sneaky. That I mastered at an early age.

    By age 20, I was married and also the mother of two bi-racial children. What a difference a generation can make. With one exception, my children never experienced racial discrimination.

    Again, Nancy I really enjoyed reading your story. So well told also. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Vikky Wilburn Anders in San Diego

  2. Nancy:

    I enjoyed your post. We are near contemporaries in that I was born in 1949 and grew up in the small west Hinds County community of Bolton. This was, of course, not as rural as the Clarke County setting you describe. Our house was “in town” (population 749) and Jackson was about a 40 minute drive in those pre-interstate / pre-shopping mall days. However, your memories of the odd mixture of legal segregation and (within limits) social integration are very much like mine.

    Several years ago while doing research on a family of African-American musicians who grew up around Bolton, I telephoned my aunt–who is now in her 90s–and asked if, as rumor held, they might be mixed-race descendants of a certain white man. There was a rather frosty silence on the other end of the line until my aunt finally acknowledged it was possible. However, once that wall had been breached, in later conversations she was very forthcoming about which white men in town were known to have “outside children.”

    Regardless of how one views him as a public figure, I recommend Jimmy Carter’s childhood memoir entitled “An Hour Before Daybreak.” It is a simple and honest account of growing up in rural Georgia in the 1930s. In it he describes the race relations of his time and place with great candor. One passage describes how a bishop of the African-American Episcopal Church would periodically come calling on his father. His father observed social limits that prevented a black man, even one who was a bishop, from entering the Carter household through the front door. But at the same time, even Jimmy’s father felt he was too eminent to be expected to come knocking at the back door. So the bishop would drive up, beep his car horn, and Mr. Carter would go out to talk with him.

    Ed Payne

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