WAS BORN in Saint Marys, a small town in southeast Georgia, during a time when racial tensions were extremely high. Martin Luther King was our “Moses,” and John F. Kennedy Jr. our “great white hope.” I hope you are not offended by my use of the terms black and white to refer to the races in this article. Those terms are much gentler and kinder than the terms I grew up hearing. At that time, it was more common to hear blacks referred to as colored in “polite” society; in other circles, the N word was freely used.
My Privilege and Struggle
My childhood was one of both privilege and struggle. Privilege was relative—compared to many families of color at that time, my family was well off. My father was a fisherman; my mother, a homemaker who raised my older brother and me. We had a comfortable home, a car that we owned, and plenty of food and clothing—and we were able to share with others who were less fortunate.
My mother was one of the charter members of the local Church of God where I still serve, and where my brother is the pastor. She encouraged me to be joyful in everything I did no matter how difficult. Her inspiration came from Jesus’ words in John 15:11: “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (NKJV).
My parents believed in family worship; therefore, my brother and I were not sent to church—we went to church as a family. The Wheeler Street Church of God was a close-knit, supportive congregation.
Our church services would last for hours, but no one complained of their length or the hard wooden seats. There was no organ or piano, so we made our music by beating broom handles on the floor and sliding a piece of metal against the ridges of a washboard. The church consisted of one room that was cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer. Still, we praised the Lord.
The main struggle came in the form of institutional and personal racism and discrimination. With the South being the last part of the U.S. to conform to the laws of racial integration, my experiences in society were often tainted by oppression and lack of opportunity. There were things I was told I should not or could not do simply because I was black . . . and female. There were certain positions that appeared to be out of reach for me, places within my own community where I was not allowed to go. I can recall going into a restaurant and being told, “We don’t serve your kind here.”
At times my future seemed limited and bleak. Although slavery had been over for nearly a century and the laws of integration were in place in my young adulthood, we learned early that morality and equality could not be legislated, so the remnants of our nation’s dark history and individuals’ fears were alive and well in my corner of the world.
One area of my life that had always been an anchor for me was my education. I was a curious child who loved to read and learn. I was also very tenacious, a trait that sometimes got me into trouble with adults who perceived it as disrespectful. I pushed forward with my studies despite obstacles that were the result of some of my own choices and the even greater societal obstacles beyond my control.
What whites often took for granted, I along with most of my black peers could only dream about. For instance, we were never privileged to own a new textbook, and our “new” school buses were old buses with worn-out seats from the white schools. That was our norm.
Many might say that graduating high school under these conditions was accomplishment enough, but I was not satisfied. I was determined to get a college degree. Despite the fact I was married with four young children, I commuted to Jacksonville, Florida, to Edward Waters College several days a week to earn my B.A. degree in education. This was surprising to many people who knew me—not only that I earned the degree, but that it was in education and not in nursing, for I worked at the local hospital on weekends and had even completed some training in the field. They did not know that one night I heard the voice of God telling me He had not called me to be a nurse, but a teacher. I immediately switched my career direction and never once regretted the change.
Unfortunately, at times there were pressures from some who were critical of the fact that I pursued my educational goals, leaving much of the responsibilities of caring for the household with my husband. They perceived my choices as selfish and impossible to achieve. As my youngest daughter often reminds me, my mantra was “I’ve got Jesus and that’s enough.” As I think back on those days, that song was indeed my anthem. At times I did feel as though all I had was Jesus, and He indeed was enough!
Since that time I have served as an elementary schoolteacher, earned three additional degrees (including a doctorate), and served in a variety of roles and administrative positions in the school system. Among my proudest moments have been my contributions to my local church, including serving as a Sunday school teacher, choir member and officer, deaconess, church treasurer, and introducing a performing-arts ministry. In 2004 I also became an ordained minister, a sign that hearts and attitudes have changed even within the church, for there was a time when women were not permitted to be ordained in the Church of God. Currently, I am a member of the South Georgia’s Women Discipleship Board under the direction of Betty Garner and her husband, Administrative Bishop Ray Garner. I believe (and pray) that I have helped to advance others both professionally and spiritually. For in the end, it is not just about what you do for yourself but what you do for others that matters.
As I reflect on my life, I see my four grown children, who are all believers and have families of their own, and grandchildren, some of whom have begun their families. My husband and I are retired, and both my parents are now with the Lord. I see the great strides we have made in society for minorities and women so that my children and grandchildren have boundless opportunities.
The washboards and wooden seats have been replaced with musical instruments and comfortable pews. It gives me joy to know that Jesus continues to show me favor and He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I do not regret the experiences of my past which made me who I am today. Even now when I am wrestling with difficult challenges, I try to turn them into opportunities and still sing the old spiritual, “I don’t feel no ways tired, I’ve come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy; I don’t believe He has brought me this far to leave me!”