Epilog to original post (“Bad Ideas”) ~ 1st Person Account of Slavery as Told by 101-year old Maggie Nichols in 1976

by faithgibson on March 16, 2019

Epilog

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Original 4-part Post:  Bad Ideas ~ Gov. Northam and a troubling 35-year old college yearbook picture dug up right-wing anti-abortion group

Lessons from History and a first-person account of 101-year-old Maggie Nichols, whose father was born into slavery and lived to see his people emancipated and to tell the tale 



When I was 15, my parents decided to move 
from the Detroit area of Michigan to the sunny South, in an effort to get away from the brutally cold and icy winters.  My dad drove the whole family – me, my mom and my 3 younger siblings — to Orlando in early September of 1957 in an old Plymouth sedan. 

During the 5-day trip, I vividly remember driving through South Carolina late one afternoon and seeing a prison “chain gangs”. I was shock to see a string of 8 or 10 men in black and white striped prison garb was chain to together by one ankle. They were all black and being forced to cut down weeds at the side of the road while two white shariffs with guns on each hip and holding shotguns stood guard over them. That was only the first of many experiences ahead of me that revealed just how mean and cruel the human species can be to other human beings.  

While we traveling, my mother, who had been born in Texas, tried to prepare me for the poverty that was ubiquitous on the ‘wrong’ side town. She simply described this issue as “colored housing”.

But in my youthful naivety, I expected to see houses painted in pastel shades of sky blue, rose pink and daisy yellow. Imagine my surprise to instead see rows of unpainted rundown shacks owned by slum landlords and all the other indignities that abound in racially-segregated ghettos on the ‘bad part of town’

That fall I started high school in an all-white segregated public school (William Boone) and shopped in segregated stores with signs pointing to “White” and Colored” drinking fountains and bathrooms. 

After graduating from high school I enrolled in an all-white nursing school, which also was the only one in the county. It provided clinical training to its students in Orange Memorial Hospital, which at the time was also strictly segregated.

OMH is now known Orlando Regional Medical Center and is just 4 blocks from the Pulse nightclub;  ORMC’s emergency department is where all the victims of the shooting were brought. I can’t imagine what would have happened if it still was a segregated institution and some or all of the wounded had been black.   

But I was a student before desegregation, and one particular “color” related experience has stuck in my mind all these many years. I had been assigned to One South, which was the all-black ward on the hospital’s ground floor, right next to the institutional laundry, kitchen and morgue. The ward had a census of 40 patients – a mix of all ages, all genders and all ailments — men, women, infants and older children that were really sick, badly injured, recovering from surgery or in labor. 

I was working nights on a long busy shift with one charge nurse and one nurse’s aid, both of whom were also black. Sometime around five in the morning, all three of us — the RN, nurse’s aid and me  — were helping to change the gown and put dry sheets on the bed of very ill and elderly male patient. I so vividly remember the mix of all our arms as we were trying to move the man, whose own arm soon became part of the mix of limbs.

At that moment, I was startled by a kind of out-of-time experience, as I noted all those soft smooth brown arms and one pair of pasty white sickly arms in the middle of the mix and wondered what terrible thing had befallen that person to make his or her arms so pale and weird. Then I realised that the ‘weird arms’ in question were actually my own.

To say that experience was an “eye opener” is a masterful understatement, but it was only one of many.  I saw up close, and personal and on a daily basis the institutionalized and systemized cruelty that was a fact of life in the South. There was nothing I could personally do to change this system except go the extra mile when every circumstances allowed me to ‘cross’ the color line, one hopes in moments of compassions.

Racism is now and has always been immoral. The tacit  acceptance of it by our constitutional system of government resulted in terrible public policies that were and still are ultimately bad for everyone. They continue to reverberate in our country today, in small hiddens acts of discrimination and in the White Nationalist hate groups and their acts of domestic terrorism, accompanied by corruption in state and local governments. 

And yes, the now infamous photo of Gov. Northam in black face and his buddy in a KKK costume obviously stands for historic events that are particularly galling to black Americans who must live forever with the realities of slavery and racism. Virtually all their ancestors and distant relative bore the bitter yoke of being legally classified as “property”, and the indignity of being counted as only 3/5ths of a ‘person’. 

Regrettably the Civil War, which was suppose to ‘free the slaves’, merely replaced private ownership of black slaves with public policies of social enslavement enforced by brutal Jim Crow laws.  The result was a century of institutionalized bigotry, brutality, and lynchings at the hand of the KKK and other systemized atrocities! 

The Reality of Racism ~ A Personal Experience

In 1976 I became a VISTA volunteer (domestic Peace Corps program); I was assigned to community development project in a tiny town of 400 in a strictly segregated cotton and tobacco farming region of North Carolina. At one time in the distant past, the entire town had been one very large cotton plantation. 

I choose to spend my time in the segregated half, which was literally on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. It was beyond shocking, but also a valuable learning experience. Mcommunity development efforts included starting a farmer’s market and opening the town’s first and only laundromat

Maggie Nichols ~ One Hundred years old in 1976

But one particular story changed my life and will be with me forever more. One of many families that I worked with was Maggie Nichols, a wheelchair-bound elderly black woman who was 100-yr-old in 1976.  She and her 70-year old daughter lived in what I would charitable describe as a hovel with no running water or indoor bathroom. Since there was no running water, the kitchen was a little shack separated from the house by 15 feet, a necessary precautions prevent a kitchen fire from also burning the house down, since there was no running water to douse the flames.

 

The living room was a dark ugly green that made it hard to see in spite of the single light bulb strung from the ceiling on long electrical wire. All the windows were covered inside with cardboard to keep out the cold. When it rained the roof leaked, which required buckets in several parts of the living room and sleeping quarters to catch the constant drips.

For reasons I can no longer remember, I visited Maggie and her elderly daugher 2 or 3 times every week. Very slowly a friendly relationship of trust developed. Soon they started talking about things that I’m sure they did usually did not say to “while ladies”.

On one my weekly sojourns, just days before my assignment ended, Maggie’s described a conversation that she had with her dad. According to her best recollection, she was about 10 years old at the time (1886-ish) and her dad was about 40. She thought her father was born in 1845 but wasn’t sure. But despite the vagaries of her memory on these minor points, she said she’d never forgot that conversation. 

As told by her, he started by saying:

“Maggie, I want to tell you something important and want you to never forget it.

When I was born, we was all slaves, but when you come along, …. we was FREE PEOPLE!

Of course, print words can never do justice to this historic conversation, as the tone, cadence and emotional energy that changed mere words into such an elegant statement: “but when you come along, we was FREE PEOPLE !”, with emphasis on the words “we was free people!” 

This gift made me into a time-traveler, one of few people living today that has had the privilege of hearing the exact words as they were spoken by Maggie’s father more than 90 years before, his inflection, his emotions as a man born into slavery in 1845, lived as a slave and eventually was emancipated in 1864.

I shall be forever grateful to Maggie for trusting me enough to tell me this story, one that I will never forget, nor never tire of telling to anyone who is the least bit interested.  

 

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