Growing up in South Arkansas in the 1940’s and 1950’s exposed me to a cultural setting that has long since passed away. In so many respects, life was simple and reduced to such burning questions as; how late will I be able to stay up tonight and what sports will I participate in tomorrow, and with whom will I be playing? However, there was an entire culture of young people living in El Dorado that my friends and I never considered joining in any sporting activities. Along with most of my friends, we were isolated from blacks kids, not necessarily by our choices, but by societal choices over which we didn’t seem to have any control. We lived in separate neighborhoods, attended separate schools and were separate in every aspect of life including; hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores, department stores and even doctor’s offices. I participated in varsity sports in high school and college and never competed against a black athlete during those 7 years.The only close contacts I had with any black person were with those who worked in our home over a 15 year span.
Mose Graham started working for our family as a yard maintenance man in 1947 when I was 8 years old. Over the next 15 years that he worked for us, he became one of my best friends and confidants. It is sad for me to remember this, but a black man was never identified as “Mister.” A term of respect; however, that was frequently used was “Brother;” so Mose Graham was always known to my family and me as Brother Mose.
Brother Mose was in his late 40’s when he began working for us, but always seemed to me to be an old man. He was 5′ 8″ tall, weighing about 150 pounds and with thinning grey hair. Unfortunately, he had poor dental hygiene and had one single incisor in his upper gums with multiple other upper teeth which were in poor condition. He called his front tooth a “snaggle-tooth,” and often bragged that he could strip a barbecued rib as fast as anyone with a full set of front teeth. His lower teeth were present, but were also in poor condition. Dental care was out of the question for Brother Mose, since there were no black dentists in the area, and to my knowledge, white dentists at that time did not accept blacks as patients.
Brother Mose was always cheerful, and I never saw him angry or upset. When he was working or concentrating on anything, he was always humming or singing one of several familiar tunes. His favorite song was “Precious Lord,” and by the time I was 10 years old, I had heard it and sung it with him so often that I knew every verse. There were other songs that he sang when requested, and I remember them as well. To this day, when my sister Marilyn and I are together and we reminisce about Brother Mose, we will frequently sing some of the songs we heard and learned from him. His seeming only vice was playing cards, which by his own admission, he played often in a tavern called Lonnie Mitchell’s located in the black section of town known as St. Louis. His two favorite card games were Pit-T-Pat and Coon Can. He never taught Marilyn nor me to play either game, because I suppose he didn’t want to corrupt us in some way.
In addition to Brother Mose, our family was privileged to also have a maid working in our home. During the time of Mose’s employment, we had several different women doing domestic housework for us, but my favorite during those years was Sister Bobbie Fike. When I remember her, I think about her fried chicken and hot-water cornbread (hush puppies). They were very close in quality to my Mom’s, which were absolutely delicious; and I believe it was Sister Bobbie who taught my Mom to cook them. Most of the time she and Brother Mose got along with each other pretty well, but occasionally she would get aggravated about how slow Brother Mose moved from one place to the next. It didn’t seem to bother him at all, and when she would fuss and fume, he would usually respond with a “yessum, you sho’ is right.” A characteristic response Brother Mose would make when he was some distance away and Mom or Sister Bobbie would call out his name; was to answer with a high-pitched, owl-like “Hooo.” No one else could make a sound like that, and I could recognize it from 300 to 400 feet away.
I dearly loved Brother Mose and Sister Bobbie, and when I was alone with them and could get them to stop their work, I wanted to hear their stories about “the old days,” and about different people in their lives. Many times I could get them to sing their favorite songs and I would sing along with them. Sister Bobbie’s favorite song was, “There Will Be Peace in the Valley.” If I kept them singing too long or asking too many questions, either one or the other would say, “Masta, I gots to get to work. Miz Mo’ will be comin’ any minute now.” I never knew exactly the salary that Brother Mose and Sister Bobbie received for their work , but I know it was not very much. Every week when I was given my allowance of $1 from Pop, I always gave 10 cents to each of them. I don’t think Pop ever knew that I gave them part of my allowance, but I feel certain he would not have objected. I never asked them to call me “Masta,” but that was just the name they gave me. By the time I was in junior high school and was certain that I was going to be a doctor, they started calling me “Docta” or ‘Docta John.”
Brother Mose and Sister Bobbie were in my life prior to the civil rights movement and the mandate for desegregation, but those laws would have not changed my relationship with them. I never thought of them or treated them as anything other than family. It does embarrass me to think how shamefully that blacks, in general were treated; and had it been in my power, all those racial barriers would have been broken down years before. The truth is that when we allow our precious Lord to take us by the hand, to lead us on and to let us stand, then all of those prejudicial and racial barriers will be completely broken. At the fall of those barriers, whites and blacks alike, will experience that true peace in the valley about which Sister Bobbie, Brother Mose, Marilyn and I frequently sang.