Grandma, and a Three-Room House with No Toilet
I was born about two-thirty A.M. on the eighteenth of September, 1938, in my grandmother’s house in Henry, which is in the western part of Tennessee, all the way up near Kentucky. Henry had a population at that time of about five or six hundred black people. I was the last of three kids, and my grandmother and a couple of her cousins were there to deliver me.
My grandmother was a midwife and she delivered all of us. I remember that she was a medium-sized woman, very brown skinned and very stately. Her name was Lydia Jones we called her Mammy Lydia—and she was very respected in the community.
Mammy Lydia told me that as a baby I was absolutely gorgeous, and that everybody loved me. She said I was fair-skinned and had nice curly hair. Those were the typical characteristics blacks wanted to have at that time because it was perceived that you would be treated better. It was terrible having to grow up living like you were nothing because of the color of your skin, but that’s the way it was—and in some places of the world today, still is.
My mother, Augusta, was in her twenties when she had me. She had been fourteen years old when she had my older brother James. I think my father, Jim, was sixteen or seventeen when he married my mother. He had met her in town during some social situation.
Both of my parents’ families were sharecroppers. Sharecropping was all you could do if you lived in the country. That’s what my grandparents did, that’s what my parents did, and that’s what I did as a kid.
Jim Jones was a nice-looking man with fair skin and sandy hair. My mother was tall, brown-skinned, and gorgeous. I remember that she always kept everybody laughing and she herself had this wonderful laugh. People loved her. They would come around just to hear her laugh.
My mother and my father didn’t have much money. Both my mother’s parents died when she was very young, so she was raised by her stepmother and her brothers. My father’s mother was a single parent because her husband left home when my father was very young.
My mother had seven or eight brothers and sisters and my father had five—and most of them on both sides died violently, especially on my father’s side. One of his sisters was killed by her husband—shot to death. Another sister went to the funeral and on her way back to St. Louis was killed in a car wreck. A couple of others died under mysterious circumstances.
My parents were just kids when they got married, but that was typical. In those days, most people got married at fourteen or fifteen. Today when kids get married that young we look at it as bad. But it depends on the times you’re living in. Back then it was good for my mother to get married at fourteen because she had someone to take care of her.
They were in love. I know that, because even after she left my father as a result of his heavy drinking, she eventually took him back. She lived with him until he died and never again wanted to leave his side.
The house in Henry that I grew up in was wood-framed and it stood on top of a hill. It was my grandmother’s house and we all lived there. Even when my family moved out, I stayed there with my grandmother until she died.
I stayed with her because I wanted to—a lot of it mainly having to do with my father’s drinking problem and the stormy relationship that my sister and I had with my parents. I’ll tell you about that a little later.
Mammy Lydia’s husband had left her, but her father was still alive at the time—he didn’t die until he was 102 or 103 years old. He also lived with us in that house. He was blind and his name was Aintney Dinwiddie.
I remember that the house had three rooms and there was a dirt road leading to it. In the winter it was real hard to get in or out. My grandmother’s house was the same size as the house my parents later built just down the hill from us on land they inherited. There was no electricity or other conveniences in my grandmother’s house, and we had an outdoor toilet.
In my mind’s eye I still see my grandmother cooking on a wood-stove. There was no well, so we had to haul the water in from town in a rain barrel. It was very poor living conditions, but we kids didn’t know we were poor, we made the best of our circumstances, and we were proud that we did own our land and our houses.
Mammy Lydia was responsible for my developing years. I went everywhere with her, and everything I did was with her. It was always “Bob and Mammy Lydie.”
I don’t know how the name Bobby got on my birth certificate, because my aunt had named me Bob and that’s the name I grew up with. I remember being teased about it. Kids would tell me that I didn’t have a real name—that my real name was Robert or Bobby. My aunt said, “I named you Bob and it’s not Robert or Bobby and all that.”
I still remember how I would pick berries and nuts and clean up the graveyards with Mammy Lydie. That’s how she made some money, and I would help her. We would get up early in the morning and she had this passionate desire to go to the cemetery. We would always make sure the cemetery was kept clean. I knew everybody’s grave. I would get out there and pull the bushes and make sure the grass was cut on the graves. We used a sickle at the time—we didn’t have lawnmowers. The berries that we picked, we would sell for a dollar a bucket. My grandmother would sell them to the white people in the area. I would go with her and that’s how we made our money for the summer.
These were the first white people I ever saw. We didn’t know anything about segregated communities back then. You just lived where you lived. If somebody white lived there, then they usually owned all the land around. Black people would have a house on that land, and to pay for living there, they would work the fields.
I guess I remember being mindful that white people were different than we were, and that we had to be subservient to them. My father would say, “Yes sir” and “No ma’am” even if the white people were younger than he was. I was always curious about that.
One day when we were coming back from the fields I asked my father about that: “That man sure was mean to you and you kept saying, ‘No sir’ and ‘Yes sir’ to him and you acted like you were afraid of him. And he was younger than you. Why did you do that?”
“That’s the way it is,” he replied. “They’re the ones that have everything and we have to work for them.”
I felt a lot of love in my grandmother’s house, and my parents didn’t mind that I stayed there. They lived just a few doors away and my uncle Clyde Dinwiddie lived across the hill, so the family was pretty much together.
I’m told that as a kid I was always very inquisitive. I wanted to know where I was born and what time and under what conditions. And while my sister was very quiet and my brother kind of moderate in his behavior, I was outgoing. I think I got that personality from my mother.
I wasn’t at all shy at that age. The shyness came later. In fact, I was pretty aggressive. My mother said I was always into things and causing things to happen. I guess I was what you would call a mischievous child.
Another thing I remember is my mother telling me I was a quick learner. She told me early that I was gifted. I was always able to learn things faster than my older brother and my sister.
Church Singing and Jitterbug Dancing
As far back as I can remember, I was singing. I used to have a real high voice. I would stand on tree trunks and my dogs would be my audience. And I would sing away.
I would sing at school and at church. My mother always made us kids go to church. We were Methodists. And my brother and sister, they could sing, too. My mother could sing a little bit, so I think my talent came from her.
There’s a few things I remember about my church—although I can’t remember its name. It was an old frame church, and I remember when a new building was put up that I was a major part of the choir. My sister and I were somewhere between seven and nine years old, and Sunday after Sunday we were the two featured soloists. I was known as a singer even as a little boy.
It was a real opportunity to sing in the church and lead the choir. It gave me a good platform to practice singing, and I realized that I had a skill that I could use. I also remember how people would come up after the service and compliment us for our singing. Then I started putting together a quartet and we sang church music.
Even though I had singing talent, there wasn’t very much encouragement from my parents about furthering my singing ability. At that time education wasn’t a real focus. The law stipulated we had to finish school, and most of the kids waited until they were sixteen, quit school, left the area, and headed north. Most of them headed toward Indianapolis. That’s where most of my cousins went. Also to Chicago and St. Louis. My brother was a quick learner, so he went on to high school and graduated. My sister didn’t go on beyond high school.
It wasn’t only singing that I was good at. My sister and I also used to be excellent dancers—but this was outside the church. We used to dance because my mother and father were drinking and going to little joints around Henry. My sister and I would be hauled in there, so we learned how to dance. We listened to the popular music on the jukebox and we would dance for a nickel a dance. We would do the jitterbug and make some money.
Every weekend we’d be in those bars, watching our parents drink. Sometimes we asked to go because we wanted to be with them. And I remember that sometimes it would be eleven or twelve at night and we were still there. It wasn’t a good environment for us at all.
I grew up in the Methodist church in Henry. They would teach the proper behavior that a Christian should have, and they put the fear of God in me. But it wasn’t done in a heavy-handed way, because Methodists are very subdued. I also learned all my Scriptures there.
There was also a sanctified church in Henry that our family sometimes would go to. It was way down by the railroad tracks and it was a form of entertainment for us to get into town where there were some stores—not like where we lived, which was just country—and to see the saints in that church, which we didn’t have in our own.
So we would walk about a mile to where the stores were and another mile to get to the church. We’d stay there until nine or ten at night and then walk all the way back home. I remember that we’d walk in clusters, and we’d have fun running, talking, and laughing. The grown folks would walk together, and the kids would be playing up and down the road. Walking back, it was pitch-black and you’d do all the things kids do in the dark. We’d jump out at each other and things like that.
That sanctified church had a lot of music going—tambourines and other instruments. I really wanted to join that church because of the music, but I didn’t understand them speaking in tongues or the holy dances they used to do.
I got up one of the nights of their meetings, and I went to the front row. I was thinking about joining that church because a couple of my cousins belonged to it. I wanted to try to speak in tongues like they did, so I fell on the floor and made up some sounds. We were laughing about it all the way home. I don’t think I was really all that serious about joining the church.
But I do remember that church and school were the center of my activities. We would go either to the Methodist church or the Presbyterian church. We alternated Sundays because there weren’t enough people in the community for them to conduct services each week on their own.
I can still recall how we used to dress up on Easter. We didn’t make a big to-do about Christmas as far as church was concerned, although we’d have the Christmas trees and give away presents. But Easter was the big day we all dressed up for. Everybody had to have something new to wear.
Christmas was about toys and people getting drunk at parties. It always seemed strange to me that people would get intoxicated during such a holy time. I remember one Christmas when I was about nine or ten. My mother bought me a little suit and a beret. One of my best friends had the same beret. I was so mad about that, I think I got into a fight with him.