AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE EARLY YEARS 1899 – 1922
My Father, Jacob Lincoln Cook
Early years in Athens (McMinn County), Tennessee
The Reverend Jacob Lincoln Cook, my father, was born in Athens, Tennessee, in May 1870  to George and Amelia Cook, former slaves  of Judge J. B. Cooke. Their former master was a member of one of the earliest families to settle in the area of McMinn County in Tennessee.
By the time Jacob Lincoln was eight years old both of his parents were deceased, but he had the good fortune to be “taken in” by two former slaves, “Aunt Huldy” and “Uncle Nelse” Gettys.  They were caring foster parents and they believed strongly that education was the key to success for that first generation of freedmen to which my father belonged.
Jake, as my father was called, became a bright and industrious student, so when he completed his secondary school education the Gettys were able to bring him to the attention of a white physician, Dr. Parkinson.  He was able to secure a scholarship for my father at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. My father had a good singing voice, which enabled him to become a member of the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers.
After a short time at Fisk, just how long I do not know, my father entered Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee.  He worked to pay his expenses, and was also aided by donations from individuals back in his home town of Athens. In 1888 he received his bachelor’s degree from Knoxville College and entered Allegheny Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry.  On 9 April 1890 he was licensed as a minister by the Allegheny Presbytery, and with this credential returned to Athens to establish a United Presbyterian mission. Fresh out of seminary, he began holding services in an old dance hall. 
The School My Father Founded in Athens
In addition to starting his missionary congregation, my father, with a handful of dedicated co-workers (Miss Henrietta Mason, Miss Mary Byars, Miss Fannie Jackson, Mr. James Cleage and Professor Pitts)  organized a small school, the Academy of Athens. It was located on a site called Depot Hill and was funded by the Presbyterian Church. Only one year after its founding, my father’s school had moved from its original three-room building to another twice as large.  Most black schools in Tennessee at that time were of the one-teacher, one-room variety, making my father’s school an exception. Eventually the Academy of Athens became recognized as one of the best schools for Blacks in the South.
My father headed the Academy of Athens until 1900 when he was appointed President of Henderson Institute in North Carolina.  The Academy was destroyed by fire in 1925, twenty-two years after my father’s death, and the Presbyterian Board of Missions decided not to rebuild it. Classes continued to be held in the United Presbyterian Church, where the Reverend C. H. Wilson was then pastor, and principal of the school. The need for a proper school to replace the burned down Academy was clear, and one was built with funds from McMinn County, the City of Athens, and the Rosenwald Fund (a national foundation for the support of Negro education). The new public school, which opened 10 December 1926, had six classrooms, an auditorium, five teachers in addition to the principal and 150 pupils enrolled in nine grades. Its original name, Athens Training School, was quickly changed to the J. L. Cook School in memory of my father’s work as an educator in Athens, and it eventually became the J. L. Cook High School. It flourished until it closed during the desegregation of southern schools in the mid-1960s. 
My Father Expands His Career as Pastor and Educator
In 1892 the congregation which my father began gathering in 1889 (while still a seminarian) was organized as the First United Presbyterian Church (USA) of Athens and began to worship in its newly constructed building on North Jackson Street, across from the Tennessee Wesleyan campus.  On 31 March 1893, Reverend Jacob Lincoln Cook, who had been a “stated supply” minister (a minister appointed and supported by the regional Presbytery), was ordained by the Tennessee Presbytery and became the “called” pastor of his Athens church. He also continued to head the Academy of Athens until 1900, when he became the first colored president of Henderson Normal and Industrial Institute, in Henderson, North Carolina.
My Mother, Zella Cornelia Lawrence
The family background of Zella Cornelia Lawrence (Cook), my mother, was very different from her husband’s. Zella’s father, Job, was the son of John Lawrence, a plantation owner in Tennessee, by his slave Miranda.  Born in 1852, Miranda’s son became Job Lawrence after Emancipation. In 1876 he graduated from Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. He then went to Howard University to prepare for the ministry, and in 1879 was ordained by the Presbytery of Kingston, Tennessee. Reverend Job Lawrence’s early ministry mainly involved establishing churches along the foothills and in the valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains. Later, from 1896 to 1910, he pastored Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church in Columbia, Tennessee.
Job Lawrence married Missouri Ann Wallace in 1876. My mother, Zella Cornelia, born in 1880, was one of their nine children. Missouri Ann was “white” by nature and “colored” by nurture. But that is another story. (see appendix).
My Father’s Marriages and His Children
The Rev. Jacob Lincoln Cook was married three times and fathered four children. After his first wife, by whom he had a daughter, died, he married my mother. I was an infant, her only child, when she too died and left my father once more a widower. The two boys born of my father’s third marriage died in infancy. I was not quite four years old when my father, a widower for a third time, died on 6 July 1903.
My father’s first wife was named Pocahontas Gibson. The memory has been handed down in our family that she was a descendant of her namesake, the Indian Princess Pocahontas who is believed to have helped save the life of the English adventurer John Smith.
My half-sister, Amelia Beatrice Cook (Prillerman), my father’s only child from his marriage to Pocahontas Gibson, was born 24 March 1894 and died 3 March 1970. She is survived (1972) by her husband Delbert Prillenman, five sons, one daughter, many grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
After the death of Pocahontas, the Rev. Jacob Lincoln Cook married my mother, Zella Cornelia Lawrence, then only eighteen years old. But Zella was a bright young woman and had completed her secondary education. She was studying voice in Boston when my father met her. They were married in 1898, five years after my father’s ordination.
My mother was born 22 February 1880 and died of typhoid fever on 27 September 1900. I was her only child, born 14 July 1899, so I was little more than a year old at the time of her death. I have no recollection of her, and as mementos just a picture or two and a silver butterknife inscribed “Zella” on the handle.
My parents lived in Athens, Tennessee, from the time of their marriage until the summer of 1900 when my father became the Principal of Henderson Normal and Industrial Institute in Henderson, North Carolina.
My father’s work required him to travel frequently between Athens and other cities, in and out of the state, lecturing as a Christian educator or fund-raising for the Athens Academy. My very young mother traveled too, between Athens and Columbia, Tennessee, where her parents lived.  Still, she found time, in addition to caring for me and Amelia, to give piano lessons and sing with a group called the Choral Glee Club of Athens.
My mother’s death occurred only a few months after the family moved to Henderson, North Carolina. My father was left with two children to be cared for, so after a proper interval he was married a third time, to a young woman Amelia and I came to love and whom we called “Mama Anna.” This marriage produced two boys, both of whom died in infancy.
Death visited my father twice more, taking Mama Anna first, then him. She died on 9th February 1903 , and he died on 5th July the same year. More than once my father was advised to make a will. To this advice he would respond, “I’m not getting ready to die, I’m getting ready to live.” Therefore, when he died at the early age of thirty-three he left no will.
Amelia and I are Separated
My mother’s elder sister Gertrude (Aunt Gertie) was a young teacher at my father’s school in North Carolina when he died. Aunt Gertie assumed the responsibility of finding someone to care for her brother-in-law’s two children. She arranged for me to live with her parents, my maternal grandparents, in Columbia, Tennessee.
Pocahontas Gibson, Amelia’s mother and my father’s first wife, was the daughter of Phoebe, a former slave and her husband Harrison Gibson. When she married Gibson, Phoebe already had a daughter named Rachel, fathered by her master when she was still a slave. In 1903 Rachel, Amelia’s half-aunt, was married (to a Mr. Perry) and living in Whitville, Virginia. Aunt Gertie was able to arrange for Amelia to go live with her half-Aunt Rachel Perry and her husband in Whitville. Rachel Perry was a crafty woman, and in the absence of a will she was able to acquire most of my father’s property and personal belongings.
First Amelia and I were orphaned, then we were separated, not to see each other again for 15 years when I was 19 and she was 24. We missed growing up together, but we did keep in touch by mail.
The manse, in which the Lawrence family lived, and Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church, which my grandfather pastored, were small wooden structures next to each other. They have now been replaced by brick buildings on the same site.
When I joined them the Lawrence family, in Columbia, Tennessee consisted of Grandma (Missouri Ann Wallace Lawrence). Grandpa (Job Childs Lawrence), and six of their nine children. Zella Cornelia (my mother) had died, Leonora (“Aunt Nona”) was living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Gertrude Miranda (“Aunt Gertie,” age 21) was teaching at the Henderson Institute in North Carolina. The six at home were Lamar Westcott (age 19), Grace Amelia (age 16), Herman Holsey (age 14), Charles Radford (age 11), Harriet Geraldine (“Geral,” age 5) and Lucille Wallace (age 1).
Grandma was an excellent cook, and I liked everything she prepared (including chitterlings), except okra, and cornbread (unless it was made with pork crackling). I especially liked Grandma’s pies (she actually put small pieces of meat in her mincemeat pies). Lemon custard was my favorite. I can remember being ill in bed when I was 7 years old, and Grandma promising that on my next birthday she would bake a lemon pie especially for me.
I lived in Columbia, Tennessee, with my grandparents from the time I was 4 until Grandma died, two days before my eighth birthday in 1907. During those four years I always looked forward to Sunday, a special day centered on the church. I remember that Grandma used to cook dinner on Saturday and warm it on Sunday, so she would not have to do a weekday task on the Lord’s Day.
First thing after Sunday breakfast, Geral and I went through the comic sheets in the Nashville Banner. At 10 o’clock we went next door to Sunday School (Lucille was only 1 year old when I went to Columbia to live) at Mt. Tabor, and at 11 o’clock to the worship service that Grandpa led. When I became old enough, I went across the street in the afternoon to a service in the Episcopal Church. I enjoyed the pageantry of the Episcopal service, and the fact that at Christmas they gave children fancier presents than Mt. Tabor could afford.
Grandma’s Reed Organ
Grandma played the organ for the Sunday School and at the 11 o’clock church service. She also baked the bread and made the blackberry wine that we used for Communion Service. Only she knew where she stored the wine.
The church’s old reed organ was often out of commission, the most frequent problem being with the straps on the pedals. They would often break, usually one at a time, fortunately. I always sat near the organ, and if a pedal broke down and Grandma couldn’t continue the music with just one pedal, I would crawl beside her foot and pump the loose pedal like mad by hand. I felt important. If the second strap broke the music stopped for that service.
Preaching to the Empty Room
Like all children I thought about what I’d like to be when I grew up and imagined myself in uniform as a fireman driving a horse-drawn engine, or a policeman. Eventually I outgrew these careers and began to think about following in my father’s footsteps as a minister. Of course I had a live-in role model in Grandpa. At an early age I would take a Bible, prop it in a chair as if it were on a pulpit and read a verse or two, then preach a little sermon to an empty room in our house.
After I learned to play a tune which we called “Coonjine Baby” on the black keys of the piano, I became more attracted to music, and this attraction became strengthened when Grandma taught me to play “Jesus Lover Of My Soul.”
We had a rule in our house that on Sunday no popular music could be played, so I made up a tune of my own called “Today is Sunday, this is a Sunday Song.” The title was to protect me from being called away from the piano for playing worldly music. I had no melody or harmony and fumbled over the keys, but I do think I had the beat.
School in Columbia, Tennessee
Grandma had already begun teaching me to read when at age five I entered what was called the “primer” grade, equivalent I believe to today’s kindergarten. I had great affection for Mrs. Phoebe Armstrong, my very first teacher, a lady we will return to later on in this story.
One day a sign appeared in the window of an empty store inviting everyone to a showing of the first movie to come to Columbia, “The Great Fire.” The showings were free, there were no seats and the standing audience was not segregated. Later, a second free movie called “The Great Train Robbery” was shown in a vacant building near a store, which had a window display of player pianos. Until then, the only self-playing piano I had ever seen operated using a cumbersome device called a Pianola. The Pianola was a playing mechanism, which had to be pushed up to the piano so that its felt-covered “fingers” could strike the keys.
My third movie was “The Crucifixion.” This time there was a charge for admission, there were chairs, and the audience was segregated. Grandpa, being a minister, received complementary tickets as did other ministers, black and white, for himself, Grandma, Geral, Lucille and me. The Whites sat in front of the big sheet, which was used as a screen. The Negroes sat back of the screen, which of course made it necessary not only for us to view the action in reverse, but also to read the titles backwards.
Grandma’s Death, 12 July 1907
Not long before my eighth birthday, the one for which she was going to bake me a lemon pie, Grandma became very ill. Her two eldest daughters, Leonora and Gertrude, came to help take care of their mother. During the early hours of July 12, two days before my birthday, they came through the house and quietly awakened us all saying, “Mama is dead, do you want to see her?” We all went to Grandma’s room where she lay with her eyes open. My beloved grandmother was buried on my eighth birthday.
Grandpa was now left with no one to take care of me and his two youngest daughters. Aunt Nona, who lived in Chattanooga, agreed to take on the responsibility. All three of us went to Chattanooga to live with her and her husband, and their only child, Lavetta Mae. My aunt Harriet Geraldine (Geral) was 9 years old, I was 8 and my aunt Lucille was 5.
We arrived in Chattanooga one afternoon, a few weeks after Grandma’s funeral. Aunt Nona and her husband, Hugh Keith, met us and drove us to a wooded area on the outskirts called Rosstown. Their house was quite isolated in the woods, it had no number and it was on a path, not a street. Their mail was delivered to the house of a family named Thornton, which was on the postman’s route.
The Keith house was on a slope and overlooked a brook whose water was not suitable for drinking. Their drinking water was gotten from a place called Indian Spring, so named because a community of Indians lived nearby.
On the way from the Chattanooga railroad station to the house, Hugh Keith  began an abusive argument with Aunt Nona, something I had never seen in my family before. I must have reacted to it in a way that displeased Hugh Keith, because when we arrived at the house he jerked me out of the carriage and beat me. I had never been beaten before. Then he ordered me to take a bucket and fetch drinking water from Indian Spring. Along the mile and a half to the spring I passed only one other dwelling. It was night, and I was a frightened child, alone in the dark in a strange place.
Hugh Keith was not only a wife-beater, but at times he would even draw his gun and threaten to use it. I can vividly remember Aunt Nona begging him not to shoot. Looking back, I think he may have threatened her just to hear her pleading.
If Geral, Lucille or I made Hugh Keith cross, he would use a cedar limb to give us a beating and he really seemed to enjoy hurting us. His daughter Lavetta would get lighter beatings, with a peach tree limb. Among ourselves we children called him “the meanest man in the world.”
We made our own entertainment at home. Aunt Nona played the guitar for us and she enjoyed singing ballads and hymns. Hugh sang too, mostly Tennessee country music. The best times of all were had when Aunt Gertie visited and sang beautifully for us, accompanying herself on the piano.
Hugh Keith had a horse-drawn hack, which he used to transport patrons from the Chattanooga railroad station to their destinations. He always had his bottle of whiskey and his gun with him.
First School Vacation in Chattanooga, Herding Cows
During the summer after my first school year in Chattanooga, I was expected to take a job. Out in Rosstown there was really only one job available to colored kids my age, and that was herding cows. Every morning, except Sunday morning, it was the herder’s job to go to the home of the people who owned the cows and drive the animals to a grazing pasture. The herder brought the cows back home in the afternoon, in time to be milked before the owners sat down to dinner.
The first two cows I herded belonged in fact to Hugh Keith’s parents. The standard pay for herding was 25 cents a week per cow, paid every two weeks. After my first two weeks of herding I went to collect my pay, which should have been $1.00, but Hugh Keith’s parents would only pay me 35 cents. When Aunt Nona complained on my behalf, her husband’s response was in character. He forced me to herd his parents cows thereafter for nothing.
Fortunately I got three more cows to herd which belonged to a white family living just across the road from Hugh’s parents.
The cows grazed peacefully, and we barefoot herders roamed about, watched them, and kept an eye out for snakes and other hazards to bare feet, like thorns. When it came time to go home, each herder guided a lead cow, one which the other animals would follow.
We herders only had a problem when the cows held what we called a “prayer meeting.” Sometimes a butcher would come into the woods to slaughter a steer. If a cow smelled the fresh blood, she would give a loud mooing signal, calling all the cows within hearing to follow her to the killing site. Once there, they would mill around, mooing mournfully. We herders just had to wait until the “prayer meeting” was over before we could lead our cows back home.
My earnings were turned over to my aunt, so I did not profit personally from my herding job. I was quite happy to give the money to Aunt Nona, who really needed it, and even happier when she gave me a nickel or two for myself. I wonder how much of my little earnings Hugh Keith took away from her?
Life in Chattanooga
Grandpa, back in Columbia, did his very best to provide for his daughters and grandson in Chattanooga. He would send a money order when he could, and when Spring and Fall arrived, he did not fail to send Aunt Nona money to buy us clothes. Grandpa was not aware that Hugh Keith appropriated most of it for himself.
When Grandpa shared in a slaughtering he would send us a big box of salted-down meat. Hugh Keith would divide most of it among his friends; nevertheless it was a great help to Aunt Nona. Since Hugh Keith pocketed most of the money Grandpa sent, Aunt Nona could rarely afford to shop for our clothes in the regular stores. Instead, she would go into Chattanooga and find a rummage sale. I remember clearly that once she bought me a pair of blue knickerbockers for five cents. I used to tell the story of the five-cents knickers to my own children, who I believe suspected I was making it up for their enjoyment.
We went barefoot all summer, except on Sunday. However, when the weather turned cold, we all needed shoes and Aunt Nona never had enough money to buy them for cash. Fortunately there was an itinerant vendor who made his rounds in poor neighborhoods, both white and black, from whom Aunt Nona could buy shoes and pay for them in small weekly installments.
My Uncle Lamar had a good job, one which required him to pass for white, in a Pittsburgh clothing store. Once in a while he sent us a box of “irregular” garments. Although Hugh Keith would appropriate some of the clothes and sell them, we always were excited when a box arrived from Pittsburgh.
I Experience Racism
My favorite playmate in Chattanooga was white, and it was from him that I learned about slavery. He used to visit my house to play, and I visited his, which was across the road from Hugh Keith’s parents. Three of the cows that I herded (the three for which I was paid) belonged to his family. One day when he was at my house, he told me that his parents did not want me to come play with him any more, saying: “We used to have his kind of people as slaves. We are better than they are . . . but he can still come to the back door to collect his money for the cows.” Our friendship managed somehow to survive this restriction.
Our Sunday Routine
Every week Geral, Lucille, Lavetta and I would take our Saturday night bath in a zinc washtub, and on Sunday morning would put on our best clothes to wear to Sunday School and church. We walked a long way from Rosstown to a place appropriately named Churchville, occasionally accompanied by Aunt Nona. Hugh Keith never joined us.
Before we left for Sunday School, Aunt Nona gave each of us two pennies. One was for the collection plate at Sunday School, and one was for church. If we were given only one penny. We knew we were expected to come home after Sunday School and not stay for church.
A Fiery Christmas in Chattanooga
At Christmas-time, our church had a large decorated tree on which the Sunday School teachers would hang gifts for the children. Each child’s gifts were in a labeled bag or stocking, and it was thrilling to march up to the tree when your name was called and have Santa Claus hand it to you. We would be given a thoughtfully selected, inexpensive toy, fruit, nuts and candy.
The church did not have electricity, so the Christmas tree was lighted with candles. One year, while Santa Claus was busy getting things organized, the tree caught fire. Although he used the pails of water and sand, which were on hand for just such an emergency, Santa Claus could not put out the flames. Worse yet, his beard caught on fire. The nearest fire department with its horse-drawn equipment was far away, but neighbors came to the rescue with more pails of water. The Sunday School teachers, mainly ladies, evacuated the children, and the fire was put out before there was any real damage to the church building. We children then went back in and some of us cried when we saw the burned remains of our pretty Christmas tree and our presents. The teachers assured us that we would have another tree, and another party with presents very soon. They kept their word.
Columbia, Tennessee Again
Summer 1910, We Get Away From Hugh Keith
I have written enough about Hugh Keith for it not to be surprising that a time came when Geral, Lucille and I wanted nothing more than to get away from him. Geral, then 13 and the oldest, wrote a letter to Grandpa describing our unhappiness and took it down to the Thorntons’ house (where our mail was delivered). I still remember the address, 216 Watkins Street. Mrs. Thornton gave Geral a 2-cent stamp. Perhaps Mrs. Thornton sensed the importance of the letter this young girl was so anxious to send to her grandfather when she assured Geral it would be mailed. When Grandpa received Geral’s letter he wasted no time having us put on a train back to Columbia.
The day before we left Chattanooga the little frog I had raised from a tadpole died. I buried him in a strawberry box and made a tiny tombstone. It was even harder to tear myself from that little grave than it was to leave my kind Aunt Nona and her daughter Lavetta.
Mrs. Alexander’s House in Columbia
Things had changed for Grandpa during our three years away from Columbia. He had been replaced as pastor of Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church, and consequently no longer lived in the manse. He had been retired by the Presbytery with only a small pension and had taken a room in a large two-family house owned by Mrs. Alexander, an aged widow. A family named Peppers rented half of the house, and both Grandpa and the widow Alexander lived in the other half. Grandpa arranged with Mrs. Alexander for the three of us to live with him. Geraldine and Lucille slept in the finished part of the large attic, which was provided with a coal-burning stove. I slept in the unfinished part, without heat, and with the earthy aroma of root vegetables stored there in the cool.
Mr. Peppers was a cook for a white school, the Columbia Military Academy. We were always glad when we saw him returning home in the evening with a bundle under his arm. This meant he was bringing leftovers from the Academy kitchen, good things to eat which he always shared with our family.
Mrs. Alexander had peach trees, apple trees, a cherry tree and a mulberry tree on her property. We planted corn, beans, turnip greens, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, so we never wanted for fruit or vegetables.
At one end of her property there was a floor-less cabin, a sad reminder of the days of slavery, which Mrs. Alexander rented to an old woman for seventy-five cents a month.
Mrs. Alexander’s house was just outside the Columbia city limits, in a place called Happy Hollow. Our houses were not numbered, and we picked up our regular mail at the post office general delivery window. Since all the local residents knew one another, important messages like telegrams and special delivery letters, which were brought by the letter carrier, always reached the proper destination, even without house numbers.
Two Women Who Change Grandpa’s Life
Phoebe Armstrong and Mary Williams
Mrs. Williams was a widow, and she had two daughters. They lived in a corner house, not very far from the heart of town in Columbia. I recall it as a large, frame house supported on pillars, with a restaurant, run by Mrs. Williams, on the ground floor.
Mrs. Williams’s restaurant business thrived and she was able to buy more property next door to the largest Negro church in Columbia. She built a new frame building on the property and moved her restaurant out of her home and into it.
The older of Mrs. Williams’s two daughters was named Mary. A rumor started that Grandpa, now a 55-year-old widower, was overly friendly with her. I do not doubt that Grandpa was attracted to Mary, but it would have been totally out of character for him to have what nowadays we would call “an affair.”
Mrs. Phoebe Armstrong, who had been my very first schoolteacher, turned out to be a gossipmonger. I do not know what her motives were, but she was the disseminator of the scandalous gossip about Grandpa and Mary Williams that culminated in his departure from the pulpit at Mt. Tabor and his retirement from the active ministry.
Grandpa’s Ups and Downs in Business
Heaven only knows how they managed it, but Grandpa and a Mr. Simmons, inspired perhaps by Mrs. Williams’s success, got together enough capital to open a small café-restaurant together. They served good, simple meals and had a soda fountain, as well as a counter with candies, stationery and notions. Their rented location on Main Street was in the Colored Oddfellows Building, which marked the division of the city into white and colored areas.
The Simmons and Lawrence Restaurant was in a neighborhood nicknamed “Mink Slide.” I am told that dealers in “moonshine” liquor used to do business there, and that when they heard revenuers were about they would slide down a pole “like a mink or a fireman” to make a getaway. A colorful but not too credible story.
One of my most vivid memories of Grandpa’s café concerns the night that Booker T. Washington came to Columbia to give a lecture at the (whites only) Opera House. A banquet was held for him in our restaurant. After the banquet Washington gave a talk to a colored audience in the Oddfellows Hall before going to the Opera House to address a white audience. I learned years later how skillful a lecturer Booker T. Washington was, so I am sure he was able to arouse support from both audiences for his school in Tuskegee, Alabama. My uncles Herman and Charles both graduated from Tuskegee Institute.
Uncle Herman studied masonry at Tuskegee Institute, but he could not find work in his trade when he returned to Columbia and he had to take a job driving a grocery wagon. One day he announced to Grandpa that he was leaving home to try his luck in Chicago. An even greater blow than Uncle Herman’s leaving home came when Mr. Simmons, Grandpa’s business partner in the restaurant, also decided to travel north. Grandpa could not make a go of the restaurant alone, and eventually it closed.
Uncle Herman got a job in Chicago, not as a mason but in the post office. He is retired from that service now (1972) and lives in Pasadena, California.
After his restaurant went out of business, Grandpa held several jobs at once. He cleaned offices at the Phoenix National Bank, took care of a lawyer’s vegetable garden on a sharecropping basis, and worked in a local canning factory. In the summer he prepared tomatoes for canning, and in the fall it was sweet potatoes. At the end of the work day I picked up Grandpa at the cannery, riding on our horse Harry, and we would return home riding double on Harry. After dinner it was my chore to go and clean the offices for Grandpa.
The “Colored” County Fair
The white people had a county fair in Columbia every year, and when it ended some of the concessions and decorations remained for the “colored” fair, which followed. I recall that one of the attractions for us was a couple of automobiles in which we could take a ride around the racetrack for ten cents.
Train Wreck Sales
Train wrecks, which fortunately damaged freight much more often than they hurt people, were not infrequent in our part of the state. Mr. Wolf, proprietor of Wolf’s Bargain Store, had a “train wreck sale” every year, featuring wreck-damaged goods at very low prices to attract customers into his store. Some years he did not have enough wreck-damaged goods, so Mr. Wolf would damage some of his stock himself, to produce “train wreck” sale items. Some of us youngsters earned money distributing his handbills for the sale, but he usually gave us more handbills than there were people in Columbia and we had to dispose of the extras discretely.
The sight of chain gangs working was a familiar one. The gangs were segregated, white and black, and they mainly worked on the roads, breaking and tailoring rocks. The prisoners rode in a truck to their worksites, and the familiar heavy iron ball was attached after they arrived.
My Cousin is Killed, A Victim of Racism
Serious racial conflict did not occur often in Chattanooga or Columbia. But there was one serious race riot in Columbia during which a first cousin of mine, along with two other black youths, was apprehended and put in jail. All three were in the same cell, unarmed and locked up, when a cop came by and shot them dead, in cold blood, like animals trapped in a cage. This cousin was my Aunt Grace’s first child.
’Possum and Sweet Potatoes
One opossum in the chicken house could kill three of our birds during the night. Sometimes we could tell when an opossum was prowling or killing, because the chickens made enough noise to awaken us. When this happened. Grandpa would get out his hunting rifle, and the visiting predator would usually become a delicious dinner of ’possum and sweet potatoes.
A Puzzling Letter from Miss Mary to Grandpa
Eventually even we children became aware that Grandpa was courting Miss Mary, and we resented it because of our strong attachment to Grandma’s memory. Maybe others in the family resented it as well. I just could not imagine Grandpa being married to someone other than Grandma!
One day one of us children came across a letter to Grandpa from Miss Mary. I do not know how it happened to come into our hands, but it did, and we read it with Mrs. Alexander. It began: “My dear husband . . . .” We didn’t know how to understand that salutation.
About My Name
I grew up as J. Lawrence Cook. My grandparents explained to me that my father wanted me to be named Jacob Lincoln Cook, Jr., but that my mother did not much care for the names Jacob or Lincoln. My father suggested that as a compromise I just be given the initials “J. L.” temporarily. Papa always signed his own name “J. L. Cook” unless he was required to write it out in full, so I suspect he thought that some time in the future I would replace my “J. L.” with his names. After my parents died, some family members called me “Lawrence,” and others called me “Jake.” I was told that my mother had a liking for “Jean,” the French equivalent of “John,” but that she hesitated to give her son a name that was considered feminine in her society.
I have always signed my name “J. Lawrence Cook,” but when I registered for the draft during World War I, I had to provide a first name. Well, then and there I decided that since my mother liked “Jean,” that would be my official name in the Draft Board’s records. My Uncle Herman, who is still living (1972), is the only person who calls me “Jake.”
Snow Hill, Alabama
Geraldine and I (joined by Lucille when she was old enough) walked two and a half miles every day from Happy Hollow into town to attend CPS, the colored public school. It was never clear to me whether CPS actually stood for “Columbia Public School” or for “Colored Public School.”
In 1911, the superintendent of the Columbia public schools required Professor Johnson, our principal, to collect a fee of one dollar a month for children attending CPS who lived outside the city limits in places like Happy Hollow.
Grandpa could not afford to keep three of us in CPS with this added expense, so he decided to send me to a free school in Happy Hollow even though its academic reputation was poor. Once again, Aunt Gertie came to my rescue.
Aunt Gertie wrote to her brother, my Uncle Charles, who (like Uncle Herman, the mason) had graduated from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Uncle Charles had learned the tailoring trade there and was teaching at Snow Hill Institute in Alabama. He was also the school’s bandmaster.  Aunt Gertie and Uncle Charles arranged for me to go to Snow Hill as a boarding student, working my way through. In addition to following the academic curriculum, I was to work for the school and also learn the tailoring trade. I would have the opportunity to learn an instrument and play it in the school band.
By the time I arrived at Snow Hill the school year had begun, and Uncle Charles’s tailoring class was filled. I had to choose a different trade to learn and I selected carpentry.
Uncle Charles told me the band needed a second clarinetist and gave me an instrument and a self-instruction book. With the help of the first clarinetist it was not too many months before I qualified to attend rehearsals, and in time to play in the band. I felt inspired once to write a little piece for solo clarinet, the beginning of my creative efforts in music, at the age of twelve.
Traveling to Snow Hill, Alabama, from Columbia, Tennessee
The train to Snow Hill originated in Chicago, and we called it a “double-header” because it was pulled by two huge steam engines in tandem. When the train arrived in Evansville, Indiana, the conductor came through pointing at the Negroes saying, “you go back there . . . you go back there.” From Evansville the train, now observing southern Jim-Crow law, went to Nashville, and it is there I was put on for the trip to Snow Hill, Alabama.  On the way we stopped at Birmingham, Montgomery, and Anniston. The train actually passed the Anniston station, stopped, and then backed into it. The next stop was Selma, thirty miles from the stop at the village of Snow Hill.
An oxcart from Snow Hill Institute met each of the two trains that stopped at the village of Snow Hill, Alabama, daily. That is how I was transported with my trunk to the school, about five miles from the train station.
The Village of Snow Hill, Alabama
The center of the town had two general stores, which sold everything the local residents needed. The post office was in a store across the street from the railroad station. I well remember a cotton gin which I liked to watch operate whenever I was in the town. I can still remember the piled up bales of cotton.
The Sheriff was the law to Snow Hill’s few hundred residents. Snow Hill Institute, five miles away, was actually larger in area than the village.
Getting Along Financially at Snow Hill
No one in my family was affluent. Uncle Herman in Chicago and Uncle Lamar in Pittsburgh would send me a little money when they could, and so would my dear sister Amelia, who was only 17 years old when I began at Snow Hill. Amelia and I kept in touch by mail regularly, and she always found a dime to wrap in tissue paper and slip into the envelope. I don’t remember that she ever failed. I kept her up to date on such important things as how much I weighed. I will never forget how proud I was to write her that I had reached 100 pounds.
Each month, after my work had earned enough money to cover tuition, I could draw scrip, which was negotiable at the campus commissary.
Businesses and charitable organizations used to send the school barrels and boxes of clothing and shoes. A student could submit a request for these items to the treasurer’s office. Unfortunately the clothing we got this way, especially the shoes, seldom fit.
Living Conditions at Snow Hill
We had no doctors and no hospital facilities, but we did have a graduate of Tuskegee Institute who had first aid training and some rudimentary diagnostic skills. He wore a uniform similar to the one male students wore, and we called him “Major.” The nearest physician (white) was ten miles away.
Mealtime at Snow Hill
The meals at Snow Hill certainly left something to be desired, and they were badly served. The kitchen personnel filled our individual plates as they rang the bell to summon us. Hearing it, we quickly organized ourselves into a formation and marched to the dormitory dining hall, boys in one group, girls in another. By the time we arrived, our plates of food were cold.
Breakfast was usually a slice of congealed grits, a blob of solidified gravy and a piece of cornbread. The other meals were equally appetizing.
There were chickens around, and one of the places they would lay their eggs was under the carpentry shop. The shop building was on pillars, leaving a crawl space, which the chickens liked to use. We carpentry apprentices would hear a hen cackle, announcing a new egg, and scramble among the pillars to find her. We had two ways of cooking the eggs. In warm weather we would use the glue warmer as a double boiler, and in cold weather we used the pot-bellied stove which heated the shop. Our method was to wrap the egg in water-soaked newspaper and place it in the receptacle for the hot falling embers.
Saturday night was bean night for the male boarding students. Whoever had money would buy dried beans and sugar from the commissary. We would soak the beans, then cook them with the sugar and proceed to have a feast. If we ate too much, as we often did, we would run around the dormitory building to settle the beans.
I learned to drive an oxcart. The ox wore a heavy wooden yoke on its neck, with a line attached to one side of it. The ox was stroked gently with the line to get him moving, and a tug backward would stop him. To make him turn right you called out “gee” and to make him turn left you called “haw.”
My First Year at Snow Hill (1911-1912)
During the school year at Snow Hill I met my first centenarian. He claimed to be 104 years old. He may have been born in Africa, though I do not recall his making that clear. He did teach us to mimic some spoken phrases and a song, which he said were African. If he was born in America and was as old as he said, he had lived the first 58 years of his life as a slave. A real tragedy. And if he had been carried off to American slavery from Africa, that may have been even more difficult to bear than growing up never having experienced freedom.
My First Summer Vacation at Snow Hill (1912)
Grandpa could not afford to send me a train ticket to come home to Columbia for my first summer vacation, so I worked in the carpentry shop all summer. Among other chores, I was called upon to use my new carpentry skills to make a coffin for the child of destitute parents. I was proud of my work when I finished it. In my spare time I would borrow keys to the band instrument room. By the end of the summer I had tried out all the different instruments, including the drums. I did miss the violin lessons Uncle Charles gave me during the school year.
My Second Year at Snow Hill (1912-1913)
(Editor’s Note: There are no comments about this school year, or about returning to Columbia for summer vacation).
My Third Year at Snow Hill (1913-1914)
During this year we had two concerts which I remember very well: one was a song recital by the great Patty Brown and the other a violin concert by the grandson of Frederick Douglass.
Home Again from Snow Hill (Summer 1914)
It was almost dark when I arrived in Columbia on the L&N train from Snow Hill, via Selma and Mobile.  There were no Negro hacks waiting at the Columbia station, so I approached the white driver of a one-seat buggy. He told me that he would take me if there were no white people who wanted a drive into town. Fortunately for me there were none and he agreed to take me to Happy Hollow for a quarter.
There was a light here and there on the road we took, but when I got out of the buggy and turned up the path to our house, the darkness was complete. There was no answer to my knock on our front door, so I knocked on the Peppers’ door. Again no answer. Deciding that Grandpa must have gone to see Miss Mary and that Lucille and Geraldine must be there too, I walked more than two miles to Miss Mary’s home, near my old school CPS, and sure enough they were there.
To this day I do not know whether Miss Mary and Grandpa were already secretly married. After the letter from Miss Mary to “my dear husband” which Mrs. Alexander, Geraldine, Lucille and I had seen (without Grandpa’s knowledge) what was I to think? Why did it have to be a secret? I just do not know.
Editor’s note: Job Childs Lawrence died 11th July 1919. His death certificate was signed “Mary Lawrence, wife.”
Mrs. Alexander’s Death
I was at Snow Hill when Mrs. Alexander died. Grandpa wrote to me about it, so I was not surprised at her absence when I returned to Happy Hollow.
Grandpa wrote that one evening when he returned home late from the canning factory, he ate dinner and lay down to rest. He was drifting off to sleep when he heard Mrs. Alexander call out “Lawrence! I’m dying.” Grandpa hurried into her room, but she was already gone.
Thinking about Mrs. Alexander, and death and dying, I had trouble sleeping. I stared out of the window into the night, and I realized I was happy to be back home.
I Lose My Bangs
We had a pleasant surprise the next day, in the form of a visit from Aunt Gertie. She quickly made it clear that she did not approve of my new hairstyle. Following a Snow Hill fad, my hair was brushed forward and clipped in front to make bangs. Aunt Gertie wasted little time cutting my hair short and removing the bangs.
I Use My Newly-Learned Carpentry Skills
Looking around on my first day home I noticed that the wooden steps to the porch had rotted badly, and that the coop in which we kept young chicks was falling over. I told Grandpa that if he could buy the lumber for the chicken coop and the steps I could repair them. Grandpa bought the lumber, and in a few days I had finished the job. Grandpa was very proud of me and my carpentry skill.
Summer Experiences (1914)
On my second day home from Snow Hill, I asked permission to visit Robert Brown, who had been a classmate at CPS. When I reached his house, I found that Robert’s father, Josiah, was dying. He had been operated on by a local physician, a white man who was very kind to all of his patients of either race. Unfortunately I believe his competence did not match his kindness. Not long after Robert’s father died, it became clear that the doctor was mentally ill. He ended up as a demented street performer in front of the post office.
Like me, Robert was interested in music, and he had persuaded his parents to arrange piano lessons for him. He learned quickly and soon became able to play the hymns in our little church, on the same old reed organ that Grandma used to play. Inspired by Robert, I worked hard at the piano all summer until I was able to match his hymn-playing.
A Chance to Enroll at Haines Institute
Reverend Collier, who had replaced Grandpa as pastor of Mt. Tabor, arranged for my friend Robert Brown to go to a boarding school in Augusta, Georgia. This was a school founded by Lucy C. Laney, the great Negro educator. It was called Haines Normal and Industrial Institute.  Despite the word “industrial,” the emphasis was actually on academics. The grades offered began with kindergarten and went through the equivalent of two years of college. I wanted Reverend Collier to arrange for me to go to Haines as well. I had always craved an academic education, but my success as a repairer of stairs and constructor of chicken coops made Grandpa think that manual training might be the preferred route for me. I worked hard to change his mind, and finally I did.
My Arrival at Haines (Fall 1914)
The train ride to Haines in Augusta, Georgia, was longer than the trip to Alabama and Snow Hill. In Augusta, a fairly large southern city, our trunks were not delivered to the school by oxcart but by a horse-drawn railway express truck.
I arrived with the clarinet, which I had been able to procure, with Uncle Charles’s help, from the band at Snow Hill. I was thrilled on arriving at Haines. Robert showed me around and introduced me to students and teachers. The boys were dressed in military uniforms and the girls wore white blouses and blue skirts. There was military training and a military hierarchy among the students. I progressed to corporal, then sergeant, and finally became official bugler for my company.
Grandpa had made arrangements to pay five dollars a month in cash toward my tuition. I would earn the remainder, and my room and board, by cleaning the classrooms and the chapel in McGregor Hall. On Saturdays all the boys, including me, used rakes and brooms to scour the campus grounds. In exchange for the additional chore of looking after the music conservatory building, I had the privilege of taking piano lessons. The three members of the music department were very helpful to me. After classes, and after cleaning the classrooms, the chapel, and the small conservatory, I spent every free moment practicing on one of the pianos.
Life at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute
How much better meals were at Haines than they had been at Snow Hill! Mrs. Kendrick, an excellent cook, managed the kitchen. There were two dining rooms; the tables had white table cloths and were neatly set. Instead of arriving at the table to find each plate already served, with food that had turned cold, hot serving dishes were brought to the table. A teacher or an older student sat at the head of each table to help serve and to keep order. When a serving dish became empty it could be replenished on request.
If we got hungry between meals we had a variety of resources. Some students received boxes of food from home by railway express. This was usually divided among friends in the same dormitory. Or if we had the money we could buy candy or snacks from one of the four nearby stores. A favorite snack was something we called sog. This was a five-cent loaf of bread, the smaller size, split down the middle and soaked with five cents’ worth of molasses or condensed milk. Delicious!
Unlike Snow Hill, we had modern plumbing. The girls were the lucky ones, since they had running hot water and central heating in their dormitory. The boys dormitories, there were two of them, were converted frame houses located off campus. There was one tub, in the larger of the two houses, which had to serve all of the male students. We heated bath water on one of the coal-burning stoves. The real problem was, who’s next for the tub? Somehow we handled the situation without too much difficulty.
I usually had pocket money, received from Uncle Herman, Grandpa, Uncle Lamar or my sister Amelia. Furthermore, I was able to earn a little change by taking pictures of students with the second-hand box camera for which I had paid one dollar in Columbia. The picture money was spent as I wanted, but the money orders from Grandpa and my uncles went toward paying the five-dollar monthly cash part of my tuition. I was always in arrears.
Vacation in the Summer of 1915
At the end of the 1914-1915 school year I returned to Columbia for the summer. I was glad to be home. Grandpa was working at the Columbia Canning Company. I returned to cleaning the bank and offices for Grandpa. Realizing that I wasn’t earning any money for myself Grandpa got me a job at the canning factory, working in the shipping department for three dollars a week. His wages were nine dollars a week. Grandpa and I rode to work together on the back of our thin horse, Harry. We would hitch him to a post in the factory yard and feed him and give him water during the working day. We worked from 8am to 6pm on weekdays, but only until 1pm on Saturday . . . payday!
Grandpa’s job was to supervise the preparation and cooking of tomatoes or sweet potatoes, depending on the season. The tomatoes were washed, then steamed until the skins loosened and could be removed by a team of Negro women who earned five cents for each bucketful peeled. The actual canning was done mechanically, after which Grandpa took over and lowered the racks of cans into steam vats to be sterilized. A similar procedure was used for canning sweet potatoes, with Grandpa overseeing the whole operation. Grandpa always looked forward to the sweet potato season, because it usually required overtime work, and he could earn some extra money.
After just a few weeks of work in the canning factory, I got a job as a porter at a variety store with better pay, four dollars a week. We were four porters, and the head porter earned seven dollars a week. We worked ten hours on weekdays, five and a half hours on Saturday, and ten hours every fourth Sunday. Even while holding this job still I took care of the office cleaning for Grandpa in the evening after supper.
Our large garden provided all the vegetables that we could use. We always had plenty of chickens, for meat and for egg-production. We bought other meat from the one butcher shop in Happy Hollow, who was conveniently open on Sunday morning when I went to get the Sunday Nashville Banner. Grandpa would give me the meat order, telling me, “Son, don’t forget to remind him that you are Job Lawrence’s grandson so you will get a better cut.”
1915-1916 School Year at Haines Institute
After allowing for my train fare, there was not much left of my summer savings for buying clothes. I was lucky though, and found two suits on sale, one for seven dollars and one for five. Grandpa had accepted that I should follow an academic track at Haines, but only after some persuasion on my part. At the end of this vacation, pleased that I was doing well at Haines, he took me himself to Mr. Wolf’s clothing store and got me all the other things I needed. He even bought me an umbrella.
Those were days when knickerbockers and caps were popular with teenagers. I saw a gray checkered cap with a long bill that I could not resist, and I had just enough money left to buy it. When Robert Brown saw it, he asked his parents for one just like it. We happily returned to Haines together, caps and all. I was assigned to the “small” dormitory in a room with three other students. They were my friend Robert Brown from Columbia, Robert Pearson, and Fletcher Green, whom we called “Fess.”
During the summer, someone had donated a broken-down keyboard player (Pianola) to the school’s music department. Wow! I could touch this any time I wanted. I could not repair it, however, because I had neither the tools, the parts or the know-how.
One day I picked up a copy of a now-defunct magazine called “Etude” which was read in those days by music teachers and performers alike. Thumbing through its pages, my eyes fell upon an advertisement for a machine used to perforate rolls by hand that invited the reader to “make your own piano rolls.” I tore out the page and saved it for so long that it began to turn yellow. My ambition was to purchase one of these hand-perforators one day and use it to make rolls of my compositions. I planned to submit the rolls to publishers along with my manuscripts.
The great Miss Lucy Laney, founder of Haines Institute, was dedicated to the advancement of her people through education. She was among those Negroes who disagreed with Booker T. Washington’s view that since we were “destined” in this country to do manual labor our skills should be developed along those lines. Miss Laney continued to require the students to decline Latin nouns and conjugate Latin verbs, and algebra and the classics were stressed.
Every morning right after breakfast, both the boys and girls did drill exercises. On a signal we marched into chapel for a brief service. There was singing, prayer, and then a short talk by Miss Laney.
Visits to Northern Towns and Cities
My First Trip North (Summer 1916)
Many of the students at Haines, and even some teachers, took summer jobs in the North. Northern companies, farms and resort hotels often recruited summer help from Negro schools in the South.
Although the United States was not yet a belligerent in World War I, defense industries in the North opened work opportunities for us that had never before been available to Negroes. This was the period when Negroes began to migrate in great numbers to northern cities, and it is the year I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line for the first time, to take a summer job as bellboy at Mt. Everett Inn in South Egremont, Massachusetts. The town had about a thousand residents, and a shopping center consisting of one general store and a drugstore.
I had some trouble at the start of my trip, because local Whites resented so many of “their niggers” going up North. The police held our train at the station for at least two hours while they searched every part of it for Professor Tutt, our math teacher who had organized this particular summer exodus. They didn’t find him, and I personally suspect he was hiding in the coal bin.
When we arrived in Washington, DC it was a new and pleasant experience to change trains and be told that we could sit anywhere we wanted, and even eat in the dining car. I had brought food with me, but still I went and had a bowl of soup, just for the thrill of it. When we arrived at Pennsylvania Station in New York City I was so excited that I got temporarily separated from Earl Adams, my traveling companion and the person who had arranged the job for me. He had also made reservations for a room on Seventh Avenue between West 135th and 136th Streets. It was in the apartment of a lady named Mrs. Spearman. He had stayed there the previous summer when he brought another student for the bellboy job I was to take this year. That young man did not like the job, so this year it was offered to me. Our two nights lodging and food expenses in New York were paid in advance by the owner of the inn in South Egremont.
In the New York City of those days, the area in which Negroes could rent apartments was limited, extending north from 125th Street to 140th Street, bordered on the east by Third Avenue and on the west by Eighth Avenue. We had no other options for housing outside this “nigger heaven” (as we sometimes called it) so the rents were grossly inflated.
We arrived in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, nearest town to the hamlet of South Egremont, around 8 o’clock in the morning and had breakfast there. We reached South Egremont on an aging trolley car, which made the round trip from Great Barrington once an hour.
Life at Mt. Everett Inn
Aside from Earl Adams, there were two other cooks on the staff, which also included a farmer who raised corn, lettuce, string beans, tomatoes and other vegetables for the kitchen. There were two maids and two waitresses. The maids were Swedish Protestants and the waitresses were Irish Catholics, and once in a while there would be a little religious war between them. Usually only verbal weapons were used, but sometimes bandages were needed.
To complete the personnel there were two Negroes who took care of the laundry, a man and a woman. The man was an artist at ironing men’s white shirts with their stiff collars, and he always worked in a Chinese laundry when the season was over for the inn.
Like many such establishments at the time, Mt. Everett Inn’s brochure declared “No Hebrews Allowed.” The notion that a Negro would even dare ask for accommodations never crossed the minds of the proprietors, or for that matter did it ever cross mine.
The inn bought meat from a wagon, which came by three times a week. The vendor had a handbell, which he rang at frequent intervals as be drove his horse-drawn vehicle down the country roads. We kept our own fowl and laying hens, and there were enough hunters around to supply us with game.
The food at Mt. Everett Inn was excellent. We ate the same food the guests were served and sometimes the boss’s wife even joined us. Her husband was in the real estate business, so she did most of the supervision of the inn.
We had an icehouse where blocks of ice, cut from a nearby lake in the winter, were stored. It kept well, and we had some left over at the end of the summer.
Although this was during prohibition, there was always a supply of liquor, beer and wine on hand to be purchased under the table. It was all kept hidden in the boss’s private office, next door to the bellboy’s little room. Only the boss, his wife and I had access to the office, so only we three could sell the beverages. There was an inspector who came around from time to time, and after he had been given a drink he would always give us a clean slate.
A Memorable Encounter
The inn was small and I was the only bellhop. I had a buzzer in the office, my station when I was on duty, and one in my room next door. Once when I was off duty the buzzer rang in my room. I forget why the guests, two women, called. It was only after they had left the inn that I found out that they were Helen Keller and her companion. I hadn’t even known who Helen Keller was, or that the pleasant woman I served was deaf and blind, until they had left the inn.
A Slave For the Fourth of July
A local minister, who also doubled as the fire chief of the village, was the organizer of the annual Fourth of July parade. The summer I was there he made the mistake of asking my friend, Earl Adams (who happened to be very dark-skinned) to take part, dressed to represent a slave driving a horsedrawn wagon at the head of the parade. Earl was indignant. The minister could not understand why!
World War Patriotism
We were not yet in the war, but everywhere there were expressions of patriotism in posters, speeches, newspapers, magazines, sermons and songs. One popular song, however, expressed isolationist sentiment and was titled “I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier.” After we entered the war the lyrics were changed and the title became “I didn’t raise my Ford to be a jitney.”
My first composition effort had been for solo clarinet. My second was worked out on a piano in the modest ballroom of Mt. Everett Inn. In the spirit of the time it was a patriotic song titled “You’d better hang up your flag!” I paid for a small printing of the manuscript, and by the time the war ended I had sold almost all of them.
Back to Augusta, Georgia
Back to Haines from South Egremont
Earl Adams and I started the trip together, but I stopped in New York City while he went on to a town in New Jersey to visit a girlfriend. I wanted to do some shopping in New York and once again experience the thrill of walking the streets of the big city. At that time I had no idea whether I would ever return to it. I was able to get a room again at Mrs. Spearman’s apartment, but I had to share it with a man who worked nights. There was only one small bed in the room. We had our separate bedding, he used the bed during the day and I took over at night. After exploring the city, I was off on my return trip to Augusta, Georgia. There was no segregation from New York City, but on arriving in Washington, DC it was the duty of the conductors to inspect each car to make sure there was no northern Negro who made the mistake of sitting in one of the “white” cars. Being a southerner, I was accustomed to the standard system of segregated travel in the cars available to us, right behind the smoky, coal-burning engine, and I did not have to be warned to move.
Finally I arrived back at Haines. It was good to be back at school, and it was satisfying to tell about my stay up north, with appropriate exaggerations.
The War Touches Haines Institute
On 6 April 1917 the United States entered the war against Germany. Our chemistry teacher volunteered for service in the Army and he eventually rose to be a captain. This was possible only because he was so fair-skinned that he could “pass” in a white unit.
Our English teacher volunteered for the speeded-up officers training program. He too was fair enough to “pass.” We students had benefited from this, since he was able to use the Augusta Public Library from which Negroes were barred and could borrow books for us to use. I remember that once he brought a book to show us which was entitled “The Negro, A Beast.” The author had filled this thick red book with Biblical quotations, taken out of context of course, to prove his point.
Our physics teacher was drafted and he died in Europe. One young teacher, Johnny Walker, was sent overseas just days after he was married. He was killed and I well remember the sad group of students and teachers who met the train carrying his coffin, to accompany it to the Dugas Funeral Parlor.
From Augusta To Chicago
Early in 1917 I wrote to ask my Uncle Herman and his wife, living in Chicago, about the possibility of boarding and lodging with them during the summer, in order to earn money for the next school year. Their home was at 6223 Loomis Boulevard, in an area newly opened to Negro tenants and homebuyers. They offered me a room rent-free for the summer.
Grandpa, now in waning health, could not afford to give me the fare from Augusta, Georgia to Chicago. Consequently, when the other boarding students left the campus, I was one of the few who remained behind, and I had to find a way to finance my trip to Chicago.
I was permitted to stay in one of the dormitories, but how was I to eat? Mrs. Kendrick, our excellent cook, had closed the kitchen and left on her vacation. The kindergarten teacher had a father who owned a horse drawn moving wagon so I went to his home in the hope of getting a job as a moving helper. He had no need for an additional helper, but he made some inquiries for me and was successful in getting me a job as a carpenter’s helper on a construction site. I discovered very quickly that I was expected to be more a “water boy” than a carpenter’s helper, and I could not swallow the racist attitudes of my supervisors. I did not return to that job after the first day, and instead went up and down Augusta’s main street in search of a job as bellboy, waiter or dishwasher, but without success. The next day, near the railroad station, I noticed a sign in the window of a little hotel. It read: “Waiter Wanted!!”
I went in and talked with the black headwaiter. I got the job, and he briefed me on the technique of playing “nigger” to the satisfaction of the guests (all white, of course), who were mainly traveling businessmen.
Next morning, with the beautiful thought of going to Chicago in my mind, I came to work at the little hotel. I swallowed the insulting and derogatory remarks made by the customers about Negroes for several days. I needed the money, after all.
But one morning a group of white businessmen came in for breakfast, and sat at one of my tables. They ordered cornflakes. I went to the pantry and called out the order, but the kitchen was out of brand-name Cornflakes and gave me Post Toasties instead. While I was serving these three guests, putting on my subservient attitude, one of them barked at me: “Nigger, can’t you read? We ordered Corn Flakes, not Post Toasties.” I knew better than to show my reaction to this remark openly, risking anything from a beating to a lynching. I went straight to the head waiter and said in a loud voice: “I’ve been insulted by these “crackers.” Get somebody else to wait on them.” I meant for the “crackers” at my table to overhear me. The headwaiter survived a near heart attack and told me that if I wanted to keep my job I had to remember I was in the South. I said “yes sir” and decided to “play nigger” just long enough to earn train fare to Columbia, Tennessee. I thought that once there I might be able to borrow enough money from the bank I had cleaned for Grandpa to continue on to Chicago.
I went to Union Railway Station in Augusta to find out the exact fare to Columbia. The clerk finally told me the fare, after trying to discourage me from going north. I quit my job as a waiter as soon as I had earned enough to get to Columbia with a few dollars to spare. Once there, I was successful in borrowing the balance of my fare to Chicago from the bank.
At Uncle Herman’s home I bought and prepared my own food during the week, but I had Sunday dinner with the family. I also had access to their piano for practice, and could come and go as I pleased. I shall always remember their hospitality.
Jobs in Chicago
My first job was as a car washer on the midnight shift in a garage. I was fired on the third night. I think my co-workers believed I did not fit in (they were right), and they gave a bad report about me.
My second job was unloading cars at the International Harvester Company. At the same time, I held another job working a few hours in the evening as a waiter.
I tried for a better job in a large drugstore as a photographer’s helper and was refused because of my color.
Registering for the Draft
After we entered the war, the age to register for the draft was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen. So, on 14 July 1917 when I became eighteen, I registered in Chicago. (Lawrence actually registered for the World War I draft on 12th September 1918). Although I was intent upon returning to Haines to complete my education, I had the specter of being inducted lurking in the background. Furthermore, my Uncle Herman told me he thought the possibility of being called up was great enough so that it would be a waste of time and money to go back to Haines and he suggested that I try to enter the Student Army Training Corps at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. This program would avoid my being drafted, allow me to continue school, and prepare me to be a non-commissioned officer when I was eventually put on active duty.
Student Army Training Corps
I applied for admission to Fisk, making it clear that I wanted to qualify for the SATC in the hope that I could continue my education in uniform and delay being called for active service. My application was accepted, and I left Chicago headed for Nashville instead of Augusta.
Fisk University and the SATC
I arrived in Nashville in the evening and spent my first night there at the colored YMCA. Next day I found my way to the University, but I was unable to register until the following morning. SATC candidates were not given space in the regular dormitory, and there was no room for me in the Army quarters. I did spend the night there, however, sleeping on the floor with blankets given me by the recruits.
At registration the following morning, all went smoothly and I was assigned to classes. When I arrived at the place to be sworn into the Army, the commanding officer told me that he had just received a telegram from Washington informing him that the colored quota for the SATC was filled. Now I found myself out of school and out of the Army too. The next thing to do was to try to return to Haines in Augusta, Georgia. I had just enough money to go to my home in Columbia, stay there a few nights, and return to Haines with the financial help of Grandpa.
Final Return to Augusta, Georgia
My Final Years at Haines, 1917-1919
During the academic year 1917-1918 I periodically received notices from the draft board in Chicago inviting me to show up for induction into the Army. I replied that I could not report unless they provided for my transportation, since I did not have enough money for the train fare. I did this on advice from the draft board in Augusta. I received no reply from Chicago, but I did receive official postcards, warning me that I risked imprisonment if I did not report to them. My replies were always the same; “send me a ticket and I will be there.” Each time I received a card, I would go to the local draft board in Augusta, and their advice would always be the same, “Tell those folks up North to send you a ticket.”
Before my final school year began in 1918, a group of us, moved by patriotic fervor, went to the local Army recruiting headquarters on an impulse and volunteered! We were sent to Atlanta where we were put up in a cheap boarding house used to sleep Negro recruits before induction. We were provided with meal tickets entitling us to eat at a nearby Negro restaurant. Eventually we were supposed to be sent to an Army camp not far from Atlanta. Each day when we reported to headquarters for instructions, we would be sent back to our temporary quarters for another night. Finally one morning we were told why our processing had been delayed. Washington had notified the officer in charge that the colored volunteer quota for this section of the country had been filled, but he was trying to get us taken anyway. He was not successful (fortunately), so we were sent back to Augusta, where I found a new girl student on the campus named Edith Louise Bascomb.
I continued to receive terse and threatening notices from the draft board in Chicago. When I took the last notice to the draft board in Augusta, in the late fall of 1918, the man in charge said “Don’t those folks up North know the war is about to end and draft boards all over the country are shutting down?” He added, “Just ignore that notice and forget about it. Don’t even bother to write them.”
By this time Edith and I had gotten to know each other well. Her parents lived in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father, like mine, was a Presbyterian minister. She had been born in New Market, Tennessee, in fact, where he pastored briefly. Edith and I were married in 1922.
© Jean Lawrence Cook M.D. 1972