‘Touch me, Lord!’

THIS VIDEO, made in 1965, is very interesting to an old Southern boy like myself. From 1945 to 1951, I lived on my grandparents’ farm in southwest Georgia. Those grandparents were born in the late 1800s.

In 1951, my parents, my sister and I moved to Jacksonville, Florida, but we often returned to visit the farm. My mother was my maternal grandparents’ only child, and they were thick as the proverbial thieves.

My youth spanned the years between the old way of Southern life and the Civil Rights Era that exploded in the late ’50s and into the 1960s. I remember well when blacks sat in the rear of buses, went to “separate but equal” schools and had to kowtow to varying degrees before white people, including my young self.

My grandparents had two black servants who were a part of my early life almost as much as my grandparents were. It was a couple named Willie and Cap Williams. Willie was the housekeeper, and Cap was the gardener and handyman.

The earliest house I remember where Willie and Cap lived was a decrepit shack about half a mile down the dirt road from my grandparents’ large home. My grandparents were the owners of the shack. Around 1958, my grandparents built a new home for Willie and Cap that was directly across the street from our main house. It was a simple wooden affair but a huge improvement over the shack. The bath was indoors.

In the early 1960s, both Willie and Cap died in that house, first Willie and then Cap whom my father found one day lying on the floor. I don’t know the circumstances of Willie’s earlier demise. Both Willie and Cap were buried in the “Negro Cemetery” a few miles down that same dirt road.

Many years later, I went looking for that cemetery. I found it in a forest, covered in weeds, but I never found the graves of either Willie or Cap.

Looking back, I see a boy and later a very young man who took them for granted, so much so that I know nothing of their history or personal backgrounds even though we considered them almost part of our family.

Now I realize they were like part of the furniture, and that saddens me. Their graves are gone. They had no children. I suspect the people who remember them now can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The video seems very familiar to me. In the black church near the video’s end, they’re singing, “Touch me, Lord.” I hope God is touching Willie and Cap. Lord knows we didn’t, not very well, not back then.

12 thoughts on “‘Touch me, Lord!’

  1. Nice honest recollection of your personal history. Sounds like those two people who were considered “furniture” impacted your life in a fairly important way

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    1. Karlos: I have very fond memories of Willie. Cap, less so. He didn’t talk much, often smelled of booze, usually got drunk on his days off, and sometimes had to be bailed out of jail downtown. But I liked him, I guess. He was very quiet around us. Whenever my grandmother drove him somewhere on some chore, he always got into the backseat, even if nobody else was in the car but my grandmother, the driver. He never, ever sat up front. And my grandmother never told him to either.

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  2. Wow, this video was a good reminder of what it was like here in small towns in Texas too.

    I can’t remember any time that my mother did not have at least one full-time “girl” in Dallas, Texas. When she had boarding houses, we had as many as 5-6. Then she had “on call” black men for heavy duty. There was a whole world, in the alleys. Black people did not walk on the sidewalks unless they were standing at the bus stop. You had to pay “bus fare” everyday because they could not be expected to save that money from their pay. It was always cash. Never a check.

    Seems like we always had at least one “bad negro” who was always getting into knife fights. “Little Bit.” Had terrible scars all over her arms.

    I have so many stories of the “blacks.” My sister and I talk about them, late at night, when we stay at their house.

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    1. Beverly: Ah, the knife thing. Almost as much a stereotype as watermelon, but there was truth in both, as there usually is with stereotypes.

      I was a Meals on Wheels driver in Houston in the late 1990s. One of the recipients — I’ve written about her here in the past — was a black woman of 99 years. She and I became pretty good amigos, and I would often visit her even when I was not making meal deliveries. We would sit on her front porch and watch people walk by in Houston’s seedy Ninth Ward. She told me stories of her past, her youth. She was fairly fond of knife play too, it turned out. But she had calmed when I knew her. She died shortly after her 100th birthday.

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  3. Most of my adult life I would be very uncomfortable when I heard African-Americans referred to by the “N” word. I was taught the word Negro, but I never had any interaction until I became an adult, and that was mainly in workplace situations. The older I got, the more people I socialized with used these terms. When I objected to it, I was told the only reason I felt that way was because “I never had to live with them.” Say what you want about political correctness, but during that period the derogatory comments were kept to minimum.

    Well, the dam started leaking the day Obama was elected, and it only continued to get worse. Pent up frustration reared its ugly head.

    I never really understood the hate and prejudice that whites could justify against blacks until I read TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE by John Steinbeck. It was a book of personal experience he wrote about his tour of the country in a pickup camper. The prejudice witnessed first-hand while traveling during the South opened my eyes to another world. I’m sure you are very familiar with this world.

    I was fortunate enough to be raised in an area where we had no African-Americans, therefore no way to shape my thoughts and being. When I first started to work with them the differences between “cultures” was significant, but I also at the same time worked with whites from the Deep South whose culture was different and just as foreign to me. I came away with live-and-let-live attitude. Most everyone wants the same thing for their lives. The exception being sociopaths and psychopaths.

    My father hid his prejudice from me until I was in my 40s. I thank him for that. I could not watch the whole video, and can well understand your feelings of guilt from that period. Unfortunately, you were just a product of your culture at that time.

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    1. Dave: My feelings of guilt? I have none because I have never done anything against anyone due to race. There is some regret, not guilt, now that I look back on those times in my life, specifically how Cap and Willie were viewed, that I paid them little mind except when I visited my grandparents. Now I wish I knew something of their lives. When I lived there, it was from when I was a virtual newborn to the age of 7. I was older, into my 20s, when I visited until they both died. I have nothing to feel guilty about.

      My parents were raging leftists, egalitarians, you know the sort, and that rubbed off on me, of course. If I had said nigger, I would have had the bejesus beaten out of me. They would have knocked me all the way to Alabama. I’ve never used the word in my life, and wouldn’t. Even my more traditional grandparents, from another era, never used the word. They softened it: nigra. Kinda silly when you think of it. Nigra is just a slangy way of saying negro, which is simply Spanish for black. This whole nomenclature business is tied to its times. Notice that even Ossie Davis, the actor-moderator, used negro, not black, and that was before African-American had been dreamed up. It’s a silly term.

      My parents hid no prejudice from me because they harbored none. On the contrary, they likely leaned too far in the other direction.

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  4. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m kind of obsessive about economics. That’s in great part because almost any social ill you can think of, whether domestic violence or self-medication or crime, is made worse by economic hard times. As a teenager, a friend once commented to his father that he didn’t see much racism. His dad replied “Wait till times get hard. You’ll see plenty.”

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    1. Creigh: Your dad was wise. Racism is part of the human condition, and it will come out more in hard times. Fact is that we almost always prefer — and feel more comfortable with — people who are like us. Who look like us, think like us, have the same educational level, the same religion, same language, you name it. We prefer similarity. Mix in the fact that 50 percent of the population, statistically, have a below-average intelligence, and things grow even more sticky.

      I like to cite a bestselling book from a few decades ago. I forget the title. It was about how to get ahead in your workplace. One of the primary pieces of advice was to look as much like your boss as possible. Dress like him. Talk like him. And it works!

      The idea that racism will one day be eradicated is a pipe dream. Same goes for “Ending War.” Only chuckleheads believe in such things.

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  5. Being in the same age group as you, Señor Felipe, I can identify with some of your feelings stated about the blacks and whites of our earlier days. As a kid I was not around blacks much, but at the age of 20 I had the good fortune to work as a prison guard for the grand and glorious state of Texas for several years. In that capacity I met many blacks and folks of every color and persuasion you can name. In my last (and current) career I have had many encounters with blacks. We are all a product of the cultures we grew up in, and some of us are better at adapting to change than others. My experience has been that the whites are not much better than the blacks at that.

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    1. Ricardo: After writing this post, it occurred to me that my racial interactions when I was young were quite a contrast. When I was at the family farm in Georgia, I was living to a great degree in a black world. When I returned to Jacksonville, where I spent most of my youth, I was in an almost entirely white world. Schools were not integrated, and neither was the area of town in which I lived. I rarely ran into black folks.

      Then, at 18, I joined the Air Force, which was full of both black guys and white guys. We got along just fine.

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  6. This is pretty much a toxic topic. When I was a kid, colored people had families headed by a father, but somewhere along the line, the father figure disappeared. Now the prisons are full of black men that don’t know how to be men. The system is loaded with black folks that did bad stuff mostly to other black folks. How it will work out is beyond me. Worse, I see the same thing happening now with white folks. I just don’t know.

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    1. Señor Gill: Yep, PC has made it a topic one steers away from, but me, I don’t care.

      Most people are totally unaware that a century ago the “black community” was far better off than today. As you mention, two-parent families, nowhere near the crime issue of today and nothing like the sky-high illegitimate birth rate (somewhere between 70-80 percent now). Many attribute the downfall of the black family to rampaging welfare programs that began around the 1960s. Maybe that’s what did it. I dunno.

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