This time last week, we were on a farm in Buffalo Junction, VA, staying in the home where Jordan’s grandmother was born 90 years ago. We were there for our annual family reunion, for time to catch up with people we love, for the chance to unplug, thanks to no phone or internet service whatsoever.
It’s always a really rich time that reminds us of the importance of family and heritage (you can read about last year’s special time here).
One of the highlights of this year’s trip was getting to sit down with our oldest relative, Cousin George (our grandmother’s first cousin), who is 97-years-old and has one of the very sharpest minds. We spent nearly three hours talking about everything from his father’s experience as a slave to what makes for a good marriage, to his perspective on race relations today.
Cousin George speaks with a deep voice, a Southern tongue, a laid back steadiness, and often a very dry humor. He was born on November 19, 1919 in the Averett section of Buffalo Junction, VA. Today he lives in a white farm house one half mile from the place he was born.
Cousin George’s father, Benjamin Sizemore, was born a slave in 1858. When I asked Cousin George what he knew about his father’s time as a slave (before the Emancipation), he explained that since his father died when Cousin George was just 12-years-old, he hadn’t heard many of the stories. But he did know that his father had a brother who was sold to an evil master. And his father did talk about being forced to attend a lynching at the age of nine.
When Benjamin became an adult, he purchased 65 acres of land, which he farmed, and Cousin George’s family never had to work for other people as sharecroppers. This was rare — their farm was located in a tight-knit community of 34 black families who also owned land, which they purchased from George Wharton (a white-looking black man who used his privilege to provide opportunity, independence and self-sufficiency for black families living in the area). As far as money, there was none. But Cousin George would say they were rich in terms of the love in the community.
Cousin George’s mother, Ella, was born in 1878 and worked as a school teacher. She made education a priority, and after attending grade school, Cousin George received a scholarship to attend a trade school in Charleston, WV. After two years, he was called into the Army and spent the next four years in foreign service, mostly in France fighting WWII.Upon returning from the war, he spent two years living in Brooklyn but could never shake the fact that he was “a country boy.” So he moved back to Buffalo Junction and learned how to farm.
It wasn’t long after that Cousin George happened to travel to North Carolina and met a girl named Laura. They fell in love, and with the $18 they had between them, the two married. They never had any children, but the two stayed busy with family, church, and work (Cousin George worked in construction up until he was 90).I was so eager to soak up all that Cousin George has learned from his fascinating life, and I’m sharing just a few of the highlights (the full transcription of the interview is 12 pages!)
On living off the land
“All of this land–65 acres–is where my father farmed. We grew wheat and used the thrashing machine to make flour. We’d take the hulls to feed the hogs, and the straw became our mattresses. We’d milk the cows for milk and to make our own butter. We raised everything we ate. We went to the store only to buy coffee and sugar. It was hard work. And everybody had to work. Children didn’t have any time to play because when you got home, you had to feed the animals, pick up the eggs, chop and bring in the wood for the fire. And the girls would wash the dishes, make the beds, and scrub the floors – we didn’t have this thing you push around (vacuum). We didn’t have money, but we were rich because we had everything we needed. And we would divide everything with all the families in the community.”
On racial tensions in the 1920’s and 1930’s
“I knew people who were killed by whites when they were caught alone. There were only four white families in this area, and they respected us to the highest, because we were really together. No one bothered us, because we didn’t have telephones, but we had pony express, and in a few minutes everyone knew what was happening. When I was a teenager, they were doing a lot of lynching all over, but I never felt scared because all of us boys had a gun. But we didn’t bring them home, we had them hidden around the grounds, because our mothers wouldn’t allow it.”
On fighting in a segregated army
“I made sergeant and led the fire department. Our boys were smart, but we didn’t interact with whites until we were overseas. I’m gonna tell you the truth, I didn’t feel all that proud to be fighting in the army. I feel a little different now, but back then, we would run into problems with white soldiers even as we were fighting on the same side.”
On race relations in America today
“I wonder about our country. Even though we’re worried about North Korea and all this type of stuff, if you look back at our history, are we an example? What have we done? Even though we’re making progress as a black race, segregation is still at its best. It’s easy to talk, but our actions say different.”
On 58 years of marriage
“I find that married life is sweet. But you know, starting off, it’s the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen, but when you’ve been married awhile, the road gets kind of on the bumpy side. The tiger breaks out in the woman, and the elephant comes out in the man. But you can’t just get up and leave, you’ve got to learn each other and work that thing out. Ask your spouse, ‘What do you lack?’ And then decide to do the thing to please your spouse. My wife used to love to fish, and I despised going fishing. She didn’t like baseball, but she used to follow me when I played. The reason why there’s so much divorce these days is because we don’t have time to talk. We’ve got to have more patience and understanding. My wife and I had our rounds, but we learned each other.”
On trying hate
“I learned how to hate one time, when I was 22-years-old. But it didn’t last but a year, because that’s the most miserable life I’ve ever had. When you hate, what actually happens is you’re miserable, and you want the whole world to join you in what you’re doing. But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t sleep at night. So I found out, I don’t care what people say about me as long as I do right, I’m gonna have myself a ball, and while you hate me, you’ll be the one to suffer the consequence. I had to fight to not be angry about racism, but I’d overpower it by going to the Book. Most of the times before we get in trouble, there’s a voice that tells you not to get into the trouble. And then another that says “Go ahead.” I try to always listen to the first voice.”
On the secret to living to 97.
“Is there a secret? No. People always say what they did to live longer, and it’s not that. It’s just the Lord’s grace and mercy. Because if it were for my goodness, I wouldn’t be here. However, I don’t let old age bother me. The only reason age bothers people is because they want to stay here, but they want to stay young. It won’t work that way. As you grow in grace, knowledge and understanding, you have to face the facts of life. I can’t do what I used to, and I don’t want to. You don’t go to the same places, and you don’t have to. I don’t see anything wrong with it, because people who are young, they have pain. I don’t worry about my pain. Everything wears out, you know. The only thing with old age is that you have to continue to learn. And most of what I learned wasn’t in school; it was from observing people in the world.”
On being the original minimalist
“People today want too much. And you already got what you need and more than what you need, and we buy just to buy. I see these guys with 5-6 cars – you can’t drive but one. If you got 20 suits, you can’t wear but one at a time. I met a guy who had 8 or 10 white shirts, and I didn’t have but one. And mine was just as clean as his. I’d take mine home, wash it, iron it, and wear it again. It’s not what you have, it’s how you act with what you have. And I’ve been broke so long, it’s…it’s beautiful. As long as I can pay my bills, I’m satisfied.”
On following Jesus
“I try to live a clean life and that’s rough. See, you think you’re doing alright until you get into the Good Book, and you find out you’re so far behind. There’s so much we think we have right. I remember one day when I was going to church with Momma. And there was a man laying on the road drunk, and so Momma stopped the car and we took the guy home. I said, ‘I thought you were going to church, Momma?’ And Momma said, ‘Why should I go to church and let this man lay in the road and die?’ And I think about this type of thing. Sometimes we put on our little zoot suits and think we’ve got it made, but there’s something in the world that needs to be done. Children need to be fed. People are hungry. People need some clothes. We let clothes we don’t even know we’ve got rot up in our closets. I ain’t seen inside your closets either, but I know I’m speaking the truth. And people are in need.
That’s what makes being a Christian so tough. We like to say we love everyone. But we should stop saying that if we don’t mean it. Some people say, ‘I never lie.’ Most Christians lie in the church, not outside the church. They say, ‘I hate that guy who sings in the choir with me.’ And then both of them sing, ‘Oh, how I love Jesus.’ How can you say those two things? We don’t realize it’s a lie. And that’s why I’m careful how I pick my song. If you say you’re a Christian, you’ve got to strive to follow Jesus. Otherwise, if you’re going out of business, take down your sign.”