Are there spaces where humanity rather than one’s color prevails? Where one’s interdependence outweighs the socially constructed labels meant to divide? The holler was that place. The holler was where I spent the first six years of my life. My father soon to be a veteran of WWII was never informed or considered to receive the GI educational or housing benefits to which he was entitled. After my birth, we returned to his home, and settled in the “holler” of Marion, a small town in Southwestern Virginia, in a house built in the 1920s by his uncle.
The holler, as we knew it, was the valley that lay at the bottom of a steep hill. In the holler lived the Russell’s and three white families, the Coleys, the Kirkos, and Roy Bee. Sarah and Will Coley lived next door to my grandmother, Lelia Russell, and across the road from my Aunt Rosa and Uncle James. Mrs. Kirko, a widow, lived across the road from my home. At the top of the hill in a very weathered house, lived Roy Bee, a white who worked for my uncle.
One reached the holler by following a one-lane road, the apex of which required drivers to stop and blow the horn to alert an approaching car. On the left of the steep curve, lay the land of the Russell’s, my ancestors. It stretched from the top of the hill to the creek below. Flowers and plants flowed down the hill. At the bottom lay an oval race track, the center of which was planted with tobacco. It was on this track that horses were trained for show. My uncle’s unpainted, weathered house sat back from the road next to the smokehouse.
The outhouse stood next to a little shack that served as my uncle’s man cave. A rock path took one down past the oval track, the center filled with tobacco plants, where horses were ridden and tamed, a pig pen, a creek and the spring which was the source of drinking water. The house in which I lived sat high above the creek. Sarah and Will Coley, the newest residents, lived in the most modern house with a, well, modern appliances and a telephone; the telephone of which my grandmother Lelia and Aunt Rosa, had liberal use. They were simply neighbors, all on a first-name basis, there was no going into the back door, no subservience. My grandmother Lelia lived in a white frame house with green trim and a porch on which there were two swings. One had to climb steps made from large stones to reach the porch. What I remember most about the house was the kitchen with the coal and wood-burning stove that spanned the length of the house. Outside was an outhouse and a large terraced garden that climbed the hill.
The folks who lived in the holler exchanged meats and vegetables. The Coley’s had cows and my uncle pigs. The cardinal rule of coloreds and whites eating and drinking together was broken every weekend. Whites gathered with my uncle and his brothers on that day to drink moonshine or bourbon underneath my uncle's house. They sat for hours drinking, telling jokes and lies.
Beyond the steep curve in town, blacks and whites were separated from each other by a wall in the Broad Street Tearoom, an establishment owned by Mr. Sharp, a black man. Blacks and whites could peer into each other’s space, but could not legally drink together. In the holler, those laws were broken.
We were in our way an interdependent, self-contained community, not so much defined by race, but by our being “country” rather than town dwellers. As folks in the holler, colored and whites, climbed and rounded the steep curve, the specter of race entered their lives. The whites became “white” but not in the same way as those who lived in antebellum mansions along Highway 11 or in the solidly middle and upper-class Wassona Park. My father and uncles became “colored” with all the conventions of Jim Crow. I am sure that my father and uncles, as well as our white neighbors, breathed a sigh of relief when they rounded that steep curve that brought them home to the holler. There they became simply human.
In those early years of my life, I only saw relationships and friendships between neighbors. The color of their skins had little meaning as there was a parade of different skin colors in my own family from light, bright, and almost white to light and dark browns.