On Growing Up in the Mississippi Delta

Lillie CliftonLillie Clifton grew up in Mound Bayou, Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s. For the past forty years, she’s worked as a teacher and school librarian in the Mississippi Delta. I called Mrs. Clifton many times over the past few years to ask her questions about growing up there. I wanted to know about her school, her house, her food, and even her boyfriend. She always was willing to answer my questions. Some of the details in A Thousand Never Evers come from conversations:

Q: What was life like growing up in the Mississippi Delta?

I came to the Delta from Tennessee in 1952.  My grandparents raised me. I went to school here. I walked about a mile to school each morning regardless of the weather. I wore out the soles of my shoes, so I put cardboard in them and walked like that.

Q: What was school like back then?

School those days was really, really nice. If we could go back to that it would be a blessing. I wish the attitude of the students was that of yesterday. When I came up we had a desire to finish school and do what was right, because we didn’t want to make our living in the cotton fields.

Q: What did your house look like?

When I moved to Mississippi, my grandparents moved from their country house to a house in the city of Mound Bayou. I was with my grandmother, granddaddy, and my sister, an uncle, three aunts, and one cousin in our house. We used my aunt’s room for a living room in the daytime and a bedroom at night. We also had a kitchen, three bedrooms, and one bath.

But before I moved to the Delta, when I was a very little girl, I used to visit my grandparents where they lived in the country. Their house was just a box with a porch. They didn’t have an indoor toilet. They had an outhouse. Back then, I didn’t know anything about toilet tissue—we used the pages from the free catalog that came in the mail.

Q: Did you work in the fields?

I started in the cotton fields at 6AM. We worked there twelve hours, sunup to sundown, except when it was time for us to come home from lunch. At noon, my grandmother would wave a white rag and we would go home and eat. We were all musty and dirty. We’d lie down on the floor and be ready to go back to the fields from 1PM until 6PM.

It would take us three weeks to chop the fields for my granddaddy. When we got through my granddaddy’s field, we caught a truck to a white man’s field to make us some money. I got paid three dollars a day working sunup to sundown. That’s how I bought my school clothes.

Q: If you were so busy working, when did you go to school?

At that time school didn’t start until September, but we didn’t go until October because we still had to gather the cotton. When I was in junior college, we would go to school half the day and pick half the day.

Q: How did you feel about chopping cotton?

It was something we had to do. I didn’t like it but it was my way of life. It was a job. I knew I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life, so I did try hard to do the best I could in school so I could be better when I grew up.

Q: Were you ever hungry as a child?

My granddaddy raised a garden. He raised hogs, and chickens. We were never hungry. We ate good. We would have rice. We would have hog. Every Sunday he would go to town and get fish, and we’d eat it that Sunday morning. We always had homemade biscuits with Delta syrup. Papa had a smokehouse where they killed the hogs, salted them down. The smokehouse was a small shack in the backyard without heat. You couldn’t have heat because the meat had to stay cold during the winter.

Q: What’s your favorite childhood memory?

Walking home from school with my boyfriend carrying my book. That’s my favorite memory. I didn’t play a lot, and he didn’t have to chop cotton because he was an only child with his grandparents and he didn’t have to do it. But he would go to the fields with me and we would court. Back then courting was just talking. Nothing else.

 

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