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School’s Out! Lesson’s Over!

This was my refrain as I addressed the audience in the sanctuary of Trinity C.M.E. Church in 2003 just beyond my father’s casket. Gathered were friends and family, many of whom predated me. The women in white sat off to the left in their customary pew ready to attend to anyone overcome with grief. Mom, my sisters and my children were to my right. And scattered among them were those who had known me before I was birthed, who had parented me, encouraged me, and comforted me now.

There was so much I still wanted to say to my dad. The time had gotten away and Alzheimer's got in the way as I focused on making my way unappreciative of the coming time most of us face, the moment we all dread, the loss of a parent, our foundation, now our feet resting on our own ground. I had imagined this moment when dad’s maternal uncle, OV Burrus, died. I was 11 when he passed. He and Aunt Gertrude, his wife, had been like grandparents to me. I loved going to their home well-appointed with family heirlooms, Persian rugs covering the hardwood floors and always the smell of fresh baked goods emanating from the kitchen. They did their best to spoil me and I did not resist. Uncle OV’s sudden absence was my awakening that my parents would follow him someday. The thought terrified me for years. Now here I stood looking down at a closed metal box that held the remains of the most important man in my life. The man who in his quiet way had taught me so much about being a man. School’s out. The lesson is over. So much still to say. So much left unsaid that we could not say to each other.

Dad in Italy during WWII

Dad was a quiet man, a characteristic we shared until my professional life began. I once overheard two women at the repast following Uncle OV’s funeral say, “That boy never talks. They must beat him.” I turned away silently. Though quiet, he was as mischievous as any pain-in-the-neck little brother could be. He told me of some of the pranks he played on his brothers and Aunt Helen, his little sister. One prank he pulled on her is too terrible to repeat here. Another was the night after choir practice when he found his oldest brother, Nathaniel, sitting in a chair leaning back against the wall at the back of the church sound asleep. Without waking him, my dad slipped up and blew a handful of black pepper into Nathaniel’s face. He awoke with a start choking from the pepper filling the air. Once he gathered himself, he tore after my dad. Sometimes, I was surprised my dad survived his siblings or that they survived him. Another characteristic I inherited though not anywhere close to as mean, though my children might dispute that.

The scene of the black pepper prank.

Uncle Nathaniel, like dad, was a quiet man but taller with a well-worn, sun-darkened face that was a reflection of the life of a sharecropper in south western Kentucky. He had been at the top of his class at Todd County Technical School in Trenton, about to graduate. I don’t know what his dreams had been but becoming the breadwinner of the family when my grandfather, Jesse, died suddenly June 22, 1931 as the result of a burst appendix surely was not one of them. Uncle Nathaniel was 17 and assumed the role as head of the household and father to his brothers and sisters. He was just the last act in my family’s centuries old history of being bound to the soil of another with little hope of achieving dreams of their own.

My grandfather, Jesse Russell, who died of appendicitis when dad was 11 years old, was buried at Bell's Chapel which has since been plowed under.

While I have researched my family’s history for decades, this is a piece I have reflected on many times. Over time, I have begun to recognize its subtle but sure connections to a past brought forward that has shaped me in some ways. My dad loved me, no doubt. But we did not have the very close father-son relationship I really wanted. I could not understand why until I more thoughtfully considered my dad’s relationship to his oldest brother, his father figure.

Sharecropping was a system devised by former slaveowners to regain cheap, though no longer free, labor to recover from their war losses and reestablish their prewar stature and power. Emancipation had “freed” the enslaved but, with no assets or resources, most had nowhere to go. They remained on the land of their suffering. Across the deep south, this practice was very predatory. The formerly enslaved would work a plot of land on the plantation independently growing cash crops, tobacco, cotton, rice, sugar. They were paid by the pound. A good cotton picker could pick 300 to 400 pounds a day for $1 to 2$ per 100 pounds. Half of the yield was claimed by the landowner and the sharecropper claimed the remainder to sell less expenses for tools and supplies typically leaving very little if anything. There was widespread deception when it came time to settle up at harvest knowing many former slaves could not read or cipher. So, if the crop fell short by value, the farmer fell further into debt with little hope of ever recovering, thus once again becoming a “slave” to land he did not own. And under Jim Crow Laws, he could be imprisoned for debt and leased back to the landowner for even less.

Uncle Nathaniel

This was the system my Uncle Nathaniel stepped into when my grandfather died. I have no knowledge of who Jesse or his father before him, Enoch, born a slave, sharecropped for or the relationship they had with the landowner. It’s possible that they were working the Russell farm outside nearby Elkton, Kentucky. The farm, founded by David N. Russell, a Scotsman, in 1820 and on which my 2nd Great-grandfather, George, was enslaved in 1853, is the origin of my family name. Many former slaves changed their names to leave that part of their lives behind. Others kept their former master’s name to leave a trail for separated family members to follow to reconnect. That George kept the Russell name post emancipation offers some insight into the relationship he might have had with his masters. Another clue to this was the Russell family graveyard that sat atop a slight rise where it was visible from the main house. In the back of the graveyard deceased enslaved were buried, not in the woods at the far side of the field. This was the final resting place of Cashy Russell possibly one of George’s siblings, the only Black buried there with a headstone.

Cashy Russell's tombstone in the Russell farm's graveyard.

Thanks to his education, Uncle Nathaniel made the finances of sharecropping work as evidenced by his success in caring for my grandmother, Martha, until her death in 1958 and providing an education for my Uncle John, my Aunts Pauline, Helen and Jessie Mae and my dad. His sacrifice made it possible that I and my cousins would be the first generation of George Russell’s descendants to attend college and launch successful careers far away from the farm. He is to this day my hero.

Martha, Pauline, John and Helen

I suppose, with the responsibilities my 17-year-old uncle was shouldering, my dad did not get that father-son time in which so much is passed down, fishing, hunting and farming skills. The model for such wasn’t there. But more importantly what he taught me through observation was love and dedication to family, to lead a spiritual life and to love and respect your life partner as no other.

Well done dad, well done.

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