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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cotton Picking Days

My father was in the Cotton business in the late 1940’s to early 1950's in Arkansas where he provided gangs of pickers to the farmers. The first order of business in hiring a gang of cotton pickers was to negotiate with the “Community Elder”, without whom you could not hire a single picker. After the negotiations were over, and the number pickers and cost per pound of cotton picked were settled on, my father would go around and pick up all the cotton pickers in a covered flat bed truck with benches on both sides and take them to the fields before daybreak, then drive them back home again in the evening. My father told me that most good pickers could earn enough money in the four months of cotton picking season that they did not have to work very much the rest of the year. It was hard work for sure, and nothing I would like to even attempt to do in order to put food on my family’s table. However, unknown to most people today, it paid good money for the 1950’s.


My father and I have a very close relationship that began when I was in diapers and (I am told) he would take me quail hunting on his shoulders. On one occasion my father, who is now 83 years old, and I were returning home from a deer hunting trip to Camden Alabama, where I spent many a weekend and holiday as a young boy following my father through the oak and pine wooded hills of Wilcox County. Being a little tired we stopped for gas and a cup of coffee at a filling station out by the Interstate highway in Evergreen Alabama. My father, who has never met a stranger, struck up a conversation with the store clerk, a black man, and somehow the clerk caught my father's last name and asked him if he ever lived in Arkansas. My father said, yes but that was back in the 1950's and we have now lived in Florida for the past 50 years. The man then smiled and said your Mr. Alford... the same Mr. Alford that used to come pick me and my brother up each morning to pick cotton.

As someone who grew up in the Old South where calling someone a “Cotton Picker” was a racial insult, I was not sure just where this conversation was headed. I needn’t have worried; for it was like both men had stepped back in time. These were two different men from two very different worlds, one black and one white, whose lives had intersected but briefly in the cotton fields of Arkansas many years ago… yet it became clear very quickly as they embraced that this brief intersection of two different worlds during the “Cotton Picking Days”, now long past, had left loving memories that both men cherished for a lifetime. They sat and talked like old friends for over half an hour, as I tried to absorb as much as I could.

As we were leaving, the clerk (I wish I knew this man’s name) embraced my father once more and ask him to stop by and see him again the next time we came that way. A few weeks later we stopped for gas and coffee on our way back from Camden again, but he no longer worked there and the new clerk did not know him. Over the years we stopped at the same filling station many times, but we never saw him again. Life is like that I suppose, our lives intersect but for a brief moment in time and then moves on.

I am reminded by this story that as I travel through this life of the importance to take time to make friends along the way. "A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother." (Proverbs 18:24 NIV)

Grace Always,

3 comments:

David R. Brumbelow said...

Greg,
Great story.

I’m just old enough to remember cotton picking. As a kid I remember us driving down from Houston to see my grandparents in the early 1960s. One lived in Old Ocean, the other in Damon, TX. I remember in the area around Sugar Land, southwest of Houston, seeing fields of cotton. You couldn’t see the end of the rows. And folks scattered across the field picking cotton. It seemed to me like a job that would never end. Even then I was glad I didn’t have to pick cotton for a living.

My dad picked cotton some, but not for a living, just for some extra money. But cotton was big business around where he grew up.

And I never viewed calling someone a cotton picker as a put down, or a racial slur. In my mind, anyone who picked cotton was tough and someone to be admired.
David R. Brumbelow

Greg Alford said...

David,

I just missed out on the fun of Cotton Picking... by the time I came along the combine had put all the cotton pickers out of a job.

My Dad tells me it was a tough job and those who could handle the work of picking cotton all day were tough individuals all right. In my mind there is no shame in being a cotton picker at all... my Dad picked cotton, my mom picked cotton, and my Dad tells me that just as many white folks picked cotton in the 1950's as did black folks. Dad tells me of this one black woman with two children in tow that used to put him to shame... She had a quota that she picked each day and she would be finished by lunch time while all the rest of them had to work all day long to catch up. And the kicker is that while she picked she was caring on child on her back and had another riding her cotton sack.

I am sure glad I was born after the "Cotton Picking Days" were long past.

David R. Brumbelow said...

Now you've done it again. You need to write another post on that black lady who could pick cotton with her two kids in tow.

You're going to have to start a new label: Cotton Picking.

We did luck out, coming along a little too late to pick cotton ourselves.
David R. Brumbelow