On May 1, 1938, I was born in the White County community of Bradford, Arkansas. My mother was the oldest of seven children and, ironically, her mother (my grandmother) was expecting twins at the same time. Just 10 days later they were born – a boy and a girl, who were given the names Bill and Betty.
It was really neat growing up with an aunt and uncle the same age, especially for birthdays and during the Christmas holidays. Betty retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and now lives in nearby Maumelle, Arkansas, and Bill became college professor, Dr. Bill Humphrey, and spent several years with Hendrix College and also worked and retired at the University of Central Arkansas here in Conway.
Several weeks after I was born, my parents moved to the community of Gould in Southeast Arkansas, where I would spend most of my life and graduate from high school. However, for some reason we moved back to Bradford, actually Possum Grape, for several months when I was in the seventh grade. It was during this time when I needed some spending money that I took a job chopping cotton. The cotton field was near Olyphant in southern Jackson County, and the pay was $4 for a 10-hour day. In case you don’t know, chopping or hoeing cotton (whichever you prefer) is when the plants get about 4 to 5 inches high and you go along the row chopping out the weeds and also “thinning” the plants to produce the best harvest.
My brief career at cotton chopping accomplished one very important thing. Those long and hot days made me realize that I did not want to spend my life doing that kind of work, or anything close to it. I knew that I needed to take more interest in school and get prepared for something much better when I graduated.
Well, the rest is history, but I would like to amplify my thoughts regarding cotton, because Gould, where I spend most of my years, was right in the heart of cotton county. Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, cotton was king, and the local gin produced more than 11,000 500-pound bales.
When I was growing up my folks ran a small restaurant, and I can remember many times taking a washtub of 10-cent hamburgers to the field for the cotton choppers, mostly African-American. This lasted for a few weeks until the plants got large enough to shade the ground. Then I would return a few weeks later when the cotton matured and picking started. If you have ever picked cotton, you know it is not an easy job, getting stuck with the cotton bolls and pulling the heavy sack as it got fuller and fuller. I worked hard for several days and never picked a hundred pounds. In those days, many of the best cotton pickers could pick more than 400 pounds, and later we had some Hispanics come to our area that could pick around 700 pounds a day.
While I did not think much about it at the time, an invention was about to come along that would forever change the face of America, and this is the primary reason I decided to write this column. This was the invention of the mechanical cotton picker. Because of this, hand labor to pick cotton was no longer needed. Throughout the South, and all the areas where cotton was grown, communities were impacted in the same way.
Most of these communities had great numbers of African-Americans living there, and this meant there were very few jobs available. Many of these folks left and most migrated to large cities in the North where they could find work. The auto industry was firing on all cylinders in Detroit, because they were producing automobiles, and many went there.