Young Addie O’Neal was standing in the front yard of the farm house on Tuesday morning, December 6, 1898, when she saw the empty family buggy coming down the dirt road – the horse slowly plodding towards the barn. Bill Rich, her daddy, had his feet tied to the traces and was under the wagon, being drug home dead.
Murder was suspected and there were many prime suspects because Bill Rich O’Neal had whipped a lot of men in fist fights. The official cause of death, however, was finally listed as accidental.
Widowed for the second time, Addie’s mother, Nancy O’Neal, again ran the farm all by herself and her kids. She asked for no help from her relatives or neighbors. She raised her eight children and instilled in them a resolute, cynical attitude about life. Everyone described her as a hard woman. But they would say it with a smile. You did not mess with Nancy Talton Edwards O’Neal.
Addie O’Neal did not go to school beyond the third grade, quitting after she learned to read and write, a common practice for a farm girl in the Johnston County area of rural North Carolina around the turn of the century. She was expected to work beside her widowed mother tending the other kids and running the farm. Her younger brother, William Richardson “Rich” O’Neal III assumed many of the responsibilities of the man of the house. Like his father, Rich also became known as a brawler and a drinker. Having a quick temper, he did not hesitate to hit a man square in the mouth to end an argument. Despite this, he was a good farmer and accrued vast holdings of rich cotton farmland. He treated his tenant families harshly, but fairly.
One day Rich was on the porch of his house talking with some of his nephews when he saw a car coming down the road. One of his tenants was driving. Rich jumped off the porch, ran out into the road, stopped the car, jerked open the door on the driver’s side, pulled the tenant farmer out and beat him in the face. He returned to the porch as the man, beaten and bloody, slowly drove off. He did not explain to his nephews why he beat the man like he did. The nephews all had their mouths open in wonder as their Uncle Rich went back to talking about whatever it was he was talking about before giving the tenant that beating.
When he was thirty-six Rich was driving his Ford touring car down a country road, maybe drunk, when he came up behind a truck of convicts. Some of the convicts were sitting with their feet hanging over the back. Rich was alone in his car. Possibly one of the convicts balled up his fist or spit on his car … no one knows for sure. But whatever prompted him, Rich got angry and ran into the truck, causing the driver, a Mr. Wall, to stop. Rich got out of his car, yelling. Wall got out of the truck. Rich walked up and hit Wall in the head. Wall hit him back with a tire iron and Rich fell dead in the road.
The brawling, hard working, hard drinking Talton and O’Neal boys, Dad’s uncles.
Nancy O’Neal buried her son, maybe her favorite. She had buried her father and two husbands before him. She became more bitter and people kept their distance.
According to several accounts Addie grew up to be one of the most beautiful young women in the area. She was courted by several young men, including Joseph “Bud” Parker, from the prominent Parker family of Johnston County, descendants of Sir Walter Parker. Elijah, the patriarch, was known for his intelligence and integrity. He had joined the Confederate Army in March 1864, three days after his eighteenth birthday, and saw action in a number of battles throughout the South. He walked home barefoot after the war and saw how Sherman’s army had plundered the area as it pulled back to the north. Having seen many of his Southern farm friends die during the war and now seeing the destruction caused by Sherman forces, he pledged that he would never let a man stand before him and admit to being a Yankee. He’d kill him first. He told this often to his grandchildren. Although a religious and honorable man, his grandchildren believed that he would have certainly followed through on his pledge if any Northerner ventured out to the Parker farm.
The old man was also fond of saying that he had never shaved, never cursed an oath and never knew another woman but his wife. Late in life, with his white beard down to his waist, he was sought out for advice on farming and ethical questions from people throughout the community. He encouraged his children to achieve goals in life; most were educated as professionals, usually as lawyers or surveyors.
Influenced by his father, Bud Parker took the civil service exam as a young man and was hired by the postal service to deliver mail, a prestigious job. He became known and trusted as a federal messenger by the scattered, isolated farmers in the area. In addition to mail, he delivered national news, messages from one farm to the next and local gossip everywhere he went. And it was not lost on the farmers along his route that he was a member of the well-to-do Parker family.
He was twenty-three when he married Addie O’Neal.
She was seventeen. They first lived in a rented house in Selma, one of the largest settlements in Johnston County, but soon bought property and had a house built.James Earl Parker, my daddy, was born in that house. He was the fourth child. Wilma was the oldest, then Otis and Carl. Louise was born in the house two years after Daddy. Helen, Harold, Braxton and Willie Lee were born later.
Addie probably was pleased to leave the hard farm life and move to town. Knowing that her husband brought in a salary each month that could pay for groceries would have been a pleasant alternative to the hard life as a Johnson County farm girl. This marriage and move to Selma would have also meant escape from the hard bitten attitudes of her mother, Nancy.
Bud initially delivered the mail in a horse and buggy. Not long after he and Addie moved into their new house, he bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle and sold all the horses except his favorite, an old mare named Maud.
Elijah and Addie not long after they married
There were reports early on that Bud had contact with some known outlaws as he made his mail rounds and that he got along with thieves that hung out around a river crossing. Whatever the case, once he married Addie he became a fixture at Talton and O’Neal moonshine whiskey-drinking sessions.
During one drinking session, someone bet him that he couldn’t climb a bent-over tree on his motorcycle. He almost won that bet, as crazy as it was, but he slipped off the tree going full speed and wrecked his cycle.
Horse and carriage much like Elijah Parker drove
About the same time — maybe when he wrecked his Harley, but existing records are not clear — he lost some mail and ended up before a federal judge in 1916. His brother Zob, a lawyer, was able to keep him out of the penitentiary but he was fired from the postal service. My Daddy was just four years old.
Grandpa Elijah Parker did not turn his back on his son. He gave him one hundred acres of timber in the White Oak Hill area in the eastern part of the county and advised him to move his family out of town to the woodland.
Daddy remembers the move and the troubled times that followed.
“We had all our things in two borrowed two-horse wagons and a buggy. Ten miles out from Selma we stopped at Grandma Nancy O’Neal’s house to spend the night. The chickens stayed in the boxes on the wagon. The next day we moved on to our new home about seven miles further down the dirt road to the east. We had to ford several creeks along the way, there were no bridges. I remember as we finally approached the house on the edge of the woods that second day that I looked ahead and saw that it was little more than a shack with a lean-to off the back. An open well was in the front yard and before we got off the wagons Mamma warned all of us kids to stay away from the well or we would get a whipping. Except for Louise, who was only about two years old, everyone helped off-load the wagons, Carl and Otis helping Papa with the heavy cook stove and some of the furniture.
“To clear the land Papa set up a saw mill powered by a wood-fired steam engine. He used two black and white Holstein oxen to pull the logs to the mill.
“Preston Stancil was a black man who had been a friend of Papa’s for a long time. When we lived in Selma and Papa had the Harley Davidson motor bike, he and Preston would be seen roaring around the edge of town sometime in the early morning hours, Preston sitting on the back, holding Papa’s liquor in fruit jars.
“Preston Stancil showed up at the saw mill soon after Papa got it going. Papa probably got word to him to come help. Preston would drive the oxen and would sometime let me help him, but the oxen did not respond to me as readily as they did to him.
“There were hard times at White Oak Hill. Papa continued to drink and he squandered all the money he made at the saw mill. Within a year he had lost all the land and we were forced to move again.
“Papa left the area in search of work. Mamma had some of her brothers help us move to an old tenant house close to Grandma O’Neal. We tried to make ends meet that first winter without asking for a handout but it was tough. I remember one night the only thing we had to eat in the house was some parched field corn. That Christmas all Mamma could give us was half an apple with our names carved on the side.
“We finally moved in with Grandma O’Neal but it was crowded and we did not feel welcome. Uncle Rich was still alive, living at home. Uncle Will returned from the First World War, got married and he and his wife moved in.
“The boys, Rich and Will, finally convinced Grandma O’Neal to separate the land and to give Mamma a share, but Grandma O’Neal didn’t want to do this, because she was afraid that Papa would come back and sell off the land. But I remember Uncle Rich saying, ‘Mamma, Addie’s got to have some land for her and her young’uns. You give her a parcel.’ Uncle Rich was about the only person in the world to stand up to Grandma O’Neal and he prevailed. Mamma got 44 acres on the back side of the spread. Uncle Rich and Uncle Will framed a house on that land, put on a single roof, laid a board floor and cut some holes for windows and doors and we moved in. There were two rooms and no inside ceiling. Lying in bed at night you could look up and see the stars between the roof shingles. When it snowed, snow would fall on the bed quilts. One time it was raining so hard one of the girls had to make an umbrella out of a piece of oilcloth and put it over Mamma who was lying in bed with one of the babies. But it was home. We called it the homeplace.
“Papa came back not long after we moved in. Just came walking down the dirt road into the yard. Mamma saw him coming. I remember looking at her. She showed no expression and did not respond when Papa walked up on the porch and said, ‘hello.’”
“Papa moved back in and began fixing up the house, making it more livable. He cleared some land to give the farm more plowing fields and cut and dressed the wood to make a barn. Relatives on both sides of the family, happy to see Mamma and Papa back together, showed up for a barn raising. Over the course of two days a new two-story barn was built.
“Preston Stancil showed up soon after Papa returned and helped Papa build a smokehouse, a chicken coup, a pack house and a log tobacco barn, and he worked with a group of well diggers to dig a deep well in the back yard.
“The family was as happy as any time I can remember. When Papa had finished most of the heavy work, Preston Stancil moved on. Don’t know how he and Papa stayed in touch, but when Papa was around, every time he needed help, Preston Stancil showed up.
“Like when the flu epidemic of 1918 struck. Mamma and all six children were sick in bed. Papa stayed up even though he was sick too. People would bring pots of soup, and put them inside the crude cut windows, careful to keep a cloth over their face to keep from catching our flu. Preston Stancil reappeared during the worst of the flu and he helped Papa keep a fire going day and night, milked the cow, cared for the hogs and mules and even washed the clothes. I have clear memories of the house smelling of vomit and diarrhea. Although thousands of people died from the flu, everyone in our family survived.
“After the flu epidemic had passed, Papa got restless and hired on with the Fuller brush company travelling the eastern part of the state as a door-to-door salesman. He would come back home periodically. Mamma was neither happy nor sad to see him coming or going.
“One night when he was home we were all sitting around the fireplace in Mamma’s room. Us kids were huddled in close for the light to do our homework. Papa was tending the fire and Mamma was in the rocker off to the side. There was a heavy knock on the door.
“I ran up behind the door so that I could see out the crack when Papa opened it. There on the porch and in the front yard stood ten or fifteen Klu Klux Klan members in white robes and hoods. Some were holding torches. One man standing in front said to Papa, ‘It has come to our attention that you are neglecting your wife and children. If you don’t straighten up we will put you over a log and beat you. Do you understand, Parker?’
“Papa said he did and closed the door. We heard them walking around the house before they left. We sat in front of the fire with our eyes wide, scared to death.
“Later Papa accused Mamma and her brothers of asking the Klan to come by and talk to him.
“Around 1919 or so my best friends were William and Edward Neal. Their daddy, Gus Neal, was a tenant on Uncle Will’s farm. They were about my age and size. We dressed alike. In the summer we wore patched overalls and each had a straw hat. No shoes, no underwear. We liked to wrestle. Sometimes we’d just be standing there when suddenly the urge to wrestle would come over us and we’d jump one another. One of our favorite things was going swimming at the Brantley Dean Hole on Little River. It was a deep, wide place in the river where a boy named Brantley Dean had drowned years before. When we’d go to the river we’d pull off our overalls on the river bank and jump in the water buck naked. Sometimes Uncle Will would go with us. I remember he threw each one of us in the first time we went, which was his way of teaching us how to swim. I almost drowned then. I was yelling for Mamma, flailing my arms, kicking for all I was worth to make it to the shore.
“We’d go possum hunting together in the winter and we had five or six rabbit traps each which we’d set around the farm. When the weather got warmer we’d also go cat-fishing. We’d get a cord and fix five or six lines on it, tie hooks to the lines and bait them with dough. We’d tie the cord between trees across the river and we’d go down and check the lines ten or eleven o’clock at night and again in the morning. We’d always get fish.
“I joined the church during a revival at Antioch Church and was baptized in Little River. Several weeks later the Neal boys and I were swimming at the same place in the river and we made our way to the bank where we talked about religion. We got serious and decided that since I had been baptized, I could baptize the others. There was no joking, it was as solemn an occasion as young boys could handle. I baptized those boys remembering the words as best I could from my baptism. We felt a close kinship with our God and amongst ourselves when we finished.
“The Neal boys were black and did not attend school. As we approached our teen years and began to understand the rules of the grownup world we separately came to realize that there were different standards for blacks and whites. I did not understand the reasons for this. Stella Neal, William and Edward’s mother was the finest lady I knew as a boy. I often ate at their house . . . us boys had to stand at the dinner table, we couldn’t sit, I don’t know why. Gus Neal would say grace before we ate and the food was good. Stella Neal was warm and loving and during the meals or later on the porch she would ask me questions and listened when I talked. I used to want Mamma to be more like Stella Neal.
“In 1923, when I was eleven, my brother, Carl, and I were playing in the homeplace. In one of the rooms we found a .22 rifle that we thought was unloaded. I had the gun, Carl was climbing up on something. The gun went off. Carl was hit in the head and died a few days later.
“Mamma was devastated by Carl’s suffering and death. I was responsible for what happened, she said. It was my fault.
“I knew that. I was so sorry. It was all I knew to say, I was so sorry. I said it a thousand times and cried and cried. Mamma made me sleep in the barn.
“Carl held on for a few days before he died. I remember screaming and wailing from his room when he finally passed.
“Papa was working in the railroad shops in Rocky Mount at the time. After the funeral he took me back with him. We hopped a long train about three miles from our house and rode it to Kenly. It went very slow. I remember the engineer knew we were on it but did not try to throw us off. Possibly because I had to work to keep the thought of Carl’s death out of my mind, I focused on everything happening around me. I remember looking out, seeing houses and empty fields pass. The train had a wood-fired engine and stopped along the way to add wood and water. In Kenly, Papa bought tickets for us to ride in the passenger train to Rocky Mount. I stayed with him for about two weeks, sitting outside in the yard of his boarding house while he worked. It was good for me to get away from Mamma and the sadness around the homeplace, but I was lonely. I wanted Mamma to forgive me.
“I returned home and was able to keep my head up for a few weeks. Mamma had few kind words for me, however, and she rarely looked at me. Grandma O’Neal also held me responsible, and she was distant and unfriendly. I left home later that year.
“Mamma knew I was packing my few clothes but did not stop me. I walked to Zebulon, a nearby town where my oldest sister, Wilma, had lived when she went to high school, and enrolled myself in the sixth grade of the Wakeland county school. I was staying in an abandoned dormitory when some of the teachers at the school found I was living there and had no food. They asked me to stay with them at the teacherage and I did, firing the furnace for my room and board. I also got other jobs. I helped the janitors every day at the schoolhouse and kept the gas records for the school buses. On Saturdays I worked in a dry-cleaning plant.
“We had only used spoons on the farm and I was overwhelmed when I had to eat with knives and forks at the table with the teachers. I had no idea how to use them. I was only twelve, a country bumpkin kid at the table with all those strange, educated people. Plus I was still very much affected by the accident and I was withdrawn. I usually kept my eyes down and avoided conversation. One evening we had chicken and I was trying to cut it with my knife and fork and the piece I was working on went sailing across the table and hit a teacher. I was going to get up and leave the table–I was trying not to cry–but they were so nice, they all tried to make me feel better. I felt awful and out of place.
“I went back home at the end of that school year because my oldest sister Wilma told me it was the best thing. It was difficult living with Mamma in the years that followed. Once, when Wilma was back at the homeplace, she and I were talking and Mamma walked up and hurt me so by the things she said, I put all my clothes in a flour sack and left, crying as I walked along the dirt road away from the house, having no idea where I was going. Wilma ran after me yelling that she loved me and not to leave. Mamma did not look up when we walked back in the house.
“And it never got better. She never forgave me for killing Carl.
“All she had to do was smile and say it was O.K. But she never did.”
Daddy’s sister, my aunt Wilma, said that their Mamma had been terribly hurt over Carl’s death, “because he was maybe her favorite. Carl was more and more taking over running the farm in Papa’s absence. And it was the O’Neal, Talton nature to be hurtful. Nancy Talton was as mean a woman as I ever knew. Yes, Mamma said things that she shouldn’t have to Earl, she was just so sad over Carl’s lingering death. But you have to understand, she was a Talton. That’s what they do.”
Wilma always understood what was going on and she was always supportive of her family. Even when she was very young — five years old — when things were tough, she would tell her Mamma, “It’s going to be OK. Everything’s going to be all right.” And she spoke with such conviction, she could see that her Mamma believed her . . . even though things had never been OK with the family. She would say later that she had no way to know if things would get better, but she just knew it was what her family needed to hear.
The fall when she was six years old, after the crops had been put in, Wilma, as the oldest child, was the first to walk the four miles from the homeplace to the two-room Sandy Springs school house. The first through fourth grades were in the room on the left, the fifth through seventh on the right.
There she entered another world. She would say later that she found “magic” in the school books. She loved school! Loved learning! Could not get enough of the Sandy Springs world! Arithmetic! Writing! Reading! Science! Some of the lessons almost took her breath away. She would walk back to the homeplace after school at times, reading her books.
When she went through all the books available in the room on the left, she was given books from the fifth grade, then six, then seventh.
When she was ten years old she entered the fifth grade, taught in the room on the right, and she started doing seventh grade work. By the time she actually got to the seventh grade, at 13, she knew every answer to every question in every book at Sandy Springs. She helped teach not only the seventh grade, but every grade at Sandy Springs.
My father in his early teens, wearing a hat, shirt, tie, vest, suit
and new shoes his sister Wilma bought for him to show him
how handsome a young man he could look. Despite the effort
to boost his morale, he has a haunting, melancholy visage.
And she loved it! She ran to school every morning!
When she finished the seventh grade she had no choice but end her education. No other school was nearby. She wanted to go to high school, but the closet one was in Selma and no one in her family knew anyone in town she could stay with. She resigned herself to the fact that she had finished school and would work at the homeplace until she got married.
One day that summer when the kids were picking cotton on property their mother had rented from Aunt Emma, they saw a man and a woman drive up to the homeplace in a little Ford Runabout. This was not a usual event so the kids stood by their sacks of cotton and stared.
Addie Parker, their Mamma, had come out on the porch and was talking to a man and a woman who had gotten out of the car. They could not hear, but the man asked if she knew a Wilma Parker. Mamma had never seem them before and asked, “Why do you want to know?”
The man said he was Mr. Odom, the principal of the Wakeland School in Zebulon, and he had made the necessary arrangements for Wilma to go to his high school, if she wanted.
The kids saw Mamma pointing in their direction and they all became fearful as the sophisticated couple began walking across the cotton field toward them. They could only imagine that one or the other of them was in some terrible trouble.
As they approached, the man and woman were smiling. When they determined which of the kids was Wilma, they said they had heard that she had been teaching at the Sandy Springs school and they wanted to propose that she come to Zebulon to continue her education. They had arranged for her to stay at the home of Mr. Massey, a local banker. If she wanted.
And boy did she wanta!
Addie put all her clothes in one small paper bag. Wilma climbed into the jump seat of Mr. Odom’s runabout. The kids were jumping and yelling in the yard, watching her go. Wilma remembers looking back at her siblings and thinking how will they get along now?
To earn her keep Wilma did chores around the Massey house. She would get up early in the morning and build a fire in the coal cook stove and then go milk the cow. In the afternoon she would let the cow graze on the school ground. She also watched over the two young Massey children.
Wilma returned to the homeplace every summer to work on the farm, but only once during her four years at high school did anyone from the family visit her. That was when her Mamma made her some bloomers and a petticoat. She and Otis took the horse and buggy and drove all the way to Zebulon to deliver those clothes to her.
For Wilma’s high school graduation Mrs. Massey bought her a blue and white crepe dress from a local dressmaker. Wilma was the oldest child so no one from the family had yet gone to high school. At that time no one at the homestead knew what “graduation” was all about. So no one from the family attended hers.
Few girls in North Carolina went to college in the 1930s. That just wasn’t done so much anywhere in the state. Plus Wilma didn’t have a dime to pay for tuition and there was no such thing as scholarships or student loans. And why did a farm girl need “higher” education? Although Wilma desperately wanted to go on to college, it was too outrageous to discuss. She also had felt that she had been a terrible imposition on others by just going to high school. So she returned to the homeplace after she graduated high school and started working in the fields again, resigned to doing right by her family.
Mr. Odom, the Zebulon principal, went to school at Columbia University in New York City that summer and roomed with a professor named Mather at East Carolina Teachers College. Mr. Odom told him about Wilma, this bright little farm girl who had taught the seventh grade when she was thirteen years old and left home to get a high school education. Professor Mather, who was president of the East Carolina school at one time, said he would help her go on to college if she wanted.
Mr. Odom wrote to Wilma — all her siblings remembered when she got the letter — and told her about Professor Mather’s offer. Wilma, of course, accepted. At the end of the summer Uncle Will took her to the train depot in Middlesex where she boarded a train going to Greenville, North Carolina, the home of East Carolina Teachers College.
Away at East Carolina and later working, Wilma kept in contact with each of her brothers and sisters. Each one thought that Wilma saw the very best in them and encouraged them to make the most of their lives.
One Christmas she bought a basketball for the boys and hid it in the hay in the barn. The boys found it early. They played with it but hid it back in the hay so she wouldn’t know. They almost burst with excitement waiting for Christmas day. Sometimes they would go out, uncover the ball, and just look at it.
Once the bank threatened to repossess the two mules, Nell and Kate, because Mamma couldn’t pay the $200 note. Wilma went to the bank and arranged to make regular payments until the $200 debt was cleared. Later, after she was teaching, she bought the family a Model T car and a new Victrola and records. The siblings’ favorite song was “Blue Hawaii Waltz.”
When she would come back to the homeplace she and my Dad would go off and talk. My father hung on her every word. She insisted that he was bright and resourceful and handsome and had a great future. Dad said he did not know that until she told him. She said she was sure and Daddy believed her.
He worked at the farmers market in Raleigh, North Carolina, after high school, unloading farmers’ wagons and trucks for pennies and nickels. He had no career plans. Aunt Wilma insisted that he go to college, but Daddy didn’t know where to start to do that. So Aunt Wilma, who started teaching school even before she got her teaching certificate, investigated and got Dad enrolled at Mars Hill College in the mountains of western North Carolina. If Dad maintained a full time job as a cook in the school’s cafeteria, his tuition would be paid.
So Dad went to Mars Hill and worked in the kitchen of the cafeteria for two years without going back to the homeplace. The only spending money he had for those two years were the one dollar bills his sister Wilma always enclosed in her letters.
Wilma influenced all her brothers and sisters in positive ways. She co-signed a note at the bank that allowed Otis to buy his own farm. Louise became a teacher. So did Braxton. She helped Helen get a good job in Raleigh. She encouraged Harold to leave the homestead and strike out on his own.
Wilma was in contact with Daddy almost every week. He graduated college and got a job with GMAC. He traveled the state in a brand new company car, meeting with car dealers, repossessing cars from people who were behind in their payments, and making what to him was an enormous salary.
Wilma took on her youngest sibling, Willie Lee, as her prize project. She didn’t give anyone else the feeling that she thought less of them, but it was obvious that she saw something special in that young man. Every week as he finished high school she wrote, or called, to find out what he was doing. The most handsome of all the children and the smartest, Willie Lee was also his mother’s favorite. This was because he was her youngest but there was something more. He was personable and charming even though his mother was dour and angry about her hard life. Like Carl had done when he was alive, Willie Lee made her smile. She was so proud of him.
When Willie Lee was finishing high school in the early l940s Daddy told his sister Wilma that he wanted to repay the kindness she had shown him by paying for Willie Lee’s education. He was making a good living at the time. Daddy went to the old homeplace where Willie Lee was living with Mamma Parker to tell him that he should go to whatever school he wanted because Daddy was going to pick up the bill. Mamma Parker was fixing supper when Daddy made the offer to Willie Lee at the kitchen table. She made no comment.
With GMAC my father by all accounts was quite the lady’s man, wearing tailor-made suits, as he traveled the state in his new cars. Asked about this years later his sister Louise just rolled her eyes when asked if Dad enjoyed the ladies as a young man. His sister Helen said that Dad was the most handsome man she had ever known.
Dad enjoyed his work, although it had its risks. Once he went to repossess a car owned by a couple of brothers. When they caught him quietly trying to push the car out of their driveway, they beat him and kicked him, splitting his lower lip. Another time Dad found a car he had to repossess sitting in the driveway of a house. A big man came to the door when Dad knocked. Dad told him what he had to do and the man said he’d kill Dad if he touched the car. The door was slammed shut in his face. Dad figured the man was bluffing, so he got in the car and drove it away.
Another time, near Aberdeen, North Carolina, he repossessed a car. As he was towing it back to the dealer, he happened upon two others cars that were on his list to repossess. So he went to a nearby farm and bought two lengths of chain and two iron pipes. He left the first repossessed car at the farmer’s house while he went and snatched the first of the second two. He brought it back to the farmer’s house, then went to get the third one. Back at the farmer’s house he lined the three cars up behind his own. He threaded the chain through the pipe so the cars did not rear-end each other. He slowly drove to Aberdeen and turned them over to Mr. Seymour, the Chevy dealer there. He was feeling sorta proud of himself for inventing a way to pull three cars at once. Seymour, however, yelled at him, “You half-witted nincompoop. Those last two cars are from two hard working farmers who I made arrangements with so they pay when their crops came in. Now it looks like I wasn’t good to my word.”
Daddy came upon the lady who would become my mother, Vera Edwards, in Aberdeen. She was raised on a farm near Charlotte by a very stern taskmaster mother and a quiet and gentle father, a Primitive Baptist minister. Her father would leave the farmhouse Sunday mornings early to minister a different church every week of the month. He didn’t like having his picture taken. He never raised his voice, never cussed, and worked hard every day but Sunday. Although pleasant in manner, he didn’t see much to laugh about in life, which to him was a serious God-watched endeavor.
As Mom was finishing high school, a well-to-do member of one of her father’s churches stopped by the farm to ask Mr. Edwards if Mom would be willing to go to beauty school in Norfolk, Virginia, with his daughter. The man was uncomfortable with her going so far away alone. Granddaddy thought about it and prayed. He finally said, “OK.” Mother was ecstatic.
She was overwhelmed, however, with the number of sailors in Norfolk at the time. Some would follow her and her friends from school all the way to the boarding house where they stayed. Some also peered in the windows at night. Mom thought it was a vicious world out away from the farm.
She finished beauty school and got a job as a hairdresser in Aberdeen, North Carolina, only to find within a year that the owner wanted to sell out and retire. Her father went to a local bank and co-signed a note for the down payment. The previous owner set up a repayment plan for the balance. Barely in her 20s, Mom was in business for herself. Within a few years, she had the busiest hair salon in town. Men coming into town from the farms would often hang out at the barber shop. The women went to Mom’s hair salon. Some came in just to talk after shopping,
Lady Clare Beauty Shop 1936
She was engaged to a businessman in a neighboring town when she met Dad, who stayed periodically at the rooming house where she lived. Dad was also engaged to someone else, but he and Mom started seeing each other as often as they could. One Sunday they were out driving around in Daddy’s company car and he asked her if she would like to go to South Carolina. She asked what for and he said to get married. She thought just a minute before saying, “OK.”
Mom and Dad about the time of their marriage in 1939
In short order Daddy grew tired of traveling away from his new bride. They sold her beauty shop when she became pregnant in 1939, and Dad used the money to buy the town’s ice and coal company. It was during the war years and Dad sold coal and ice to nearby Fort Bragg. He worked hard, his venture was successful and he established a reputation for fairness and dependability. After the war he expanded to fuel oil, then propane gas, then appliances, then a jewelry store. He bought land, apartment houses and home tracts. Black Americans made up a large part of his new customer base. Segregated in education and restaurants in this small Southern town, Dad treated each with sincere respect that must have gone back to his early contact with Preston Stancil and the Neal tenant family. His customers paid when they could. None went cold in the winter. I worked for Dad at what we called the “plant” when I was eight and nine years old. I can remember him getting up from his desk when some of the older black women came in, and in talking with them, taking their hand in a brotherly way and asking after their health and their children. He was as respectful to them when they were in the office and as he was later after they had left.
“Now don’t you let me forget to take Miss Sarah a bag of coal this Thursday, she ain’t coming to town. She’s depending on us.”
My father’s youngest brother, Willie Lee, was valedictorian of his high school class. He received several small scholarship offers and in the end decided to attend Atlantic Christian College. Daddy helped pay his first year tuition from money he made at his new ice and coal business. Willie Lee excelled in his college studies. He developed a close personal relationship with the campus chaplain, an ordained Baptist minister, and made the decision late in his freshman year to seek a degree in theology.
He graduated magna cum laude from Atlantic Christian and was accepted into Yale University’s seminary. He graduated three years later with his doctorate in theology. Daddy helped pay the costs and sat in the first pew when Willie Lee was welcomed as the assistant minister of the largest Baptist church in Raleigh, North Carolina, the flagship church of the Southern Baptist Federation.
Willie Lee met a beautiful Canadian girl attending Yale. They married and had a son the first year he was the assistant minister. Members of the extended Parker family regularly made trips to Raleigh to hear him preach. When he substituted for the regular minister, most of his siblings as well as his Mamma would be in the congregation. I remember sitting in the front of that church looking up at my uncle in awe. He was enormously impressive standing in the pulpit, speaking so eloquently, with such authority, dressed in a black robe with a colorful sash. My father often told me to emulate my Uncle Willie Lee, to make something big of myself. I remember thinking that I was not up to being as important as he was. He was an unassailable family hero in those years, the brightest star in the Talton, Edwards, O’Neil, Parker clan. I can remember after attending one of his sermons sitting as close as I could to him at the family lunch meal and listened to his lively, often funny conversation with his extended family. Intelligent, urbane and self-confident, he was miles more sophisticated than anyone I knew.
In April l954 Daddy got a telephone call from Aunt Wilma. Willie Lee had just been there, she said, and had told her he was a homosexual. He said he had always felt that he was as he was growing up. Willie Lee told his sister Wilma that he had recently met a man who was open about his homosexuality and this man had introduced him into that lifestyle. Through him Willie Lee met another man who he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. He was leaving his wife, his son and the church. He said he was going to work with the North Carolina symphony so that he could be close to this man.
Daddy had to sit down. He was dumbstruck. He didn’t know what questions to ask Wilma. It was more than he could imagine. He called Willie Lee at home in Raleigh. His wife said that he hadn’t returned from Wilma’s house but she would have him call Daddy when he got back. Which he did. He repeated everything he had told Wilma. He didn’t sound embarrassed or guilty. He had no remorse and said he was looking forward to his new life. When he laughed at Daddy’s suggestion that he seek some type of psychological help, Daddy got mad and told him that he was going to hold him responsible for all the money he had put out on Willie Lee’s tuition. Ten thousand dollars, Daddy quickly figured. Willie Lee was silent for a few moments. He then offered some words of condolence to Daddy because he could not understand. Daddy, angry, confused, at a loss for words, hung up on him.
Later Mother explained what had happened to my sisters and me. A young teenager in a small Southern town, I only had an awkward, incomplete understanding of the homosexual’s world. I tried to reconcile what I knew about “queers” with my uncle, but they didn’t connect. Mother, a wonderfully kind and considerate person, told us that we should not judge our uncle for what he was doing, or our father for not having the ability to understand. For us now, it was to accept what has happened as something over which we had no control. We each deal with life differently. This was not a time to try and understand what was happening, as much as to accept.
Whatever, Uncle Willie Lee was rarely ever mentioned again in our house.
In the February 1974 Mamma Parker’s health began to fail. Her children were called to Aunt Wilma’s, where she was staying, to be with her during her last moments. Because she had dementia, there were some days that she laid in bed with her mouth open as if in the middle of a silent scream. Other days she was lucid. Mother later told us that when she and Daddy arrived, there toward the end, she was having one of her better days. Mother stayed outside her room when Daddy went in to say good-bye. Aunt Wilma and Uncle Braxton were standing off to the side. Daddy sat in the straight-back chair near the bed and reached out for his mother’s hand. She appeared to be sleeping but as she felt someone’s hand on hers she opened her eyes and a smile came to her lips. She turned and saw Daddy. She stopped smiling and just looked at him with an empty gaze.
Daddy put his head down, crying. “Mamma,” he said, “I love you. I’m so sorry. So sorry. Please forgive me. Please.”
Momma Parker, as mean a woman as walked this good earth
His mother pulled her hand from Daddy’s grasp, turned her head and closed her eyes.
Aunt Wilma got her teaching certificate from East Carolina College, an A.B. in education from Atlantic Christian College and, eventually, her master’s from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She taught in North Carolina public schools for seventy-five years. At the end, in her nineties, she drove around Johnston County in the early evening, picking up Mexican farm workers and their wives. Taking them to the community college, she taught them English as a second language for two hours and then drove them home.
I told her once, “Aunt Wilma, you taught school in North Carolina for seventy-five years. I bet you had some really, really smart students in that time.” And she said yes she did. And I said, “I bet you also had some real losers, some real deadbeats, too, huh?” And she said no, every one of her students was good. She loved every precious one. Every one was special.
“There was one black boy, a student of mine,” she went on to say, “who I was talking to because he wasn’t doing any homework after school. He’d leave and not crack a book until he came back the next day. I was getting after him to study, and he told me, anger in his voice, “You can’t understand my situation. You ain’t black. They don’t call you nigger boy. Your Mamma ain’t drunk most of the time when you come home. And you got food in the refrigerator. Unless I get out on the street and hustle, we ain’t got nothing. Don’t tell me what is right and wrong where I live.’
And I told him, ‘You listen to me. You had no choice about being born black or white, you had no choice about being born a boy or a girl, smart or ugly, tall or short, you had no choice to be born here or the finest home in the world. You had no choice. Your mother drinks. You had no choice, but you can choose to make something of your life. You can choose to study and learn and be happy. There is magic in these books. There isn’t any magic out there on drug streets. Look at me, listen. I love you. Your life will be defined by the choices you make. You. Your choices. Not by what you had no choice over. Go on like you are -without realizing that you can make a difference in your life – and you will be poor and unhappy. Or you can choose a happy life that comes from making good choices. Don’t tell me I don’t understand. You don’t understand, but that’s why I’m here. That’s God’s purpose for me. To help you understand.’”
My Uncle Willie Lee went from the North Carolina symphony to New York where he had a number of jobs associated with NYC fine arts. He then began remodeling famous old homes. He and his life partner, Russell Peachey, renovated and operated the guest house Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy stayed in at Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, during the July 18, 1969, incident in which Kennedy drove an Oldsmobile off a wooden bridge into a pond. He escaped but his passenger, Mary Joe Kopechne, died. Willie Lee moved to Costa Rica in the 1980s; he owned and operated a boutique hotel and restaurant there. When he became sick, he returned to North Carolina. He died near Christmas 2000, alone in a trailer near where he was born.
Here’s what his son Alan Parker had to say:
“In New York, Dad worked for a large, well-endowed non-governmental charitable foundation (I don’t know which one but it would have been part of the Rockefeller-Getty bunch), and taught English at a university — City College, I think — there before opening a chain of bookstores in the wealthy bedroom communities around NYC. He was able to sell the bookstores just before they went bankrupt and used the proceeds of the sale to buy the two old, derelict sea captains’ houses on Martha’s Vineyard Island that became the Shiretown Inn, where Ted Kennedy was staying when he drowned Mary Jo Kopeckne in 1969.
Willie Lee Parker
“Back in New York City in the early 1960s, I still remember Dad driving around Harlem (this was before the riots and race wars) in an enormous white convertible with the top down and me perched up on top of the back seat. He obviously spent a lot of time in the Harlem jazz club scene — and whatever else — because he’d cruise slowly along, stopping a couple of times every block to chat to people he knew walking along or sitting on the stoops of buildings. It was such a different time and place.
And later Alan wrote the following to his children:
“My father – your grandfather – was an amazing, complicated, charismatic, tortured, brilliant, narcissistic, charming, infuriating, lying, cheating, loyal, demanding, evasive, adventurous, angry, maudlin, expansive, curious, compelling man. He was defined to a large degree by his sexuality and his alcoholism (a family tendency) but even more so by his family and upbringing. Although he was the unexpected “baby” of the large family and his mother’s favourite, she was emotionally cold and aloof apparently and left much of his upbringing to his older sisters. I think he just didn’t have some of those very early emotional bonding switches turned on in his psyche, which accounted to some degree for his narcissism and mild sociopathy. We had a very stormy relationship – he often kicked me out of his house — but I enjoyed his company tremendously most of the time and life around my father was always an adventure and an education in life. I think it’s safe to say we loved each other in our own ways.”
My father lived his life as best he could, forever carrying the burden of his guilt about his brother Carl’s accidental death in 1923. He never ever got very far away from that. Demons razed his soul. Life would be going good in the large home he provided for his family in Southern Pines, North Carolina, and then he would turn melancholy. Mom knew that there was nothing to say or do except to let his mood run its course. Sometimes he would take Joe Petty, a black man who worked for him, or his brother Harold, to the old abandoned homeplace and stay drunk for a few days or a week. These episodes happened once or twice every year after his mother died. When Dad came home, he would sober up and go back to work.
But Dad’s guilt always lurked. It was a mean spirited, unrelenting five hundred pound emotional gorilla shitting on everything positive that came his way. Not a moment in his life were things completely good. Always at the base of his existence, peeking around from behind the good times, was his sense of guilt. There was only one person who could have forgiven him. Even on her death bed, she had refused to do it.
Dad died of Alzheimer’s in 2002. Mom preceded him in death by ten years, dying of a heart attack while on a Caribbean cruise.
As my Aunt Wilma would say, I had no choice about Mom and Dad for my parents… but – like Alan said about his Dad – I am so humbly thankful….
Mom and Dad in their 60s