While we hear a lot today about African-Americans who walk around with their pants around their knees, father children out of wedlock and refuse to work, their own history is replete with figures who knew the real meaning of pride, work ethic and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, and this column is about one of those.
It’s about a man who probably never made more than a few dollars an hour and labored his entire life in the farming industry at a time when being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time was very dangerous. Back in the summer of ‘68 you would find him atop an open 18-wheeler trailer shoveling peanuts.
I met him that year while going to school at Georgia Southern and working summers for the Rushing Peanut Company. Eddie Rushing was the owner and manager and handled day-to-day operations, as they say. A rotund guy, very likeable and fair-minded with us “workers,” black and white. Maybe one day we will be able to say, “with us workers” without a caveat, but ... can’t do that today. Besides, this is not about the white guy, but about an old black guy. Eddie was a white guy.
Well, odds are you were white if you owned a business as large as a peanut company in 1968 in Georgia. Farmers who owned and worked acres would bring their wagons of peanuts into Rushing Peanut Company for weighing, storing and loading on trucks bound for Virginia and other states that would turn the raw peanuts into peanut butter or something else good to eat. Jacob (I never knew his last name) was 70 years old when he worked for Eddie. I know this because we young, white college boys would marvel at his ability to outwork three of us, and so we asked him one day about his age. Seventy it was and, of course, he was lean and white-headed.
His job was to shovel the peanuts around in the trailer so that as many as possible made the trip to Virginia. It started at 7 a.m. when the farmers would line up down Zetterhour Street to have their peanuts weighed and then blown into the warehouse and went on until dark each day for weeks. Our job was to get into the peanut trailer as it was over the dryer, slide down with the peanuts and scrape them into the dryer for blowing into the warehouse. Then it was into the warehouse to shovel them around for maximum storage and blowing into the trailers.
There was a “mountain” of peanuts in the warehouse and Jacob would be outside waiting for them to be blown out a large tube and into the trailer. He was a small fellow but could work all day with few breaks and keep up with whatever was blown his way. At the end of the day, covered with peanut dust, he would climb down from the trailer and head to wherever he lived.
Each Friday, Eddie would bring a pickup truck full of beer onto the property and share it with the “workers” but Jacob never stayed to drink. I think about this man often when reading stories of racial strife in America, wondering why he never stayed to drink a beer with the white boys, preferring instead to “take a few home” for the wife. Maybe it was because he knew the conversation around the truck would be about hope, a future, lives of leisure, money to spend, and he just didn’t want to hear any of that. I think, for him, a good day was just being able to work one more day.
He was one of many in ‘68, and I wonder what he would say to those who have opportunity staring them in the face today but want to dwell on years they know nothing about. Jacob left his mark on me, and I’m sure others, as he “represented” a people who worked, in spite of it all. Some of those who claim to “represent” today are sorely missing the mark.
Sonny Harmon is a professor emeritus at Georgia Military College. Visit his blog at http://sharmon09.blogspot.com.