Editor’s note: The following was shared with the Standard Journal by local historian Gregory Gray, and due to the length of the remembrances within it has been split up into three parts for publication over the coming weeks. Thanks again to Mr. Gray for his help in celebrating 150 years of history here at the Standard Journal. Those who want to suggest a topic can email email@example.com. — KM
I recall that my mother would sometimes go with me Saturday mornings to see that the chimneys of the kerosene lamps were cleaned properly, the wicks trimmed so that they would not smoke and that everything was so well done that I would not lose my job.
I wonder if this training to efficient work by my mother when I was twelve ears old is not the cause of my never losing a job during my more than sixty years of work as an educator for my state. One of the songs that she often sang to us was “Cheer, Boys, Cheer, there’s wealth for the honest labor.”
One of the maxims she said to us thousands of times were, “What man has done, man can do.” Her songs and sayings incited her children to strive for the best and the highest values in life and she made us feel that we were capable of achieving them for ourselves.
She was truly a marvelous mother. Her going with me on many Saturday to the Baptist Church during the two years while I was janitor there to show me what I should do and how I should do it in order to earn wages was characteristic of her relation to every step I took. I felt like her loving intelligent eye and helpful had was on everything I did.
I felt like that she expected me to be brave as the bravest, as truthful as the truest, as kind as the kindest, as industrious as anybody could be, and that if I would be all these my life would be worth living. I recall failing to be these several times.
I recall “telling stories” on certain occasions and failing many times in other ways to behave as I knew my mother expected me to behave; but in time I came to understand that truthfulness and kindness and honesty and industry, which my parents exemplified are the greatest values in life. I am still striving to attain them.
One incident while I was janitor at the old Baptist church has often been in my memory during g the sixty-five years since it happened, perhaps because the emotions aroused on that occasion were so intense that my body was quivering from heat to foot.
This was in the church one Sunday might just after dark. I lighted most of the kerosene lamps of which there wee Twenty, two on the pulpit, six on the walls on each side, two on the back wall of the congregation and four in the chandelier hanging in the middle of the church.
I then proceeded to ring the large bell that was in the belfry, by pulling the end or the rope that reached to the floor directly under it. To my dismay the part of the rope which was in the wheel of the belfry came loose and the whole rope came tumbling down struck me on the head and shoulders and almost knocked me down.
Realizing that the people would not come to church until they heard the bell, whose ringing, could be heard not only trough the town but far into the country as well, I felt that I must ring it, if possible. My heart sank within me when I thought that in order to ring it it was necessary to go outside that church and into the graveyard back of it and climb some outside stairs that led to the gallery inside the church, made for the use of the slaves who attended church there before the civil was.
I could see from where I stood a ladder leaning from the front end of the gallery and reaching to the attic, and I knew there was a ladder in the attic that led to the belfry, which had a trap door that could be pushed aside by one who wished to enter the belfry. I knew that having once entered the belfry I could by lying down on the floor under the bell catch a clapper in my hand and swing it to make it strike.
I had been to the belfry several times and knew it was possible for me to get there and ring the bell, but when I thought of the graveyard and eh white stones in the darkness through which I had to pass to reach the stairs back of the church and of the darkness of the attic in which I had to climb a long ladder to the belfry my heart sank down further.
My courage almost failed. I recall that I stood for quite a while while visualizing the dangers, and feeling the terrors of the graveyard and the attic.
I felt, however, that I could ring the bell and that I must do it. So, out of the church I went into the grave, then climbed the outside stairs, not trusting myself to look behind me lest I should see a ghost. Having reached the outside stair case, I opened the door to the gallery which was dimly lighted by the lamp below. I shut the door behind me quickly to be sure that the ghost did not follow.
I then walked along the gallery to the front of the church where a ladder reached the attic. I climbed the ladder at the top of which was a trap door. This I pushed aside. I then entered the attic, which was utterly dark. I knew there was in it a ladder reaching to the belfry, but the darkness was so dense that I could not see it and fount if after considerable groping in the dark.
Having found the ladder, I started climbing it, but had climbed only a few rungs when to my horror I heard the whir of the wings of an owl which flew so close to me that I could feel the air stirred by it on my face and hands. I was scared so badly that I shook from head to foot.
I stood for some seconds, my hands clasping a rung of the ladder which also shook. I almost fainted from fear, but in a few minutes my courage came back and I started climbing the ladder again, and went on up to the top where there was a trap door. I recall seeing stars as I climbed into the belfry and feeling the awfulness of their silence.
I then lay down flat of my back on the floor of the belfry right under the bell. Grasping the clapper I swung it from side to side of the bell until the usual firing of the bell for church services were completed.
By that time my panic was over, my shivering has ceased, and with little trepidation I made my way down the ladder through the attic, walked through the old slave gallery to the rear of the church, opened the door on the graveyard, but I ran down the stairs leading to the ground, still afraid to look behind me lest a ghost was there.
I ran to the front entrance to the church. I them lighted the rest of the lamps and soon the people began entering the front doors. They were not aware how much suffering their twelve year old janitor had undergone to ring the bell for that service.
My fright that might was so great and my struggles to overcome it so tremendous that after 65 yrs I can recall every moment of the trip to and from the belfry. What occurs in moments of deep emotion is never forgotten. I recall this whole occasion now in its every detail and I recall it with delight, but it was agony then.
I do not recall an incident in (m)y entire life that was quite so thrilling to as that was. Certainly I have never been so badly scared in my entire life as I was in the dark attic at the moment the air beating by the owl’s wings, struck my face and hands.
I recall feeling the hair standing up on the back of my head. I recall clutching the rungs of the ladder tightly and feeling it shake from top to bottom. My suffering that night was due entirely to my fear of the dark and of ghost.
These I now know to be foolish, but they seem to be nearly universal among men. Being all by myself in the dark in the big church by the grave yard aroused the fears of unknown things which is born in all of us and which made me as a child believe the stories of ghost told me by the servants.
My mother and father seemed to me entirely free from fear of ghost and the dark and I was ashamed of myself for having these fears. Even yet to be in a graveyard alone or to be in a big house alone through the night makes me so hypersensitive that I am startled by the rustling of the leaves and the creaking of the timbers. Napoleon Bonaparte said that all men are cowards by might and on important occasion he asked that two sentries instead of the usual one be appointed to stay together as they watched the camp through the night.
I wonder if every twelve year old boy white or black would have felt the same fears that I did that night when I was afraid of the dark afraid of the graveyard and afraid of the owl whose whirring wings and snapping beak came so close to me as I was climbing the ladder to the belfry.
I was so ashamed of these fears that I never confessed them to my mother and father who told me I was a brave boy when I informed informed them what had happened after the bell rope broke—but I knew better. I knew I had been scared within an inch of my life.
It is a question with me now whether the experience in my boyhood that might have strengthened me or weakened me. It may be that my success in ringing that bell that night has helped me to brave the dangers that I have met since. I do not know. The old Latins had a saying, “To the stars through difficulties.” If I had turned coward and failed to do my duty that night I might have become a cowardly man for our deeds stick to us. They make our character. They determine our future choices. They make us honest men or thieves. The make us brave men or cowards.
The above was written by James Coffee Harris, he was born in North Carolina, reared in Cedartown to which his parents moved in 1866. He taught private school in Cedartown nine years, was Superintendent of Public schools of Cedartown for three years, was principal of private schools in Marietta, Ga. Five years, was superintendent of Rome Public Schools 1592-1916, then superintendent of Ga. School for the Deaf in Cave Spring 1916.