Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a five-part personal account of the voting rights struggle. Don’t forget to cast your ballot in the Nov. 3 election.
We were in the very same area where the shooting had happened some years earlier. I think they were in George Kirkland’s pear trees. My brother and cousins were running toward the house by the time the buckshot hit them, so it had lost power. We picked buck shots out of their backs and buttocks most of that night, but they bled very little.
The plantation owner was not pleased that we got away, so he reported to the mayor of Millett that we had been on his property, and the very next morning my mom and I were visited by Mayor Wade Smith.
Mom was already outside when he drove up. I heard him say, “Ella, I heard that you were on my property talking to my field hands about registering to vote.”
At that moment I dashed outside and stepped up between him and my Mom and said, “No she is not the one. I am the one who has been doing that.” Still sitting in his truck with the window down, he turned his attention to me and said, “Willie, what right do you have going on my property talking to my field hands?”
Old fresh mouth me, who had just graduated from Paine College, answered him as boldly as I could. “I did not know that you owned the field hands. I will not stay off your property. These people have a right to know that they can vote, and I will continue to share that information them about their rights. You are wrong. You do not know what you are talking about we were not on your property yesterday.”
At that time, I was not considering the danger in which I was putting the family. I had three younger sisters, a mother and a 65-year-old aunt in the house. The mayor got out of the truck, came around to the side where I was standing and asked me again if I was going to stay off his property.
Foolishly, I said, “No, I will not stay off your property.” Just as those words came out of my mouth, he raised his hand to give me a back-hand slap, but Momma was Johnny On The Spot. She had quietly moved up behind me and out of the corner of my eye I saw her reach as fast as lightning to lift a brick, saying, “Go on and hit her if you dare.”
Mom, who stood about 5 feet 7 inches and was very slim, was one Black woman who was not going to bother anyone. But she too would stand her ground, not allowing anyone to touch her children; she would rather die first. Mom used to tell us how she could beat up all of the boys who grew up on the farm with her.
Wade turned beet red, dropped his hand and angrily reached inside the truck for his .38 pistol. Mom turned swiftly and headed into the house, and immediately I knew what was on her mind. As long as I could remember we always had a rifle and a pistol in our house. I thought “Lord we are going to have a shootout at OK Corral.”
It was at that time that I jerked to my senses, turned and ran after my mom, yelling to my younger sisters to stop her. By the time I got inside, she was already in her bed-room where the pistol was kept. My three younger sisters also knew what she kept in that room. In that moment, I was no longer concerned about Wade shooting me in the back of the head, in my back or even in the face. My greatest concern now was his shooting my mom.
I yelled to my sisters to hold mom in the room and not let her come out. When I got to the bedroom door, I saw the gun in her hand and I pushed my way in to help my sisters bar the door. Our strength was no match for our mom’s even when she used to arm wrestle with us. I knew that when she was angry the three of us would hardly be able to hold her.
We never touched the gun. We just simply held the door and stood fast against it using all the strength that we had. My fear was beginning to be a reality. Mom was all I had on my mind. We were saying repeatedly, “Mom, don’t go out there. Mom, put the gun down.”
By this time, Wade had entered the house. He was a big, burly, 275-pound good looking man, who stood about 6 feet tall.
My Aunt (Tee) Cornelia was sitting on the sofa, but had no clue about what was going on. She was not involved with the movement, and she had never expressed her views about what Mom had allowed us to do. When she saw Wade Smith enter the house, she said, “Do Jesus!! Shame on you boy!! I raised you from a little baby and now look at what you have turned out to be.”
Aunt Tee had been a mother figure for Wade because something had happened to his Mom earlier on; I believe she had died young from a fever.
He tried to tell her that he had a right to do what he was doing, to which she said, “That is my sister in that room. Now you put that gun down boy. What is wrong with you? Do Jesus!!!”
He threw his gun on the sofa and sat next to Aunt Cornelia with a dejected look. He mumbled a few things to her and turned to me and asked me not to go on his property to talk with his people any more ...
I lost my state of mind again and said, “No I will not promise you that.”
At that, Wade got up and picked up his gun and turned to my mom’s bedroom door, saying, “Ella, you had better keep these children off my property talking to my people!”
Mom put her gun down on the bed and the three sisters let her out of the bedroom. When she walked out, she said, “You heard what she said.”
Wade was in a pickle, and he was trying to think of how he could hurt us without touching us. He remembered that he had let us borrow a pump head, which was our means of getting water on the outside. He said, “Ella, by evening I want my pump head and I do not care how you and your children get water to drink.”
He did not realize that G.H. Mellon, de Yankee (As my Aunt Tee referred to the decent whites), had built us a house with inside running water.