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  • Zelema Harris

My Mama Told me

Mama died on March 5, 1987, and left me with several important lessons. The two that stuck with me more than others were: "Don't ever work in no white woman's kitchen and get you some training so you don't have to depend on no man." Mama repeated these lessons throughout my childhood.

There were many other significant lessons from my mother: Have faith in God, the importance of family, and whatever work you have to do, do it well. She would say, "come back here. You need to lick that calf over." Licking the calf over is an idiomatic expression meaning you must repeat the task because your work is unacceptable. This farm expression comes from mother cows licking the membrane off their calves. If they are not satisfied, they lick the calf over again.

I violated Mama's first lesson in the summer of 1953 after my first year of high school when I was 13. Since moving to Beaumont, Texas, from our small cotton farm in Newton County one year earlier, I knew money was tight. When we lived on the farm, we raised everything we ate and made our clothes. Sometimes Mama did not have to buy fabric. Flour sacks came in beautiful designs, and she ordered flour according to the designs on the fabric. Materials came in colorful flowers, borders, and other bright-colored designs. The sacks were one yard each, and Mama needed three yards to make a dress. Sometimes it was challenging to match fabrics if the pattern was unavailable. Making clothes out of feed sacks was common practice during the depression and World War II when wool and cotton were scarce. Both wool and cotton went toward the war effort. In the city, we had to purchase everything from food to clothing.

I knew what it felt like to work and earn money. I had one job during the Christmas Holidays after we moved to Beaumont in 1952. I started the job one month before my 13th birthday and filled in for my 18-year-old neighbor who was going on vacation. I worked as an inventory clerk, earning $15 a week. I had to ride the bus to and from work, which cost ten cents one way, or you could buy six tokens for 25 cents. Social Security was also deducted.

My inventory clerk job was easy for a 12-year-old. Each day I had to check the shelves in the stock room for items included on a typed list. I counted the number of items on the shelf and recorded the number on the list. For example, I counted the number of Crest toothpaste boxes, and I restocked them when all the items were gone. Under each shelf were large boxes containing the item. The stock boy would sometimes place items in the wrong place. He must have worked nights because I never saw him and didn't get to remind him where to store the boxes.

The stock room where I worked was on the second floor. I finished my work on the first day and went to see my boss in his office on the mezzanine level.

"I've finished the work you assigned me."

"Wait right here. I'll be right back."

My boss left me standing in the office doorway for about 10 minutes, returned with a large bucket full of soapy water, a brush, and a dry white towel, and said, "follow me." I followed him a few steps down the stairs. He handed me the supplies. "Wash these walls," pointing to the wall leading from the mezzanine to the main store. I took the heavy bucket and began to scrub with the brush. The walls were not that dirty, so I finished within an hour. Again, I returned to see the guy in the uniform and said I had finished washing the wall. He asked me to go outside and clean the large window on the mezzanine level. The outside of the window had a small extension platform with wrought iron curved spindles around it. It was more decorative than functional. I raised the window and placed one foot on the small platform when the Colored man who worked there said, "Sir, that's too dangerous for that child. She'll fall into the street." Reluctantly, my boss responded:

"Come on back in. You can clean my office."

I did not have any cleaning supplies, and I took the slightly damp towel and dusted his office while he poured over large sheets of numbers and talked on the phone. I felt silly making up work.

When the day ended, I couldn't wait to get home to talk to Mama and Daddy about this experience. I jumped off the bus at my stop after the white people who rode in front of the bus exited and ran home. I told my parents immediately what had happened. My mother praised the Colored man for standing up for me. Daddy agreed that the man had courage and couldn't see a Colored girl mistreated. Mama advised: You work too fast. Pace yourself. And I did just that for the rest of the week and the next. I also learned I had thirty minutes for lunch and could get a discount at the counter. I had to order food at the end of the counter at the back of the store. I could not sit at the counter, so I took my food upstairs, where I worked. Jim Crow laws did not allow Colored folks to eat with white people. I fell in love with grilled cheese sandwiches and dill pickles. My boss never had to make up work for me again.

As soon as summer arrived after my first year of high school, I started looking for a job in the Beaumont Enterprise Newspaper Classified section. A couple who lived about two miles from us advertised for a colored girl to clean, iron, and cook occasionally. I knew I could do the job, but I needed to persuade Mama to allow me to apply. I found what I thought would be an ideal job.

There was one street in the south end of Beaumont where my family lived that separated the Colored residential section from the white area. Some homes in the white section did not look that different from homes where Colored people lived. Whites who lived in that section of the south end were socioeconomically in the working or lower class. Colored men who worked in one of the area oil refineries seemed to be doing as well as the whites.

After begging and pleading with Mama to let me call about the job, she finally relented but was clear that I was not accepting the job. I agreed that I was only gathering information.

I called the telephone number listed and spoke with the woman who answered the phone. Her name was Mrs. Hughes. During that time, Black people referred to whites as Mr. or Mrs. Whites called Blacks by their first name or derisively "boy or gal." Mrs. Hughes and her husband needed someone to clean, do laundry, and cook occasionally. I told her I had experience in all those areas. She wanted me to come to her home for an interview the following Monday.

Again, I pleaded with Mama to let me go for the interview. I was a persistent child and often wore Mama down. Daddy listened to the discussion intently. The Hughes were paying $3.00 per day, which was a good salary, and I could walk to work and save on bus fare. Mrs. Hughes mentioned that she might need me to work at night sometimes, and they would bring me home.

Mama talked to my father, and they agreed that my 21-year-old brother, RH, would go with me and let my parents know what he thought of the couple. RH already had a job as a bagger of groceries at Weingarten's grocery store, but he was off the Monday of the interview.

The interview was scheduled in the late afternoon, around 4:00 p.m. When RH and I arrived, the husband and wife appeared at the front door. Mrs. Hughes opened the door with her husband standing slightly behind her. They both said hello, and Mrs. Hughes asked us to be seated in the living room in two tall wooden chairs with slats on the back facing a faded brown-looking sofa. The living room was small without much furniture but seemed overcrowded when the Hughes sat in front of us. They did seem nice for white folks. They explained they both worked at the box factory. She worked the day shift, and her husband worked a split shift. I didn't ask what a split shift meant. They both looked young, like in their mid to late twenties. Their home did not look like they needed any help. It was clean, and except for the sofa, a small coffee table, and the two chairs, there was nothing else in the living room area. The dining room was a few feet from the living room with a small oblong table and two wooden chairs like the ones RH and I were sitting in.

We could see part of the kitchen from the open door facing us. It was smaller than our family's kitchen. All of our rooms were large. We had three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a dining room, and a full-sized bathroom with a large bathtub. However, we were renting and saving money to purchase a home.

Mrs. Hughes seemed comfortable as she began to talk directly to me, which made me comfortable. She asked where I lived and what experience I had. I said I had experience cleaning every Saturday morning at home. I had held one job the previous Christmas Holidays in 1952 at the five-and-dime store in downtown Beaumont. Both Hughes seemed satisfied with me because Mrs. Hughes asked if I could start work the next day at 7:30 a.m. She and her husband had to be at work by 8:00 a.m. I said yes immediately. She then gave me the work rules. I would have a 30-minute break. I should bring my own food. Some days she may want me to start dinner. They occasionally entertained on a Saturday night and needed me to assist with the preparations. These rules and work schedule seemed easy. After all, I was 13 years old.

Now my job was to convince Mama.

RH never asked a question, but I knew his presence told them we didn't play. That I took the job seriously, and so did my family. My mother thought the Hughes wouldn't do anything disrespectful because I had a big brother who looked after me. RH was over 6 feet tall, handsome according to all the church ladies, and kind. His smooth brown skin and large brown eyes distinguished him anywhere. He carried himself with pride, holding his head high and giving dignity to his job as a bagger. He dressed well and always with the latest fashions. He didn't buy many clothes, but the clothes he wore were of quality. He was required to wear a company uniform to work. There was never a wrinkle in his starched khaki uniform that he ironed painstakingly.

On the way home, I could hardly suppress my excitement. I started running home, which was my normal way of going places. I ran everywhere in the country. RH was not a runner and said, "Hold up baby" (his term of endearment for me), you're gonna wear yourself out and won't be able to go to work in the morning."

"Do you think Mama will let me have the job?"

"I don't know why not. They seemed nice enough, and that's as much money as grown people make a day. You can save your money for school things, and when you need something I don't have to give you money to buy it."

My family relied on RH to give his earnings to my mother each payday. My father retired from farming in 1952 at 85 when we moved to Beaumont, Texas. He received a small old age pension from Texas each month. My younger brother, Charlie, also helped. He had joined the army and sent most of his check home. My sister, Priscilla, planned to attend a local business college after high school. She worked for a Colored insurance company during the summer to gain experience. Tressie, my oldest sister, was starting her career as a beautician and worked for a local beauty shop.

All four of my siblings were my mother's children by her first husband. Their father died when Priscilla, the youngest of the four, was eight months old, and RH, the oldest, was five years old. My mother was 32 when her first husband died, and she faced severe hardship after his death. That's when she married a 72-year-old man who became my father. I am sure she had not planned on another child, but I was born in 1940, one year after they were married.

Before I was born, my father had 13 children by his first wife, who was deceased. Only two of his children were younger than my mother. Most of his family had moved to the Buffalo, New York area. His oldest son served in World War I and lived in Harlem. They saw my father infrequently when I was growing up. Before my family moved to Beaumont, Daddy and I would visit his children in Texas. Though I was not close to my father's children, I enjoyed their visits. His daughters from New York were glamorous, laughed a lot, and smelled like honeysuckles and gardenias. However, it was my mother's four children I considered my siblings. They were there for me and gave me a sense of belonging.

My family moved from our cotton farm in Newton County to Beaumont, Texas, in 1952. I enrolled in the ninth grade at twelve years of age. I was considered a precocious child at my rural school in Newton County. State test scores indicated that I was far above grade level, so the school recommended that I make two grades in one year. Twice this occurred. Some refer to this practice as skipping a grade, which is inaccurate.

The rural Colored school I attended in Newton County had a rarely used system of allowing students to make two grades in one year. The classroom teacher decided when to use this system. There were not any honors or accelerated classes for students who performed well above their grade level. Making two grades in one year was, in a way, my school's honor program. A student could be enrolled in one grade during the first half of the school year and the next grade during the second half of the year. In my case, I was in the third grade from September to January and fourth grade from January to May. The third and fourth grades were in the same classroom, so if you were paying attention, you could learn the fourth-grade lessons too. And that's what I did for the third and fourth grades, and later the fifth and sixth grades.

After my family moved to Beaumont, my oldest sister, Tressie, who was eighteen, took me and my fifteen-year-old sister Priscilla to register at Charlton Pollard High School. Each of us was assigned an advisor, who was also a classroom teacher. There were no guidance counselors. These teachers promoted academics. Mrs. Gill enrolled me in every math class the school offered; I did not need these classes to graduate. Mrs. Gill was a math teacher.

During registration, Tressie told Mrs. Gill that I was twelve years old. Mrs. Gill said I would have to be placed in 8th grade, but if I were thirteen, I could enroll in 9th grade. So, Tressie took the registration card that Mrs. Gill had filled out, struck out the year 1940, and inserted 1939. She returned the card to Mrs. Gill, who took the card and continued to make my class assignments.

That one lie that placed me in ninth grade stayed with me until I entered graduate school to work on my doctorate at the University of Kansas. Finally, I wanted to set the record straight. I ordered my birth certificate, mailed it to Prairie View, my undergraduate alma mater, and asked that my age be corrected.

After my interview with the Hughes RH and I arrived home about 35 minutes later. My mother was waiting.

Turning to RH, "How was it? What were they like?"

"They seemed fine. I think it will be alright for Zelema to work for them. They are very young, and their home is not that nice, not like most white folks' homes I have seen. They don't have no children either, and it's not that far from here. She could run home in 15 minutes." (That was pushing my speed).

Mama exhaled with exasperation. "Well, I don't know. I don't like you working in no white folks' home. You know what happens to Colored women. White men take advantage of them. Do you remember the story of your father's daughter, Carrie? Remember that white man took advantage of her, and instead of him getting put in jail, they killed Carrie. Everybody knew it was the sheriff and his deputies that killed her."

"But Mama, things are different now, and they seemed really nice. I am not going to let anything happen to me. I can fight and run."

"You can't outrun a bullet and don't have the strength of a man."

"Mama, I know you worry about me but I will be fine. Besides, their house is close to ours, and I can come home quickly."

"Okay, but you must promise that if you are not treated right, you just walk right out that door and come home."

I walked to work the next morning. I was so excited to work near home for such a great salary. And, they wouldn't take any money out as they did at the five-and-dime store.

After reaching the Hughes home for my first day of work, Mrs. Hughes greeted me and said when I finished at 3:30 p.m. to take the $3.00 she left under the wooden chest on top of the refrigerator. She did not leave further instructions. I decided to start in the kitchen. I cleaned the stove top, leaving the oven for another day. I cleaned the inside of the refrigerator, scrubbed the Formica counter, and cleaned all the little Knick knacks she had on the large kitchen window sill. None of the little figurines made sense to me. They were different sizes and shapes. Some were little porcelain animals, while others were flowers made out of fabric. I counted them to make sure I kept track. Mama said sometimes white people put things out to see if you would take them. They would leave money or jewelry on their dresser. Mama spoke from her experience doing day work occasionally after moving to Beaumont. I suppose she felt safe from white men since she was older. I swept the hardwood floors. Before I knew it, it was nearly 3:30, and I had not had lunch. I decided it was too late for my peanut butter sandwich (a new food I had learned about since moving to Beaumont) and a small carton of milk. I found a pencil and a piece of paper and wrote what I had done. I listed things I would do the next day. Finally, I wrote, "It is 3:30, and I am leaving." I then reached for my $3.00 and slid them into my skirt pocket. Girls seldom wore pants in 1953. At least I could not wear pants in my Mama's house.

I rushed home, running part of the way while eating my peanut butter sandwich (I was not too fond of jelly on it). I had left my milk in their refrigerator. Mama was waiting. She seldom held a job after we moved to Beaumont. She had never worked outside the home except for the few times she and my older sister, Tressie, occasionally worked at the home of a white family in Burkeville, Texas, a few miles from where we lived on the farm.

The first job Mama had after we moved to Beaumont was working at a segregated white nursing home. She was tending to an old man, and he grabbed her in the wrong place and wouldn't let go, so she socked him. She was fired on the spot, according to Daddy, but Mama said she quit the job because she wasn't going to let no white man disrespect her, whether he was 30 or 90 years old. After doing day work in a few white homes, she finally found a way to make money without leaving home. She began to bake pies. The word got out about her sweet potato turnovers. She started taking orders from church members and others in the community. She stayed busy, especially during the holidays. Up until she died in 1987, she had customers for her sweet potato turnovers.

When I made it home from my first day of working for the Hughes, my mother asked: "How did it go? Were they as nice as you thought?"

"Yes, Mama. No one was home all day. Both of the Hughes were at work. She left my money and told me to take it when I finished at 3:30. I left her a note and told her what I had done during the day. I will work five days per week and sometimes on Saturday night when she has company."

"Will they pay you to work on Saturday nights.?" Mama was always suspicious of white folks.

"I don't know, Mama. I guess so."

"Now, these folks might be planning to use you to work more and not pay you. Something seems strange."

"Mama, please. It's okay. I love my job. Here is the $3.00 I made. You can use it.". I took the folded dollar bills from my pocket and handed them to Mama. I learned later that Mama saved all of the money I gave her to purchase my shoes and coat. I felt really grown up, like I was contributing to the family.

Every day I arrived to work early and found things to do all day. I always wrote down the things I had done, grabbed my $3.00, ran home, and gave the money to Mama. After a week, Mrs. Hughes started leaving tasks for me to do. She wanted the laundry washed and clothes ironed. I ironed everything I washed, from bath towels to Mr. Hughes' shirts and Mrs. Hughes' blouses. I had experience ironing my clothes and my father's shirts when I lived on the farm and did not have an electric iron. Using the electric iron was fun compared to the iron that needed to be heated on the wood-burning stove.

The following week Mrs. Hughes called me on Friday night after I returned home and asked if I could work Saturday evening. Her guests were coming at 6:00 p.m., and would I come at 4:30 p.m. and help with dinner. I knew it would be dark after work, and I had to ask to be sure she would bring me home. I knew Mama would say no, and I might lose my job.

"Mrs. Hughes, we do not have a car, and Mama will not allow me to walk home at night."

"I'll take you home after we clean up."

I knew that response would not satisfy Mama, so I asked, "What time will I get off?"

"Around 10 or 11 o'clock."

"Thank you, Mrs. Hughes. I will see you at 4:30."

I was able to answer all of Mama's questions. Her only request was for me to call her when I arrived and to call when I was leaving to return home. Mama still seemed uneasy about me working for this couple even though I had worked for them for two weeks, and everything had gone well.

I arrived on time to help with the party, running and skipping all the way to their home. When I arrived, there was a flurry of activity in the kitchen. Vegetables were all over the counter; steaks were thawing in the sink, and large Irish potatoes were on the stove with a roll of Reynold's aluminum foil next to the potatoes. There were store bought dinner rolls in a pan next to the potatoes on the stove. An electric coffee maker was on the counter, along with a bag of ground Seaport coffee. Mrs. Hughes seemed to be glad to see me. She started speaking fast, her words coming together. She was asking me to do something, and I did not understand a word she said.

"I'm sorry, but I did not understand what you said." She raised her voice louder and repeated herself, and I figured out she wanted me to set the table. I didn't know how to do a formal table setting. I had not taken home economics yet. However, I knew from eating at home that you needed a fork, knife and spoon, so I set them on the table in an order I learned later was incorrect. Mrs. Hughes didn't know how to set the table because she left the settings in place. She had paper napkins that I left stacked on the small dining room table. I didn't know where they were to go, and decided everyone could get their own napkin.

I realized this event was new for the Hughes. Mr. Hughes was nowhere to be found, and Mrs. Hughes was a nervous wreck. She kept moving from the stove to the sink, looking at the food on display. I had never cooked a steak before, baked white potatoes (my family baked sweet potatoes and made potato salad with white potatoes), made coffee in an electric pot, or ever made coffee. We raised coffee beans on the farm, and I watched Mama roast the beans. She let me grind the beans with a rolling pin after they were roasted. That's all I knew about making coffee.

Finally, Mr. Hughes came home smelling like loud perfume. He had several cans of beer in a paper bag and was holding an open can with a star on it. He announced the beer was for the men. It seemed he had an early start. His presence seemed to calm his wife. She was able to tell me what to do precisely.

"Wash the potatoes and dry them off, then take foil, just enough for each potato, and wrap the potato in foil. Haven't you ever baked potatoes?"

"No, Mam, we don't have food like this."

"Well, what do you eat?"

"Mostly food we grew on the farm like fried or baked chicken, fish that my brothers and Daddy caught, ham, and vegetables. We buy our food at Weingarten's now, where my brother works. They have the same food we had on the farm." I didn't mention the wild game Daddy brought home from hunting. Mama's favorite was squirrel. She made the best squirrel stew.

"Well, it's easy. I can teach you how to cook our kind of food because we plan to have one of these dinners at least once a month."

The guests arrived around 6:00 p.m. The man and woman looked like the Hughes. I had not learned how to distinguish white people from one another yet. I grew up in a Colored community, attended a Colored school and church. I did not see white people often. I did see far more in Beaumont than I had ever seen before. I recall getting on the city bus for the first time and the front half of the bus was filled with white people. It looked like a sea of whiteness, where individuals were indistinguishable. I don't recall having any emotions toward them. We lived in entirely different worlds.

The Hughes guests seemed nice. They smiled, said hello to me and sat down. I don't remember being introduced. Mr. Hughes sat at one end of the table and asked his friend to sit at the other end. Mrs. Hughes returned to the kitchen and asked me to serve the salad and rolls. I warmed the rolls in the oven. We both cut the vegetables for the salad. This, too was new for me. The salad bowls were on the counter and I placed an equal amount in each bowl. It looked pretty. I placed tomatoes and radishes on top of the greens along with cucumbers. I took two bowls at a time to the table. I placed the rolls in a plate on the table. I then went back into the kitchen. The potatoes were ready and I was to serve them with the steak. I still did not know how to cook a steak.

Mrs. Hughes returned to the kitchen and told me it was time to place the steaks in the broiler. She said it would take 10 minutes to broil. I placed the steaks in the broiler pan and placed the pan below the oven under the broiler. I watched the time on the wall clock. The steaks had begun to smoke the kitchen and the dining area. Mrs. Hughes rushed into the kitchen and asked me to put the steaks on plates and serve them even though 10 minutes had not passed. When I picked the first one up with a long fork, blood shot out. I thought that was the way white people ate their meat. She rushed into the kitchen again, saying the steaks were not done. I turned the broiler back on, picked up the steaks from the table and placed them on the broiler pan.

The Hughes and their guests seemed to have a good time laughing and talking about their work and the high school they had attended. They all worked at the box factory and had been friends since elementary school.

After the guests left Mrs. Hughes and I cleaned the kitchen. Both Mr. Hughes and Mrs. Hughes took me home. Mr. Hughes drove. After arriving home, Mrs. Hughes turned around toward the back seat and handed me three one-dollar bills.

Monday morning came, my third week of work. I arrived before Mrs. Hughes left for work. She said things went well Saturday night and that I had done an excellent job. This was the third week of June, and I had a few more weeks to work before school started. I was glad I would keep my job throughout the summer. I could perhaps work weekends after school starts. Mama had stopped asking specific questions about my work. Mrs. Hughes had begun to plan more tasks for me to complete. I checked off the items that I finished before I left each day. I always finished the tasks assigned to me.

That Monday, as I was ironing in their kitchen, a car drove into their driveway. I had just finished ironing blouses and shirts and had placed them on hangers to hang in their bedroom closet. I peeked out of the window that faced the driveway. I recognized the car as belonging to the Hughes. I could not see who was in the car but stood by the window and watched. Mr. Hughes got out of the car. I moved back behind the ironing board before he opened the kitchen door. For the first time, I looked into his face. I saw nothing menacing – nothing to be afraid of, but my heart was pounding, and my mind was saying to be calm. Do not show fear.

Mr. Hughes smiled at me and said hello. He did not call my name. He probably did not know my name. I responded in a whisper, "hello." I had lost my voice. It felt like a bad dream. Questions pierced my brain - why was he home alone? Where is his wife? Is he coming to harm me? I did not want to show fear, so I picked up the clothes and walked into the bedroom to hang them up. He had walked past me and opened the refrigerator door at the end of the kitchen. As I continued to walk toward the closet, I felt someone behind me and continued toward the closet to hang up the clothes. I felt his presence, even though I could not see him. I was so afraid that I could hardly breathe. I had to leave the house but knew he could overtake me. After hanging the clothes, I turned around, and he stood in my path. I did not look at him directly but moved away slightly and passed him as though his presence was normal. He was not tall, but he was taller and larger than me. I was 5 "6" and weighed 115 pounds. My pace was normal as I walked back into the kitchen. I did not feel him following me. I immediately took my position behind the ironing board and picked up the hot iron.

He walked slowly back into the kitchen. I whispered to God to protect me. He stood in front of the ironing board. I grabbed a small object to iron. I was too afraid to look up. There was still silence. Finally, I looked up at him. He was staring at me. I kept moving the hot iron. He reached over the ironing board and grabbed my Peter Pan padded bra, and pinched it.

He saw no resistance from me and instinctively knew he had time to do the unthinkable.

"I'll be right back." I gave a weak smile to ease his mind that I would be there when he returned.

I watched as his car drove out of sight. I grabbed my three dollars from under the chest, bolted from the front door, and ran home as fast as I could. Fear was propelling me to run faster than ever before.

Mama was home. She was in the kitchen. I did not have time to think of what I would tell Mama, but I knew I could not tell her the truth.

"Why are you home so early?" (It was around 12 Noon). I knew I had to protect my family and responded, "they let me off early. They are thinking about letting me go because they may not need a housekeeper." I knew if I told Mama the truth, she would feel obligated to do something about what happened. I prayed that night as I had never prayed before that Mrs. Hughes would not want me to work for her ever again. I wanted to be fired for leaving without finishing my assigned tasks.

The following day Mama asked again if I was going to work. And again, I said I do not know if they would need me. My mother said, "well, call her." I called Mrs. Hughes and asked if she still needed me. She said, "no, I do not think I will need you any longer." I cried with joy. My prayers had been answered.

The Hughes advertised the job again because I learned that a neighbor's two teenage daughters were working for the Hughes. I suppose their father and mother, like so many Colored parents, did not trust their daughters to work in a white woman's home. They sent two daughters for protection.

In retrospect, I should have told Mama a partial truth, and I could have warned my neighbor about this man. I was a child, 13 years old, and I did my best to get out of a bad situation.

I should have listened to Mama.

Mama's second lesson was well-heeded. The lesson to prepare myself through education was something in which Mama and I shared a great deal of pride. I graduated from college while being married and having two babies. I taught middle school, and later when our family moved to Lawrence, Kansas, I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Kansas and earned both master's and doctorate degrees. I owe my mother, who stood by me, keeping the children on short notice, always being available to encourage me when things got rough, and offering financial support when she had so little.

Mama's other lessons were not ignored. The family has been a major factor in whatever I have accomplished. My three children are steadfast in their love and support, as well as my extended family.

My work history acknowledges the excellence of my performance. I never wanted my bosses to say, "You must lick that calf over."

My faith undergirds all that I am. My belief system is not arrogant; it does not judge too harshly. It lavishes love in action. And my deeds reflect my faith.

The name of Hughes is fictional. Everything else written is my memories revisited.


Feb 23

WOW! I read and could not stop. I could hear Mother Gatson talking. Times back then were so different and still the same. God has truly blessed you with a gift for writing. Can't wait to read your next writing.


Feb 16

Dr. Z this was simply beautiful. I am blessed to have witnessed some of the qualities that your Mom instilled in you. I am a much better person having had you be a part of my life. I admired you then and I admire you now. Pat Price Hill

Zelema Harris
Zelema Harris
Feb 21
Replying to


Your response warms my heart. I have always admired your commitment to your family - your boys and Kenneth.. You were always a professional and I am very proud that you pursued your education.

Let’s stay in touch.



Michael Vitoux
Michael Vitoux
Apr 07, 2023

You write so well. Once again, your entry has touched my heart. And, once again I marvel at your choice to turn toward the Light.

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