Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Sharecropper and Her Crops

hen Jewel Orex Todd Fletcher was raising her seven children in the piney woods of east Texas in the 1940s and 1950s, expectations for blacks at that time weren’t very high. Fortunately for the Fletcher family, Mrs. Jewel didn’t really care about the expectations of other people. Infused with a love of learning instilled by her school-teacher mother, Mother Dear, as she was called by her children and grandchildren, was determined to see her kids succeed academically where her own academic career was thwarted. She finished high school and even managed to finish her first year at Mary Allen College, the local Negro college in nearby Crockett. But when her dad fell ill, she left school to work to help the family. She then met and married Tally Fletcher and soon gave birth to what would be the first of eight children (one died in infancy). Never a stranger to hard work, she did what was necessary, working alongside her husband as a sharecropper in addition to tending their own land. She took on domestic work in town with area white folks and even took in ironing. When the local hospital was built, she worked there until her retirement. “No one owes you anything,” she’d tell her children. “You have to work hard to get what you want.” What she wanted was a different life for her children. All of her work required grueling physical labor, subject to the whims of nature or the demands of those more powerful. She knew that higher education was the key to a better life. Her children now say they didn’t realize that not doing well in school was even an option. As they made their way through W.R. Banks High School, the high school for the colored children of Grapeland, watchful eyes reported to their parents. Mother Dear and Daddy were well known to the teachers and well respected. The same high expectations set at home, were enforced by vigilant educators at school. Argell, Floydia, Tally (Bob), Franklin (Val), Bennie, Gerald, and Wardaleen grew up in this strict but loving home under the watchful eye of both parents, but it is Mrs. Jewel who seems to have had the greatest impression on their schooling. “My momma always talked about going to college,” recalls Floydia Fletcher Phillips. I grew up thinking that you go to college—it is just what you do. Argell, the oldest, left for Prairie View A & M and Floydia quickly followed him. For a few years, there were as many as three Fletcher kids in college at the same time. Even then, the financial burden must have been tremendous. “I honestly don’t know how she did it,” says Floydia. “I know she and daddy worked more than one job to help pay for it, but if it was a burden, she never said a word.” As the older children graduated with their degrees, they used the paychecks from their new professional jobs to help offset costs for younger siblings. Not all of the kids initially heeded the prodding of Mrs. Jewel. Val, worried about the added expense for Mother Dear if he joined his siblings in college immediately after graduating from high school, joined the military. Part of any money he earned, was sent to help his siblings in school. After three years in the Army, he used his GI Bill to join his sister Bennie, and brother Bob at Paul Quinn College, then in Waco. He had promised his mother that he would enroll in college immediately after leaving the service, and true to his word, after his discharge in June, he enrolled that August. Bob delayed school as well, moving to Kansas City to live with Mrs. Jewel’s brother and work. When he returned after some time away, Mother Dear said, “You know you are going to school, right?” Mrs. Jewel’s influence extended well beyond her own children. The Fletcher house was the gathering place for many of the neighboring children. Those children were also privy to her admonitions about the importance of education. As her children would return to school each fall, they would recruit cousins to accompany them and enroll. Mrs. Jewel “Mother Dear” Tryon lived a long and fruitful life. She died in 2007 having seen every single one of her children graduate from college (and quite a few grandchildren as well). A few of her children also earned advanced degrees. In rural east Texas, some thought it was silly to invest money in schooling when there was so much work to be done in the fields, but she pressed on, encouraging everyone in her path to reach higher. The beauty of education is that it doesn’t just impact the recipient. It filters down the family tree to the children and the children of the graduate. Jewell Fletcher’s prescient persistence meant that her grandchildren would all go to college as well. Her willingness to work two or three jobs to send her own children means that many of her descendants won’t have to struggle in the same way. For that, they are grateful. no one owes you anything

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