Daddy was an only child. Or so I believed until Grandpa died in 1965. Shortly after Dr. Ernest Richter came on that Sunday morning, June 13, and pronounced Sprig dead of stomach cancer, I overheard the adults—Mother, Daddy, Grandma and Aunt Willie, Grandma’s sister—discussing in hushed tones whether they ought to let “them” know—or even could let them know.
I don’t know what they ultimately decided, but I later learned that the mysterious “them” were Grandpa’s two sons from a relationship he had had after he and his first wife, Lillie White, had split and before he met Grandma and married her in 1916. It wasn’t just any kind of relationship, but an especially dangerous one in the Texas of that time: an interracial one. It turned out that Daddy had two half-brothers who apparently were living as white men.
He said he didn’t learn about them until he was almost 18 and was preparing—after a disastrous year as an immature freshman at Prairie View A&M University—to go to Galveston to learn the mortician’s trade. As Wilbert was preparing to leave for Galveston, Grandpa apparently decided he ought to tell the boy about his brothers there.
“He told me he had gone to Galveston to work,” Daddy said, “and he cohabited with this woman who he thought to be a mamoo, a real light-skinned Creole woman. She was actually Italian. They had one son, Edward, and a couple years later another son, Raymond. Then one day they had an argument and she called him ‘nigger’ and told him her true identity.”
A black man didn’t need to be a Socrates to see the danger in that kind of situation. Grandpa quickly found his hat and the front door. He moved to Houston, leaving behind two sons who, as far as he knew, remained in Galveston and continued to carry his last name.
So thanks to the crazy ways of race in the America of that time, Wilbert was practically, if not actually, an only child. That was both a blessing and a curse, for he was at once the beneficiary of all his parents’ resources and attention and the bearer of the burden of all their hopes and expectations.
“I was always expected to succeed,” he said. “In fact, when I was 7 or 8 years old, I was having lots of problems in school. And the problem came from fear…. I was afraid because I knew I would get a whipping if I didn’t perform in school."
The great turning point in Wilbert’s life came after he finished sixth grade in Dayton. Grandma’s older sister, Leana Day’s oldest child, Willie, had married and moved with her husband to Washington, D.C., where she worked at the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing, helping produce the nation’s currency. After a short time her marriage broke up, but she continued to live in Washington.
On a visit home to Dayton in 1929, Daddy said, Aunt Willie apparently “saw something in me that she thought Washington would help.” It was decided that Wilbert would go to the nation’s capital to live with her and attend school.
He was 13 when he left for Washington in 1931, but so small that he was able to pass for 12 and ride the train for half-fare. The journey took three days and was itself a significant learning experience.
“Mama tagged me like I was parcel post,” he said. “I traveled in August in a wool suit carrying an overcoat. I did fine until I got to Little Rock, where the cars were switched and whites and colored began riding in the same car. I was uncomfortable, having grown up in a totally segregated society.”
He ended up staying in Washington three years, until the Depression made it financially impossible for Aunt Willie to continue to keep him.
“Many, many years passed before I realized how blessed and valuable those three academic years were in my life,” he said. “I don’t know how a country boy from Texas could command so much respect and admiration. I was elected class president in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades at three different schools. I was not especially smart but I studied hard, kept up with my work and had a normal social life.”
Better schooling, albeit still segregated schooling, was only part of the benefit of living in Washington. The city itself was a classroom, and the times—it was the era of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—provided a rich curriculum.
“The Capitol rotunda was my playground,” he said. “I would skate from 11th and G Streets N.E. to the Washington Monument, walk up to the observation deck. Visit the White House a couple of times a year. Go to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in time to take the last sightseeing tour. Look down [from a catwalk] on Aunt Willie while she worked and then wait to go home with her after she got off from work.
“I was at Franklin Roosevelt’s  inauguration. I stepped on a woman’s foot with my roller skates on. She was not a happy Democrat.”
After three years, Wilbert’s Washington idyll ended. As the Depression deepened and lengthened, Aunt Willie’s hours at her government job were cut, and then cut again. Eventually, she found herself no longer able to keep her nephew, who had to return to Dayton.
By the time Wilbert returned in 1934, Sprig, who previously had worked for others, had opened his own blacksmith shop in downtown Dayton. Ida, who had been a public school teacher before Wilbert’s birth, had gone back to teaching.
“Our family was always considered well-off,” Wilbert said. “People thought we had more than we had. In the ‘30s, there were times when Daddy didn’t make enough at the shop to bring home sugar or flour or something. But we always had enough to eat. We farmed. We raised livestock and chickens and such. And we had good credit.”
Wilbert was in tenth grade when he returned to Dayton, and tenth grade was as far as one could go then at Colbert High School, the colored school. So after graduating from high school in Dayton, he went one more year to the black high school in Liberty and graduated there. Then it was on to Prairie View A&M.
In those days of “separate but equal,” Prairie View was the state’s land grant university for blacks. For an ambitious young black Texan, it was the place to go to college. Problem was, the 17-year-old Wilbert wasn’t very ambitious. Without regular adult guidance for the first time in his life, he behaved in college like an aimless teenager and compiled an academic record studded with Fs and Ds. By the spring of 1937, the end of his freshman year, he knew he would not be returning in the fall. The question was: What to do instead?
Thanks to an uncle, the mortician’s apprenticeship in Galveston materialized. Wilbert completed it and, after he turned 19, took the state exam and became a licensed funeral director. Grandma and Grandpa then mortgaged their cattle to get him the $300 tuition for embalming school. He completed the course and took and passed the state test. But, showing the same immaturity he displayed at Prairie View, he lost the receipt showing he had paid his tuition and so was denied the embalmer’s license.
Wilbert began “knocking around,” moving from one odd job to another. He worked briefly as a porter for a dentist in Houston for $4.50 a week, barely enough to live on. Then a friend, Snowden “Mac” McKinnon, told him about his job with the Pinkerton detective agency: He rode trains checking for conductors who would collect fares from passengers and then pocket the cash.
“Mac helped me to get on there,” Daddy said. “I got big money then—$4.50 per day plus per diem.”
It was a better job, but it wasn’t a destination. In 1940, at his mother’s urging, Wilbert returned to Dayton, where he drove a school bus and worked part-time at the QP, a downtown grocery store.
Emily, meanwhile, was in her last year at Colbert High—she graduated as class valedictorian in May 1941—and was working as a housekeeper and babysitter for a white couple, the Jamisons.
At the time, the Dayton school district provided bus transportation for black grade school children, but not for high schoolers. High school students had to walk to school, and for Emily and others in the French settlement that meant a hike of at least three miles each way to Colbert High in Lowoods, the black neighborhood on the south end of town.
As if the walk weren’t challenge enough, they faced taunts from white children riding buses to their separate but “more equal” school. When the buses went past, Mother said, the white kids would spit on them or hit them with switches they had brought aboard the bus.
One day Wilbert, who was driving black elementary school students to Colbert, offered to let Emily ride the bus if she would kiss him. She thought on it, decided he was worth it and gave him a kiss. Thus began a relationship that lasted until death parted them almost three quarters of a century later.
Wilbert was smitten, and when Christmas came around that year, he wanted to give Emily a gift. In the newspaper he saw a jewelry store ad for a “dinner ring” for $9.50. He bought one, took it to Emily’s house and gave it to her. Her mother, Ezildia, asked the young man, “Are you serious?” To which Wilbert replied, without appreciating the full significance of what he was doing and saying, “Yes.” And with that, Wilbert and Emily became engaged.
But there was no immediate trip to the altar. The following year, 1941, Wilbert was drafted into the Army. The United States wasn’t yet involved in the war that was raging in Europe and the Pacific, so draftees were expected only to go in, undergo a year of training and be released, to be recalled in the event they were needed. Wilbert expected that after his training period was over, he would return to Dayton and he and Emily would be married. But Pearl Harbor changed all that. After December 7, 1941, there were no quick exits from the armed forces. America was at war.
There was an obstacle on Emily’s side as well. Grace Jamison, the lady for whom she worked, took a great liking to her and offered to pay for Emily to attend college. “She treated me like a daughter,” Mother said.
Mrs. Jamison had hoped Emily would go to Prairie View, but instead she ended up going in autumn 1941 to Tillotson College, a small private institution in Austin. She stayed two weeks. She found herself underprepared academically and overwhelmed emotionally at being separated from her family.
Emily returned to Dayton, worked to repay Mrs. Jamison for the expenses of her brief college experience, and waited for Wilbert’s situation to clarify so they could be married.
Wilbert, meanwhile, was finding his collegiate experience an advantage even though it had ended badly. Immediately after the Army induction ceremony in Houston, a commander asked whether any of the inductees had been to college. Wilbert was the only one to raise his hand. He was promptly put in charge of getting the recruits and their paperwork to Fort Huachuca. Once there, someone asked whether anyone in his group knew how to type. Again, Wilbert replied affirmatively--he had learned to type while he was in school in Washington. He became company clerk, the Radar O’Reilly of his unit.
At Huachuca, Wilbert and the other trainees were part of the all-black 93rd Division. Early in 1942, word got around that the division was ticketed for the Pacific theater of the war. When Wilbert heard about this, he wrote to Emily and told her she should simply forget about him, because the likelihood was that he wouldn’t return alive. The Pacific, everyone said, was an abbatoir. Emily lost hope.
Then, a few weeks later, there was a change of fortunes. Wilbert was selected, along with fewer than 100 others, to remain behind at Huachuca and help revive the 92nd Division, the legendary black unit known during the Indian wars of the 19th Century as the Buffalo Soldiers. They didn’t know where the 92nd would ultimately be assigned, but they were pretty sure it wouldn’t be the Pacific. Suddenly, Wilbert was recalled to life—and Emily was called to a wedding.
She went out on the train. After she arrived, they made their way to Bisbee and found a Catholic church. The parish priest, Rev. James B. Davis, helped round up a couple of witnesses, and they tied the knot.
They spent a few weeks together after the wedding. Then Emily returned to Dayton to await the birth of the baby they had conceived, and Wilbert went back to soldiering, which was proving exactly what he needed to overcome his aimlessness.
A white commander urged him to apply for Officer Candidate School, which he did. He was selected and became a second lieutenant. He and the rest of the 92nd ended up in Italy during the last months of the war.
In January 1946, he returned home and, like so many World War II vets, began trying to build a life for himself, his bride and their family. Building a family was the easy part. Emily quickly became pregnant with their second child—me—and, not long after my birth, with their third, Karen.
But on the occupational front things weren’t working out so well. Finding a job that would support a growing family proved a huge challenge for Wilbert. Blacksmithing wasn’t going to pay the bills, he realized, so he needed something else. Using his GI benefit, he enrolled at the new Texas State University for Negroes in Houston. He majored in Industrial Arts and finished his bachelor’s degree in three years, graduating in August 1950. But decent employment still eluded him.
At one point, he took a civil service exam for a job as a postal clerk, and scored well on it. So well, in fact, that word got around Dayton. A wealthy old rice farmer for whom Emily’s sister, Cecilia, worked remarked to her one day, “What’s your brother-in-law trying to do, take a white man’s job?”
In the fall of 1951, about a year after the arrival of baby number four, Christopher, Wilbert took a job teaching industrial arts at a high school in Orange, Texas, about fifty miles east of Dayton. At the insistence of the local school authorities, he moved his family to Orange. We didn’t stay long.
Mother hated the place with a passion. One night she fell ill and Daddy piled her and all the kids into the car and drove us back to Dayton, where we remained. From then on, he commuted to and from Orange, renting a room in a family’s home and coming to Dayton once during the week and on weekends. It was an arrangement that neither he nor Mother liked.
On top of that, he chafed at having to teach his classes with castoff tools and materials from the white schools in Orange, and unable as a result to do a job that met his own standards. So he was soon searching again for new work.
One day early in 1954, he saw on a post office bulletin board advertisements for two jobs with the federal government. He decided to apply for both and told himself that he would take the first that come through.
A few weeks later he got a letter from the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky, offering him a job as an instructor in the prison’s education program. They wanted him as soon as possible.
Wilbert wrote back, saying that his current job would not end until the end of the school year in June. Could they wait for him until then? Yes, they responded. And so it was decided.
Wilbert drove home from Orange after the last day of school there, Friday, June 4. Emily helped him get packed and ready to depart. The next day he boarded a train that got him to Ashland in time to report for work on Monday morning, June 7. He quickly decided the job was a keeper, and he and Emily began making plans to move the family.
For both of them, Ashland, Kentucky, represented deliverance. For Wilbert, it was deliverance from the frustration of unfulfilling, dead-end jobs in East Texas. For Emily, it was deliverance from the stultifying small-town life of Dayton and the constant interference of her mother-in-law.
“Ashland was first time we could call our own shots,” she said. Ashland was freedom.