Freedom Friday – Black History Month: Part 4

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Thank you to my blogging friend, Imani, for hosting Freedom Friday, which gave me a platform during Black History Month to share excerpts from Hubby’s published memoirs, “The Son of A Sharecropper Achieves the American Dream”:

  • Part 1 – Introduction:  February 6
  • Part 2  – Childhood in The Big House: February 13
  • Part 3 – Coming of Age in Coahoma

Part 4

Chicago and Joining The Army

In 1959, there were a lot of changes in my life.  I impregnated a girl and my first child was born on September 3,1959.  I wasn’t there for her birth because I had moved to Chicago to live with my sister and get a job for the summer.

Shirley sent me a ticket and I took the train from Coahoma.  On the trip I met another young black man named Sammy.  He was traveling back to Chicago from his vacation in the south.  Before I left Coahoma my grand-aunt Ophelia gave, me what she thought was my sister’s phone number, but it turned out to be my uncle’s number in Toledo, Ohio.  When I got to the train station in Chicago, I called the number many times and didn’t get an answer.  Then, Sammy tried to call and couldn’t get an answer.  Then, I decided to go to Plan B — catch a bus to Shirley’s apartment.  Mind you I had never been to any major city where I had to ride a bus.

I went outside the station and walked to the bus stop and asked the driver if he could help me get to my sister’s apartment.  He put me on his bus, didn’t charge me a fare, drove me about three blocks, and put me on another bus.  The driver explained to the new driver where I was going and he showed me how to plug the meter.  He told me he would let me know when I arrived at 53rd Street.  When we got there, he directed me to go the corner and turn left and follow the address until I got to 5359 South Wells.

Once I was settled in Chicago, Shirley pulled some strings at the hospital where she worked and got me a janitorial job in the housekeeping department.  I worked hard at my new job which was a lot easier than working in the fields.  I was making a $1.10 an hour instead of 25 cents.  For the first time in my life I had money in my pocket to put clothes and food.  I decided to stay in Chicago rather than return to Mississippi.

They assigned me to work with a fellow name Dixon.  What we would do is work very hard and fast, get the place clean and sit on our butts for the rest of the afternoon.  Well one day the big boss was checking up on the workers and caught us sitting down and I was fired.

During this time, Yvonne and I were getting serious about marriage and pretty soon she got pregnant with our first child.

In April 1960, unable to find work, I volunteered for the US Army at age 18.  Before, I left for service Yvonne and I married.

On the way to Ft. Bliss, Texas, I had a train layover in Memphis, Tennessee.  I walked into the restaurant in the main station to get something to eat, and the manager came up to me and directed me in a nice tone to “the colored restaurant” which was in the basement of the station.  The place was a hole in the wall– it was small and cramped and looked nothing like the large restaurant on the first floor.

After finishing my advanced training at Fort Bliss, I was scheduled to finish the remainder of my time in Okinawa.  However, if I took the assignment I could not take my wife with me, so I re-enlisted for three years in order to get assigned to Germany where I would be able to take my family.

After about six months Yvonne joined me, and we lived in a small town named Gonseheim.  We rented a one-room apartment close to the base, sharing a bathroom with a couple across the hall.

I hated the day I arrived back in the states.  Times were not good for a black man in the country, especially in the south.  The Civil Rights Movement was going full blast in the early 1960s.  When I got to Ft. Riley Kansas, I never felt safe around some of the white soldiers.  They were such bigots,  They’d get drunk at night and come in and terrorize the barracks and you hoped you weren’t around when that happened.

Yvonne and I lived off-base in a row house in Junction City, Kansas.  On payday after we paid rent and bought food, we would have enough money to go for a stroll down Main Street and buy two popsicles.  We would split them in four halves, one half each for Yvonne, Pam, Keith and me.  This was our treat for the week.  When our money was short before payday, Yvonne had a watch we pawned every month like clockwork to buy food.

HIS STORY continues as he writes about —

  • Returning to Chicago after Leaving the Military
  • Going to College in Mississippi
  • Attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Working in the Public Sector – Wisconsin and Washington, DC
  • Starting Three Privately Owned Business
  • Children, Grandchildren and Other Family Members

About The Author

James C. Thomas was born in Coahoma, Mississippi, in 1941 the son of a sharecropper.  As a child and teenager he worked on cotton plantations chopping and picking cotton.

He attended Hull Jr. High School from primary through the ninth grade.  He attended one year at Agricultural High School near Clarksdale, Mississippi, and later earned his GED.

James served in the United States Army as a rocket specialist in Germany and with the Big Red One in Fort Riley, Kansas.  He was honorably discharged in September 1963.  After leaving the service he worked for a number of Fortune 500 companies in marketing and sales.  He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned a Certificate for Urban Executives from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge Massachusetts.

In 1973, he took a job in the Madison Wisconsin city government as a manpower planner with the mayor’s office.  He was later appointed the first Black Assistant Mayor in the city’s history, and held a number of positions in city government before starting his own medical transcription business in the early 1980s.  Thomas later opened the first African American art gallery and custom framing shop in Madison.

In 1996, he moved to Milwaukee to partner with his daughter, Dr. Pamela Thomas-King and her husband Dr. George P. King, II to open the first black and female owned multi-disciplinary chronic pain management and treatment center.  In 2002, the Thomas family bought a 9000 square foot building in North Milwaukee which now houses the clinic and an ambulatory surgery center.

9 thoughts on “Freedom Friday – Black History Month: Part 4

  1. Your husband’ s story is intriguing because of the times and places we have in common – though it’s like “so near and yet so far” in terms of the culture of unrestrained bigotry and division between races. It is heartening to read that you both found a path through this. I like that you have funny stories to tell, like the watch you pawned on a regular basis. Cheers for your spirits and faith that got you through those times.

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  2. My mother has often told me about how people would take the pearl buttons off men’s shirts on a Sunday evening and leave them in the pawn shop until pay day and then take them out of the shop and sew them back on the shirt, to repeat the whole thing the following week.

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    • Thank u for ur comments. Pawn shop visits monthly were a lifesaver back then. But, we survived. Since then, we were blessed and never had to enter another pawn shop. There have been struggles, but pawning and item to feed our family thankfully ended when he left the military .

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  3. Pingback: Freedom Fridays | imanikingblog

    • Two granddaughters visited for spring break next month, and I decided to take next week of to prepare for their visit. Likely, given the schedule of activities they propose, I will need the week after they leave t o recuperate. Hugs.

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