Farming and laboring are in my blood. Growing up, I spent weekends and summers on my grandparents’ farm in East Arcadia, N.C. I have vivid memories of picking corn, collecting eggs from the chicken coop and chasing piglets when they escaped from their pen.
These memories came flooding back to me last summer, when I was inspired to learn more about my family and our connection to history because of my internship with the Center for Community Change (CCC). CCC is a national social justice organization created as a living memorial to Robert F. Kennedy after his assassination in 1968. For five decades, CCC has organized movements in communities struggling to make ends meet, especially communities of color.
Through my work with CCC, I learned that social movements matter – not just for the country overall, but for individuals and families. I wondered: what was my own family experiencing during the upheaval and turmoil of the 1950s and ‘60s? How did the labor and civil rights movement of the era change the course of my family’s history?
What I learned is that our story is America’s story. Our story is the power of education and organized labor. Our story is how social movements can transform a family in just one generation.
My grandfather, Herman Thomas Bowen, was born in 1916 in the township of Carvers Creek, N.C. In 1936, he married my grandmother, Beulah Mae Bryant. My grandparents, affectionately known by their grandchildren as Daddy Herman and Mama Beulah, raised 15 children.
They were married during a time when Jim Crow was the law of the land. Daddy Herman worked on a shipyard and at a paper mill, cut tires, and farmed his land. He was a farmer and a laborer, just like his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather were. Mama Beulah was a farmer and a homemaker, just like my great-grandmother, my great-great-grandmother and my great-great-great-grandmother. None of them had more than an eighth-grade education.
They struggled to make ends meet, so they recycled and reused everything. They even repurposed hog feed bags to make dresses for their daughters. My aunts and uncles picked vegetables and fruits on other farms to make their own money while in school.
Like most parents, Daddy Herman wanted more for his children. As he raised his family in the 50’s and 60’s, Daddy Herman knew that change was coming. Martin Luther King, Jr. led marches for racial equality. Brown vs. Board of Education of 1954 ruled that segregation of public schools was unequal and unlawful. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination at the voting polls. Young activists sat-in at lunch counters demanding to be served in Greensboro, NC only three hours away from my grandfather.
Daddy Herman understood that as civil rights movement leaders demanded equal pay, the right to vote freely and an end to Jim Crow, opportunities would open for his children that had not been possible for him. My grandfather placed intense pressure on his children to achieve academically. He attended almost all teacher-parent conferences with his notepad and pen to learn all that he could about his children’s academic progress. Anything less than a B was unacceptable, and even with their additional responsibilities working in the fields, he made sure that each of his children graduated from high school. After graduation, he urged his children to leave their small town of East Arcadia, recognizing that change was coming to rural North Carolina at a slower pace than elsewhere in the country.
Schools in North Carolina remained segregated until 1970, as did the paper mill where Daddy Herman worked. But it was at the paper mill that Daddy Herman’s children saw firsthand the good that can happen when employees join together to stand up for fairness. In the late 1960s, the building and ground employees filed a class action lawsuit against the paper mill where Daddy Herman worked because managers denied Black workers promotions. Since they didn’t have the support of the company or the white union, Black workers formed their own union to fight back and win. Many Black workers received up to $2,000 in the settlement for being denied opportunities to transfer to other departments for promotions that were considered “white lines of progression.”
My mother and her siblings continued to witness the impact of social movements when the wave of class action suits that rolled across America in response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 touched East Arcadia. When Bladen County decided to close East Arcadia High School, the all-Black school my mother and siblings attended, the students were bused over 30 miles each way to the white schools in other parts of the county.
Despite the challenges, torment, and bullying the Bowen kids faced, Daddy Herman pushed his children to work harder, to earn high marks and fight back against inequality. At one point, a school official told my mom that students would not be allowed to have a Black chaperone to accompany them on their honor society field trip. Daddy Herman raised enough noise, and the school official reversed the unfair decision and allowed for both Black and white chaperones to attend the trip. My great-uncle Durant, who was raised by my grandparents, even attended the 1963 March on Washington.
Daddy Herman and Mama Beulah’s encouragement, support and high standards meant that none of the Bowen children ever assumed they had to grow up to become farmers or laborers. My mother has a doctorate in psychology. Ten of her siblings graduated with honors or in the top percentage of their high school classes and several went on to college and other higher education programs. They are university administrators, professors, teachers, a banker, a librarian, and military officers.
They witnessed the power of movements that expanded Black Americans’ access to education and labor rights, and when new doors opened for their generation as a result, they were ready to walk through them.
My family’s story is an American story. It is the story of Black Americans from the rural south. It is a story that started with slavery, morphed into farming on our own land, and led to a generation of educated, powerful professionals thanks to an organizing movement that spread across the land.
Our story is intrinsically tied with the story of the civil rights movement. I know that today, there are families across the country whose lives are intertwined with the social movements of today, and whose histories will be shaped by the leaders and organizations on the frontlines of those fights. Families fighting to stay together under cruel government efforts that target immigrants. Families organizing to fight police brutality and to find good jobs, housing and opportunities to thrive.
All these years later, my family history has shaped who I have become today. While I don’t own a farm, I have a small garden that for me represents the hard labor and fight for equality of the generations that came before me. In my doctoral program I often think about the power Daddy Herman believed education held. I remind myself not to take my own education for granted. More importantly, I remind myself of how hard my family worked to play their own part in the civil rights movement and ask myself what now is my role to play. I am thankful every day — to my mother, to Daddy Herman, to the generations before me and to the movements for fairness and equality that lit their path to a better life, and in turn, a better life for me.