Billie Tonos Interview · Back to DSU Oral Histories
Tonos, Billie 9/10/99 1 of 2
By Brenda Outlaw
This is an interview for the Mississippi Oral History Program. The interview is being recorded with Ms. Billie Tonos on September 10, 1999. The interviewer is Brenda Outlaw.
BO: Shaw; and your parents owned a grocery store there. Could you tell us how they arrived in Shaw, because on your biography you said that they were originally in Clarksdale?
BT: In those days in the twenties Shaw was opening up, and my parents were working with members of their families in a family owned business. The time came when everybody needed to spread their wings and find another nest. Papa found out that this town was opening up, and with the help and support of many of the Lebanese community. He established a grocery business in Shaw. It was small, hardworking people in the community who supported my father very well. With times being like they were it was important take a part of the load, and my mother was certainly one of those who really did her part. Not only did she provide assistance in the grocery store. She birthed number of children. We had a lovely family life. Being a large family, our social life centered around one another rather than reaching out, but when we all started school everybody’s group of classmates became their close friends. That escalated to the big round warm group of people who grew up together. They shared similar experiences: illnesses, births, deaths. School activities were the center of everything.
BO: How large was the school at that point? Do you have any idea?
BT: I have no idea, but we had twelve grades. It was always top quality. Frank Huff was the superintendent. In those days the big thing was to excel in schoolwork, and I did. It was my hobby, my life, and the affirmation that I got from doing those things and participating as well as I did seemed to be a feather in my cap. I followed through most of that, and I went on to Delta State to continue that.
BO: Now physically was your father’s store close to your home, or how was that arranged, the business and the home?
BT: Well the business was the hotel, and with a large family accommodated us. Not at first it was small behind the store business. It was little rooms behind the store. Then when papa bought the hotel, we occupied the bottom part of the building as a grocery store and the top as the residence. However, that first residence didn’t have a kitchen upstairs where we were eating. So there was a huge kitchen behind the store and a gathering place for many, many wonderful meals and sharing times. In fact, Monsignor Cononici said that he received his vocation to the priesthood around the table in the back of our store where we had our kitchen.
BO: Now where was that located as in relation to the town now?
BT: It was across the street from the Railroad Station. I don’t remember the name of that street. I think they called it Oak. I am not sure.
BO: Okay, your father didn’t build the hotel?
BT: No, no he bought the hotel.
BO: How many floors?
BT: Just two, but in the old days in the beginning of that store it was really a center of activity, social life where the store was. It was a dining room, ball room, and the old timers would talk about all the wonderful times they used to have having dances and balls there. Of course, that was before our time. I don’t know about that business of the balls and having music. I certainly inherited a lot of that stuff.
BO: Was there other grocery stores in town, or was your father’s the only one?
BT: There was other grocery stores. In fact on the street where we lived on the street where the store was, next door to us was a drug store. It was owned by the Deans the property the building itself that part of it was by the Deans. They had a drug store there at one time. Then that was converted later to a dry good store. My daddy owned that and put my two sisters in business there. Next to that there was a Chinaman. It was a very nice family of Chinese people opened another store. Which was fine because competition is whatever it is. It is supposed to be something. Next to that was a Jewish family the name of the family was Chiz.
BO: Oh the Chizs are still very prominent in Shaw.
BT: That is where they got their start. They had a dry good store. Mercantile is I guess what you would call it. Next door to that was a bakery owned by a German family, and we had fresh bread and delicacies. We didn’t realize it at the time what delicacies they were. That was what was at the end of our part of our block. The rest of it was the back end of another part on Dean, the main street in town.
BO: You could call that an international community right there.
BT: It really was.
BO: They all had children, and you all went to school together.
BT: Yes, yes they did. I don’t really remember about the Chinese people.
BO: Could you give us your mother’s maiden name and where she was born, and how she got to Mississippi if she was not born here?
BT: Well my mother was actually born in New York, and she moved to Lebanon at some period. Then her family decided that they were not living equal economic terms with some people. Her father decided to come to the America. He could stay with them and work them. Not only that my father had brothers who were in business here in the delta around Clarksdale, and so was the custom of the day momma being in Helena and papa being in Clarksdale. A ride across the river on the ferry was not any difficult thing. The families begin to mingle and socialize. Papa went to Helena and met momma and the family. He proposed to momma, and they got married. They married in Clarksdale.
BO: I noticed that.
BT: Yes, it was whatever the customs of the day. I really don’t know too much about that except it was like a marriage made in heaven. We realize that now. At the time momma was a real beauty, and papa was a struggling immigrant who was willing to make sacrifices. He believed in family. There was a strong family, love of family. Topped by love of God, and a stern commitment, a strong commitment I should say.
BO: That is wonderful. I can tell you were raised in a loving family.
BT: Now papa was born in Lebanon.
BO: So he was actually was an immigrant and your mother although she moved from Lebanon was a natural citizen.
BT: Yes and when we were doing research I said something about her being naturalized. They said no she was not naturalized, she was repatriated. I learned a word in the search. We did some research, but we knew those things. We didn’t talk about them a great deal. We were well pleased with it. Things more or less came to a head, however, during the war when our brother, when we only had one brother. The rest of us were only us gals that learned to dance do all the girl stuff.
BO: How many children were there?
BT: There were seven girls and one boy.
BO: In the war
BT: He was going to be in the Navy. He was a student at Milsaps. He wanted to go into the Navy. Then he went into Dental School. So a lot of paper work and things. He got into the Navy. He did his stint in the war. He served in San Francisco or somewhere on the coast. Those papers had to be accurate. They were legal. There was nothing phony about it. It had to be something that was really actual.
BO: Proving he was an American citizen.
BO: Do you know how far either or both of your parents went in school, and where did they go to school?
BT: I don’t know if papa ever had a full education, but he was a brilliant man. He was self taught, spoken, and written. Momma went to school for several years in Helena, AK. She prided herself on being able to spell well.
BO: Do you know how old your father was when he immigrated?
BT: I think he was fifteen.
BO: He was a very young man.
BT: Yes, he was very young.
BO: Can you tell of some incidence when you were growing up that particular stick in your mind, either a very happy incident or a very traumatic incident as a child?
BT: As I have said already most of the things that we did was family oriented. School was our greatest social event. Going to the parties with our classmates, and celebrating birthdays with one another was a big affair for us. Recently all of our high school and my young years in school have come to a head when I had a recent call from a gentleman who graduated with me from high school. He was searching for his high school graduate friends. He was working up a class reunion. He has called me several times. He is trying to keep in touch with everybody who was in his graduating picture.
BO: How wonderful. How did you all get? Were you in cars? How did you move about? How big of an area did they come from for these social gatherings?
BT: Most of the people that we knew were of Lebanese decent, our friends with the family with papa and mama included. They were people who lived in the delta. They lived in Clarksdale, Leland, Lake Village, and Helena, AK. It was just a loving community, and because of the similarity in background it was easy to socialize. We liked the same kinds of food. Mama had a bounteous table all of the time. Times might have been hard, but they were never so hard that she could not set a table and invite even the salesman who called on us to eat with us. Of course we always had the priest to come and visit with us and sit at the table. Holiday times, our car would be sent to Clarksdale to bring some of the relatives to celebrate with us. It was just a big open arms affair. Had you known my mother you would have said her heart and soul was as big as her body. She was a great big, fat woman. Papa was slight. Being slight did not keep him from open to his relatives particularly his brothers and their families.
BO: So transportation by car was quite common. Were the roads good?
BT: Not being a driver I was a ride not a drive. We had cars. You know during the war we were on the list for a car. Mama’s name was on a list at two different places, one was at Kossman’s and one was at Shaw. Would you believe the cars came in at the same time, which practically shocked the town. I have to tell you this because it is a point that must be made. The townspeople said, “Look those people have two cars. Look at what our grocery money had done for those people.” There is a little twinge of discrimination and prejudice that I don’t enjoy talking about. It must come to surface.
BO: It must be told.
BT: It must be told because if it is not told you don’t get the true story. When people rise above it, you know that has to be a little bit, not only do you rise above it you kind of put a little sheen on things.
BO: It makes it more interesting for those persons who were not there and experiencing what you. It makes it real. What kind of games did you all play?
BT: We played a lot of cards. The biggest things were to have papa play with us. When he bought us a set of Monopoly. He didn’t just buy it, he bought it and we played it. It became a standard thing in my family. When I went to Germany I bought a set with German pieces in it. When we sold our store, we sold the store to. I was married by then. I was not at home. A Chinese family took the store. During a time after a fire I went there, I found a set of Monopoly in Chinese.
BO: Oh how wonderful.
BT: Talk about coincidence. That is just one of those things that just hangs around.
BO: So you all played games a good deal?
BT: Yes we did. We did a lot of jigsaw puzzles.
BO: When was your first knowledge of W.W.II?
BT: We were sitting around on that Sunday afternoon. Pearl Harbor was bombed.
BO: You were how old at that point?
BT: It was in ’41. I graduated in high school in ’42. So it was a very traumatic thing. It happened to be my sister’s birthday. That shook us all up because it was her birthday. By the same token, we knew we were going to be glued to the radio. The person who was the most glued was my mother. You have never known a lady with such patriotic blood. Not American born, she might have been born in American, but she was strictly Lebanese. She was one hundred percent Lebanese. Her patriotism was just her shining star.
BO: Do you know why she felt so loyal to America?
BT: She felt that because of the economic benefits that she and her family received when she came to America. That was the impotence for so many people who came to America. When they talked about the streets being paved with gold, that is a figure of speech. That gold was a result of hard work and intense striving for the best for the family, whether it is food, clothing, shelter, or whatever. It didn’t have to be a Cadillac. It didn’t have to be a ribeye steaks all of the time. However, we did have a grocery store, and we did have a lot of good meat on our table. That was the most important thing. Not a house, we didn’t have a house, house. We had the hotel, the big building. It was not central heat, but we had fireplaces. We made it very homey when we look homey.
BO: You were there that Sunday afternoon?
BT: Yes, yes
BO: How soon after that did your brother decide to participate?
BT: When he graduated from Milsaps. I don’t know exactly when Emmett went into the service. He was in school after he served in California part of that time. He was in school in Memphis.
BO: When was your first knowledge of Delta State?
BT: I grew up knowing about Delta State because we knew that there was so nearby. My ambition was to be a teacher. Really felt that was the only thing in the world for me. I told papa and mama that I would love to go to Delta State. They didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t.
BO: Did any of your other brother or sisters go to college?
BT: Emmett went to Milsaps. Marjorie went to Drawn’s Business College. Helen and Louis were put in business in a dry good store next door to the grocery store. Evelyn had no desire to go to college. She was a sport’s lover. She worked in the store, and was a wonderful helper with my daddy and the store. Ruby went to Delta State for a short time, but she wanted to be a technician. She did a little study in Vicksburg at the hospital or street clinic. Later on our baby came, and she made her way to college. She went to school in Kentucky. Then she had to transfer because papa got sick. Mama thought she didn’t need to be so far away. That broke her heart. She came back, and Sue spent a short while at Delta State. She didn’t graduate there. She came home and made her way to Greenville. She worked at the bank here in Greenville. I had a degree from Delta State in ’46. I taught in Minter City one year. I taught in Shelby one year. Then the priest in Greenville came to see me, and he invited me to help out here at Saint Joe the Catholic school here. (Could not understand audio)
BO: You are just doing wonderfully well. When you went to Delta State, did you know what you wanted to teach or what level you wanted to teach? How did you choose that?
BT: I was always interested in law and English. I felt like that would be the area I would like to be in. So I have a double degree in English and Social Studies. So I took that on, and I thought I would teach high school English. Small people were not supposed to be messing around with the great big boys especially in a rural community where the size difference is so bad. Not only that, if you don’t have strong leadership among the leaders of your school, you are at a disadvantage. The fact that I was that of Lebanese decent had a little to do with that to. Discrimination was there, and I knew it.
BO: Now you have mentioned that a couple of times. What point in your life did you become aware of discrimination? What incidence do you remember most significant?
BT: Of course when I studied any of the History books and learned of different ways and different kinds of discrimination. I was sensitive to that. It shook me up to think that people would abuse anybody or look down on anybody if they were that different. I knew I was different to a degree. My friends and the people that I went to school with at Delta State never showed me that I was different. I didn’t think they did until. I said something to one of my friends that was there. I said do you remember we were at Delta State (audio not able to understand) She said oh no you weren’t. That took me about. I really had no idea that they felt like I was not of them. I really didn’t do anything about. I just kept on living like I am living right now. I just hold my head up and do what I think is the right thing. I knew God had a hand in all this. You either fall apart because of it, or you hold up your head and you charge on.
BO: So while you were at Delta State, you didn’t feel the discrimination. It was after you had left, and someone had pointed
BT: You know sometimes I would know especially being Catholic. I wouldn’t be going to prayer meeting, and I would not be going to what ever they had at whatever. Anyway I wouldn’t be doing that. I had a strong home who put my Catholicism. It was a big thing in my life. I never could think of myself as not being Catholic or practicing my faith.
BO: Did at that point have a Catholic organization on campus?
BT: No there was ever there. (Audio not able to understand). I got up enough nerve to say something. There was another Catholic girl on campus. The two of us went. We asked if they would substitute for our meat on Fridays. Nowadays, Fridays is no longer is not considered of the up most up most important. At the time it was important. Even when I went home with some of the girls on the weekends there was not a whole lot of consideration for that. Being young and being (audio not able to understand).
BO: How many Catholic students were on Campus at that time?
BT: Very few. I think one girl commuted from Merigold, and if she commuted she didn’t have to deal with the food. It had to be no more than five or ten.
BO: In the Shaw community, how many Catholics were there?
BT: Oh I can not even begin to say. At least I would say fifteen families. That might be stretching it.
BO: Did you have a Catholic Church at that point in Shaw?
BT: Yes, we had a Catholic Church. For many, many years I would go to mass once a month, when the priest would come to Shaw and say mass in the church on that fourth Sunday.
BO: Where did he come from? Do you know?
BO: So Cleveland had a larger church at that point than Shaw, and they had a very active church. Did they make the students welcome their worship services?
BT: No, this is just new stuff. As things have progressed, Shaw has a resident priest. Cleveland has a resident priest. Communities tie themselves together through the bishop and whatever organizations are available. The personalities of the priest themselves gathering the people together and sharing like they do now. It is a real boom. It ties the people together because of their value systems. It was the love of God. You know practicing the faith is so basic to these people. The intermarriage of the Catholics with the non-Catholics has boosted interest in the faith. It has boosted the population because a lot of those people have converted. That is not to say that we didn’t have any fall a ways because we have. Predominantly the strength and the good example of the Catholic people in this area have made the church expand. We have had some well-educated people come into this community and work and participate in school activities.
BO: What was the dormitory like back then? Did you have social organizations, or did the school organize social events? How did you all?
BT: We didn’t socialize a heck of a lot except between the girls. You see during the war we didn’t have any guys, we had a few ministerial students. We had to dance with each other. The main thing that kept us together, the things we enjoy was mostly being in theater, singing, and sports activities. We had intramural. We became sisters. That was part of what developed because we did have a strong phys ed. program at Delta State when I was there. In fact part of the system that they had promoted acrobatics. We didn’t know it at the time. I guess it was the phys ed. was like a training, body development, and all that kinds of stuff.
BO: Like gymnastics?
BT: Gymnastics, yes, in fact we had one gymnastic gal who could just play the part of the tumbler in the theater that our preacher used to have.
BO: Now so you all didn’t have organized clubs. Did you have sororities on campus at that point?
BT: No sororities. We had evidence of this in the annuals. You can see that we had a Baptist Student Union, Youth Group, the Methodists, and those kinds of things. Then they had the Student Body. They really didn’t put on anything big, or any kind of big activity. They might have had a supper or something like that. It let’s the people in the dormitories. We always liked to eat. When they left home they would bring food back, or someone would come and bring cake and celebrate a birthday or have something in the dorm. It was nice. We had the big living room, and that is where we would congregate. We would have meetings there to discuss any problems that might have arisen.
BO: You said you wanted to be in drama and English? (Tape cut off)
The most outstanding teacher?
BT: When I first got there, I tried to be with the group of people who were in the Delta Playhouse. I got in. I was well accepted. In charge of that group of people were people who were under Dr. Daughrity. Not only did he promote this, he asked us to get a group of people together, and we formed a singing group. We were like a not a traveling minstral group, but a group of singers who would go to the schools to recruit. How much recruiting we did, I don’t know, but it was fun practicing. We did get very, very close. We called ourselves The Little Foxes. That was an appropriate name because Minnie Fox was our leader. Of course I think there was a reference to the Fox’s in some of the literary business. That is what we ended up being. We did get the college car, and we went from town to town. Not a whole lot of times, but we went some. Following that I was invited to Dr. Daughrity’s house with some of the upper classmen. We had a lovely brunch, party in his yard. His home was absolutely enchanting to a novice like me. Doing that and being inviting to that was the ultimate.
BO: Now this is as a freshman that you was invited?
BT: Freshman or sophomore I can’t remember which is which. Being invited that was quite a feather in my cap. I thought.
BO: Bet it was. Do you remember your first day on campus, and what it was like?
BT: My first day on campus was pretty bland and blight. I hated leaving home for one thing. I was determined I was not going to be a crybaby. The people who I thought was the strongest well they looked the strongest were the ones that cried. I could not see myself crying because I left home because I wanted to be there.
BO: Can you describe the campus for us at that time?
BT: Very modest. The dorm was very, very clean. The basic things were there. There was nothing elegant about any of it.
BO: Which buildings were standing that are still standing?
BT: I was in Ward Hall. I stayed there, and then I went to Cleveland. Being advanced as I was and moving with the little older group, I moved into Cleveland before I was supposed to. It was okay, because I was on the third floor, and that was the place to be.
BO: Now who was your first roommate?
BT: My first was Mary Virginia Davis from New Albany.
BO: Did you all get along very nicely?
BT: Very beautifully and we were almost twins. The fact that I was more brunette that she. We both had sparkling black hair.
BO: What did you have in common with her?
BT: She was into science, and I was into English. What did we have in common? She had a precious brother. I thought he was just adorable. That was one thing we had in common. She depended on me to help her with her English papers and speeches or whatever. I was willing to tutor. I would correct her papers before we would go to class.
BO: How did you get to move to Cleveland? What occasion?
BT: To make the move to Cleveland Hall? Well it was time. I don’t know how it happened. It was time for me to get over there. So there was an opening on the third floor so I went over there. They didn’t say anything about it. I don’t know if I had to make a big statement about it. I was invited to come on over to the third floor.
BO: Who lived there at that time? Who was living on the third floor? Do you remember?
BT: Nell Barring and I really can’t remember the rest of them, but I was there.
BO: What did you all do to that made it so much fun on the third floor of Cleveland?
BT: Well we just stayed up late and talked. We laughed a lot. We danced a lot. It was just fun.
BO: Did you all have record players, or did you have radios that you danced to?
BO: When you had organized dance, what kind of music did you have?
BT: We didn’t have any organized dances. Nobody was there to dance with at the organized dances.
BO: So you didn’t have any organized dances.
BT: No, only thing you did if you had a date which was so few and far between you would go to the show. It was the Ellis Theater.
BT: Downtown and you would go to the show. At class reunion time somebody ask the same question. Where did you go when you had a date? One of my former classmates said, “Date, nobody had a date. Everybody was in the service.”
BO: So you all made your own fun?
BT: Yes we did. It was clean, and it was simple. It was just so innocent.
BO: Can you describe the fashion of the day?
BT: Pictures can tell you all. Everybody was into it. We had twin sweaters. We had matching skirts. They were average lengths. Nobody had anything real long or real short. Nothing really outstanding that I can really think of.
BO: Did you make your own clothes or purchase them?
BT: I never made anything for myself. My roommate had two aunts who helped rear her. Her clothes were homemade. They were immaculately done and very fashionable. I envied her, but not really envied her to the point that it held me back. My family always provided me with what I needed. It was always something in good taste. It was not very, very expensive, but never anything that was second hand or not quality. Everything was okay, good stuff. I had what I needed when I needed it.
BO: Can you tell me about the expenses of the college at that point? Did your father pay for yours? Did you get scholarships? Also the books did you all have any problem with the war materials and books being available?
BT: None of that. I didn’t fool with any of the financial stuff. I tried to be as conservative as possible. In fact when I called home, it costs me dime. I would have a dime to put in the telephone to make the phone calls. Never did I have to sacrifice anything as far as food or any of my real needs. My daddy paid my tuition. I thought I well deserved a scholarship, but my big thing from being my valedictorian of my class was a subscription to Reader’s Digest for one year.
BO: You loved it being an English major?
BT: Yeah I did. I thought that was really something. Now days you know.
BO: The majority of the girls or people at the school at that point do you have any idea about there financial status?
BT: Yes I do. Many of those girls, I have to say girls because it was predominantly female. Many of those girls came on some kind of scholarship that I had no idea about. They seldom had spending money. How they got it. I know they had a hard time, because not everybody could afford to go to college. Many of the girls left after a year or two years. Record will show that.
BO: Now when you were at college, and you were busy having a nice time with all of your friends. Did you notice people of other ethnic backgrounds?
BO: So you were a definite minority?
BT: I was a definite minority, but I didn’t hold anything back because of that. The main thing that I did when I think back on it, there was a grocery store in Cleveland that was run by a Lebanese man. His last name was Saliba. At the time some of the girls were really into smoking. Cigarettes were hard to get. This was wartime you know. So they would say, “Ross could you get us some cigarettes?” I said, “When I go I will ask Mr. Saliba if I can have some.” When I would go downtown I would ask him. I said, “If you have any cigarettes I would like as many as you could let me have.” He would give me whatever. Then in turn give them to the girls. Of course they would pay for them. I never under write any of that stuff.
BO: So you didn’t notice any Italians or Chinese?
BT: Nobody was there.
BO: Nobody was there. Was this because they didn’t have the oppurtunity, the finances?
BT: I have no idea. Most of the people that I knew which is a very limited number because if I graduated with nineteen or twenty people. For me to be going to college some of the others would go to college, but they wouldn’t stay long. They would maybe go one year or two years. Many of the people would go to Greenville and meet some of the people at the air base, and they would get married. It was not closed, but it just did not seem to be the thing for most of the people I knew to go to college four years. Most of them just went on and got married.
BO: Did you stay the full four years, or did you finish earlier?
BT: I stayed the four years, and I had a spare quarter. I went one quarter in the summer time so I could learn to swim. I didn’t really learn to swim. I just had a good time.
BO: You mentioned the base in Greenville did the military people ever come to Delta State?
BT: Yes they did. In fact Mary Margaret Fugler had put on a play here. The man that she eventually married was Jerome Hafter. He arranged to have a play presented out at the base, or he did something with Mary Margaret. Some of the girls got to meet some of the people here at the base. I think most of them did that business on their own someway either by hook or crook.
BO: You were very active with the drama. Were you in the plays? Or did you participate back stage? How did you do that?
BT: I did some of everything to be an officer. You had to do some of everything: makeup, production, casting, and practice. One of the sweetest things that I had was of the play that I directed that was written by Evelyn Hammit. It was based on the story of the Juggler of Notre Dame. She changed it from the juggler to the tumbler. Since we had a wonderful girl who did a lot of those acrobatic feats. It was easy to cast her in that part. Ms. Hammit would come to the rehearsal and sit in the audience. She would absolutely cry when she saw the whole thing because we had the parts together. There she was on a pedestal. This white Anglo-Saxon Baptist or whatever she was. She would come down at the end of the play, and Ms. Hammit would just cry because it was just a beautiful, miraculous story.
BO: Did you have good attendance at those?
BT: Yes, I would think it was clumps of people would come. My family would come. They would be there for everything I was in. If not both my mother and father, at least one of them and one of my sister. Somebody would be in attendance. The support that I got while I was there was outstanding. It was not unusual for me because that is the way my life was and is. Whatever you are involved in you are supported by the people who are the closest to you. So I felt comfortable, and I felt accepted. I felt blessed that I had that kind of relationship with the people around me.
BO: Did the other students have that type of family support?
BT: Many of them did. I just can not go into detail. They had their own sphere. The Smith girls, Gladys and Vera Smith and Hugh and Billy, their parents were friends of my parents. They set a wonderful example for us. Those people supported their children to the nth degree.
BO: Did you have a best friend that was active in the same things, or this third floor group at Cleveland Hall? Was you attracted to that because common interest in drama?
BT: I had very good friends. I never had to wait for my friends to wait to do what I was doing. I didn’t have to have a partner. I was a very close friend with Kitty McReanolds. She became Kitty Powell. She married a man, and they eventually taught in Belzoni. None the less I didn’t have to have anybody that was my best buddy to be in these things.
BO: Did they have anything on campus like concerts, or any visiting special events?
BT: You have just opened up the most wonderful experience I think I have ever had. The Trap Family Singers came and put on a production that was reminiscent of Sound of Music. Such a poignant story really. To see those people come and they were recently come to the states because of the war. How they were refugees, but them to stay in the dorm with us. To hear them sing with there priest accompanist and to hear them sing a cappella. To see them with there costumes, and Da Vam Trap and her lovely presence was just about it is really a story. It is a real fairy tale.
BO: You got to be real close to them with them staying in the dormitory?
BT: Not really because we had the language barrier. They couldn’t speak English, but the music was my thing. I just thought that was amazing how their voices blended. Now that I am older I hear all the other people that do that singing. It is not so unusual, but at the time the opportunity to hear that on campus was just like going to the opera.
BO: So it was very new experience?
BT: It was. I don’t know how well attended it was as far as anybody. I know that Eleanor Walters was there because I have heard talk about it. That was one of the nicest things. Then the fact to that they want to go to mass in Cleveland. Father Rotunda was the pastor there. I think he welcomed them there in the church. My connection with that is still very, very vivid. Not only is it vivid, I followed it up, and when I was teaching I taught all about it. I had the pictures and the stuff to show everybody.
BO: So it stayed with you?
BT: It did, and it will never leave. It is part of my memorabilia. Eventually that will go to the Archives.
BO: That is wonderful. Thank you for that. Now what other things did you all put on? Did you put on musical productions?
BT: No, we put on one-act plays. There was a competition. We had three one act plays in one night. Then the judges were prominent people in the area. In one of these that were giving, in the one-act plays that were giving in March of 1944, the judges were Ms. Dugas Shands and Mr. and Mrs. Nathan House.
BO: Still very well known names.
BT: Very well known.
BO: They would judge which play won?
BO: What reward was there for the winning play?
BT: Nothing really except. It was required if you wanted to be an Alpha Psi. If you wanted to be in the fraternity, it had to be called a fraternity. It was not a sorority. It had to be a fraternity. To qualify you had to direct at least one play. This one that I directed this was “The Tumbler”. That helped me qualify for that.
BO: How did you get chosen to do this original play written by Ms. Hammet?
BT: Ms. Hammet seemed to love me very much. I would stop by her office frequently. She would chat with me. Then she would say, “Billie I want you to read something.” She would write these cute little things that you would put on greeting cards. She would say, would you believe here is some money. I got a little money from that. If it was twelve dollars or ten dollars or even five or six, she was thrilled to death.
BO: So she shared with you her successes?
BT: She did. It was so lovely.
BO: Were you in her classroom?
BT: I had one course under her. I don’t even remember which one that was. She honored me so. She had a bridge group, and these ladies would meet. They would all meet together. She had a cloth, a bridge cloth, that she had people to sign. Then she would embroider the name in black or whatever color. She treasured that. She asked me to sign that cloth, and I did. I just thought how much more can you be honored than that. So anyway I just followed on that. I went to her funeral. Before that I had a visit with one of her nephews. I knew she thought a lot about me, because I thought a lot of her.
BO: When did you realize that you were going to get the second degree in your graduating class? How many were in your graduating class?
BT: I don’t really remember. There couldn’t be more than twenty-five. Maybe there was forty, I don’t know. I didn’t realize I would get it. I was not honored that way. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any kind of recognition except that I got the second. Katherine Williams, a well deserved first place.
BO: What was her major?
BT: She was English. She won the Winston-Caulfield Scholarship, whatever money was involved in that. Her father was Dr. Williams on the staff. That is not belittling her, or saying that it was because of that. She went forward with that degree to become the; she was involved with the maid of cotton in Memphis. She worked with the Cotton council.
BO: When you left Delta State where was your first job, and how did you get it?
BT: My first job was a teaching position in Minter City, MS. A terrible, terrible decision for a first year teacher, because it was a rural community. I did not have very strong backing. Of course not being experienced, I could not handle the great big guys. I lasted one year. I was miserable, but I was close to Clarksdale. I was close to Greenwood. I had a good time socializing.
BO: At that point had you met your husband?
BO: Did your husband serve in the war?
BO: He did. So did you meet your husband?
BT: When John’s brother married a lady from Helena, AK. I went to the wedding. That is where I first met John at the wedding. Then when the wedding was over, and everybody went home. He came to Greenville. I went on to Shaw. I was approached while I was living in Shaw to come to Greenville to teach at Saint Rose of Lima. That was the school at the time. The Sisters of Mercy from Vicksburg staffed it. There was an epidemic of flu, and these nuns needed some help very badly. So my dear friend, George Sherman, who owned Jolin-Bergulin shoe store. He came with Monsignor Maloney to Shaw to invite me to come or rather recruit me to come to work. So I accepted the position. I was making hundred and fifty dollars a month in Shelby. So we agreed a hundred and fifty dollars a month would be what I would get. So I came. The Sherman’s housed me for a little while until I could find a room. Which I did find one with Mr. and Mrs. E. B. Reynolds. They were a distinguished, nice family here in Greenville who lived on North Hind St. I could walk to and fro from the convent. That is where I was teaching. Eventually the convent or the school was no longer at the convent. It was moved out here where it is now on Goss St. The nuns would bring the station wagon. They would pick me up in the station wagon to bring me out to the school. So I had a lovely relationship with those nuns. They were very, very kind to me. I was still single. Part of my activities was to socialize with the Lebanese people in this community. Which was a real plus, because the table was always ready. I had a chair at everybody’s table, and an invitation from a lot of people. It was so nice. I tried to maintain a nice relationship with those people, because it was fun.
BO: At that point how many students would you have had in a class?
BT: At Saint Rose of Lima possibly ten or twelve.
BO: In Shelby how many would you have had?
BT: About the same number I think. I never have been a person who watched numbers. I just did my job, and whoever was there got the benefit of all my good stuff.
BO: Did you meet your husband then when you were socializing with all the Lebanese friends?
BT: Yes I did.
BO: What was your first impression on your first sight of him?
BT: Oh good gracious he is such a good-looking guy, and he was. He was a very handsome man. He was very polite. He was very attentive.
BO: What was he doing at that point?
BT: At that time he was working in the grocery store with his father. He was working with his father. He didn’t actually own the store, but he worked so closely with his father that it would have eventually became his and his family.
BO: He had finished his service in the military at this point?
BO: So you didn’t go through the agonies of wondering about his well being?
BT: No, I didn’t wonder about that. I knew that his folks. He had a brother who was in the Navy, and then another one that went into the service later. So I did know about that second hand. You know being close to the family.
BO: I see you have retired from teaching, and you are very busy doing other things. Are these things that you have expanded after your retirement or are these things that you have taking up new?
BT: Chiefly, I have continued with my work with the church and the school. I maintained my activities with the church, related activities with the choir, study groups that kind of thing. At one point we were invited through the choir to participate in a community choir through the American Red Cross. All of this was volunteer, and the purpose was to raise money for the Red Cross, which was such an honorable and fun to do to. So I got involved in that, and I have been in forever since it started. I missed a couple of the performances, but by the same token it has been a boom because of the people that I have met. It is an inter-faith business through the church choirs and the community. Volunteers have come together. The comradely that has developed is one of the strongest things that have happened in this community civic wise and religion wise. It has just been great. We have had people from all churches. A number of outstanding people in the black community have come to sing with us. We have even had people come from Jackson to participate. So it has been a really rewarding experience.
BO: Because of your training at Delta State, what would you consider you most outstanding achievement?
BT: My ability to communicate with students in the junior high area. I shifted from high school to junior high, and I succeeded very well. I think that was my chief accomplishment with my background from Delta State.
BO: Who at Delta State gave you those types of knowledge?
BT: No one in particular, it was just the thing to do. You were suppose to use your talents to the best of your ability, and if you didn’t have the background and the degree you couldn’t get the job for one thing. These people here in Greenville have been so generous, and they have helped me along with (Tape cut off.)
Tape 2 Side A
BO: You had said that no particular person at Delta State had given you this confidence. Do you have an outstanding student that you had taught in the years? Do you remember who that may be?
BT: There were numerous students at Delta State in the Junior High that I knew would be accomplished writers. They were fine students. They took the work so seriously. One of them was a Gresham child. She has gone on to teach. A lot of the children come back and tell me, I will never forget when you did so and so or you said so and so. That is exactly what I do for my students now. So I feel like that they picked up on the things that were clever. I tried to make my teaching experience with the children. I tried to give them something that they could hang on to. It had to be something a little bit light hearted because junior high is a sensitive time in children’s lives. To take things too seriously was really not their cup of tea. They come back with all of these things. I am particularly pleased when they come back for happy occasions and sad occasions. They would quote something that I have told them. That was kind of my reward. I continue to say I didn’t make money, and I didn’t have much money in my pocket. They put a jingle in my pocket when they come back and report what they are doing with the stuff that I have taught them.
BO: We didn’t go into your family when we were talking about your husband. You were married in what year? Can you tell us about your wedding day?
BT: I was married in Shaw in the Catholic Church there in 1951. It was a formal wedding, but it was at mass. So all the congregation could be there. So it was a big crowd of people there, and a lot of Lebanese friends and family came. Pictures would show you that the reception was in the old school, which was like the American Legion Hut. It was some little house that was in one part of the town. It was nothing formal. It is still there. I was approached about getting married here in Greenville and having a big reception here in Greenville. Not a thing would make me do that. Nothing, nobody, I had to be married in my own church and be in my own home. That is what we did.
BO: Were your parents both living at that time?
BT: Yes they were.
BO: Tell us about the family that you and your husband had?
BT: The family we had?
BO: You have?
BT: Have, okay. We have four children. The oldest child was a son who was a fine student, and a very good boy. He was very much like his dad. He was keenly aware of athletics, but as a spectator. Well versed in baseball because my husband was a baseball fan. He just loved it, and he knew a lot about it. He was so into the statistics. Would you believe when my son was in high school that son Michael he was statistician for the ball team. He did a good job. Now he is editor for the paper in Gulfport, The Sun Herald, with children of his own, four of his own. My second child was a daughter, Mary Elizabeth Bishop. She graduated from Milsaps, and she is teaching English at Holmes Community College. Her residence on the Reservoir makes her close to her work. She is on the Madison campus. Laura graduated Delta State. She got her degree in Social Work. Now she is working with the school system in Starksville. Her daughter, Liz Thurman, is a student at Delta State at this time. Her husband his George Thurman. That is his painting name. He is an artist. He is a bonified artist. He has come up the artist way with a lot of emphasis on Henry Henchy. He has nice and extensive work. His work is all over the world. He has kept up with all of his paintings. He is pleased with what he is doing. The youngest child is an architectural student in Starksville. His final year at Startsville gave him an opportunity to go to Aman, Jordan and work there. Because of this ethnicity and his ability in the architectural field, he was giving the work to do in Aman, Jordan. That was a good experience for him. He has since located in New York City. He has his own firm by himself. It is his business. He is in New York City.
BO: How wonderful you have four successes I believe.
BT: I consider them successes for one thing God has blessed them with good health and brains, and common sense to a degree not all together. They have a lot of devotion and faith. I just try. I cannot stress that enough because they have been enough times so far and times yet to come. They are going to be tested, and I know they have been already tested. They have managed very well because when Sam graduated from State his daddy died soon right after. He came to me with trepidation, I should say. He said, “Well mama I still want to go to New York.” I said, “There is nothing to keep you from going to New York. I don’t want you to stay here with me. I am working. I am teaching. So you don’t need to stay here with me. You have my blessing if you want to go to New York.” So he did. He had it hard at first, but he had wonderful connections. Through the efforts of one Janet Smith, I have to name her because she has been so precious to help Sam in his work. She has been a steady friend. Sam is not married, and he doesn’t seem to want to be married. He is doing well in New York. I have even been there. He invited me for Thanksgiving one year. I was delighted. I will go. I was teaching at the time, and I ask permission to go. I said I want you to go to the Thanksgiving Macys Parade. We went, and you know what I saw. I saw everybody’s back side. I was too short. I am five feet barely.
BO: So you didn’t see much of the parade.
BT: It was a wonderful experience. Oh I did see Mayor Koch while we were having a hamburger in one of the places where Sam said it was okay to eat a hamburger there.
BO: Well now let’s go back to your childhood for just a little bit. Do you remember anything about the depression, or any of the things in the war that you could not get that you had been a custom to having?
BT: Let me talk me about the depression in this respect. We were buying the building we were living in, the formal hotel. I know papa had to borrow money to do that. I had a six sense when papa and mama would leave and go in the car to see somebody. I would know where they were going. I would be so nervous and so sensitive to it. I was afraid. I just didn’t want anything to happen to my parents. I found out if they spoke Arabic that I couldn’t really understand it though I got a sense that something was a miss. They were having some kind of trouble. They were have a hard time making the payment, or they might want an extension of the time to pay. They made everything. They always made their payments. I know that they struggled hard to do that. So I understood that. I never had any feeling that I couldn’t have what we needed. We had the grocery store. My mother and father were very, very creative in providing. We didn’t have that many wonderful desires, nothing extravagant.
BO: You felt like you were the norm for Shaw?
BT: Yes, but I could understand how some families in the Shaw community. They must have been in our church community. I don’t really remember. Mama would trade clothes or what we had out grown or what we didn’t need for eggs or vegetables when they would go out in the country. It was nothing demeaning in retrospect. It was nothing but barter, and barter from what I learned when I was in school in grammar grades. Barter was not bad. Barter was the thing.
BO: It was just exchanging things that were needed with out money.
BT: That is right.
BO: Do you remember anything about the flood?
BT: Nothing, in my association with some of the people here in Greenville since I have been married. I have learned of one of my dearest friends who lost a sibling during the flood. I didn’t have any of the experience of the flood. That was in ’27. I was born in ’24. If anything happened to papa and mama that they would have to go. They would normally go to Clarksdale. That is where you would say their roots beside Lebanon. You would say Clarksdale.
BO: Now you have referred to the Lebanese community several times. Do you feel that the Lebanese have maintained their community as strongly now as it was as a child?
BT: Yes and no. We have a wonderful organization that has been in existence in the south. It is called the Southern Federation. It is a group of clubs, local clubs, that meet then they don’t do anything except socialize. Since the Danny Thomas scene and that leader we have become very involved in ALSAC, the Saint Jude business. He brought people together when they were developing the hospital in Memphis. Through mutual friends of ours, Danny Thomas associated with our people. He came and the Clarksdale people and the Shaw people, we all, not myself, but some of the family would go to these affairs. That was like a convention. There were other conventions, New Orleans, and Memphis has had them. Whenever they are announced people make, Lebanese people, most of us would make an attempt to go. Recently my grandchildren haven’t caught on to it. Although their mother and daddy never did care about that, their mother has recently helped me promote it. She and her husband have taken the children to New Orleans to a convention. When there was a convention in Jackson recently the children wanted to go. I said, I will treat you to that because my niece is a belly dancer. Her name is Gayle Dickinson. She took my mother’s giving name as her dance name. She is NaZira.
BO: A beautiful name.
BT: She is a lovely belly dancer.
BO: Where did she learn to belly dance?
BT: She learned. I think she was a P. E. major for one thing. I don’t know how they started doing that kind of twisting and turning when they do that belly dance. She was very good at it. She has been to some workshops. Of course seeing other people do that. They imitate. They learn from one another. She has been to some conventions and workshops where they teach that.
BO: What Lebanese traditions has your family maintained? Have you seen other families in the delta maintain?
BT: Chiefly it is the food, the foods and the traditional foods for various occasions and all of the major feast, Christmas and Easter. Food is a traditional thing. We just enjoy that. Sharing, it is the sharing. Even christenings, it is a time to put food on the table. One of the sweetest things that we have found is that sharing at the table can cure a lot of ills and mend a lot of little fences that have been broken in some way. It is easy to do. I have picked up on both sides, from my mother-in-law and from my mother on how to do a lot of these things. Everything all the foods that I prepare take a lot of time. They are easy to eat in no time, but I even make my yogurt from the culture.
BO: Were any of these recipes written down that you know of, or were they passed down by word of mouth?
BT: For me, my first experience was to see mama do this. Later on books have been printed and recipes have been handed down. So we pass it on.
BO: Do you have anything you would like to tell us that I have not thought to ask you?
BT: Not really except I wanted to say that I feel honored that anybody wanted to hear me because I think I have been too long winded.
BO: No, I think you have been wonderful. You have told us a lot.
BT: Thank you
BO: We will treasure. They will use for many, many things. Thank you for sharing with us.
BT: You are so welcome.