Sanders, Viola 8/12/99 Tape 1 of 2
By Shana Walton
This is an interview for the Mississippi Oral History Program. The interview is being recorded with Ms. Viola Sanders at the Capps Archives on August 12, 1999. The interviewer is Shana Walton. Also present in the room is Tara Zachary, Lisa Alford, and Molly Shaman.
VS: It is absolutely delightful to be over here and to hear about the progress that is being made.
SW: When and where were you born for the record?
VS: I was born in Sidon, MS on twenty-first day of February 1921. I was born about eleven fifty-five at night. Dr. Scott who birthed me said Viola I can put this back six minutes if you want her born on Washington’s birthday. Mother said let her go on her own. That is the strangest thing. I was going through some papers just last night, and I found a letter from this same Dr. W. W. Scott. How many years have seventy-eights years after the fact that I have just been appointed director of the WAVES, and he wrote me. He said, “Since I am the first person who ever laid eyes on you, I just want to write and tell you how grand I think this is.” Isn’t that wonderful?
SW: That is great.
VS: It just brought tears.
SW: You were just seeing the letter again last night?
VS: I just saw the letter again last night. I probably got it let’s say thirty years ago.
SW: Yeah, let’s not jump ahead in time. Tell me about where you grew up?
VS: I grew up in this very small town. As I recall, there was about four hundred and twenty-one people in it. I used to say when anybody ask even when I am in the Navy they counted me. I was born into a wonderful little family. Unfortunately we lost my father when my brother, Staney, was about eleven, and I was about nine. I had a wonderful grandfather. His name was Solon. Most aptly named man I ever had seen the wisest man. Solon, S-O-L-O-N, Solon Irvin Brown, was a marvelous man. I wished I could talk about him all day.
VS: We were happy. We played. Of course nobody had cars. We still have a reunion every year in Sidon, MS. It is the only town in the world, I think, that has its annual homecoming under of the edges of a cemetery association. We have a beautiful Sidon cemetery. We put a building on it, and we come there and convene. You would be surprised we had about two hundred fifty this last May to our homecoming. We are very close. You would be amazed at the people Frank Smith who became a congressman, and head of the TVA. He was born there. He and I were born on the same day. He was three years older than I was. Preachers, my brother at one time at that time was the youngest district attorney that Mississippi had ever had. We have had several little bank presidents. One of them lived right behind me. We grew up good.
SW: How come were you all was able to get such?
VS: I don’t know. I think the smallness of it. We had strict discipline. We were disciplined then.
SW: Tell me about that.
VS: Well I could tell you this when I was a sophomore in college thinking I was the smartest kid on the block. One of my vivid recollections was my mother chasing me around the big oak table in the dining room because I had sassed her. That is the truth, and she caught me too. Mother was wonderful, but she demanded respect. My mother was one of those people who studied. She had a curious mind. She knew a lot, and she wanted to teach everything she knew to everybody else. I can remember at night after we had gone to bed. I can hear mother saying, “Okay what was the name of Alexander the Great’s horse?” Just she wanted us to know things.
SW: Where was she from that she had?
VS: Let me tell you this, my granddaddy, Solon, came from Texas. He bought this little plantation which I still have out at the foot of a creek. He found when he got there that there was no school. He sent my mother at the age of fifteen to Ward Seminary in Nashville, summer schools at Grenada College, Ole Miss, State. She would learn history, biology, English literature things, and he established a little school out on this creek. My mother was teaching at that age. Then when we finally built this little school in Sidon, we had Ms. Judson that was another wonderful thing. My mother at the age of fifteen was teaching school in Sidon with Judson Defore, and when I got to be in the eighth grade the same Judson Defore was my teacher.
SW: Oh that is great.
VS: There was three in the class in the eighth grade. That is as far as the school went, and we had to go up to Greenwood on the busses. I got up there in the ninth grade those city slickers they were out of their class.
SW: You just showed off.
VS: I just showed off all the time. It was grand. I went on and graduated from high school. We studied and did well. We learned a lot.
SW: Let’s back up, tell me about this grandfather you loved so much? What was he like?
VS: He was wonderful. I can remember this I think the Saturday Evening Post as well as I can remember was the first magazine ever to appear in the South. He had one of those kinds of minds he would lie down, and at exactly at six thirty when the news came on he was receptive. He got up and turned it on. He was subscribing to the Saturday Evening Post and reading it. I doubt Solon ever went past the fourth or fifth grade. He became one of the first supervisors. You know every county in Mississippi has little beats, and you have supervisors. He laid out every road in Beat 5. We still have plaques with his name on it where he laid out the roads. Solon wanted me to debate. Now you know we had a lot of boys. He felt that every man in the family should go to law school. I was a girl, and he never entertained the thought of my being able to go to law school. He told me I could be a legal Stenographer. He a least thought I was that smart. One moment I was debate with Fred Witty. He grew to be one of the lawyers in town. We were debating on the subject of “cotton acreage”. I can remember Solon came in. He said, “I want to hear your debate.” I was getting ready to go. I went through my debate. Now he said, “Viola Brown that is good, but when you are through I want you to tell the judges that you will be back tomorrow. You will debate on the other side.” He did not agree with the side I was on. So you see he thought I could get up there the next day and go the other way.
SW: And did you?
VS: Solon always saw to it that we got somewhere on weekends and during the summer. The reason this was so new in my mind on my way to Biloxi, he took us down to Biloxi when we were thirteen and fourteen. I had not been back. We always went to Pensacola. We got to Collins, MS, and I told my friends with whom I was riding that we broke an axial right there at Collins, MS. We spent the day, but we had a grand time. On the way back we got into Yazoo City to stop to eat, and someone stole our little car. We were in a little old Chevrolet. I can remember we were all sitting in this little hotel out in the lobby Papa walked up. We called him Papa. He said, “We found the car. Let’s go home.” Well half way home it got dark as pitch and the lights in the Chevrolet went out. Papa took my brother, Stany, and my first cousin, Gordon, each had a flashlight. He set them up on the fenders, and we drove to Sidon with them on the fenders of that Chevrolet with those flashlights. That was the kind of man, Solon, was. He was highly regarded. He wore a black Stetson hat in the winter and a white Stetson hat in the summer. He walked around town and always singing “Amazing Grace”. He taught us how to drive, and he would come by everyday and take me out to Elder Grove. I was at the Great Lakes when he died. It made me very sad.
SW: He lived to a ripe old age?
VS: He lived to a ripe old age, and so did my grandmother. My mother would have been ninety-six years in three days when she died back in 1988. That is the reason I came back to Mississippi from the Navy.
SW: You have a history of strong healthy people in your family?
VS: Very, I am going to live forever. I am counting on it. I will tell you with everything that is going on that I would not be a bit surprised if we did not obtain biblical ages here before long.
SW: That may be very well true. Tell me something about what is was? I got a feel for it about growing up. But what was every day like?
VS: Okay every day of course we went to school and came back on the bus. It was almost by our by our britt, everybody put on his or her skates. You had to skate on every sidewalk before you could go home. Everybody always came to Staney Jr. and Viola Brown’s house because we had a black mammy and black pappy. Emma and Leslie who lived right in the back of our house because mother could go to the store and get a chicken or hen for twenty-five cents. Emma could make the best chicken and dressing you have heard of in your life. The kids would just flock with us. We would play capture the flag. We play kick the can. We just played all sorts of things. Emma and Leslie had some little grandchildren. I remember Junior and Dot. One day I heard them out in the back playing, and I heard Dot saying, “I am going to be Staney Jr. today. You were Viola Brown all the time.” They were playing each one of us out in the back. Then we had square dances. We had an old empty store in Sidon. We all danced. We loved to dance. We would do round dances and then square dancing. I was quite a dancer. I had a little beau named John Kelly. I just loved John Kelly to death, and we jitterbugged all of the time. Well one Saturday night on Christmas Eve we were jitterbugging down in Shrock’s Restaurant in Tchula. I am telling you the gospel. We were doing the shag. We were jumping a chair. We jumped that chair, but I landed on my ankle. I broke my ankle. I have the first jitterbug break in medical history. I broke my leg jitterbugging on Christmas Eve with I was a sophomore over at MDCC. I had one beau named Vernon who loved to dance. Back in those days we were able to do it. We would dance every night, but then on Sunday night was closed up. We would stop on the bridge. There were several little bridges between Sidon, Cruger, and Tchula. We would stop on the bridge turn on the radio and dance on the bridge. There was no traffic at that time of night.
SW: Your parents were not worried?
VS: Of course my daddy was gone. Oh mother worried. This same John Kelly mother was always, you know back in those days the Victorian element, and mother was you got to behave. I remember one night I was out a little late, and she picked up a good friend of hers, and went looking for John Kelly and me. All we have been doing was just dancing at a juke joint. She was out looking for us. I minded my mother. I did not dare.
SW: I was wondering about all the dancing and going out that you are talking about because it sounds like you mother was pretty strict at that time?
VS: Well no she really wasn’t. Back in those days mothers are worried about their daughters. Don’t do something you shouldn’t do.
SW: She didn’t mind you going out dancing?
VS: She didn’t mind my going out and dancing at all. She would chaperone sometimes. We had a wonderful relationship. I just adored my mother. I thought she was just great. Anybody who knows me would tell you she was just really the greatest role model in the world. You ask me a question. How do we all go out? The thing about it I think we in Sidon, all of us, represented happiness. I think we grew up happy. Nobody had any money. You see there was no pressures because you youngster don’t like to hear about the great depression. We couldn’t even see movies. People didn’t have cars to drive to Greenwood to see a movie.
SW: The closest movie house was in Greenwood?
VS: Right. I have a wonderful memory of this, which is grand. Mother, I don’t know where she got them, we have two huge encyclopedias in our house that ought to be bound a hundred and fifty years old A through K, and L through whatever. I can remember when I was very young; mother would be sitting in the middle of the living room floor with the children the girls that lived down the street teaching them. I would be listening. I think a lot. I am blessed with one of those memories. My grandfather had that memory, and my mother had this memory. I think by osmosis. I heard what she was teaching them. Everyone came to Ms. Viola.
SW: How many siblings did you have?
VS: Just Staney and me just the two of us. One thing I want to say about my mother, I can remember. This is back with the African Americans. Mother was way a head of time and the superintendent of education and his wife were good friends of ours. I can remember mother saying to him one night when I was very small, “If we don’t put some desks in the schools, and if we don’t take the orange crates out and puts some panes and get them some place and busses to ride we are going to pay for it down the road. I can remember J. D. I can remember his name from right now. The superintendent of the black school right there in Sidon named J. D. Montgomery. He would be at my mother’s backdoor getting advise from her, and she was helping him teach. She would help our black friends with their social securities and letters and little things like that. I just grew up in a wonderful atmosphere like that.
SW: Your mother understood the phrase “you reap what you sow”.
VS: She absolutely did. Right now a lot of little communities the size of Sidon had died away, but not Sidon. Race relation is absolutely wonderful. About two weeks ago we had this joint venture with Freddie Jackson White, it is a teenage pregnancy program. We were over there, and we just had a wonderful time. We made the front page of the Commonwealth. We are thriving really. The little black churches and white churches are doing well. We only have Baptist and Methodist of course.
SW: You said your mother was ahead of her time?
VS: She was ahead of her time.
SW: Your family was just so, obviously you were raised in your family with this some enlightened attitude, but you were in a larger culture. Do you want to talk about this larger culture? What was it like?
VS: I don’t remember any of that right now. All I remember was growing up, and Mother told me early on that I was going to Moorhead for two years. When I graduated from there everybody else was going to the W. Mother says Viola Brown is going to Cleveland, Delta State. That is the reason I am so delighted. That is the reason I dedicated my stuff over there to her. It never occurred to me, image this going on today, to question my mother. She says you are going to Delta State. You could not do that today. No kid would take that. Maybe I was na