Missing Mississippi

Winter in the Heartland

Winter in the Heartland

As I write this post, the current temperature here in Iowa is 12 degrees. TWELVE DEGREES!!! (And let’s not even talk about the wind chill.) With a forecasted high of 23 degrees, today will actually be the warmest day of the week. It’s safe to say that the weather outside is frightful. It’s also safe to say that I’m tired of this. I’m not cut out for this. After all, I am a Southerner. These are the times when I find myself really missing my home state of Mississippi with its mild winters.

Mississippi has had its share of colder-than-normal weather this year, even some snow last week, which is rare. Two inches was enough to shut just about everything down. My mother had a hilarious narrative about our hometown folks slipping and sliding their way around town to the grocery store and to department stores to buy real coats. Because there were no snow plows, city workers with shovels were throwing sand and salt on the streets from the back of a truck. That must have been a sight!

The snow and cold temperatures were inconvenient for them, but I knew that after a day or two, the snow would be gone. Meanwhile, I don’t think I’ve seen the ground since some time in December.

Maybe I’ve got the Winter Blues along with a touch of nostalgia. I want to see green grass on the ground instead of snow. I want to see full trees instead of gray stick figures. But Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, so I guess spring is still six weeks away for us.

So, I can’t help but envy my family in Mississippi. The high temperature in my hometown will be 64 degrees today. While I long to go outside without a coat, hat, scarf, gloves, and boots, some of my cousins will be wearing shorts.

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Finding My Great-Grandfather in a Box of Memories

Last year my mother was searching for something in storage when she found a chest that my paternal grandmother had given her when her mother, my great-grandmother (Grandma Della) died. It was filled with old bills, cards, letters, photographs, Bibles, and various knick-knacks that belonged to my Grandma Della. Although it appeared to be junk, I asked her to send the contents to me. The historian in me just knew there would be a great find among all that stuff, and I was right. I found my great-grandfather–not literally of course, but figuratively.

I was very close to Grandma Della. I was always at her house. Among other things, she taught me how to bake and crochet. She passed away while I was in college. Her husband Jim died when I was 5, so I can’t recall very much about him. I called him Jim, not grandpa or granddaddy, but apparently everyone else did too. He had a heart attack and was in the hospital for a week before died. Even though I wanted to visit him, I was not allowed inside his hospital room. I remember his funeral. He was a World War I veteran, and the American flag draped his casket at the gravesite.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

I found some wonderful pictures inside the box, including Jim in his World War I uniform, Grandma Della and Jim together and with their young family, and my great-uncle James as a baby (born in 1923).  My interest was piqued, so I began to gather the documents, Grandma Della’s stories, recollections from other relatives, and research from Ancestry.com to flesh out Jim’s story.

Jim was born in Kemper County, Mississippi in 1894. Not much is known about his early life except that he attended Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. He registered for the draft in June 1917 and was called into military service in August 1918, three months prior to the Armistice. He served overseas, most likely in France. A year later he was discharged from the Army. He and Grandma Della married in December 1919; she was still a teenager. She told me that Jim had come to “court” her, riding his horse with his Army uniform on.

Jim, circa 1950s

Jim, circa 1950s

Grandma Della and Jim raised seven children (and some grandchildren too). They worked  hard and were able to buy several acres of land and build a small house.  Grandma Della was a cook. Jim was described in city directories and census records variously as a laborer, yard man, and a janitor. He apparently had lingering physical and psychological issues resulting from his time in the military. As late as 1939, his physician noted in a letter requesting disability that he had difficulty walking and pain in his knee and shoulder. He also experienced nervousness, difficulty sleeping, and “all manner of bad dreams.” A contemporary diagnosis would probably be that he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Because of Mississippi’s reputation for almost totally eliminating the black vote prior to the Civil Rights Movement, I was surprised to find evidence that my great-grandparents were registered voters, at least as early as the mid-1950s. The box contained poll tax receipts and sample ballots. If they were able to vote, perhaps it was because Jim was a World War I veteran.

Poll Tax receipt, Lauderdale County, Mississippi

Poll Tax receipt, Lauderdale County, Mississippi

I suppose grandchildren can never really know about the lives of their grandparents. After all, Jim was almost eighty years my senior. But I feel as if I know him a little better now, and I certainly enjoyed searching through the box of memories.

A Head Start: Early Childhood Education Takes Another Hit (An Update)

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men [and women].”–Frederick Douglass

Despite the fact that we acknowledge the importance of early childhood education, poor

Standing in my grandmother's living room in front of her perfectly-preserved, plastic-covered couch, I am wearing my cap and gown from my Head-Start graduation.

Standing in my grandmother’s living room in front of her perfectly-preserved, plastic-covered couch, I am wearing my cap and gown from my Head-Start graduation.

children seem to be one of the first casualties of budget cuts. A few weeks ago I saw a news story that broke my heart. A Head Start program was having a lottery to see which children would be able to remain and which children would be sent home, no longer able to attend. Head Start is a federal pre-school program that serves children from low-income families, “enhancing their cognitive, social and emotional development.” Initiated by Pres. Lyndon Johnson as part of his “War on Poverty” in 1965, it has served more than 30 million children.

The budget cuts (also known as the Sequester) affecting Head Start were set in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011, requiring a five percent reduction in the budget in 2013. In addition to holding lotteries for students, Head Start programs across the country have addressed their reduced funding by laying off teachers, curtailing the length of the school year, and completely eliminating some centers.

Education is one of the things that I am extremely passionate about. Being a Head Start alumna, I began to think about Head Start and what it meant to me. Compulsory education for children in my state, Mississippi, began at age six. But because of Head Start, I had the opportunity to go to school at age five.

I can’t remember everything about that school year, but Head Start was important  because it is where I learned to love school.  I eagerly awaited the white passenger van that picked me up every morning. One morning I fell and cut my hand on a piece of broken glass before the bus came, and my only concern was whether I’d be able to attend school that day.

I remember reading, math, art, recess, and singing songs like “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.”  I remember nap time, after which we had a snack of graham crackers and Hawaiian Punch. (I never went to sleep because I hated naps.) I learned how to get along with other children, which was really important for me because I spent a lot of time alone. I made friendships in Head Start that lasted through high school.

Perhaps my most vivid memory is going to the dentist. We all went–the whole class. I think it was my first time and probably some of the other kids’ first times too. I, unfortunately, had a mouth full of cavities. My love of candy had betrayed me, but it was a lesson learned: To avoid the dentist’s drill, I had to give up the candy and take better care of my teeth.

While there are some studies that question the effectiveness of Head Start, I have no doubt that it was beneficial to me. My classmates and I were ready for first grade the next year. It is unfortunate that the Sequester is hurting some of our most vulnerable citizens. All children deserve the opportunity to learn.

Update: The Impact of the Government Shutdown

Because Congress failed to reach an agreement on funding the federal government by September 30, 2013, the United States is currently in the midst of a government shutdown. Almost immediately, we began to see its disproportionate impact on women and children. The Head Start Program had already been forced to cut $405 million from its budget (5 percent), which resulted in 57,000 pre-school aged children being removed.

By the end of the first week of the shutdown, Head Start programs in six states (Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi) were closed, which affected more than 7,000 children. Fortunately, a $10 million donation to the National Head Start Association from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation has provided emergency funding through the end of the October. If the shutdown persists, however, Head Start closures will impact an additional 86,000 low-income children.

Finding My Great-Grandfather in a Box of Memories

Last year my mother was searching for something in storage when she found a chest that my paternal grandmother had given her when her mother, my great-grandmother (Grandma Della) died. It was filled with old bills, cards, letters, photographs, Bibles, and various knick-knacks that belonged to my Grandma Della. Although it appeared to be junk, I asked her to send the contents to me. The historian in me just knew there would be a great find among all that stuff, and I was right. I found my great-grandfather–not literally of course, but figuratively.

I was very close to Grandma Della. I was always at her house. Among other things, she taught me how to bake and crochet. She passed away while I was in college. Her husband Jim died when I was 5, so I can’t recall very much about him. I called him Jim, not grandpa or granddaddy, but apparently everyone else did too. He had a heart attack and was in the hospital for a week before died. Even though I wanted to visit him, I was not allowed inside his hospital room. I remember his funeral. He was a World War I veteran, and the American flag draped his casket at the gravesite.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

I found some wonderful pictures inside the box, including Jim in his World War I uniform, Grandma Della and Jim together and with their young family, and my great-uncle James as a baby (born in 1923).  My interest was piqued, so I began to gather the documents, Grandma Della’s stories, recollections from other relatives, and research from Ancestry.com to flesh out Jim’s story.

Jim was born in Kemper County, Mississippi in 1894. Not much is known about his early life except that he attended Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. He registered for the draft in June 1917 and was called into military service in August 1918, three months prior to the Armistice. He served overseas, most likely in France. A year later he was discharged from the Army. He and Grandma Della married in December 1919; she was still a teenager. She told me that Jim had come to “court” her, riding his horse with his Army uniform on.

Jim, circa 1950s

Jim, circa 1950s

Grandma Della and Jim raised seven children (and some grandchildren too). They worked  hard and were able to buy several acres of land and build a small house.  Grandma Della was a cook. Jim was described in city directories and census records variously as a laborer, yard man, and a janitor. He apparently had lingering physical and psychological issues resulting from his time in the military. As late as 1939, his physician noted in a letter requesting disability that he had difficulty walking and pain in his knee and shoulder. He also experienced nervousness, difficulty sleeping, and “all manner of bad dreams.” A contemporary diagnosis would probably be that he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Because of Mississippi’s reputation for almost totally eliminating the black vote prior to the Civil Rights Movement, I was surprised to find evidence that my great-grandparents were registered voters, at least as early as the mid-1950s. The box contained poll tax receipts and sample ballots. If they were able to vote, perhaps it was because Jim was a World War I veteran.

Poll Tax receipt, Lauderdale County, Mississippi

Poll Tax receipt, Lauderdale County, Mississippi

I suppose grandchildren can never really know about the lives of their grandparents. After all, Jim was almost eighty years my senior. But I feel as if I know him a little better now, and I certainly enjoyed searching through the box of memories.