The Brownlee’s Migration

By Storyteller Kucha Brownlee

 

Story Summary

Kucha’s Grandfather had a marketable skill and a spiritual home in the South after the Civil War. With a large family and plenty of hard work, life was good in Mississippi. But, one incident changed everything.  Suddenly the whole family became immigrants – packing up and moving out of Mississippi.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  The Brownlees Migration

Discussion Questions:

  1. Would you pack up and move in hopes of a better life?
  2. Would you move quickly if you thought that you might be in danger?
  3. What would it take for your family to suddenly move out of state with no job offer or place to live already secured?
  4. Is there a bully in this story? If so, who? Is it the wealthy land owner? The renter? The ‘white sheets’? Someone else?
  5. Why do you think the whole family moved and not just Paw and Mama Ella?

Resources:

  • The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
  • Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells by Ida B. Wells and Alfreda M. Duster

Themes:

  • African American
  • Bullying
  • Family
  • Immigration

Full Transcript:

My name is Kucha Brownlee.

When I was younger, we spent our summers in the South. When we were there, my father’s brother and sister-in-law, uncle Phil and Aunt Viola Brownlee, they would pick us up and they would take us to visit all of the aunts and uncles on the Brownlee side. My father was from a big family. Seventeen children to be exact. Well, I knew that the Brownlee family had all been born in Senatobia, Mississippi. We lived in Chicago. But all of my father’s siblings lived in Tennessee. None of them had moved to Chicago. and I was thinking about that and I was curious, so I asked. How it happened if all of the Brownlee’s were born in Mississippi, they all live in Tennessee now? And this was answer.

My grandpa was born in 1862. That was a few years before the end of the Civil War. Now Mr. Brownlee, he thought he owned people, so he had purchased some people to work his fields. And one of them was Susie…Susie, and by default, her children. And one of those children was my grandfather, Richard, or as we affectionately called him Paw Brownlee.

This is the story. See, the Brownlee’s were renters, not sharecroppers. Now at the end of the Civil War, many, many of the workers who were now newly freed, ended up working at this, on the same plantation. I mean, they had nowhere to go, nothing to do. They needed a job. They knew farming. And so, they took the chance and worked on this plantation. In Mr. Brownlee’s case, he encouraged his children to stay, when in fact, he was not allowing them to be taken away. Now, he did teach his black children to read. But unlike his white children, they did have to work the fields. Good thing was he taught my grandfather carpentry. So, my grandfather had a marketable skill.

Once he was grown, and he moved out, he became a renter, because he had a marketable skill. Having this skill was great because he could rent. He also was the head carpenter building the black church that he went to. And because he could read, he used to teach reading in that church while the watchers from the church pretended to work in the fields. This is important to me. Because, you see, the reason, he had, they had to have watchers, even though slavery was over, the Jim Crow laws had set in. And so, it became dangerous to teach reading. So, the watchers would watch and if anyone white was coming, they would make it back to the church and that reading class would become a Bible study. So, my grandfather, (the teacher), met Ella McKinney, (the watcher), and they became husband and wife.

Anyway, they were renters. And they rented a huge, huge farm. And as the children got to be adults, they would give them a big sus… section of the farm to work. Well, there’s a difference between renters and sharecroppers. Renters own everything. They just rent. So, their livestock they bought. Their seeds they bought, their clothes, their furniture. They own everything. On the other hand, if you’re sharecropper, you have purchased everything on credit. And you don’t own any of it. The way you find out what you can own, is at the end of the harvest, there’s a reckoning. And they tally up everything you’ve made and put it against everything you owe. Now if during that season while you working that land, you have a cow that is, um, has a calf. The owner still owns that cow, so he can come and take that calf.

So, here’s what happened. Brownlees are renters. Their cow babed a calf and this white man, not a Brownlee, that they were renting from, came and tried to take that cow. Like Paw was a sharecropper.

Paw said, “Na, no! You’re not going to take that cow.”

And he said, “Watch me.”

Paw said, “Boys!” There were plenty of grown Brownlee men living on that farm. And they start appearing from everywhere. And all that man heard was chee, chee, the sound of shotguns. He froze.

And Paw said, “Now you can take calf if you want to but I don’t think you’re gonna too far.”

So, he let that calf alone, and he backed out, and left the farm empty handed. Yes. But later Paw and his sons, they had a talk about this. And they decided that before he had a chance to round up the white sheets, they better leave. You see, the KKK was still active in Mississippi. And that’s what they did. They packed up everything and they moved to Tennessee. Because in Tennessee, it was a little bit better for black families then it was in Mississippi. Then my father moved north to Chicago.

But that’s a different story.

First Generation Chicagoan – No Pigeon Holing

By Storyteller Kucha Brownlee

Story Summary

Kucha was born in the North, but her Southern family values and ties came North with her family. In this story, Kucha wonders why everyone feel the need to pigeon hole other people? She knows that a strong family defies stereotypes and grows love.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  First Generation Chicagoan – No Pigeon Holing

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever made an assumption about a person just by looking at them which turned out to be way off?
  2. What assumptions can you make from listening to a person speak?
  3. Have you ever heard someone speak and when you met them they looked totally different than expected? Were the assumptions cultural?  Positive?  Negative? Why?
  4. When the look doesn’t match the sound are you willing to find out why? Was it a pre-conceived idea that caused the difference?  Where did your beliefs come from?
  5. List some stereotypes that people have about you? Your race?  Your gender?  Your lifestyle?

Resources:

  • A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Steven Hahn
  • The Great Migration: From Rural South to Urban North by Liz Sonneborn
  • Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Blacks from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

Themes:

  • African American/Blacks
  • Family and childhood
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes
  • Taking a Stand

Full Transcript:

My family is part of the great migrations of African-Americans that took place from the South to the North, in the early 1900’s. You see, the Brownlee family really moved from Senatobia, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. And then my father took that trip north to Chicago, Illinois. A few years later, he sent for my mother and the children. And the last three girls, myself included, were born in Chicago. So, I am a first-generation Chicagoan.

I grew up on the West Side of Chicago. Oh! The West Side…We had everything. There were blacks and whites, well, very few whites, but a lot of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, gypsies. And then a few Polish, Italian and Irish sprinkled in. And I had a funny kind of accent with this happening. People would always ask me where I’m from. See, when I was little, people used to say, “You know, Chicago’s West Side is Little Mississippi” because the main dialect they heard was Southern. But we had all of that other mix. So, when I talk, I might have a little island sound because sometimes when I say, “man,” it will come out like “mon.” And then the rest was kind of Southern and Midwestern. And people always saying where are you from?

And I’d said, “Chicago.”

They’d said, “No, really. Where are you from?”

I’d said, “Really. I’m from Chicago.” And they didn’t believe me. So finally, I started saying, “That’s it,” to whatever island they thought I was from. But it’s all good.

You know, when I visited Puerto Rico, I actually had someone say, “I know you’re really Puerto Rican. You’re just afraid to admit your heritage because you forgotten the language.”

Well, whatever. Think what you want. It’s all good. But I do wonder why people always have to pigeonhole someone. And if you don’t fit into their concept of what it should be, they try to make you think there’s something wrong with you.

See, my family is all colors of the rainbow. We go from like a creamy-white to blue-black and everything in between. And we love each other really hard. Most of the time people try to get us to deny each other. You know, they’re constantly saying, “You’re not cousins. Come on, why you lying?” But we are cousins.

When we were little, we had this game we would play with newcomers. It was called “Guess Who’s Related?” And usually the people would try to make me related to our neighbors who were Creole. And we go, (Buzzer sound), “Wrong answer.” Because…Just because we are the same color does not make us related. What makes us related, of course, is the blood.

But people were always trying to change that, you know. My cousin, he had this girlfriend, and he brought her over to meet the family. He had been talking about her for some time. He thought this is “the one.” And she got there and she’s real nice. Oh, she was so pleasant. And then, of course, when they left she said, That’s not your cousin.” And she kept trying to make him admit that he wasn’t related to us. So, I think about that sometimes. So, you thought both of our families were lying to you. Anyway, they didn’t stay together because he figured, “If you can’t believe me when I’m telling truth, we have no hope here.”

My family. We don’t care what you think. We know who we are. We knew then and we know it now. And it doesn’t matter what you think. Because we know.

You know, in the 60’s, it got really strange because…You know in the 60’s, one of my classmates said to me, “Why are you doing this? This is not your fight. You can pass.”

Now what he was talking about is, King was about to have a demonstration and I was planning on marching. and he said, “This is not your fight. You can pass.”

Well, I suppose I could pass, but why would I? Why would I pass and pretend to be white? I know, I’ve heard that there’s some white blood in my family. In fact, I heard that my grandfather was Irish but I never met the man. His name is not on any birth certificate. And I’m not even sure what the relationship was consensual since my grandmother never talked about it and my mother would not allow us to ask her about. So why would I want to pretend I was white? Why would I want to pretend I was white?  That this was not my problem? When I know that my uncle had a flat in Cicero and had to be very prayerful and hope that those young, white punks had enough sense to know that he didn’t want to be on their street changing his tire any more than they wanted him there.

Why should I pass? And, and, then ignored the truth to the humor that my other uncle used to say when he would talk about bringing my mother to work. And my baby sister wanted to ride. And once he dropped Ma off, she started crying. Oh, big wails. And he said, “Girl, you better hush up before somebody think I’m tryin’ ta steal some little white chil’.” And it was funny. People laughed every time he told this story. But if the reality, if that had happened, would they have believed that that little, light child with blond hair was his niece?

My family… all colors. We ranged from creamy-black to paper brown cafe au lait, paper bag, paper bag brown, mahogany, dark-black, blue-black. And it doesn’t matter if you think we were related or not. Because we are family and we love each other. We’re blood. Blood brought us together. But blood is not what keeps us together. Love binds us together. We don’t live in the same building anymore. We don’t even live in the same state. But when we get together, love fills the space.