Camden is where it happened for me. It is just down the road a piece—about 55 miles—from Hope. Hope is the home town of William Jefferson Clinton, known by most as Bill. Our Bill, you know, the one who was president. When I first visited Hope, Bill Clinton was just a kid around my age. He was and is a bit older. Who had ever heard of him. So, he is not what comes to mind when I think of Hope. Though, I am all but sure Bill Clinton made himself known to all who were within the sound of his voice, and beyond. No, what come to mind when I think of Hope are the large watermelons that they grow there. I do mean large, three times as large as you would see elsewhere. They have a deep green rind, juicy red meat and dark brown to black seeds. We all just loved to eat them and spit out the seeds. And they were a sight to see, as well. Folks are, to this day, still talking about them, and eating no less I am sure. They are legend. Hope is known for the largest watermelons in the world. This great accomplishment is celebrated each year with a festival that goes back to the 1920s. How did I get from a city street to a watermelon patch?
Well, at my school—the all mighty Lafayette Eagles—we had an agriculture class that all male students were required to take. We had not one but three years (?) of what at times could be a scary affair. Mr. Smith was our instructor. He was a short rotund man with no discernible features of note. There was nothing about him that stood out. He did have a limp that no one seem to notice or just did not let on that they did. Well, there is a thing or two that the women took notice of. He was single. He had never married. And was the most eligible bachelor in the area. He was sought after as if he dripped gold. That is until he surprised—I would go so far as to say shocked—everyone by getting married and fathering a son when he was in his late fifties or early sixties.
There was something about Mr. Smith that the women were attracted to other than his money and standing in the community. Could it have been something to do with the “mountain oysters” he ate? I wonder. One of his favorite things to do was to me very cruel and he would take some of us along. The owners wanted it done to their pigs. When asked he was more than willing to oblige all requests. Mr. Smith would castrate the young pigs by surgically removing both of their testes. And these he would keep for his consumption. We all thought it was gross, for his partners, maybe not. It was a painful thing for me to watch and it pains me even now to think about it. How painful this removal of the gonads must have been for the pigs in a physical sense and we do not know what it does to their mind. Yes, I do believe they have one, as I do for all animals.
The main reason for this barbaric procedure is to improve the taste and smell of the meat for the consumer. As repulsive as it is to think about, there is no doubt, there is an odor and flavor problem in cooked pork from intact males. Well, there will be no more sex for these guys. The testes—that produce the compounds involved in eliciting sexual behavior in gilts and sows during the mating process—have been taken. Mr. Smith knew best, I guess you could say. It seems he had always been the Ag. Teacher and would beat your back with what, at times, could be perceived as a perverse satisfaction. He would beat your back as if you had another one to offer when the one you have wears out. We are not talking buttocks here, which is bad enough. No, this is back as in the rear upper part of your body. These “whuppings” could be for almost any kind of offense. But more often than not, it would be for not doing what you had been told to do. Top of the list would be not turning in an assignment or not having the answer when called on in class. This would bring it on, as would just the hint of wrongdoing. Of course, wrongdoing is to be defined by him. If you miss church, his church, of which I was a member, you would get a beating. If you looked at him the wrong way, you guessed it.
But the worst of all beatings would be if Mr. Smith overheard you call him chuck. I never really knew why, other than during his football days that is what he was called and he had a limp from his battles on the field. Maybe that is it. Whatever the reason, he would lose it and any sense of control would be lost. What he would do to you then would be called assault today. He would turn your back into “chopped” meat. His weapon of choice was a very thick piece of leather, formal name, the strap. As when he would say, “come here Oboy, I am gonna beat your back.” “You’re just trifling, go get my strap.” Beginning in the first grade, or there about, you start to develop a fear of the dreadful day when you had to take shop. Not because of shop, but because of who would be teaching it.
Mr. Smith had a reputation and he lived up to it. It was well deserved. There were many prayers offered up, I am sure, for his demise. The parents loved him. He did slow down as he grew older, but he did not retire. Well, that is, until the schools were desegregated. He most assuredly was not going to lay a hand on the White students. I guess you could say we were better off for the experience. If nothing else and there was more, this is how I learned of the world’s largest watermelons. What a price we pay to learn. I must admit, I never received a beating from Mr. Smith, though I came close. I was actually one of his favorites, that is, until I let my impulsive nature get the best of me on a trip from the Ouachita County Fair. There are a couple of things worth noting; Mr. Smith was a good teacher. And usually, only those who deserved his wrath were on the receiving end of the strap. Some were set on the right path by his actions. And it was a learning experience for all.
When you take the agriculture class, you are signed up as a member of the New Farmers of America (NFA). We would visit the County Fair in Hope each year, mostly as a treat. Who knows, I may have brush shoulders with our future president. Not very likely, we were the NFA. The new was reserved for the Negro student. You cannot overlook the irony of saying that the descendants of slaves are new to farming. It is all we were allowed to do. And it was bred in us. The “future” was not yet ours to hold, however.
The future was reserved for the White student. They were the Future Farmers of America with all that came with it. Back then to wish you were White did not mean you wanted to be. You just wanted some, a little bit, of what Whites had. To have the freedom to be you, which we surely did not. Of course that was not to be. All we could do was look and dream. Our trails did not cross. The law of the South was separate but equal. This is a doctrine to justify what in reality will not be. Just as no two living things can be equal even with the best of intentions. And here, the real intent was to undermine federal mandates under the 14thamendment of the United States Constitution that guaranteed equal protection under the law to all citizens. It is a goal that will not be reached. It is just a myth, a false motivator in disguise. This will always be true when you need and have to ask for permission. No matter who or where you are.
I did not think of it much, if at all, then, but Camden was, and is, known more for other things than being within striking distance of Hope. They are worthy of note. First off, we have Susan McDougal. She could say no wrong against President Bill Clinton. Her home is in Camden. When asked by the Grand Jury if Bill Clinton lied in his testimony during the Whitewater trial, she refused to answer. This led to a jail sentence of 18 months for contempt of court.
There are others to be noted and are worthy of mention. Ne-Yo, who is an American pop, and R&B singer-songwriter and musician, is from Camden. So are brothers Stacy and Shaun Andrews, players in the National Football League. There are a couple of others, as well. Shaun revealed in a 2009 New York Times interview that he was suffering from depression. When commenting to a question he stated, “There’s some good and bad in there, if you know the song ‘Tears of a Clown,’ that would kind of describe my past a little bit up to now.” It brought back memories of when I would sing the same song, and another Smoky Robinson tune “Tracks of my Tears.”
Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, opened one of his first five and ten cent stores on Adams Avenue in my hometown. Now I am not so sure about Sam’s connection to Camden, but I take it to be true. The Grapette Company the maker of the “best grape soda ever made” was founded in Camden. It is the same formula that Walmart use in its “Sam’s Choice Grapette,” today. This is the short list. Camden is known for much more. For a small southern city, it has much to be proud of, or not. There are two chapters in its history that I would not celebrate or wave a flag for, no way. The one with the greatest impact, in my mind, is when the founding fathers made the decision to transport thousands of enslaved Blacks to the area to work on the cotton plantations. My grandfather’s kin were hauled in from Virginia much as you would move your prized cattle. Yes, they were victims of this mass crime against humanity. What is more despicable than the institution of slavery? It is dehumanization of the worst kind. This legacy was handed down to my mother from her father to me. The other sordid chapter is when the Confederates won the battle of Poison Springs on April 18, 1864. These are turning points and a stain on Camden’s history, as I see it. And so should history, a sense of honor it is not. What decent person would think so. Well, one the boll weevil took care of and the Union army did the rest. Camden is where I grew up and I did not know any of this then. It would not have made a difference. I was in my world.
I came of age there, if it could be called that, in the Brown Hill community. The brown in Brown Hill is not because of the color of its residents, but the name of its founder. Though it was and to this day still is a Black community. We had not grown proudly into Black in those days. When we talked about us, it was Negro. When we were talked to or about, it was niggra or colored. That is when the speaker was being polite, and there were more than a few times they were not, so it was just plain nigger.
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