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Chapter Three— Anna Lee
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Chapter Three—
Anna Lee

One day I said there has got to be a better side of life. You know, where you just look over the tree? There has just got to be something on the other side. There has just got to be a better life than this.
Lovia Brown Boyd
Sister of Willie Brown

World War II was a wrenching turning point for African Americans, and Mineola's blacks were swept along in the national tide. King Cotton collapsed throughout the South and life changed forever. One of the greatest migrations in American history began, as blacks left the South and began filling northern and western cities. "If we understand the death of cotton, we understand many things about modern America," writes Dale Maharidge in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book about southern tenant farmers.[1]

The corner of East Texas where Willie Brown grew up mirrored that national trend, and the collapse of cotton profoundly touched the life of his family. By the middle of the Depression, farm acreage in Wood County had already declined by almost half; during the war, cotton nearly fell off the map.[2] By 1945 Wood County's cotton amounted to a mere 7,500 acres; more than 80,000 acres of cotton had gone out of production in a twenty-year span. The cash value of the crop was cut in half. New Deal price supports kept some farmers afloat but did nothing for the blacks who depended on cotton-related jobs. As cotton production declined, so did jobs at Mineola's cotton gin plant, which primarily employed blacks. Wood County's population steadily fell as well, from a pre-Depression peak of 27,700 in 1920 to a low of 21,000 in 1943.


One-fourth of the population had simply upped and disappeared.[3] Among them were Itsie's and Son's customers. The exodus would ultimately include the Collins brothers and eventually their nephew, Willie Brown.

At the outset of the war, East Texas planters held high hopes that cotton would revive as a war industry. A headline in the Mineola Monitor newspaper, "Cotton Second Only to Steel in Winning War," reflected the belief.[4] Cotton production did pick up in the early months of the war, but it then nose-dived for good as a major industry in Wood County. By November 1943 Mineola's cotton oil plant was crushing soybeans shipped south from Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio—everywhere but East Texas.[5] Throughout the South cotton production moved westward from the mid-1930s onward. In the deepest South, Alabama, there were 230 million acres of cotton in 1936; by the 1980s there were 300,000 acres left. The old Cotton Belt became a region of pine woods, and California's Central Valley and West Texas became the new kings of cotton.[6]

The rural collapse was told in the decreasing number of farmers still plowing in Wood County, where the decline was sharpest among black farmers. In 1925, there were 577 African Americans who owned their own farm[5] ; by 1945 that number had dwindled to 263. The decline in black sharecroppers[7] was even more pronounced: from 135 in 1930, just before the Depression, to 19 by the end of World War II in 1945. Petroleum was discovered in Wood County in 1940, and by the end of the decade it had replaced cotton as the economic underpinning of Wood County.[8]

The cotton bust was an economic cataclysm throughout the South, and no one felt it more than blacks.[9] African Americans headed north to Chicago and New York and west to Los Angeles and San Francisco. The migration represented a vast emptying of the South between the Depression and the Korean War, an epic exodus rivaling the migration of blacks following the Civil War.

To Itsie and Son Collins there was nothing grand about it. The Shack was doomed. Those who stayed behind in Mineola were primarily women and children, such as Willie Brown, his three sisters, and his brother. Older blacks who stayed behind in town still remember World War II as "the bad times."[10]

Itsie and Son did their best to keep the Shack operating, but events were rapidly overtaking them. Itsie Collins said he paid bribes to keep from being drafted so that he could keep the dance hall open.[11] "I was paying to stay out of the Army," Itsie Collins admitted in an interview a half-century later. Collins capitalized on the reluctance of southern draft boards to induct Negroes into the military. Itsie Collins was not unusual among either blacks or whites in East Texas, where draft evasion was an open secret in World War II. Courts regularly gave prison sentences to draft dodgers in the region.[12] A few refused the draft on religious grounds. In nearby Winnsboro the Texas Rangers were called out in December 1942 to quell a riot sparked by Jehovah's


Witnesses passing out draft evasion literature.[13] But other draft-dodgers, like Itsie Collins, had purely personal reasons for avoiding military service.

Collins said someone in the Selective Service caught on to his methods and shook up the local draft board: "Some white guy got onto what was going on. Oh, they had a big fight. So they had to move the draft board out of my county." There are no records verifying Itsie Collins's story, but local newspapers hinted at scandal in July 1942, when the draft board was inexplicably moved from the county courthouse in Quitman to the U.S. Post Office in Mineola, effectively ending local control. The Mineola Monitor mentioned in its front-page story that the move "came as a complete surprise to all members of the local board."[14] By August the board was reclassifying men at an increasing pace to make them available for military service.[15] The revitalized Wood County draft board also stepped up the induction of Negroes and publicly pursued those considered to be evading registration.[16] Itsie Collins reached the point where the only legal way for him to stay out of the military was to get a job in a war-related industry. "They told me I had to work or fight." He decided to go to California, where he could get a war-industry job. His decision was to have far-reaching consequences not just for himself and his family but also for California. It was because of Itsie Collins that Willie Brown eventually moved to California.

Itsie Collins became part of a huge migration of blacks from the South into the San Francisco Bay Area. During the war the booming shipyards of Northern California and the aircraft factories of Southern California were a magnet for southern blacks, and they were all the more drawn by the absence of legal segregation. The stories of those who had gone ahead drew others left behind. "We had heard about oranges hanging over the trees," said Hamilton Boswell, whose family moved from Dallas to Los Angeles ahead of most other African Americans before the war.[17] Boswell would cross paths in California with Willie Brown and his family much later. Even more fanciful stories of California filtered back to East Texas. "We thought the streets were paved with gold," said one of Brown's sisters.[18]

One of Itsie Collins's childhood friends from Mineola, Jack Harris, was already in San Francisco and arranged for a job for Itsie at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard, south of the financial district. The shipyard built warships at a record pace, launching them for battle in the South Pacific. Most likely, Itsie Collins got the job in 1942. His brother Son also moved to San Francisco and got a war-industry job.[19] The Shack in Mineola was out of business.

Itsie Collins worked at the shipyard at Third Street until his thirty-eighth birthday, July 13, 1943, the day he was ineligible for the military. He quit the yard and took up where he had left off in Mineola, running a gambling joint, only this time in San Francisco. The gambler returned home to Mineola from time to time to show off his newest car and his latest clothes, but he was no longer the central source of income for his mother's household. Itsie's role


in Willie Brown's life faded for the moment. But his image in Brown's young eyes was larger than ever. "Itsie was never in Mineola for long," Brown was to say, "and he always demonstrated great wealth by our standards. He always had a very fancy car. He always wore very fancy clothing, and he'd come down to leave money for his relatives and then he would leave. He did it because that's the way his mother raised him. That was standard, and that's been that way in the family all the years I've known; I know no other way."[20]

Back in Texas, Minnie Collins, a Dallas maid, became the major financial provider for her children and her mother, Anna Lee, living in Mineola. The children called their grandmother "Ma Dear" because that was what Minnie called her. They called their mother "Ma Minnie."[21] Not until they had children of their own did they call her "Mama Minnie." The children had nicknames of their own. Besides "Brookie," Baby Dalle was "Baby Doll," Lovia was "Lovey," Gwen was "Bumblebee," and James was "Jitter."

Anna Lee ruled the house and was rearing Minnie's children. She was not unusual in rearing her daughter's children. Grandmothers raised every child in the neighborhood. "I don't know whether grandmothers then thought they were everybody's parents," said Willie Brown's sister Gwendolyn Brown Hill.[22] "They just automatically took over, I guess." No one was more strong-willed or more important to the neighborhood than Willie Brown's grandmother. "She raised her children and everybody else's children," recalled one of her friends, Rosa Lee Staples, who reared ten of her own. "She was sweet. Yes, she helped with me."[23]

Sitting in the shade on a muggy Mineola day not long ago, ninety-one-year-old Rosa Staples remembered Anna Lee as an older lady who had no husband. The women knew just about everything about each other, but little about the men in each other's lives. They were not around much. "I didn't know the father of them children but I knew the mothers well," said Staples. "Like I say, I never did know Miss Anna Lee's husband."

With Son and Itsie now gone, Anna Lee Collins survived on the money her daughter earned as a maid in Dallas and whatever income her daughter's children could pick up. In the summer, Willie Brown and his sisters walked to the foot of Read Street at the main highway before dawn, and a truck picked them up and took them to Lindale fifteen miles south to pick berries.[24] "There wasn't much cotton around as there was the potatoes and the peas and the berries," said Lovia Brown Boyd.[25]

The average pay for migrant farmworkers in Wood County was supposedly about $5 a day.[26] However, Willie Brown's older sisters said that the pay was more like seventy-five cents a day. They also agreed that Willie Brown, who was about ten or eleven at the time, commonly picked more than everyone


else. He spurned breaks and usually brought home more money than the others. His sisters were not nearly as enthusiastic. "I hated the field," said Lovia.[27]

As he grew older, Willie worked in the pea-packing plant down the hill from his house for a few extra dollars. The plant is still there today, and some of his schoolmates ended up working there for their entire lives. Brown also swept floors and shined shoes on the white side of town at Parker's Barber Shop for twenty-five cents a pair plus $4 a week in salary.[28]

"The real mean ones would sometimes come in with cowboy boots on," Brown remembered.[29] "And they'd want to pay you the same price for cowboy boots, which of course had horse manure and cow manure and all other kinds of horrible stuff on them. They wanted those boots to look new, and you'd have to work really hard. And then they'd end up probably throwing your money into a spittoon for you to fish out. Well, you did it and didn't allow that to bother you too much."

Brown endured, but he remembered the indignities. Growing up black in Mineola, he said, "caused us to be so competitive wherever we were."[30] Decades later, when he was Speaker of the California Assembly, he could not help but gloat, his eyes twinkling: "When I lived in Mineola, Texas, I couldn't have a glimmer that one of these days I would be handling $30 billion of mostly white people's money!"[31] He never hated whites, but he was always aware that his blackness set him apart. And it pushed him.

"Yes, we knew that we were treated differently because we were black," Brown's half-brother, James, reflected years later from his office in Tacoma city hall.[32] "But that wasn't a statement on us. That was a statement on someone else. What did we really have going? What were the ingredients? People say youngsters need role models. Well, we had role models. We certainly had a strong family structure, high expectations, all those things that the learned people say you need to make it. I just don't recall us ever feeling sorry for whatever our plight might have been."

Anna Lee's grandchildren also had chores around the house. Anna Lee put up with no nonsense. "She didn't even have to punish us. She could just look at you and you knew what to do," remembered Lovia.[33] There was no running water, so they hauled water from a well. Cutting and stacking wood in a shed was an endless demanding chore. In most homes on the South side, including Anna Lee's, cooking and heating were done entirely on wood stoves. Her house had two wood stoves, one for cooking and the other for heating. Each stove required a different size of wood, and the children sorted the wood before stacking it. By the time Willie Brown was born, the countryside around Mineola was nearly stripped bare of trees for firewood.[34] Today the woods have grown back amazingly thick, but in the 1930s the view from Anna Lee's hill was spectacular. Her grandchildren climbed the walnut tree and saw the trains chugging in from Louisiana heading west toward Dallas, and beyond to California. Dreams of escape, of going "over the tree"


as one of Anna Lee's granddaughters put it, were made atop a limb on the walnut tree in back of her house.[35]

The high point of the week for the children was Minnie's visit home. The white families in Dallas gave their black maids living "in service" Thursday off so that they would be available for weekend duty. Thursday became known as "Maid Day" in Dallas, the day when all the maids were gone. Minnie caught an early morning train, riding in a separate "colored" car.[36] She arrived at her mother's home in Mineola before her children were home from school. She always brought a small gift for each child. Her visits were like Christmas once a week. "I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life," James remembered. Minnie stayed the night and all the next day, and then departed from her family on Friday evening aboard a train that pulled into Mineola at 6:18 P.M., returning to her life as a servant. From their backyard on the hill, her children watched the train coming from miles off to take their mother away. Lovia could not stand living in Mineola, and as a teenager she went to live with her mother in Dallas.[37]

As an adult, Willie Brown spoke of his mother in glowing terms, and indeed they were close as adults. Minnie provided a softness for her children that offset Anna Lee's sternness. Minnie became more important in the rearing of her children in her weekly visits than she had ever been while living with them in Mineola. Her bright, outgoing personality rubbed off on her son. Like him, she was a story teller who did not always let facts get in the way of a good yarn.[38] Willie Brown credits her with his fastidious nature, although both his parents were meticulously neat. Brown was particularly impressed with how his mother carried herself. He once told an interviewer, "She went to the white woman's kitchen and looked like she was on her way to shop at Neiman's. She got there and put on her uniform, and it was equally as spiffy. When she left there, she took it off and you didn't know she was working as somebody's maid. The wearing of overalls is not part of our image."[39]

Minnie Collins had another side her children gradually began to appreciate. She was devoted to duty. If the family she was serving needed her on a special occasion, then she was there, even if it meant taking time away from her own family. Those times away were painful for her children, and they did not always understand. "We couldn't see it," said Lovia. "We thought, 'Why don't you just tell them you're not coming in.' But she said, 'Oh no, I'm going in.'" Only later did her children understand. The family she worked for repaid her loyalty in kind, helping support her in her retirement.[40]

Minnie and Anna Lee, neither of whom had much education, pushed Willie and his siblings to get as much schooling as they could. The two women saw education as the best way out of segregation. However, it was not easy for blacks to get a good education. Many of Mineola's black children earned money in the fall by picking cotton hundreds of miles away in West Texas. If the harvest went late, they missed school, and as a result many black


children had been held back two, three, or four grade levels by the time they reached high school age. Anna Lee forbade her grandchildren to pick cotton. "She would not let us pick cotton because we'd miss school," said Gwendolyn.[41]

Their school was not much, but it was all there was. Mineola Colored High School was a small red-brick building where teachers taught multiple grades in a handful of classrooms. There was no gymnasium, no cafeteria, no running water. Children relieved themselves in outhouses constructed behind the school. As an adult, Willie Brown had a simple description for the school: "the shits."[42]

Separate was anything but equal in the schools of Mineola. Whites went to schools that were vastly better; until the 1940s, blacks were not even allowed to go past the tenth grade. Brown's oldest sister, Baby Dalle, took a bus every day fifteen miles past the white high school to Quitman to get her high school diploma at a "colored school." Lovia, the second daughter, moved to Dallas to live with her mother and got her high school diploma in that city. Gwendolyn, the third daughter, was the first member of the family to graduate from high school in Mineola.[43]

The disparity in education could be seen in how the town distributed funds between the white and colored schools.[44] In 1940, the year Willie Brown entered the first grade, Mineola spent an average of $32.40 per white student while spending $9.55 per colored student. There was one teacher for every thirty-five white students compared with one teacher for every sixty colored students. The only library in Mineola was at the white high school. Desks, books, and other supplies for blacks, if available, were shopworn castoffs from the white schools. As often as not, books lacked covers and pages were missing or torn. The furniture was usually in disrepair by the time it got to the colored school.

Anna Lee was dead serious about her grandchildren attending to their studies. For the exceptionally bright Willie, that was not a problem. Finding something to read, however, was not always easy. There was no lending library in Mineola open to Negroes. "In those days Willie was a very studious kid because his grandmother was very strict on him," said Clarence "Cookie" Slayton.[45] As an adult, Willie Brown also credited his grandmother for the discipline she imposed on him. "Everybody in my family had always insisted that the kids had to have an education. They absolutely beat that into us—that you had to go to college," he said.[46]

As an adult, Willie Brown has had little good to say about Mineola or his school. "Mineola had nothing, absolutely nothing, going for it," he said in a 1986 interview for the Texas Monthly .[47] His comments infuriated the white establishment in his hometown, but in many respects he was less harsh about Mineola with the Texas magazine than with California journalists. In the magazine interview, Brown credited Mineola Colored High School with giving him something of lasting value. "It gave you discipline and made you


believe in yourself. It gave you confidence that you could learn," he said. "And that's what I learned in that black school. I didn't fully appreciate it, I suspect, at the time, but on reflection—especially now—as I see what kids are getting in California schools—I'm telling you that there is something to be said for those all-black schools. The black mothers and fathers and teachers might not have been qualified, but they knew they had to equip me to survive in this world. You learned that it was really awful to drop out. Period. We didn't have any dropouts in Mineola. It was ingrained in us that there was no such thing as people who were so totally stupid that they could not perform. That quality came from the heart and soul of the black community, and it's still there."

Brown and his classmates still remember their school years fondly despite the hardships.[48] Brown and the "I.E. Boys" were inseparable. "We'd just go all over this city," his best friend, Frank "Jackie" Crawford, remembered. "We always had jokes about each other, but it was all fun."[49] Brown's best friends remembered him as bookish when the fun was over.

As a student, Brown developed his gift for words. He was good at math and considered it his favorite subject. His sisters recall that he was an avid reader, consuming whatever books he could find. "He would spend his time reading, and trying to find something to read, anything he could pick up that had print on it to read," says Gwendolyn, who became a teacher and school principal in Dallas. "And he could find something to discuss from it or question from it."

He also had an unquenchable and independent curiosity as a child, with nearly disastrous results for his sisters when they took him one year to "Negro Day" at the state fair in Dallas. It was the one day when blacks were allowed to go to the fair. His sisters lost sight of him. They scoured the fairgrounds looking for their younger brother, panicking over visions of the punishment awaiting them from their grandmother for losing him. Finally, they found their young charge completely absorbed studying an exhibit. He was unfazed, never aware that he had been "lost."[50]

Willie was a bratty brother, tagging after his sisters when they tried to escape their grandmother's household for a secret rendezvous with a young man. "Willie would almost follow us," Gwendolyn recalled. "The fellows couldn't take us from home, but we would try to see them after we got there. And he would report it to her. He would report it! I think some of the guys even tried to bribe him."[51]

When he was not annoying his sisters, he displayed a gift for creating games that positively delighted them. First he would study a game, and then he would suggest a new set of rules. He kept things interesting. "He would stand to the side, and I guess he would be figuring it out, and then he would come out with an idea in the game that we had never thought about," Gwendolyn remembered.[52]


As a teenager, Brown tried out for the football team. "All males in Texas play football. You have to play football, that's just part of the deal in high school," he explained.[53] But Brown weighted a mere 110 pounds, and the Mineola Colored High team was filled with players who were larger and stronger from working in the fields. A number of the players spent five or six or even seven years playing football in high school, unable to graduate because they had missed so much school picking cotton. There were no limits on how long a player could continue to play football, and a number of them were into their twenties and hitting the scales well over two hundred pounds. They could have easily whipped the white high school team across town if they had ever been allowed to try. Brown's football career lasted for one play in a practice scrimmage.

"First time out there in the football game, the goddamned fullback on the other team breaks through the line, breaks through the next line of defense, and there's nobody but me and him. Now he could have gone around me, obviously, but he apparently chose not to. And he got close enough, and I put my head down and closed my eyes."

Willie Brown woke up at half-time.

"Sit right here, boy, and don't you move, you almost got killed," the coach ordered.

The coach never let him play again, but Willie Brown talked the coach into letting him keep his uniform.

Instead of playing, Brown followed the team to its games and then returned to the school to describe it for his classmates who could not go. He was soon giving his play-by-play description for the entire school at assemblies. "From beginning to end—the kickoffs and the scores and sort of like how they do it now, play by play," said his sister Gwendolyn.[54] He was entertaining, funny, and melodramatic. His performances remain one of his schoolmates' fondest memories. His classmates nicknamed him "the reporter."[55] He also wrote short items about the games for the Mineola Monitor newspaper, which regularly ran chatty stories about events in the "colored" community, although he never got a byline. It was Brown's first exposure to the media.

Brown was outgoing and made friends easily. Virginia London, who was older than Willie but had fallen back a few grades because she had picked cotton and missed school, remembered hanging out with him during lunch hours at a hamburger stand called "Bar Twenty" near the high school.[56] The bar was little more than a wooden hut with loose floorboards and a jukebox. London still lives in a small wooden house near the site of the old Bar Twenty. "We'd go there and dance," she remembered, showing a visitor where it once stood. After partying, Willie often invited his schoolmates to his house. "We used to go up to the house all the time, and his grandmother would always tell us fun stuff, and we was laughing all the time," London said.


Brown used his gift of gab to get out of trouble with his grandmother, not always with success. When a neighbor's rooster crawled under the porch at his house, an impulsive Willie shot the chicken with his BB gun through a crack in the floorboards, killing it with a perfect shot to the head.[57] The neighbor, Mr. Adams, was furious when the deed was discovered and demanded that Anna Lee find out who killed his bird. Equally furious, she assembled her grandchildren and demanded that the culprit step forward. She asked each grandchild what he or she knew about the dead rooster. Finally she got to Willie. "Come here Willie—don't you lie to me. Did you kill Mr. Adams' rooster?"

"Ma Dear, I shot straight up in the air and that BB came straight back down and hit that rooster right on top of the head," he pleaded. It was an accident, he insisted; he was only practicing. His grandmother didn't buy a word of it, however, and Willie got a licking.

Willie's talent for words was put to more productive use in school and church. He could hear a lesson, synthesize it, and repeat it back more clearly than it was told in the first place. His talent proved an invaluable tool when he later entered politics. In church he was asked to review aloud each Sunday's lesson for all of the assembled children. "He would get up and take over the whole entire Sunday school," said Lovia. "He'd get the microphone and take over the whole time."[58]

Willie Brown's style of oratory can be traced directly to his small C.M.E. church down the hill from his house. The letters now stand for "Christian Methodist Episcopal," but in Brown's youth they stood for "Colored Methodist Episcopal"—a southern segregated offshoot of the Methodist church. The church played a huge role in the life of Brown and family. With his penchant for showmanship, the church provided a perfect stage. More importantly, the black church provided the glue that held the community together in the face of segregation. It was an important early training ground for future leaders such as Willie Brown.[59]

As a teenager, Brown was painstakingly neat and began to develop his love of clothes. He had two pairs of khaki pants and carefully ironed them. He ordered clothes out of a Sears catalogue. Forty years after he purchased them, he could still remember a pair of burgundy boots with a gold chain on each. "It took Sears so long to get the shoes that my feet had grown two sizes. But you had to wear them. They were cardboard but they looked good."[60]

Brown's ambitions were big, though unfocused.[61] "I think the only two things I really ever wanted to be—from a studied, planned standpoint—was either a math teacher or a clothing designer," he explained in an interview for this book.[62] The remark probably revealed less about his vocational ambitions than it did about his strong need to enjoy the luxuries of life. One thing Willie Brown knew at an early age was that his dreams could not be fulfilled in Mineola, Texas.


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