Born in the segregated South, author Gloria Burgess reveals how she overcame poverty, racism, and sexism with the love and support of her family and their relationship with Nobel laureate William Faulkner.
My father grew up in the small, racially segregated town of Oxford, Mississippi, where his mother spent each spring and fall working with dozens of other men and women planting and harvesting cotton. She often worked from sunrise until sundown. My father wished his mother didn’t have to work so hard, and he often told her so. At the end of each day, my father would look into his mother’s eyes and say, “Someday, I’m going to live in a house in a town, a house with running water.” Looking at him with tired, loving eyes, my grandmother would smile and say, “Oh, Junior, you’re always dreaming.”
My father would just grin. “You’ll see, Mama. Someday we’ll have our own house, and someday I’m going to go to college too.” He dreamed not only of going to college, but also of designing and building a house of his very own. His dreams were also fueled by his love of reading. Although my grandparents were too poor to buy books, that never stopped my father from reading every book he could get his hands on, borrowing them from teachers, and even fishing them out of the trash. The people he read about lived in different places and led different lives from the life he and his parents knew. But how could a poor, black youth living in the South during the 1930s and 1940s be able to afford college? And even if he could, there were few opportunities for a black man to attend college, let alone become an architect.
My father knew that it would cost a lot of money to buy a house with running water, money that neither he nor his parents had. He figured that getting a good education would be his means to leave the poverty of the South behind. The first problem he faced was finding the money for college. Though he had few prospects of finding a job, he never let a lack of money deter him from keeping his faith and his vision of a brighter future, a time when he and his parents would enjoy the fruits of a better life.
Each day after school, my father went from house to house selling seed packets to supplement the family’s meager income. What little money he earned was barely enough to buy a few books, and there was none to put aside for college or buy a house. Determined and focused despite what seemed to be an impassable mountain, he never lost sight of his goals. Even after he married and started a family, my father remained optimistic that he would someday find or hear about a job where he could earn enough money to support his wife and daughters, and still save enough to go to college.
I was only a babe in his arms when my father managed to get a job as a janitor at the University of Mississippi, a job that paid a black man better than most others in town. He wasn’t able to enroll in classes there, and his job didn’t pay enough to make all of his dreams come true, but it put him slightly closer. He took great pride in his work; he believed that, whatever the job, you should always do your best. He scrubbed the floors not once, but twice, and then waxed them and polished them until the white linoleum glowed. All the while, my father would talk to anyone who would listen about his dream of going to college. He never expected special treatment. He believed in devoting himself to his work. ”Steady and sure; you reap what you sow; hard work pays off and has its rewards”—these were the bedrock of his values, the enduring legacy that my father’s parents had passed on to him. One professor took notice and started a chain of events that would my father’s life, and that of our family, in a most amazing way.
While my father worked as a janitor, he continued to read any books he get his hands on. One of the professors, I’ll call him Professor Charles, offered to let my father use his office before and after work as a quiet place to read. As I remember this story so many years later, I can still hear my father’s description: “One morning after work, I was reading when the office door opened, and in walked the dean of the university, Dr. Dean Love.... The man spoke slowly, ‘You must be Earnest McEwen.’”
Professor Charles had told Dr. Love about my father’s desire to go to college and his interest in architecture. Moved by my father’s passion and determination, Dr. Love continued, “Mr. McEwen, I know just the person who can help you with your dream.” He reached into his pocket and handed my father a piece of paper with a name and an address on it. “Now when you go see Mr. Faulkner, tell him I sent you.” Then Dr. Love extended his hand for a hearty shake.
A few days later, my father walked up a long pathway to a big house on the Rowan Oak estate, with no idea what to expect when he arrived at the house of the great writer William Faulkner. He knocked on the door and waited... His heart pounded when William Faulkner greeted him and invited him inside. My father hesitated, for they both knew the unspoken rule: blacks were allowed to work for whites, but not to socialize with them.
They talked for a long time in the shade of the old oak trees. Mr. Faulkner listened intently as my father told him, “Ever since I was a boy, I’ve loved books. In those books, I’ve learned about people and places that I may never see. My wife and I have worked hard all our lives, and we want our girls to have a better life than ours. It’s my dream to got to college and to give our children a life where they can learn and be able to do whatever they want to in this world.”
Mr. Faulkner saw the determination on my father’s face. “Let me ask you, Mr. McEwen, where do intend to go to college?”
“There’s a college called Alcorn about one hundred miles from here. I understand that it’s a wonderful school that focuses on providing a solid education for black people,” my father replied.
Mr. Faulkner knew about Alcorn and that it had a good reputation. Right then and there, he offered to be my father’s benefactor. After all these years of yearning and now my father seemed about to taste the tantalizing fruit of his dreams. But after a long silence, my father slowly shook his head. “Mr. Faulkner, I want to go to college more than anything in the world, but I can’t accept your generous offer...I just don’t see how I’d ever be able to pay you back.”
Mr. Faulkner looked surprised. “Why, I don’t expect you to pay me back...The only thing I ask of you is that pass this kindness on and let it just keep on going.” Mr. Faulkner told my father that he would send payments to the president of Alcorn College and that he would arrange to have clothing sent for our family as well. He invited my father to stay in touch and to let him know how he was doing. My father thanked him for his generosity and assured him that not only would it “pass it on,” he would also stay in touch, which he did until Mr. Faulkner’s untimely death almost a decade later.
After he left that day, my father knelt on the cool grass at the edge of Rowan Oak and said a prayer of thanks for his family, Professor Charles, Dr. Love, and William Faulkner. As he stood, Mr. Faulkner’s words echoed in his ear: “Pass it on.” From that day forward, my father did just that, offering the blessing of Mr. Faulkner’s kindness to countless others. The legacy created by my father’s vision and faith and by Faulkner’s generosity continues to resound within our family and throughout the world....
I often tell the story of Mr. Faulkner and my father. It is a story that honors their legacies and embodies all that we have as hopes and dreams for ourselves and to be of service to others....Although it is deeply personal, this story is ultimately a universal one in which I hope you can see a little bit of yourself, both in my father and in Mr. Faulkner....
My father fulfilled his dreams of going to college and living in a house with running water....Both my parents left me a legacy that valued education, character, and loving, lifting up, and helping others with no strings attached. In many ways, my parents and William Faulkner painted on the canvas of eternity with their unshakable belief in the nobility of the human spirit. Their palette was imbued with the qualities of humility, faith, and moral obligation to treat every human being with dignity and respect. My father’s encounter with Mr. Faulkner...is a very human story that allows us to witness the boundless capacity of the human heart.
Gloria Burgess, PhD, is a poet and author of several books on leadership, including Legacy Living and Dare to Wear Your Soul on the Outside.