Neighbors: Oral History from Madera
This is an excerpt from a new book titled Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, California by local author Lawrence F. Lihosit. The author offers real-life stories by Maderans as well as maps and a chronology of important local events. It is available on-line at Amazon.com books and at these locations; MailDrop, G.B.S. and the Vineyard.
Everett Oliver, Madera resident since 1959
Everett Oliver was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on September 9, 1941. The second of five, he was born to a land-owning farmer who lived in Pristen Pike near the Arkansas River
His grandfather immigrated first to Madera, California. The family followed in the late 1950’s, permitting Mr. Oliver to attend Madera High School.
He worked in the fields and the winery before volunteering for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Upon discharge, he returned to Madera, began work at the winery and married. He and his wife reared four children in Madera.
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My great great grandfather was white. At that time, a black man could not buy land. You could work the land but they wouldn’t sell you land. He bought about thirteen miles of land in Pristen Pike (about forty-four miles from Little Rock), married a black woman and they had six daughters, five of whom married black men.
So, each family had nearly four hundred acres of land. The house I grew up in was made of wood, set on wooden blocks in case it flooded. Most of the houses had a wooden porch at ground level but the backs of the houses were built on down-slopes with blocks. Our house had a screened-in front porch facing west. In the evening, we sat there and watched the sun set. We had an iron wood burning stove (a Ben Franklin stove) and four bedrooms, outhouse and a well. Since we were so close to the river, our well was only twelve feet deep. It was cold water just like it came out of a refrigerator. At night, we lit the place with kerosene lamps because we didn’t hook up to electricity until 1952.
My dad could do everything. He worked in wood. The land my great great grandfather gave us was filled with trees (the Pine Bluff area was then covered by virgin pine forest) and that’s how they made a living. Everybody had so much land that they could take turns cutting five acres at a time. They each had three hundred sixty-five acres. So, six families cutting five acres every year was a lot of wood. They cut a section every so often and it grew back up. The wood was used for pulpwood and to build houses. They had a saw mill right there.
We had one battery-operated radio, no television, no telephone. We all wanted to be Joe Louis and ran everywhere. My mother used to say, “Go to Miss Cecilia’s,” which was a half-mile away. “And don’t take all day to get there.” I’d come back, panting and my mom gave me a package. “Take this back to her.” So, I’d take her something and she’d give me something to take back.
We used to joke with another, “You run five miles?”
“No but I will run it.”
“You ain’t run five miles yet!” We ran everywhere.
We had chickens, ducks, pigs and a milk cow. We got just enough milk to churn butter. The eldest worked the wooden churner. We all had duties after school. Our school was five miles from our house so we took a bus but the bus had a route and we had to walk there. Every morning, rain, sleet or snow, we had to be there. Some people had horses and wagons and some had cars but ninety percent of the time, we walked. The oldest boy took the kids to make sure they got there and got back safe. We were told, “If you see a lot of dust, get off the road. Don’t take a chance because they might run over you.”
My school had from the first grade to the sixth grade. It was one story and made of wood. We had real blackboards and wooden desks. It was kept up. We didn’t go from class to class. There was one class with a different subject every hour.
“That’s enough English for the morning, class. Now turn to your arithmetic.”
We had an average of about thirty kids per grade. It was a segregated school: the teachers were all black. The teachers came from the city so they told us all kinds of things; about who Joe Louis was or Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson. They explained about things that we didn’t know about. They taught us that education would open doors and help us to accomplish things.
“It won’t be about the color of your skin someday,” they said.
There were Cherokee Indians in Arkansas who had their own schools but if they lived in your neighborhood, they went to black schools. We teased one another. “Hey, you’re an Indian. You have red skin.”
“Yeah, I’m red like you’re black.”
There wasn’t a lot of bullying because everyone had older brothers. At recess we played kick ball, softball and basketball. They didn’t allow baseball for safety reasons. I liked basketball.
On Sundays during the summer, there was a park barbeque and baseball game with umpires so we got to see what baseball was really like.
When I was twelve, my dad stayed in Pine Bluff while we moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, (fifty-five miles from Little Rock) which was a resort city (in 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the bathhouses in Hot Springs). People came from all over the South for the summer. We had fishing and hunting before they overran it. There were bathhouses for health. The biggest VA (Veterans Administration) hospital was there too. It was three stories. They still got that building but they turned it into a school because it was such a nice building. My mom got a job through her sister as a cook at C and W Café during the summer. She was a good cook, my mom was. She could cook anything, not just one specialty. We stayed with my aunt while my mother went to work. In the evenings, my mom worked at the race track.
Hot Springs was run by Italians and they didn’t believe in all that racial stuff. They loved people and they treated us like that. They gave us jobs. There was one mayor in 1955 that went through and tore up all the fountain signs that said “white” and “colored.” They gave us school buses. If our schools didn’t have books, some way they got books and gave them to the black schools.
There was a man from Oklahoma City who built the black school in Hot Springs. The school is named after him: Langston School. I played football, track and basketball. In football I played linebacker. In basketball I played guard. We had some good athletes in Arkansas, people you probably never heard of but who went off to white schools.
The bathhouses were segregated because whites had a thing about bathing with other races. So, they built separate bathhouses for blacks and put high-class nurses in there. All the white people went to Central where the blacks worked. At night, the same black people worked at the black bathhouses.
There was a white section of town and the black section. Uptown was predominately black. Downtown, there was a break-off. Behind a boulevard it was predominately black but the Italians lived around them. Then you had the hillbillies who didn’t want to live around blacks and moved to the hills. During that time, you didn’t go to hillbilly towns because you knew you were looking for trouble if you did.
My grandpa went to Madera first in 1945. My dad, a World War Two vet, followed him a few years later. See, my dad got in trouble in Pine Bluff. My mom had a twin. One day, my mom’s twin made a sarcastic joke with the bus driver and the driver stopped the bus to put him out. He told the driver, “It’s raining out there. You can’t put me out. Take me where I’m going.”
“No. You’re getting out now,” said the driver.
My dad got up and threw the bus driver out. He drove everyone to their stops, abandoned the bus and left town. They never caught him. He went to Madera and got a job at the Toschi farm with the Walls: five or six brothers who were light-skinned blacks mixed with Indian from Pine Bluff.
Our house in Hot Springs burned down and one of my siblings died so we came out to Madera for a year while our Arkansas neighbors rebuilt our house. We lived on Adelaide Street near McNally Park . In Hot Springs, they might pay thirty dollars a week but in Madera we could earn ninety cents an hour doing farm labor. We worked all summer and didn’t have to work in the winter. We enjoyed that. I picked grapes and chopped cotton. I chopped all day long with a side stroke. You space it and then you take the weeds out with a hoe. In those days there was no canvas put out for your break. There was no ice water, but people did it. A black man or a Mexican could not get a job in town then. The only places in town that hired blacks and Mexicans were the Bridge Store, the Mexican Kitchen and the Mexican Theater.
Fairmead was totally black. Fairmead people went to Madera High when I was here first in the 1950s. They weren’t allowed to go to Chowchilla. The only reason they changed that was because Chowchilla could never beat Dos Palos and Dos Palos was all black. Firebaugh and Mendota were all Mexican.
I got my chance to see what a mixed school was like in Madera. I studied in Madera High for a year. I thought it was sensational. I was scared because they had started to integrate Little Rock schools in 1957 (following the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, the NAACP registered nine black students in an all-white Little Rock school which created a crisis when they were not admitted. President Eisenhower used federal troops to ensure school integration). We thought there would be name-calling and racism, but no. Southeast Madera was predominately black then.
We went back to Hot Springs to graduate. I graduated young at sixteen and a half. Most everyone was two years older than me. We moved back to Madera where I moved in with my brother who was almost eighteen. We were on our own. I worked for S and J Ranch. I was helping a guy move pipe to irrigate alfalfa when this Japanese man saw me and asked, “Hey! Little man! Are you doing all that? Come work at my nursery.”
I thought he meant a nursery for kids but he explained that it was a nursery for plants. I worked from eight to four so I could get to his nursery by four thirty. He paid a dollar twenty-five cent an hour. Minimum wage was one dollar an hour. He showed me what to do: how to dig them up with a special tool, how to put them in croker sacks, how to wet the sacks and how to take the suckers off them so they grow right.
He had a field of orange trees. He told me, “I got an order for one hundred twenty trees.”
So that day I went out there with his special tool, “Whomp. Whomp. Whomp!” Man, I was sweating. He came out there and asked, “You going to make it?”
“I’m going to try.” I dug them up, sacked all one hundred twenty.
So, he asked me, “Can you come early in the morning? Like six o’clock?”
The next day, he had an order for two hundred. His orchard was popular at that time. All those trees out there on Avenue Twelve? They were from his nursery. The Japanese man was a specialist who had come from Japan. He could hardly speak English. They paid him good money to come over and they gave him a house to stay in on a ranch.
He paid me bonuses. “You made me good money today,” he’d say. He finally got so popular that they had to buy a machine to dig them up. I couldn’t keep up.
Orders in the thousands came in. He asked me, “Do you want to work on Sunday?”
“What about your religion?”
“I’m a Baptist. I’ll pray while I work.”
So, he paid me more bonuses.
The minimum age to work in the winery was eighteen. I started there as a seasonal worker the day after my eighteenth birthday, working midnight to eight in the morning. I worked at the Japanese nursery from eight thirty until four and then went home to sleep until eleven but I stopped working weekends.
At that time, the winery squeezed grapes and stored the juice in tanks. My job was to clean around the tanks so that mildew and mold would not form. We put lime down and scrubbed around the tanks. Wine came in on trucks within barrels. We unloaded the trucks and set the barrels up. They rolled the barrels out to a fork lift. Once you learned how to do it, it wasn’t hard. Once in a while a guy would squash a hand or a foot but most of the time it was safe. They wouldn’t let you do it like that now though. Today you’d have to use pallets and stack them.
The Klan Grand Dragon came out to the winery, recruiting. He worked at the glass plant. They had meetings in the hills. People broke up the meetings. They wouldn’t allow it. The Grand Dragon lived in Chowchilla, a Klan town. That town was almost all white. A Mexican couldn’t walk down the street in Chowchilla. They had a shoot-out in a bar right there on the main drag — Mexicans and whites.
In the 1960’s, there was no segregation in Madera like in Little Rock but people segregated themselves. Mexicans lived over here, blacks over there and whites over yonder. There were a few mixes of black and Mexican. Everybody policed their own. You still had to go home and face your parents if you got kicked out of school. You got kicked out of school, you worked in the fields for two weeks. What you going to do — stay in school or work? It was different. There was no “permit” and if you didn’t have a Social Security card, you used the old man’s. It was different. We went to work at eight, nine years old. Our parents supervised us to make sure we did the work right. You can’t take a kid to the field anymore. The farmer would get in trouble, too.
I worked both jobs for nearly three years and became part of the winery union. They had a draft then. One day I came home from work and told my grandfather, “If I get this military service done early, it’s done.”
He said, “What are you talking about? You have two good jobs. You’re living good.”
“Yeah, well let’s talk about this later.”
In July 1963 I joined the Army because Mr. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country.” So, I did it sneakily. At three in the morning on a Monday, my brother drove me to Fresno where I loaded up on a bus for Fort Ord (American troops in Vietnam numbered about 12,000. Johnson began massive troop increases in 1966).
The bus pulled up to the gate about six. We stepped off the bus where a drill sergeant stood with his hands on his hips. “Now your ass is mine! I’m your mother. I’m your father. You belongs to me.” He put fear into you!
“Do you see bars on my shoulder? I work for a living. Get down and give me five. You call that a pushup? Give me twenty more.”
I was strong so it didn’t bother me.
I’d been using a twenty-two single shot rifle since Hot Springs. Growing up on a farm, we shot squirrels and rabbits. You had to get that rabbit with one shot because by the time you reloaded, he was gone. Then, you had catch him on foot: run him down.
“You missed him! Now go get him.”
In the army we used an M-1 during basic. It was easy.
Sometimes, the drill sergeants would try to trick us. They’d give us permission to go to the PX (Post Exchange), knowing that many of these boys had never been away from home, never drank. At three in the morning, the drill sergeants would be banging on our metal bunks with a pipe and yelling. Some of the recruits were just coming in, drunk. I never drank. Three o’clock in the morning, five, it didn’t matter. I was always ready.
In A.I.T. (Advanced Individual Training), we fired an M-16 which was smooth. It was like firing a twenty-two. I scored “expert” (at that time, the Army passing scores were “Marksman,” “Sharp Shooter” and “Expert,” the latter being top score.). I also scored “expert” for a forty-five pistol and the fifty-caliber machine gun.
I was assigned to the First Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas. Killeen, just outside the fort, was mostly white while the Army mostly black. The fort was closed until General Harvey Jablonsky arrived. He opened it up. Since I had scored “expert” in all categories, they nominated me to guard the general. We had a shoot-off to decide. I was lucky and beat them all. For about a year and a half, I manned a fifty-caliber machine gun on the back of the general’s jeep. When the general went to Vietnam on a mission, I went along. We flew all over the country. It was a disgrace.
The last year of service, I stayed at Fort Hood, mostly playing war games in M-551 tanks. Each tank had a three-man crew: a driver, navigator and gunner. The cannon shells were maybe a foot long and a half a foot wide. We could reload in seconds. The tank could go forty-five miles an hour. There might be thirty-six tanks out there divided up into groups, simulating war (The first small deployment of tanks to Vietnam occurred in 1965. In 1967 the number of tanks increased.).
Once out in 1966, I headed home. The winery had to save my job for me by law. Because of seniority, I went to work driving a forklift, which was a lot easier than driving a tank. They had added bottling while I was in the Army which was huge. After eight months, I applied for sub-foreman but didn’t get it. The local Army recruiter came down, met with me and then management.
Management told him, “You run your Army and we’ll run this company.”
The recruiter said, “Why did you ask Mr. Oliver, ‘What do ‘you guys’ want?’ He was the only black person to apply. You guys? That sounds racist to me.”
They trained me and gave me six weeks. In three weeks, I passed. I worked as a sub-foreman for some time until a foreman position opened. We played the same game. This time the union stepped in and asked why they didn’t hire from within instead of bringing in outsiders. They gave us all a test. I scored the highest. Three shifts, including forty-five men, reported to me. I spent nearly forty more years working with people, protecting them when I could. That’s the way we do things. If you’re a black man and a foreman, you’d better do a good job.