“My first memory was the cotton sacks. It’s where I came to life, in the cotton field.” That’s how Emerson Stamps began his poem of a memoir, "Don't Look Them in the Eye: Love, Life and Jim Crow." He started writing it, with his friend Margot Wizansky, when he was 85.
The facts were harsh. Emerson was the grandson of slaves and the son of Arkansas sharecroppers. His enormous family was never free of debt. When he was an infant, back in the 1920s, his mother dragged him in a sack behind her as she picked cotton up and down the rows. Yet his first memory wasn’t about his own discomfort — it was about hers. All his life, Emerson was aware of others that way.
“He always felt that he could love anybody and that was his calling,” Margot said.
Emerson enlisted in the military after Roosevelt requested volunteers. The Navy wasn’t accepting black men, so he trained as an Army winch operator on a supply ship. He was working on D-Day.
“And he could still cry at 92,” Margot recalled, “remembering what that day was like — the ocean turning red and people just being mowed down.”
Europeans treated him as the equal of any man. But when Emerson returned with war medals to Arkansas, there’d been no change in the racial climate. His country meant much to him, but he meant little to it.
So he left the deep South for Kansas, working one full-time job as an aide in a psychiatric hospital, and another in a VA hospital. He cared for the catatonic, the traumatized, the violent. “I’d been through war,” he wrote. “These patients were comrades.”
The hospitals were also where he became politicized, discovering The New Republic, and the concept of unionization.
“And he led a strike which was very noteworthy because instead of walking off the job, they walked on the job,” said Margot. “He got all three shifts to show up one morning at 6 a.m. and they all worked with the patients to demonstrate how many aides you needed to provide proper care and compassionate care.”
He was arrested and blacklisted. In the 1960s, unemployed, Emerson arrived in Boston, where he studied for a master’s degree in counseling, fell in love and lived openly for over 40 years with a white woman. The recognition of personhood instead of race had come full circle in his life.
“We’re all spiritual beings,” he wrote, “just having a human experience.”
Margot once asked — after so many forms of injustice — where his rage had gone. “I just sort of buried the anger,” he said. “It’s still there somewhere inside me, but it’s cold.”
After retirement, Emerson loved to barbecue; he had a foolproof family marinade. But he never ate any of the meat himself. When he was small, his desperate mother had stretched every part of a single pig into usefulness, even grinding the hoofs into powder for tea — and he was done with it.
Emerson Stamps, of West Roxbury, died last August. He was 93 years old. Margot hopes his memoir can be read by school children everywhere.
To nominate someone for remembrance, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This segment aired on November 2, 2016.