Talmadge Washington grew up in an era where Black farmers would stand away from their tobacco on market day so it would get a higher price at auction. His school books were tattered hand-me-downs from the white school and he was often the last in line to get paid.
“The buyers would come down the row, bidding on the tobacco, but the Blacks would move away from the row so the buyers wouldn’t know if it was a Black person’s tobacco. By doing that, they would get a higher price for it,” he says.
Washington isn’t bitter about those injustices though. He only hopes to see more progress in the days ahead and doesn’t want the community to ever revert back to segregated habits.
“We don’t want to go backwards,” Washington told The Times recently as he reflected on growing up in the segregated South. “We need to get together more, respect each other’s upbringing … just love each other.”
Washington was interviewed in recognition of Black History Month, traditionally celebrated in February.
The Patterson native admits violent events making national headlines over the last year do concern him. They bring back memories of life before the Civil Rights Act.
“It brings back memories of certain things you’ve been through when you weren’t treated exactly right and proper,” Washington says. “... (Like) when you see police brutality and some of the other unfortunate things going on in the world.”
The answer to most of our societal issues is simple though, he says.
Following the Golden Rule and remembering to live by Christian principles many of us were taught in Sunday School would resolve a lot of problems, Washington points out. The 78-year-old farmer serves as a deacon at Macedonia Baptist Church, one of Pierce County’s oldest assemblies.
The church house is one place where race relations could take another step forward, he adds.
“The church is one of the most segregated places. We need to make some more progress in that area — all of our churches, both white and black churches,” Washington says.
Washington was raised on the farm he now works and one day he’ll pass it on to his three sons who work alongside him. He learned what hard work was all about as a young boy and even now, retired from a 30+ year career with CSX, can be found herding livestock or harvesting hay out on Aarons Way.
Washington attended Pierce County Training School in Patterson and graduated from Lee Street High School in Blackshear before integration. He often studied by kerosine lamp light at night and remembers the frustrations of using tattered schoolbooks passed down from the white schools.
“It (segregated schooling) felt pretty normal with the exception of the used books all the time,” he says.
At times he missed school because his father needed him working in the fields instead — providing for the family was a group effort. In the 1950s, Washington would earn $3/day picking tobacco or $3/100 pounds of cotton.
“There were several days when I needed to be in school that my father would have me working for the white farmers to make enough money to get by,” Washington says.
As a young man, Washington observed more injustices when he ventured off the farm for work. Water fountains were separate and he was last in line on pay day. Segregation was well enforced and, while Washington knew it was wrong, he learned it was better to stay quiet.
“Everybody usually stayed in their own lane. If they didn’t stay in their own lane, they would be confronted about it,” he says. “It was pretty much accepted. We knew segregation was wrong, but there wasn’t too much you could do about it one on one.”
Things began to gradually improve after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed though. In the late 60s and early 70s Washington observed notable changes in race relations in the South. He was in his early 30s at the time, working night and day to provide for his wife, Lillie, and five children.
“Things began to change gradually, but not all at one time,” he says.
Apprenticeship jobs began to open up for Black men, and Washington was eager for an opportunity to earn a higher wage. He worked first as a carman apprentice for CSX, starting there in 1963. Washington then became a mechanic and a supervisor. He retired as a general foreman. All the while, Washington kept his family farm running.
“I slept a little bit every now and then,” he says with a laugh.
Washington farmed tobacco, cotton, soybeans and corn over the years, but these days the lowing of cattle is the most common sound on his farm. Washington and his sons run livestock and farm hay.
He’s thankful for the progress made during his lifetime, and says it’s important to observe Black History Month to remind ourselves how far we’ve come.
“It’s important because it brings back memories of how things used to be. You can see the positive changes that have taken place,” Washington says. “It shows you where you came from, and to be thankful things are better now than what they used to be.”