Addie Found the Answer Late but Not Too Late
The story of a black woman’s 87-year search for social justice. She is sitting on a log fishing at the edge of a swamp. Her skin is smooth, her mind is clear, and she has an air of dignity about her. She is strong, experienced, knowledgeable, but in her eyes you can see wit and humor, plus a pleasing humility. She is a great storyteller. Her African heritage comes through, mingled with memories of the deep South. Listen as she relives her life.
“MY GRANDMOTHER was born on a slave ship on its way from Africa to Georgia. She was so frail no one expected her to live. So when her mother was sold, they just gave the sickly child along with her. This was about 1844. The child was named Rachel.
“Dewitt Clinton was running a plantation for his uncle. By Dewitt, Rachel conceived my father, Isaiah Clinton, who was born in June 1866. They called him Ike. As a boy, he often rode on the same horse with Dewitt and was taught all there was to know about running a plantation. A few years later, Dewitt told Ike: ‘The time has come for you to make your own way in the world.’ He then removed a money belt from his waist and gave it to Ike.
“After this my father went to work for a Mr. Skinner, became the overseer of the Skinner plantation, and married Ellen Howard. I was born on June 28, 1892, in Burke County, near Waynesboro, Georgia. Life was wonderful to me. I couldn’t wait to get out the front door. Mother would hold me back until she tied my dress in back, and I’d hear her say every day: ‘Tie a bow and let her go.’ I would climb onto the fork of the plow to be near my father.
“One day during a summer storm, lightning struck Mr. Skinner and his horse in an open field. Both were killed. Mrs. Skinner was a woman from the North and was hated by all the people in Burke County because of what General Sherman did when he burned Atlanta. So they hated Mrs. Skinner more than they hated the blacks! Mrs. Skinner got even with them. For spite, when her husband died, she sold the plantation to my father, a black man. Imagine a black man owning a plantation before the turn of the century in Georgia!”
Mr. Neely and the General Store
“When Papa needed anything, he went to Mr. Neely, who owned the general store. They have everything. Need a doctor, go to the general store. Need a coffin, go to the general store. You don’t pay for anything; just put it on your bill until the cotton comes in. Neely found out Papa had money in the bank, so he brought us everything, stuff we didn’t need—icebox, sewing machine, guns, bicycles, two mules. ‘We don’t need it!’ Papa would say. Neely’s response: ‘It’s a present. I’ll put it on your bill.’
“One day Neely arrived at our farm with a big black Studebaker. Papa said: ‘Mr. Neely, we don’t need it! Nobody knows how to drive it or take care of it, and everybody’s afraid of it!’ Neely brushed that aside. ‘Keep it, Ike. I’ll put it on your bill and have one of my boys teach yours how to drive it.’ We didn’t get any use out of it. I begged Papa to let me go with one of the hands to get gas one day. Papa said: ‘Don’t touch it; I know you!’ As soon as we were out of sight, I said: ‘Let me try it. Papa knows I’m gonna do it.’ The car took off, me turning left then right through the brush and the trees. I landed it in the creek.
“I’d asked Papa why he didn’t refuse this stuff, and he’d reply: ‘That would be a big mistake, an insult. Besides, the KKK [Ku Klux Klan] don’t mess with none of Mr. Neely’s niggers.’ So we paid for all this stuff we didn’t need. And I thought of what Papa was always saying: ‘Don’t buy what you don’t need, or soon you’ll need what you can’t buy.’ I hated Mr. Neely!
“When everyone was celebrating the turn of the century, January 1, 1900, my mother died while giving birth to her fourth child. I was only eight at the time, but I told Papa at the graveside I would take care of him.
“My mother’s mother helped out with us kids. Her name was Mary. She was very religious, had a memory like an elephant, but couldn’t read or write. I’d be in the kitchen plying her with questions. ‘Why is it that white people don’t want to be bothered with colored people, since they say everybody’s equal in God’s sight? When we go to heaven, are all the white people gonna be there too? Will that Mr. Neely be there?’ Mary would answer: ‘I don’t know. We’ll all enjoy ourselves.’ I wasn’t so sure.
“‘Grandma, what are we gonna do in heaven?’ ‘Oh, we gonna walk on streets paved with gold! We gonna put on wings and fly from tree to tree!’ I thought to myself: ‘I’d rather be outdoors playing.’ I never wanted to go to heaven anyway, but I didn’t want to go to hell either. ‘Grandma, what are we gonna eat in heaven?’ She answered: ‘Oh, we gonna eat milk and honey!’ I cried out: ‘But I don’t like milk, and I don’t like honey! Grandma, I’m gonna starve to death! I’m gonna starve to death in heaven!’”
I Start My Education
“Papa wanted me to get an education. In 1909 he sent me to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Booker T. Washington was the head and heart of the school. The students called him Papa. He traveled extensively raising money for the school, much of it from white people. When he was at the school, he preached this message to us: ‘Get an education. Get a job, and save your money. Then own a piece of land. And don’t let me ever visit you and find the grass uncut, the house unpainted, or the windows broken out with rags stuffed in them to keep the cold out. Have pride in yourself. Help your people. Help them to pull up. You can be an example.’
“They certainly needed a ‘pull up.’ They’re good people—lots of good in them. There are things the white man should remember about the past when he considers the Negro. The Negro wasn’t given the opportunity to learn. It was against the rules in slavery to teach a Negro. We are the only people who came into this country against our will. Others were eager to get here. We weren’t. They put us in chains and brought us here. They worked us 300 years for free. We worked 300 years for the white man, and he didn’t give us enough to eat or shoes to wear. Worked us from morning till night, whipped us at the slightest whim. And when he freed us, he still didn’t give us a chance to learn. He wanted us to work on the farm and for our children to work too and to go to school three months a year.
“And do you know what kind of school it was? A little church because there was no school for the Negro. Plank seats. June, July, and August, the hottest months of the year. No screens on the windows. Kids sitting on the floor. A hundred and three students to one teacher, and all the bugs getting in. What can you teach a kid in three months? One summer break from Tuskegee, I taught 108, from every grade.
“I graduated in 1913 as a nurse. In 1914, I married Samuel Montgomery. Later he left for World War I, and I was pregnant with my only child. Shortly after Samuel returned, he died. With my young son, I traveled by train to visit my sister in Illinois, expecting to find a nursing job there. All the Colored were directed to the car just behind the coal car. It was hot, the windows were open, and we were covered with soot and cinders. The second day our sandwiches were gone and no milk for the baby. I tried to get into the dining car but was stopped by a black porter. ‘You can’t come in here.’ ‘Would they just sell me some milk for my baby?’ The answer was no. Neely was the first injustice that fired my soul. This was the second one.
“In 1925, I married John Few, a porter on a train. He lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, so I relocated there. This brings me to the third thing that fired my soul on the issue of social justice. In St. Paul, I was far north, but the prejudice was worse than in the South. The county hospital wouldn’t register me as a nurse. They said they had never heard of a black nurse. In Tuskegee we were well trained, and the patient always came first, but in St. Paul, skin color was the litmus test. So I sold the little house I still had in Waynesboro and used the money as a down payment on a lot and building. I started a garage, hired four mechanics, and soon had a good business going.”
I Discover the NAACP
“It was about 1925 when I discovered the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] and plunged in. Had not Booker T. Washington said: ‘Help your people. Help them to pull up’? The first thing I did was go to the governor of the state with a long list of black voters who owned homes and paid taxes. He listened, and he got a young black nurse a job at the same county hospital that had turned me down. The white nurses, however, treated her so badly—even pouring urine on all her uniforms—that she left for California and became a doctor.
“As for my garage business, it was great until one day in 1929. I had just made a $2,000 deposit at my bank, and as I walked along, people began shouting that the banks had failed. I had two payments left on the garage. I lost it all. I divided with my mechanics what money I salvaged.
“No one had money. I bought my first house by cashing in my life-insurance policy for $300. I got the house for $300. I sold flowers, chickens, and eggs; took in boarders; and used extra money to buy empty lots for $10 each. I was never hungry and was never on welfare. We ate eggs. We ate chickens. We ground up their bones to feed my pigs.
“Later I became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and very close friends with Hubert Humphrey. Mr. Humphrey helped me buy a large apartment building in downtown white St. Paul. The real estate man was afraid for his life, so he made me promise not to do anything with the place for 12 months.”
A Turning Point in My Life
“Something unusual happened in 1958 that I never forgot. Two white men and one colored man came to me looking for a place to stay for one night. I thought it was a trick to get me in trouble with the law, so I interviewed them for several hours. Their story was that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses traveling cross-country to a convention in New York. They showed me what the Bible said about God’s purpose for a paradise earth where there would be no prejudice. A brotherhood of man. I thought, ‘Could they have what I’ve been searching for all these years?’ They seemed like what they claimed to be—brothers. They didn’t want to stay in separate places for the night.
“Then some years later I visited one of my tenants who I knew was dying. Her name was Minnie. When I asked what I could do for her, she said: ‘Please read to me from that little blue book over there.’ It was The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, a book distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses. So each visit I read more and more of the little blue book. One day Minnie died, and when I went to her apartment, a white lady named Daisy Gerken was there. She was almost totally blind. She told me that she studied with Minnie in the little blue book. Daisy asked me if there was anything here I would like to have. I said: ‘Only her Bible and the little blue book.’
“I knew if I pursued the things in that blue book, I would have to quit all my work for my people. I couldn’t describe all the things I was doing that I felt were worthwhile. I organized a union for the train porters. Through court battles won civil rights for some. I arranged for demonstrations, sometimes in several parts of town at the same time. I had to see that my people didn’t break the law, and when they did, I had to get them out of jail. I belonged to over ten clubs but only to those that did civic work.
“So I thought I couldn’t worry about the hereafter. My people were suffering now! I had a large staff in the NAACP, including a white secretary. From 1937 to 1959, I served as the vice president of the NAACP in St. Paul and from 1959 to 1962 as its president. I organized four states into a conference and served there to get the NAACP finally to hold its national convention in St. Paul. Many battles along the way, each a story in itself. Before I retired at 70 years of age in 1962, I visited President John F. Kennedy. Sad to say, at that time I was so involved in pursuing justice my way that I wouldn’t make room for God’s way.”
Finally I Discover the Only Way to Social Justice
“Daisy Gerken and I always kept in contact by phone, and she came to see me every year. Not long after I went to Tucson, Arizona, my gift subscription to The Watchtower ran out. A bad knee confined me, so when Adele Semonian, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, called, I was fortunately at home. We started studying the Bible together. Finally, the full impact of the truth hit me. I realized I couldn’t solve all my people’s problems and really ‘pull them up.’ The problem was bigger than Mr. Neely. Bigger than the South. Bigger than the United States. In fact, bigger than this world.
“It’s a universal question. Who has the right to rule the world? Is it man? God’s enemy Satan? Or is it the Creator’s right? His, of course! Once this issue is settled, then the symptoms of social injustice that I had been battling all my life will disappear. And no matter what I had done, for black or white, we still grow old and die. God will make the earth a paradise with social justice for all. I was ecstatic with the prospect of living forever and caring for the plants and animals and loving my neighbor as myself—thereby fulfilling God’s original purpose in creating man and woman here on the earth. (Psalm 37:9-11, 29; Isaiah 45:18) I was also thrilled to learn that I did not have to go to heaven and live on milk and honey or starve to death!
“I do have some regrets, principally that I spent most of my life seeking social justice from the wrong source. I would have loved giving God the energy of my youth. In fact, I thought I was, by helping other people. I’m still helping, but now it is by pointing people to the hope of God’s Kingdom under Christ Jesus, the only name given under heaven whereby we may be saved. (Matthew 12:21; 24:14; Revelation 21:3-5) My father used to say as he showed me a fist: ‘If you hold your hand so tight, then nothing gets in and nothing gets out.’ I want to open my hand to let out help for others.
“I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses at age 87. I can’t slow down now because my time is short. I’m still kicking but not too high. I’ve missed maybe only two congregation meetings in the last two years. I’ve got to learn all I can so I can teach my family as much as I can when they are resurrected. I go in field service between 20 and 30 hours a month, with the help of Adele.
“Now, these things I’ve said are the highlights of my life. I couldn’t tell you everything, or we would be sitting here on this log for weeks just talking.”
Just then a big water moccasin slithered out over the log, and Addie cried out: “Where’d that snake come from?” She grabbed her fishing pole and the string of fish she had caught and took off. The interview was over.—As told by Addie Clinton Few to an “Awake!” reporter. Shortly after this interview, Addie died at the age of 97.