Born in 1953, Virginia Smith arrived into this world in Sycamore, Georgia delivered at home by a midwife. Due to the time period’s racist social policies, the hospital was a “whites only” establishment. But this was just her first introduction to racism. She went on to face the integration of Turner County Schools, harsh slurs by school administrators, wrongful terminations, and adversity throughout her life, but she also had so many blessings: 6 wonderful kids, role models who helped her throughout the journey, and perseverance in spades to complete her education 25 years after she was supposed to graduate. The Turner County Project was so fortunate to sit down with Virginia on September 4, 2021 to hear her experiences.
Some of this interview has been edited for clarity.
Warning: This section has slurs and language that is offensive in nature, but very relevant to Virginia’s experience. The TCP does not support this type of language.
Turner County Project (TCP): Let’s get some basic information from you. What year were you born?
Virginia (V): 1953. I was born a Leggett.
TCP: Who is your mom?
V: Beulah Mae.
TCP: What is your earliest memory of Turner County?
V: My earliest memory of Turner County was living with my old auntie right across from where Carroll’s Sausage used to be in Sycamore [1907 Randall H Whiddon Dr in Sycamore, GA]. I lived on a farm on Roby Reeves Farm but I spent a majority of my time caring for my auntie. I think I was pretty young doing that.
TCP: Did you help them on the farm?
V: We were born there. I don’t think they called us sharecroppers at the time but we lived on a farm called Reeves farm and my mom would work for them, the Wilsons, etc. She was what I taught her to say as a “Household Technician.” Wherever she worked at, that is who we worked for. We did the butterbean picking, cotton picking, whatever they needed; tobacco cropping, and all that. It took days away from school so we could do that in the summer. Eureka understood that if you lived on a farm, you were not going to be at school a whole lot during the harvesting season. We missed a lot of days picking butter beans, peas, cotton, cropping tobacco, you name it, we were picking it. I didn’t like going to the field but we went to the field because that was our rent. We work for them and they would buy us clothes, food, whatever else we needed. We lived in the house for free. It was not fancy; no bathroom or running water… I remember the kids used to pick on me because I would talk about the outhouse. They were shocked. But that is what we had. No running water. No sink. We had to go to the well and pull the water in and boil it on the stove. We didn’t have any showers like that, we had big tin tubs. And when everyone went to town, you get on the work truck once a month and they were putting bales on the back of the truck. There were two to three trucks and there was no highway. Back in the day, we were coming near the end of the Knight Riders’ season.
TCP: Knight riders, what is that?
V: I think they call it the Klan [KKK].
TCP: I thought that is what you were referring to but I didn’t want to make assumptions. So they had a presence here?
V: It was beginning to be covered up a whole lot more but this was in the late 1950s, early 1960s. I was raised in Sycamore and we saw a whole lot more of it because it was a rural area. They were the most present there. I saw some of that. What they called us was Mr. Reeves’s niggers. That is what they referred to us as. And they were also making sure that we knew that the only place we could get away with things was on that farm. Outside of the farm was fair game.
TCP: How long do you think they were a presence? When was your last memory of that?
V: I still see residuals today. Not in the form of the KKK how they did it back then but the mentality is still present. It’s not as obvious. More white people support us openly now so it is not as easy to intimidate us as it was back then. Denying it is present now is the biggest issue.
To hear this small section of the interview, visit the Turner County Project Archive Repository.
V: It was a suspicious time. Everyone had an ulterior motive for something in my mind at least. We had went on a little hike in the woods. I ain’t got no business down in the woods but we went. We ran across the Knight Riders in the woods. It was Halloween and it was something like maybe 1969 or something like that, and they were down in the woods and they had a man hanging up, but it wasn’t like a person, it was a dummy.
TCP: Like an effigy.
V: It was what we thought was a real person but it wasn’t no real person, it was a dummy. We stepped up there to peep around the corner- you know, peeping through the woods at them and Mr. Roby, the man’s farm we lived on, came up behind and said, “What the hell are ya’ll doing out here? Get your little – get out from here.” Then he started spanking our behinds and told us, “I’ll be by to talk to your momma in the morning. Now y’all be quiet and get on out of here.”
Integration at Turner County High School
Please note: Names have been redacted for privacy reasons and have been changed to general positions.
Warning: This section has slurs and language that is offensive in nature, but very relevant to Virginia’s experience. The TCP does not support this type of language.
V: My son and I were just having a conversation the other day about when I got kicked out of school. I was a senior and it was a year-and-half into integration. We integrated in the early 1970s. It was very late and it was so controversial. I was in my 11th grade year when we integrated. The first school year was horrific. It was terrible because they didn’t want us there; we didn’t want to be there. But the government said you are going and that is what we did. We were greeted with chains and baseball bats because they really did not want us there. There were fake people that were pretending that they were going to make integration work but they were throwing stones in the wheels. I was personally told, “No ma’am, Nope. You will never graduate from this school.” I was coming into my senior year and it was so hard. It seemed like no matter how good you were or how hard you tried, it just wasn’t enough.
V: I remember I was kicked out and it all started over a term paper on crime and capital punishment. When I turned my paper in, the teacher says, “Leggett, come pick up your paper.” I went and grabbed it and I was so excited because I could see that I made an A on my paper. Then he looked at me and said, “You’re not Leggett.” I said, “Then who am I?” He said, “You did not write this paper. You plagiarized it.” I responded, “No sir, I wrote this from my mind. I wrote the paper. I am not sure what else I could tell you.” He responded, “Nope, Negros don’t have minds like that.” So he grabbed the paper and erased my A off and put me a D+ on it. And threw the paper back at me. I told him I didn’t think it was fair and that he was doing this because of my color. “Color has nothing to do with it. And I don’t appreciate you sassing me.” I was so confused. A few minutes before I had an A paper and then I had a D+ on the same paper. He told me, “Either take the D and go sit down or I will have you sent to the office for a dress code violation.” I said, “What does my dress code have to do with my paper?” I tried to explain to him that I was wearing the correct dress code. But he didn’t want to listen. “Just get out of my classroom and go to the office.” I refused because I wanted an explanation for my grade. He called for the principal.
V: The administrator came and said, “Leggett, you come with me. I will not allow my students to talk back to my teachers.” We got in his office and the administrator brought up my dress code violation. I calmly said to him, “I don’t know how my dress code came up when I was talking to him about a term paper. I don’t know what is going on.” He told me, “You have a choice. You either take a paddling or I am going to kick you out of school for the rest of the year. You ain’t got no business being here. But that is a whole ‘nother story.” He called in one of the coaches. I told him I would take the paddling because a paper and a dress code violation are not worth being kicked out of school for the rest of the year. He made me take a seat in the wooden chair with my feet together. He wanted the coach to hold my hands behind the chair so I wouldn’t put my hands in the way of the paddle. I refused the coach. I said, “You must be out of your ever-loving mind. I am not about to let anyone hold my hands behind my back. These ain’t slavery days. I will take the paddling. He doesn’t need to hold my hands. I will hold my own hands behind the chair.” He wanted to hit me across the front of my thighs. When the coach tried to grab me, I jumped up and started fighting. I was in a room by myself with two white men and I just didn’t think I was going to make it out of there. The administrator was irate and shouted, “Get that nigger out of here. Get her out of my building.” He was using cuss words and calling me all kinds of things. I told him, “I am not going anywhere until someone explains to me about my paper.”
V: He called the police and the officer that walked in had a bad history of beating black people up with his billy stick. “Made just for niggers,” it was said about his billy stick. I truly had made up my mind that I was going to die that day and if I was going to die, I wasn’t going to die easy. But I said, “Mr. [Redacted name], I heard that you had a history of beating black people up with that stick of yours. I am telling you this, if you hit me, you better kill me. Cause if you don’t, you’re through.” He started his stick in his hand in a threatening way. I was a rebellious little kid that day. But in my mind, they had made me do it. They left me no choice. I tried to take the easy route but they were hammering and hammering and treating me like a piece of trash. I eventually left that day when Mrs. Ruth Raines intervened and she took me to my mom.
V: Eventually, my mom went up and talked to the superintendent to see if there was anything we could do to get me back in school. When she went up there, they were using words like, “Well Beulah, you people are going to have to learn your place. You can’t just go out there to our schoolhouse and thinking you can do anything you want to do. Your daughter has got to learn to have respect for my teachers. And until you people learn that, this is the way it is going to be. She is just making it hard on herself.” They told me that they could have my mom fired from her job. It was very intimidating. Anyhow, my mom got me another chance back in school. I had to repeat the whole school year – none of the work I had done would count. I went back for about a week but they were nit-picking and doing all little things like derogatory remarks and I finally walked out of school and never came back. I told my mom that I was not going back to that schoolhouse.
Overcoming hardships and finding her place
V: My mom believed that if you weren’t in school for any reason, I was going to be working til it was time to go to bed. That was the way my momma did it. She asked me what I was going to do. I told her I was going to stay home and clean up around the house and clean up for my brothers like I already did. She disagreed and told me I would have to do a little more than that. I had to get a job on top of all of my household responsibilities. Or that I was going to have to paddle my own boat. I went and got a job at a factory called M & W Sportswear. I worked down there for about a year or so like that and some kind of way they called me in the office talking about they heard I was pregnant. I told them, “It ain’t got nothing to do what you heard, I’m telling you I’m not.” They told me, “That’s not what I heard. We don’t pay maternity leave. So there ain’t but one thing left for me to do; we are going to have to let you go.” Just like that. I just got up, I walked from the factory and went home.
V: It was hard, hard, hard. I came to that conclusion after sitting out of work and thinking and trying to raise my kids; refusing to accept Welfare until my baby girl got sick and I didn’t have a choice. But then she was sick and I couldn’t work. I tried to get welfare and they denied me because they said I was making $0.10 more than what I should be making. I told them I didn’t have a job but apparently, I hadn’t been terminated long enough.
V: But not everything was bad. I had one lady who was a role model to me I would say. Because she stood up to me and didn’t let me have a pity party for myself. For every excuse I had, she had a rebuttal. She made me mad at the time but the more I thought about it, I saw she was right. I started checking myself more than blaming other people. That’s what I realized I had been doing- blaming everyone else for my problems and not accepting no part that I had played in it. I started getting better at living. It seemed like I had a purpose other than just raising my kids.
V: I worked at the county jail for two years. I was the cook with another lady and an inmate escaped from the jail and they decided they were going to terminate me.
TCP: What was the reason?
V: When I got to the jail, they sent me people down that I supervised in the kitchen that worked. They sent 4 people down but only 3 people came. They didn’t tell me how many were coming, they just sent whoever they wanted. Thankfully, the GBI [Georgia Bureau of Investigation] agent got me out of that. He asked me, “Virginia, how did an inmate escape? Did you not notice he was missing?” I told him he never came. He was curious why I never called up and let someone know he was missing. I told him that they never told me how many they were sending so I didn’t know. He said he would get back to me in a few days.
V: Apparently when they sent back for me to come, they had gotten a letter from the guy that had escaped addressed to me… “We can’t open it, we need you to open it and read it to us.” I was confused on why they didn’t open it and I learned they had to have my permission to read it. I gave them permission. He opened the letter and read it, “Dear Mrs. Smith, I want you to know that I appreciate everything you did for me. You are the only person that ever treated me like I was a human being and not an animal. I enjoyed working with you… If I would have known you were working, I would have never did this… If I ever get myself situated, there is nothing in this world I wouldn’t do for you because you treat people like people.” The letter was the way they found him… They had to let me go from the job for my own sake because I had the wrong attitude and mentality for working down here… the GBI man said, “Enough of this. You aren’t about to shift the blame to her for you not doing your job… But I do agree with you on one thing. She has the wrong mentality for this job. She is too good for this. Mrs. Smith, I got a proposition for you. You need to get them before they get here [the jail]. Your counseling is good and the young men listen to you very well. I watched them pull their pants up when they saw you coming. I watched them tighten their belts and straighten up their clothes. I watched them and thought, ‘That’s respect.’ They know that if anything was out of place, you were going to get on to them… But eventually you will run up on one that will take advantage of that. I got a friend that is the principal of the alternative school down here and I think that will be the perfect job for you. Would you be interested in a job like that?” I was confused. I said, “So, let me get this straight. Y’all are going to fire me from here and then find me a job somewhere else? You can’t beat that with a stick.” I said yes. “Do I need to make an appointment?” He replied negatively and said, “Just tell her I sent you. I am not promising you the job but I believe she will hire you.”… Mrs. [Dianne] Huff hired me the very next day and I was with the alternative school until I retired in 2020. I guess from 1991 until 2020. A few years later, they wanted to terminate me too because I didn’t have a diploma. Ben Baker had a challenge going on in the Wiregrass Farmer that said “Getting a GED is so easy, an idiot can do it.” Something like that. “I challenge anybody to go in and get a GED with me… I will let you see that a [news]paper can make you or break you.” People need to encourage their kids and put them in the paper when they do something well. And I took the challenge and went on and got my GED and he plastered me all over the paper. I think this was in 1992 or 1993.
V: That day, it changed my life: my pay went up, it gave me the opportunity to get teacher retirement, and it opened up a lot of doors. I felt like it was a God-sent job. Effort is everything. You don’t succeed if you don’t try. But then again you don’t fail either… You keep on trying until you get where you want. Forget about all the people around you.
About The People of Turner County Project:
This is an oral history project that works to both preserve, document, and celebrate the people of Turner County and the history through the stories of those who have experienced it.
This project collects oral histories of people who have lived or worked in Turner County, Georgia.11