Social Justice

My Story

Mary Othella Burnette

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My Story

Mary Othella Burnette

Permission to publish granted by Mary Othella Burnette.  All rights reserved.

I was born into a small, close-knit African American community of the Swannanoa Valley that was settled by the last two generations of former slaves released from surrounding plantations. These were my father’s foreparents. The date of freedom for them was around April 9, 1865 — when Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen.Grant — not Juneteenth, or June 19th of that year.  I had never heard of Juneteenth until 1965, when I lived in San Francisco and while listening to a man from Texas talk about how that event was celebrated in the Southwest.

In Black Mountain we did not celebrate the Surrender. There was nothing to celebrate. In 1931, the year I was born, we were still oppressed by Jim Crow Laws and segregation. I mention both in my memoir, Lige of the Black Walnut Tree: Growing Up Black in Southern Appalachia.

My mother’s foreparents faced harsh but different racial problems. They had abandoned their native lands to escape the Indian Removal (or Trail of Tears).  Her paternal grandmother merged into an African American community of Rutherford, NC, and passed as Mulatta or Colored to conceal her Cherokee identity. Through this scheme she was able to marry an African slave, and their seven children were born free, although he was sold away from his wife and young children. This separation ended after 21 years. My great grandfather Lonnie Mills returned after the Civil War and remarried Great Grandma Sarah by civil law. But this part of the family’s story escaped our oral history, and we were allowed to believe that Grandpa Lonnie had been killed by the Cherokees.  I wish I understood the value of that myth; I’m sure it has one.       

I grew up believing another myth, that education was the great equalizer. It isn’t, but it has helped to make life more bearable. When I was young, getting a better job without it was impossible.

I physically escaped some of the hardships of riding a rickety bus to the nearest segregated high school 16 miles away by going to live with relatives in Ohio and in California, where I could walk to school and not have to miss class because of bad weather. When World War II brought in more family income, I returned home and enrolled in the Allen School, a private school for women in Asheville.  I graduated with honors and earned a scholarship to Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. That one-year experience left a desire for higher education unknown before. 

My next fulltime college study would be at San Francisco State College, where I saw college and culture clash head on. It was called a riot. Then that little college rose above the clamor to become a university.  Being a divorcee dependent on child support payments, I was eager to get a job.  I raced through my remaining two years of undergraduate studies and completed the master’s degree coursework during my third year. Working parttime as editor of a paper published by a law office, I kept my place on the Dean’s List with an 3.83 GPA.  On my last day of class I was recruited for a one-year teaching position at Federal City College, an open admissions college in the nation’s capital. It was the job I needed to write my master’s thesis paper.   

That position lasted until I resigned 8½ years later.  In Los Angeles I taught part time at California State University and sought full time employment through The LA Unified School District, where they were advertising for college graduates with 20 units in English. With my credentials showing two degrees and more than 100 units in the subject, I was hired on sight.  I earned the Secondary (High School) Teaching Credential at the same local university where I had last taught. I also specialized in teaching developmental speakers of English through District studies.  My teaching credential needed to be renewed every five years by proof of additional study of at least 100 classroom hours, and I qualified easily by presentin gproof of 500 to 700+ hours. 

I retired in 2004, 19 years later at age 73, with both my teaching credential and my specialist certificate fully active, and with a wide range of teaching experience to my credit. I began writing my memoir in 2008.  It flowed. I would usually wake up in the wee hour of the morning, and I would not stop writing until each chapter was finished.  

Today we see more racial interaction than in the past.  If our judgment is based on that alone, we would have to say race relations have improved. But there are other facets to consider. In the early 1940s, we were at war with the Nazis. I never imagined their philosophy would be welcomed in this country.  While fewer racists in general may survive, those who are active are potent. The murderous anti-Black police force speaks for itself. Yet one powerful enemy continues to lurk among us: the silent onlooker who sees the racist deed and refuses to speak up. And they are everywhere, smiling, fearful and holding onto their hidden prejudices.  

In my childhood, there was the town lawyer’s wife at the bus station in Asheville, North Carolina, who smiled and spoke cheerfully as we stood, segregated, to board the Trailways bus to Black Mountain.  She would board first and sit wherever she wished. For her that was the norm. No need to change it. I boarded after the last White passenger, paid the same fare as the lawyer’s wife and all the other White passengers, and found a seat, if I could on the last bench in the bus. It was humiliating. Even if empty seats aremained near the middle or front of the bus, segregation laws didn't allow me to sit there. And yet this woman wanted me to be her youngest daughter’s playmate. I was eager to go because the girl had a walk-in playhouse in her back yard. But Pappa said no. He was afraid I’d grow up warped. 

From my own land in Black Mountain, I have observed racism take a back seat to community and neighborhood relations. We had a White neighbor to the south who had bought his little farm from Pappa before I was born. He was a gruff tobacco farmer from Tennessee who dusted his tobacco leaves with arsenic. I could tell that he resented my crossing his land to get to school and back home. But if he’d ever said, “Go back, use the big road,” I would have been late for school or for many church activities. He upheld the law of allowing access to property. But he did more. One day he stepped behind his barn and yelled for Pappa to come and get his “mar” (mare, female horse). “She ain’t a doin’ nuthin; she needs to work.” He had seen Pappa trying to prepare a small plot with a garden plow. He charged Pappa nothing, and no law made him do that. It was just human KINDNESS. I had never before seen a White man rise above racism.

But racism is still with us. That’s at the heart of our social problems today. As a child I heard Papa say, “There are good laws that are not being upheld. But one day, this country will rise up and live up to its laws. You just be ready when the time comes.”