In Loving Memory of Nannie Virginia Branch Haley
In Memory of Nannie Virginia Branch Haley
Mrs. Nannie V. Branch Haley, 87, of Beaufort, N.C., first wife of author Alex Haley, passed away on Sunday, June 30th, 2013 at Carteret General Hospital in Morehead, City, N.C.
The Haleys were married on August 21, 1942, and were the parents of Lydia Anne and William Alexander. A memorial service honoring her life was held on Friday, July 26th in Beaufort at Grace Presbyterian Church.
She leaves a daughter, Lydia Anne of North Carolina; four grandchildren, William Haley Jr. of Seal Beach, CA; Todd Haley of Columbia, SC; Tara Haley of Columbia, SC; Michael Baker of Newport, NC and six great grandchildren. Her son, William Alexander Sr. (Fella), preceded her in death, December 17, 2012.
"Nannie Haley was ahead of her time; she was a career woman in the 1940s. She grew up in a very small, closed community with very few worldly influences and yet was able to move to New York City and succeed. In fact, Nannie succeeded past her wildest dreams. She experienced the rise of her own success and also that of her husband, Alex Haley. She always carried something with her for Alex to write on. Yet this is the story of her young life—the story of growing up with family and friends. The story of Roots is another one altogether.
"Nannie's voice adds to the aura and charm of Beaufort, famous for its place in colonial history. Her history is interwoven with the people who lived there in the 1930s and 1940s. Nannie and her daughter, Lydia Anne, have been a part of a very special 'lunch bunch.' I always wanted to be 'one of the ladies who lunch,' so now when I'm in town, lunching with the Haley girls is a 'must.' Nannie and Lydia make you want to take the time to smell the roses."—Lynn Salsi, Editor of The Crystal Coast.
I was born a little colored girl in Beaufort, North Carolina. No one could have had a happier childhood.
Beaufort was a small close-knit community. It was the ideal place for a child to grow up. My twin, Evelyn, and I had an older brother, and after we were born, two more sisters came along. My twin sister and I were close. We could walk all over town safely. Not only was the town small, it was bound by water, wilderness, and marsh. Once Cedar Street took the sharp left turn at the top of Live Oak Street, we were out of town—suddenly in the country and a place our parents would not allow us to wander. Nor did we want to go there. We heard stories about the black bears and alligators that might be lying in wait. We were also told about strange and unusual fish and snakes that would be in the murky, swampy waters of creeks, marshes, and rivers.
We always lived close around white people. In the twenties, thirties, and forties, we rarely felt segregated. We were all in it together. It was not an easy time in which to live—low wages and being a million miles from everywhere. Everyone in town knew each other—black and white. When our white postman's daughter needed an operation, my daddy let him have some money to pay for it. If a family was having it hard, everyone pitched in.
Weather played a big part in what we did and where we went. Those were the times that people came to your house and talked about the weather. It was also the time that people understood the weather. They could read signs. There was no television or radio to tell them any different. My mother could tell the time without a watch. She could judge by the sun. She also knew wind direction and not a day went by as long as she lived that she didn't comment on the wind. She'd tell us that the wind talked to her.
She knew the clouds and the feeling of the weather. She could predict storms. My father's work always depended on the weather. She always commented on the conditions and openly worried when he was out during rough weather. Daddy was always glad he wasn't on a boat when the weather was rough.
Being one of five children meant we had to share. My sisters and I sometimes thought my brother, Bill, had it better than us. He got to go places with the men, and we were told, "It's not for young ladies." My parents and grandparents worked constantly and hard to make ends meet. We never felt poor and we never went hungry. I'm sure that's because they always did their best. In fact, I remember that my family often did for others so that they would not go hungry either.
My father fished on a menhaden boat that carried 28 men. He'd fish in North Carolina in the winter and in Florida in the summer. He also fished in Delaware and New Jersey. Since menhaden had a season, he had to go where the fish were running or stay in Beaufort and do odd jobs between seasons. He chose to have regular pay.
The men lived—ate and slept—on a very large ocean-going boat for days at a time. The work was grueling and back breaking because nets of fish weighing over a ton had to be hauled in by hand—literally. Manpower was required day after day. Daddy had to go off the mother boat and get into a purse boat so he and the other men could get their hands on the huge net. It was a very dangerous profession. My father told stories about the relentless work, the treacherous seas, and how he fell overboard a number of times. He finally retired because the danger was so great.
When he traveled, he'd leave us behind. Beaufort was his and Mama's home. Even when he was not there, we had Mama and our grandparents to watch over us. Daddy faithfully sent money home to us by Western Union so we could live.
We looked forward to Daddy coming home. His homecomings would always be the most exciting times I can remember. He was so loving. He bought the newspaper and read it to us. I loved Flash Gordon. He often said, "I might be dead and gone, but one day a man will walk on the moon."
The Family Tree
My father was my hero. He gave us a good life and expected big things from us. He was good at what he did. He had the reputation for being smart, fair, and interested in his community. He must have been a strong man too, because he was called "the Tiger of the South." One thing is for sure: he worked hard for his money. He worked so hard that we were aware that each year he had to pay a poll tax of $2.00. There was a law stating every male over the age of 21 had to pay the tax. He would say, "Isn't that something, me having to pay for being a man. I can think of a hundred things I could do with that $2.00."
We were all close. My twin sister, Evelyn, and I especially enjoyed each other's company. We were twins, but we didn't look anything alike. She was fair skinned and blond. I am light skinned and brunette and shorter than Evelyn. Daddy told us that we had a lot of different blood running in our veins. That was why we all looked so different. My mother was part Cherokee Indian and my father was white, black, and Cherokee. He was related to the Delamars, a white family that lived in the area.
Everyone in town knew Mother's people. They were the Davis family from the ridge area of Davis Shore, an island in the sound. They originally came to Carteret County as slaves of the Davis family who owned the island. Mother's great-grandfather and his family continued living on the island after the Civil War and came to own part of it. Many people knew my ancestors because they had lived in the area as far back as anyone could remember. I used to think my Davis kin had always been in Carteret County.
My mother was small and fine in stature but was a powerhouse in spirit. She was always ready to stand up for what was right. She didn't put up with any nonsense. Only one store in Beaufort would let us try on shoes. It was Mr. Sam Lipman's. I remember him telling my mother one time that we weren't allowed to try on shoes. She looked him straight in the eyes and said, "I'm not going to work as hard as I work to pay for these shoes and not have my children try them on." From then on, we shopped there and we tried on our shoes. She was a good watchful mother and never put up with being cheated. She worked very, very hard and was proud of her children. It was usual for her jobs to last from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week for only $3.00 per week.
I learned many valuable lessons from my parents. My father bought me a tablet so I could help keep up with the bills when he was out of town. That way I could go to the store for my mother. Once I went to a local grocery store on Broad Street and picked out a few things my mother needed. I had the grocer write the items on my pad. Then he wrote down two things I didn't get. I said, "No, sir, I didn't get those things. My father taught me that wasn't right." I wouldn't take anything and I walked away. He came after me and then listed the purchase correctly. He always treated me fairly after that. Years later, I went home to visit my parents and I saw that local grocer. He'd remarked about what a smart little girl I'd been.
For awhile Mother worked for various families. Several times she went to Virginia Beach with the Dills to help them while they were on vacation. She only made $3 a week with them. But she did what she had to. That $3 was important to our survival. They had two daughters about our age. Sometimes they would give her clothes or shoes for us. They were nice things that obviously were good quality. The shoes were almost always too narrow.
Mother would look at us and say, "Don't dare say your feet hurt." Those shoes were so narrow it makes my feet hurt now just thinking about it. They hurt, but at least we had shoes.
At one time, Mother worked at the shirt factory in Morehead City. Then during the Depression, she worked at the St. Stephens Church parsonage making pillow cases as part of a Roosevelt WPA program. She didn't stop working until she was 72 years old.
My mother spoke with an accent that I came to appreciate. Hers was a Southern lilt and developed from living in a closed community where people understood each other. She would say "deat." instead of "to eat." And when she was mad at me, she would say, "Nannie Virginia Branch!" Other times she would call me "Nan" or "Ginger."
We lived on the corner of Pine and Queen Street. There was a lot to be said about living near the water. We could walk across the street and dip our toes in the river. That was also the place where we put out our crab traps. Daddy would say, "OK, it's time to set our crab traps."
In 30 minutes we could go back and pull up the traps full of crabs. Then we would go home and have the best, freshest crab dinner any one could ever taste. I learned to clean and stew crabs, although some people fried them first.
My mother and father were both good cooks. They enjoyed good food. There was a lot of pride in my family about serving good food. And throughout my parents' lives, friends and family would comment about my mother's biscuits. Times were hard and I don't know how most people made it, except I never saw anybody go hungry. Back then, people would help one another and share what they had.
We sometimes ate wild rabbit or duck, and when we didn't have fresh fish, we'd eat smoked and salt fish. One time, Daddy caught a big old turtle. He used the big wash pot in the yard to cook it in. Grandmother made delicious little dumplings and threw them into the pot. Turtle was a delicacy, and it was widely enjoyed in the county in the late twenties and thirties.
Whenever we needed a lunch on the go, Mama would pack Gibb's pork and beans and biscuits in a little lunch tin. Those beans were often part of our supper. We'd get mad at our brother Bill because he'd get ahead of us and would sneak one spoonful of beans off of each plate. We also ate a lot of bologna. We'd buy a half a pound or maybe a pound and brown it and make gravy to eat with grits—a lot of grits. When money was scarce, we sometimes ate biscuits and molasses.
Our gardens were always a blessing. We enjoyed fresh vegetables in season. We had collards, shallots, white potatoes, and sweet potatoes. Grandfather had fruit trees, so Mother made fig preserves and pear preserves. She could even make watermelon rind preserves. It was all delicious on warm biscuits—the ones that were talked about in the family and among friends.
Here is my mother's recipe:
2 quarts sitters of plain flour
1 cup of Crisco
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Enough water to mix dough to a smooth consistency
Knead on floured board. Pinch off enough dough for size of biscuit and roll with hands. Place in bread pan and flatten with hand. Bake in 400 degree oven for 15-20 minutes.
My sisters and I had ideas to pick blueberries and sell them. We never made much money because we couldn't help eating them before we got home. Sometimes we had enough left for a pie or blueberry dumplings.
As kids, Evelyn, myself, and certain friends liked to run up and down the street going barefoot while wearing long skirts. In the summertime, most of the children were barefooted. I can remember that my shoes were torture to me when I had to put them on for Sunday church.
That was before the street was paved. It was also a time when few people had cars. Beaufort was so out of the way that no one came to town unless they had a reason to come to the county courthouse. June to Labor Day was different; tourist came by train from all over the state and some from up north.
When we were 10 or 12 years old, we would go out and say, "Let's see who is on the train." We enjoyed seeing what the outsiders were wearing. Sometimes the tourists would give us a piece of fruit. Often people would take a sack of fruit when they traveled by train because it was a long and arduous journey even to go to Goldsboro. Sometimes we'd put safety pins on the railroad track; they'd get smashed. We'd gather them after the train passed and use them to make a necklace. We also tried paper clips, but they never worked as well.
We always loved going down to the sound and hanging by our knees on the net spreads. We'd hang upside down and have a good time. When we got tired of that, we'd go down to the water at the edge of the sidewalk and swing our feet out into the sound. It was a carefree thing to do. It's something I remember strongly. At one time, there was also a wonderful beach for colored people at the end of the Lennoxville Road. It was exciting to go on an excursion to Black Cat Beach. There were slides and swings in the water, and Mother would pack a lunch. We'd have a picnic there on the shore. We had just about as much fun as we could stand. Later, someone set fire to the swings and they burned. That was a loss for the children. Today there is an exclusive neighborhood there marked with no trespassing signs.
In warm weather we liked to go to Front Street and sit. We'd watch the tourists out walking and shopping. We'd think of how really rich they must be. We intently studied the way they looked and the way they walked and dressed.
When we were old enough to go around alone, we enjoyed walking all the way across the bridge from Beaufort to Morehead City and on over to Fourteenth and Fisher to a place called Dudley's. It was our big adventure—to go and see what we could see. It was always fun to see what was on the other side. We never got tired of going to see if anything was happening. We weren't the only young people walking back and forth. It was traditional for the Morehead City boys to chase the Beaufort boys and the Beaufort boys to chase the Morehead City boys. Today that couldn't happen because the traffic on the bridge is bumper to bumper. But in the thirties there were as many people walking across as there were people driving across.
We had an unexpected problem as we matured. We were told any number of times what was appropriate for girls and what wasn't. If we overstepped those boundaries, we were sure to get "the look" from Mother and we felt disapproval from our grandmother and grandfather.
The male members of the family were not shy to mention that girls didn't do certain things. My grandfather had a boat, but he never took the girls anywhere. "They didn't have any business being there" or "it wasn't lady-like." We always felt that boys had more fun. Owning a boat wasn't a big thing in our family like it was in others. Since Daddy fished for a living, he didn't care about getting in a boat after fishing season was over.
The Fish Business
Beaufort was not only a small rural town, it was a fish town. Fishing was what the entire town was about. Nearly everyone's employment had something to do with the water. In the twenties and thirties, fishing was the only thing. The entire shoreline bordering Front Street was lined with fish houses. The menhaden boats pulled into Beaufort to unload the catch. Mullet was also processed and shipped. Barrels of "salt mullet" were a soil of "cash crop." I heard it was an exciting day when the North Carolina and Atlantic Railroad was extended to Beaufort in 1907. The train was known as the "mullet line" and the railroad bridge crossing the channel from Morehead City made it possible for fresh fish and barrels of salted fish to be shipped to all points north, south, and west.
Farmers also depended on rail transportation. Carloads of sweet potatoes and cabbages were shipped. Agriculture was important to the economy; and large farms extended past the city limits. They loaded entire rail cars with bushel baskets full of potatoes and cabbages.
When Harvey Smith put in the big fish factory it stunk the place up. We smelled fish all the time. It was horrible! When we complained, my father would say. "It smells like money."
One of the fish factories periodically reduced fish for fertilizer. Not only did it smell, it emitted a smog that hung in the air like a heavy veil if there was no breeze.
Daddy would often take us to Front Street. While he transacted or talked to the men, he'd buy us a box of chocolate snaps. We were so content to sit and watch people as we ate our cookies.
We were used to seeing the boats come in and unload their catch at the dock. Men would load a wheelbarrow full of fish and have them for sale right on the street. We could buy a whole string of fish—hogfish, spots, sea mullet for 25¢. When Daddy got of that menhaden boat, he didn't want to have anything to do with fishing. He rarely caught what we ate—someone would share what they had or we'd go and get a string. When I see the price of fish now, I think back to when a quarter sometimes fed our family for more than one meal.
The Blanket Man
It was not unusual to purchase things on time. Mr. Bennett used to go around selling blankets. Those who purchased one from him would pay 25¢ per week until it was paid for. One day we saw Mr. Bennett coming and told Mama that the blanket man was coming.
Mama said, "Tell him I'm not here."
He came on up to the front door and I said, "Mama said to tell you that she's not home because she doesn't have money to give you."
I surely got a whipping for that.
Our family was particularly religious and attending church was mandatory. My grandfather was a minister at the Holiness Sanctified Church. They had a joyful service playing tambourines and dancing around. During the week he was a fine finish carpenter and cabinet-maker, but his life was his church.
When he got on up in his eighties, he was still preaching. He lived around the corner from his church, yet he would leave home a full hour before he was to preach because he had great difficulty walking. He would walk slowly, very slowly, more like a creeping—around the corner. But when he got inside his church, he found the energy for dancing and going with the spirit.
My father was a faithful church member. We attended St. Stephens Congregational Church, which we considered our home church. We attended there with our mother and father. When we stayed with my grandparents, we attended the church where Grandfather preached.
My twin sister and I loved to sing. In the summer, they put up a platform in front of St. Stephens. My mother, sister, and I got out and sang. Our favorite song was "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." I have a lot of memories of the music and singing I learned by going to two churches.
My grandfather decided that we were going to be baptized and that he was going to be the one to do it. We went out the West Beaufort Road where the sand bar is, and there we were immersed in water and in the Holy Spirit. He selected this special place instead of the usual waterway straight down Pollock Street. People had gotten down there oystering and had opened so many that there were shells all around. Granddaddy didn't want the discarded shells to cut our feet.
With so much preaching, there was hardly a Sunday that we didn't have a minister in our home for Sunday dinner, which was what is now known as "lunch." We were not allowed to work on Sunday; we were not allowed to even thread a needle. So all the dinner was cooked on Saturday. After church, all we had to do was put the food on the table and eat. Evelyn and I still had to wash dishes.
When the preacher came, it was traditional that he would have the best. For years, I thought the only parts to the chicken were the gizzard, the neck, and the back. This is what the children ate. I thought the rest of the chicken was thrown away. This confused me when I realized Mama had cooked the whole thing. When I saw differently, I asked my father to teach me how to cook.
So when I was six, my father taught me how to cook and how to wash. He was a great teacher. He built me a box to stand on so that I could reach the stove and the table. He taught me how to make biscuits and cook chicken. I had a wonderful time cooking the whole chicken. That's when I learned all the parts. And I can remember how delicious it was to eat a part other than the neck.
He also taught me how to wash clothes and clean up the house. He even showed me how to cut wood and light the stove.
A huge black cast-iron wash pot sat in the yard. It was mainly used for washing and occasionally for cooking turtle soup or a big fish stew. I would help gather and cut the wood and put it underneath the pot for a fire. We boiled clothing in that pot every Monday—wash day.
We rarely went to the doctor. My parents and grandparents already knew cures for most common ailments. My grandfather grew medicine herbs in his garden along with grapes, figs, and various flowers.
He used cana lilies to help cure headaches. We'd take the petals to the pump and wash them in water and then hold them on our forehead with a clean strip of cloth. For mumps, he'd fry an egg and put turpentine on it. Next he put it in a cloth sack and tied it around the patient's head. When I was about five, I ate it!
Every September, Grandfather would say. "It's cleansing time." Then he would put five drops of linseed oil on granulated sugar. That was our fall cure-all.
Asafetida was used to ward off colds. It was horrible smelling stuff. We'd purchase it at the drugstore, put it in a little sack, and wear it around our necks. It was the accepted help for asthma and coughs. It was also thought to be a preventative medication if used before you were sick. It came in a box from the drugstore.
After we got a cold, a mustard plaster was used. It was made from flour, dry mustard, and water. Grandfather would mix it into a thick paste and rub it on us. As he smoothed it on, he would say, "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo," over and over. It was like a laying on of hands.
My mother believed in castor oil for a lot of things. Sometimes I thought she was making up all the things that castor oil could cure.
For a cough, she put sugar on a red onion and let it make its own juice. Then she would feed it to us one teaspoon at a time. Honey and lemon were also good for a cough, as was just a tablespoon full of liquor. Vinegar was known to be good for bruises and burns. We'd take strips of brown paper and soak them in vinegar and apply to the wound.
Corn liquor was in everyone's medicine cabinet. It was thought to cure a lot of ails. One thing is for sure; when Prohibition came in, Craven and Carteret Counties were so rural the "corn" business picked up. A lot of people talked about the value of corn and of sugar. The locals knew, however, that it was available when needed. There were a lot of stories about going out Highway 101 and finding "the cure."
Liquor was a valuable ingredient in a lot of our home formulae. When it was put on rock camphor, it made the perfect headache remedy. You could pour a little on your hand or saturate a rag and run it under your nose.
We rarely went to the drugstore. All the old families, black and white, believed in the old cures handed down by grandparents. However, we were lucky to have a drugstore to rely on. Bell's was on Front Street. When we needed something, we'd walk down and stand at a little window on the outside to place our order. It was there just for coloreds. We were not allowed to go in the front door and shop.
On the Farm
All the summers of my youth, my sisters and I were hired as laborers to earn extra money to help out. We went to the country, which was down east of Beaufort, and out Highway 101, the original stagecoach road from Havelock to Beaufort. Mama protected us from the sun by dressing us in old shirts and sun hats. We worked in the fields picking beans, white potatoes, and other vegetables.
I walked behind the horse that was attached to a plow. As the plow loosened the earth, I would pick the potatoes up and put them into a bushel basket. Sometimes I would have to pull them from the ground and shake off the dirt. When the basket was full, a man would come, take it, and give me another empty.
We were only paid 3¢ a bushel. About the time I was nine or ten, I set out sweet potato plants using a two-pronged stick and chopped tomato plants for $1.25 a day. At the end of the day, we received tickets that had to be redeemed at the filling station on Saturday. Once the man cashing in the tickets told my mother that we were getting to much money. She got really mad. She picked up a pail and threatened to throttle him, saying, "I'm not taking my children out in the hot sun to work like that and not get paid what we are owed." Nobody, but nobody, was going to cheat my mother for all of her hard work.
We didn't mind going out picking beans and potatoes. It gave us something to do and Mama knew where we were. We contributed to our family, yet we could keep a little money for our own entertainment. Working on the farm kept a lot of children out of trouble. It probably also helped to convince a lot of young people to get out of Beaufort because they didn't want to fish and pick vegetables for the rest of their lives. I liked having a little money and I liked to socialize. I can still remember when I was old enough to flirt with the boys. When I think about it, I also remember my mother saying that I was smiling too much and being too friendly.
The fields we worked were across the street from a place where old people who had no where to go and no money were sent. It was a sad sight to see those hopeless old people. The place was the county home, but it was called "the poor house." At least that is what everyone in Beaufort called it. My grandmother was always telling us to handle our money wisely. She'd say "Handle your money wisely or you'll end up in the poor house." That made a big impression on all of the children. We certainly didn't want to end up there.
The building is still there on Highway 101. Someone has renovated it and made it into a bed and breakfast. It is still called the county home.
Nothing for Nothing
Children in the twenties and thirties didn't get handouts of money or candy. We never got nothing for nothing.
The children in our family were always taught to work. If we wanted to buy a stick of candy or see a movie or get a Pepsi, we had to earn the money. We would go over to the fish house and work our fingers to the bone opening scallops just to earn 50¢. That's all that anybody made for doing the job.
But 50¢ would buy a lot. I liked to drop in at the Quick Lunch and buy a "dried chicken" (like a honey bun) and a Pepsi. If we felt like we were in the "chips," we'd buy a bologna sandwich for a nickel and a Pepsi for a nickel.
Christmas was a special time. We were excited to get out of school for the holidays. There were special services at church and lots of pies and cakes. Sometimes churches would fill round bushel baskets with groceries and give them out. We enjoyed receiving a basket.
There would be a special Christmas parade and a group of men would dress up like Santa Claus. I remember Walter Joyner dressing up. The men would parade up and down the street inviting everyone, "Come out! Come out!" Sometimes they would run up on people's porches calling, "Come out!" The people might run into their houses and lock the door if they spotted the Santas coming their way. It was all done in fun.
Santa Claus visited our house, and his coming created a great deal of excitement. On Christmas Eve, we were careful to go to bed early. I remember when I didn't know the truth about Santa Claus. One Christmas, I peeked behind a chest of drawers and saw a doll. That did it! I knew about Santa then. Mother wasn't happy when she found out, but she gave me the doll anyway.
World War II
When World War II began, we knew things were quite serious on our coast. We could actually see and hear bombings. We heard a lot about bodies washing up on the beach. We saw airplanes going over all the time. Every time I'd look up and think, "I sure hope that's ours."
The war was talked about on the street and over the dinner table. I was in my next to last year of high school. Many of the young men I knew were gung-ho to join up. My brother Bill had joined the Navy in 1939, and when the war started, we were concerned about his safety. There was a certain anxiety among the adults. It couldn't help being felt by all the children. It was an awful feeling. We sometimes had a feeling of doom.
There were no streetlights and shades had to be pulled down in all of the windows at night. Everyone attached a piece of black paper half way over the headlights so they would not shine brightly. The idea was to conceal as much light as possible so the coast would not be outlined for the Germans to see. Black-outs were required all up and down the coast.
All the time the enemy was right out there nearby. We knew they were there and we felt their presence even though we could not see them. It was surprising they could get that close to our shore.
My father always said that he had a gun polished up for the man that wanted to marry Nannie. I liked talking to the boys because that was about all anyone could afford. My mother thought differently. She'd see me smiling and talking to the boys. I thought it was fun. She'd say over and over, "You're going to end up with a room full of children." I'd tell her I wasn't going to do anything that I wasn't supposed to do. I was just having fun.
Between the Depression and the war, no one had any money. That limited our choices of entertainment when we were courting. We could go to a movie in town on Front Street, go for a walk, go to church, or hang out around the house. If a boy walked me home after dark, we might stand at the edge of our front yard fence and talk awhile. My father would come out and say, "OK, I don't want my daughter hanging on the fence and in the corners. Come on in the house."
Sometimes we'd take our courting in the house and sit in the living room. The couch was behind the door. When Mother was sitting in a chair in her bedroom next to the living room, we'd start talking and she'd answer from the other room.
We might sit in the swing on the porch. My parents' bed was right by the open window. If we walked off the porch so that we could have a little privacy, Daddy would get up and yell out, "Stop hanging on the fence and get out of the corners."
He really worked at keeping the boys away from his daughters. He'd say, "Look, my girls are going to finish school," or he'd say, "My girls aren't having any company because they have to get an education."
One day I was supposed to be cleaning the kerosene lamp chimneys. They were black and sooty and it was always a chore to clean them. It was pointless to light the lamps if the chimneys were black. This certain day, Bill Horton came by to talk to me. I put my work aside and lost track of the time talking to him. My daddy came in and was so mad that I'd not done my chores that Bill ran off and forgot his cap. I got a whipping because I had not done my chores. We knew that if we were told to do something we'd better do it.
Going to see a movie was a big deal. It was the best entertainment available. On Saturday when I could earn enough extra money, I'd go with friends and my sister. We saw a lot of Westerns and I particularly remember "Alexander's Ragtime Band." In those days I wondered what it must be like to sit in front of the screen on the first level of the theater. We were colored and we had to walk up three sets of stairs to the balcony. We were required to sit there.
I went to Queen Street High School, where I got a good education. Those were the days when we started every day with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and had a prayer. Those were also the days that students behaved or else.
The principal, Mr. Best, was very strict. He always knew what was going on. He would spank the girls and boys if they misbehaved. Then he would call the parents and the kids would get whipped again.
I was 16 when I graduated from high school after the 11th grade. Schools then only had 11 grades. When Evelyn and I were little, my mother had to work, and she was worried about how to care for us. She decided to enroll us in school at the age of five instead of the mandatory age of six. She went down and enrolled us in first grade and told the school we were six. And then she told us we were six. She said, "Don't you tell or you know what's coming."
We enjoyed school activities. My twin, Evelyn, was tall enough to play basketball. I sang in the Glee Club. We were not allowed to sing unless we could recite the words of our songs perfectly. On May Day each year, we danced around the Maypole.
I had a real problem with math. I couldn't understand my lessons. I got to the point I didn't like it, so I went to Daddy. My father taught me so much. One night at dinner I told him I was in trouble with physics. He went only to the fourth grade but was good with figures. He took the time to explain my lessons to me. I breezed through alter that.
Years later when I was in New York working at the stock exchange, I thought about my father often and how he had helped me. I worked with the daily stock record and had to clear the records by 3 o'clock. I started working with the Depository Trust Company when they were in just one room.
Our time was controlled by daylight until I was almost out of high school. And then we got electricity. It was almost 1937 when we got power. Many others in town had it before we did, but my parents were not convinced that it was a good thing. After all, we had gotten along without it. Most nights I studied and read books by a kerosene lamp. I remember struggling through reading books and then writing book reports in dim light. I could easily tell the difference after we got electricity. It was brighter than kerosene. Actually, I was thrilled not to have to trim wicks and clean lamp chimneys.
The best thing about electricity was that we could have a radio. I remember being thrilled to have a radio. It was the first time the outside world came into our lives on a daily basis. My daddy loved to hear Western music. We'd sit in front of the radio and listen with him.
At 15 and 16, Evelyn and I loved to dance. My mother was careful where she allowed us to go. There was a place on Queen Street called the Quick Lunch, where we could dance. She would walk us over, let us go in, and we could dance for 15 minutes. Mama would stay outside and sit on a neighbor's steps while waiting for us.
We stood a good chance of going to the Quick Lunch if we went to church. Our reward might be getting a Pepsi for a nickel and a bologna sandwich for a nickel.
I remember one of the trips Evelyn and I made to Morehead City. We went on a date; Rudolph Sparrow was one of the boys. We went to Dudley's on Fisher Street to play the jukebox and drink a Coke. Mother had just bought Evelyn and I a new pair of shoes—we were feeling dressed up. Afterwards, the boys got a little fresh with us and we got mad so they refused to take us home. They put us out of the car right where the bridge crosses the channel. We were stuck in Morehead City facing a long walk home in the dark.
As we got out, Evelyn lost one of her shoes. We were certainly facing a dilemma. We had a long walk home and Evelyn had only one shoe. We sat down on a bench near the port talking about what we could do. Mother would be mad if she found out we had to walk home after dark and she'd really be mad when we told her that Evelyn had lost a brand-new shoe.
We were delaying the inevitable when my Uncle Dan, who owned the local taxi service, drove by and saw us. He took us home lecturing us all the way. But he did promise not to tell on us.
We decided that I should take off my shoes and we'd walk in the house barefooted. Mother noticed and wanted to know why we didn't have shoes on. We told her since they were new, they were pinching a little. We walked straight to our room and prayed real hard that night that Rudolph would bring the shoe. He came through for us. The next morning he showed up with Evelyn's shoe. I've remembered him favorably ever since.
Mother was sure that we were going to be protected. When we went on a date, she would walk out and stand in the middle of the street to be sure that we were headed in the right direction. We'd say. "Mother, we're going to see a movie." She'd stand in the street and watch us as far as she could watch just to make sure we were going toward Front Street.
Man of My Dreams
In 1940 Evelyn and I were enjoying a Sunday walk after church. As usual, we were going over to Morehead City. When we got across the bridge, we saw a Coast Guard cutter, the Pamlico, at the port dock. So we headed over to see what was going on. When we got closer, we noticed that the flag was flying upside down. We heard, "Hey, Haley, you've got the flag upside down."
We stopped right beside the cutter and Alex Haley came on deck to take care of the flag. He looked over the side and saw us staring, He looked right at me and said, "What's your name?"
That was our first meeting, but he must have remembered me. Several weeks later I went to the Quick Lunch and there he was dancing with a girl he may have been dating. We said, "Hello," and because Mother only let me stay 15 minutes, I left.
Evelyn and I asked my mother to take us to New Bern to attend a dance. In the late thirties and forties, there were many big dances in New Bern featuring well-known orchestras like Lionel Hampton. Actually we didn't have to beg too hard to go because Mother enjoyed good music and she also liked to dance. It was her policy that we weren't going 35 miles away without her. Mother had a friend with a car and we all went to New Bern. We were thrilled to take any trip out of town. When we got there, I couldn't believe it; that good-looking Coast Guard man was there. Alex Haley was at the dance. He recognized me and came over and said, "Hello, I'll bet you don't remember my name."
That began our courtship and we fell in love. Alex often called the radio station and requested our special songs: "The Very Thought of You," "String of Pearls," and "Stardust." He had them dedicated to Nan.
I was 17 and my father thought Alex Haley was "too fast" for me. Actually, he didn't want me to date a sailor. That was his opinion and that was all he had to say. But I was in love and I was getting married.
By then the war had started. Alex's cutter, the Pamlico, was stationed in New Bern. He knew he was about to go on maneuvers, so while "Stardust" was playing on the jukebox, Alex Haley proposed and asked me to come to New Bern to marry him.
I told my mother I was going to get married. She didn't say much. I guess she accepted the inevitable. I got a ticket and caught a Trailways Bus to New Bern. My twin, Evelyn, had already married and was not able to go with me. So, I went alone. Alex met me at the foot of the bridge that crosses the Neuse River. The Pamlico was moored nearby, so when I arrived all the sailors were out on the deck to get a good look at the girl Haley was marrying. We were married by a local minister on August 21, 1942.
During much of the war, Alex was stationed overseas. I moved back to Beaufort to live at home with my parents. I waited for his return and for the birth of our first child.
Lydia Anne Haley was the first black baby born in the Morehead City Hospital. Doctor Hyde delivered her. Afterward, I was sent to a room in the basement. At that time, that was where the black patients had to go. My hospital bill was only $30 for ten days.
I think my twin sister's husband's grandmother was mad at me for choosing the hospital. A well-known midwife, she had delivered everybody's baby in the area and was something of a character. She was a really tiny woman and wore white all the time. Her long skirt was topped with an apron. I was present when she delivered my sister's baby at home. I knew right then that when I had children I wanted a doctor and a hospital.
She was put out with me that I didn't want her to deliver my baby. But when growing up, I had been told that babies came from stumps in the woods. I spent a lot of time crying on rainy nights worrying about those poor babies getting wet under stumps. It was definite—a doctor and ten days in a hospital.
Lydia Anne was almost two years old before Alex came home in 1944. He was stationed in New York and wanted us to join him. By then, North Carolina had passenger train service to New York. Daddy had his brother, my Uncle Dan, take me to Rocky Mount to catch the train. Before I left, my father and I had a special talk. He said, "Remember, you are leaving home to better yourself. You never worked in a kitchen or kept anyone's children. So don't go up there doing any of that."
So, I left my family and went to New York City. It was such an adventure; I had never been out of Carteret County. I was a young modern woman. I worked at the stock exchange and was a wife and mother. Alex attended his Coast Guard duties and wrote every chance he got. I can remember the excitement every time he sold a story to a magazine. That little bit of extra money was very important. We called those checks "pot-boilers" because it meant we could eat a little better. He never stopped writing and I never stopped working so he could write. And the rest is history.
(Excerpted from The Crystal Coast by Arcadia Publishing. © 2000 Lynn Salsi and Frances Eubanks. All Rights Reserved.)
Some Memorable Photos of Nannie Virginia Branch Haley
Nan Haley's Retirement Party At Depository Trust
Nan Haley With Lydia And William at Goree Island
Nan Haley And Grandson William Jr.
Audio Interview With Nannie And Her Son, William Haley Sr.
|Nannie And Bill Haley - 30th Anniversary of Roots|
Roots: Its Impact It Had In America And Across The World
Host: Dan Kramer Public Radio Exchange (PRX), May 30, 2007
Alex Haley Roots Foundation Contacts
|Bill Haley Jr.||Chris Haley||Andrea Blackstone|
|Chief Executive Officer|
|Public Speaker / Actor / Performer|
|Grove Street Magazine Founder|