Others Thought I Could Lead
Paperback, 6x9 in, 284 pages
Wheatmark, May 2006
As a corporate executive, James S. Avery did not simply open doors for black people in this country; he changed marketing strategy throughout the corporate world. Now, in his autobiography, Others Thought I Could Lead, Avery shares the secrets of his success—his strong work ethic, his moral values, and a belief in himself that allowed him to persevere in the face of adversity. As Horace Baldwin states in the foreword, Avery's book gives us the opportunity to put our own stories in perspective as we realize how much we are capable of contributing to the world.
When I was growing up my mother worked as a domestic. She was a maid who worked in the homes of two families in town. My father was what you might call a generalist. He cut lawns, cleaned up places, beat rugs, painted homes and, if necessary, stoked furnaces and shoveled snow in the winter. Naturally, he did these things for people on the north or richer side of town. When he would beat rugs (people for the most part in those days had rugs not carpeted floors), he would do it out in the person's backyard on his knees with strong pliable switches. He would never just beat rugs "bam, bam, bam." He beat the rugs, doing a rhythmic rat-a-tat-battatty-bat drum solo. People going by on the sidewalk would stop and listen to him. I can still see him on his knees deeply engulfed in his work with the dust flying in all directions around him making like he was a Gene Krupa, the world famous jazz drummer.
My mother worked on both sides of town. On the north side of town she worked for a Mr. Denman, who commuted to his job in New York City. I will never forget Mr. Denman. The only real shoes I ever wore for many years were hand-me-downs that belonged to Mr. Denman. I always knew that I could never ask my mother to buy me my own pair of new shoes since my family never had extra money for such luxuries. On the south side of town, mother worked for the Babbitt family on Hillcrest Avenue. They were very nice people who had a great love and respect for my mother.
Although my parents didn't have very much money, somehow they made things do for the five of us. My father had a garden in our back yard and raised many of the vegetables we ate such as corn, potatoes, string beans, cabbage, and beets. Quite often mother would buy chickens from a man who sold them fresh off his truck. Not unlike many of our neighbors on the street, my father raised chickens in the back yard. Father would buy little newborn chicks from Schlecters Hardware Store downtown on South Avenue and keep them in the cellar until they had grown large enough to join the older chickens in the chicken coop we had in the rear of the yard. I remember going down to the hardware store to get the mash we fed the little biddies. The mash had a fragrance that mixed with the smell of newly sawed wood and plant seeds that melded into an ambrosia-like smell that pervaded the whole store. I loved helping to raise the young chicks and seeing them grow into roosters and hens. We kept all the egg-laying hens, but the other chickens were dinner entrées. It was on Sundays that we would have one of the unlucky chickens from the coop as the featured entrée at dinner. Early Sunday morning Father would bring the chicken in from the coop, take it down to the coal bin, lay the head on a wooden chopping block, and chop it off. I can still see that chicken flopping around the coal bin, blood draining from his throat, until he could flop no more. Mother would then take him, clean out the innards and put the chicken in very hot water until she could pluck out each feather and quill. That chicken's skin was so clean it looked like a fresh one you buy in a store. I always hated the smell of a chicken when plucking out all of the wet feathers, and I never offered to do that job, nor did I ever, ever chop the head off a chicken!
My mother was an amazing woman! She made all the soap we used, all the soda we drank, and all the bread, biscuits, cakes, pies, and rolls we ate. Once in a while, in the summer she made ice cream that was so, so good! She was a fabulous cook! Since we were quite poor, during the week we often ate things like baked beans, kidney beans, and beef stew dishes that could serve many people. There were times we had a meal of pork & beans, sliced bread, and milk, which was very filling and very economical. Everything mother made was delicious, but her fried chicken was beyond delicious. I could never find the words to express the wonderful taste of whatever she made. Of course, on Johnson Avenue, at least up where we lived, my mother's cooking was not the exception when it came to being good, it was the rule. Most of the mothers on that street could really cook. Mrs. Rhea Stevenson, my buddy Tommy Stevenson's mom, could also cook up a storm. Her cakes and pies were out of this world. I ate at Steve's house a lot. Many times at breakfast his mom would make toast with some aged cheddar cheese on it that was delicious. I could never duplicate it. She was like a second mother to me, especially after my own mother died on February 4, 1941.
When I reflect on those days, I marvel at the ingenuity displayed by most of the parents. I certainly saw that with my mom and dad. Most of the new clothing we wore was purchased out of a station wagon owned by Mr. Hobbie, a traveling clothing salesperson. He would come around each month, and mother would buy sparingly the clothing we needed. She would buy some chickens for stewing from one peddler and fresh caught porgies and white fish from another. Once in a while she would buy lobsters, something that my brothers loved, but I never ate. Pigs' feet and hog maws were cooked periodically. Again, they were parts of the pig I did not like and never ate. Another peddler in a vegetable truck sold the few other vegetables that my father didn't grow. Dugan's Bakery came around with the butter and milk we needed. Those were the days in the winter when the milk came in bottles with the cream on top and the cream would become semi solid and expand and push the cap up. I don't think my parents went down town to buy anything. Mother and Father bought these things each week from those peddlers with the dirt-poor wages they made being a maid and a handyman.
Each day on his way home from his work on the north side of town "Dear," my father, would stop at the local bakery and get the day old buns that the baker was planning to discard the next day. My father never had a car. He walked all over town pushing a wheelbarrow with his tools in it. He did this for all the years I can remember. Later in life, he did get a used bike that saved him some time in his travels. He never complained about not having the things other people had. He took life as it came to him and made the best of meager circumstances. Everybody knew Mr. Avery in town. He tipped his hat to all the ladies and spoke in friendly tones to men. My father was always a gentleman, displaying courtesy to everybody he met. He was a hard working man and during the week he looked it. His clothing during the week was always worn and somewhat tattered. Frankly, when I was young, I use to be a little ashamed of how disheveled he looked pushing his wheel barrel around town. As I grew into adulthood, admiration, love, and respect overwhelmed that stupid feeling I had when I was too young to know what was really important in judging another person, especially my dad. I often looked at my father when he was in his early eighties and wondered, how in hell could he have done it. Raking, mowing, digging, pushing a wheel barrel loaded with a manual lawnmower and heavy tools all across town. Some winter nights after a long day of working he would get up after a few hours sleep and go shovel out the driveways and sidewalks of the people he worked for before dawn arose. I never heard him moan about any aches and tired pains he must at times have felt. In my eyes when I looked at him then, he stood ten feet tall!
During the summers in the years before I went to high school, I helped him cut some of the lawns that he was responsible for. There were times when those lawns looked like a million acres of grass but somehow I got through the mowing and appreciated the money he gave me for helping him. I often think about my father and of those days of cutting grass and how I always seemed to feel far greater fatigue than he. Mostly, though, I think of his gentle, easy going nature and how wonderful a man he was throughout the years. I remember sleeping in the same bed with him as a youngster, and I remember the smell of the previous day's working sweat in the long johns that he always wore. The smell was never offensive to me. It was just symbolic of a man's responsibility as a man.