Up From Poverty

By Dr. Harold A. Black

Go back in your family’s history and you will find poverty. I am not poor. Neither is anyone in my family. I have a PhD. Both my children have MBAs. My late brother had a PhD as do his two children. My parents both had master’s degrees. Their siblings all had at least two-year college degrees. Dad’s parents did not finish high school. His father drove a coal truck. His mother was a maid. They had seven children who lived (two others died in infancy). His mother refused to let her daughters do housework saying that she was not raising the next generation of maids. The boys did the housework but apparently my father did not do any of the cooking. All seven children went to HBCUs. Dad and his brothers worked seasonally as migrant workers to pay for their schooling. He and his brothers also worked to help pay for their sisters’ education.

Mother’s father Milous Towles was a farmer with a primary school education. Her mother was a high school graduate who had to go to a private boarding school in Macon because there was no high school for blacks in her hometown of Gray, Georgia. With that high school degree granted from Ballard Boarding School for Girls in 1906, she was certified to teach “Negro children in the state of Georgia.” I asked my mother how could her father afford to send his daughter Mary to boarding school.

Mother said, “He was an entrepreneur.”

I asked, “What does that mean?”

Mother replied, “He was a bootlegger.”

Pop Milous was illiterate. I have a deed with his “X” on it. However, he wanted a different future for his children. My grandmother became the one-room schoolmarm for black children in Gray, Georgia. Mother went to Fort Valley State College (now university). She only had enough money for one year but Fort Valley let her work in the registrar’s office and waived all her tuition and fees. Mother then received the very first four-year degree awarded by Fort Valley. She was forever grateful and made a significant contribution to Fort Valley every year from her graduation to her death at 101. She is considered the mother of the university which created the Harriet Barfield Black Society in her honor.

I have great admiration for those who came before me. By growing up in an educated household, my brother and I could read before we went to school. We both skipped the first grade. My brother wanted to be an engineer. Since he could not go to Georgia Tech because of segregation, he went to Purdue. The state of Georgia paid his out-of-state tuition since he was majoring in a subject not taught at one of the state’s three black HBCUs. I wanted to follow my brother to Purdue. However, the University of Georgia was ordered to desegregate in my junior year. The state took away the tuition grant to black students. My father told me he did not have enough to send both of us to Purdue and I would have to find someplace else. I found the University of Georgia.

My parents paid for our college and gave us a stipend so we wouldn’t have to work. We knew our history and knew we had it easy. We did not have to leave school to be migrant workers to pay for our education like Dad. We did not have to fear that the money would run out and we would have to leave school without the degree like our mother. We were not destined to do manual labor or clean house for white people. We did not use “X” as our signature. We did not have to pick cotton under the sweltering Georgia sun and be fed in the fields from hog troughs like Ma Mat, my great-grandmother. Yet because of them and the others who went before them, we are forever in their debt. There may be well-educated poor black folk, but I do not know any. The surest way out of poverty is through education. Yet most black politicians and civil rights organizations are seemingly against increasing the reading and math proficiency of black children. They have created an industry out of poor black folk and the end of poverty would mean the end of grants and donations from guilty white people. I am ashamed of the NAACP, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Ibram X. Kendi and all the race hustlers. They do us all a disservice.