“There was an age difference between Chrystella and me, but I remember her well,” said Pauline. “Everyone always loved her because of her kindness toward others. She had two older brothers who would always play with my younger brothers. No one thought about black and white when we were just kids. It was the less-than-kind adults who always wanted to make a difference.”
Born in Kildav to Hattie and Big John Cooper, along with 10 other children, Chrystella was not fortunate enough to know her biological mother, who died when Chrystella was a tiny baby.
“The children were divided up between relatives and other folks who wanted children,” said Chrystella. “My uncle and aunt, Arthur and Georgia Cooper, took me and two of my brothers to raise.”
From birth Chrystella said she was taught how to “act around white folk.”
“You said yes mam, no mam, yes sir and no sir if white folks asked you anything,” said Chrystella. “If you went into a store to buy something, you had to wait your time if white folks were ahead of you. You didn’t make a fuss, because if you did, there were consequences. I remember going into the drug store to get an ice cream or soda pop and having to stand at the end of the counter because black folk weren’t allowed to sit on the chairs. It was the same everywhere you went. It was understood. No one had to tell you to do this; we had been taught to do this from birth. It was the accepted behavior of those times.”
Pauline said even though she saw others making a difference between black and white, she was not taught this by her parents, Walker and Grace Williams.
“My parents taught us we are all alike in God’s eyes,” said Pauline. “They said there aren’t just black and white people, but people of all colors and no difference should ever be made between any human being. I think that’s why I had friends like Chrystella and her family, Jackie Renfro and her sister, Joyce Greenlee. I couldn’t do without Joyce, who is now my personal assistant. I never could really understand why people were so cruel in those days.”
Born in the Sunshine addition of Harlan, Pauline and her husband Ray, who passed away in 2003, had one son, Danny. Pauline said her father worked in the coal mines, in many aspects, with miners who were black.
“My daddy was hurt in a rock fall at Black Mountain Number One Mine which disabled him for life,” said Pauline. “If it had not been for a black man, Mr. Tomlinson, who pulled a big rock off my daddy he may not have lived. My daddy and my family were eternally grateful to this family for what was done. I remember when my daddy went to court over the accident and the judge asking my daddy, ‘well, was this man who helped you a nigger?’ and my daddy looking at him and saying, ‘no sir he wasn’t and isn’t a nigger - he’s my friend.’ I was so proud of my daddy that day. I think that said volumes about his character.”
Chrystella said as a child she attended school in the basement of a Baptist Church on the hill in Evarts. She said blacks weren’t allowed to go to the Evarts Elementary School.
“When I got ready for high school, we were bused to Harlan and went to the all-black Rosenwald High School,” said Chrystella. “We had a white man who drove the bus and he was so strict. If we misbehaved in any way he would tell us to be quiet or he’d put us off the bus on the side of the road. That fear kept you quiet.”
Pauline said after she graduated from high school she attended beauty school in LaFollette, Tenn. and returned to Evarts to work for Patty (Parsons) Bennett at a shop she owned located in Macks Grocery in Evarts.
“I remember the Parsons had a colored girl, Jenny, who worked for them and when they went on vacation to Florida every year they would take Jenny with them,” said Pauline. “When they stopped to get something to eat Jenny was not allowed to go inside and eat, but had to eat in the car. I always thought that was the strangest thing I’d ever heard of and it bothered me because it was against the grain of how I’d been raised.”
After high school Chrystella said being poor her family didn’t have the money to send her away to college so she had to learn “what my parents knew” and what her auntie-mama knew was cooking and taking care of children. Following in her auntie-mother’s footsteps Chrystella began a career of cooking for black and white families and helping raise children that belonged to black and white families.
“I’d hold them white babies up close to me and cuddle their little faces,” said Chrystella. “I loved them just as if they were my own. When the husband and wife would fuss, I’d get the children and get out of their way, go outside or into another room. I didn’t want them children to hear all them messes the adults got into.”
Chrystella said there were many times she wished, as a child, she had more friends who were white, but that would be years down the road before she saw this dream come true. She said one thing she did remember was the kindness extended to her and her family by the Williams family – a family who didn’t discriminate.
“It was a different time back when segregation was enforced,” said Chrystella and Pauline. Both agreed they were glad things changed when they did.
“It was hard passing someone you knew on the street and you couldn’t speak to them just because they were white,” said Chrystella. “I do remember Dr. Walter Stepchuck, who was a long-time doctor in the Evarts area. Any time we went into his office and his children would be there, we could sit right down and talk to those children and nobody said a thing. He was a fair man and made no difference when you were in his office. I’ll always remember that.”
Reach Nola Sizemore at 606-573-4510 or at email@example.com