Sally (front left) pictures with Bonzo's, circa 1930's
(This is about my first encounter with a person of color. I thought it fitting that I should post this during the time we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sally lived from 1858 until 1969.)
Sometime around my eighth birthday was when I first encountered the presence of Sally. Long after the dolls, crayons, and toy guns (I was a tomboy.) this was the present I would most remember. It was during the summer of 1961. This wasn’t your typical present, and wasn’t even defined as such, but its memory is still there when all the others fade. It’s a memory that takes refuge in the deepest recesses of the brain, forgotten, but then jumps forth as a compelling force that says,” Tell me.” The experience also says, “Learn from me and explore why this was a pivotal point in your life.”
During that summer, my uncle was taking a trip to the Bonzo house along with my father. Somehow, I ended up in the car. It was definitely fate. I sat in the back seat listening to them tell stories of the Bonzo’s and of Sally, the Negro woman who was incredibly old and who had been born into slavery. I apologize for the terminology, but “Nigger Sal,” as she was called was someone my family had told stories about. I was always eager to hear the stories and at the same time, even at my young age, cringed at the ignorantly insensitive title she was given. She was somehow tied to the Bonzos. All the country folk referred to them as the Bunzos. Around the turn of the twentieth century, they had occupied a small tract of land in Carter County, Kentucky, most unsuitable for farming, a sharp insert of rocky creek bed tightly nudged between their surrounding neighbor’s more fertile larger plots. It was jokingly called Bunzo Holler, having the connotation of poorest of the poor. My family, that is my grandfather and grandmother, had one of those adjoining farms. The Bonzos were born and bred to be farmers. It was not their fate to stay on such unworkable land. Around 1903 the Bonzos stumbled mysteriously into prosperity, which would set the neighbors to talking. They packed their wagons and moved out of Carter County buying up fertile sections of riverbed land in three adjoining counties. There ended up being three farms of Bonzo’s. Sally, having had a long history with them, had ended up on one of the farms in Lewis County, with Ben and Ted Bonzo.
After miles of narrow, curvy roads, we traveled the last span of the trip on gravel; Ben and Ted were outside to greet us as we pulled up to a modest white clapboard house. The car tires grinding against the gravel must have alerted them to our arrival. In days gone by simple country folk often made their way outside to greet visitors. They lived on a farm.
The house was small and simple yet well constructed. There was a covered porch with a concrete porch and concrete sidewalk leading up to the front entrance. It seemed like an eternity as the four adults stood outside under a shade tree at the beginning of the walkway next to a picnic table talking. This shade tree that I remembered in my youth still stands in front of the house. There is no longer a picnic table. Nor does the cart of watermelons sit parked by the shade tree. Sally was nowhere to be seen, and my anticipation was growing.
After the usual catch up small talk, my dad and uncle with me following them walked behind Ben and Ted on the grass around to the left side of the house, where there was another entrance. Finally, we climbed a short row of concrete steps, following Ben and Ted into the house, entering through a wooden screen door, in to the kitchen area. Even in 1961 the interior seemed old. It was like walking into your Grandmother’s kitchen. There were freestanding cupboards and cabinets of a bygone era inhabiting perfectly clean surroundings.
There she was. Time froze in that instant. The scene was somewhat of a reversal of The Wizard of Oz. The movie began in black and white and went to color. When standing outside the color was rich with the hues of a summer day. Upon entering the house all color seemed to dim around the figure of Sally. Although weak and stooped over she emanated a glow that cast all that surrounded her in shadow. She stood in a cotton, blue or gray checked dress, coming well below her knees, almost meeting her thick rolled white socks. I remember a comfortable, no nonsense type of house shoes, the kind I can really appreciate now. Over that was a simple white unbuttoned sweater with pushed up sleeves, even though we were in the midst of summer. She also wore a simple white apron. There was a metal bucket of sudsy water by her side, as she pushed a mop along the floor. Strands of white partly curled, partly frizzed hair fell to the side of her ashen face as she raised her head briefly to smile and acknowledge us. Time was suspended at that point as our eyes met, and our souls touched. She lowered her head once again and went on with her work. This touching of souls, although pushed aside for a good part of my life, was to remain with me. It was one of those moments of divine seed planting that would lay dormant but because of its divine nature blossom in later years. Her wrinkled face held a tired beauty. This small wisp of a woman chiseled down by time seemed to hold the mystery of the ages for me. I saw as a child. Others, hardened by age, content to relish in the logical and pragmatic side of life would not be blinded by the same aura reaching out to me.
Summing her up physically, I don’t remember her skin as being truly dark, but more of a medium shade of brown. Others later would describe her as being much darker than I remember her as being. I’ve often noticed that some people become quite translucent with age.
I’m not sure what I expected; but, I definitely wasn’t expecting a woman of that age to be doing something as strenuous as mopping a floor. At that point in life Sally was definitely bent over. Being a scrawny kid of eight all adults seemed big to me, so size was hard to judge and not something I really thought to question about her until now. I didn’t really envision Sally as being overly tall at the time; but most accounts have her being stoutly built at around 5’7″ with a propensity towards big bones before she showed signs of truly aging. She looked much smaller.
I followed the adults into another room. The memory stops here, but it would remain both in my heart and mind as a scene out of some novel surrounded by a haze. I had seen what I had come to see, this legend of a lady that I had heard about for as long as I could remember. We did bring home gifts of watermelons taken from the cart under the shade tree. This was the favorite crop of Ben and Ted. I never was to see Sally again. Being an overly shy child, while there I never even spoke to her.
Before this trip my first interest in Sally came through a couple of aunts. Sally had her origins in Carter County. Whenever they talked about her my small child ears perked up. Sally was an enigma to me. I wasn’t old enough to understand very much, nor was I told a great deal. It was my first encounter with the word “nigger.” My family talked both energetically and lovingly about Sally, but in the same adoring sentences used the word slave and nigger interchangeably as if the Civil War had never been fought. I was fascinated with this whole scenario. I had never met a black person, and yet my family had some kind of ties to one, and one born into slavery at that, and one that was now over one hundred years of age. This stopped me dead in my tracks. I pestered my family to learn more.
Now, after being so inquisitive and hearing the stories, I was suddenly given the opportunity to see this lady first hand. It was an uncommonly long trip for a child, although in actuality it was approximately a little over an hour along backcountry roads. Both Ben and Ted seemed old to me, Ben almost eighty and Ted in his sixties. I had listened intently on the trip. The discussion was on the Bunzo’s and how they never married, and how Sally had always taken care of them, off and on from the time they were in diapers until now. Sally had also not married.
I was also partly intrigued by the fact that my family had what seemed an intimate association with anyone outside our own race. Even as a young child I understood or more so sensed the culture I was brought up in had an invisible barrier secluding us as the Great Wall had once secluded China. At that age I hardly understood prejudice. Our little town had no people of color, any color for that matter. If there had been slaves in this area, why were there no African-Americans here now? I was to find out the reason for this later. So hearing about Sally was an anomaly in itself. Sally, herself never marrying, giving her life in caring for others, lived with these two confirmed bachelors. She was the reason I requested to tag along; or should I say begged. Was it coincidence or synchronicity that my uncle had asked my dad to go along on the trip that day? It was one of those events where all the angles start forming together in such a way as to coincide perfectly into what I like to refer to as God’s plan – a plan that would obviously play out much later in my life. What a human thinks of as eternity is of no consequence to the universe.
Little did I know that this one summer day at age eight would alter the course of my life many years later into a search into who Sally really was.
As stated earlier as a child I had heard mostly about Sally from my aunts. They also talked about Nell who they called Sally’s sister. At least that was my understanding of the situation. I will address that later. Both aunts were a wealth of information regarding any family history. How many times do we regret that we didn’t sit at our elders’ feet and listen intently taking to heart any crumbs of information and wisdom about the personalities that preceded us while we had the chance. I am now approaching that same elder stage when I should be handing down stories and histories and wisdom to descendants; but information is scant. Somewhere along the line we thought it not important and stopped listening. Now to find the lives lived before we search legal records and gravesites, getting mostly only names and dates — missing the richness of stories of the personalities. The dates in the long run have less significance than the stories, which provide life’s lessons.
Yet, the journey of reconstruction now takes me to libraries, courthouses and places of final rest. There are visits to homes and treks across fields viewing long forgotten headstones and foundations of structures, piecing the puzzle together as any detective might do in bringing all the evidence I can muster to light. There are endless telephone calls, one person leading to another, as I coax what memories I can from now aging adults who may have remembered something as a child — any tidbit of information.
The Sally I sought emerged with each story I heard about her. Her life was much richer than I had even initially thought. And, as with any life, there were twists and turns. There was light and dark. Her life had been interwoven with the lives of the people telling her story as they remembered it and gave their own perception to it. This was where the real story lay – how the lives of those who had known Sally had been affected by her presence. There was always one commonality with each person to whom I talked. The name of Sally brought a smile and uplifting vibration as the person remembered her — an energetic lightness quite evident even over a telephone line. They each tried to define the indefinable way Sally had touched their lives, just by her mere presence. Could any life lived ask for a better legacy than that? The people who remembered her were just as eager to bring the energy of her humble existence to this generation as I was. The excitement of my project became their project as well. A calming happy peace radiated from each person as they reflected back to the day or days when they encountered her. People as I was were immersed in the joy of a being that lived a simple, humble beautiful life. Her words were obviously few. Her presence said it all. Her energy holds strong and true nearly a half-century after her death. I would describe her life as soft rather than hard, despite the hardness she endured. In the end softness always overrides and wins over hardness. One can see the truth in this in looking at the lives of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
On that day of the trip I knew little except for the fact that Sally had been born into slavery. She was now over one hundred years of age. No one knew her exact age. I was to find out later that at the time of this visit she was aged one hundred and three. That same day my father asked Ben, who was turning eighty, how old Aunt Sally was, as that was what she was called in the Bunzo family. Ben, standing there in his overhauls, replied that he remembered Sally as a full-grown woman rocking him when he was just a child. My impression at the time was that Sally was to Ben and Ted as Aunt Bea had been to Andy and Opie. She had been there for them as a substitute mother, housekeeper, cook and woman of the house. And even some would later jokingly refer to her as Ben’s wife. While researching there was a time that I thought there might actually be a love story there but ruled that out.
An elder citizen of Carter County had brought to my attention that on the same year I met Sally Olive Hill was celebrating it’s centennial. She had only known Sally through stories also handed down to her by an aunt. The aunt had been one of Sally’s playmates, born the same year as Sally. The now elder citizen herself told me how she thought Sally should have been brought back from her Lewis County home to Olive Hill as a tribute to her. I quite agree that Sally should have been a part of the celebration.
Now, after all these years the memory has resurfaced; and I think if only I could go back to that moment in time I would have carried a notebook and pencil and stayed in the kitchen with Sally and asked her to recount her life for me. No, I would have packed a small suitcase and asked to stay overnight as my aunt had done when she was a small girl. I was entering third grade at that time. I would have given a report of what I had learned. Sally was the real history, the real study of life, and now I would have to say learning and writing about her is somewhat of a spiritual experience. There is a number of contributing factors or synchronizations leading me to explore what I can of Sally’s life. The memory I have of that meeting and the intrigue of the many layers of her life had become an obsession. I had no idea the project was going to take on the scope that it has. Although I was too shy to speak to Sally then, I speak to her almost daily in laboring with love on this project of her life. I feel she is listening, as with almost each day a new fragment or trickle of information about her comes my way.
I’m thankful Sally came into my life.