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Retired author and Mississippi farmer shares personal stories of her childhood life from the 1950s

Barbara Johnson showing the novels she has completed that have been based off of her upbringing. (Destiny Dunning/WUFT News)
Barbara Johnson showing the novels she has completed that have been based off of her upbringing. (Destiny Dunning/WUFT News)

One of Barbara Johnson’s, 67, fondest childhood memories was when she would go outside and spend time around her farm animals. Some of her favorite parts of this were the things she would find around these animals, one being cow dung.

She would then take chunks of the dried-up dung home where she would then brew tea out of it.

“Put that cow dung– in that cheesecloth and break it up and tie it into a ball and put it in hot water and brew tea,” she said. She would sweeten it with sugar and use mint, whiskey and other things to add to its taste.

“It was the best tasting tea you’ve ever seen,” she said.

Johnson is a retired U.S Air force Major Command (MAJCOM) who spent her earlier life on her family farm and author of a book called "Delta Strength.”

She is an African American woman, who came from Delta, Missippissi before the start of civil rights movements that took place in the United States.

According to her, she has moved to 17 different addresses in the States but decided on Ocala for retirement because of the horses. She said it reminds her of her hometown.

With all the things she has endeavored on her journey in the southernmost parts of the country at that time, she tells her perspective of life as a southern Black woman in the 1950s.

“I’m writing about inside the family and how I felt,” she said. She would describe that her living conditions were movie-like. Something you would read about but not something you would think people actually endured.

The book “Delta Strength” is a project that Johnson has rewritten several times over the span of 50 years. This book is filled with stories written by Johnson that was inspired by a series of events that took place during her childhood. Although the book is a fiction novel, the stories are moving and were ideas based on her experiences.

She is the fifth child of 12 and was born in Mississippi during 1955 and raised with her family on the farm. The family farm belonged to the “Elams,” which was her family's name, and it consisted of 82 acres of land that was started in the early 1900’s.

At the tender age of 5 is when Johnson began participating in the family's business to run the farm. From her childhood experiences on this farm came the inspiration for many of the stories told in her book.

According to a broadcast interview done on Blog Talks Radio, she first took an interest in becoming a writer from the young age of 9 when she would read magazines and books from her neighbors. This gave her the feeling of being “in the real world,” and gave hope for life outside the farm.

The first completed work she ever wrote was a poem at the age of 13 called “Chinaberry Lane.”

This poem would be the inspiration Johnson would need in order to take action and pursue her career as a novelist.

In “Chinaberry Lane,” Johnson describes the conditions she was in by describing “the sound of raindrops beat upon a roof covered with tin.” She said her first home was a tiny shack that had metal tins as the roof for shelter. According to her, she would hear the winds whistling through the cracks of the roof and the thin wood walls of her shack.

The conditions that she grew up in were the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

According to Joyce Broussard in an article about the great Mississippi flood, it was the nation's most destructive, directly affecting several states including Mississippi. There was a grave amount of agriculture damage due to the water destroying cotton plantations and major crops, especially for African American tenets.

Johnson uses muddy water and catfish smells in order to describe the environment in which she grew up after the flood had taken place. She also had to work along with the rest of her siblings at a young age in order to help the agriculture on the farm in order to make money.

She said she would pick cotton, squash, cucumbers and okra until her hands were raw and covered in sores.

“The plants prickle through my hands” she said, and “ate through the gloves” causing her severe pains daily.

She would do this every day, making about $3 to $10 a day for pounds of product. She was part of the last generation with hands-on planting before industrialized machines took over.

According to her, John Wesley Elam, her father, was the man in charge of the farm. Unfortunately for young Johnson, she said he was no different than a slave master. He would brutally beat her with switches, belts and his hands if she didn’t pick enough products for the day. She also said he would beat her mother worse and often.

“Me being raised like a slave while my father went out and slept around, had kids and take all the working money.'' Johnson said.

In order to make more money she would also work in the fields of her neighbors’ homes.

“They would pick us up on the back of the truck” she said

She would spend several additional hours as “side work” for her in order to make more money for her family.

She didn’t have any toys to play with as a kid, so in her free time she and her friends would go through the garbage and the scraps to find something to play with.

As she got older, her duties on the farm did not get any easier. According to Johnson, her mother began experiencing worse treatment from her father as the years went on. She would constantly get several beatings from him. She said she once saw a beating that was so horrific when her father used a piece of wood to beat her mother until she was visibly bleeding and weak.

Johnson said her father would be absent from home because he would spend most of his time with his “concubines” (mistresses) which is also something that gave her ideas in storytelling. “Concubines of yazoo” was on the cover of her other book, Chinaberry Lane.

With her mother being in charge of raising her siblings, Johnson thought it would be best if she tried her hardest to help where she could.

One day, her mother decided she had taken enough of her father’s abuse and left home, leaving Johnson alone at 14 years old in charge of her household and siblings for several months.

“She had had enough,” she said.

There was even an incident when her sister was 2-years-old, had her head run over by her father's truck wheel, which resulted in her being disabled and paralyzed on one side of her body for the rest of her life. Johnson took responsibility for taking care of her sister after the incident once her mother could not handle it.

Her household responsibilities were more hands-on and physical. She said she used to skin rabbits, kill hogs, and juice sugar canes with horses and stones.

When Johnson was 16 years old she got pregnant with her first child. Due to her pregnancy she missed several months of her high school and was not on schedule for graduating with the rest of her classmates.

She did not let her background, her race or her baby stop her from reaching the goal she had set for herself of getting her education. In hopes of doing so, Johnson would walk 5 miles a day to be tutored by a high school principal who was helping her earn her missing credits in order to graduate. And that’s exactly what she did. However, her future was still unclear.

“I sat on the porch and I didn't know where life would take me,” she said.

After graduating with a baby, she decided to go to a technical school called Dranghon’s Business College where she was one of the three Black students attending. From there, she went to finishing school, then to the work field, then to the U.S Air Force and several more occupations to finally be an author.

She rose from poverty, through the civil rights period to now.

Her journey, along with all her many endeavors, is what gives the passion and the idea behind her most recent work in “Delta Strength.” She hopes that these stories that were inspired through her real-life events will allow people to understand the southern lifestyle during these times.

She said she hopes the book gives inspiration and insight to the younger generation by letting them into the world she lived in. She hopes that the readers feel empowered by the history.

“Delta Strength is to empower through characterization and events that represent real-life history and real-life styles through a southern perspective,” she said.

Destiny is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.