“Rural Alabamian Tells Part of His Story” Oral History Interview
Brittany Austin American Military University HIST 523 October 15, 2011
Brittany Austin: Interview with Billy Ray Pennington, October 15th, 2011. Um tell me about life growing up in rural Alabama? Billy Ray: I was born and reared on a farm in Lamar County Alabama and being a farm-reared child I decided I had no desire to be a farmer myself. We lived in probably what could have been called the good old days. We had no air conditioning, we had no electric stove, we cooked with wood stove and plowed mules and this sort of thing and when I got old enough to go to college I decided I wanted no part of farm life. Brittany: You grew up in what, the 40â€™s? How much of the Depression what still evident in that part of Alabama? Billy Ray: In my part of Alabama it was just like it had never ended. It was an economically depressed area of Alabama, people lived hand to mouth so to speak, and everything that we ate we grew. Brittany: Very different from today. What did your family do? I know you have several brothers and sisters. Billy Ray: I am one of seven living children, and some we have all achieved, I would say great things in our lives coming from a farm life. We are economically secure, and we have enjoyed a good life. Of course it took a lot of education for us to get there though. Brittany: I know what made you decide to go to college, but what did you decide to do once you got there? Billy Ray: Well, I played football and baseball in high school and I liked athletics, so I decided to be a coach. You have to go to college to become a coach, so that was my dream coming out of high school, to become a high school coach, which I did. Brittany: Tell me about your first few years. You taught and coached andâ€Ś Billy Ray: When I first got out of college, I started to work February the 11, 1964. People think teachers get paid very little now they should have lived back then. My total salary was $4100 a year and that included my coaching supplement. I started teaching at a place called Colbert Heights, and it was a junior high and I came at the second semester. The fall of that next year they added the tenth grade and the next year they added the eleventh and the next year they added the twelfth grade. It was tough being a teacher and making so little money. Brittany: How did you and your family survive? Billy Ray: Well, just by the hard work that we did in saving and you didnâ€™t have a lot of extras to do anything with. Brittany: When did you have your first child?
Billy Ray: Our first child was our daughter, and she was born in 1964. March 23, 1964, and that was in the semester I first started teaching school. Brittany: Wow. So ya’ll had to make a lot of sacrifices I’m sure. What would you say your biggest achievement? Billy Ray: My children. They gave me a lot of joy. Of course with having children you also have a lot of pain and suffering too, but they’ve made the accomplishments I’ve really enjoyed seeing them grow into. Brittany: You were a part of the Masonic organization, correct? Billy Ray: That’s correct. Brittany: A lot of people are really interested in this, can you tell me about what you remember. Billy Ray: I haven’t been active for about thirty years I guess, but when I first got into it for several years I was very active. It’s not what a lot of people think it is even though some of the stuff is secret it’s not the thing that you see on TV where they demonize it and that sort of thing, it is more of a service organization dedicated toward God and your friends. Brittany: You’d consider it more of a brotherhood instead of a secret society as some like to make it out to be? Billy Ray: A brotherhood that’s what’s called. Right. Brittany: Why did you leave the organization? Billy Ray: I didn’t actually leave it; I’m still a paid member I just don’t attend meetings and that sort of thing. I just became too busy to actually go do it. Brittany: Growing up, well being in Alabama in the ‘60s what do you remember about the Civil Rights Movement? Billy Ray: This was when the first part of the 60s was when the Selma marches occurred and the general population just absolutely despised the racial situation that occurred as a result of the marches, protests the sit ins and that sort of thing. Brittany: As a public school teacher, were you in an all white school when you started or was it always integrated where you taught? Billy Ray: No the first years where I taught it was segregated. The first, we moved to Louisiana in 67 and stayed down there one year and came back to Sheffield. The first year I came was the first year of total integration. There’s not even difference in the color of skin as far as how kids get along with one another and that sort of thing, people are people no matter what color they are.
Brittany: So do you think a lot of the protests and a lot of the issues that were made out of the integration movement were mostly parents, who do you think was upset the most? Do you think the kids were fine with it? Billy Ray: The kids accepted it pretty well it was mostly parents who objected to it and it was the background of how they were taught and unfortunately many of them thought that a black person had no rights and shouldn’t be going to school with white kids, but I found that the black kids were just as interested in getting an education as the white kids were. Brittany: As a teacher, I’m sure your credo is to educate all. Billy Ray: That’s correct. Brittany: A lot of people, when they think of the 60’s, they think of the rebellious, you know, liberal movement. The hippies, the secular part, did you see a lot of that in a community? The protests against the war and things like that? Billy Ray: Not in our part of the state, not hardly at all. Most of those happened on the national level around cities and the capital. Brittany: What was the reaction you think of most of your community to those movements? Billy Ray: Most of the people were not for the protest whatsoever. They were more interested in the national interest of the United States and had very little to do with it. Brittany: You were pretty lucky there to not be drafted into Vietnam. You were in college when the war first started, but when you got out at any point you could have been drafted. How do you think you would have reacted if you had been drafted into the war? Billy Ray: I never volunteered to go, it’s not because I wouldn’t have gone, had I been drafted of course I would have gone. I was actually classified 1A, which would have been draft able. By the time I graduated from college I was already married and by the first year out of college we already had a child and I don’t know, I guess just luck of the draw that I didn’t get drafted. I would have gone. Brittany: Did you have a lot of friends that were drafted? Billy Ray: Yes I did. A couple of kids, young men I went to college with were killed in Vietnam. Brittany: Do you still maintain contact with any of them or any of their family? Billy Ray: Not anymore, we’ve gotten away from all of the contacts practically from the college; the only ones I actually see are some of those that I worked with that I went to school with.
Brittany: Other major events, you’ve seen quite a few things in life. What do you think about things that are going on today, like the immigration law that just passed in the state you’ve been in the majority of your life? Billy Ray: The thing about the immigration law is, if they are here illegally, that means it’s not legal; therefore they should be deported if they get caught. Brittany: A lot of the people who are protesting against this say well they are just here to work or to support their families, how does that reaction make you feel? Billy Ray: It does absolutely nothing for me. I think if they want to come to the United States and they want to work they should apply for a what’s called a green card in order to be legal here. If they get here and apply to become a citizen that’s fine and dandy. The problem that I have is that they are illegal and they should be legal if they are going to come here to work, and I’m all for anyone trying to save their family as far as work is concerned. Brittany: From what I’ve read, people say it is going to hurt the economy in Alabama. What effect do you think this law is going to have on the economy that’s already depressed in some areas, but what effect do you think it’s going to have on the state? Billy Ray: Well the big rhubarb right now in Alabama is not having workers to gather the crops and what it amounts to is menial labor, which Hispanics are willing and able to do and there’s not that workforce in the United States that’s even willing to do that kind of job and from the standpoint of the service that they provide in gathering crops and that kind of thing there will be a real problem in the state of Alabama. Brittany: Alabama is a mostly agricultural state. What about education in the state? I know as a teacher, you probably have an opinion about how that is going. Alabama is usually ranked in the bottom nationally. Billy Ray: (chuckles) Of course, I grew up in Alabama, I’ve taught in Alabama all of my professional life, and I think Alabama does as a whole does as good or better a job of educating its young people as any of the other states. Now what they measure all of this on, I don’t know as far as the success of the school systems but I do know that children who come out of Alabama schools who have prepared themselves as far as school is concerned can go on to college or trades or anything like that because they have the potential to do well in them. Brittany: What do you think is the biggest detriment to the education system nationally? Alabama is ranked in the bottom, and the United States is ranked 17th in the world. What do you think is the biggest detriment to our education system today? Billy Ray: The biggest detriment I can see as far as kids are concerned is family support. We have too many families that are single parent families. We have too many families that are consisting of my kids your kids and our kids and it really makes for a hard time to teach children
when you get them all from such diverse backgrounds and sometimes unfortunately they don’t have a lot of help from home and therefore they don’t quite do as well. Brittany: So you think education would be a lot better if we had more parental support. Looking at the history, and I’ve know you’ve seen prices go up and down, what do you think about all of the economic panic people have. Do you think it’s part of life just part of the cycle. Do you think we are actually in as much distress as the media says we are. Billy Ray: Yes I think it’s real. I know that salaries and jobs, salaries have just about bottomed out and abundance of jobs has just about disappeared. I think some of the greatest problems the United States has is the shipping of all of the jobs off to foreign countries, and I don’t think we can survive as just a service nation that we are headed to. Brittany: So you would suggest that we bring in more industry. There are some people who believe that taxing the rich more, taxing business more, is the solution to this economic crisis. What is your opinion on that? Billy Ray: I think as far as taxing is concerned, I’d rather see a flat rate tax across the board from all of the citizens of the U.S. and I can see maybe those who have higher salaries and higher incomes pay a higher rate of tax than those that live at poverty level. Brittany: The thing is, I guess if you tax business more and like you said there’s a problem with them taking their business elsewhere, I’m not sure that would solve anything. Brittany: What would you say to these students today? They have all these issues and problems, what advice would you give them to survive in the world today? Billy Ray: Those students who are not academically inclined to go to higher education need to learn a trade and I would suggest they become involved in trade schools at an earlier age instead of waiting until they get out of high school. It is important to be able to make a living and you have to have some sellable trades in order to do that. Brittany: What would you say was one of your biggest challenges growing up in rural Alabama and overcoming and everything that you’ve talked about? What would you say was your biggest challenge you’ve overcome? Billy Ray: Really and truly I’ve never had a trouble had a problem with overcoming anything. The thing that I feared the most as far as growing up in Alabama and coming from a poor background was the ability to go to college, and luckily Sputnik occurred just before I got out of high school and the federal government passed a law called the National Defense Student Act and I was able to go to college on that and that’s the greatest thing as far as I’m concerned that happened in my lifetime because it enabled me to go to college. Brittany: You were the first one in your family to go to college.
Billy Ray: That’s correct. Brittany: How many of your brothers and sisters followed suit? Billy Ray: My youngest sister did real well in high school and got an academic scholarship to Alabama. Brittany: What does your sister do today? Billy Ray: She’s disabled retired. She became a chemist for the FDA. Brittany: That’s impressive. Would you say your parents instilled values in you that encouraged you to become something more? Billy Ray: Yes they did. The only thing that my parents wanted for their children was that they all do better than they did which they all, they got to see all of them do better and accomplish more than they did. Brittany: Your father, was he always a farmer? Billy Ray: No, he was a carpenter he did carpenter work part time while we farmed and when we moved off the farm he became a full time carpenter and after that the manager of a building supply place. Brittany: And your mother? Billy Ray: My mother was a housewife almost all of her life, until she worked a few years at a café in downtown Vernon. Brittany: Do you think that she enjoyed being at home raising her family or do you think she felt it was a burden? Billy Ray: No, she really enjoyed her family. She and dad, her especially, wanted to have a large family, because she was one of two. Brittany: Would you say that the large family was a trend at that time? Was it common to see large families? I mean today large families are often looked at with some judgment, but would you say that was a normal thing for Alabama and for communities like that? Billy Ray: In today’s attitude, the large family is looked at with some disdain by most folks, but in rural Alabama, where people lived on a farm, a child made a field hand, and families were large simply because I think a lot of it was because they needed workers on the farm and so the children became workers on the farm. I’m not saying the parents didn’t love them or anything like that it’s just that they represented some help that they could not have gotten otherwise.
Brittany: Absolutely. What would do you think is the biggest value that you were taught growing up? Billy Ray: Truthfulness and honesty. My dad and mother both were very big sticklers on telling the truth and being honest with your relationships with other people. Brittany: And you passed that on to your children? Billy Ray: I hope so. Brittany: What would you tell people about just survival, I mean you come from a poor family but now you quite, like you said you are financially stable but that didn’t just happen. Billy Ray: No it didn’t. The difference between financial stability and not having financial stability is being able to make a decent living and you do that by being educated or trained in some new area that there is a demand for. Brittany: I mean a lot of children today, their parents often times give them whatever they want; do you think this is going to be a problem for them later in life? Will they understand what work ethic is? Billy Ray: A child that is given everything that he wants without any kind of rules or regulations as far as demands on them to produce or be responsible produces a child that will not be responsible when they get older and they’ll always be standing waiting on a handout, to be saved by their parents. Brittany: What do you think that, what kind effect do you think this will have on our country as whole? Billy Ray: Well, we are seeing the benefits of not making children responsible now. They live off the government, they live off the city, they live off the county, and they live off of whatever they can get without being responsible enough to work for themselves. Brittany: Some people think that that is a stereotypical kind of thing, especially when Florida and Arkansas just passed laws to ensure that all of their welfare recipients are drug tested. How do you feel about drug testing and welfare? Billy Ray: A lot of the welfare situation is a result of nothing that the recipient has done to cause them to be there. A lot of times it’s just things that happen to them that they have no control over. I see no problem with it whatsoever, if they are living off of welfare and that sort of thing, if their reason for their being there is addiction, it needs to be addressed and needs to be taken care of. Brittany: So you would suggest if they do decide in Alabama to pass a law there should be some kind of rehabilitation attached to it?
Billy Ray: Right. I mean there’s no good whatsoever to test them and not try to solve the problem that they’re in. Brittany: Is there anything else, anything interesting that you want to share, anything you’ve ever witnessed historically or… Billy Ray: Well I got to live through the Sputnik shot by Russia I got to live through the Apollo flights of going to the moon and when the, I believe it was Apollo 13 it was, that almost didn’t get back, and there’s some scientific breakthroughs that I’ve got to see some such as cancer patients and even cures for some cancers. Medicine has made just huge strides from the time that I was born until present day. Things that you would never think that a person could live through in my early life hood are just commonplace. Like heart attacks and heart surgery. Science has just come a million miles in my lifetime. Brittany: What do you remember; I know major events you got to witness, I know there’s the launching of Sputnik, the Apollo missions, and landing on the moon. Do you remember where you were when they announced we had reached the moon in 1969? Billy Ray: Well, I don’t remember exactly where I was, in ’59 I was a senior in high school, so that’s where I would have been at, at school I guess, but that event in itself enabled me to go to college, so it was a great happening as far as my life is concerned, because it enabled me to do some things because of it. Brittany: What do you remember about the national news, the events in Selma and Birmingham, the assassination of the President John F. Kennedy, what was your reaction to all of this? Did it really affect your life or was it just one of those happenings? Billy Ray: The assassination of John F. Kennedy was just a happening. I was in college when that occurred. I was at work when we heard the news that he had been assassinated. I don’t know that it was earth shattering as far as I’m was concerned but it was earth shattering that our president was assassinated but other than really affecting my life, I regretted that someone would be crazy enough to do that. Brittany: What about different protests, the student protests. You never witnessed any of this? Billy Ray: No, I never went to any of them. Ole Miss, during the time I was in the college, they had a huge uprising down there and some of the students at college went down there and of course they got the point of the bayonet from the National Guard that was there. Brittany: Is this the James Meredith? Billy Ray: Yes it was when Meredith tried to enroll in Ole Miss. The Selma march was the crossing of the bridge in Selma and the cruelty of the police and Birmingham the fire hoses and the police dogs and all of that was in my part of the time but I never went to any of those events.
Brittany: So you never witnessed. Did you any of your friends ever go? Billy Ray: From college they did. They went down to Ole Miss, but like I said they went down to protest but were arrested. Brittany: Wasn’t your piece of cake? Billy Ray: Nope not mine. Brittany: What would you say to people who stereotype Alabama, you know a lot of assumptions are made about the state and the people that are in it. Billy Ray: Well, unfortunately people from up north especially that all Alabamians are still barefoot, and infested with worms and that we are just dumb hillbillies and when they come and visit they are just astounded by the fact that we can even speak English. Brittany: Would you live anywhere else? If you could ever go anywhere would leave this state or would you leave this country? Billy Ray: Um no, I’m as far north and south and east and west as I want to be. We tried Louisiana for eleven months, actually went down there to make my fortune and it didn’t take me but eleven months. I left down there without a job but I just knew I was coming back to Alabama, somewhere. And luckily I came back to Sheffield. Brittany: So you’re satisfied. Well it sounds like you’ve had a very full life and I do thank you for your time. Billy Ray: Thank you doll. Brittany: I love you. Brittany: I love you too baby. *Interviewer apologizes for the exchange of emotion at the end, as the subject was her grandfather, who in fact, she does love very much and learned quite a bit from while interviewing him.
Original Question List 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.
Tell me about life growing up in rural Alabama? What did your family do? How did you live? What evidence did you see in the 1940â€™s of the Great Depression lingering in the state? What can you tell me about the Masonic organization you belonged to? What do you remember about the 1960â€™s; the Civil Rights Movement, the student protests, the space race, etc.? 7. What were some of the biggest lessons you learned in life? 8. How do you feel about the new immigration law, the economy, and other hot topics in the news today? 9. What about education? What are some of your feelings as a former educator about our system today? 10. What advice would you give students today?