Jennifer Flowers grew up on her father’s tobacco farm in Harnett County, where the summertime work began at 4:30 in the morning and didn’t quit until her grandmother rang the dinner bell, serving fatback, squash and collard greens under a shade tree.
As a 9-year-old girl, Flowers had the job of a “hander,” which means she toted leaves for her mother to tie into bundles. It’s a life that scarcely exists anymore, but it is still vivid to Flowers, now 65 and retired from the public schools, living in the house that has stood since 1901.
But this week, one memory is especially sharp – especially with the news still fresh from Charleston.
In the summer of 1959, or maybe 1960, Flowers made a friend on that farm: a young black girl she knew only as Linda, a fellow hander who worked there.
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She didn’t know Linda’s last name. She didn’t know where Linda lived. But they shared the daily work, and when it was finished, they always ran off behind the barn for a Moon Pie and a grape TruAde, treats for good workers.
Flowers knew that Linda went to a segregated school a dozen miles away in Lillington. She knew that Linda drank out of the water pail marked “colored.” But none of that mattered.
She knew, even then, they were the same. “I loved Linda,” she said. “We talked about the same things girls would talk about at 9 or 10. School. Parents. Even one time mentioned boyfriends. I was just fascinated by someone who was different, but the same.”
I drove to Angier on Sunday to talk with Flowers, who wrote The N&O a short letter last week, musing on this part of her past. She met and befriended Linda over the course of a year, then never saw her again. Their lives crossed only briefly on that farm.
But as she grew older, Flowers still couldn’t wrap her mind around a culture that insisted she and her friend stay separate. As a teen, Flowers and her peers hung out at Luke’s Grill in Coats nearby, more or less the only place for a young person to socialize.
Luke’s had segregated bathrooms. Not men and women. Black and white. And one day Flowers entered the black bathroom, just to see what was different.
“I got caught coming out,” she said, five decades later. “I told them I made a mistake. Truth of the matter, I just wanted to see if that bathroom was any different. I dared not rock the boat. But I sure did inside my head. Never figured it out.”
Flowers has always loved an underdog. She spent her career as an educator in Harnett, Johnston and Wake counties, and even though she’s retired, she attended a graduation as recently as Saturday – celebrating a favorite student whose disability made the milestone take a long time.
This attitude extends beyond humankind. Flowers volunteers with the Harnett Animal Welfare Commission, and she recently adopted a three-legged beagle set to be euthanized.
After the last few extraordinary weeks, which saw people shot in a church over their skin color, then the South Carolina governor’s call to take down the Confederate flag, then the Supreme Court validate gay marriage, this thought came to her:
“We’d spend a lot less money and a lot less energy if we’d just let people be.”
And she wondered about Linda.
How did her life turn out? Did she remember her friend from that summer as a tobacco hander? What if society in 1959 had let them stay friends? Could they be friends now?
Flowers still thinks she’s the same as Linda on the inside. And she still loves a Moon Pie.
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