Queen Berry Brailey looks back on her poor childhood growing up as a sharecropper’s daughter with pride, putting the lessons of tenacity and perseverance she learned into a book she hopes will inspire others.
The 82-year-old remembers having no electricity, running water, indoor toilet or car and having to walk miles to school, not to mention having to pick cotton and corn from a sometimes scorching field.
She would eventually work her way all the way up to serving as an assistant professor at then South Carolina State College after several challenges she refused to let deter her.
‘I made it’
“I grew up on the farm picking cotton and corn, feeding the chickens and having the outdoor toilets. I don’t think too much attention has been given to sharecroppers. You hear a lot about slavery, and sharecropping began at the end of slavery,” the Orangeburg resident said.
“It was a new type of farming for those people who had been slaves, and they had nowhere to go. They had no money, they had nothing, basically. So sharecropping came into being. My dad ended up a sharecropper. So I ended up a sharecropper’s daughter,” she said.
Brailey was one of 13 children born to the late Henry and Lucille Berry. Three children died at birth, and she is one of four who are still living.
She has written a book titled “Legacy of a Sharecropper’s Daughter.” The book was published by Illinois-based Destined To Publish publishing company.
“I was published this year. It’s an inspirational story. It’s a story about me and starts off talking about my family and my background. I grew up in Fountain Inn, a small town up near Greenville,” Brailey said.
“It was kind of hard. We had to walk three miles to school, no school buses. I can remember my dad used to take us on a shortcut through the woods and across a little creek to help us get to school on time,” she said.
Brailey continued, “During the winter months, we had the big old stove in the classrooms. They would have warm water and a towel so that we could put our hands in and kind of warm up a little bit, but I made it through it.”
After the Civil War, former slaves sought jobs, and planters sought laborers. The absence of cash or an independent credit system led to the creation of sharecropping, a type of farming where the landlord/planter allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop.
Brailey recalls in the book the humiliation her father sometimes faced from the white landowner, writing in the book: “One day a white man came to our house telling my daddy what he wanted him to do and how soon he wanted it done. Listening from a big oak tree, I was able to hear the conversation. When the white man left, I asked daddy who that white man thought he was talking to him that way. My daddy turned to me and said, ‘Child, the man owns our house, the land and most of the livestock. We are sharecroppers.”
Brailey also recalled having the front door of the “big house” slammed in her face when she approached it with scrap cotton she was hoping to sell for some Christmas money.
She was told to go to the back door. Once home, she cried before her father explained that she should have known to go to the rear door, especially since it was those same people from whom he had to borrow money to send her to school.
She said the occasional verbal abuse did not deter her from achieving her goals. She went on to become valedictorian of her high school class before running into financial hardships which nearly derailed her plans to enroll at then-South Carolina State College, where she was classmates with 6th District Congressman James Clyburn.
“I was getting ready to enroll ... when my dad told me it was not enough money. My sister in California tells me there was a man in Fountain Inn they called Cousin Buddy. My daddy would always talk to him when he went over to Fountain Inn because he was a homeless man, or at least they thought he was. Daddy told him that he had his last girl, baby girl, who wanted to go to college and he didn't have the money," Brailey said.
"He said, 'Well, Henry, how much you need?' Daddy said, 'Three hundred dollars.' He reached in his third pair of pants, pulled out a belt and gave daddy the money and said, 'Send that girl to school.' So that's how I got to college,” she said.
Brailey worked her way through college serving tables in the college’s dining hall, while also sewing on the side for the owner of the cafeteria.
“I would leave about 6 o’clock from the campus. She lived right there on Russell Street. I’d go there and work until about 8 or 9 o’clock. I’d come back to the dorm, take a shower and get in the bed. I would get up at about 4 o’clock, go down to the end of the hall, study my lesson and borrow some books. That’s how I made it,” she said.
Brailey said it was the work ethic she first formed on the farm that helped her graduate S.C. State with honors and a home economics degree.
Her first job as a home economics teacher ended in her firing when she persisted in securing funding to replace what she considered dilapidated equipment.
“I believe that sometimes you have to stand up for what is right even though the door may be closed on you. That has basically been my philosophy because it was hard getting through South Carolina State, but I made it begging people for money here and there, and the church giving me funds and things like that,” Brailey said.
She later secured a job as a home economics teacher at Cross High School, where the late Rev. S.B. Marshall served as principal and she stayed for three years.
She got married to Nicholas Brailey and they went on to have two daughters, Necole, director of the OCAB Head Start and Early Head Start programs, and Crystal, a freshman counselor at Claflin University.
She was soon offered a job as a cook at S.C. State by Mary Moorer, the secretary to then-president Bennie C. Turner.
“I was three hours from my master’s degree (in education). I said, “I just can’t take that job as a cook,’ but I did. I stayed there for six years and looked like I just couldn’t move. When God has a plan for you, it’s nothing you can do,” Brailey said.
She said it wasn’t long before one of her former professors from S.C. State came back to the college and asked her to assist her with a Head Start grant she had just written and received for the college.
“She asked me to assist her because she was having a conference with the Head Start directors. ... It was the feeling of the regional office that they needed a Black HBCU, somebody who could really relate to the community and the people that were in the community,” Brailey said.
She continued, “So I helped that summer. All of the directors kept saying, ‘You’re going to be the new training officer?’ I said, ‘I don’t know nothing about it. I’m a cook.’ It guess it was about the middle of August just before school started when she said, ‘I got a job for you. I want you to be the training officer for Head Start for South Carolina. I’ll train you,’ and that’s what she did. ... I got the job.”
Brailey worked as the director of South Carolina Head Start Training and Technical Assistance for approximately five years.
“And when I came back to South Carolina State, instead of coming back as a cook, I came back as director of the Child Development Center,” she said.
Brailey then began to teach a couple of child development courses “based on the knowledge I had gained.”
“One summer, Dr. Carl Carpenter asked me to work in the summer program. When I got the letter from him, he was hiring me as assistant professor to teach early childhood classes that summer. So that’s how I got that,” she said, noting that she had already retired from S.C. State, where she served from 1965 to 1991.
“I had retired as director of the Child Development Learning Center and instructor of early childhood. But that summer, I had that job as assistant professor,” said Brailey, who had also gone on to open her own child development center in Orangeburg, Kid’s World Learning Center.
‘Always remember where you came from’
Brailey said her book provides a template of how you can survive through the hardest times with persistence and belief in God.
The cover illustration, which features “the big house and the little house” and a young girl looking out over a field, was painted by her neighbor and renowned Orangeburg artist Leo Twiggs, she said.
“It’s about my life and the struggles I had. It’s about the persistence that I had to keep moving and let nothing stand in my way and how I kept God in the midst of everything that I did,” Brailey said.
She continued, “I thought the book would be something that middle school, high school and college students could relate to when they feel like it has gotten too hard or too rough to move on. They could look at this and say, ‘Look at what she went through, but she made it.’ That’s the kind of message I’d like to portray to the young people.”
She said trusting in God has been the key to succeeding beyond her humble beginnings, which included her mother making dresses for her and her sisters from flour sacks.
“She would take those sacks, wash them out real good and that’s how she made our clothes. She would fix them up real pretty,” said Brailey, who never forgot her family’s faithfulness.
“Even though we were sharecroppers, we had a good life. Even though we struggled, those values are still there. God has been good to me. I can’t give him enough praise.
"Trust in God, Make your plan for life, present it to him and let him carry you through. Regardless of what happens or how you deal with it, you can always make it. That’s the philosophy I’ve always given my children,” she said.
Brailey, a cancer survivor, has a simple legacy she wants to leave.
“I’d like for my legacy to be hard work, trusting in God and never giving up. Always remember where you came from, and that will give you the direction as to where you’re going. As young people feel like they’re at the end of their rope, I always say, ‘Just tie a knot in it and hang on,’ and before you know it, you would have accomplished your goals,” she said.
Brailey’s book can purchased on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Legacy-Sharecroppers-Daughter-Queen-Brailey/dp/1943342008/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=and+legacy+of+a+sharecropper%27s+daughter&qid=1631106768&sr=8-1.
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