Off Screen, Ex-Cotton-Picker Marks The Journey

Melissa Bailey PhotoHillhouse seniors served the pizza slices for Inauguration Day. Willie Mae Jaynes served up a slice of living history.

The two groups of seniors—high-school seniors and elderly-center seniors—together watched Barack Obama make history again on a big screen Monday.

Some of the most compelling history was told off-screen, by people who have lived by Obama was speaking about.

The big screen was set up at James Hillhouse High School. Even though it was an official school holiday, dozens of students trekked to the cafeteria to watch the second inauguration for President Obama, the first African-American to serve a second term in the White House. Students served pizza, coffee and donuts to senior citizens from the Dixwell-Newhallville Senior Center, who had been recruited through flyers to attend the public screening. The school provided 30 boxes of pizza, paid for in part by personal contributions from staff.

The televised inauguration proceedings brought applause and some tears of joy from the mostly African-American crowd. Students and retirees watched together, at times waving flags and giving standing ovations, as their president gave a speech that stressed equality and opportunity.  The event, which coincided with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, served as a double lesson in civil rights and black history. Declaring Monday a “precious moment” in history, Principal Kermit Carolina reminded the crowd that before King and Obama, “there were so many sacrifices.” He urged the crowd to “give a hug to those who sacrificed for us today.” Obama spoke about the barriers broken thanks to the civil rights movement.

Willie Mae Jaynes (pictured) knows about those sacrifices and about the barriers.

Jaynes, who is 76, hitched a ride with a friend from Bella Vista senior housing complex to Hillhouse for Monday’s event. From a cozy armchair, Jaynes accepted a plate of pizza from Hillhouse senior Tanaya Brown with a smile. Then she recounted a remarkable journey that got her to that seat.

Jaynes said kids these days have no idea how different life was for a black woman growing up 70 years ago in the segregated rural south.

The granddaughter of slaves, Jaynes grew up on a farm in Greenville, South Carolina. Her home had no lights, no toilet, no running water. She said her family didn’t always have money for shoes. Before school, she and her eight siblings would wake up early to head to the field.

“We would pick cotton at 4 a.m. by lantern light,” Jaynes said. “You know what lantern light is?”

Courtesy of the Hudson River Museum/ Adelson GalleriesAfter plucking cotton balls by hand for a several hours, she said, she would walk five miles to school. At the end of the school day, she would return to the cotton field. Her parents made a living preparing food and doing people’s laundry. They didn’t have much space: At the end of the long day, kids would head to sleep—three or four sharing the same bed.

Jaynes said she dropped out of school after the 6th grade to work. When she was a bit older, she got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Among the many indignities of segregation, black customers had to go around to the back door to get served. She recalled seeing a 9-year-old black boy beaten by a white woman for misbehaving. Their home, she said, was “surrounded by [Klu Klux] Klan members.”

“We watched them burn crosses” at night, not far from the bedroom window, she recalled.

“Those are the kind of things I lived through,” Jaynes said.

In 1959, she moved to New Haven, where she spent seven years as a live-in maid.

Determined to make a career for herself, Jaynes didn’t let her 6th-grade education get in the way. She fibbed on her resume that she had finished high school. She was able to land a job with the federal government as an inspector at local factories, keeping tabs on products like Schick safety razors. She worked in that field for decades.

Jaynes said she got engaged earlier in her adult life, only to find out her partner was abusive. She eventually married a “nice man” and adopted a daughter. Now she has a grandson who came up through New Haven schools and a great-granddaughter who recently entered this world.

She said her story serves to show that even as a child with little opportunity, “you can educate yourself and be anything you want to be.”

Jaynes said she has faith in Obama despite the criticism about his first term. “People are looking for too much at one time,” she said.

She said she was heartened to see students like Tanaya show up Monday on their day off from school to mark Obama’s and King’s special days.

“I think more young people should get involved and know their history,” she said.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 22, 2013  9:14am

Latino votes for Obama was 67%.There community got Sonia Sotomayor the first Latina on the Supreme Court bench.

LGBT votes for Obama was 0ver 80%.There got don’t ask, don’t tell repealed.

Black Votes for Obama was 96%.Just like in 2008.All Blacks got for there vote was a HAT BUTTON and a T-Shirt.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on January 22, 2013  7:18pm

If 96 per cent of African Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, they did their part to make history by making his man the first African American president in American history. If you want to play a game of rewards received for electoral support, then Obama being president is our reward. But it is not that simple. To belittle the role of Blacks in the last two presidential elections is ludicrous and insulting. To imply that all Blacks received for their vote was a “HAT BUTTON and a T-Shirt” is silly.
Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, women, gays and others supported President Obama because they believed he was the best man for the job and would work for the best interests of the entire nation, not just one group.
Repealing Don’t ask, don’t tell was for the benefit of the whole nation, not just gays. Justice Sonia Sotomayor works for justice for all Americans, not just Hispanics. Blacks can take pride that Obama is the first Black president, but like all Americans they can benefit from Obamacare, funding for educational programs, reforms in student loans, and more.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 23, 2013  12:31am

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on January 22, 2013 6:18pm

If 96 per cent of African Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, they did their part to make history by making his man the first African American president in American history

There voted was Symbolic and with out leverage and base on voting and lockstep for the democratic party.

Blacks can take pride that Obama is the first Black president, but like all Americans they can benefit from Obamacare, funding for educational programs, reforms in student loans, and more.

Blacks can take pride?I donot see how when the fact that unemployment in America is 7.8 percent overall, but more than 17 percent for African-Americans. We cannot ignore the fact that African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population and 53 percent of those incarcerated. As I said African-Americans gave President Obama 96 percent of their support and none of these issues were addressed during the 2012 presidential campaign.The president can proclaim his support for Israel to all corners of the world. He can support marriage equality; immigration reform and through executive order support the Dream Act, but African-Americans are supposed to sit quietly and Hope for Change.Like I said Hat Buttons and T-Shirts.

P.S.Do some research. He is not the first African American president in American history.
There were six others before him.

The Six Black U.S. Presidents.

posted by: Josiah Brown on January 23, 2013  7:50pm

Compliments to colleagues and students at Hillhouse H.S. for hosting this community event for senior citizens including Mrs. Jaynes.  Thanks to her for sharing her story.

A 2012 national seminar addressed “Narratives of Citizenship and Race Since Emancipation”:

Jonathan Holloway—Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Studies at Yale—led that seminar.

Public school teachers participated as National Fellows and prepared related curriculum units.

Waltrina Kirkland-Mullins of New Haven’s Davis Street School developed one of the units, on “Diverse Journeys—Americans All!”

There are numerous additional units, in the sciences and mathematics as well as humanities and arts, that Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Fellows have prepared since 1978 to support their teaching.  These units are available in school libraries or online to the broader public through:

  *the search engine at

  *the subject Index at

  *volumes of previous units at