The Life & Times of Willie Holliday, Sr.

October 6, 2018

Milton Renaissance Foundation

169 Broad Street, Milton, NC

Milton Renaissance Foundation Museum of Milton and Visitors Center

Jim McKnight of Matoaca, Virginia, will present the life and times of his grandfather, Willie Holliday, Sr., at Milton Renaissance Foundation Museum of Milton and Visitors Center, Saturday, October 6th, at 10 am. While ordinary in his day, McKnight tells of a life quite extraordinary in retrospect.

Holliday is featured in grandson McKnight’s tender memoir, My Story of a Sharecropper’s Life. The paperback reiterates a book cannot be judged by the cover, or anything else other than than the experience felt when read. Holliday, born in 1893, was the oldest man in South Carolina at his death in 2004, with the rare distinction of having lived in three centuries. Holliday’s father was born into slavery, three years before the Emancipation, and following freedom, found sharecropping to be the only viable choice. The author emphasizes that while sharecropping was the way of life for many freed slaves and their children, poor whites also faced the same system of perpetual, mounting debt. Willie Holliday Sr., for example, worked for 59 years in Summerton, SC, and over that time, made $85.00 in profit.

The book also informs readers that Africans were naturally impressive farmers, and makes the challenge to “recognize African agricultural knowledge as a valuable asset that single-handedly built America’s agricultural economy. Whether it was tobacco, cotton or rice, Africans were natural agrarians” and that part of their story should be honored and remembered. McKnight makes the point that African Americans tended to “reject farming, associating it with slavery and four hundred years of forced labor… but it is important to know that Africans were farmers before they were slaves, and farming is an important part of our African heritage that should be embraced.”

Even within extreme adversity, McKnight lightheartedly and warmly remembers his childhood. Quite amusing is how the children “abhorred the preacher’s visits,” and not because of Bible studies or long sermons. When the preacher visited, chicken would be served. The visit also meant the preacher would eat all the chicken. “Meat was precious. It wasn’t served on a regular basis, and when it was, they didn’t need the preacher there eating it up.” Also memorable were home remedies McKnight’s grandfather used on family members and friends without access to a doctor’s care: spider webs and kerosene mix for cuts, and sassafras tea for colds, for instance.

McKnight’s joy and pride in his grandfather’s legacy, though alongside the dark circumstances of sharecropping, leap from every page, testifying that especially with nothing, family especially is everything. The memoir is small yet giant, preserving an account of the life of many who were poor in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.

Milton Renaissance Foundation is located at 169 Broad Street, Milton, NC, 27305, and may be reached at [email protected]. Event is free to the public but donations appreciated.