Toiling & thanking God fills a long
Resident of Sumter nursing home and his family look back over their
years of sharecropping in rural S.C.
by Claudia Smith Brinson, The State newspaper 13 July 2004:
[see final comment at end]
“I’m praising the Lord. Praise the Lord,” says
Willie Holliday. He sits in a padded rolling chair. He wears a crisp, white shirt, a shiny
black tie and the black suit he will be buried in.
Willie Holliday is 109, maybe 110. He has outlived
five of his 10 children; he has accumulated 66 grandchildren. A great-great-great-grandchild
attended his 100th birthday.
In the past year, his vision and hearing have
faded, but he still walks a wheelchair about the shiny, bare halls of his Sumter nursing
home, still feeds himself, still recites the Bible and chastises nurses, “God don’t like
He is healthy, despite the indignities of very old
age, and pays attention as grandson James McKnight writes, “109-110?” on a legal pad. Willie
Holliday points to his chest, long fingers tapping his sternum, to ask “Me?” He answers with
his signature wobbling across the page.
Of this amazing longevity, sister Naomi Holliday
Stokes says, “It’s the Lord’s will. It sure ain’t man’s will.” She is 92 and lives in
“He’s kind of spiffy to be 109 or however old he
is,” says nurse Nickie Moore, who cares for him.
On this day, grandson McKnight helps Willie
Holliday don the suit, plus white gloves and an apron embroidered with Masonic symbols. Past
masters and wardens of Holliday’s Prince Hall lodge are visiting.
Brotherly Love No. 99, a Manning lodge, was
founded in 1948, with Willie Holliday among its first members. Among the reasons for visiting
is simply his age. He is among fewer than 150 South Carolinians 105 and
But Willie Holliday is also, by all accounts,
hard-working, God-fearing, a man who did well by others in a difficult place and
“I never saw him sad,” says Lindburg Stukes, 75,
and a fellow Mason. “If he’d see something wrong, he’d tell you. Anything he could do for
you, he would.”
GOD AND FARMING
Cotton and tobacco ran the Hollidays’ lives, —
other people’s cotton and tobacco.
“Soon as it begins daylight, you had to get up;
he’d be calling you. If it was cotton, you had to hoe by hand. Or, if it was time, you would
pick,” says Stella Holliday Robinson, 73, the eighth of Willie Holliday’s children and a
resident of Baltimore.
God and farming filled Willie Holliday’s years on
a long, straight road between Summerton and Manning. So did the everlasting poverty and
never-ending debt of sharecropping.
“To be honest about it, it was just another form
of slavery,” says John Wesley Holliday, 80, the fourth of Willie Holliday’s children and a
resident of Moorestown, N.J.
“Work, work, work, but stay in debt. And in debt
Not possessions. Home, John Holliday says, “was a
shack,” the house’s wooden walls and floors resting on logs, the roof tin, the porch long and
well-used. Willie Holliday rocked there and whistled, which might account for the nickname
“The first car we bought, a Plymouth, that was
around World War II. There was no electricity until I left home in the ’50s,” Robinson
Darkness measured work’s beginning and
“Before the sun would rise, he would get up and
feed the livestock. He would build a fire; he never let my mother get up until it was warm,”
says Dorothy Conyers. Nicknamed “Pet,” she is 63, the youngest of the Holliday children and
the only one to stay in South Carolina.
“At 8, he would want his breakfast. We would take
it to the field for him — grits and whatever, sausage, cured ham, a
Willie Holliday worked himself, and his children,
as he and his seven brothers and three sisters worked — six days a week, dawn to dark, Sunday
a day of rest. Escaping unrelenting physical labor meant leaving home for jobs with wages, as
did his siblings and children.
For them all, labor began at 4 or 5 years old,
expectations high. Willie Holliday set goals for cotton picking, for
“When I was 5, I picked 50 pounds,” says John
Holliday. “When I was 8, I picked 100. When I was 11, I picked 200. When I was 16, I picked
“Everybody had chores. Do the chickens, dig
potatoes, get firewood, pick cotton, pull corn.”
When work for others was done, work waited at
Wife Maggie Holliday maintained a large garden, as
did mother Sara Jane Holliday. “Our garden had every kind of vegetable — tomatoes, corn,
green beans, butter beans, cabbage, collard greens, ice potatoes,” says sister
Remedies for ailments were homegrown,
“If you got a cut, he would soak fat meat in
turpentine and tie it on,” says Conyers.
“If you had a fever, he would take a thick-leaf
plant — we called them fire leaves or candles — and bruise it and wet it with cold water and
tie it on with a cloth, and when it was dry, the fever would be gone.”
The children ventured into the woods to gather
fruit for preserves. Grandson McKnight, 68, and a business consultant, remembers blueberries,
blackberries, gooseberries, huckleberries.
He also remembers Maggie Holliday making butter,
shaking cream in a jar for hours, singing, “Come butter come; come butter come; the fish is
in the water; now come butter come.”
And it did, says McKnight.
“We grew a lot; we bought very little. As a
sharecropper, you’d get very little money,” says daughter Conyers.
Resourcefulness substituted for cash. The
Hollidays grew wheat for flour, took corn to the local mill for cornmeal, grits and feed.
Purchases were limited to rice, rarely meat in between seasonal hog
To keep a family eating, work took
“Education was secondary to chopping cotton,” says
McKnight, who lived with his grandparents from age 3 to 16 years old.
Willie Holliday attended school through third
grade, his children think.
“He didn’t go to school much,” says his sister.
“But our stepfather would have prayer with us before we’d go to bed and when we’d get up. And
our mother and stepfather would have Bible study. Everybody would have to repeat a Bible
“That was a help to learn.”
Willie Holliday’s children agree, attributing his
adept and regular reading of newspapers and Scripture not to school, but to a devotion to the
He would get his children up and put them to bed
with prayer. “It was always thankful,” says daughter Conyers. “‘Lord, I thank
At 12 years old, Willie Holliday joined Taw Caw
Missionary Baptist Church, down the road a piece. He served as grave digger, bell ringer and
He led prayer meetings, singing a song, followed
by a prayer. John Holliday remembers his father singing, “Take your burden to the Lord. Leave
it there.” Robinson remembers, “A charge to keep I have. A God to glorify.”
At home as well as at church, says Robinson, “he
loved to pray out loud. People would stand outside the door and listen to him pray. He would
get really deep into it. He would say, ‘My brother, let me tell you this.
She says her father “could see things in you, I
guess because the Lord was with him.
“My husband was in the service, and I went home to
have my son. He was crying one day, and my dad picked him up. He said, ‘Stella, send this boy
to school and make sure he gets a good education. He will be a good
That child, named after him, is now a minister in
MAKING THE BEST OF
In the 1960s, Willie and Maggie Holliday joined
son John in New Jersey. In 1968, Maggie Holliday died. Willie Holliday returned to South
Carolina, living with Conyers in Manning. Since the late 1980s, he has stayed in nursing
His values are recited, passed
“You had to obey him, you didn’t talk back, and
nobody was allowed to be lazy,” says John Holliday, who still works, distributing beauty shop
Stokes offers a list: “You should obey God’s laws.
Obey your parents. Be kind to one another. When someone mistreats you, pray for
“After you wake up in the morning, praise Jesus
that you opened your eyes. If you don’t have but a little, you should still give thanks.
You’ll get by.
“Worry-ation, that will kill
In the room Willie Holliday shares, his bulletin
board is layered with past birthday wishes from family and the White House. A photo from his
100th birthday shows him in a white tuxedo, cash stuffed into his hat and a money
He’s smiling, and Robinson remembers him joking,
“Oh, I’m dressing up like I’m going to get married.”
Time passed, the world changed, but Willie
Holliday didn’t. He never considered leaving farming, even though he remained in
It was all he knew, his family says. He made the
best of it.
Comment: My wife's white family worked just like this (though owning the place and bearing all expenses) with 60 acres, plus
having textile mill jobs (Lexington County, S. C.). The 5 living siblings claim that they never
saw their mother sleep. It was and is a happy family. I'll have that story here one
***give me your comments about this
check out the Highest
(posted 13 July 2004)