[Transcript of interview with Billy Cooper, recorded as part of the Springfield-Greene County Library District's 2010 Big Read. For more information contact the Library at 417-883-5366 or visit us on the web.]
Hello, my name is John Rutherford and I am the host for the Recollections and Connections audio recording project at the Library Center. Today is Thursday, April 8, of 2010 and I'm with Billy Cooper.
Hello, my name is Billy Cooper. I just wanted to share a little bit about what my life was like as a young person growing up in the Bootheel of Southeast Missouri, where as a young boy I was able to learn something about working on a farm. I began picking cotton at age five. And picking cotton at that time, we got three dollars for every hundred pounds of cotton that we picked, but as a small boy you could only pick about sixty or seventy pounds. But in my family everybody worked. As long as, as soon as you were big enough to do something, you did something. Because living in that part of the country everybody, basically, especially the people, the black people, were poor so we needed everybody to have input in keeping our family's survival. We would work during the summer months. We had two summer breaks. We would get an early summer break which was about a month, so we could chop the cotton, and then we'd go back to school for about a month. And then we would come back, and then at the end of the summer we would come back in time to pick the cotton.
And I started chopping cotton when I was seven years old, which was a very hard job, worse than picking. We would work from six in the morning to six in the evening. I made a big mistake as a young boy. I saw my older brothers and sisters, (and I'm number 11 of 12 kids, so I was a younger one) I saw them all going out to the fields every day and I was very bored staying at home with my mother. And so I begged her please let me go out with them, and she said boy you're too young. And I begged and begged and she asked my father, and he said 'I am not taking that kid out there'. He is too little and he can't do anything. And so I kept begging and one of our neighbor ladies told my mother, and my mother's name was Emma, and she said, 'Emma, I'll take him'. And so I went out with her, and I was determined to show I could do this. And so I get out there and I work for a week. And that week I got blisters all over my hand and it was extremely hard work, much harder than I had any idea, and after that week I told my mother, well I don't think I want to go anymore, and so she told my father, and my father said 'oh no, he can do it'. And so for the rest of the summer, and the rest of my time on the farm, I got to chop cotton every year which I will never forgive myself for being so stupid to beg to do this job.
But, you know, you learn as you go. And in my family it was very important; we didn't care so much what you did, but you had to work. If you were very small, we had wood burning stoves and coal stoves, you had to go out and get the wood. My parents, my mother didn't have to wash dishes; we all washed the dishes. We made our beds. When I lived on the farm the house, the first house I remember living in, I remember waking up in the winter and the snow was on the foot of my bed because you could look out the corner where the eave would be and there was a hole there, and you could just, you know, look out into the sky. And to keep warm we would have about, oh, sometimes three or four quilts, handmade quilts that my mother would make. She was a good seamstress. To help with that we had the old iron iron that you would iron clothes with, we had three or four of those. We would put them on the stoves, heat them up, and wrap them up with cloth and put them at the foot of the bed. Now since there were so many of us, there would be three of us in the bed at one time, so we would be fighting over who got to put their foot on the iron, and usually being the younger one I didn't win, so that was quite an experience for me. But I think that benefited me early, later on when I went into sports. I had a little bit better understanding that you had to fight for what you get. Otherwise you would get practically nothing. And unfortunately, whether it's good or bad, that's kind of the way life is. The people that are able to fight for what they want have a much better chance of getting it. There is a sense of fighting fair which is important to me, very important. But to think that you're gonna' get it just by smiling won't work. You're gonna' have to be willing to do something.
I have an early experience of what it was like to go to a segregated school. When I was a young boy, I started to this school in Bernie, Missouri, and our school was all black. And because it was a smaller population and the school system had very little money, we would have like, you know, 1st through 4th grade in one classroom. And so there was a wide variety in what subjects you were taking. And one of the experiences I had there was, I'll never forget, there was a teacher. Her name was Mrs. Rhea, she was kind of a heavy set lady. At that time there was no such thing as time out. If you didn't do your homework you got a whippin', and you got that whippin' in front of the whole class. So, apart from the fact that it was painful, it was extremely embarrassing for your friends to see you getting this whippin' in front of class. And everybody also knew why you was getting' the whippin' which meant you did badly on your test or you didn't do your homework, because she would remind you of that as she spanked you. I remember I was so afraid of this lady, I mean, I don't know if she really did that much to me, but watching what she did to other kids was really scary. You know, when you're a kindergarten, first grader it's really scary. I started to school early and I would share a bench with my sister who was a couple of years older than me, and I was sitting next to her and it was just real traumatizing.
I was very afraid and timid as a young child. I didn't speak to anyone. I would, at lunchtime or recess, I would go off and just kind of be by myself. And that would have been fine but what I found was the bullies always found me, and when they found me they would, you know, at that time the weakest part of my body was my stomach, and so they'd haul off and hit you in the gut as hard as they could. And being a child that had never been treated that way I would just bend over and I would cry. Well, my sister, I had two sisters and a brother, they would come home and they would tell my mother, you know, that these kids are beating up Billy and he's not fighting back. And she tried to talk to me and it wasn't working, and so one day they came home and told her what happened to me and she said boy, when you go to school tomorrow, she said I don't care if you win or not, but if you do not fight back, when you get home I am going to whip your behind. And I had experienced that before and I knew that her whippin' would be worse than the whippin' I got at school. So I became instantly a better fighter. It was amazing what you can do. Now whether that was the right technique or the wrong technique, I didn't get beat up anymore. That, and you know, and I'm sure other people may have experienced similar experiences maybe they were told that by their father and not their mother, but my mother was the leader of my family. She was very verbal.
My father was a quiet man. He was smart, but I never knew he was smart until many years later after my mother passed away, because my mother did all the talking. And it's strange when I look at them because my mother probably, even though she only completed the fifth grade, had more common sense than any human being I've ever met. And I wanted so much to live a life like her and then when I, when she passed away, she had a stroke at age 63, I realized that I got to know my father and he was a neat guy. And he knew things. And he was living in Kansas City at that time, he had moved from Springfield, and we would go up and he and I would, we'd get there at like seven, eight o'clock, and he and I would talk until two o'clock in the morning. That was one of the best times in my life and it made an tremendous impression on me and it changed my life, because before that people had told me I was like him, and I always resented that, and then I realized after I got to know him, that wasn't such a bad thing to be like him. So I feel fortunate that I was able to get that information and realize that.
You know, I, when I moved to Springfield, one of the experiences I had, I was in sixth grade and I went to Berry School, which was an elementary school, and one of the things that I had, I didn't know anybody and we were extremely poor. I mean extremely poor. We had our utilities turned off, and many times I didn't eat lunch. And I would listen to the radio and they would talk about Springfield, the friendliest place in America. Well, my experience wasn't like that. When I would walk home from school, there, and these were not white kids, these were black kids, they would follow me about ten or twelve feet behind me and they would call me "black boy from Africa", because I had just come out of the cotton fields, and when I came out of the cotton fields I was very, very dark because you were working out in the sun. And they knew I was from the Bootheel, and they would throw things at me and insult me all the way home. And I would turn around and they had enough distance that I could not get to them. And there was always three or four of them, there wasn't just one. And that was a very hard experience for me. And so I had an extremely negative feeling about Springfield. And even though living in the Bootheel I had to pick cotton, I was so sad that I wasn't there because picking cotton was better than being picked on and insulted and bullied when you had done nothing, and you knew nothing, about, you don't know where to go. And, you know, today I see in the news kids being bullied and it always brings it back to my mind what it was like for me and how helpless I felt when there was nobody there, you know.
My father was fifty when I was born. So in '63 he was 63 years old, and so, you know, my parents were old and my older siblings had left town and so I was on my own, you know, and I had to figure out a way to handle this. And so what I did was, I went home after putting up with this for some significant amount of time and I got a pillow and I used my pillow for a punching bag to figure out, because I knew it was just a matter of time that someone was going to not just talk to me they were going to hit me, and I was scared to death. And out of fear and necessity I figured out I have to learn how to fight. And so I used this pillow and as bad luck would have it I went to a party with a friend and when I was there, the group decided that I should fight this kid who was a boxer and had already beat everybody else in school basically knowing that I had no chance of winning but he was shorter than me, and because I had practiced on this pillow I actually won the fight. But it was strictly luck. But it was good luck because nobody bothered me after that and that's all I wanted was not to be bothered. And I learned a lot about life. You know, when later on my son came around I had to teach him, not, you know, it was very important to me that he did not bully anybody else but just how to handle things if someone bullied him and how to avoid things. And I talked to him enough about things that most times you can talk your way out of a fight. And if you surround yourself with the right people you don't have to go through that. And I think I would have been luckier had I been raised here, but I didn't know anybody so I wasn't in a position to have that support system. So that was an experience. And that's what it was like for me when I was younger.
Now later on, I went to Central High School. I played football and I ran track there, and I loved sports. Unfortunately, in my, after my sophomore year, I met my wife, Dora Cooper. At that time her name was Dora Dickerson. She is white. I had a job at the Gillioz Theater and I was a janitor there. And I was doing fine; they liked my work, no problem. One day they had a movie for kids on Saturday morning, the kids show, and I worked the kids show. So I'm sitting there waiting for the show to start and my wife walks in with this other person and I met her and we hit it off right away, we really liked each other a lot. And I remember, I think it was a week or so later, the manager of the theater told me that I could not be with her and still employed, be employed there. And so I had to make a choice. And so I chose not to stay there. I chose to, that she was more important than my janitor job. That was my first really bad experience with, you know, cause it's during the '60s and you're telling yourself a lot of things have changed, and it wasn't that I didn't know I was doing something that everybody wasn't doing, but I thought if I just left people alone they would leave me alone. And I was naïve; it doesn't work that way. And so I learned a lot with that. Our first week at high school, it was the summer when we met, the first week of high school we went to a football game at Hillcrest. And stupid again, I didn't realize, the next day when we went to class we got called into the principal's office, to the dean's office, and told that we couldn't be seen at any school function together. And so that was a real issue.
Later on, because, we were defiant, and frankly we thought we were in love, and we've been together since 1966 so I guess we were in love, and it's really hard, you know, there's a lot of things people see as appropriate and not appropriate. I'm not sure people understand sometimes when you really love people it's not as simple as we don't do it this way'. It's not that easy to turn love off. I have an opinion about love. It's very hard to find a human being that you really, really love. If you are lucky enough to find one, you cannot throw them away 'cause they look different than you. That is some of the worst advice any human being can give another one. Because there's only going to be a few people that really love you. There's a lot of people that like you, but when times get hard, 'like' is not enough. This is one of the reasons our divorce rate is so high; there's a lot of people getting married because they like each other. But don't lose your job, don't become disabled, because you're going to be in divorce court and that's a horrible, horrible feeling. And I have some knowledge about that because I now have cancer. I have multiple myeloma which is a fatal disease, and there's no cure for it. If I did not have Dora, who takes care of me like I'm her baby, I do not know what I would do. There's been too many times that when you're really sick you're weak, not just physically weak, but you're mentally weak, and you don't have that fight, and, you know, we went to the right school because she is a Bulldog. She will fight you for what she believes in and that has been the biggest blessing in my life and I think sometimes, what would happen if I had listened to people and not married her? Where would I be now with this cancer if had chose someone that didn't care? If I had chose someone that said 'well you're gonna have to retire early? Oh, we're not going to make it, I've got a few good years left, I think I'll see you'. And so I, every day, I'm very pleased that she, that we were able to stay together.
You know, one of the things I've realized about interracial marriages and dating, and I'm 60 years old now, so maybe it’s different. I see so many couples out there now, and I'm sure things have changed just like it had for me when I was young, but one of the things I notice when we were young was that Dora had many more problems than myself. People were much more racist towards her than they were me. She was seen as a, strictly as a traitor. She didn't have to be with a black person. I had to be black. I was going to be treated, you know, like a black person no matter what. Now, it was a little worse because I was with her, but she made a choice, and people really abused her for that. And, you know, when I see people I wonder if people realizes that their granddaughters, their daughters, what they're going through. I don't think they understand because even family members would not say what they say sometime. And I will tell you this, the old excuse, 'this is how I was raised', that is the biggest line of crap I have ever heard. Unless you have no brain, and you are saying that there is no way that I can learn anything different than what I did, how do you even speak the English language if you're going to claim that? You didn't step on this earth educated and able to make decisions for yourself, and so that is a very bogus excuse. That's basically, what that says to me is, that's the way I am and I like it and I don't want to change and so I can use this to fall back on. And it is, it is just wrong, you know. One of the things that concerns me about our country is that we seem to embrace wrong if it's the way we like it. We need to embrace right whether we understand it or not.
You know, I'm considered more of a liberal person and frankly they were the people that accepted me and my situation much more than conservative people. Because I was raised by very conservative people, very religious people, I consider myself a religious person, but the truth is when we started dating and got married the churches didn't want us. You know, the white churches didn't want us, the black churches didn't really want you, it was like, you know, you did something wrong. And these, you know, these are people that are saying that Jesus hung out with all sorts of people and they're reading the stuff to you and they're looking at you like you're the, you know, the second coming of the devil for marrying someone you love. People need to think about what they're saying and what it means when you say it and how it hurts other people.
You know when you talk about being affected and being hurt, I was an adult male, probably in my mid-thirties, we went to Disney World together and it was probably one of the better days of my life. And we were there, and we were young, having a ball, and you know at Disney World the lines are long as all outdoors, and while we're standing in this line, we had a, we finally got to our chairs, and it's one of those rides where you have benches, long benches, and you have, you know, twenty rows of benches. Well, we got in and nobody set next to us. People would rather stand in that line than sit with us. And my feelings was hurt. Now, I was a grown man, but I don't know how to explain it, but when you're really, really happy and having a great time, and you're not thinking you're black, and you're not thinking you're in an interracial marriage, you're just having a great time, and then you look around at both sides and the people are looking at you like you have some horrible disease that's very contagious. And it really hurt my feelings. And I don't think people think, I think sometimes because you're an adult it's ok. Well, it's not ok. It still hurts. I don't know if you get old enough, or mature enough, for people to be rude to you and it's ok.
You know, I've spent thirty years of my life coaching little kids. The majority of the kids that I've coached have been white, not black. I've coached black kids but the majority of them have been white. And one of the things I liked about it, I wanted these little white kids to see that I was just a person. That I was just a man, that, that wanted what was best for them. And I felt like it was important for them because I could have chose to coach only black kids but I thought there is a job to be done on this other side, because if we're gonna' live in this world together, people need to know that we're just human. That when we go to AU and we eat at the same place and we do this, and we win together, and we lose together, and they see your demeanor, they see that you're not just a person that they have on TV that's always drugging somebody, or always gang-banging or doing something very negative. And I felt that was a very important thing to do, and so that's what I spent thirty years of my life doing.
I am very fortunate and I'll just end it with this: when I was twenty-four I found out I had epilepsy; had no idea. I was working at a local company and I passed out. And they took me to the emergency room and they discovered I had epilepsy. And the company told me that they didn't need anybody like me so I lost my job. I'd just bought a house, my wife was pregnant, I got out of the hospital, I was in the hospital a week trying to figure out what was wrong, I got out of the hospital and the next day she had my son, Joshua, which was the best thing that ever happened to me in my whole life. And because I had epilepsy I was so fortunate I was able to go and get help through vocation rehabilitation. And because I got help through them I decided to go into some type of social work. And what was, and the reason I decided this was, I went to an agency trying to get help because my wife had seen it in the paper, again, there's so many things that she's done for me that I would have never done on my own, didn't even think about it, and she said there's an opportunity for you to go to college. And I went, 'I don't think so'. Well, I went to this office and this gentleman told me the best he could do for me was offer me six weeks' training as a custodian. No chance for college. Well, I'd been a custodian for three and a half years at Lily-Tulip so I don't know what he was gonna' teach me but basically he was saying, I guess, I was custodian material. I went back a week later because when I went home my wife told me 'that's crap and you can do better than that' and she just rode me for a week. And I decided, get off my back and I'll go back. I met a lady, and I have to mention her name because she was so good, she's 90 years old now, her name is Anna McQuerter, and I remember sitting in her office and she looked at me and she said, 'Billy, what do want to be? What do you want to do?' And I was in shock, like, you mean you're not gonna' tell me I have to be a janitor? And she said you can go to college, just tell me what you want to do. And this lady mentored me for four years, and I mean really mentored me. When I had a problem I could just show up at her office without an appointment and she saw me. And I decided I wanted to be like her, I wanted to be the person that told the person yes when they came in for help. I did not want to be the person sitting there like the guard keeping everybody out, because one of the things I've found in some forms of social work after working for 28 years in that business, was that some people have the tendency just to say no, and you have to prove for some reason that you're worthy and, you know, looking at other people's past does not always tell what they're capable of, because I was not a good student in high school. There was no reason for this woman to accept me but she did and she gave me a chance. And I hope during the time that I worked that I was able to do the same thing. That was my goal in life, and I feel very fortunate and I feel blessed, you know, I was lucky enough to get Dora who stood by me all this time, and then I was just blessed beyond measure when I got my son Joshua, and he's just the love of our lives, and then later on in life, at age 40 or so, we got my wife's niece Jessica. And when we got Jessica she had special needs. She had a cleft palate, was born blind in one eye, and had a brain tumor and she's had 34 surgeries. And we would take her to St. Louis often and Jessica is now working and when we got her they said because of her learning disabilities she'd never be able to do anything, you know, and she's got her own place and she's the mother of a three-year-old boy, Skyler. I am just so blessed and so fortunate and I just need to say that. And I have a grandson, which is Joshua's son, and his name is Anthony Cooper, and I will tell you, he is great. He's great. So I would like to thank everybody for listening to me, and you know, if you're out at Kickapoo you might go and watch Anthony play football; he's going to be a great quarterback. Thank you.
That's wonderful, thank you ever so much, Billy.
[Transcript of interview with Billy Cooper, recorded as part of the Springfield-Greene County Library District's 2010 Big Read. For more information contact the Library at 417-883-5366 or visit us on the web.]