The 85-year-old Anniston resident was the subject of a recent documentary by filmmaker Stan Arthur.
In the film, “My Anniston: Edward Wood,” he sits comfortably in his living room or visits various landmarks around Anniston, sharing memories and stories.
He speaks with humor and sorrow in equal measure, remembering growing up the son of a slave, life in the Jim Crow South, his military service and witnessing a mob of Ku Klux Klan members attack a Freedom Riders bus outside Anniston in 1961.
“I grew up with a lot of hate,” he said. “But I’ve learned to let that go. There are some people I don’t like, but hatred … that’s something I’ll never give into again — never.”
Wood will be the guest speaker this morning at a breakfast at Camp Lee, hosted by the Anniston First United Methodist Church men’s group.
“He’s a special man with a great story to tell,” said Lee London, who helped organize the event.
Wood grew up in a time when blacks and whites weren’t allowed to use the same bathrooms or water fountains, or eat in the same restaurants.
He remembers when the largest hospital in the area had separate entrances.
“Even though you might be bleeding or dying, you had to find the colored entrance,” he said. “If you went in the wrong one, the receptionist would yell at you like you were a snake.”
After a lifetime spent amidst hatred, Wood no longer sees color, only hope for the future — assuming that future can learn from the mistakes of the past.
“I am very much concerned about our younger generation,” he said. “I’m concerned about the lack of opportunities when I came along, versus the opportunities that exist now. Too many of our young people aren’t taking advantage of it. I hope that something I say in this documentary will start someone to thinking.”
Wood talked this week about growing up as a sharecropper’s son, his involvement in the Civil Rights movement, and what it was like to witness the infamous bus burning.
(This interview contains language that some readers may find offensive.)
Obviously, life has changed a great deal for younger generations of African-Americans.
There wasn’t a school for black people in the community where I grew up — not even a school building. They taught up to sixth grade in a church.
I walked four miles to attend, and when I finished sixth grade, there was nowhere else to go. The nearest high school was 28 miles away, and there was no busing for blacks.
Some of us went through the sixth grade two or three times because there was nowhere else to go.
I wasn’t able to go to high school until after I moved to Anniston, got married and had three children.
Now there’s a school within hollerin’ distance to everybody, and too many of our young people won’t attend. That really bothers me.
You grew up on a farm outside of Lineville. What was that like?
My daddy was born a slave. My granddaddy owned my grandmother, and he had two children by her. When my granddaddy died, my daddy and his sister inherited the farm, because there was nobody else.
By the time I came along, somebody else owned the farm and we were what was known as sharecroppers — ’course, we did a lot of cropping but very little sharing.
It was common back in those days that you worked and produced and the landlord took it.
He provided a house — if you could call it a house — and furnished you a little money. But when it came time to sell what we grew, it all managed to go to him.
What are some of your earliest memories?
I had an experience when I was about 12 years old. My daddy had died; we were living on the farm.
After my dad died, my second oldest brother, who was about 19, took over. When time came to settle, there was some strange stuff charged to our account.
The landlord and my brother had an argument over how much we owed, including charging us $30 for the pine box my father was buried in. My brother knew we’d already paid the landlord and had the receipt to prove it.
My brother got pretty loud, and the landlord’s son came around asking what the matter was. The landlord had thrown down the receipt. His son picked it up and said, “Daddy that’s your handwriting.”
So the landlord threw down the money, the books, the receipt, everything, and told him, “You ain’t nothin’ but a nigger-lover. Take it and give it all to the nigger.”
It was 28 miles from the little town of Lineville to where we lived. So the landlord got in his truck — left my brother to walk the 28 miles — and drove to our house.
The landlord called our mother a “black bitch” told her to get off his farm and take all the “little niggers” with her.
I grabbed him around the leg, and he kicked me several times in the head.
The landlord would prove to have a powerful impact on your life as an adult.
I went into the Navy. I was the youngest of four brothers, and they all went ahead of me: one in the Army, one in the Marine Corps and two in the Navy.
Just a few days before I went into the military, I went out hunting. The landlord was at my house. I was about 18 at the time. I got home and saw my mother was crying.
She said the landlord wanted to see me. He wanted to apologize, knowing he’d done me wrong (all those years before).
He’d already apologized to her, but he’d waited for me as long as he could but had to leave.
I said to my mother, “You let him in the house?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, if I’d been here, I’d have killed him.” And I meant it.
She said, “Son, you’ve got to get that hate out of you … you’ve got to learn to love him.”
I said, “I’ll die and go to hell before I love that man.”
“Well that’s exactly where you’re going if you don’t get that hate out of you.”
So I went into the military. Me and my brothers all got discharged within a few weeks of each other. I hadn’t even taken off my uniform when my oldest brother, who had just bought a new car, insisted on taking me for a ride.
He took me straight to the landlord’s house — only he didn’t have his own house. He was living with his son-in-law, who ran a little store on the side of the road.
When we got there, the old landlord was sitting in the shade out by the shed. We drove up. He didn’t recognize me. My brother told him who I was.
He stood up and said, “Boy, I’m glad God let me live long enough to see you before I die. I wanted to tell you how sorry I am for the way I treated you.
“I was wrong and I want you to forgive me. God has dealt with me. I’ve lost my farms, I’ve lost my wife, spent all my money, don’t have my home, don’t have any place to sleep, and I want you to forgive me.”
We hugged each other’s necks and cried.
I let out a lot of hate on that day, and I’ll never ever stoop to that level again.
What was life like after you returned from serving in the military?
I was naïve enough to think that once we’d won the war and saw a lot of the world that things would be different when we got back home. But I soon found out different.
Even the bus I rode home on had vacant seats, but I still had to stand up.
Here I am back home with a uniform on, having fought for my country, and I can’t even sit down on a bus because the vacant seats were in front of the white line.
How did you get involved in the Civil Rights movement?
When I came to Anniston, I met a dentist, fellow by the name of Gordon Rogers, and we became very good friends. We organized ourselves into the Anniston Progressive Club.
Our primary interest was to get black people registered to vote. There were some places in Calhoun County where that was near impossible.
It wasn’t that bad in Anniston, but it was hard enough. We spent a lot of time knocking on doors, and we were fairly successful.
When (Martin Luther) King and the SCLC came along, I joined immediately.
I was one of the first blacks to sit at a lunch counter in Anniston; was one of the first to sit on the front seat of a bus in Anniston.
I feel pretty good about that. I’m not bragging, but it’s a fact of life.
You were one of the few local people to witness the Anniston bus burning in 1961. How did that happen?
Everybody knew that the Freedom bus was coming through.
It was Mother’s Day, and I was going to take my wife out to dinner.
They had a problem with the bus at the bus station, where some of the riders were beaten real bad and the tires on the bus were cut.
We were aware of this, but we thought the bus was gone. So we deliberately waited until later in the afternoon to go out.
I was driving my wife to this place called Riverside that served the best catfish. We couldn’t go in the restaurant; they had a wood fence separating the white side from the black, but it had picnic tables. You could buy the fish and eat in the car or sit at one of the tables, and you couldn’t see the people on the other side of the fence.
So we were going to dinner when I pulled up right behind the bus out on Highway 202. The bus had slowed down and eventually stopped right in front of me as the smoke started pouring out.
I jumped out and thought maybe I could help. There were about five or six loads of Klansman right there and they made me — they didn’t hit me — but made me get away from there.
So I got back in my car and drove down a few blocks …. By the time I got back, the bus had already burned. There was nothing left but the frame, and people were laying all alongside the highway, bleeding and screaming … all a matter of few minutes.
What’s it been like for you to revisit all of these memories, by making the movie and now by speaking to various groups?
I’d sort of put it in the back of my mind and moved on, enjoying my life.
It’s sort of sad looking back. It brings it all back again, but I’m determined to do whatever I can to change the situation. I want to do that by telling my story.
I don’t see black or white people anymore. I only see people. I don’t care what color they are.
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.
More on the Freedom Rides
Revisit the Anniston Star’s extensive coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, including a slideshow of photos taken of the 1961 bus burning. Freedom Rides
What: Breakfast, presentation and screening of the film “My Anniston: Edward Wood.”
When: 8 a.m. today.
Where: Grove Dining Hall, Camp Lee, Anniston
Tickets: $5; call 256-236-5605 for more info.