I want to share some gems of history from an interview I had with my favorite octogenarian: Mr. Ernest Pugh.
Mr. Pugh began reminiscing about the earliest cars in his family. Then he talked about his childhood in a now-extinct farming community: Willie Valley, in Southeast Smith County. This interview happened on October 8, 2011. We were neighbors who lived on the same block of Crescent Drive in North Tyler. Mr. Pugh moved to Fort Worth five years later to be with his son. His home had been a neighborhood gathering place.
Mr. Pugh first learned how to drive on a 1932 Chevrolet truck. It had big headlights, a short bed, and no interior seats. They had to sit on wooden crates because there were no seats; maybe an animal had eaten them, such as a goat! His dad’s first car was a Model T. Riding in one of those vehicles was cold in the winter since the car didn’t have real sides, let alone a top. We’re talking well beyond a convertible. So his mom wrapped up the kids in blankets. The Model T couldn’t go over 30 mph. Before Mr. Pugh’s dad’s first car was a horse and buggy. The horse used to walk with his legs crossing each other, seemingly like a pigeon-toed person. The horse was referred to as a buggy horse.
On School During Segregation
Mr. Pugh grew up in Willie Valley—an African-American community near what is now Paluxy Dr. and Copeland Rd. in southeast Smith County. Tyler is the county seat. Willie Valley had an elementary school that went through 8th or 9th grade, but the Black children were released from school to pick cotton for the White farmers in that era. The Black kids in Willie Valley started school in late October or early November, once the cotton was picked. Their school year was shorter than the White kids’ school year since there was no summer school to make up for missing a big chunk of fall.
They didn’t have any high schools in Willie Valley. So most Black kids simply quit attending school. However, some kept going to school in either the Black high school in Bullard or Emmett Scott High School in North Tyler. Often the kids had to go live with an aunt or uncle to be near those schools.
Willie Valley didn’t have a bus for the kids, but they had a truck with some makeshift improvements. There was a flatbed with long bench seats bolted to the truck bed bottom, and the seatbacks were nailed to the back of the little protective wall surrounding the flatbed.
White Businesses in Willie Valley
Several White families lived in Willie Valley. Mr. Gilliam owned a country store that sold a little bit of everything: groceries, clothes, and sometimes tools. Morgan Nursery sold roses. E.L. Hunt, of the famous Hunt Oil company family, owned a peach orchard on either 271 South or 155 South. Peaches used to be the major product of Tyler before roses. Ted Gray owned a tomato-canning factory in Jacksonville before the Hunts bought it out. Then Mr. Gray moved to Nacogdoches. Rice Elementary School in the Tyler ISD was named after an Anglo dairy farmer, who use to own the land where that school is now located. Weakley was another raiser of milk cattle near what is now the south Loop 323 and Old Bullard in 1930s. Corn was another crop in southern Smith County in the 1930s.
Mr. Pugh Leaves School & Goes to Work
Mr. Pugh’s education ended after elementary school like most African-American children in Willie Valley. He was 13. But he left home with his 25-year old girlfriend, and they moved to Memphis, Texas—a tiny hamlet near the Red River, and they lived with a rancher! His girlfriend cleaned houses and looked after a baby. There were only two stores and three night cafes that served African-Americans in Memphis, TX. There was a wolf crossing near Memphis that kept everyone alert! Memphis was 19 miles from the Childress Army Camp. A carton of top cigarettes only cost $3 for ten packs, including such name brands as Lucky Strike, Chesterfield, Kool, and Camel—Mr. Pugh’s favorite at the time. A pack of cigarettes only cost 15-20 cents in the Forties.
After six months, Mr. Pugh returned home to Willie Valley and worked in a cement factory called Dixie by the time he was 15. Dixie was located under the bridge on a road now called Beckham Avenue. Beckham was called Dixie Highway in those days, and there was a hotel called Dixie at the corner of Lincoln AV (Now MLK BLVD) and Dixie Highway (now Beckham AV or 271 North).