Dorothy Ngongang and her younger sister Sandra McBeth–formerly Dorothy and Sandra Giles–were raised, along with eight siblings, in a dilapidated five-room hut. They didn’t have much food except what they could catch, forage, or glean. They could only go to school on rainy days, because when it was dry they had to pick cotton. “We came from nothing,” Sandra says. Small house–two to a bed, and a bed nothing but a sackcloth filled with hay.
Their father, Bo Giles, was a sharecropper– which almost always meant a raw deal for the renters and a windfall for the landowners who locked families into contracts that drowned the workers in ever increasing debt. All ten children worked in the cotton fields, sunup to sundown, no matter how hot the day. No lollygagging allowed. “I think I got spanked every day because I wasn’t using two hands,” said another sister, Mary. “We had to pick with both hands.” The family picked around 40 bales of cotton a year. That’s a whopping 50,000 pounds! The pay? As much as $300, as little as $100–for the entire year!
Right across the road was a lovely white house with a manicured lawn and rocking chairs on the wrap-around porch. “We thought it was a mansion,” Dorothy says. Three girls lived there–Joan, Marian, and Peggy Wheeler. Despite the Jim Crow laws in North Carolina of separate schools, separate drinking fountains, and separate bathrooms, the girls across the road loved to play with the Giles girls. And that house with the giant tree on the perfect lawn was the Giles girls’ refuge.
Neither Bo nor his wife Lake ever learned to read, but four of their children earned two-year college degrees, and three others earned master’s degrees. Dorothy, who finished at the top of her class, spent years teaching high school biology and environmental science–about as far from picking cotton as she could get. Imagine her amazement when Peggy, the youngest of the Wheeler girls, called and asked if she would be interested in buying their house. “No one has lived there for ten years,” Peggy said. “It’s fallen into disrepair and I can’t fix it up. There’s no one in the world we would rather have there than you.”
As children, the Giles girls had played across the road at the mansion. But live there? Impossible!
Not impossible. Dorothy and Sandra had finished refurbishing the house and were in the yard when Marian–the middle Wheeler sister–drove up. “I’m glad you’re here,” Marian said as she greeted her childhood friends with a hug. It’s like we kept the house in the family.”
(Based on article in The Charlotte Observer, Charlotte, N.C.)
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson