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Stafford: Cosby received grandma’s tough medicine during childhood

In an interview last June after she was honored by the Springfield Foundation’s African-American Community Family of Funds, Springfield Realtor Lula Cosby told News-Sun columnist Tom Stafford she’d considered writing her life’s story down but hadn’t because it seemed too much like Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She doubted that anyone would be interested.

Today’s article is the first of a four-part series on Cosby, one that begins in the Mississippi of the 1930s, follows the path of the Great Migration to Chicago, then makes a stop in California before arriving in Urbana and Springfield, where Cosby has lived the joyous, giving life recognized at last June’s ceremony.

Part I: A spoonful of coffee and a grandma’s tough medicine

Until she was nearly 9 years old, Lula Cosby, born Sept. 21, 1939, lived and grew up in Albert and Henrietta Wells’ sharecropper home in Gunnison, Miss., believing she was among 14 Wells children, one of whom had died at birth.

Her great-grandfather, Big Pa, joined the household after Lula’s great-grandmother died, bringing with him a morning ritual that remains one of Lula’s favorite childhood memories.

Each day when they awoke, the younger children would line up for the single spoonful of sweetened coffee from Big Pa. Being children, they would, of course, pester him for a second spoonful, but he always refused, telling them any more would “make them black”. In the savagely segregated Mississippi of the time, that was not thought to be in their best interests. And it was in that social context that Lula’s color, closer to coffee with cream, almost got her killed.

Back then, the family followed the tradition of cutting hair on the full moon, and when Lula’s would grow back faster, the others would protest the unfairness and sometimes scream for Lula’s hair to be cut again. Because she had lighter skin, “There was a lot of jealousy, which isolated me,” Cosby recalled. That jealousy reached a peak the day two of the girls, one just younger and one just older than Cosby, “took me down to this stream and tried to drown me, as you would an unwanted kitten.”

One of the uninvolved children ran back to the house, and Henrietta Wells stormed back in time to save Cosby. Although she grew to be a strong enough swimmer to go from one side of a pool to the other and back underwater, even now, the view of water at eye level makes Cosby catch her breath.

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In the summer of 1948, her 8-year-old view of the world was again muddied when the woman she’d known as her sister Janie returned to Mississippi from Chicago and took Lula back with her on the train.

“I was raised to believe my grandmother was my mother and my mother was my oldest sister,” she said.

She only later learned that her mother had become pregnant at age 15 and lived with Lula’s father for less than a year after a shotgun wedding. After returning to the Wells home, her mother married a man twice her age and moved to Chicago with him.

A picture of Lula’s birth father explains why she looked different from the children she knew as her brothers and sisters. James Myles was so strikingly white that, years later, Lula told Dick Link, whom she worked for at Springfield’s Link-Hellmuth Realty, the two of them could have been twins.

Separation at such a tender age from her grandmother was painful and disorienting for Cosby, but it never cracked her connection with the woman she calls “one of my angels” — an angel that gave her several great gifts.

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One empowering gift was bestowed in the days Lula thought Henrietta was her mother. “She just embedded in me that anything I wanted to do was possible.”

Another harder, but equally necessary gift, was teaching — sometimes even scolding — Lula to be deeply thankful for what she had so she would not be vulnerable to the self-pity that can come from life’s reminders of what she would not have. Henrietta Wells reasoned that the same quality that had helped her to survive a black Mississippi sharecropper’s life was one her granddaughter would need whether she lived in Gunnison or Chicago. And she was right.

Cosby’s mother had come to claim her in 1948 for a largely practical reason. She and her husband were about to start a family, and in the controlling manner Lula said was anchored to a bedrock meanness, “He didn’t want anyone outside the home to take care of ‘his’ children.”

“They had five children, boom, boom, boom. And (beginning at 8 years of age) my job was, when I got out of school at 3:30, I had to run home and be there, because my mother worked the 4 to 12 shift at the R.R. Donnelly & Sons Co. (a publisher) and he worked days at the Chicago (Union) Stock Yards.”

Cosby who turned nine that fall, spent the remainder of her childhood getting up, going to school, returning to look after the children, set the table, feed the family, do the dishes, give her half-brothers and -sisters baths, get them into bed and then do her homework.

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In a routine she compares to an indentured servant’s, she would get up the next school day and do it all again.

“Saturdays, my job was to work with my mother around the house and wash the clothes,” a task done by hand in a tub with a scrub board that left her hands raw.

Later on, a washing machine arrived with a ringer to squeeze out the heavy, wet clothes.

For Lula, the front yard of the home was more like a prison exercise yard than a playground. “I could not go outside the fence and play with the other kids, because ‘his’ children could not go outside the yard, because he was afraid they’d get hurt.”

One day she was allowed to leave the yard and play with her friends at Douglas Park, things did not turn out well. At the top of a slide’s ladder, a boy bumped into her sister Shirley, who fell to the ground and broke her ankle. Cosby was blamed. After her stepfather took Shirley to the hospital in their old Hudson, Lula’s mother told her, “I’m going whip you this time because if I let him, he’ll really hurt you.”

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Looking back, Cosby recognizes the danger she was in — and the power her abusive stepfather had over her mother. Her mother’s actions nonetheless still strike her as a strange way to show that she cared.

Henrietta Wells’ granddaughter never cried during that whipping, and for three weeks that summer was told to stay out of her stepfather’s sight. Just before he arrived home from work, “I had to go sit underneath our back porch until he went to bed. At dinner time, my mother would put a plate outside for me like you would a dog.”

Years later, Cosby’s mother told her everything Cosby had accomplished in her life she did by herself. “I can’t take any credit for,” Lula recalls her saying, “You’ve done it on your own.”

“I forgave my mother long ago,” Cosby said, “because, as she told me, she was trying to do the best she could under brutal circumstances.”

It seems Henrietta Wells knew what those circumstances would be when her 8-year-old granddaughter boarded the train to Chicago had given her advice that would be needed.

It was advice a young Lula took to heart because, in spite of the occasional harshness of her grandmother’s words, she always saw and felt the love pouring from her grandmother’s eyes.

“She was my hero,” Cosby said. “I always thought, “If I only could be like my grandmother ….”

Next week: A blossoming nightmare

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