As Told to Gregory Kelly on May 5, 2021
Transcribed by Brandon Kelly
Photos by Tori Steyne
My name is Elizabeth Ruff. I was born on March 10, 1927 and I am 94 years old. I am the youngest of ten children. All my siblings have passed. I was born near Keitt's Crossing outside of Newberry. My parents were David and Emma Wells. They were sharecroppers, and so were my grandparents. We had some good years and some bad years, picking cotton, and growing corn, potatoes and field peas. Poppa raised hogs, and Mama had chickens. I went to the Drayton Street school. I had to walk from our home out by the old Newberry Hospital on Hunt Street. We didn't have buses. We had to leave early and walk on a dirt road. It could be rough, being cold. The principal, you know they was always punishing you and I was trying not to tell him, and he said “well, don’t cry, I understand.” One time I was late and they sent me to the principal's office. He had an attitude and said “you always be late.” I told him that when I was coming to school there was soldiers in cars that we had to wait on. There was a war going on then. He said he understood and never gave me trouble about it again.
The white kids would ride the bus and they would pick at us. They would call us names. Mama always said don’t say a word, just walk. We couldn't say nothing back. I am proud of being Black because of how I was raised. My mother and father were brought up Black and proud. They were farmers and it takes a lot of strength to be a farmer. It takes a lot of strength to not say something back when people are calling you names.
I didn't get much of an education. I stopped going when I was about fourteen. I married my best friend's brother and worked at the hospital as a maid. I have one son, Willie Jr. I raised him as a single mother since he was ten years old. I had to teach him about being careful about how he spoke. I had to tell him I didn't know why he couldn't ride the bus and had to walk. We live on Wise Street, in the house I built. It was a Black neighborhood. It was quiet, it was more older people, and they was Christian people. Everybody kept everything clean, and if they could help something wrong, they would. People like Mr. Longshore, who ran the taxi line downtown. There was a store and Mr. Chapman's laundromat with a lawyer out back. They was real good people, but they died, their kids left and sold the store. Now when people here get an education, they leave the area and don't come back.
It was a sad day in the neighborhood when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died. He was talking about freedom. Dr. King talked about changing things peacefully and with love. That made a difference to me as a Christian. I just enjoyed what he said, and he was really a good, Christian man. I listened to Malcolm X some but some of the things he said was just wrong. I see the news today and I get disheartened. It hurts to talk about it. Some people just can’t change. They're going to die like that. That’s in our color, too. They’re not going to change, and we have to accept them or just stay away from them. That’s what I feel, the way I was brought up. Mama always taught us that sometimes when people just don’t have nothing and they get a little higher, it just goes to their head. That’s why they act like that. Just trying to be better than somebody, anybody. These young boys now, they don’t have respect for nobody. These mothers that have these kids, they don’t have respect for their kids, and the kids don't have any respect for them. I love Newberry. I love the people. I worked at the old hospital for a long time. After I retired, I spend my time messing around. I like Judge Joe Brown and Law & Order on TV, plus my afternoon stories, and Steve Harvey in the evening. I keep my mind sharp by doing two Find-a-word puzzles a day, before I go to bed. I still drive, although I don't get into traffic much. On Sundays I go to Enoree Baptist Church. My grand-daughter Letha looks in on me a lot. I would like to see more police patrols on my street. I think it would discourage the behavior I see. Standing on the corner, drinking, smoking, cussing, raising sin, all kind of that stuff. A lot of these people come from across town. They come through here and they just go real fast in their cars. Carolyn Sims was shot and killed across the street from me. The gunfire scared me. Sometimes the police come through and they chasing people through here, they cut and come through and go around that way. I would like to see the street get straightened out. They do have a park for the young people, they fixed it up real nice. I hope they’ll keep it like that.
I think it’s going to get better. To me, it is getting a little bit better. It's not as bad as it was in the 1930's and 1960's. I am old enough to know you have to get through the pain sometimes. I know I won’t be here much longer, but I hope I will. We just have to pray, ask the Lord to help us. That’s the only thing that will straighten it out.
Gregory would like to thank the local community group Wise Street Empowered for introducing him to Miss Betty.