My grandfather, Willie Wayne, purchased more than 200 acres of land in Union Parish, Louisiana, on a wing and a prayer. He never learned to read or write and, as I have heard, he was soft-spoken and all about business. I was an infant when Papa Willie passed so I can only rely on what I have been told. Willie Wayne and Mary Lee (Andrews) Wayne had six children; four sons and one daughter. My father, Grady Wayne, Sr., was the youngest. When the boys were old enough to work, their jobs were working the farm, cutting down trees, and hauling the logs to the paper mill. When they got paid from the mill, Papa Willie would have them pay him and he would give them what we might call today an allowance. That didn’t go over well for young men wanting to have fun, but what they did not know is he was investing in their future. He used their earnings to buy land which eventually accumulated to 240 acres. This was at a time in the deep south when Black people did not garner the same level of respect as others. And, that’s another thing I’ve heard about Papa Willie. He was well-respected. When each of his children married, he gave them their parcel of land and helped them build their home. My mother and father were the last to marry. Mama was from Strong, Arkansas, a small town about 45 miles north of Marion. She told me many stories about what it was like to leave her home in Strong, where she was the youngest daughter and the fifth of six children, to live on my father’s family farm. The first thing Papa Willie did was take the two of them to where their land was and then helped start building the house. For the first year of their marriage, he would buy everything they needed. Papa Willie had a good relationship with the white people who owned the one and only store in town—Smith’s Dry Goods. Whenever Mama or Daddy needed something—food, clothing, etc., they were to put it on Willie Wayne’s tab at the store. He always paid his bills. Mama and Daddy had my brother, Grady, Jr., two years after they were married, and my sister, Marie, came along 17 months later. I didn’t get the chance to experience growing up in Louisiana. Our family moved to Kansas City in 1950 and I was born in Kansas in 1951. That’s where I grew up except for those long, hot, dusty summers from the time I could walk until my late teens that I spent with family in Marion, Louisiana, and Strong, Arkansas. At the time, I thought I was being punished, but looking back I now see that those were some of the best years of my life. There’s nothing like knowing one’s roots and getting to walk the same paths that our ancestors traveled.
When my father was drafted in World War II, a white farm owner nearby offered him the opportunity to dodge the draft by coming to work on his farm. He said he could guarantee that Daddy wouldn’t have to go to war. But, at what price? Papa Willie had instilled in his children that they should work for themselves and owning and working their own land was a privilege not afforded their slave ancestors. So, Daddy opted to go to war. Just as he was about to be shipped off overseas, their six-weeks old baby, Willie, died of pneumonia. Daddy was allowed just enough time to come home to bury the brother I never knew. He would have been seven years my senior.
Daddy dropped out of school after fifth grade; however, farm work provided him with some great skills—particularly mechanical. His service record calls him a Mechanical Engineer. During the war, he was assigned to The Red Ball Express. These were mostly Black farm boys who drove ammunition trucks in pitch-black darkness behind enemy lines. When he returned from the war, he and my mother, brother, and sister eventually moved to Kansas City, after he heard about opportunities for employment. As the song goes, “how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Parie?”
Daddy’s first job was with one of the meat packing plants in Kansas City. When the B2 Bombers were no longer needed, the Bomber plant in Kansas City, Kansas, was converted to an automobile factory, and daddy hired on at General Motors’ Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac facility as a Metal Finisher.
There hasn’t been any farming or logging on the family acreage in many years. But all of us heirs agree that the land is priceless, and it is our intention to keep it in the family to honor our heritage and those on whose shoulders we stand.
Willie and Mary Lee (Andrews) Wayne