A White Cracker and Colored Man Sat in the Same Boat


The smell of Camel cigarettes, sausage and scrambled eggs cooked in a cast-iron skillet, buttered toast in the oven and coffee on the stovetop woke me up before sunrise on a cold fall morning in north Florida.

My grandfather, Red Parham, was cooking breakfast. We were going deer hunting.

In the woods, he placed me in front of a pine tree with clear instructions, "Don't shoot unless you see antlers."

He handed me a pocket full of shells. The 12-guage double-barreled shotgun was loaded with buckshot. He moved out of sight. We waited. And waited.

We heard shots. We never saw a buck. Small wonder. My teeth were chattering so loudly any deer with hearing would have shied away.

Life couldn't have been much better for a young schoolboy with his grandfather.

My grandfather took me dove hunting. He let me shoot squirrels out of the pecan tree in his backyard with a single-barreled .22 rifle. He taught me how to skin, clean and fry squirrels. We trapped raccoons raiding his pear tree. We fished in the Trout River, a tributary of St. John's River. We did target practice with a revolver. And I loved every minute with him.

He was an outdoorsman - hunter, fisherman, cook - and cigarette smoker. He was what was called a "Florida Cracker." That's another term for redneck - a white conservative, raised in poverty, poorly educated.

Red Parham was also on TV in the early 1950s with a hunting-and-fishing show. He ended each broadcast on WCTV in Jacksonville, Florida, with the slogan, "The family that plays together and prays together, stays together."

Perhaps he knew that truth from personal experience. His own family of origin busted apart when he was a young child for reasons unshared with future generations. He went to live with his uncle's family - and by all accounts was well-received.

Raised among poor whites deep in the heart of Dixie, he only received a fourth-grade education.

He was among the working poor as evidenced by the tiny, sad-looking, shotgun-style home where he and his wife, Nona Louise Buck Parham, lived early in their marriage.

Red was a shoe salesman at Rosenbloom's when he got his big break. His storytelling, enthusiasm and sporting expertise landed him a temporary opportunity to host a TV show. He was hired as a summer substitute.

After a thousand letters arrived at the station in one week, he became the outdoor reporter appearing each Thursday.

Archival photographs of the show illustrated the nature of TV back then. One had a backdrop with a painting of cypress trees. Sometime episodes were shot in a motorboat inside the studio. The set was clearly artificial.

At some point, Red had a colored man - the term then for an African-American male - on his show. He had met the man as a waiter at Morrison's Restaurant. I'm not sure if they became friends or he spotted the man's talent.

Either way, Red had the man sit in his boat on TV while they talked about fishing.

That was an unimaginable step for a TV show in north Florida. Integration was unspeakable in Dixie. Listening to what a colored man as an equal would say was unacceptable, especially if you were known as a "Florida Cracker."

After the one or more episodes aired, some of the men of Main Street Baptist Church, where Red and Nona were faithful members, "blessed him out," a euphemism for cussing someone out. Race mixing just wasn't tolerated. Race mixers were socially reprimanded.

The experience was so harsh that Red stopped going to church. Nona did stay active in the church out of her love for missions. If Red ever went back to church, it was with little enthusiasm - and probably to please Nona.

I never heard him share the Main Street Baptist Church story. I never heard him speak up for integration or speak down about civil rights. Maybe he did and I was too interested in hunting and fishing.

But I'm proud for what he did, putting a small crack in the TV race barrier, providing opportunity to another man from poverty.

From that episode in the 1950s to the work of EthicsDaily.com, we see how far our society has come. We see that social change grinds slowly.

Unitarian minister Theodore Parker wrote in the 1850s, "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight ... But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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