“I am the story of myself”
…the life and times of Minnie Kennedy
Unware of what was in store, the world was given a most wonderful present on Christmas Day 1916 in the form of Baby Minnie Kennedy.
Everyone knew when Minnie was born Christmas Day in 1916. Minnie literally popped out and clutched onto the midwife’s apron and wouldn’t let go. The midwife began to scream, “I think I have a witch!” Her father had to pry her fingers loose. “I think they knew then that I was going to be trouble- a radical-always questioning everything and everyone. I think I was holding on so tight because I just wanted to climb back in where it was nice and safe…but the world wouldn’t wait and out I popped!”
“I was the rebel in the family…always questioning…always rebelling”. People would say of Minnie, “Something is wrong with that little girl!” Minnie says emphatically that she was very different from anyone in her family. “Everyone thought I must be adopted I was so different. I didn’t even look like other members of my family.” In later years, as Minnie traveled to Africa, she was told her facial features were Nigerian. This was good news for Minnie who had always wondered about her heritage. It was also in Nigeria that Minnie discovered where the heritage of rice planting began. Africans brought the knowledge of rice planting, along with okra, collard greens, black eye peas, and other foods when they came. Minnie sat down with her African hosts and ate ‘soul food’ thousands of miles from her home. In the global sense she was home… in the home of her ancestors.
“From the time we were three or four, we all had responsibilities. Everyone had to do their job to keep the family afloat; set the table, bring the plates. I actually think that is good-children need to feel useful… “course back then it was a necessity!” Minnie’s earliest memories revolved around her family. Her world included all the people who loved her.
“Both my father and mother pushed for education. I remember one time my mother was fussing at me that it was my turn to clean up the kitchen and my father said, ‘Leave that girl alone, she’s the only one reading.’” Minnie’s parents supported education despite the fact that they had little schooling themselves. Both Minnie’s parents worked at the Baruch home and were very busy every day, but they found time to spend with the children. Daisy was the cook and William was the Jack-of-all-trades, so their house was the closest to the Baruch mansion.
Minnie remembers one special time when her father had his arm around her talking about her dreams. She was telling him that she wanted to go to school and then go somewhere else so she could do something important. In the middle of this conversation, the telephone rang and her father was summoned to the Baruch home. “I still remember my father’s arms around me- feeling that sense of unconditional love, but always the reality was there to interrupt.“
Early in her youth, an example of reality setting in came in the form of an incident involving Minnie and her sister. “We had run an errand and were walking home. We went by a big antebellum house with white kids playing stick with a dog. The stick fell onto the sidewalk in front of my sister who picked it up and threw back. We went on towards home when before you knew it the police arrived and all the white kids collaborated with the police saying that little sister had purposely hit the dog.” Minnie tells the story that she “ran home to tell Daddy that sister was locked up,” knowing that her hero would take care of the matter. Instead her father paid $25.00 to get the sister out of the “lock up” that was in the Clock Tower in Georgetown. Minnie sadly admits that she lost a lot of feeling, love, and respect and for a time she saw her father as weak. Much later, as an adult, Minnie forgave her father, realizing the “powerlessness in the black family.”
Because she was younger than most of her siblings, Minnie went to school with them when she was only about three. There was no one else to keep her, so she went along with the other children. She remembers that very early it was recognized that she was “that smart one.” She learned to read and do her math just like the older children. “The school at Strawberry Village was like the Little Red School House. All the children were in the same room and we all had the same teacher who taught us all the subjects.” There were several little villages on Hobcaw and all the children went to the school at Strawberry there. Strawberry was also the location of the community pump.
Each village was unique and each contributed in some way to the overall existence of the land. Friendfield Village was the social center of the Hobcaw villages. The church was located there. Dr. Bell came each Wednesday to see to the needs of the villagers. The Barnyard was where the mules and farm animals were kept and where the vegetables were grown. There were other villages that included Hadley, Audley, and Bellefield. There were some white families that lived in these villages, also working on the plantation, but most families were black.
Up until fourth grade Minnie went to school in Hobcaw Barony. After the fourth grade, she and the others took the ferry between Georgetown and Litchfield. Minnie would stay with her grandmother from Monday through Friday, and then take the ferry home on weekends. She remembers that the children kept her grandmother very busy. Minnie and her siblings went to Howard School for black children. Their schoolbooks were hand-me-downs and had already been well used, but the students wanted to learn so they made the most of it.
Daisy and William worked at different jobs for the Baruch family and they had very different personalities. Minnie’s father believed that one must obey the rules and not make trouble. Daisy, her mother, on the other hand, was more radical. Her credo was to speak your mind and stand up for yourself. After returning home from living in New York Minnie frightened her father with her outspoken ways. “He said that I had better go back to New York ‘cause I was gonna’ get everyone in trouble.” Out of respect for her father she did try to be more cautious except for telling her father on one occasion, “But Dad you don’t have to obey bad rules.” She remembers that she almost lost it one day when the insurance agent came to the door asking, “Is Auntie here?” Minnie told him in no uncertain terms that her mother was not his auntie and that he should call her by her proper name.
From that time until her death in 1984, the insurance agent called Mrs. Kennedy by her proper name. By that time the family had all moved from Hobcaw into Georgetown and Minnie was living in New York. “When mother died she had to be buried at Acadia Plantation Cemetery. Once you left Hobcaw you couldn’t return to be buried.” Minnie remembers that at her mother’s funeral one 99 year old woman said, “I remember you – you are one of Daisy’s daughters – the smart one.”
Minnie was always inquisitive as to what words and phrases meant and this sometimes got her in trouble. In church she heard that “Thou shall not commit adultery.” She followed her father one day and saw him talking to another woman and figured that meant he was committing adultery and went home and told her mother. Minnie learned another lesson that day, about being very careful about what you say about others. She remembers that her religious life was carefully guarded. On Sunday one could do nothing but meditate. At around the age of 12 one was baptized and then was expected to be responsible for one’s actions.
Minnie remembers that the very same day that she was baptized, the minister said, “Minnie would lead us in prayer?” She was a little speechless for a time. Then, when she went to South Carolina State College, she turned Episcopal. She says that “everything was in the book and you just chanted along. I liked that. I went away a Methodist and came back an Episcopalian.” Bernard Baruch promised Minnie’s father that if any children went to college he would pay for their education. Then he forgot his promise. In 1935 tuition was $30.00 a semester and $12.00 for room/board. Every year her father worked hard to send her back and every year there was no money from the promise. Upon graduation Minnie wrote Baruch a letter reminding him of his promise. Baruch made good on his promise and sent $600.00, but he also wrote a note that said, “Minnie sure is rude.” As Minnie tells it, people said “Don’t make no promise to Minnie that you don’t keep…she’ll remember.”
When Minnie was asked to tell about her life so that others could understand what it was like to grow up in Hobcaw Barony, she was asked her to use all five senses to relate those memories. This is what she remembered: Smell: Heavy aromas of pines, oaks, fruit trees, and damp earth. Early morning breakfast smells like bacon and hotcakes… Taste: Eating so many blueberries and blackberries that her face would be all blue… Touch: father’s arms hugging her; going barefoot and wiggling her toes in the soft damp earth (“Is it time yet?” became the cry each spring until Minnie’s mother said it was okay to go barefoot)… Sight: forests, the peaceful lapping of the water, the dark nights… Sound: birds in the forests, water lapping in the inlet, friendly “hellos” from the village, and lots of children laughing.
Minnie remembers that they only had a hand pump but that other water “never tasted so good as the water that came from that old hand pump.” The family had only an outdoor toilet until finally a bathroom was added. For bathing, “the family had an old tin tub to bathe in on Saturday nights-the oldest went first and on down to the youngest.” After awhile, everyone was bathing in dirty water.” Minnie laughingly referred to the old adage about not throwing out the baby with the bath water. “By the time you got to the youngest the water was so dirty you couldn’t find the baby.”
Tragedy struck the family when Minnie was a young girl. One night Minnie’s only brother along with two first cousins, all about 17 or 18 year old, went to the movies. They were going to take the boat back home after the movies. The rowboat capsized in the middle of the river and all of them drowned. Minnie remembers her father and some of Baruch’s men searching for and finding some of the bodies but they couldn’t find her brother’s body. One night Minnie’s sister was sleeping and dreamed that she heard her brother. She got out of bed and saw him on the stairwell. She asked him, “What are you doing?” The brother replied, “My father is not looking for me in the right spot. Tell him to go up the river around a bend and there will be a fallen tree.” The sister told her family about the dream and Minnie’s mother cried out for her husband to drop everything and go look again. Sure enough the body was found caught up in the fallen tree. The tide never came high enough to wash over it and dislodge the body. He had drowned in February and was found in April. A grateful family was finally able to put their son to rest. He was given a funeral in the cemetery on Hobcaw Barony with a simple headstone that says only “Edwin Kennedy.”
When her Grandmother died, Minnie’s Grandfather remarried a woman named Hannah. Hannah was a storyteller and a kind of witch doctor. That was nothing new to the family because her Great grandmother had been a witch doctor as well. In most cases, this term was a bit of twisting the truth. In Barbados most people knew something about natural herbs used for healing. Some people, however, were especially knowledgeable about things in nature that could help cure illnesses. Certain plants, herbs, and snakeroot could be boiled in teas to cure coughs and colds. It was no different at Hobcaw. Since the doctor only came one day a week, people had to make do with the cures provided by the “witch doctor” in the meantime.
Nor were the local people exempt from superstitions. Minnie remembers how scary it could be at Hobcaw at night. It would be so dark when there were no lights from the big house. The woods were dense, dark, and full of strange sounds, like hoot owls and prowling animals. Young children were told to “go to bed or the plat-eye would get you.” More than once, those superstitions were used by parents to keep children inside and safe at night.
Holidays were as exciting for the children that lived in Hobcaw Barony as for any other children. Christmas was the best. Minnie remembers that the family never bought decorations because they used what was naturally abundant in the woods. They used vines, Spanish moss, and holly to make wreaths and swags to decorate their home. Children slept upstairs, and sometimes out on the roof. Her most memorable gift was a doll in a shoebox with a card that said, “To Minnie from Santa.” The children that lived in Hobcaw Barony were invited to the fabulous Egg rolling parties given by Belle Baruch that became such a well-known tradition at Easter.
Upon graduation from college, Minnie returned to Georgetown to become a teacher. She worked for a short time in the Georgetown area but soon began longing to be a part of something bigger. Minnie moved to New York City to teach. She soon became active in the growing Civil Rights Movement. Her first contact with the movement was when she was able to acquire the last seat on the last bus leaving from New York City to go to Washington to hear the now famous speech by Dr. Martin Luther King. Minnie says that when she heard that speech it was the first time she really felt free. That experience changed her forever and empowered her to become a part of something bigger as she had always dreamed.
At one point, Minnie joined the Freedom Riders and rode the buses that crisscrossed the Deep South calling attention to the problems of segregation. The State of Louisiana had passed a law that said a black person had to be able to read the Constitution and pass a literacy test in order to be allowed to vote. One of Minnie’s most vivid memories is of an 80 year old man who came walking down a dusty road with a walking cane. The sun was out and it was very hot. He walked right up to Minnie and said, “Dahling, I hear that you teach people how to read enough to pass the test. I want you to teach me to read that Constitution so I can vote one time before I die.” Minnie worked with the old man helping him learn to read but had to return to New York to resume her teaching job when school started so she never knew if he got to vote. Concerning these Freedom Rides and Freedom Marches, Minnie states emphatically that there were always more whites than blacks in attendance.
Minnie had the great honor of working with Dr. Martin Luther King as they rode with freedom riders from Selma to Montgomery. Minnie was on the bus with an old Jewish friend. They were going through the south registering voters and encouraging people to exercise their right to vote as a means of making change. At one time, Minnie and some friends took a ferryboat from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Unknown to Minnie and her fellow travelers, black people had to stay in the cars on the ferryboat. They got out and went to the railing to watch the passing scenery. The pilot said to them, “You Negroes must get on the other side.” Apparently they were on the side that was reserved for “Whites Only.” Before they knew what had happened, the ferryboat turned around and returned to the dock. The police were called and Minnie and her fellow travelers were taken to jail. She says that this was a very scary time! Minnie still suffers from claustrophobia as a result of the experience.
There were six women in one cell. The food was horrible. The toilets overflowed. To keep their courage, they sang freedom songs. One day some people they did not know came and took them out of the jail and put them in cars. They were all so scared because so many people had been killed in just those circumstances. The people were simply moved to another jail. Some people from the community brought food but they were still scared. One day the authorities just opened the jail cell and they were told to go home. Apparently they were being set free. Minnie took her first plane ride home to New York. She was so shaken up by the experience that she held someone’s hand the whole way.
At this point in her life Minnie knew that she had to dedicate her life to being a teacher. Today, Minnie is widely regarded and respected for the teaching methods she employed to teach young children living in poverty. Her methods have been written about and applauded for the way she was able to build self-esteem, responsibility, and understanding in young children. She says now that teaching has no age. If you are a teacher you just have to teach. She wears a sweatshirt that says on the front, “Each One Teach One!”
The world was pulling at Minnie once more and she found that she needed to travel and see how things were done in other countries. Each summer she used the money she had saved all year long and took a 21- day trip. She always had a carefully thought out plan and a duffel bag in which she carried jeans, a couple of shirts, and one dress. This was enough for her for 21 days. In this way she managed to see many parts of the world, including China, Japan, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and many of the islands in the Caribbean. This extensive travel helped Minnie to understand people better so that she could help her students understand their world in a better way. She agrees with Mark Twain that travel is the best education.
In the course of her long and interesting life, Minnie has met many interesting and important people. When asked, “If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be?” her immediate response was “Eleanor Roosevelt. I campaigned with her for John F. Kennedy. She taught me that life is about choices. If you don’t make the right choices it is like you have no teeth in your mouth.” Long after the campaign was over, Minnie took “thirteen young campers to Hyde Park where they were invited to come for a meal and Mrs. Roosevelt served hot dogs and hamburgers.” Minnie describes the event with great respect and great humor. Mrs. Roosevelt was a very down-to-earth person. “She went from camper to camper making certain that each one had enough to eat, saying ‘Would you like a soda or would you prefer milk?’” Minnie laughingly imitates the famous high-pitched New England twang as she describes this visit with a truly remarkable woman! Minnie credits Mrs. Roosevelt with doing a great deal to help poor people get an education and their civil rights. It is not a mystery why Minnie, a woman who has worked long and hard to help people have a better life, would respect and admire someone who was actively engaged in the same worthy causes.
Still active and creative at the age of 87, Minnie reflects on the important things in life. She knows that she cannot solve all the problems of the world, but she thinks that the world would be a little better for everyone if they would go by a simple credo that is expressed in a Danish verse. Minnie recalls that she was given this verse in Denmark when a little girl and her mother that she met in the park invited Minnie to go home with them and eat. Minnie was so impressed by this generosity of spirit that she framed the verse and keeps it very close at hand still today.
o We take each other’s hands and we sit down in a ring. We all are brothers and sisters; nothing separates us
o For God is Father of us all, and the earth is our place. All the people of the world are our friends
o Thank the Good Lord for the earth, and the people in it. Let us be one family for the time we live here!
Minnie Kennedy is a hidden treasure for those interested in learning the history of Georgetown County. She is one voice, but it is a very powerful voice that tells the story of Georgetown from her perspective. Minnie’s life begins in Hobcaw Barony in the heart of Georgetown County. Minnie leaves to live in other places, she travels to many parts of the world, and she meets many people both famous and ordinary. Reflecting upon her life, Minnie feels that she is the sum of all the experiences and people whose lives she has shared.
To see interviews with Minnie have a look at the Video Page