My parents were sharecroppers in Gourdin, South Carolina and moved to Charleston when my father became a railroad switchman. Pronounced "good dine." But quickly: goodine. My father, who was not formally educated beyond the third grade, and my mother who finished the tenth grade, somehow, believed education was our only hope. Even if they did not, could not, get an education, they believed with both their hearts and all their might that their children—all nine of us—would be educated. All of us finished high school; and seven of us finished college; and five of us finished with advanced degrees.
The home on Line Street in Charleston had electricity, a radio, running water, and an indoor toilet when my father lost it in 1939.
On August 31, 1939, he moved my mother, me, three of my brothers, and three of my sisters back to Gourdin.
My mother, sisters, and my youngest brother stayed in a four-room "house." My two older brothers and I stayed in a one-room shack about twenty-five yards away.
No electricity, no running water. The shacks in Gourdin did not have an indoor toilet. Windows with wood shutters and without glass. We could buy a little food in Gourdin, but no clothes. Since we did not own a car, we walked about three to five miles "down the road," as my mother would say, to Lanes for most things. We passed some far-apart houses along the dirt ways to reach the center of activity. Maybe the main street was paved, with one filling station and a market. I went to high school in Kingstree, a much larger town before moving back to Charleston in 1947. The original home lot is still there now, but the house is gone.
I didn't know I was smart until the seventh grade, as all of us were expected to make good grades. Until that time, I thought everyone was smart. I had attended public schools, but two years before moving to the country I was placed in the best private school for Negroes in the country, where my classmates, who had been together since preschool, resented my good grades. This motivated me even more as I led the class scholastically. Only then did I begin to suspect I was smart. [End Page 1]
My oldest brother, John, went to Virginia State College for Negroes in Ettrick, Virginia. Then my next brother, Jonathan, followed him. Then me, in 1943. The U.S. Army drafted me in 1945, where I remained until 1947. I returned and finished Virginia State in 1949.
I was a man when I returned home. My brothers and I decided that since the financial reasons for splitting up our family no longer existed, everyone should move back to Charleston. Though my father didn't want that, we moved everyone back. That was the only time I ever disobeyed my father—to keep the family together.
We considered race as a series of barriers our elders expected us to overcome. The tremendous, dedicated teachers made up for a lot of the resources we didn't have. My organic chemistry teacher at Virginia State, T. Nelson Baker, looked at me when I got a B on an exam and said, "Mr. Staggers, what happened? I can't believe you did this." He didn't change the grade, but he questioned me and let me know that he expected more of me. The President of Virginia State stopped me on campus and said, "Mr. Staggers, I understand you want to go to medical school."
Since my parents had no money to support any, let alone all, of their children in college, we all worked when we could. I worked in the dining hall at school and got a summer job near Hartford, Connecticut picking cigar tobacco grown in fields covered by cheesecloth.
The GI Bill was the best thing that the government has ever done to further education; without it, becoming a doctor would have been much more difficult. Still, money was a major barrier. Before I could start medical school...