Lula Gibbs greeted me with a friendly smile before I began the interview and I went ahead and asked right away how she wanted her ethnicity described in the story. She cocked her head slightly and I continued “Well, since we are discussing race in this feature I was wondering if you preferred, African American or Black or woman of color…” She crinkled her nose a little bit at my last suggestion and sat up straight as she replied “Black.” She said it with confidence and certainty, then added “Proud black woman”. When I sat down to hear Lula’s story I knew there was no way I would be able to really understand the weight of it or to deliver it in its entirety, but I was determined to do my best.
Lula’s story begins in the 1940s in the deep south. Her family were sharecroppers in Alabama. Her days consisted of working in the fields. They would tirelessly pick cotton, peas, okra and sugar cane. Then they would give it to the landowners leaving only a small portion to keep as payment for their labor. Their shack was on the plantation. They had newspapers hanging all over the interior as a form of wallpaper. They used kerosene lamps. There are no photographs of Lula’s childhood because cameras and film development were far too expensive for them, but this photo from the inside of a sharecropper cabin at the Scott Plantation Settlement in Arkansas looks exactly like what Lula described.
When Lula was a child the only break she had from the tasks of tending the fields was when it was her turn to go to school. She rotated which day she could go between her 3 sisters. One girl would take one day to go to school and the other three worked in the fields with their mother.
Eventually they escaped the life of sharecropping and moved to Montgomery Alabama and her mother became a maid which was one of the only jobs available to African American women at that time. Lula was 12 years old when they moved and this was her first opportunity to go to school regularly. She remembers starting her day with walking over to her friend’s house to wait for the cheese wagon (that was what the girls called the big yellow school bus and it always made them laugh). She rode on the bus for an hour passing several prestigious all white schools along the way before finally arriving at a tiny dilapidated wooden building. This was her stop. This was the school for black children.
Lula ended up dropping out of school when she was a freshman. She met her husband Nathaniel and they got married in 1955 when she was only 14 years old and became pregnant soon after. Unfortunately, the child passed away at birth. While Lula did become pregnant again with their son and they did raise seven beautiful children over the next several years they would aslo have to suffer the loss of two other infants.
This heartbreak along with being a teenage mother made the struggle of life before the civil rights movement even harder. Lula talked about how difficult it was to rebel against injustice as a young mother. She couldn’t boycott the bus because she didn’t ride the bus. She rarely left the house. When she did, discrimination and segregation were all she saw. She had to go to a special window on the side of a building when she needed to make a purchase. She couldn’t be caught anywhere near white restaurants, white elevators, white drinking fountains, white post offices, and the list went on.
Lula was living in a world where she and her family weren’t valued and despite the whispers of an uprising all she saw was hatred and shame directed at her and her community. They were tired of waiting for change. Tired of being mistreated. The talk amongst the relatives was that there were factory jobs and maybe something closer to equality up north. So the Gibbs became a part of the great migration. They joined the millions of other blacks seeking a better way of life in the north and Lula and her family moved to Indiana in 1965. It wasn’t perfect but a lot had changed since her days on the plantation. Lula got a job working at GM. Her children went to good schools and no longer had to live a life of segregation. She could see hope for the future and knew that God had a beautiful plan for her family. One by one she watched her children graduate. They started to get married, get jobs, or go to college or the military.
In 1996 Lula became a widow. Nathaniel never got to see some of the incredible accomplishments of their grandchildren, and great-grandchildren some of which have become teachers and nurses while others have served in the military.
Lula Gibbs beams as she talks about all that her children have achieved. She is still very close to all seven of them. She gets daily visits from her sons who help with the house and vehicle maintenance. Even though some of them have spread out in proximity she still talks to her daughters every day sometimes more than once a day!
She has been an encouragement and an example to so many people to walk in the truth and the light of God’s word. Her perseverance has had a ripple effect that will continue on long after God calls her home.
Lula’s life these days is very quiet and peaceful. She loves her family, her church, and the casino. You might be surprised by the Casino part but she did explain that she only goes Tuesdays and has a certain amount that she spends each time if the budget allows and that’s it. After everything she has been through (and believe me there are volumes more than what I’ve shared here) this is a very calm place of contentment for Lula. Lula carries this demeanor of someone who is completely comfortable with who they are and that’s a rare thing. Now I understand why she would describe herself as a proud black woman.
It was such an honor hearing about Lula Gibb’s life.
As I sat there thinking about her education compared to mine, I reflected on what she said about the fields, and the bus ride, and the condition of her all black school. The first seven years of my education were at a private school. After that my dad’s job relocated us to various cities but my parents always found a house in neighborhoods with the best school districts. I learned about civil rights and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at these schools, but I know that all of my history classes combined could never compare to all that I had discovered and taken in while listening to Lula recount her experiences in her own words with her own voice. Lula Gibbs is one of the most inpiring moms I have ever met and I talk to a lot! Her story is a gift. Lula herself is a gift.