Percy Ell White III, left, in the StoryCorp booth with his coworker Terry Wright. Both of them recently told their stories in the StoryCorp MobileBooth in Arlington, Va.
Percy Ell White III, now a probation officer living in Waldorf, Md, was born in 1960 to two sharecroppers in Dinwiddie County, Va. As a toddler, White lived with his parents, two sisters and grandparents in a shack with no indoor plumbing — until one day, says White, his father decided he had had enough.
Sharecropping never allowed his family to get ahead, White says, remembering what his parents told him about their life in Dinwiddie working land owned by a family named Marks. Tobacco farming was labor intensive, with the crops needing to be harvested, the blooms picked, and the leaves cured using a fire that could never burn out, day or night, rain or shine.
"They would do 99.9 percent of the work," White says. "But by the time you got to market ... Mr. Marks would always come up with something … 'you know, you broke that ax, so I've got to charge you for that ax. There was gas used for the tractor. I've got to charge you for the gas for the tractor.'"
All those little charges added up. "By the time he subtracted all of these many things, they would just get a couple of dollars for doing all of this work for several months," White says. "While Mr. Marks and his family were doing pretty well."
Eventually, White's father informed the landlord he was moving his family north to Washington.
"Mr. Marks said, 'You can go up there, but you're not going to get a job," White says. "'You didn't finish high school. What are you going to do?'"
White's father did get a job, as a janitor at the Washington Star newspaper. He eventually worked his way up to become a supervisor. More than three decades later, he brought his entire family down to visit the Marks farm, and he spoke to Mrs. Marks.
"Mr. Marks had long since died … but my father got a great deal of joy out of telling [Ms. Marks], 'I'd like you to meet my oldest daughter. She's a manager for Metro. And you remember Susan, my youngest daughter, she works for NASDAQ. You remember P.L. — that's what they used to call me, P.L. — he went to college, and he's currently a probation officer," White says. "There was a great deal of pride in my father's face to tell her that. Him doing well was through his children."
Two years ago, White says, he felt a similar pull.
"I got myself worked up, I guess, looking some pictures of my father, and remembering some of the stuff he told me," I got in my car and drove down to Dinwiddie County, Virginia."
Mrs. Marks no longer lived on the farm — she was by then in a senior citizens home — but White talked with her son, and like his father did years ago, felt the sense of pride to tell him what he does.
"I felt a great deal of accomplishment because African-American history for me runs through … my father, so in a sense that was my father sitting there next to him," White says. White, who at 6'7" and 350 pounds towered over the younger Mr. Marks, felt the gravity of that moment for another reason.
"He's only about 5'7", so there was a feeling of accomplishment standing there, him having to look up at me," White says. "That was my father going, 'Yeah, see, I made it. You weren't going to stop me. Nobody was going to stop me.'"
This interview was recorded in Arlington, Va. at StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives. To find out more information and to reserve a time slot to tell your own story at the StoryCorps MobileBooth, visit StoryCorps.org.