Note To Readers: The following feature article was originally published in the Monahans News in 1983. I am publishing it here for two reasons: (1) It reveals quite graphically the restraints and hardships borne by African-American citizens during the first half of the 20th century as well as the various tones racism could take from one section of Texas to another section of the same state, not to mention the rest of the nation; (2) I consider it now a memorial to one of my favorite people. Perhaps I should have said three reasons, for I hope any persons out in the world who read it will gain, through it, the most vivid perception of this good-natured man that the written word can portray.
Please be aware that I have not edited the flavor of Henry’s speech. My leaving his words as he spoke them in the Black patois of the Southern U.S. was not the result of condescension. I simply wanted to share Henry’s manner of delivery in the same way as I heard it, as closely as ink and a piece of white paper would allow.
Also, I should remark on Henry’s nickname. I never asked him how he acquired the moniker “Snake-Eyes” because I thought I could guess correctly: I thought it had something to do with his white irises and dark pupils and their resemblance to a toss of dice coming up as a deuce. However, it occurred to me years afterwards that the reference might be to a gambling habit, in which Henry frequently lost because all his tosses came up as “snake-eyes”. However, I doubt that Henry was ever so careless of his income as to gamble any of it away.
Henry had a penchant for nick-names. He even invented one for me: “Shirt-Tail”. He was commenting on the fact that, when I was bending over the long composing table and pasting up pages, the back bottom of my shirt frequently pulled loose from my pants and dangled.
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© 1983, 2014 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
“There wasn’t nothin’ but sandstorms when I came out here, wasn’t any rainstorms,” recalls retired Ward County custodian Henry Fuller of his journey from Tyler to Monahans in February 1948.
Henry, known to many of his friends as “Snake-eyes”, originally intended to return to East Texas after the six-month pipe-laying project he had contracted to work on was completed. “I was a pipe-fitter for the City of Tyler,” he explains. “Jack Forga (city manager of Monahans) borrowed us from the City to lay water and sewer pipes in Monahans. Two of us came out here first on the train — me and L.D. Ryder. Kelly came later and Tommy Hutchinson and Tommy Tucker.
“Claude Chance came a couple of months later, and my kids rode in his truck. They slept in the truck. Black folks didn’t stay in motels in those days.
“I didn’t know anybody here then. I came to stay six months, and I stayed forty years.”
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But our story is getting a little ahead of itself.
We ought to note that Henry was born Aug. 8, 1916, in Galilee, near Tyler in Van Zandt County. His father, who farmed on ten acres of land, was married twice; so Henry ended up with five brothers, three sisters, seven step-brothers and five step-sisters. “None of them are alive now,” he tells us.
“Back in them days you weren’t mean, ‘cause they’d whup you for anything like you’d stole somethin’. My step-mama whupped me for dippin’ snuff. One time she whupped me with a bullwhip. I thought she was mean, but now I think she didn’t whup me enough.”
Besides strict discipline, Henry also believes that the simple diet of his early years was better than what kids eat nowadays. “I’d eat a sweet potato as big as my arms, a piece of bread and some milk; and I was stronger than a bull. You didn’t hear of people dyin’ then of heart attacks or cancer. You might see someone with a skin cancer, but you didn’t see no one dyin’ of a heart attack or cancer.”
For entertainment, the best pastime was teasing a billy goat. “In that red land country there was a billy goat, and we’d aggravate him and he’d chase us and eat us up if he caught us. We’d run up the steps of the (Masonic) lodge hall to get away from him. That son-of-gun was bigger than a Shetland horse!”
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Henry says he left school after the seventh grade and took up the pipe-fitting trade, which is what eventually brought him out to Monahans. However, he suffered a pelvic bone injury when a ditch on Doris Avenue caved in on him. After that, he left the contractor to work for the City on a two-man trash truck crew. “I was one of the first to work on a trash truck here,” he recalls. “We had fifty-gallon barrels back then. Just had one trash truck. We’d go to work at 4 a.m. and work until noon. The other crew would start at noon and work until about five.”
In 1956, he left City employment to work for the County. “The pay was better; but they paid only once a month, while the City paid every two weeks. I didn’t think about that,” he says. “I worked for the County from 1956 until last month. They say I ‘dodged in twenty-seven years.’”
Besides his job at the County, Henry took care of the lawns of several locally prominent persons, including (former Ward County Judge) Toon Estes, Lillie Tatom and Hugh P. Cooper. Occasionally, he even found himself baby-sitting for these people. For instance, there was the time he caught Pearson Cooper, Allen Williams and Skipper Butler smoking grapevine. “I rapped ‘em on the ass,” he recalls with a gleeful laugh.
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In his mature years, Henry “Snake-eyes” Fuller’s leisure moments are concentrated on drinking cold beer, listening to the radio (“News only, I’m too old for that music!”) and attending church every other week. “I go to St. Matthew (AME); my wife goes to Mt. Zion Baptist.
“There’s only six of us in the Methodist Church, counting the preacher. He comes from Crane, so we meet only twice a month; but we manage to pay the preacher and put a little in the bank, too.
“I sing in the church. Sing bass. We sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and all those kind of songs.” You have to hear “Snake-eyes” sing “Amazing Grace” to appreciate the fact that he does have a good voice for singing. Also, you have to hear him talk in his own special jargon to glimpse the character of the man. You can’t really say his talk is “Black talk”, because he seems to make up his own vocabulary. Words like “didybitecha” aren’t words with any particular meaning; they are nonsense syllables spoken for comic effect.
“Snake-eyes” has reached his own reconciliation with the White and Black worlds. It’s a little bit dated: “I stay in my place and they stay in theirs.” But, he’s too old to change, and for him West Texas was from the first — back when he was young and still seeking a fairer share of the social and economic pie — far ahead of East Texas in its attitude toward Blacks.
“Monahans has been good to me, That’s all I got to say. I got more friends than Carter’s got oats. I own my own home and I got money in the bank. White people treat you more better here. In Tyler they wouldn’t even sell me a pack of cigarettes.”
— Monahans News, May 5, 1983
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