The Rawleigh Lady

Today, I’m remembering Mama and Daddy; this would have been their anniversary and Daddy’s birthday. They got married in a double-wedding ceremony on his 30th along with Mama’s brother, Cliff and his bride. I remember Mama’s quick comeback, around ten years ago, when I told her that I wouldn’t have wanted to share my special wedding day with anyone. She looked at me, like “Whose child are you?” and responded, “I didn’t share that day. Cliff and I were going to invite the same guests for our weddings so we had it at the same time.” That was my pragmatic mother, Mary Smith Rosser.

It’s also the end of February, and that means it’s the end of Black History Month. Wikipedia describes it like this:

Black History Month is an annual observance originating in the United States, where it is also known as African-American History Month. It has received official recognition from governments in the United States and Canada, and more recently has been observed in Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Growing up in the South, I had many different experiences interacting with Black people–especially since my childhood was in the turbulent sixties. Our neighborhoods were segregated with the Black section of town, known to White people as “Colored Town.” I lived in the country so the rural area had houses of White people and Black people scattered throughout–but a disparity with more land and nicer houses owned by Whites.

As a farm girl, some of my earliest memories are of working in the tobacco harvest. My father hired Black and White men to help in the fields and women to work at the barn. Those July days, the area around our tobacco barns came to life with the influx of helpers to “put in that barn.” It would take most of the day to fill it with the green leaves of that cash crop that hung on wooden sticks and cured above the oil burners. Before I was old enough to “hand” the tobacco–when I was ten years old and in fifth grade, I played near the trailer of stacked leaves pulled in from the field by a tractor. “Loopers”–mostly women who used twine to attach the leaves to the sticks, and “handers”–mostly girls, were stationed on either side of the trailer. I loved listening in on their conversations. Sometimes, it seemed the Black women and girls were more quiet than the White women and girls. But other times, the Black women had lively conversations; that’s what interested me most.

In my fifth grade class, two Black children were introduced into our school–the beginning of de-segregation. They weren’t in my class–with the old-maid teacher who was fussy; they were placed in the other class with the young teacher right out of college. The next year, more Black children came and by eighth grade, we were completely integrated.

What was different for me, since I wasn’t the only child from a farm who had worked side-by-side with Black people, was my experience through my mother’s sales business. Mama sold Rawleigh household products door-to-door in “Colored Town.” She and her sister, Inez had gotten into working for that company through their Uncle Jones–who’d done that for years. Mama worked her route every Saturday when the woman of the house was home. She’d pack our car with the orders of mops, chenille bedspreads, flavorings, liniment, “Pleasant Relief,” medicated ointment, hot irons and hair products; those are the ones that are most vivid in my memory.

When I wasn’t needed for chores at home, I would go with Mama on the route. As a young girl, I was fascinated by being inside the homes in that part of town. None of my grade school classmates were going into Colored Town on Saturdays. If there were no children in the family, I had to sit quietly while Mama did her transaction, talking with the women, writing out a receipt in her little book with the carbon paper, then placing the bills and change in her money pouch. I found myself studying the houses, the brightly colored walls, images of Jesus and some with John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Most of the houses were small. We lived in an old, rambling two-story with larger rooms and windows; the cottage-size houses seemed cozy to me and interesting in how they’d fit everything into that small space.

If the customer happened to have children, sometimes I’d get to go outside and play until Mama was leaving. One girl, who was the granddaughter of Mama’s customer, was just a grade younger than me. We ran up and down the path to the railroad track that passed in front of their concrete block house. Sometimes, when it was raining, she would ask me to come back to her bedroom to play; I rarely went pass the living room on our Saturday calls. It was interesting for me to see her collection of special toys, including a black baby doll from when she was little. We got along well, and I came to think of her as kind of a friend; that would change later.

A special treat on my Saturdays with Mama, was eating lunch at the bus station. I can remember the smell of that building that was damp, with cigarette smoke and old suitcases. People, mostly Black, were sitting in the hard movie theater-style seats of the waiting area with a man working at the ticket window. In the next room there was a grill, with small tables with chairs and several booths. We always sat in a booth and ordered a sausage dog and fries. Mama would let me get a Lance oatmeal cookie for dessert. At a time when we rarely went to a restaurant, a time before all the fast food places, eating at the bus station was a treat. We never saw anyone we knew there; guess they didn’t know how good the sausage dogs were in that place near Colored Town.

I never told any of my friends about my trips into Colored Town; what would they think of me, of Mama, that we were in that ‘part of town’ every Saturday? If my friends came to my house and we went into our Smoke House–where years before they’d cured hams from the farm, they would have seen Mama’s boxes of Rawleigh products. If they fell down when were playing and had a skinned knee, Mama would have cleaned it and then slather on the ‘miracle drug’ Medicated Ointment; it would cure anything.

Years later, when I’d stopped going with Mama on her route, when I was dating and spent Saturdays watching American Bandstand and getting ready to go out–I had an incident where I partially revealed my past in Colored Town. I was on a a triple-date with 3 couples (possible back then because of the wide cars and no seat belts!) My male cousin was driving the car and he was speeding down Horner Blvd when we passed a cop car. He saw the blue lights come on and thought we were in trouble.

“Turn right up here” I told him, and he did, which put us on Washington Avenue— a main street through Colored Town.

He looked in the rearview mirror and the cop car wasn’t in sight. Eventually, I told him the turns to get back to Horner Blvd. He looked at me, puzzled, but didn’t ask how I knew my way around in the Colored part of town.

I carried those memories of Saturdays for years and then eventually wrote some stories related to those childhood experiences. I didn’t appreciate Mama’s role as a sales woman until I had a chance meeting with a fellow writer at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines. There, I was one of the writers in residence for a week, along with a Black woman–who was a jazz singer as well as a writer. We would talk over coffee each morning before diving into our individual projects. One evening, we sat in the living room and talked about our childhood–how we started writing. She was from rural, eastern North Carolina and lived at a distance from town. Somehow, the conversation wound around to me going with Mama on her Saturday route.

She looked at me, a warm smile spreading across her face and said, “Your mama was The Rawleigh Lady?”

“Yes–I guess you could call her that,” I responded. “She was the only one selling those products in that part of town– that I know of.”

She nodded her head and continued.

“Oh how my mama, and the other women in our neighborhood, loved the Rawleigh Lady. She would come when the men were away at work–so the women could shop freely. That was important because back then, they couldn’t do that at the stores in town. The shop owners would be watching them, acting like they were going to steal.”

I listened to her, fascinated by her point of view, by her perspective of my mother and others who’d sold those products door-to-door. I’d never considered why it would be hard for them to shop in town–like White people, with no worries that we were being watched.

Since those turbulent years of the sixties, since my trips into Colored Town on Saturdays, I’ve had time to look back with different eyes. I’ve even had a chance to learn more about the Colored girl that was once my ‘friend,’ who ran up and down the hill to the train track with me; I’ll share that story in next week’s post.

But for now, for this day as I remember Mama and Daddy’s anniversary, and think about the character traits of my mother– Daddy’s bride, I remember her role as the Rawleigh Lady. I wish I had a picture of her packing our Chevrolet with products, of her talking with the women in their homes, of her sitting with me in the booth at the bus station. Instead, I’ll leave you with a picture of her from our hometown newspaper, The Sanford Herald, when she was featured long after she stopped selling Rawleigh products. Her warmth shows through and I can’t help but think that contributed to the trust she instilled in her customers. I’m grateful I got to witness those transactions, those relationships and learned by watching her.

4 thoughts on “The Rawleigh Lady

    • Hey MJ,
      Thanks so much for reading. Yes– we always had plenty of Rawleigh Salve–and referred to it as the “miracle drug” at our house.
      Yes, Mama was a trailblazer and in my post next week, I’ll get at how I came to see that more as I looked back–just like so many things in our lives.
      Best to you, MJ and your family,

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is an account of the part of growing up, that you and I share. In the time that my family lived in Tennessee. We lived on the street that was the dividing line of White and Colored town. I too would take many weekend days and spend it with some of the children “up over the hill”. Those were the better days. Those days were different. Your mother had a great outlook on life and she fit into the “progressive woman” of the era. I believe you have been given an education that some have had and many should have. Your Dad found a Peach, that never ripened beyond perfect. You seem to have many of those same qualities. The part of here days as The Rawleigh Lady, had great impact on all aspects of Life in your community. That is Awesome. That photo from the Newspaper, is so endearing to you Mother and there is much of what you see in her, that you emit to we the admirers. Love and Blessings to you.


    • Hey John,
      Thanks so much for reading and for sharing about your history. I can understand your childhood–somewhat, from where you lived and how you “crossed that dividing line” to play with Colored children.
      I think we both learned from those experiences and as a child, we couldn’t understand the importance of that education. It was a confusing time and I can’t believe that we haven’t advanced further in 2023 in our understanding, acceptance, and interactions with one another–Black and White “all are precious in His sight.”
      Yes, my Daddy felt he’d found a peach and his love for Mama was always evident. She was a “progressive woman” of her time—and she wouldn’t have even known herself in that way. As you’ve read about in my posts of her earlier life, leaving the farm at 19 and traveling to PA (with her cousin to learn to work as WW II Civil Servants) she showed her courage then and afterwards with her travels.
      Thanks for your compliment that you can see her in me. She was more patient than me, and more giving—but, I hope that over time, I will be more like her. It’s a process!
      Best to you, John.

      Liked by 1 person

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