Bates was born on April 27, 1901, in Amite County in Liberty, Mississippi. He was the only child of Laura and Morris Bates, a farmer, carpenter, and minister. His upbringing, he came to notice, was seemingly different from what most blacks had experienced in the 1900s.
“In the town I came up in, the white people could not pressure the negro people,” Bates said in a 1980 interview with Irene Wassell, a student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “We had our own bank, we had our own insurance company, we had our own school, we had our own furniture store, our own grocery store….Every brick that was laid in that town was laid by the negroes.”
According to Bates, half the population in Liberty was white, but he grew up witnessing a thriving black community in his area. That, in combination with the desires of his parents, provided Bates with social and educational opportunities that were uncommon for his race.
Although he was afforded numerous advantages, Bates‘ father made sure that Bates learned how to work, just as his father had done with him and his siblings many years before. Bates’ job was to plow the field and gather corn on his father’s farm, while in the summer, he would watch over his grandfather’s watermelon patch. He also worked as a “printer’s devil,” or an apprentice, in a print shop in Indianola, Miss., where he says he “got ink in his veins,” sparking his interest in newspaper.
Pursuit of education
Early on, Bates’ father expressed his desire for Bates to become a doctor, so he saw to it that Bates received the proper education to turn this dream into a reality. After years of working on his own farm, Bates’ father packed up the family, took all of his stock and equipment, and moved to Moorhead, Miss., to tend to the farm of a wealthy, widowed, New England woman. Bates remembers her only as Mrs. Pond, and it was through her influence that he was able to enroll in an all-white private school in Indianola.
“We really had to learn in school,” Bates said. “When we wrote a sentence, we had to analyze it. We had to commit to memory a lot of things.”
This stage proved to be a pivotal point for Bates as it revealed his gift for written communication. As a graduation requirement, the students in the school were tasked with writing an essay, in which Bates wrote a piece titled, “Discontentment is a Means to a Successful End.” In his old age, Bates couldn’t recall where he got the idea for the paper. Maybe it stemmed from his grandfather whom he idolized, or perhaps it just came to him.
Forging his own path
After grammar school, Bates was sent to Alcorn College in Alcorn, Miss., where high school courses were offered. Once he completed the courses, his father insisted that he continue his education, so Bates attended Wilberforce College, now Central State University, in Wilberforce, Ohio. After a year, Bates dropped out, explaining to his father that he felt like college could not provide him with the kind of education he wanted.
Bates took to his own path in search of the life he wanted. His decision, he recounted, broke his father’s heart, but he didn’t regret it one bit. Before he died in 1980, Bates said he wouldn’t trade his “education in the world for a Ph.D.” He felt that if he had continued in the academic realm, he would have lost the “human touch” he needed later to reach his audience through the State Press.
Never compromise a principle
Bates credited his grandfather, Louis Erasmus Brown, for helping to mold his character and establish his philosophy of life. Brown was a well-respected, no-nonsense type of man. According to Bates, he “operated his farm and didn’t bother anybody, and it wasn’t safe for anybody to bother him.”
One summer when Bates and his uncle, who was about the same age as him, were watching over his grandfather’s watermelon patch, a white man approached, attempting to help himself to the southern delicacies. When the boys attempted to stop him, the man picked up a stick to bash the melons, but his hands never came down. Brown fired his shotgun at the trespasser, and called to someone to notify the sheriff to pick the “son-of-a-bitch” up and stated that he would be in town on Saturday to see about the matter. Bates was unsure if the man had died or if his grandfather had gone to town on Saturday to see about it.
Bates described his grandfather as an elderly man who was sort of like a philosopher.
“If he felt he was right, he had no room for compromise, and you had to convince him he was wrong,” Bates said.
From him, Bates gathered his own life philosophy, “We can sacrifice a friend, but never compromise a principle.”
To hear Bates share his personal tales of life in Mississippi, click here.