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Toiling & thanking God fills a long life

Resident of Sumter nursing home and his family look back over their years of sharecropping in rural S.C.
by Claudia Smith Brinson, The State newspaper 13 July 2004: [see final comment at end]

“I’m praising the Lord. Praise the Lord,” says Willie Holliday. He sits in a padded rolling chair. He wears a crisp, white shirt, a shiny black tie and the black suit he will be buried in.

Willie Holliday is 109, maybe 110. He has outlived five of his 10 children; he has accumulated 66 grandchildren. A great-great-great-grandchild attended his 100th birthday.

In the past year, his vision and hearing have faded, but he still walks a wheelchair about the shiny, bare halls of his Sumter nursing home, still feeds himself, still recites the Bible and chastises nurses, “God don’t like ugly.”

He is healthy, despite the indignities of very old age, and pays attention as grandson James McKnight writes, “109-110?” on a legal pad. Willie Holliday points to his chest, long fingers tapping his sternum, to ask “Me?” He answers with his signature wobbling across the page.

Of this amazing longevity, sister Naomi Holliday Stokes says, “It’s the Lord’s will. It sure ain’t man’s will.” She is 92 and lives in Cincinnati.

“He’s kind of spiffy to be 109 or however old he is,” says nurse Nickie Moore, who cares for him.

On this day, grandson McKnight helps Willie Holliday don the suit, plus white gloves and an apron embroidered with Masonic symbols. Past masters and wardens of Holliday’s Prince Hall lodge are visiting.

Brotherly Love No. 99, a Manning lodge, was founded in 1948, with Willie Holliday among its first members. Among the reasons for visiting is simply his age. He is among fewer than 150 South Carolinians 105 and older.

But Willie Holliday is also, by all accounts, hard-working, God-fearing, a man who did well by others in a difficult place and time.

“I never saw him sad,” says Lindburg Stukes, 75, and a fellow Mason. “If he’d see something wrong, he’d tell you. Anything he could do for you, he would.”


Cotton and tobacco ran the Hollidays’ lives, — other people’s cotton and tobacco.

“Soon as it begins daylight, you had to get up; he’d be calling you. If it was cotton, you had to hoe by hand. Or, if it was time, you would pick,” says Stella Holliday Robinson, 73, the eighth of Willie Holliday’s children and a resident of Baltimore.

God and farming filled Willie Holliday’s years on a long, straight road between Summerton and Manning. So did the everlasting poverty and never-ending debt of sharecropping.

“To be honest about it, it was just another form of slavery,” says John Wesley Holliday, 80, the fourth of Willie Holliday’s children and a resident of Moorestown, N.J.

“Work, work, work, but stay in debt. And in debt for what?”

Not possessions. Home, John Holliday says, “was a shack,” the house’s wooden walls and floors resting on logs, the roof tin, the porch long and well-used. Willie Holliday rocked there and whistled, which might account for the nickname “Bird.”

“The first car we bought, a Plymouth, that was around World War II. There was no electricity until I left home in the ’50s,” Robinson says.

Darkness measured work’s beginning and ending.

“Before the sun would rise, he would get up and feed the livestock. He would build a fire; he never let my mother get up until it was warm,” says Dorothy Conyers. Nicknamed “Pet,” she is 63, the youngest of the Holliday children and the only one to stay in South Carolina.

“At 8, he would want his breakfast. We would take it to the field for him — grits and whatever, sausage, cured ham, a tomato.”

Willie Holliday worked himself, and his children, as he and his seven brothers and three sisters worked — six days a week, dawn to dark, Sunday a day of rest. Escaping unrelenting physical labor meant leaving home for jobs with wages, as did his siblings and children.

For them all, labor began at 4 or 5 years old, expectations high. Willie Holliday set goals for cotton picking, for example.

“When I was 5, I picked 50 pounds,” says John Holliday. “When I was 8, I picked 100. When I was 11, I picked 200. When I was 16, I picked 300.

“Everybody had chores. Do the chickens, dig potatoes, get firewood, pick cotton, pull corn.”

When work for others was done, work waited at home.

Wife Maggie Holliday maintained a large garden, as did mother Sara Jane Holliday. “Our garden had every kind of vegetable — tomatoes, corn, green beans, butter beans, cabbage, collard greens, ice potatoes,” says sister Stokes.

Remedies for ailments were homegrown, too.

“If you got a cut, he would soak fat meat in turpentine and tie it on,” says Conyers.

“If you had a fever, he would take a thick-leaf plant — we called them fire leaves or candles — and bruise it and wet it with cold water and tie it on with a cloth, and when it was dry, the fever would be gone.”

The children ventured into the woods to gather fruit for preserves. Grandson McKnight, 68, and a business consultant, remembers blueberries, blackberries, gooseberries, huckleberries.

He also remembers Maggie Holliday making butter, shaking cream in a jar for hours, singing, “Come butter come; come butter come; the fish is in the water; now come butter come.”

And it did, says McKnight.

“We grew a lot; we bought very little. As a sharecropper, you’d get very little money,” says daughter Conyers.

Resourcefulness substituted for cash. The Hollidays grew wheat for flour, took corn to the local mill for cornmeal, grits and feed. Purchases were limited to rice, rarely meat in between seasonal hog killings.

To keep a family eating, work took precedence.

“Education was secondary to chopping cotton,” says McKnight, who lived with his grandparents from age 3 to 16 years old.

Willie Holliday attended school through third grade, his children think.

“He didn’t go to school much,” says his sister. “But our stepfather would have prayer with us before we’d go to bed and when we’d get up. And our mother and stepfather would have Bible study. Everybody would have to repeat a Bible verse.

“That was a help to learn.”

Willie Holliday’s children agree, attributing his adept and regular reading of newspapers and Scripture not to school, but to a devotion to the Bible.

He would get his children up and put them to bed with prayer. “It was always thankful,” says daughter Conyers. “‘Lord, I thank you.’”

At 12 years old, Willie Holliday joined Taw Caw Missionary Baptist Church, down the road a piece. He served as grave digger, bell ringer and deacon.

He led prayer meetings, singing a song, followed by a prayer. John Holliday remembers his father singing, “Take your burden to the Lord. Leave it there.” Robinson remembers, “A charge to keep I have. A God to glorify.”

At home as well as at church, says Robinson, “he loved to pray out loud. People would stand outside the door and listen to him pray. He would get really deep into it. He would say, ‘My brother, let me tell you this. ...’”

She says her father “could see things in you, I guess because the Lord was with him.

“My husband was in the service, and I went home to have my son. He was crying one day, and my dad picked him up. He said, ‘Stella, send this boy to school and make sure he gets a good education. He will be a good leader.’”

That child, named after him, is now a minister in Philadelphia.


In the 1960s, Willie and Maggie Holliday joined son John in New Jersey. In 1968, Maggie Holliday died. Willie Holliday returned to South Carolina, living with Conyers in Manning. Since the late 1980s, he has stayed in nursing homes.

His values are recited, passed down.

“You had to obey him, you didn’t talk back, and nobody was allowed to be lazy,” says John Holliday, who still works, distributing beauty shop supplies.

Stokes offers a list: “You should obey God’s laws. Obey your parents. Be kind to one another. When someone mistreats you, pray for them.

“After you wake up in the morning, praise Jesus that you opened your eyes. If you don’t have but a little, you should still give thanks. You’ll get by.

“Worry-ation, that will kill you.”

In the room Willie Holliday shares, his bulletin board is layered with past birthday wishes from family and the White House. A photo from his 100th birthday shows him in a white tuxedo, cash stuffed into his hat and a money tree.

He’s smiling, and Robinson remembers him joking, “Oh, I’m dressing up like I’m going to get married.”

Time passed, the world changed, but Willie Holliday didn’t. He never considered leaving farming, even though he remained in debt.

It was all he knew, his family says. He made the best of it.



Comment: My wife's white family worked just like this (though owning the place and bearing all expenses) with 60 acres, plus having textile mill jobs (Lexington County, S. C.). The 5 living siblings claim that they never saw their mother sleep. It was and is a happy family. I'll have that story here one day.

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(posted 13 July 2004)