At some time in my fifth year of life and my first year as a Mississipian, my mother became convinced that I and my sister, eighteen months older than I, either had scabies (the itch) or would surely become afflicted with the disease based on our having played with the children next door.
Playing with the kids next door was forbidden because they were somewhat different than we were—actually they were not different than we were, except that theirs was a nicer house and their family was more prosperous than we were—they just looked different. We were white and they were black, and folks in Mississippi in the 1930s frowned on the races mixing, regardless of the ages involved.
Our mother always said that she had nothing against blacks “as long as they stayed in their place.” When asked specifically about the nature of “their place,” she would say, “Well, you know, in their place, the place where they are supposed to stay.” That pretty well explained it as far as she was concerned.
Although we were forbidden to play with the neighbor children we still managed to get in some playtime, and because of that contact our mother decided that even if we did not have scabies we would probably soon show symptoms of the disease. I have no doubt that my sister and I itched and scratched in all the places that kids—and adults for that matter—normally scratch, but I do not believe we had the itch. We never exhibited any of the symptoms associated with the itch. If any reader is inclined to learn everything one needs to know about the itch—scabies—click here.
You will learn that sulfur, mixed with a petroleum jelly and applied topically, is effective as a treatment for scabies, and sulfur is what our mother used on us. She took powdered sulfur and mixed it with molasses, stripped me and my sister right down to the buff and smeared the mixture on every part of our body, every square inch of skin including cracks and crevices, and even worked the mixture into our hair and on our scalps. I was the first to have the “medication” applied and my sister giggled throughout the process, giving our mother instructions as to various areas and items and ways to apply the mixture.
I watched as my mother smeared her with the mixture, but not being as worldly and wise as she was I did little giggling—we were a very private family and I was not accustomed to seeing a naked female—in fact, a fast trip back to my earliest memories reveals no instance of my ever having seen a naked female of any age prior to that day—and now that I think of it, a significant amount of time would pass before I was privileged to see another one.
I searched diligently on the internet for images of a naked little boy and a naked little girl and following a prolonged search I found the two pictured at the right. I trust that none of my viewers will be offended by the graphic nature of the images. I felt very fortunate at finding an image of our skin color prior to the application of sulfur and molasses, and another approximating our skin color after the application. The upper image approximates our before skin color and the lower approximates our after skin color. Who would have ever thought I would be so lucky in my search!
I am reminded of a business card I saw in later years—the business part was on one side and the other side showed a line drawing of two naked children, a little boy and and a little girl, and the little boy was saying in the caption below, “No, you can’t play with mine—you already broke yours off!” I suppose that if I thought anything about my sister’s physical characteristics, my thoughts echoed the words of that little boy—either she broke hers off or was born without one. The card was not quite as graphic as the images I found on the internet.
Our skin took on a yellow sheen from the sulfur and for several days we could not sit on any chair or sofa. We sat on the floor, we took our meals on the floor, and we slept on the floor on sheets and blankets that were cleansed in boiling water after we used them.
I had not yet started the first grade, so our restriction to the house and our banishment to the floor had no effect on my education. My sister, a first-grader, missed several days of school but apparently suffered little from that absence—to my disappointment she was promoted to the second grade, thus dashing my hopes that she would be retained in the first grade so I would be equal with her in school—bummer!
Eventually our mother decided, since no symptoms of scabies appeared, that the medication had apparently done its work and we were allowed to remove the mixture of sulfur and molasses. Many years have ensued since the scabies incident, and I have told that story more than once over the years—some listeners believed it and others expressed considerable doubt as to its veracity. Please believe me, it’s true and I can prove it. I can show you the house where it happened because it’s still standing. It’s on the west side of Fifth Street South one block from the Palmer Orphanage! Click here to read an essay that includes information on my association with the Palmer Orphanage, now known as the Palmer Home for Children —it’s worth the visit!
On hearing the story most people ask whether the molasses attracted ants, flies, bees, roaches, mice, spiders and other pests in search of sweet treats. My answer to that is that we were not bothered by such—my theory is that pests were powerfully attracted to the molasses but were equally repulsed by the sulfur—one canceled out the other.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!