Understated: Ennis Van Degrate Sr.

By Megan Willome

When Ennis Van Degrate Sr. sat in his throne chair, he looked like a king, wearing a black suit (with a matching black hat) and a white boutonniere. Two hundred friends and family members had come to Bellmead Civic Center to celebrate his 100th birthday, which had the theme “100 Years of Harvest.” His granddaughter, Shonda Kay White, tells his story and the stories of three other Black men in her family in “The Understatement of Plowing: Unfiltered Memoirs to the American Public from the Minds of Black Men, vol 1.” With its first-person narratives, the book has found a place in the Texas Collection at Baylor University.

“My mom told some colleagues at work about my book. My mom has worked in the health clinic at Baylor for years, so they’ve known me for years. They said, ‘We want to read the book.’ I sent my mom with a couple of copies. Someone there got the book and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to have it at the Texas Collection.’ I received an email, and they sent me a certificate, and I signed the book,” White said. “I told my grandfather about it, that he was in the Texas Collection, and he said, ‘Oh really? I am?’ His personality is so humble. It didn’t seem like anything grand to him.”

The idea to interview her grandfather first came about as a way to do something special for Father’s Day in 2019.

“Whenever I went to see him, we’d spend an hour or two with him telling stories of when he was a young boy. When he turned 96, my husband said, ‘You need to record these and transcribe these.’ I said, ‘You know what, this is going to be a great Father’s Day gift for him.’ I want to spend a whole afternoon with him. That’s how the book came along,” White said. “We sat in his living room. We grandchildren and great-grandchildren call him Lil’ Daddy. (My daddy is Big Daddy.) I said, ‘Whatever comes to mind, you just answer.’”

White brought a list of five questions, stored on the Notebook app on her phone. Van Degrate was fascinated that the phone would also be the recording device. As soon as she began, Lil’ Daddy, The Pioneer, was ready to talk.

“In true fashion, he leaned back in his chair, and he rubbed his knees.

That’s one of the things I get from him — I rub my knees when I’m in deep thought,” she said. “His answer was very surprising to me.”

Despite picking cotton from the age of 8, despite hearing about the lynching of Jesse Washington, despite having run-ins with the Boss Man, despite almost dying twice — once from catching what they called “eight-day pneumonia” and once from working with poisoned cotton — her grandfather was not bitter.

“He tells about how Blacks stayed by themselves and didn’t mix with white folks. He was very content. He didn’t see a problem anywhere. He has such a humble, humble spirit,” White said.

The interview went so well, she did another one the same day with Big Daddy, her father, Ennis Van Degrate Jr., also known as Junior. In the book he is The Aristocrat.

“That same day, I thought, ‘I’m gonna go to my dad’s house and ask him the same questions, see if things were the same for Black men or if they had evolved.’ I asked him the same five questions on the same day,” White said. “My brother passed away in his early 30s, or he would have been that third generation. So I interviewed my husband, Anthony [White], who’s known my dad and my husband. He’s The Pastor in the book. I asked him the same five questions. Then I went to our son, Joshua [White], who was 27 when I wrote the book. He’s The Millennial.”

“When all the video footage was complete, I sat down with my computer, watched, listened and transcribed what was said, adding my thoughts and feelings along the way in response to the answers they gave in story form,” White said. “Whenever they gave accounts of particular dates, historical events or people, I spent hours researching to verify their information and added the correct facts to their stories.”

Finally, she added an introduction and a conclusion, to tie together the four generations of stories.

“We must find common ground to express an equal amount of respect and regard for all men, no matter who they are,” she said. “The moral character of our nation depends on it.”

Writing has been part of White’s life long before this book. As a schoolteacher, she’s done some freelance writing and has published articles in Epitome Magazine and in other media outlets, as well as a poem or two. She said her “long-overdue novel,” titled “ … And Heaven Will Keep Me,” will be out soon. Volume 2 of “The Understatement of Plowing” will be out next summer.

“I want to add other races to it,” she said. “When the book was going through its first stages, there was a lady working at the post office, and I was talking to her about my book, and she said, ‘I’d love to read it because I’m of Jewish descent.’ I said, ‘That is so interesting. I want to hear your side, your struggles.’ She was sharing about her grandmother, and it started opening up more and more dialogue.”

More dialogue is White’s goal, as a writer. She knows we can’t read each other’s minds, but we can read each other’s thoughts when they are written down and then gain perspective. White also recommends that people read “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,” by Emmanuel Acho and “Wisdom From My Father’s Porch: A Guide for Young Black Men,” by Dr. Dorrance Kennedy.

Plowing is the metaphor that explains how Van Degrate Sr. has been able to leave a legacy for the Black men in his family.

“When we think of plowing, we think of a farmer doing his job, waiting to reap the harvest. It’s so much more. I wanted to get into the details of that. In that metaphor it’s about how hard it was for those who came before us to plow that ground. I’m the generation reaping the harvest from all my grandfather’s hard work,” White said.

The pairing of the idea of plowing with the word “understatement” was her way to describe the humble nature of the hard work her grandfather did as a sharecropper, both in the soil and in society, season after season, year after year.

Even though her grandfather is quiet about his personal beliefs, White says they are evident in the way he has lived his life.

“When you think about it, a farmer has to be a man of faith too. He doesn’t know how the weather’s gonna be, how the soil’s gonna be. I believe my grandfather is a man of faith,” she said. “He worked hard all his life. He loves his family. Even at the party to see so many people come out on his behalf, to see the labor he’d put into plowing the field of his life come forth before his eyes. To see all the other people — not only children and grandchildren — watching the example he has set.”

Some of the people came to pay tribute to the man they called Mr. Ennis from his decades of driving a school bus.

“He drove the school bus for 31 years, but he was with Robinson ISD for 51 years. He did custodian work at Robinson and Rosenthal. He retired at 83!” White said. “I rode his school bus — went to kindergarten at Robinson.”

Van Degrate Sr. is taking it a little easier these days. The man who would come home from driving the school bus and take care of the yard and all the livestock, the man who would actually tell his children and grandchildren, “If you snooze, you lose,” and, “The early bird catches the worm” — that man has slowed down. He still drives his big white Dodge Ram truck, but only down to the mailbox. At his birthday party he attributed his longevity to a combination of rest and work.

“Hard work brought me to who I am now, and rest,” he said, sitting on his king chair, adding, “Go to bed at night.”

Join the Conversation