For George Ruth Jr., 87, a recent reunion at Greenwood Plantation was a chance to go back in time and share some memories of his early life with his wife, two of his sons and their families.
Ruth was born on the sprawling property in November 1928, the sixth of eight children. Life for many poor African-American families during that era was not easy.
His family earned a meager existence doing chores and odd jobs for the family of Frank Percy, who owned the Greenwood property and ran it as a successful farm.
Ruth’s family lived in a small two-room wooden house on the grounds. They collected rainwater in a barrel or had to walk several hundred yards to a nearby stream, and there was no bathroom, not even an outhouse. They grew their own vegetables and raised animals such as hogs, chickens, geese and turkeys. They traveled several miles, often walking, to church on Sundays.
Ruth remembers his life revolved around work on the farm and doing various chores. He took care of the horses and livestock, and he remembers planting oak trees around the property with his sister.
He had lessons from time to time at the local church but no formal education.
“I didn’t have a real childhood,” Ruth recalled. “I worked all the time. I grew up at a very young age. Nobody had anything back then. We didn’t have birthday celebrations. At Christmas, I might get a little pop gun, but that’s all.”
His life changed dramatically when his mother, Hattie, died from complications of delivering her eighth child in September 1941. She’s buried in the St. Peter’s Baptist Church cemetery. The Ruth family was dispersed, and at the age of 12, George went to live with relatives in New Orleans, where he continued to do odd jobs.
He eventually joined the Coast Guard and served in the Pacific through the Korean and Vietnam wars, receiving an honorable discharge in December 1967. He also earned his GED.
“When I left here, I was a pretty ambitious little fella,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t believe in ‘can’t do.’ I believe it’s more ‘don’t wanna do.’ I believe a person can do just about anything they’re willing to work for.”
He married Lois in April 1968, and they moved to Houston, where she pursued her dreams of missionary work in Central America.
After his military career ended, Ruth worked as a food service manager for the Texas Department of Corrections, retiring in 1993. He then worked as a bailiff for different judges until 2014. He still sells life insurance.
The couple raised three sons and have 15 grandchildren, many of whom stayed at the bed-and-breakfast at Greenwood during the Christmas holidays.
“Dad always wanted to come back and show us where he grew up, and this was the best time for us to get together,” said Col. Stephen Ruth, who drove with his wife and three children from just outside Boston for the reunion. He is a National Security fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
The oldest son, George Ruth III, a pharmaceutical representative who lives with his family in San Antonio, made the trip with his wife and children. The Ruths’ third son, Damien, a salesman who lives in Texas with his family, was unable to attend. But Ruth’s niece and nephew, Calvin Miller Sr. and Katie Mae Miller, who live in West Feliciana Parish, spent time with their family.
“It was nice for me to come back here and show them all where I grew up,” the elder Ruth said. “It’s good to remember where I came from.”
Ruth and his sister, Hattie Crawford, who lives in a nursing home, are the only surviving siblings.
Ruth is active in his church, visiting the sick every weekend, including patients at the local Veterans Affairs hospital, and he has been an usher for 41 years in addition to other duties.
Lois Ruth runs the church’s bookstore.
“We have a very spiritual life, and I believe in the need for prayer and that people can always use prayer,” said George Ruth Jr.. “I like to visit people and say prayers with them. I feel I still have more to do.”
Reflecting on his early life at Greenwood Plantation, Ruth said, “As we get older, I think more about legacy. We made sure our boys had more than we had. They all three went to college. I wanted them (children and grandchildren) to see they can overcome obstacles, and I want them all to do well. They’re making me proud.”