A group of
26 rising seniors – including the author of Mirrors
of a Southern Girl – stand on the front steps
of Smithfield High School in 1958: (left to right)
in front – Gwen Jones, Judy Coats, Joan Kaye
Strickland, Priscilla Lassiter, Nancy Lassiter,
Jo Ann Wiggs, Wade Hamilton; second row – Jackie
Bridges, Rebecca Stephenson, Barbara Ann Johnson, Mary
Nell Lee, Jack Upton, Glenda Johnson, Mary Jo
Warr; third row – Betsy Johnson, Kenneth Woodard,
Genevieve Johnson, Staton Boyette, John Allen, Wayne
Williams, Bill Stewart; fourth row – Clyda Lynn
Boyette, Sashie Skinner, Butch Johnson, Joe Glenn
Lee, Brian Langley.
She remembers her growing up
in Smithfield as Miss Mary Nell Lee
Here are a few excerpts from Mrs.
Ferguson's Mirrors of a Southern Girl....
From a chapter about her early
I had my first school misbehavior in first grade.
Mrs. Padgett was my teacher, and I remember liking
her. Now the dunce cap was a real thing, and I got
to wear it while I sat on a stool in the corner. I
had talked. That was probably not a surprise to
Joe and Louise Lassiter were the custodians for
the Smithfield School for all my years.... The
most important part of their day was making sure
all the students received a kind word or a
compliment from them. They seemed to know when I
was down, and there would be such a loving
response. I don't remember the words, but my soul
remembers their love....
From a subsequent chapter, "The
When I was
growing up, we got a whippin' or a spanking when
we were bad. Now let me be clear, my face and
upper body were never hit. It was my legs or my
behind. Often I heard Mama say, "You are going to
get spanking when you daddy gets home." I lived in
fear the rest of the day.
parents' bedroom on Fifth Street was a bush. I
called it a tree, but it really was a big, bad
bush with stinging branches. I would have to go
outside to pick a switch for my whippin'. I knew
to pick a sturdy branch or Daddy would pick it for
me, and I did not want that to happen. I then
stripped the leaves from the branch and put it on
the kitchen table ready for Daddy when he got
From a chapter about going
When we lived on Fifth Street, a highlight of the
week was walking ... downtown to the Saturday
afternoon movie. It did not matter what was
playing at the Howell Theatre. Until I was twelve,
I had a dime and a nickel for the movie. It was
nine cents for the ticket, five cents for a drink,
and one cent for a lollipop. While watching the
movie, I dipped my lollipop into my Coke and then
When I went
to the movies, I never thought about the fact that
black people could not sit downstairs where I sat.
It was just where I sat. I was aware that there
were also the colored and white drinking fountains
outside the courthouse. I understand I was
supposed to drink out of the one marked white. I
never questioned why as a
child. Many times as an adult I have asked the
question: why did I not know?...
We had two "dime" stores named Rose's and
Gregory's.... Perhaps I got my school supplies in
one of them. I can remember asking Daddy for money
to buy my beginning-of-the-year supplies. My
frugal daddy said I probably didn't need a new
three-ring notebook because last year's would
still be fine. Then he gave me his teasing grin
and handed over the money....
During tobacco season time, you made sure to
keep your eyes down when walking so you could miss
the brown spots of tobacco juice that were spat on
the sidewalk. Nasty! You always had to make sure
you were not near someone getting ready to spit as
it could spatter on you. Double nasty! Walking
through town was like going through an obstacle
course, and it was not the place to go barefooted.
a chapter about her "High School Years":
The dating game was very complicated. If you were
considered to be popular, you needed to have a
date on Saturday night. All week in school I
flirted and hoped. The boy would call at home and
ask you out, so every time the phone range, I
jumped, hoping it was for me.
I dated a lot of boys, but most of them were only
one or two times. Maybe those boys did not like
spending money on a girl who only kissed goodnight
on the third date....
A date was not required for many parties we
attended. Girls could go together and have a great
time dancing and flirting with boys we liked. We
had a sock hop at the Legion Hut, as well as many
other parties in this log cabin now called the
Neuse Little Theatre....
Those parties are where I learned to dance. We did
the bop, which is what we now call the shag. Our
slow dance was performed in the waltz position,
often cheek-to-cheek with someone you liked. It
was very special if you were dipped at the end of
If there was no party, we could also ride
around and end up at Jack's Drive-In Grill, which
was located on the corner of Market and Bright
Leaf Boulevard where there is now a laundry. Many
hours were spent pulling into Jack's, sitting in
our cars, maybe ordering a Coke that was brought
to the car, looking to see who else was there,
pulling back out if we saw no one of interest,
riding around again for the purpose of spotting a
certain boy's car, and then back to Jack's in
hopes we might be lucky. Lucky simply meant seeing
a boy we liked.
Of course, there's lots more from
where those excerpts came.