Daddy's Little Girl
On October 29, 1932, Margie Velma Bullard was born. Her parents, siblings, and friends would always call her Velma. She was the second child and first daughter of farmer Murphy Bullard and his homemaker wife, Lillie. They would have nine children all together.
When Velma was born, the Bullards lived in an unpainted wooden house in rural South Carolina. The home had neither electricity nor running water. Unlike many farm families, they did not even have an outhouse. Rather, "the necessary" was taken care of with chamber pots and trips to the woods. Murphy's parents lived in the home and so did his sister, Susan Ella, who was disabled because an arm and leg had been shriveled by polio.
As the Great Depression worsened, Murphy Bullard found it impossible to eke out a living from the sale of the cotton and tobacco he grew. He sought and found work as a logger in a sawmill owned by Clarence Bunch. Through Bunch, Murphy was able to move his family into a tiny house closer to town. Here his third child would be born.
Then Murphy got a job in a Fayetteville textile mill and moved his family back into his parents' home. His father died shortly thereafter and his mother followed her husband to the graveyard in less than a year's time.
The Bullard family was organized along traditional, patriarchal lines. Murphy Bullard was the undisputed king of whatever shabby castle his family occupied and Lillie was the submissive wife. He was an easily angered and hard-drinking man when he did not get his way and a strict, unbending disciplinarian with his many children. He did not spare the rod or, in this case, the strap and the Bullard youngsters often had smarting backsides.
One thing that especially galled him was a kid with a "smart mouth" and both his oldest child, his son Olive, and the daughter who had been born next, Velma, were known in the family for their tendency to give Dad back-talk. However, Olive believed that Velma did not get punished nearly as often or as severely as he did which led to a lot of conflict between the two youngsters. He was convinced that their father favored Velma. She was just as convinced that their mother favored Olive.
Velma disliked her mother's submissive attitude toward their father. Decades later, she wrote in her memoirs, Woman on Death Row, "I seemed to accept Daddy's high-tempered ways because I thought that's the way men are. Mamas should love their children and stand up for them, and Mama never stood up for me, or for any of us." Every time Velma got a beating from her dad, she was at least as upset with the passive Mom who saw and did nothing as she was with the aggressive dad who actually inflicted it.
Lillie Bullard believed she had to step carefully in her own household to deal with her husband's temper. She herself was frequently in danger of being on the receiving end of Murphy's fists because he was a hysterically jealous man. He was also himself flagrantly unfaithful which inevitably added to family tensions.
A 7-year-old Velma started school in the fall of 1939. At first, she loved it. A smart girl, she got good grades and teachers' compliments. School also offered a respite from her crowded home life, her father's strap, and her often-ill mother's gripes and demands.
However, the child soon began having difficulty with her schoolmates. Velma did not wear the new, store-bought, pretty dresses that so many other girls did. Her shoes were sturdy and worn. Other children sometimes made fun of her garments and of the plain lunches of cornbread with a side of meat that she brought. Velma began sneaking out of the sight of the other kids to eat. Then she began pilfering coins from her father's pants pockets to buy candies from a little store that was across the street from the school.
The child stole $80 from an elderly neighbor. Murphy Bullard laid the strap on long and hard, apparently curing her of the desire to steal at least during her childhood since there are no other reports of such youthful indiscretions.
As Velma grew, she was assigned more and more chores. She had to help out on the farm and care for her younger brothers and sisters. She resented the amount of work she had to do but did not openly rebel for fear of angering her stern dad. "I really never felt like my Mama or Daddy ever wanted me except for the work I did," she would say later . "I always felt that they just really wanted me to be a slave."
Not everything was bad in the youngster's life, however. Her father could be loving with his kids and lead them in ventures that were lots of fun. Murphy Bullard often organized baseball games with his children and others. Velma was often the only girl in the game and enjoyed playing shortstop. She also liked swimming when her dad led the kids on excursions to a local pond.
Despite his harsh discipline, Velma was often happy to be a daddy's girl. A 10-year-old Velma was walking through the business district of Fayetteville with her father. She admired a dress in a department store window. It was covered with pink flowers and had a wide ruffle at the hem. She told her dad how much she loved that dress and, to her very pleasant surprise, he marched straight in and bought it for her!
Sadly, later in her life, Velma may have become a daddy's girl in the most negative possible way. She told a reporter from The Village Voice that her father had entered her bedroom and raped her. Prior to that, there had been confusing episodes when he felt her up and she was not sure if it was sexual or not.
Several of Velma's brothers and sisters furiously disputed her claim that she was an incest victim. While her family had many of the traits characteristic of incestuous families such as a severe power imbalance between husband and wife and a father who drank heavily, it is not possible to say with certainty if her accusation was true or false. Velma certainly could lie and was a champion manipulator throughout much of her life. A claim of sexual abuse can be an easy way to play upon people's sympathies.
In 1945, Murphy Bullard decided he was tired of working in the mill and wanted to go back to full-time farming. He bought more acres and, with that purchase, a small but far more modern home for his family. After only a year, he realized he could not support his large brood on what he could make from his crops. He returned to supplementing farm income with work in a mill.
Later, he got a job at a textile plant in the town of Red Springs and moved his family there. The house they moved into lacked the modern conveniences of the one they had lived in for the last couple of years.
Velma was now in high school. She no longer got the good grades she had achieved in elementary school. However, she found one activity that she enjoyed at Parkton Public School and that, surprisingly, was basketball. Although it was not standard in that era, Parkton had a girls' team and Velma found the fast-moving sport a good way to work off energy. Then her mother insisted that Velma quit the team. Lillie had recently given birth to twins and needed her eldest daughter's help with housework more than she ever had. Velma was terribly disappointed and saddened by her Mom's demand.
Meanwhile, Velma and a high school boy named Thomas Burke had developed a mutual crush. A year older than she, Thomas was a thin-faced, jug-eared, dark-haired and lanky youth with a tender streak and a good sense of humor. The two found each other regularly at school to make friends and flirt.
No dating would be allowed until Velma was 16, her father told her when she expressed a wish to begin seeing Thomas outside of school. Then her 16th birthday rolled around but her father seemed to have changed his mind. He still did not want his daughter going out. After much pleading, Velma got Murphy to agree to her dating. He placed firm restrictions on her, saying she usually had to double date and always had to be home by 10 p.m. on the dot. Although she chafed under these restrictions, Velma went along with them. She did not have much choice if she was to avoid her father's wrath.