For years, I always heard my mother speak about "the land." Often when she spoke about it, it would be with that somewhat shy and embarassed tone that educated black folks living up north use when talking about the folks they left back home. It was one of those pieces of history that over time had to become myth or else you would spend too much time worrying over it. That's what my mother's aunt and her people were doing, back in Natchez, worrying too much about that Land. Larry Boy, my mother's cousin, who was just a few years older then me, carried around a briefcase full of papers. Every now and then he would call us, soliciting funds for a lawsuit over the land. I reacted like my mother until one day, I went to Natchez for a family reunion and looked at Larry's papers. The papers told a pretty straight forward story, though I cannot now remember it all.
It seems that we could have been oil barons.
Apparently, my mother's father or great grandfather had a piece of land back in the 1920s that I think was given to him by the owners of a plantation where he was a slave. He kept this land until the 1920s when someone claimed he had not paid taxes on the land. The land was then seized, auctioned and purchased by one of the rich families of Natchez. Then, oil was found on the land. This is the story Larry told me as he pulled a photocopy of a tax receipt showing that my great grandfather had paid his taxes and that the land was really stolen from him. Then he showed me more papers about the lawsuit filed against the thieves by my mother's uncle, and papers declaring an old aunt, the rightful heir, insane so they could file the suit.
Everybody agreed that he shouldn't have. He was probably cheated. But this was 1950s Natchez, now. He was black. Not well educated. They were white and they were the law. What more was there to say? So everyone got a couple of hundred dollars rather than tens of thousands perhaps. It could have given my family some real wealth, something for us to inherit that would put us on equal footing rather than a legacy of oppression and slavery that everyone tries to convince us is more myth than real. Today, Larry Boy still goes to city hall, poring over records and worrying about a piece of land that must now be a superfund site. So whenever people mention the word reparations, I think of the land (and so must the heirs of those who stole it).
St. Louis , MO
The children laugh, almost disbelieving my memories of growing up in Natchez, Mississippi during the 1950s and 60s. Maybe one day I will write a book, just for them. Pictures in a book of "White only" signs above entrances and water fountains are like "whatnots" on a table, harmless and quiet, unable to reveal the real crime against humanity. And I've got a book in me.
A "white only" sign above the only bus or train depot entrance in a thunderstorm, with your mama getting soaked, holding a shoebox full of food because restaurants serve "white only" is another matter altogether.
Approaching the dentist's office, we would swing to the rear to the "colored" waiting room, the back porch and wooden benches. We couldn't show enough gratitude and we waited in winter coats, rain coats, and in sweltering summer heat.
The "white only" public school threw their outdated books to the "colored" schools, instead of in the trash. But our diligent teachers taught us to sand the outer edges so the books would at least appear clean and we made book covers from brown grocery bags.
We could buy everything in the dimestore but a soda or a burger from the same dimestore's lunch counter. All hotel rooms were "white only". We watched movies from the segregated "colored" balcony of the theaters. People were beaten and killed or just disappeared because voting was for "whites only". A "white only" ambulance couldn't respond to a "colored" emergency, so local "colored" funeral homes provided this service to our community, though they had no medical training.
Most horrendous of all is the still unsolved murder of Wharlest Jackson, whose truck was bombed as he drove home from work, having been recently moved from custodial duties to "a white man's job" of painting tires at the plant. Oh, the murders, all over Mississppi.
Like I said, I gotta book in me.
Avondale Estates, MS
Chants from the Schoolyard
I started elementary school in 1963 in Asheville, North Carolina. It was segregated and many whites vocalized and put in to print that blacks had everything that they needed and could not understand why blacks wanted to go to school with white children.
The science labs, reading material, and audio-visual equipment as it was called at that time was greatly inferior. I saw what were called filmstrips at the "colored" elementary school that I attended. When integration took place in the mid 1960s, out of the blue, came science equipment and, as it was called back then, moving or motion films.
I remember vividly a chant that white students would sing when standing outside of Aycock Elementary School when black children from the Burton Street area of West Asheville began attending that school when integration was implemented. The words were:
Bonnie and Clyde
Were sitting by the river
Eating chocolate liver
Along came a nigger
And pushed them in the river
I'm grateful that I had a family and a community that stood fast and weathered the storm.
The Indirect Effect of Jim Crow
Because I am only twenty-one years of age, I must say that I was never directly affected by the realities of Jim Crow. However, previous generations - my parents, my parents' parents and further back, existed in the turmoil that was Jim Crow. I have long heard the universal stories of separate water fountains, eateries, and sections in movie theaters, beaches, and parks. Strangely enough when I hear these accounts of inequality, there does not appear to be anger in the voices of my family members. There is no anger but rather hints of sadness and frustration. My grandmother would often shake her head while recounting having to walk in the street so that whites could walk on the sidewalk. My father remembers no longer having the desire to play basketball (a sport in which he was All-American) when the schools integrated because the white players were given priority over the black players. So, while directly I have not been affected, I have suffered the memories of those I love whose voices still tend to rise slightly higher and eyes sometimes mist when remembering Jim Crow.
Chapel Hill, NC
Packing the Pee Can for the Road Trip
It's seems funny to me now, some 40 years later. But that's what we did. Pack the Pee can in the back seat of the car as we prepared for our trip from Terre Haute, IN. to Nashville, TN. Home of Ma Dear (my mothers Mom).
Packing that ole coffee can was as important as any of the other items normally carried on a road trip in those days.
My parents never addressed why we had to carry it. They didn't need to, because even as a child I already knew the answer to the unasked question. Ole Jim Crow didn't allow for us to use the restroom whenever we stopped for gas. That stop for fuel would be the only stop made. It just wasn't thought safe to do otherwise.
Peeing in that can seemed as normal as taking U.S. 41 South to the Penny Rail into Nashville where Big Jim really stood tall.
That was Unreal!
I remember Jim Crow: born in '47, grew up during the 50s and 60s.I remember getting the used text books from the white schools while attending school in Louisiana. How white men would have black women "on the side" and if you dated them you would be severely beaten or come "missing". I never knew of a single white person who was kind or considerate. My grandmother, who raised me, worked cleaning houses for the wife of the school board director of our town. When I was preparing to go to college, the director's wife tried her best to talk my grandmother out of sending me to college. Telling her I did not need to go and such. Can you believe that? Oh, but my grannie knew the importance of an education! She had instilled the need for an education in me long ago. There are many more things to relate to you.