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The Road South
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LET ME SHOW YOU how I deal with something that shows me its teeth," said the tall slender man as he hopped about in his ritual dance in the yard of the shotgun house in Rosedale, Alabama.
"I'm in control! Watch the show!" he commanded as my brother Bubba and I beat sticks on tin cans in a mock drumroll. The possum snarled as the black man reached into the makeshift trap. Avoiding its sharp incisors, he grabbed the creature by the tail and escalated his chant as our homemade drums shouted a persistent beat.
"Here's Poor Sam, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Watch the show!" he insisted. The man danced and strutted about for another minute, waving the animal in the air with the dexterity of a cheerleader shaking pompons.
Suddenly, he eased the possum down to the ground and pinned it there with an ax. Next, he stood on the mammal, placing his feet on either side of the tool. In a flash, he yanked the animal's tail upward, breaking its neck.
My father, Huell (Slim) Stewart, took pride in killing, whether it was wringing a chicken's neck or executing a possum. People say that back down in Russell County, Alabama, he worked as a butcher with a special talent. The story goes that as entertainment for white people he would stalk a hog around its pen, stab the swine to death with a long knife, and drink its blood. Around Rosedale he was also known for his violent nature, which saw him as a protagonist in cuttings, stabbings, and beatings that made him a feared man in the neighborhood.
An incident was described that concerned a confrontation between my father and a man named Homer over a gambling debt. The man began chasing my father around a house with a knife. Witnesses were astounded to see my father flee from a confrontation, but they noticed that he was making a wider circle each time he and his pursuer circumvented the gambling house. Apparently, Slim Stewart had spotted an ax embedded in a tree stump in a corner of the yard. Finally, on one trip around the house, my father was able to reach the ax and wait for his pursuer to appear. With one blow of the blunt side of the chopping tool, he knocked the man senseless. Until his death years later, Homer's head bore an indentation as a result of the blow.
By the time we were born, Slim Stewart was a small-time gambler, a respectable drunkard, and a thief. No, not the pennyante rogue that you can find on many street corners. He achieved this ignominy when he stole the life of a humble woman that my three brothers and I had a chance to love for only a microsecond in the breadth of time.
I use the word father as a biological description rather than as an endearing one. Memories of my life with Slim and my mother, Mattie, are buried in layers of time and embalmed in sorrow, anger, and resentment. Our time together as a maladjusted nuclear family was dreadfully short, but the images haunt me six decades later. That time in the 1930s was a repository for the seeds of despair that drove me to weep every day for fiftyseven years of my life.
I NEVER KNEW EXACTLY HOW my mother and father met. I was aware that Mama was raised on a farm in Cordele in South Georgia with her parents, Willis Johnson and Emily Butts Johnson. They had four children, three of whom were girls, but their father worked them as hard as you would work men on the farm, chopping wood and carrying out other backbreaking chores. The Johnsons were an assorted mix of tall and short people, ranging from one aunt who was barely five feet tall to another measuring six feet in height. Grandfather Johnson was a hardworking man who developed a good-size farm in his community. The place slipped from his grasp after a bad crop year, and he ended up demoted to tenant-farmer status, scraping for sustenance on some other man's land.
On the paternal side, my father came from a huge family of about a dozen siblings. His father, Alonzo, was a cotton gin foreman at the Southeastern Compress warehouse in Russell County, Alabama, and his mother, Rosa Lee, was a housekeeper and cook for the families of assassinated attorney general candidate Albert Patterson and foundry engineer Frank Morton. A U.S. census schedule from the mid-nineteenth century listed my great-grandfather as spelling his name Steward, which he had apparently adapted from a plantation owner of the same name in neighboring Lee County. The current spelling of the name began with grandfather Alonzo.
Also, it has been established that a branch of the Stewart family passed into the Caucasian race. Alonzo's sister, Molly, was quite fair in complexion and ended up marrying a white man named Ben Franklin in Phenix City. After Franklin died, the family moved to Michigan and the children passed for white, although ancient U.S. laws require that a person with one-sixteenth of Negro blood be classified as black or colored.
Exactly when and where the Stewart and Johnson families intersected is unclear. In recent years I learned that my mother had once lived in Columbus, Georgia, a stone's throw across the Chattahoochee River from Phenix City in my father's home county of Russell. The proximity of the towns suggests that my parents could have met during that time. My mother lived in a boardinghouse on Tenth Avenue North in east Birmingham when she first arrived in Birmingham and began working as a maid for the Felton family. This was a low-income section dotted with pipe-making plants and a railroad car shop and inhabited by nameless, faceless, and otherwise invisible African Americans. By the time she moved over Red Mountain to Rosedale to increase her proximity to work in the well-heeled community of Mountain Brook, she and Slim Stewart were married.
My father and mother produced five offspring, born in the basement of old Hillman hospital in Birmingham. At the time, hospital cellars were designated for the care of African American patients in the segregated South. Huell Jerome (Bubba) Stewart Jr. was the oldest, born in 1932. I was next in line, debuting in 1934, and was called Shurley during my early life through some odd corruption of my actual name. Next in the pecking order were Sam, born in 1937, and David, who brought up the rear guard in 1939. Another son, Alonzo, named after my paternal grandfather, was sandwiched in birth between me and Jerome. He died of natural causes before I was born.
My mother's job was typical of what a lot of black women did in those days to make ends meet. If they weren't lucky enough or smart enough to be a teacher or perhaps a nurse, they usually sweated in someone else's kitchen or minded someone else's youngsters.
And work Mama did. She scrubbed floors and cleaned in the homes of the Feltons, and subsequently the Morgans, until beads of perspiration poured off her brow. She always took us with her out of necessity, love, or a combination of the above. Jerome, a.k.a. Bubba, and I would walk along beside her. Sam and David traveled via stroller. She would park the stroller in the backyard, where we would wile away the time while she worked, usually while humming or singing a spiritual.
"Were you there when they crucified my Lord....Sometimes it causes me to tremble."
My mother sang with such earnestness and dread that Bubba and I often felt that she sensed the presence of an unforeseen misfortune that awaited us all. Most often she seemed depressed and humorless. But when she did laugh with a woman friend who visited the house, it was a deep, hearty expression that made her sons feel good. Her hugs also made us feel good.
ROSEDALE, WHERE WE SPENT sections of our early life, is a poor enclave on the crest of Red Mountain, a southern finger of the Appalachian mountain range that stretches all the way to Maine. Just over the hill from the state's hub city, Birmingham, the Shades Valley neighborhood was first settled in 1885 when black residents began buying lots and building small houses there. Its name came from a rose grower who was also a town founder. In 1911 a streetcar line was erected, which ran from Jones Valley on the other side of the mountain through the center of Rosedale. This transportation enabled the whole area to be developed, and consequently, in 1926 Rosedale and Edgewood merged to form Homewood.
The majority of the people in Rosedale were maids, yardmen, handymen, and laborers, and the town's modern-era growth was generated by the fact that it provided a handy source of labor for the surrounding white communities, like Mountain Brook, an upscale section to the east. Often, a husband and wife were employed by the same white family.
Less than a mile to the west of my house was the abandoned Valley View Red Ore mine whose dark, foreboding entrance was so frightening that I would not cross its threshold during the days when Bubba and I would wander through the area. Nearby, a disused bed of the L&N Birmingham Mineral Railroad ran along the northern flank of Red Mountain just below Vulcan Park and extended from Irondale on the eastern side of the metropolitan area to Bessemer on the west. About two miles to the south of our neighborhood was Lake Edgewood. Howard College, a Baptist school that was to evolve into Samford University, didn't locate there until the 1950s.
Rosedale straddles both sides of U.S. 31, a road that linked the state's southern and northern counties. Along the highway there were black restaurants like Fess's Place and Waterboy's Grill. The town consisted of about 150 homes, but clusters of children in each dwelling pushed the population to about five hundred people. The area near Dunn's Drugstore provided the imaginary dividing line between "Pecktown," the white section, and Rosedale, or "Niggertown," the black community. An area a few blocks north of Rosedale was informally called Three Points because it was apparently where three neighborhoods intersected. In that area was a restaurant called Chicken in the Rough. Oftentimes blacks would go to the back door of the establishment with pans, and the cooks would give them raw chicken necks, heads, and feet that they could take home and cook for a day's meal.
THERE WAS NEVER MUCH LAUGHTER in our household. Our father never took us to a park, or a movie, or a ball game, none of the mundane expressions of warmth that were a staple of Father Knows Best and might make small children feel loved or valued. Rapport between our parents was uncomfortably hostile. In a verbal confrontation, the dialogue of insults and curses between my parents usually ended in a dead heat since Mama could hold her own fairly well in that arena. But at five-feet-seven or fivefeet- eight, standing her ground physically against my father was another matter entirely, and she endured frequent slappings and punchings.
Slim Stewart was well suited for the work he did. On my true birth date, September 24, 1934, the Birmingham News heralded on its front page the pending prosecution of Bruno Hauptmann, accused in the kidnap-slaying of Charles Lindbergh's baby. On the fourth page an item ran talking about rail production at the Tennessee Coal and Iron plant in the western section of Birmingham. That's where my father worked, TCI, not in steel production but in the tin mill. A strong back was an asset in the mills. And at a muscular six-foot-three, his brawn and surly disposition led him into knife fights and general mayhem, which inevitably devoured my mother as a victim.
On the day that marked the beginning of her end, Mama was preparing Sunday dinner and humming. Her favorite tune was, "Precious Lord take my hand, Lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak..." Maybe that was the melody soothing her tattered soul that luckless Southern day.
THE DAY MY MAMA'S LIFE was extinguished began my lengthy waltz with sadness. That summer day in August 1939 began like any other but was to end with an act that seemed to serve as an omen for dispiriting relationships to come at the hands of relatives and guardians.
MY DADDY SAVORED EXPRESSIONS like "mule's milk" and "cat's pajamas." And he could always enjoy his gin. To his credit, he never drank so much that he could not go to the tin mill and put in a day's work. But I was afraid of my father's furies, which were in part molded and shaped by the nimble hands of a world riddled with humiliation, degradation, and social castration, and which had cast people of color onto the scrap heap of secondand third-class citizenship.
We would never see much of Daddy. He would turn up on the weekends as if by appointment. His appointed mission, it seemed, was to fuss, and fight, and harangue Mama. The conflict that sunny Sunday was rooted in issues that always seemed to lurk in the backgroundgambling and money. On this day, he had left Miss Martha's shot house around the corner and come to our home at 2604 Eighteenth Place with the devil in his pocket and little else. Bubba and I saw him ambling down the sidewalk and ran to the house to tip off Mama. "Give me some money," he snapped upon entering the kitchen.
"The little money I've got I need to use to buy food for the children and pay for our insurance policy," Mama said. Enraged, my father began to strike her. She stumbled. He grabbed her, but she broke away and sprinted down the hall with him on her heels like a leopard in pursuit of an antelope. Daddy clutched the ax that had rested by the stove in the kitchen. "Don't hit Mama," Bubba and I yelled from the hallway. David and Sam were asleep in the front room, oblivious to the unfolding horror.
"Lord, don't hurt me or my children," she pleaded as she cowered in the rear bedroom near the window. Daddy swung the ax, striking her in the chest with the flat side of the weapon. Mama tumbled out the window into the arms of a waiting pecan tree. Caught in its leafy tentacles, she hung upside down. Daddy rushed outside, pushed her leg loose from the branches, and Mama plummeted to the ground like a ship's anchor.
"Oh, Mattie, I'm sorry," he moaned. The ambulance from Strong Funeral Home came and took her to Hillman Hospital in Birmingham. Women in the neighborhood brought us plates of food and looked in on us. My mother's sister, Emily Williams, who lived on our street, also would drop by and briefly check on us. We did not see our father, and if he visited home, it was most likely late at night when we were asleep.
Mr. Davenport was a man who sold coal and wood in the community. He also rang the bell in the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church tower. This was our main communication in the black community, our tribal drums. If the bell rang quickly, this meant someone was ill, and those available would come to render assistance. The men would tend to men, and women would care for women. If the bell rang slowly, it meant an individual was deceased.
One morning, as my brothers and I sat on the porch, the bell began a cautious peel. "Somebody's dead," said Bubba.
Mrs. Pryor and Mrs. Malone, neighborhood residents, walked past our home and down to the church. Others soon swarmed to the site to determine for whom the bell tolled. After a few minutes had passed, the crowd moved as one body toward our perch on the steps. Individuals within the throng picked up each of us boys and held us.
"Boys, everything is gonna be all right now," someone said. "Your mother is dead, but God knows best." Bubba and I began to weep, but the two younger boys, Sam and David, were, of course, not cognizant of what had occurred. "Daddy killed Mama," Bubba said. "He sure did," I answered. "Did you hear what they said?" a man asked others in the party.
Two Homewood policemen, Officer Smith and Chief Scott, came to the house to inquire about the death a few days later. Bubba and I told them about the surreal confrontation that had quickly escalated into a fateful incident. Daddy predictably informed them that Mama had jumped out of the window during a spat and landed in the tree. Apparently nobody bothered to check her injuries to see if they were consistent with our pronouncement about an ax murder.
In those days, a black person's life wasn't worth much more than a jar of sand to the white power structure, and Mama's life was granted about the same value. Also, as young juveniles, our words didn't muster the same credibility as an adult's. Her Jefferson County death certificate bears a telling reference in that the individual reporting her demise was listed as "self." The case was closed, and the law never inquired about the circumstances of Mattie Stewart's demise again.
We had my mother's funeral at Bethel A.M.E., and we buried her at Grace Hill Cemetery. My father, brothers, and I rode to the services with my mother's sister, Mamie Pickens, and her husband, Henry, in their black Model A Ford, which used a hand crank to start its engine.
As we rode southward over Red Mountain back into Rosedale, the grown-ups began conversing about our future without Mattie C.
"What are you going to do with these boys?" Aunt Mamie asked.
"I don't know," Daddy said. "Why don't you take them?" The grown-ups disappeared inside our home, and we boys stayed on the porch. After a few minutes, the adults came out with a few bags that contained our modest wardrobes. We children climbed into Mamie and Henry's Ford and sped off with them to our new home in Collegeville, about seven miles from Rosedale.
Apparently our father was as affected by his severance from us as a man parting company with personal property. Of course, Bubba and I weren't overwhelmed by this more pronounced breach from an already distant guardian.
We had seen Mamie and Henry perhaps once before our mother's death. After all, they resided on the other side of Birmingham. The journey on the streetcar would have been formidable: Climb on the Number 39 Edgewood and ride downtown, then change over to Number 22 Boyles/Tarrant City for a trip to Vanderbilt and Coosa Streets, and finally walk at least two miles to their house. The fact that Mamie and Henry rarely drove to our home could be laid at the feet of sisters pursuing separate and distinct lives, or the more obvious impediment-Slim Stewart.
Uncle Henry had a laborer's job at the Louisville & Nashville railroad car shop. Their home was comfortable but modest in the gritty low-income neighborhood that saw many of its residents working as laborers at U.S. Pipe and Sloss, two companies within the metropolitan area's steel and iron fabric. We boys slept on pallets, and the food was plentiful since the couple raised hogs and chickens. Bubba and I spent time trying to potty train Sam, but David, of course, was still in diapers.
We stayed with the Pickenses from shortly after Mama died in August 1939 until right before Christmas of that year. That's when Aunt Mamie and Uncle Henry apparently saw the light in a revelation from hell. "I'll be damned if I'll take on the responsibility of raising somebody else's children," said Mamie, a tall, big-bosomed woman. "I'm taking you back to your daddy. I'll be damned if I'm cleaning some baby's shit." We soon discovered that new people lived in the death house on Eighteenth Place. Slim Stewart had moved over to Central Avenue near the streetcar line in Rosedale with a woman named Marie. Aunt Mamie and Henry dropped us off in a field right next to their house on Twenty-seventh Court.
Henry took our bags and set them out of the car, and Mamie ordered us to follow. "Your daddy lives over there. I don't give a damn if you go root a hog or die poor," she said, the words trailing off as they sped away.
IF A RAT IS BATTERED AND FRIED and cooked to a golden brown and your stomach aches because it only contains gastric acid, when you do eat, the meal tastes like the finest Manhattan restaurant cuisine.
Marie Thompson protested with vigor when she discovered that we had been deposited that December day of 1939 like dirty laundry outside the household she shared with Daddy, her sister Louise, and her young niece Nettie. She proclaimed that we were not welcome in the small, two-bedroom home that sported a tiny dining area and a back porch.
We were allowed to remain on the premises at our father's insistence. But the catch was that we would have to stay on the dreary rear porch. So, there we were, four young children, ages seven, five, two, and a few months old, doomed to consort with Mother Nature's offspring: rain, snow, hot and cold air.
Blankets were thrown on the floor, and a kerosene heater was placed in the middle of the porch. The next day a mattress showed up. Lattice was put up to reinforce a cardboard wall erected to deflect wind and rain. A blanket was hung to give the adults privacy when they used the toilet. All four of us slept on the mattress, which always wore the fragrance of urine since we routinely peed in the bed. David, of course, would soil the homemade cloth diapers Bubba and I manufactured for him. This situation lasted all winter.
Sometimes, Bubba and I would go down near U.S. 31 and perch outside of Damon Lee and Sons' coal yard. We would wait for Lee's teenage grandson Afton Jr. to show up at the business and would throw rocks at him. The youth would retaliate by throwing chunks of coal at us. However, he did not know that this was a ruse; we took the coal home, placed it in a bucket, and lit a fire on the back porch to keep warm.
SPRING 1940 BROUGHT NATURE'S WARMTH, rejuvenation, and the promise of new beginnings to most people. For us it meant that the soggy mattress, damp with urine and caked with grime, began to swell with maggots and bedbugs. We made tasty meals for the insects, which munched on us constantly since we never bathed.
Our caloric intake consisted mainly of one meal each evening, handed out the door to us on the porch, mostly leftovers from the Jefferson County Tuberculosis Sanitarium where Marie worked. Our utensils were pans rather than dinner plates; an old sewer pipe pulled double duty as our table. We lived days crafted with cookie-cutter sameness. Each morning with the radiance of dawn we hurled ourselves toward a mission to stamp out our personal version of world hunger. Bubba and I had blossomed quickly into skilled scavengers, and our savanna was a couple of blocks down the street in Pecktown, the white section.
We were looking after our two younger brothers since we basically had been abandoned by our father and Marie. Our stepmother's motto was: "I don't have a child to die and I don't have a child to cry," which meant she did not feel any obligation to treat us as anything more than creatures of contempt. So, for diapers we cut up potato sacks and used the cloth quite creatively.
In the mistiness of morning, we became the hunter-gatherers for our tribe on the back porch. Sometimes Bubba and I found a cane pole and string and followed adults in the neighborhood down to Lake Edgewood on fishing expeditions for catfish. We would bring our catch to the backyard and begin preparing them for a meal. This was done by cutting off their heads and gutting them with a clothes hanger and tossing the fish in a pan over a small fire. When we killed birds around the neighborhood with an old BB gun, we followed the same procedure. But it took a whole mess of birds, which were often sparrows, to make a meal.
More often, we would visit stores like Piggly Wiggly, Hill's Grocery, Dunn's Drugs, and Shaia's General Store, the backbone of the white business district. Our trips were not designed to shop for goods but were for scavenging purposes. On most mornings Hill's and Piggly Wiggly would set out perishable goods that were deemed not fit for customer consumption. Molded bread and apples and oranges on the brink of rotting became the staples of our diet. If we were lucky, the dairy-truck driver would hand us a bottle of milk or the bread man would toss us a loaf of cinnamon rolls.
Competition for our morsels came from a source we had not expected. For fun, Bubba and I would find old paint cans and use a broom straw or blade of grass to paint ants in the field next to our house. Each morning we would place bets on whether a red or white ant would emerge from the mound first. Once we followed the colorful ants down the alley and discovered they were dining at the same "restaurants" at the back of Hill's and Piggly Wiggly that we patronized. And, like the ants, we hoarded our food. Our stash would be shared with Sam and David and squirreled away from the grown-ups in the house, especially Miss Marie.
A source of nourishment for baby David was Mr. Benson's cow, which grazed down the street from our house. Bubba and I would often sneak over and milk the bovine, squirting the precious fluid into a ragged baby bottle. At the end of the day, Benson, I'm certain, had to take stock that the beast was at least a quart or so shy of what a healthy creature should have been mustering. In later years I was to reveal our Robin Hood roles to Benson, to his amusement.
The only time we got food prepared in the house was on weekends. Daddy had a chicken coop in the backyard, and we would smell Miss Marie cooking the staple of Southern black folks' diets-fried chicken. Daddy also had large rat traps in the yard by the chicken house, the jaws of which represented instantaneous death for pesky vermin. But we never actually saw what he caught since we were warned to stay away from that section of the property.
On Sundays the grown-ups would fix us a treat of what we assumed was fried chicken. One particular weekend we noticed Officer Smith parked outside the house. After we were served our dinner, Smith came forward and confiscated the food and placed it in a brown bag. Later that week he returned with Nurse Avery from the Jefferson County Health Department. He proclaimed that we were eating rats and warned Slim and Marie that they would be locked up if the situation was repeated. We never got meat with our Sunday dinners again.
A neighbor, Ennis Daniels, who was also a drinking companion of my father, had blown the whistle. He had noticed Daddy skinning and cleaning the rats, putting them in a boiler, and carrying them inside. His conscience had prodded him to call the authorities.
"Boy, if Mama was here, this wouldn't be happening," Bubba lamented. "Why don't he kill Marie like he killed Mama?" we both wondered.
THOSE DAYS WERE FULL OF TEARS AND PAIN that gnawed at your gut. The source of this angst was the loss of a mother's embrace and the burden of childhood chased away by cruelty and circumstance and replaced with weighty responsibilities more appropriate for a thirty-year-old. Life on a back porch is a claustrophobic existence. When you top that off with barren crumbs of emotional warmth, you've got the recipe for despair and bottomless gloom. The need to care for Sam and David created a situation in which Bubba and I never strayed far from home. For leisure we tracked our ants down the alley or created homemade knives and spears and tossed them at makeshift targets, a skill at which we became quite adept.
Bubba and I came and went as we pleased. We were our own parents and guardians encased in children's bodies and starkly aware that our lives depended on our instincts for survival in a world coated in unrelenting misery. The days flowed like currents of the Alabama River on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico; in some places swift, but in many others languishing or plodding along with mind-numbing tedium.
Daddy enrolled me in a surrogate school at Union Baptist Church. Two fires in 1939 had transformed Rosedale School into a heap of wood and brick. Youngsters in turn had to be sent to Union for the first four grades, Friendship Baptist for the second four, and Bethel A.M.E. for the high school years.
Meanwhile, each day represented a land mine in the quest for survival and mere emotional fulfillment. On occasional Sundays, though, Bubba and I would go down to Friendship Baptist and plant ourselves on the outside of the brick building and listen to the songs and the preaching. You could always hear lively proselytizing and "shouting" in the black church, a tradition that could probably be traced to the brisk worship of Southern slaves. I thought all churches were like that, but later I learned that white congregations expressed their faith in calmer seas of music and ritual.
A song reverberated through the walls of the church and caressed our ears: Our mother, she is gone, she is gone. Our mother, she is gone, she is gone. And she won't be back no more...
The congregation and choir moaned these words in traditional black gospel earnestness. Bubba and I wailed in sadness and grief awakened from slumber, another reminder of our virtual orphanlike status and lives void of love as a result of Mama's destruction.
The fight for survival was also coupled with striving to stay on the good side of the temperamental Slim and Marie. If you compared Slim and Marie's relationship with the one my father had with our mother, Mattie C., there would be at least one obvious departure in similarity. Slim and Marie had a good time together mainly because of a common denominatorgin. My mother did not drink, nor did any of her siblings. Slim and Marie didn't necessarily love each other. They enjoyed each other's company, and liquor was their permissive chaperon. Marie was a peculiar woman anointed with unfaltering, selfperpetuating spite. We couldn't please her even when it came down to what name we were to call her.
"Hey, Miss Marie," Bubba and I would greet her when she returned from work at the tuberculosis sanitarium. "Why don't you try calling me Mama?" she corrected us. The next day, buoyed by her instructions, we decided to use Marie's recommended greeting. "Hey, Mama!" we yelled. "I ain't your damn mama," she retorted. We just couldn't win with her.
But life walking on tiptoe was inevitably doomed. In about the middle of 1940, Marie greeted my father at the door of the house proclaiming that she was missing twenty-five dollars in gold pieces and accused us of stealing them from her room, a place we had never been. She had obviously misplaced them or was lying in an effort to cause grief to me and Bubba. Our protests of innocence ricocheted off deaf ears, and Daddy immediately sided with Marie. He grabbed a two-by-four piece of lumber and began viciously to beat Bubba and me. We wept and dodged and ducked, but those maneuvers didn't help us escape this basketball-player-size man with long legs and even more imposing arms.
We wound up as casualties in a domestic battle zone. The injuries: Bubba had a cut eye and my arm was broken in two places. Daddy put me on the streetcar and took me to Hillman Hospital. He reverted to the same acting talent he had used when Mama was taken to the medical facility after he had knocked her out of the window with the ax.
"He fell. I told that boy to stop running," said Daddy. "No, he beat me," I exclaimed. "He's lying. Maybe we can pray for him to stop his lying," he said.
The doctors gobbled up the malarkey and, to my amazement, closed their eyes and joined him in a pious moment of prayer. A cast was placed on my arm and remained there for two weeks until my father cut it off after my limb was healed. It was not long after this beating that I discovered Bubba was gone-a runaway at seven. My father and Marie revealed not even a modicum of concern or worry about the matter.
"Bubba's probably gone off and got himself killed," Daddy said nonchalantly.
The beating was an even clearer omen that life with Slim and Marie would never be mistaken for an idyllic scene depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting.
"Shelter" at Aunt Emily's House
Aunt Emily was next in line of birth behind my mother, Mattie. She resided across the street from our former home on Eighteenth Place in her own fashionable shotgun house. A few weeks after Bubba's departure, I decided to leave Slim and Marie's place in search of a more humane and saner existence. We had seen Emily intermittently during our young lives and knew nothing of her personality. Most of the time she and my mother would talk back and forth across the street from respective perches on their front porches. Since she was the sister of my angelic mother, I figured that I would be well received.
Emily welcomed me into her peculiar-smelling home and said it would be fine for me to stay with her and that she would not tolerate any inkling of my father's well-known violent temperament. "I'm not taking any of Huell's shit," said Emily, a brownskinned, husky woman whose face was decorated with moles, a trademark of my mother's side of the family.
A maid by day, she had extricated herself from rural Georgia but had brought its ambiance with her. My aunt relied on a kerosene lamp rather than electricity, and she chopped her own wood too.
"I can do anything a man can do. My daddy taught me how," she said.
Emily placed a cot for me in the front room where her bed was. That cot alone was a quantum leap up from the mattress on the back porch at Slim and Marie's place.
A chicken house sat in her side yard, and she taught me to feed the birds, wring their necks, cut wood for the stove, wash dishes, and do other chores. I abruptly stumbled onto the source of the house's stench. In the kitchen at the rear of the habitat was a brooder in which Emily kept chickens. She had thrown dirt on the floor, and a menagerie of fowls had unrestricted roaming rights in the room. The door between the middle room and the kitchen was kept closed in a futile attempt to keep out the odor.
Emily, I discovered, was one who apparently believed in voodoo. She would mix up unusual concoctions that smelled of sulfur. A dry form would be placed under my bed and other places in the house. A liquid version of the potion would be sprinkled under the front and back steps of the quarters. Sometimes my aunt would order me to pee into a jar, and then she would disappear into the next room carrying my bodily fluids like a scientist attempting to unravel a medical mystery. What she did with the urine, however, was anyone's guess. Overall, despite the peculiarities, I had concluded that it wasn't a bad living arrangement. But I soon discovered that Emily possessed her own Pandora's box of unmentionables. Marie and Slim were cold, indifferent, and mean. Emily unveiled a wicked style that my young mind found almost incomprehensible.
The sadism started in the middle of the night about a week after I had moved into Emily's house. After I had finished up a tedious dishwashing chore and gone to bed, Emily jarred me out of a deep sleep. "Wake up now!" she commanded, beating me with a frayed cord.
"What is it, Aunt Emily?" I asked, suddenly wide-awake. Through bleary eyes I then saw that she had taken the dishes I had washed earlier and placed them in the middle of the floor.
"I want you to wash these dishes again," she said amid hard, furious blows. Emily never said whether the dishes were not clean enough. Just "wash them again." And I was not to use the wood already in the stove to heat up water with which to do the job. I had to go out and chop some more logs.
After the stove was heated, I washed the dishes and went back to bed. Later on that night, the process began again. "Damn it to hell. The white folks are my boss, but I'm your boss and you are going to do what I say," she yelled.
Every week there was a hard blow, a slap, or a swift kick. Her motives, I surmised, were meanness, madness, and maliciousness. However, Emily had her own rationale. "I'll cower you down, boy, so the white folks won't have to do it," she often uttered during the disciplinary sessions.
One beating in particular is ingrained in my head. Curiosity had gotten the best of me, and I asked about her name. The fact that her last name was Williams rather than Johnson puzzled me since I did not see any suggestion of a husband. My mistake. Emily burst into a fit of rage as the inquiry parted my lips.
"Boy, you don't ask grown folks their business," she sputtered in commentary to an assault.
Emily and I had little to do in the house but sit in the front room and stare at the fireplace. When she tired of spitting tobacco into the flames, and she was sure that I was within striking distance, she would eject the brown gunk into my face and dare me to wipe my face clean.
The realization that I had traded Slim and Marie's mess for a parallel world of equal or worse quality hit me like two Louisville & Nashville freight trains colliding at fifty miles per hour over the Tennessee-Tombigbee River.
I saw my father at a distance. Often I would catch glimpses of him socializing down at Fess's Place on U.S. 31. One day our paths crossed down in Pecktown, the white section. I attempted to flee, but he quickly caught up with me and left me with a heartfelt expression of contempt.
"I'm glad you're gone. You stay up there with that damn bitch, and you don't come back to see Sam and David," he snarled.
I WAS A PRISONER AT EMILY'S. Once I came home from Union Baptist School, I could not go outside the yard. But I was so petrified by her warning that, more often than not, I would simply stay inside the house.
When Emily asked a neighbor named Miss Odell if I had crossed the threshold of the property, the woman, through either confusion or malice, said yes. Emily made a valiant effort to outdo herself because of Miss Odell's comments. Needless to say, I was severely punished. She tied my hands at the wrists with rope and, employing screws used for hanging heavy plants, created a pulley. All my clothes were stripped off, and I was hoisted up toward the ceiling, the end of the rope tied to the bed. She then started whipping me with the cord until I felt blood trickling over old bruises. Grains of salt were rubbed onto the welts. I was left hanging there all night where I urinated and defecated on myself and the floor. Emily, unperturbed, sat there in a chair just about the whole night and watched me until sleep overpowered her.
After Emily had awakened, she grunted an explanation. "I'm doing this so the white folks won't have to do it," she bristled. "I'm breaking you in like my daddy taught me to break a mule. I'm breaking you down, boy."
Emily then freed me from the contraption but kept me cloistered in an attempt to hide the signs of torture from the outside world. She got word to my teacher, Mamie Foster, that I had the mumps and kept me at home for a few days. I never told Mrs. Foster or anyone else about Emily's actions.
Mrs. Foster had shown me some of the rare moments of kindness I had experienced in my short tenure on earth. She happened to live in the neighborhood and would pass the house and see me sitting on the steps in my narrow world of confinement. Also, she had been among the throng who came down to our porch to comfort us after the Bethel A.M.E. bell tolled my mother's death. One day she dropped by and presented me with two pairs of short pants, two shirts, and a pair of shoes, all brand-new. The first new duds for a boy whose wardrobe consisted of tattered hand-me-downs. The teacher took me down to Wiley's Barbershop for a haircut after getting my aunt's permission. She really seemed to care and was an oasis of warmth in a desert of emotional indifference and cruelty.
"Something's different about you, and you are going to be somebody," she would tell me. "You can be whatever you want to be. You are going to be all right."
Mrs. Foster's encouragement was crucial to me. Her compassion and interest did much to uplift my young soul. But at home, Emily's cruel nature had constructed a madhouse of horror with more surprises in waiting. Tipping the scale at 180 pounds, it was not unusual for Emily to pick me up over her head like a sack of potatoes and body slam me in wrestler fashion. She would then take her foot and stomp down on my abdomen. For years the place was sore to the touch. When I was an adult, a physician noticed an old bruise and thought I had been in a bad wreck. I traced the injury to Emily's dancing on my torso.
Emily also seemed to obtain sadistic gratification from killing animals. She bragged about how she would cut a "son-of-a- bitch hog's throat" and took pleasure in watching chickens flutter and convulse after she had wrung their necks. On one occasion we were in the backyard "pipping" chickens. The birds would eat seeds and consequently suffer calluses on their tongues. Then they couldn't eat and would get sick. Pipping consisted of holding the fowl's beak open and puncturing the hard places on its tongue with a needle.
Rhode Island Reds and other breeds scampered about the chicken yard, about thirty or forty birds. "Bring me that one," said Emily, motioning broadly with her right hand at the dozens of chickens strutting about the place. "Which one?" I asked, confused.
"I said, damn it to hell, that one!" Emily growled, waving her hand abstractly and walking toward me at the same time. "But..." I started. Suddenly a terrific blow to the left side of my head left everything dark. I don't know how long I was unconscious, but my eyes opened to see Emily standing above me, hands on hips. She clutched a four-quart metal broiler pan, her weapon of choice.
"Damn it. When I say bring me that chicken, you come to me and say 'Aunt Emily, I'm bringing you that one.'" I still wear a knot on my head as a memento from that day and, in a poetic sense, a reminder of my whole life with Emily, a woman educated only in the ways of the devil.
I was to discover years later that I was not the only person
Emily had apparently bedeviled. Emily's brother, Charles Johnson,
all but blamed her for their mother's death. It seems that, as
a teenager, Emily was a wayward child who disappeared from
home for several hours. Their mother apparently searched for
her in foul, rainy weather and was rewarded with pneumonia,
which killed her after a few weeks.
MY ACTIVITIES AT EMILY'S HOUSE were a kaleidoscope of boring undertakings. I would get up and do my chores, go to school, and come back home and stay inside. Most of the time I would do homework and entertain myself reading schoolbooks. I foolishly thought I had witnessed all the harshness Emily had in store for me. One morning she went over Red Mountain into Five Points South and noticed a man named Houston selling vegetables and fruits at a stand on Twentieth Street near Fourteenth or Fifteenth Avenue South. Later that night she awakened me from sleep for what I assumed was another hairraising dishwashing session.
Emily had taken off all her clothes, and a middle-aged black man with a medium build was there, also nude. "Take out your pecker and rub it on Mr. Houston's pecker," she said. "Rub it on there so yours will be big like his one day." All the time she was pulling my shorts off and laughing, and so was Mr. Houston. Simultaneously crying, scared, mad, and confused, I rubbed my penis against his.
This was another layer on the cake for me. It pushed me even further into a realm of disdain for Emily. After about the third time she and Houston sexually abused me, Emily started telling neighbors I was a big liar principally because she assumed I had spilled the beans on what had been happening to me behind the closed doors of her house. Just like my father, Slim, had done when he broke my arm in two places, Emily covered her butt with fraudulent declarations regarding my own honesty. The nights and days all blended together in a mosaic of surprise beatings or stompings or slappings with no provocation.
All of this was done by a guardian who was supposed to shield a child from the seaminess of life. And it was executed by the sister of a woman whom I regarded as a sweet, divine creature molded in the image of Godmy mother, Mattie C. Mr. Houston and my aunt kept company for a few weeks, and the ritual they had cooked up for me took place almost every time he came over. Eventually, the vegetable man faded out of the picture, taking his vileness with him, but I was still left with the ogre that was Emily.
While other children, plain and privileged, were nurtured, I was being destroyed, not outright, but slowly and purposefully and with malice aforethought. I knew no other world, and there was no one to rescue me or offer a hint of a brighter tomorrow. I could foresee no relief from this existence in my shortsighted vision.
Oftentimes I wondered what better world sat beyond the confines of Emily's yard. On occasion I would scoot from my perch on the front steps, meander to the fence, and look up and down the street as I contemplated an escape from the life of torment. Each time fear would inflate my spirit with anxiety about the unknown. If I walked away from the house on Eighteenth Place, perhaps I would be shifting my lifestyle from bad to worse. I would be a child alone against a huge, impersonal world that might swallow me up like an African lion devouring a juvenile water buffalo. Each time, fear forced me to return to my socalled refuge.
Finally, one day about ten months after I had first moved in
with my aunt, courage from an unknown source seemed to radiate
through my tiny body. The time to act had presented itself.
I walked to the fence, opened the gate, and strolled from Emily's
house of abuse with no intent of falling under her clutches again
so long as I drew a natural breath. I was only six and a half years
Excerpted from The Road South by Shelley Stewart and Nathan Hale Turner, Jr.. Copyright © 2002 by Shelley Stewart and Nathan Hale Turner, Jr.. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of TWBookmark.com. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.