In Search of Black America: Discovering the African American Dreamby David J. Dent
Exposing myths and exploding stereotypes, In Search of Black America is a landmark work that looks at the lives of African Americans throughout the United States. David Dent, a noted journalist and professor, set out on a cross-country road trip into the heart of black America with stops in Detroit; Washington, D.C.; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Gallipolis, Ohio; Seattle, Washington; Hampton, Virginia; and many other places, including Lawnside, New Jersey, a historically black town with strong roots and ties to the Underground Railroad.
This book is the result of his five-year odyssey, which took him and his tape recorder to upscale art galleries, schools, bowling alleys, formal balls, college campuses, fishing trips, mansions, summer homes, ranches, rodeos, and many more places--well off the beaten path. What he discovered not only contradicts most of the common stereotypes about black America prevalent in today's popular media but uncovers new truths about African-Americana.
The New York Times Book Review
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: The Emancipation: Day One
he habit formed with Nigger Hair Tobacco. Nearly twenty years ago, Elaine Armstrong, now forty-eight, saw a tin can bearing that name. The words seemed to shout at Armstrong, who lives in rural Gallia County, Ohio.
She ran across the brown can for sale at a flea market. It was empty; the grain either chewed or inhaled decades ago spat on some ground or blown into the air and lost into the earth.
The value today is in the clarity of the brand name on the can "Nigger Hair Tobacco" and an advertising tease on its back: "Chew or Smoke Nigger Hair."
At first sight, the can angered Armstrong. It outraged and insulted her. But eventually, after several stares, it captivated her. She became so fixated on it that she soon found herself searching her wallet for the $75 to buy it. Armstrong didn't have the cash on her at the time. But she was prepared with money on subsequent trips to flea markets, antique shops, garage sales, and other places in search of authentic not recreated remnants of a racist past. At another flea market four years later, she would find the same tin can. "I bought it right here at the fairgrounds," Armstrong says. "An antique dealer had it."
That dealer didn't openly display the can or any other racist collectibles from the days of Jim Crow. Armstrong, however, by then an experienced collector, had an intuitive hunch. She suspected that the dealer might own something racist and worthy. So she posed the question, and the dealer answered, "Well, I have a can."
"Nigger Hair?" Armstrong pressed.
Armstrong recalls her body bouncing in excitement when the dealer's smile obviated the need to say yes. "She was a white lady. They are primarily the people that have this."
Armstrong picks up the can and places its opening in my face. "The stamp is still on it 1910. It was sold around that time. The dealer wanted $550 for it. I bargained it down."
She paid $450.
Armstrong's collection is spread over two tables at the Gallia County Fairgrounds, in the heart of the Ohio Valley on this September weekend in 1994. She displays it at one of her favorite events: the Emancipation. It's perhaps the nation's longest-running celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, an annual Appalachian Ohio event only a year younger than the announcement of the proclamation itself.
At age eleven, Armstrong moved to Gallia County from San Diego with her father and stepmother, who was originally from the county. She attended her first Emancipation that same year and has been coming ever since. Only recently, though, has she displayed her collection, which also includes a Darkie Toothpaste box with a portrait of a minstrel-looking black man shining his white teeth above the product's promise of full fluoride protection and an old sign from Texas that once hung in the window or door of a restaurant and says "Open but No Dogs, Negroes and Mexicans."
Her collection is in the exhibition barn for vendors, most of whom sell Afrocentric items. Unlike Armstrong, the vendors are dressed in African-inspired clothing. Armstrong's apron-wearing black woman, molded in porcelain, faces the other vendors' products T-shirts that brazenly proclaim African pride, black greatness, and O.J.'s heroism and innocence (three months after The Chase), along with some oil and incense and other products that claim an African connection.
Many who stop at Armstrong's table are stunned to learn that she paid money for such offensive items. "A lot of people, especially blacks, will say 'You paid somebody money for that. Why?'
"I do it for history's sake. Black history just fascinates me. The things that we've been through as a people, I don't understand how we haven't been wiped off the face of the earth."
The images at Armstong's table reflect a force in American life that many African Americans live to defy sometimes consciously through self-realized versions of the Afrocentric items across from Armstrong's table, and sometimes inadvertently by living a life that bears little or no resemblance to her collectibles. Occasionally, the defiance even rivals the showmanship of the degrading brand of tobacco and toothpaste: there is the raised fist of a body shrouded in African-style clothing, the crisp English of the old-fashioned school teacher, the professional precision of a corporate operator, or even the lavish gowns and tuxedos of a Jack and Jill or debutante ball. Many African Americans live as far beyond and above Armstrong's collectibles as they can, and force the ideas inherent in those objects into a space beneath them. Yet that space can sometimes be opened in an instant, by a flashing blue light or a passing cab driver or a rude store clerk. So why would a black woman display offensive items before those who would justifiably be outraged at the sight of such on a white neighbor's lawn or in a storekeeper's front window? Why are a small yet increasing number of African Americans collecting such items? And why do they appear here, at the Emancipation, in a safe space at an event that, in some ways, celebrates African-American resistance to the ideas that those very objects represent?
Armstrong feels compelled to directly confront the past and the stain of racism on the present. Perhaps like other blacks who pay for racist collectibles, she seeks more control over the interpretation of her history. She wants to possess all parts of it, not just the heroic elements that one easily finds all over the fairgrounds today. "I hate them [the collectibles] too, but at the same time, they fascinate me. They really do," Armstrong explains. "It tells a lot about what we've had to go through to get us where we are now. Generally when I get them I go through a cycle. I look at it and I'm either shocked, like 'Oh my gosh,' or I bust out laughing, or get angry. But I always end up the same way: How much do you want for it? Even though they make me angry, I end up the same way. For example, this bank, this iron bank."
There is a black face on the front of the bank. On the back, it says, "Young Nigger Bank." Armstrong paid $400 for it.
"I came through a period of time, in the fifties and sixties, when I did not want to be black," says Armstrong, who now directs a program at the University of Rio Grande that helps guide public-assistance recipients through school. "I don't know whether anybody else will own up to it, but I was embarrassed or ashamed to be who I was. I did not want to be black, and now I know why I felt that way about me. A lot of it came through these objects and things that you would see in the store."
Armstrong picks up a postcard with a picture of five young African-American boys under the heading "A possum and a lucky nigger."
"This was probably in any five-and-ten-cents store," she says
The imprint on the bottom of the card says, "Published expressly for F. W. Woolworth Co."
"This went through the mail," she continues. "This was 1915. The collectibles with real people fascinate me the most, more so than the cartoon characters. Someone probably just asked these boys to sit down, and somebody took a picture and produced this."
Not everyone can look to these items and find a reason why they were ever uncomfortable with the color of their skin. Of course, not everyone of African descent has shared the discomfort that Armstrong isn't hesitant to claim. Yet, historically and collectively, African Americans have confronted views that grow out of the collectibles. It is not always a direct confrontation, but the impact is still there. Take Lois Solomon, a middle-aged woman who stops to look at the display. She is a social worker in Columbus who grew up on the other end of Ohio in the state's big city Cleveland. She had never even heard of this annual event until a friend recently told her about it. This is her first Emancipation, and her eyes are stuck on a porcelain black woman who is standing on a base that carries the caption, "Every Kitchen Needs a Mammy." Perhaps her parents indirectly were driven by the images of black women spotlighted in Armstrong's exhibit as they steeped themselves and her in Victorian values.
Solomon's parents were determined to raise a Negro "lady" with manners and class who would look and act nothing like the white expectation. Her father owned a construction company and her mother was an interior designer; both were products of a historically black college in Mississippi. They believed that girls should grow up to be cultured and refined ladies and wives, with a minimum of two years of college. They sent their daughter to Nashville's Fisk University, a bastion of black middle-class values. "I am from the old school," she says. "I got my two years of college before I got married. I started off at Fisk because we needed to have a black experience. That's what they thought."
After two years of Fisk, Solomon found a husband and took an academic hiatus. She followed her husband to Dayton, where she eventually finished college. Then he landed a job in Columbus, and she was the diligent wife who always followed her husband. "I was just part of what we always heard: I went from home to college to marriage. I was groomed to be a housewife. I was not really groomed to work."
But Solomon, liberated by the divorce that ended her seventeen-year marriage, says she was sure to groom her daughter, also an only child, differently. Like her parents, Solomon says she encouraged her daughter to attend a black college. In contrast to them, though, Solomon insisted that her twenty-three-year-old daughter look at college as something more than merely a two-year endeavor to pursue cultural refinement and a husband. Her daughter graduated from Louisiana's Grambling State University and is now a teacher in Columbus. She is unmarried and planning for graduate school next year.
The women Solomon and her daughter were raised to be are both absent from Armstrong's table. There are no cultured and refined homemakers or professional women with graduate degrees in the exhibit. Still, Solomon's life is not untouched by the legacy of the ideas inherent in the display. In many ways, the traditional values of her parents, which inspired them to raise a lady and a refined wife grew out of their rebellion against bigoted views of what their lives could and should be. It was a racism that was reinforced by symbols like those that Armstrong spotlights. "I think, for me, this display helps to further decolonize your mind," says Solomon. "One that struck me the most was the black woman actually sitting on a big pot, like an outdoor toilet. This is the further devaluation of black women...I don't know if I am really a feminist, but I am a crusader for black women."
Emancipations are like birthdays in this southeastern Ohio county. They happen once a year and are synonymous with celebration.
That said, you can't find many festive faces among the gathering crowd as the opening of the 1994 Emancipation approaches on Saturday. Why should anyone smile? Rain threatens to melt the party into one that won't be talked about to grandchildren. A gray cloud hangs and the steady water falls onto the county's Junior Fairgrounds, the site of the Emancipation. The storm bars celebrating in the company of the sun and restricts the festivities to the interior of the fairgrounds' metal barns not the best way to turn 131 years old.
Inevitably, though, the party persists into another year. Canceling it because of rain or even postponing until a sunny day is inconceivable in Gallia County, where the Emancipation is really too established to be surrounded by "Celebration of" and "Proclamation." Those words are for strangers. When many Gallia natives hear the word emancipation alone, they instantly think of the annual gathering that refuses to die with generations.
Victor Long, seventy-seven, helps immortalize the Emancipation. A retired Defense Department small-parts buyer, Long donates at least $300 annually to the Emancipation committee's coffers. He returns to his hometown for the event every year. "I just have to come back," says Long, who has lived in the state capital, Columbus, since World War II. "My genes are buried here and I just can't forget it."
Long traces his roots in the county to his great-grandparents, Jefferson Scott and Caroline Hockaday. They arrived in Gallia County in 1844, according to family records. The couple literally jumped the broom in Halifax County, North Carolina, where they had been slaves, according to Long. Caroline Hockaday was one of three daughters born to a slave and slave owner. In 1844, the daughters, their husbands, and their children were freed. Family stories of why and how they won their freedom are a mix of speculation, legend, and myth, says Long. One tale says that the slave owner was senile and guilt ridden. Another says that the nice owner didn't want his mean children to inherit the slaves. Whatever the reason, it is a fact that the couple made a new home in Gallia County, and Jefferson Scott lived to be 112.
In Gallia, Jefferson and Caroline joined a community that was pivotal to the Underground Railroad. Gallipolis, the county seat, sits on the Ohio River in the southeastern portion of the state. When Scott and Hockaday arrived, there was no such state as West Virginia. There was just Ohio and Virginia North and South separated by a vast river. At least two routes of the Underground Railroad ran through the county, according to James A. Sands, a local historian. Gallia became the first and last stop for some passengers who settled in the county and whose descendants return today to celebrate freedom.
The first Emancipation was glued to the calendar and culture of Gallia County on September 22, 1863. On that day in 1862, Gallia residents heard the news: President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery on January 1, 1863, in the seceded states of the Confederacy, where his authority was not recognized. Nevertheless, a tradition was born in Gallia County.
In Galveston, Texas, the word didn't come until June 19 and thus the big Juneteenth celebrations became a lasting tradition. June 19 is just another day here. In Gallia County, the ancestors celebrated first on September 22.
The customs of the Emancipation come and go with the times, but the event itself remains a lasting tradition.
Victor Long remembers the time when the thought of an Emancipation on a day other than September 22 seemed sinful. When Long was growing up in the 1920s and '30s, Emancipations were held on September 22 no matter what day of the week. There was even a time when September 22 was referred to as the "colored holiday" in Gallia County. In the minds of employers, it was extraordinary to expect a black employee to show up for work on that day. To children, it was inconceivable to think of school beyond noon, if at all. "As a little boy growing up down here, it was just someplace to go and have fun," remembers Long. "We didn't really know what it was all about."
The Emancipation no longer frees children from a day of school. "Wartime came," says Jesta Mae Payne Diggs, a seventy-something native whose father served as president of the Emancipation for decades. "People were then busy in the plants working. At that time, Papa started having it on Sunday so that would accommodate all the people, because our friends used to come from all over Ohio to the Emancipation."
Eventually, Emancipations evolved into two-day events held on the weekend closest to September 22. For some, this is homecoming weekend, attracting a couple of hundred natives and friends of the event from California, Alabama, Michigan, even Canada. The visitors board with relatives in the area or get rooms at the Econo-Lodge across the highway from the fairgrounds. They return to a county whose black population has dwindled to 871 out of Gallia's 30,000 residents not even 3 percent of the population. In 1890, Gallia had 2,381 African Americans 10 percent of the county's total population, according the United States Census Bureau.
Long grew up in Little Raccoon, a black, rural section of the county. Most of the residents owned farms. "Farmers, that was about all," says Long. "I was born here on a seventy-eight-acre farm. We were all raised on the farm, four boys and four girls."
But Long's father couldn't support the family on farming alone. "He could do a little bit of anything, but he was also a coal miner. Back in the 1920s, he made fairly good money mining coal up in Meiggs County, the next county up the river. He mined coal there for the Pittsburgh Coal Company."
Long says that life in Little Raccoon was simple, rural, and conservative. The men worked and the women either did domestic work in town or tended to their houses full-time, depending on how much the man made. They were unknowingly poor, hard working, and proud qualities that were tested on a day Long still vividly remembers. "If you don't mind me telling you a short story," he begins, "we kids were still on the farm. I couldn't have been more than ten years old. My younger brother and one of my sisters, we were out in the yard playing, and we happened to look up this little dirt road, it was County Road. And there came Dad walking down the road in the middle of the week. Well, we couldn't understand that. He always came home on Saturday evening after a week's work. He would leave the mines. Some of the younger men up there had cars. They'd all drive home. And here comes Dad walking down that dirt road. Well, we called Mom, 'Hey, Mom, here comes Papa.' She came running out the door and ran out to the road. And by that time Dad was right up in the front yard. I remember this real well. She said, 'Jeff, William Jefferson Long, what are you doing home?'
"He said, 'Why, Sarah, they closed the mines down. The market crashed, they closed the mines and there was nothing to do. They just told us to lay down our tools and go on.'
"Now, when we were kids, Dad used to take us up there. We'd spend the week with him sometimes. Our mother would go along, and they lived in shanties. In those days, the coal mining company, Pittsburgh Coal Company, had shanties all over those hillsides.
"You know what happened during the Hoover administration: the stock market crashed. They closed down those mines, and matters got worse, worse, worse. Hoover was defeated by Roosevelt in 1932, and, as we used to say, Roosevelt was our savior. It was just that bad. I mean, all these blacks, many of them worked in those coal mines and made fairly good money considering the time. And when the mines shut down, it was awful."
Through those hard and uncertain times, one thing was consistent the annual Emancipation. It survived the despair. The depression still shattered Little Raccoon, yet Long says that he never recalls anyone considering jumping from the roof of a farmhouse. Like many Americans, Long's neighbors searched for ways to survive. "Down here, this land is at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and it's rough. Parts of it is rough, if you get what I mean. Rugged is a better word, I guess, rugged. Well, my dad came home, and he started farming full time. A year or two later, he sold that farm and put one of my older sisters through school right up the road here. Rio Grande University is right up here."
Despite the hard times, it was assumed that while men could still find work with their hands, women needed security and shouldn't be dependent on the whim of a husband's ability to support them, says Long. It was that thinking that prompted his family and others to make sure that their girls got off to college. "My sister went to school there. It was a two-year college. What did they used to call them in those days? Normal schools, that's right, it was a normal college in those days. Well, my sister graduated, and she taught school up at the black one-room schoolhouse. She taught school, and she got married halfway between the second year. In those days in the state of Ohio, married women were not permitted to teach school. The man was considered the head of the household, and that man is supposed to take care of you. Well, my sister was teaching, and she finished her second year, and they wouldn't permit her to teach anymore, so she was already married and she moved to Columbus.
"Dad died. He worked here on the county highways, anything he could do to make an honest dollar, that's the way black people were in those days, honest. Honest dollar. And a few years after he sold the farm, he had just worked himself to death. He died in April, my birth month. The extended family had to pay for the funeral. It costs us six hundred dollars. I never shall forget. The extended family members had to pay for it. We didn't have six hundred dollars."
His mother was left with a family to raise. "My mom told the older kids to begin to scatter go their way. I was left at home with the younger brother. I was fifteen. Mom told me, 'I want you to go through high school.' Oh, she could talk rough. 'You're gonna finish school.' I made it on through high school."
Long, like many of his peers, left the area after graduation. The exodus of blacks would continue for years to come. Now, Little Raccoon is no longer called such, and is no longer a community of African Americans. Long joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Roosevelt New Deal program that trained workers for government jobs. He became a clerk for the CCC, a position he held until he was drafted and served in the Air Force during World War II. "I was lucky," says Long, who served at Wright Air Force Base. "I didn't have to leave the state of Ohio."
Ida Fulton is dressed in blond dreadlocks and a bright, colorful African-style headdress and robe. She sits behind her table piled with handmade jewelry, oils, perfumes, and T-shirts. She stands when a potential buyer is within the table's scope.
Fulton insists that she has never dyed her hair blond. "There's some whitewash in me," she says. "My hair has a tendency to blond. Now, living in Canton, Ohio, with dreadlocks..."
Fulton pauses and shakes her head. She says that some residents treat her like an outcast. "And to have blond dreadlocks is really taboo among black folks. I'm not talking about white folks black folks treat you real bad. They can be a pain sometimes."
The color of her hair would probably look like a natural extension of her light-brown skin and hazel eyes if it weren't for the dreadlocks. She sometimes dyes her hair black to make the presence of her dreads look more natural. A few dark strands from a recent dye job are discernible.
As it is for Lois Solomon, this is Fulton's first Emancipation. "I didn't know black folks lived here. I'm serious. There's a whole group of people here. Last year, someone was telling me about this, and I said 'Wow, I'm going to check this out.'"
Fulton spends many of her weekends on the road at festivals, selling her merchandise, or at the two stores she owns in Canton and Youngstown.
She started her business in 1985, when she was a single mother trying to raise two children on her salary as a program coordinator of a drug-rehabilitation agency. Initially, it was a small, home-based and part-time button-selling operation at the time when kente cloth and the word Afrocentrism began to infiltrate popular culture. Her buttons captured the mood: "Save Our Black Children," "I'm Free and I'm Black," and "I Have No Alcohol in Me."
From the buttons, Fulton moved to T-shirts and clothes. When her job at the drug-rehab agency was downsized in a budget cut, her side business became a full-time endeavor. "This is a booming business, especially if we ever really get black folks to realize that being African is not bad."
Fulton also sells incense. One burns on her table. "I have a friend who's a local perfumer who makes them. He worked in a perfume factory or something like that up in New York.
"They are different from the ones you buy in the store they're a lot stronger. I have a peach cobbler [scented variety], and you smell it and it smells just like peach cobbler. I have one that smells like a birthday cake.
"People use incense to make their rooms smell good. But I can remember when I was growing up, my aunt used them for meditation. They're supposed to be used for spirituality.
"See, I was raised by my aunts and uncles, my mother's siblings. My parents were from Alabama. But I was an orphan. There were three of us and we were passed around.
"My mother's siblings were all over. They were all over, in Buffalo and Detroit. I spent the school year in Buffalo and the summer in Detroit. I went to high school and college in Buffalo."
Fulton is the product of an informal adoption, which was more common in pre-Great Society African-American communities than it is now, according to sociologist Robert Hill.
"All of the brothers and sisters pitched in and helped us. They knew that we were dependents. You can't do that anymore."
Fulton's urban American childhood is similar to Long's rural experience; both are products of a resilience that transcended some of the horror of tough times. So, when Fulton appreciates the "good old days" of the fifties and early sixties, she is not mourning legalized segregation or any kind of forced separation of the races. Rather, she relishes the time when families "pitched in" in the interest of providing a childhood for children whose parents were, for whatever reason, incapable of handling parental responsibility. She sees welfare and government bureaucracy as impediments to such resilience. On the surface, she may sound like a Republican in Congress, or a Democrat like Bill Clinton trying to solidify his appeal beyond liberals. But it is a mistake to simplify, reduce, or typecast Fulton's conservatism in the strictly left-right terms that are so often misused to size up the American public. Her interest in dismantling welfare is born out of her childhood experiences and interest in sustaining self-reliance and a strong sense of family among African Americans. The pursuit of that self-reliance spins her politics and figures strongly in some of her ideas that the mainstream may consider irrational, including her unyielding opposition to transracial adoption. "Today, you got to go through all this welfare system to help anybody. You know, black folks, fearful of the establishment, an establishment that was set up for the empowerment of white folks. Now they using it to help us from caring for our own. I just don't think white folks should raise our children. I told my sons. They're twenty and twenty-three. If they get involved with a white girl and they have babies, I would have to go to court if they don't marry the girl and be with her forever. I would have to go to court and take the baby."
Fulton apparently sees the arch in my eyebrows. "You can agree or disagree."
She says that the strength of a family of any race blossoms through the ability to find a way out of a web of turmoil. She moved to Canton from Buffalo seventeen years ago because of the father who had been kept out of her life. Her father, whom she had never met, contacted her in Buffalo. "Now that's another story. He had looked for me. My aunts and uncles didn't want me to know. And I was working for the youth corps in Buffalo. He found me through the city directory, and I came here to be with him. We got to spend about fifteen years together before he died."
Victor Long wears a brown leisure suit covered by a khaki-colored trench coat, almost the same shade as his skin. City life in Columbus hasn't robbed him of his Appalachian Ohio manners and accent: even in the rain, almost everyone he passes gets a nod, if not a warm handshake and hug for special friends. The rain doesn't even seem to faze him. "On Saturday of last year, we had more than twice this many people," he says. "But we can't argue with the Creator. We have to accept his way of doing things."
One of Long's first stops at an Emancipation is the historical display in the lobby of the main exhibition barn. He unloads old newspaper articles, family documents, and old photographs onto a table. The collection always includes a picture of Emmet Bunche at the Emancipations of Long's youth. For years, Bunche, now ninety-eight and living in a Gallia County nursing home, always drew attention at an Emancipation because of his attire. From top hat to toe, he dressed in the style of President Abraham Lincoln.
James Dewey Keels, sixty-six, and his younger brother, Russell, sixty-three, walk briskly past the table. They don't have time for a history lesson. The Keels brothers, cousins of Long and also great-grandsons of Caroline Hockaday Scott, are president and vice president, respectively, of the 1994 Emancipation. For Russell Keels, a slight panic sets in with the rain: he fears that the storm may produce a first in his imagination an Emancipation without Bernice Borden. By coincidence, the precedent would mark the year she was to be honored as the Emancipation's woman of the year.
Big brother James, though, isn't worried. He's certain that the eighty-something Borden will make it here in time for the award even with the heavy rain. Few blacks as blood-tied to the event as Borden can miss the Emancipation; not even some of the old-timers who will come and complain that "they don't have 'Mancipations like they used to."
James Dewey Keels remains calm while Russell Keels searches the fairgrounds for Borden. He doesn't find her in the metal exhibition barn busy with vendors like Fulton setting up their Afrocentric goods. She isn't in the barn or makeshift restaurant, where members of the Paint Creek Baptist Church prepare the steak-and-rib combo sandwiches, chicken-and-rib dinners, and cakes. And she isn't in the exhibition area, where a portable stage, PA system, and an audience of two dozen people await the program's beginning.
Russell Keels decides that there is only one solution: call Borden, share the secret, spoil the surprise, and offer her a ride if transportation and the rain are a problem. But just as he moves in the direction of the telephone, and seconds before the one o'clock drops of rain dissolve into the dirt, Borden arrives, saving her own surprise. "Sometimes I think, Lord, this might be my last year, the last one," Borden later told me. "And then I thank the Lord that I've lived and I get to go to another one."
Bernice Payne Borden, a slender woman with bleached oak-colored skin as smooth as durable satin with a few natural creases, was a school-teacher for forty-one and a half years. "And Mama was a switchboard operator, for thirty years," she says. "That's the reason we keep jobs so long whenever we get them. Other people don't keep a job a very long time. We don't know when to turn them loose."
Borden speaks with the clean and crisp diction of an old-fashioned schoolteacher. But for at least one word, her tongue drops syllabic precision and marches with the linguistic liberty that naturally flows from the curling Appalachian vowels of many Emancipation goers. With ease, they free the front of the freedom word of the sound of that bumbling e. "That 'Mancipation is something else," says Bernice Borden. "Oh the 'Mancipation, my goodness gracious. It was here when I got here. I've always gone. Mama took me before we started school, when we were babies. We never missed it.
"I don't know whether I felt the meaning of it. But we were always so happy when it would be time for the 'Mancipation," she remembers. "My mother and dad always made great preparation. We had all the kids to get ready, you know, clothes to make for them for the 'Mancipation.
"We'd all dress up. And you know how they used to dress, long skirts and all. And we'd have a parade."
"That was one of the last events of the year before the cold weather would set in," adds Borden's sister, Jesta Mae Payne Diggs.
Borden and Diggs grew up in a family of eleven children ten of whom made it to adulthood, five boys and five girls. They do not know how and when their ancestors arrived in Gallia County. But as far as they can remember, the family was always heavily tied to the Emancipation. Growing up, they remember following behind their father, the Reverend Clifford Payne, the Baptist minister here who presided for years over the event in the way that the Keels brothers do this year. As adults, they were beside their big sister, Dorothy Lewis, now deceased, who presided over the Emancipation for a record forty years.
They especially remember their own household as well as others on the eve of an Emancipation. Kitchens across the county steamed with the aromas of all kinds of food. "Mama would stay up and cook all night," recalls Jesta Mae Diggs.
"We didn't have a food stand then, but everybody would bring their dinners," says Borden. "Mama cooked them dinners and packed them in a basket. Mama would have a great big coconut cake, and she'd have four or five pies stacked. A great big crock of green beans and potato salads and beets and baked bread. You see, we had all our flour. We had meat all kinds of meat. Mama would roast up two big hens with the dressing. Oh, we would have all that food. And she would have a snow-white tablecloth. We would spread it out on the green when noon would come. Everybody would just pass around. And they would come to Mama's table the most."
"We used to ride to the Emancipation in the horse and buggy, in the surrey with the fringe around the top," says Diggs. "There was a number of us in the family. So Papa would ride the surrey. Papa would get in the front seat and Mama and the girls would get in the back. The seats were small at that time, but we all piled in."
"We'd have the preacher in the morning," Borden picks up, "and then in the afternoon we'd have this congressman. Tom Jenkins, he'd come every year, a white man. Oh, he was a dandy one. He knew everybody's name, yours and everybody else's. I don't know what his method was, but he certainly could call names. And he was a dandy fellow to everybody."
Today Borden lives in a ranch-style house on a street named for her father. Most residents of Payne Street in Gallia County's predominantly black hamlet of Bidwell are related to the family.
Like Victor Long, Borden and Diggs grew up at a time when college, particularly normal school, was a girl's thing in many black families, and work was for men. In some black middle- and working-class families, teaching and college were seen as tools of security for women who, unlike many of their white counterparts, couldn't be guaranteed the full financial support of a husband. The Payne family epitomized the idea: all five girls in the family attended college and became teachers, and none of the men went to college, according to Borden. "At that time, there wasn't much money in circulation," Borden states. "There wasn't any jobs or much of anything. But those fellows, it was just about farming. And the boys would just quit and just go to farm with their fathers. So many of them lost the opportunity that way. Whatever the dad did, these boys would just follow."
The result was many marriages like Bernice Borden's. She had more formal education than her husband, who was a mechanic and handyman.
As more Gallia women attended college and passed the teaching exams, the profession lost its security in the county as black schools closed. By the 1940s, only two black one-room schoolhouses remained in the Gallia County area, recalls Diggs. Most blacks in the county, like Borden, attended majority-white schools, where African-American students were welcome but black teachers were not. So, in the 1940s, years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision, black residents of Bidwell battled not for integration, but for segregated schools, largely because they wanted jobs for black teachers, according to Diggs. Some also wanted their children taught by neighbors. Residents petitioned the county and won the fight for a one-room schoolhouse for black elementary students in Bidwell. Borden was one of the first teachers in the school. "I had all eight grades in one," she says. "I had never gone to a colored school."
"Initially, the kids in Bidwell were going to integrated schools," recalls Diggs. "At that time, people were needing jobs. We had a number of people who were teachers there, and none of us had employment. We had sacrificed. Our parents had sacrificed to send us to school. And then after we finished, and had gotten our education, then there were no jobs for us. So they decided to build a school so that the teachers would have employment. It made a living for these people. And I'm not going to condemn it, because it was a matter of survival."
Borden takes a seat in the front of the auditorium as the Emancipation program begins. "We were always taught to be there when it started and take one of those chairs and sit down on the seat and not to be running around outside," she says.
The audience of fifty early arrivals sees Borden's surprised face when she's named woman of the year. They hear her impromptu acceptance speech after the greetings of Harold Montgomery, a county commissioner.
As a white man, Montgomery is a minority at the Emancipation. But like the majority of whites here, he is a politician. And like any politician, he searches for some way to connect with the crowd and finds it through the Klan. "We had a most unfortunate situation happen in our community in the past year. I don't remember the date. Hopefully, I can forget the whole incident. But it was with the cooperation of your leadership and our leadership that we were able to avoid some terrible, terrible times in Gallia County. It was without invitation that a very subversive, divisive group came into Gallia County to speak on our courthouse steps....We contacted leaders of your community and through their efforts we kept the crowds down. We kept everyone back, and, hopefully, this will never happen in Gallia County again. But we do commend you and we're certainly appreciative of your efforts in helping us through this tough situation."
Some among the crowd politely nod. Others, by the looks on their faces, drift away, obviously uninterested in the Klan today or almost any day.
The Klan is the last thing on Barbara Scott's mind. As historian of the Emancipation, Scott spent the morning setting up the display and passing out maps detailing Underground Railroad routes and lists of local conductors. She's also prepared a fact sheet about blacks in the county; it includes the name of an early black farmer who became a millionaire and the wealthiest farmer in the area, an executive once mentioned in Ebony magazine, and the name of the first black homecoming queen of North Gallia High School. In a few minutes, she will take the podium and read from the fact sheet.
Scott became interested in rediscovering the history of blacks in the county after she quit her job as a domestic in 1971. Her son was born the following year. A full-time homemaker and mother, she turned to other organizations, including an interracial group, Church Women United. The behavior of a member of the organization reminded Scott why it was important to become involved in the Emancipation organization, one of the few organizations in the county controlled and operated by blacks, with the exception of churches. That member, a former boss, never could see Scott beyond the role of maid or as an equal in the organization. "It was always 'my little girl, this,' you know?" says Scott. "She couldn't help it, I reckon. She would introduce me to the other women and say, 'Oh, this is my little girl. She worked for me.' It didn't make me mad, but I just felt sorry for her because she never grew up. She always had that little need to show off in front of the other women. The other women were nice, but it feels good to be away from that."
Throughout the opening day of the celebration, it was impossible to escape the sound of the wet taps knocking on the metal barn tops like the fist of a pesterous neighbor. They were a reminder of the world outdoors without sunshine. Eventually the drops became so constant that they seemed as natural as silence and dissolved into the day's events: they speak with speeches, sing with songs, act with dramatizations, chew with food, show off with vendors of Afrocentric books and paraphernalia.
By 6:00 P.M., the day settles into the finale the performance of a Columbus, Ohio, dance troupe specializing in African dances. Minutes after the dancers parade onto the stage, the rain subsides into a drizzle. Seconds later, the director of the dance troupe breaks from his prepared remarks and declares the rain to be a blessing.
Minutes later, the sun steals back the final hours of daylight.
Day one of the Emancipation ends.
Copyright © 2000 by David J. Dent
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