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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 second and 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 background-gambling 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.
Excerpted from The Road South by Shelley Stewart and Nathan Hale Turner, Jr. Copyright © 2002 by Shelley Stewart and Nathan Hale Turner Jr.. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 27, 2006
This book kept my attention the whole time. I learned things I did not know, such as how radio played a major part in the Civil rights movement. I was sad when I got to the last page.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.