Halley's Comet burned across the Mississippi night like a brakeman's lantern during June 1910, leading to suicides and whispers of Armageddon. Up north in Hartford, the Connecticut Yankees were lamenting the recent passing of the brightest star in the American literary firmament, Mark Twain. In New York City, W. E. B. Du Bois, anguished about race riots and lynchings around the nation, was preparing the first issue of The Crisis, the magazine of the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In Reno, Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, was training for his July 4th title defense against former champ Jim Jeffries, "The Great White Hope," a spectacle that would lead to more race riots. In Washington, D.C., Congress was debating the Mann White Slave Traffic Act, which would ban "the interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes"-a law specifically targeted at Johnson that would soon send him to jail for traveling with his white girlfriend.
Across the South, Jim Crow and Judge Lynch were triumphant. Black people were subject to vicious but legal discrimination, voting restraints, violent customs, and state-sanctioned terror that negated their rights and blighted their hopes. A half century after the horrific war to end slavery, black people in the South were again living in near slavery.
In West Point, Mississippi, the news in the West Point Leader ("Conservative in All Things; Radical in Nothing") was all about a new brick schoolhouse for "colored" children that cost $7,000, the Elk Club's drive to raise $25,000 for an opera house, and the rising price of live meat hogs: $11 per 100 pounds. West Point, situated in the state's eastern hills near the Alabama border but formerly the westernmost point in Lowndes County until it was incorporated into Clay County, covered three square miles, and had a population of 5,500. A small town, it was big enough to rate a train visit by President William Taft the October before.
Into this violent, radically divided world, Chester Arthur Burnett came howling on Friday, June 10, 1910, at White Station, Mississippi, four miles northeast of West Point. The baby who would grow up to sing so hauntingly about trains could hear the Illinois Central chuff to a stop three times a day to pick up passengers at the tiny White Station train depot. Because of a nineteenth-century border dispute, people in White Station in 1910 weren't sure whether they lived in Clay County or Monroe County to the north.The hamlet is near the county line and most of White Station Road lies north of the line in Monroe County.
Named for the twenty-first president of the United States, Chester, like most black children in Mississippi, spent his early years in crushing poverty. His neighbors were poor families like his own who struggled to survive a repressive racial caste system while farming the unusually fertile, fifteen-mile-wide belt of "black prairie" soil that ran through the region and across to Alabama. Twenty years before he was born, black people in White Station were so desperate that they formed a committee and wrote to the president of the United States to beg for help:
We want such things as meat, flour, sugar and coffee and clothes and shoes and also our little children is starving and is naked and crying for bread and we is not able to give it to them. . . . If you all don't help us we will all be dead by July sure, without a doubt, and please for God's sace help us for we can not live this way. . .
In 1904, Reverend C. S. Buchanan, a black West Point merchant who owned a thriving printing business, was condemned at a meeting of a hundred white men who objected to his "prospering." Ordered under threat of death to sell his business, Buchanan and his family fled with little more than the clothes on their backs. A few years before, another successful black grocer in West Point was forced to leave town, another black retailer was ordered to "sell his buggy and walk," and a third, who owned two horse-drawn cabs, had to sell one lest he, too, risk prospering. Just thirty-five miles northeast is the town of Vardaman, named for Mississippi governor and U.S. senator James Vardaman, who vowed to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black people the right to vote, and claimed that the only effect of educating a black man is to "spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook."
In this bleak, unforgiving land, Chester's father, Leon "Dock" Burnett, toiled as a sharecropper, while Chester's mother, Gertrude Jones, worked as a cook and maid. Dock, born in nearby Aberdeen in December 1891 to Albert and Amelia Burnett, was eighteen when Chester was born. Gertrude, born fifty miles south in Shuqualak, Mississippi, in June 1894 to John Wesley Jones and Catherine Tripplett, was nearing sixteen.10 Chester's paternal grandparents were African-American; Chester said his father was "Ethiopian." Gertrude, like so many "African Americans," also had American Indian ancestors. Her father was a full-blooded Indian, probably of the Choctaw tribe, who had a reservation twenty-five miles from Shuqualak.12 Dock and Gertrude married in Aberdeen on November 20, 1909. Chester was her only child.
Chester was nicknamed "Wolf" by his maternal grandfather, John Wesley Jones, whom the boy described as "one of them away-back guys, an old guy, whiskers way down to there." Grandpa Jones used to scare young Chester with stories about the wolves that roamed the nearby woods. "I was bad about getting my grandmother's little chicks," Chester said. "Every time I'd get one I didn't have enough sense to just hold him-I'd squeeze him and kill him. So I got so bad about it they told me they was going to have to put the wolf on me. Scared me up like that. So everybody else went to calling me the Wolf. I was real young." One day, his grandfather brought home an animal that he'd shot. Chester thought it was a dog, but his grandfather assured him it was a wolf, and then told him "the story 'bout how the wolf done the Little Red Ridin' Hood."16 "And me being just a kid I'd believe what he say," Chester said. "And it got to where everybody called me Wolf if I'd do some misdemeanor, you see, and I'd run and hide under the bed and they'd howl after me. That was where my name started. I've always been the Wolf."
Dock traveled down to the Mississippi Delta every spring to work as a farm laborer. He and Gertrude separated when their son was a year old, and Dock moved to the Delta permanently. Gertrude and Chester moved north into Monroe County. She was showing signs of mental instability-becoming an eccentric religious singer who performed and sold self-penned spirituals to passersby on the streets of Aberdeen and West Point. She and her son sang in the choir at Life Board Baptist Church, thirteen miles north White Station, near Gibson, Mississippi. Chester later said he got his musical talent from his mother. It was one of the only things he ever got from her.
When Chester was still a child, Gertrude sent him away. We'll probably never know why precisely. Maybe, as Chester told a friend, his mother became enraged because he wouldn't work in the fields for 15 cents a day. Maybe, as he told his last wife, his mother rejected him when he refused to sing spirituals with her because he already had his sights set on another calling-singing the blues. Maybe, as a friend of his wife heard, his mother got involved with a man who didn't want Chester around. (By 1920 Gertrude was living with a man almost twice her age.) Maybe, as Chester told another friend, his mother, half-Indian, didn't want him simply because he was "too dark." Maybe all of these stories were true to different extents or at different times in his grim childhood. Who can know why a mother would reject her only child?
Whatever the reason, one cold winter day, Gertrude cast her young boy out to fend for himself, saying, "Don't come back." Chester walked many miles across frozen ground with burlap "croker" sacks tied around his bare feet before he reached the home of his great-uncle Will Young, his father's mother's brother.
Born the year the Civil War ended, Young was fifty-five years old in 1920. He and his forty-year-old wife, Eliza, were working to pay off the loan on their small farm and two-room house in White Station. Also in their household were Chester's retarded aunt, Lyda "Laddie" Burnett, sixteen, her brother Gaddis Burnett, ten, and an unrelated girl, Lucy Mae Wiseman, seven, whom the Youngs took in as a toddler not long before the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed her mother, sister, and two brothers. It may seem odd that the Youngs were raising so many children who were not their own, but in White Station almost everyone was related by blood or marriage, and poor Americans at the time often relied on relatives and friends to raise children.
Standing six feet tall, dark-complexioned, and weighing more than two hundred pounds, Young was half-deaf and had an odd habit of clearing his throat noisily before he spoke. He had very little patience with children, or anybody else, for that matter, and often displayed a violent temper. Annie Stevenson, who married Chester's cousin Levy Eggerson, said, "Will Young was mean to all them children." Chester's childhood friend Leroy Swift said, "I ain't never seen a man like that in my whole life." Leroy's sister, Priscilla "Silla" Swift, Chester's first girlfriend, said Will Young "was the meanest man between here and hell." But Will and Eliza were the only parents Chester had then, so he called them "Daddy" and "Mother."
Young had three "outside" children with an unmarried woman who lived nearby-ironic, in that he later drove out his own daughter for conceiving a child out of wedlock. But Young and his wife needed the helping hands of the strapping young Chester and the other children. Life was hard in rural Mississippi in 1910, especially for black people, and the children of farmers had to work long hours in the fields every day. One sharecropper said, "Life was a struggle and there was so much work-work all the time for children as well as for adults."Another said, "Every day I lived in the field chopping cotton, hoeing corn, plowing. . . . Rise 'fore daylight, eat your breakfast in the field setting on the plow. That's the truth."
Young was especially hard on Chester, beyond the already brutal conditions for farmers in the area. He humiliated the boy by making him sit apart from the other children during meals. He worked him constantly like a beast of burden. "Did he make him work?" Silla asked sarcastically. "Tear his ass if he didn't work all day long! He got to work all day long, come back and get a little meal and get his ass to bed." Annie said, "He was raised in the field, workin' cotton and pullin' corn. That old man would work you till you about fall out-till you just fall down."
When Chester's uncle got angry, the punishment was severe-often delivered with switches cut from trees or even a leather plow line: a "bullwhip," as the neighbors called it. The neighbors never intervened. "Nobody would report [Young] for whippin' with no bullwhip," Annie said. "There were grown peoples afraid of him, he was so low-down. It wasn't just the children. He'd even whup the grown folks if they messed with him. His wife was scared of him, too."
Deacon R. L. Larry, a lifelong White Station resident, said, "That old guy would yell, 'Chester! Chester!' . . . When Chester hear him callin', he'd come runnin', he was so scared of him. 'Yassir?' 'Bring that water!' 'Yassir!' Old Chester used to be plowin' and singin' so well, but he had to go get that water for Will Young. 'Heeeeeeeeey boy-bring me that water!' "
Lucy said, "He'd whup you if you didn't do right. He used to whup Chester a lot. In fact, he whupped all of us if we didn't obey. . . . I don't think he knew any better. He thought that's the way you're supposed to do it." Young beat Lucy once for a minor mistake. "He told me to shuck twelve ears of corn and put 'em in the trough for the mules: twelve ears of corn apiece. I shucked the corn and then I made a mistake, and instead of putting twelve, I put eleven. I got the worst whipping I ever got about that."
Though Will and Eliza Young could read and write, they didn't bother to send Chester to the local schoolhouse, which was built and paid for by contributions from the community, and doubled as a society hall. "He didn't hardly go to school-just worked all the time," said Deacon Larry.
Chester might not have learned much even if he had gone to the school. "You did good to get any kind of education," Lucy said. "If you lived in town, you had nine months of school. But they just had three months of school out in the country. If there was work to be done and the weather was nice, you couldn't go to school at the time there. . . . One thing I regret so bad is that I didn't get no education."
Young often let Chester go hungry. "Will Young had food, but he wouldn't give him none. He was just a low-down man," Annie said. "All Will Young would give him was milk and bread, dry, and when he get done there, he had to go to the field," Silla said.
Famished, Chester would walk the train tracks to scavenge scraps of food thrown out by railroad workers. He went about shoeless and in rags-"a barefooted, raggedy-haired nigger havin' a hard time," as Silla described him. Chester was overjoyed when his uncle bought him his first pair of shoes. "They took him to town in the wagon," said Leroy. "When he come back, he put his feet up so everybody could see those shoes."
The Young house rested on trusses a few feet off the ground, with steps on one side leading to the front porch and door. Overworked and afraid, Chester sought sanctuary in the dark, cool space under the house. "He liked it under the house," Silla said. "He didn't go in the house much. He'd go in the house and eat, come back outdoors and sit up under the house. We'd go out there and sit up under there, too, with him. We all would sit up under there and play." When Chester's uncle returned, all play came to an abrupt end. Silla said, "We see him coming, we better get our ass out of there and run away from that house because we been there with him. 'Here come Will Young!' "