I was born with music inside me.
Like my ribs, my liver, my kidneys,
my heart. Like my blood.
For a hundred miles west of the Atlantic coast,
the land of northern Florida lies flat as a floor covered by a thick rug of
gray-green vegetation. In fertile fields, venerable live oaks, bearded by
Spanish moss, bend grandly to earth. Bright green palmettos bunch cheerfully
around slender brown trunks in the piney woods, and creepers tangle everything
in flowered variety and profusion. East of the Suwannee River, the land is
marshy; lakes and ponds and lazy creeks abound. West of the Suwannee, the land
starts a gradual rise, and the old east-west road, U.S. 90, begins to undulate
to the rhythm of mountains eroding into plain, a rhythm that accelerates slowly
into rolling hills and pastured valleys over the sixty miles to Tallahassee.
Atop the first real hill in the rhythm stands the Madison County courthouse.
The six windows of its silver cupola survey the territory in all directions
like six bright eyes.
In 1776 that territory was a wilderness. Then white settlers brought slaves
to fell the virgin forests and to plant cotton and tobacco, wresting the land
from the Indians and the Spanish, until in 1821 Spain ceded the whole peninsula
to the new United States of America. Sandy Ford, at a ford on the Aucilla
River, was the first settlement to spring up in Madison County's western
reaches. The second was Station Five, the fifth stop from Tallahassee on the
Florida Central and Western Railway.
In 1876 an ambitious settler, Elijah James Hays, bought a huge tract of land
surrounding Station Five and began using the station to market his plantation's
livestock, cotton, tobacco, and timber. Hays owned a general store, a
brickyard, and a turpentine still; he sold his cotton direct to W. W. Gordon,
exporters in Savannah. Hays' enterprise drew tradesmen and their families, and
the railroad village prospered as Sandy Ford declined. By 1887 the town's
Ladies Aid Society had decided that Station Five needed a more genteel name.
Mrs. Morgan, a native of Greenville, South Carolina, suggested that Greenville
sounded nice and refined. Their husbands spit skeptically at the notion that a
new name would change rough-and-ready Station Five, but the ladies prevailed
and Greenville the town became.
Greenville grew with the infant century. In 1912, the town passed a
"milestone," as a local history put it: an ordinance forbidding hogs to roam
the streets. World War I and the booming twenties provided eager markets for
all the lumber, cotton, and cattle Greenville could bring to rail, and other
milestones followed: the first electric power company in 1923, the first high
school graduation in 1926, and the first town well, 195 feet deep, dug in 1927.
Busy North Grand Street, Greenville's main drag, along the east-west railroad
track, was still unpaved as the 1930s began. On the station side, porters
loaded trains from stacks of freight brought in by mule wagons and gasoline
trucks. Ladies and children stepped off passenger coaches, back from a week's
vacation with relatives on the Atlantic coast. On the store side, planters in
broad-brimmed hats signed bills with clerks in the shaded interior of Mr. Hays'
Bank of Greenville, talking among themselves about the price of cotton and the
troubles on Wall Street. In the warehouses, farmers with cotton to sell
bargained for harnesses and nails, canvas and candles, while their wives
shopped for sundries at Reams' department store. White teenagers spooned at
King's pharmacy, dawdling over their Cokes, and little colored boys, barefoot
and in ripped overalls, hung on hitching posts and watched the world go by.
Hot humid summer gripped Greenville in September 1930. Through the still air
came the puffing of trains, the screech of tenders trundling to and from
warehouse depots. Smoke rose from the Prince Veneer and Southern Lumber mills,
where sweating black men, stripped to the waist, wrapped iron chains around
their wrists to tug raw trunks to the screaming blades that sliced tall yellow
pine into board feet of lumber and skinned short white pine into orange-crate
strips. Greenville's business district extended a few blocks north of North
Grand through drab streets lined with barbershops and cafes, a blacksmith and
stables, to the Andrews Hotel, the biggest building in town. Behind its
awninged windows the Porkchop Gang, rural politicians and their landowner
cronies, met over bourbon and cigars to plot control of the state legislature,
a discreet fifty miles west in Tallahassee. To the south of North Grand, the
land rose in a slight hill, where stood the big white Baptist church and the
houses of the town's leading white families, unpretentious frame dwellings on
streets canopied by spreading oaks.
West of town, North Grand soon wore down to a double wagon track, and
songbirds and buzzing bugs drowned out the sawmills. Wild morning glories
wrapped green vines and blue trumpets over sagging fence posts. Rickety shacks
perched on tiny lots squeezed between forests and farms. Across from the big
wooden New Zion Baptist Church, a nameless smaller road turned south across the
railroad tracks and past a second wooden church, the modest New Shiloh
Missionary Baptist. A half-mile farther a cluster of small houses and shacks
stood under tall pines and oaks, a black quarter everybody called Jellyroll.
The name, rightly, had a raffish air. Colored folk who had lived in
Greenville for years lived in Blackbottom, the black quarter in town watched
over by the white folks on top of the hill. Jellyroll was out from under white
eyes, a sandy clearing in the woods where transient workers had thrown up
tar-paper shacks when work held through more than one season. Nobody had lived
in Jellyroll long, nobody knew where the others had come from or might go next.
The men and women of Jellyroll were by and large greenhorns from the
plantations, drawn by the promise of cash for menial labor. Living close to
Greenville felt more like town than the sharecropper cabins they had left, but
Jellyroll was still country. On Sunday the people prayed hard, all week they
worked hard, and Saturday night they found a bit of the free and easy at Mr.
Pit's Red Wing Cafe.
Wiley Pitman was a jovial brown-skinned man, fat, with a wide grin, and known
far beyond Jellyroll as a fine piano player. With his wife, Miz Georgia, he
owned the Red Wing, a wooden plank building facing the road from North Grand.
The cafe doubled as a small general store where Miz Georgia sold kerosene and
matches, flour and salt, cold beer and pig's-foot sandwiches. A few tables
filled the middle of the floor, and against one wall stood a jukebox and a
piano. Out back stood a boardinghouse where Mr. Pit had rooms for the
watermelon pickers who overflowed the place in summertime, and rooms, as one
longtime resident put it, "for husbands going with other men's wives." Behind
the boardinghouse stood several shacks.
Time has swept those shacks and the Red Wing Cafe into "the limbo of things
that disappear," as Dreiser wrote. Decades later, under gray December skies,
only the tumbledown boardinghouse remained, a fading specter in a tangled wood
of weeds and baby trees. Yet in September 1930, the Red Wing was the lively hub
of a village, and the shacks out back housed a family: Margaret Robinson, her
grown son Bailey, his wife Mary Jane, and an orphan girl they had adopted,
Bailey Robinson and his mother had come to Greenville from Albany, Georgia, a
hundred miles to the north, in the 1920s. That much two elderly Jellyroll
natives, Bessie Brown and Mrs. Mary Clemmons, remembered clearly. Neither knew
where Mary Jane came from, and the deeper roots of the Robinson family may be
lost forever. Jellyroll respected Margaret, called "Muh," as a nice old lady
and Bailey as a big, rough man, six feet tall or more and heavily muscular. He
worked at a mill pulling logs into the skids; sometimes he laid track for the
railroad. Mary Jane, a plain, thickset woman, worked at a mill too, stacking
planks, "uneducated but a good person," remembered a neighbor. Aretha was a
slip of a girl, lovely to look at, with long wavy black hair. Her mother had
died a year or two before. Her father, a man Bailey worked with, couldn't keep
her, and Bailey and Mary Jane took her in as their ward. Williams was her
surname, but everybody called her Retha Robinson.
That September 1930, the goings-on at the Robinsons' had all Jellyroll
gossiping. Little Retha was pregnant, there was no way such a skinny girl could
hide it. She wasn't stepping out with anybody as far as anybody knew. Who could
the daddy be? Bailey blamed a boy named Jack Wilkerson, because, as Bessie
Brown remembered, Jack had gone with the two girls into the fields one day when
their mamas sent them out to cut straw for brooms. Bailey told Jack he'd have
to marry Retha. But Bessie told her aunt Eliza that Jack and Retha hadn't done
anything out in the fields. Instead, a few weeks before, Bailey had taken a few
kids for a ride in his car down to Petty Springs. The group had gotten
separated in the woods, and when Bessie and her friends came back, they found
Bailey lying with Retha. Aunt Eliza spread that word about the quarter, Bailey
stopped denying he was the daddy, and Jack was free to go.
Few in Jellyroll had time for high and mighty attitudes, yet to judge by Zora
Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, set in a West Florida
quarter just like Jellyroll, tongues must have wagged about swollen little
Retha, just as they wagged over Janie when she came back from her adventure
with Tea Cake: "What she doin' coming back here in dem overhalls? Can't she
find no dress to put on?--Where's dat blue satin dress she left here in?"
To still such tongues, Margaret and Bailey sent Retha back to relatives in
Albany late that summer to have the baby. Toward the end of September she gave
birth to a baby boy. No birth certificate exists, but the baby, when grown,
always declared his birthday to be September 23, 1930. After a couple of months
to get back on her feet, Retha returned to Jellyroll with her son. She named
him Ray Charles Robinson.
* * *
Retha came back to Jellyroll with little Ray, RC everybody called him, but
there was no going back to how things had been. Bailey and Mary Jane soon
separated, and Bailey moved south to Shamrock, another small town, where he
took a new wife, Stella, by whom he had several children; he seldom came back
to Greenville and had little to do with raising the boy. Retha and Mary Jane
remained close--Mary Jane had lost a son, Jabbo, and doted on RC---but Retha,
no more than sixteen and with a baby in diapers, was on her own as never before.
"What was life here like in the Depression?" said one Greenville man in his
seventies. "Bad." In 1932, Loomis King, the town's leading doctor, took in only
$450, much of that in hams or eggs. The Bank of Greenville survived the worst
days, but out in Jellyroll, Jim Crow and poverty, like twin pitiless gods,
decreed the destinies and daily lives of Retha, RC, and their Jellyroll
neighbors. One Christmas the town police shot a black man near Mr. Pit's cafe.
"He hadn't done nothing," Mrs. Clemmons remembered. "After it happened, it was
like it hadn't happened at all." Dinner in Jellyroll was a dish of homegrown
greens; when they had no fuel to fry or boil their sweet potatoes, the people
ate them raw. Folding money was as scarce as shoes on children.
To keep abreast in this struggle, physical strength was a must, and Retha,
in the memory of all, was weak. No one remembered just what was wrong with
her--Mrs. Clemmons blamed it on giving birth so young--but she was "sickly,"
"walked with a cane," and "had a sore on her leg." She couldn't handle the
better-paying mill work as Mary Jane could, nor could she run a laundry
business, as many black women did, with white clients on the hill. Retha and RC
were among the poorest of the poor in Jellyroll, yet there was little chance
they'd starve or be forced to move on. Everybody knew Retha and her story, and
they liked her and her bright-eyed boy. The other women sent her their extra
washing and ironing. Mary Jane became RC's second mother, glad to watch him
when Retha was working or had to lie down, and she loved to buy him sweets at
RC grew, a healthy, happy baby. By his first birthday he had a brother,
George. No one remembered who George's father was, but all remembered that Mr.
Pit and Miz Georgia, who had no children of their own, adopted George to take
the added burden off Retha. As soon as RC could run about, little George
toddling behind him, the brothers were inseparable, a tiny Tom and Huck playing
hide-and-seek in the woods, throwing rocks and stomping on bugs like boys from
time immemorial. RC loved to play with matches, lighting them in the blackness
of a moonless night and holding them before his face, feeling like he was
"lighting up the whole world."
Retha believed in strict discipline, and by the time RC and George were five
and four, she had set them to their chores, chopping wood and hauling water.
Every Sunday she took them to the New Shiloh Baptist Church back up the road
toward Greenville. Founded before the Civil War as a mission to "our black
brothers and sisters" from Greenville's white Baptists, the New Shiloh had
become a full black church, with fiery preachers stirring the spirits of the
faithful to tears and shouts of joy, to songs and beating tambourines, swaying
hips and clapping hands. Sometimes Sunday meant chicken for dinner, and every
great while, for sure once a year on May 20, the old maypole day colored folk
still celebrated, all Jellyroll gathered for parties that lasted deep into the
night, feasts when they barbecued whole hogs and goats over open pit fires, and
the moonshine flowed free. Other nights Muh tucked the boys into bed and told
them stories of the bad old days when hooded white men bearing torches
thundered through the quarter, and they fell asleep shivering in fear and
When still too young for school at Greenville Training, the town's public
school for colored children, RC and George began to evidence gifts of
particular intelligence. George amazed Jellyroll with his skill at arithmetic,
his inventiveness in making toys from bits of wood and baling wire. RC showed a
similar curiosity in mechanical things, poking his head between the men as they
bent over sputtering Model T engines, tinkering with broken bikes and farm
machinery. Most of all, RC began to demonstrate an unusual interest in and
aptitude for music.
"Either RC was playing the piano or he was listening to the jukebox"--that is
Greenville's universal memory of the young Ray Charles, and the grown man's
memory fully agrees. "I was a normal kid, mischievous and into everything,"
Charles recalled years later, "but I loved music, it was the only thing that
could really get my attention." One day when he was about three, RC was playing
by the shacks when he heard Mr. Pit break into a driving boogie-woogie on the
Red Wing's battered old upright. Magnetized by the clanging chords and rocking
beat, RC ran up the alley past the boardinghouse, pushed open the battered
screen door, and stared amazed at Mr. Pit's flying fingers. Seeing him, Mr. Pit
laughed, swept the boy onto his lap, and let him reach out his hands to the
keys, run his fingers up and down over their warm ebony and ivory textures.
From then on whenever RC heard Mr. Pit playing, he'd race into the cafe and,
as he remembered years later with gratitude, "the man always let me
play." Wiley Pitman was no amateur, as Ray Charles recalled him, but a stride
pianist who, had he not chosen the simple life in Greenville, could have duked
it out with giants like Pete Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith. That may be a
student's exaggeration, but Mr. Pit did prove to be a superb teacher, showing
RC first how to pick out a melody with one finger. "Oh no, son, you don't play
like that," he said when RC banged too hard on the keys, but when out of
awkward fumblings the boy got a beat going on his own, Mr. Pit encouraged him
with noisy shouts of "That's it, sonny, that's it."
Near the piano stood the cafe jukebox, a marvel of flashing lights and moving
metal. For a nickel, a mechanical arm would lift a black platter from a drum of
records and set it spinning, the steel needle falling into the groove with a
scratchy hiss, filling the room with electric sounds magically recorded long
ago and far away. RC soon had a special place on a bench beside the jukebox
where he sat for hours, his ear pressed up against the speaker. Sometimes when
Mary Jane gave him a few coins for candy, they'd end up in the jukebox instead.
More often RC didn't have the money to pick his own songs, so he listened to
everything anybody played: boogie-woogie piano by Albert Ammons, gutbucket
blues by Tampa Red, the big bands of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington.
Work and music, running in the woods, church on Sunday--life flowed on for RC
and George, Retha and Mary Jane, with little to mark one day from the next,
until one terrible afternoon in 1935. "I can still hear the women shouting for
help, the sound of their cries," remembered Mrs. Clemmons' daughter Elesta,
then a girl of six or seven. The scene seared itself irrevocably into Ray
Charles' mind, leaving a scar that would never fully heal.
The afternoon was hot and sunny. To cool off, the two boys splashed in and
out of a big washtub behind the cafe. Retha was inside ironing. George climbed
inside the tub, ducking under the water for a shiny penny, shouting and
laughing. Suddenly RC realized that George's splashings had a frightening
urgency. His baby brother wasn't playing, he was in trouble. For a moment he
froze in terror, then he lunged to the tub to try and pull George out. He
couldn't; George was kicking and flailing his arms and legs, and RC, only a
year older, didn't have the strength. He ran to the shack screaming, "Mama,
Mama." Retha dropped her iron and came running. She lifted George from the tub
and tried to shake, rub, and breathe life back into him, but it was too late.
George had drowned. RC burst into tears, and Retha started wailing in pain.
Neighbors came running. All Jellyroll mourned the little boy, and even white
Greenville heard about the colored child who had died so sadly.
To have a beloved brother die at any age is a bitter, wrenching blow; to
have that brother die while you and he are still infants, to see it happen and
be powerless to prevent it, can only be a primal experience that will
reverberate through a lifetime. Grief, guilt, anger, fear, loneliness, a
bewildered sense of innocence crushed by fate--all must have coursed through
RC's little-boy spirit.
A second blow followed on the heels of the first. A few months after George's
death, mucus began to ooze from RC's eyes like thick tears, and he woke every
morning to find his eyelids stuck shut. Retha bathed off the crusts, but it
still took the boy ten minutes to adjust to the light. Over months the breadth
of his vision began to shrink, and he found he could see less and less distance
into the world. People and things became unfocused blobs. Retha took the boy
into Greenville to see Frank McLeod, the doctor who saw the colored people in
town. Dr. McLeod peered into RC's eyes with bright lights, prescribed drops and
ointments, then sent Retha and the boy on to a clinic in Madison, fourteen
miles away, RC's longest trip to date. The clinic doctor examined him and told
Retha what Dr. McLeod hadn't dared say: RC was losing his eyesight and in time
would be stone blind. There was no cure. "I understand," said Retha. She took
RC by the hand, and they went home to Jellyroll.
Years laters doctors guessed that congenital juvenile glaucoma had caused
RC's blindness. If so, only coincidence connects the illness with George's
death; the boy's emotions didn't contribute to his loss of sight. As an adult
Ray Charles has described going blind matter-of-factly, "not as bad as you'd
think," he has said. "I was never too frightened." Yet when the thick tears
began, RC was still in shock over George's death, and the pain of the first
loss may have numbed him to the fresh pain of the second, both tragedies fusing
into one life-changing event. Losing his sight may have seemed to RC a darkly
fitting sequel to losing his brother. "I saw something bad, now I can't see; I
did bad, now bad is happening to me"--these may paraphrase the wordless
whispers, such whispers as we all hear, that little RC heard way down deep
The two blows hit Retha hard too. Two sons, so bright and full of promise;
one dead, the other handicapped for life. Childish pleasures could still divert
RC, but Retha, no more than twenty-three, faced unrelenting grown-up problems:
How could she, penniless, uneducated, and ill, provide for her blind son's
future? What could she give her boy to equip him for life? In answering these
questions, Retha Robinson more than proved her mettle; she rose to quiet
As Ray Charles and others remember her, Retha had an old head on young
shoulders, a character flinty and tough. "Retha was weak in body," recalled
Gertrude Riddick, another of RC's playmates, "but strong in mind." Her own
trials had taught Retha the cost of depending on others, and though no woman of
the world, she could imagine the blighted life a blind black man might lead in
the South if he had to beg help. Penury or prison, vagrancy or a vegetable
state at a charity home were all likely fates. Retha would not let blindness
cripple Ray Charles Robinson. Fools wait for just rewards, she knew; the Lord
helps those who help themselves. RC must be armed with the weapons to defend
himself. The dangers were too great to let a moment be wasted.
Retha kept RC at his chores. Whether he tripped on a tree root on the way to
the pump or bruised his shins with kindling sticks flying off the chopping
block, the boy must learn to do for himself. Neighbors tsk-tsked to see a blind
boy scrubbing floors, and Mary Jane wanted to coddle him, but Retha would have
none of it. Pity could only harm the boy. RC must be kept as busy as any other
child, and he couldn't stay at home all day either. He needed to know his way
around Jellyroll, learn the mile of dirt roads and sandy shortcuts to the busy
streets of Greenville proper. She must teach RC, teach him something every day.
"I won't be here forever," she told him again and again.
Retha taught RC his letters and sums, but she knew he needed more education
in order to develop the talents that blindness hadn't taken away. He couldn't
go to Greenville Training; they didn't know how to teach blind children there.
Where could he go to school? How could Retha find out?
For answers to questions of that kind in the South of 1936, colored folks
had to go to white folks, and that's what Retha did. She talked to the lady at
the post office and to Dr. McLeod, and soon all Greenville knew about the blind
boy in Jellyroll and his determined mother. Dr. McLeod told her there was a
state school for the deaf and blind in St. Augustine that took a few colored
children. Retha didn't read or write well enough to apply to the school, but
Mitty King, a Jellyroll neighbor, cooked for the Reams family, who lived on the
hill. Mr. Reams owned the big store in town and Miz Ruth was a nice lady. Maybe
the Reamses would help.
Reams is still a common name in and around Greenville, twenty-one listings
in the 1994 Madison County phone book, all descendants of Albert Reams, a
settler contemporary with Isaac Hays and a cofounder of the bank. Mitty King's
Reamses--Albert's son Albert Dupree, his wife, the former Ruth Scruggs, and
their three children--ranked among Greenville's first families, and the Madison
Enterprise Recorder respectfully noted their comings and goings. Yet
they lived more like plain folks than aristocrats. A.D.'s knack for business
made him rich, but he remained a farmer at heart, and Ruth, known affectionately
as "Ma Pop," taught Sunday school at Greenville Baptist and kept busy on civic
projects sponsored by the Women's Club. "A.D. and Ruth lived the country
tradition of helping your neighbor," recalled a neighbor who grew up playing
with their children. "They tried to act on what they heard in church."
Retha, with RC by the hand, walked up to the Reamses' white house on the
western slope of the hill. Mitty King, smiling encouragement, met them at the
kitchen door. In the living room, RC played for the company on Miz Ruth's
piano, and Retha told her story one more time. A.D. and his wife were taken
with the bright boy and his forceful mother, and, yes, if they could help a
blind child get his chance in life, they'd do all they could.
Dr. McLeod told A.D. whom to write to, and soon word came back: the Florida
School for the Deaf and Blind did have a department for colored children. The
fall 1937 term had begun September 7, but RC could begin school whenever he got
there. The state paid room, board, and tuition, plus train fare to and from in
the fall and spring. It wouldn't cost Retha a thing. She could put RC on a
train, the conductor would keep an eye on him, and a teacher from the school
would meet him at the station in St. Augustine.
Retha knew at once that RC would go to the blind school, no doubt about it.
This was her son's only hope; she had to make him take it. Little RC, barely
seven, knew just as certainly he didn't want to leave Mama and Mary Jane, his
playmates Johnnycake and Elesta Mae, all of Jellyroll and Greenville. "Mama,"
he cried, "don't make me go, Mama. I wanna stay with you." He ran and hid
behind Mary Jane's skirts as she argued on his side against Retha. How could
she send RC so far from home, alone among strangers? He'd be better off here
where folks knew and loved him.
Retha didn't budge. The morning came, and the little family walked up the
road from Jellyroll to town. The locomotive steamed into the train station,
eastbound from Tallahassee. RC had never been on a train before, and this one
was no more than a black blob to his failing eyes. This was RC Robinson, Retha
told the conductor, going to the blind school. The conductor said the boy would
be fine. "All aboard!" With a last hug and kiss from Mary Jane, a last "Mind
your teachers, son!" from Retha, RC climbed up the metal steps and took a seat
on a hard wooden bench in the colored car. The other passengers gave the blind
boy a passing glance, then paid him no more mind. RC sat by himself, as unhappy
as a little boy can be, and didn't say a word. From Madison County the train
ran clickety-clack out of the low hills, east into the rising sun, over the
bridge across the Suwannee, and on to the flatlands and the coast.