Joy In the Morning Excerpt

~ Chapter 9 ~

Oh, Heaven!  Just listen to my sisters out there troubling the postman, my friend Phil Richardson about my condition.  His father, Roosevelt "Rooster" Richardson was my iceman. He would come rumbling down the street in that old ice truck shouting, "I got ice!  I got ice!  Ice colder than your wife."  Leave Phil be!  He's the mailman not the Coroner.  Some old lady down the way is waiting for her "gov'ment" check while they got him out there listening to their dressed up chatter about me.  That old lady got to get her spoiled pussycat some dry-catty vittles.

Just listen to them!  They tell factual and imaginary bits and pieces of my life, they've artfully composed, with trumpet fanfare, violins, polished flutes, square triangles, and concert harps.  But my story, the truth is about the moaning tenor sax, down-home blues, jive, blue grass, French horn, bongo, steel drums, tambourine, harmonica, eighty-eights, crashing cymbals, spoons and washboards, woodwinds, barrel organ, and baby grand.  Still, I really should be quite on the matter, like,  that speechless spider that slid down on his sewing silk thread.  They really never saw the dark, haunted side of me.  I shielded my family from the knowledge of my hells and demons--my grave memories.  But I am at peace with my memories:  my failures and my victories have reached mutual appreciation, my sins and my virtues are in communion.  Memories! Memories are like old friends and foes, some good, some troublesome.  But in time, we learn to live with both.  Such is Mississippi for me.

Let me see, the little house in Turnerville, 'ole man Scruggs place had been completed when Miss Emma and I arrived, but we spent our first few days with Miss Millie because we had no furniture.  The house had two freshly painted rooms with new tiled floors and a tiny shed kitchen on the back.  The rebuilt outhouse, with a lazy crescent moon carved in the locked door for fresh air, had new pine planks laid in place to guarantee a clean seat.  Our little house was not much , but most considered it rather nice for colored people.  Our nearest neighbor, Miss Johnnie Rae Thurmond, lived with her six children in what was once a big chicken coop.  I would look out across the road and see Miss Johnnie Rae and her children going in and out of that old chicken coop, and I would wonder just how she and thousands just like her survived in Mississippi.  Miss Emma and I had a way out.  At any time we pleased, we could pack up and head for Atlanta or Baton rouge or New Orleans.  But Miss Johnnie Rae and her children, descendents of freed Mississippi slaves had nowhere to go but to that chicken coop.

Miss Emma and I moved into the house on a Saturday morning.  It seemed to us that every colored family in that part of Mississippi had come to welcome and wish us well.  Some walked for miles and brought whatever they could bring.  I knew that most of those who brought chickens, quilts, tools, lamp oil and food could really not afford it, but they were so grateful that a teacher had come to teach their children.  They stayed late into the night.  I heard so many of their stories that evening.  Stories of hardships, hopes, ancestors, and lynching.  I will never forget the goodness of the people who greeted us that day.  I have found something rich about poor people.  They rarely count the cost of being friendly. 

Miss Emma was a jewel.  We moved into that little house and, for a while until our furniture was to arrive from Memphis, our only chairs were empty wooden apple boxes and our bed was a mattress set on cinder blocks.  Miss Emma never complained.  She simply set about the task to turn that little house into our home.  She made curtains,m by hand, for the windows.  She made little pillows for the bed, and with the cloth left over, she made shirts for Miss Johnnie Rae's children.  Every time Miss Emma bought cloth, she made sure that there would be enough extra to make something for the children.  The children just fell in love with Miss Emma.  She would make such a fuss over those children.  For someone so accustomed to privilege, Miss Emma never gave a hint that she wan any different in heart from those poor barefoot children in Mississippi.  When the school finally opened, after the cotton-picking season, Miss Emma eagerly volunteered to teach the younger children.  The little school had two teachers for the price of one.

In 1922, when I arrived in Mississippi, there were no laws requiring children to attend school.  The Emancipation Proclamation supposedly ending slavery had just occurred fifty-nine years earlier in 1863 and the children I taught were some of the earliest descendents of slaves.  This meant that many of them had an ex-slave living in the house with them.  In fact, many of them, if not most, lived in former slave quarters.  A good number of the people were eager to send their children or the one or two they could spare from the fields to attend school.  But there were others who had to be convinced that school was even necessary or possible for their children.  Times were hard and most families needed every pair of able hands in the fields, but I was determined to  try to convince every family to send at least one child to school.  Often, that was one out of five, ten, twelve or sixteen.

Miss Emma and I would go on long walks looking for children to enroll in school.  Sometimes we would walk ten or fifteen miles or more to visit families.  We didn't mind because we recognized that if a child enrolled in school from that area that child would have to walk that same distance every day to school.  I really enjoyed those walks with Miss Emma.  We talked about everything:  the wildflowers and the trees along the path; the birds and the butterflies; honeybees and long-legged frogs; the fields, the cabins and the crops; our dreams. And we would playfully argue over the names of the children we would have.  I would say, "If we have a boy, we're going to name him Nip Crip or Wolfgang Coffee or Caesar Ratpea.  And if it's a girl, we will name her Hennie Bea or Hazel Nutt or Onion Yellin."  We would laugh and play like children all along the way.  It would take quite a while to go from family to family out among those desperate sharecropping fields.  But we were on a mission to nurture the sunless seeds of slavery's tillage.  My word, I am sounding just like my father.

Often as we approached a family's cabin, we could hear somebody out in the yard singing what amounted to the blues or just hollering a work song or a country church hymn.  We tried to do most of our visiting on Sundays, when a family might have more spare time and willingness to listen.  But there were times when we had to go right out into the fields to convince parents to send their children to school. Sometimes, Miss Emma and I would have to walk right along side a father and his straw hat mule as he plowed to try to convince him to let at least one child attend school.  Other times, we might be standing in the yard with a mother as she boiled clean the family's dirty clothes in a big cast iron pot.  Often it meant spending hours on a family's porch selling the value of an education. Many times, I would just mention "Mr. Booker T. Washington" and their eyes would light up.  Most often, in the the end, if they agreed at all, they would send on e of their daughters.  One fellow by the name of Ozell Lee Jackberry said all four of his children could go to school, but they would have to take turns.  I accepted the arrangement because I felt that some schooling was better than none at all.  It worked out fairly well because the one child that attended during any given week would share the lessons with the other three at home.  

One afternoon, while Miss Emma was busy with a family of seven girls, I happened upon a Miss Patsy Pillsbury and her three children.  I stepped inside of her cabin to discuss the school.  It was a misty and dreary day and she had a small fire lit.  I call it a 'cabin,' but in truth, it was a dilapidated shack.  I will never forget that place.  The walls were covered with old tattered newspapers to slow the wind that was streaming in.  She had two chairs and one bed that were covered with frayed quilts.  The wood floor was bare but clean.  But then I noticed just above the fireplace a picture of Jesus.  That Jesus that hung in so many impoverished cabins and shacks.  That Jesus of long flowing golden hair, milky white skin and the bluest of eyes, and clothed in his flawless white robe.  An angelic glow gently showered his face.  Even then, long before my awakening, I wondered why the slave master's Jesus was hung in a poor black family's shanty.  Oh yes, there was one other portrait on her cold wall - Santa Claus.

Patsy Pillsbury hired herself and her children out to sharecroppers who were poor themselves.  She was generally paid in meager portions of vegetables, corn meal and, occasionally, pig parts:  jowls, the tails, feet, ears, tongue, snouts and brains.  Every now and then she might receive fifty cents or a dollar.  But as with most sharecropping arrangements, by the time they paid the "store man" for seeds and supplies there was precious little left to divide.

I was reluctant to mention the school, but everyone at least deserved to know of its existence.  I discussed education with her and what it meant to the future of the children and the potential benefits to the family.  She was excited, but said the children could only attend on Sundays.  And she wanted some "schooling" too.  I explained that the school was not open on Sundays.  Yet in time, I could not forget about Patsy Pillsbury and her children.  Her pleas for Sunday schooling and the sheer hardship of weekday school for most poor families eventually led Miss Emma and I to offer condensed school classes on Sundays - the Sunday School.  And when we started the Sunday morning classes, there was Patsy Pillsbury and her three children, all in the first grade....(Joy in the Morning, pp. 201-206)

   Copyright 2012 Joy in the Morning Part One -Robert Scott Jones