Sometimes Black history is about Black folks’ relationships with whites and that history is, as we know, pretty uncomfortable. Sometimes, though, that history is really just about the day to day business of living in the same town and sometimes the story is not so uncomfortable.
My dad was a southerner, born in Cason, Texas, in the eastern part of the state near the Louisiana line, in 1917, and he grew up in Louisiana. He met my mom in high school in Shreveport and they were married there. A few years later, I was born. But somewhere along the line, my dad lost the racism that was every white man’s burden in the south.
I have four “tales” about that. I don’t know what is causative and what is merely indicative.
1. When my dad was a boy, my grandfather drove an ice wagon around town, delivering to folks with ice boxes. This was in the 1920s. One day my grandfather came home with a young Negro boy on the wagon seat with him. He said this boy, Scobie, had been jumping up in the wagon all week stealing chunks of ice. The boy had no folk, lived on the street, so my grandfather brought him home to live with them. Dad said that my grandmother made room for Scobie in the house and in the family and that was that. But after a while, neighbors came by to complain that it didn’t look right to have Scobie living in the house with white people. So my grandfather made Scobie an “apartment” out over the garage and he slept out there but ate and “lived” pretty much in the house and he and my dad grew up together. This lasted for years until Scobie got old enough to leave school; the Negro school only went to the 10th grade. When that happened, Scobie eventually ran afoul of the law. My dad never told me what Scobie did but he was sent to prison, to Angola down south, a terrible place. My grandfather was heartbroken and tried every year to get him out but never could. He went down there to see him “all the time,” my dad said, until finally he stopped. Dad didn’t know why and he didn’t know what became of Scobie. Maybe he died there.
2. After my dad graduated from high school, he and a friend went into “business” cutting and hauling cypress logs out of the north Louisiana swamps. They would go all week into the swamp and cut and trim trees, sleeping at night on the porches of the Black folks who lived way out in there. Dad was called “Little Boss” by the Black folks because at 5’8” he was shorter than Wayne, his 6’ -whatever partner. Then they’d snake the logs out with mules and get them into town by the first of the next week to sell to the mill. The lumber mill was owned by a Black man whose silent partner was the white man who owned the Ford dealership in town. But the old man, whose name Dad told me but which I can’t remember, ran the place and made all the decisions. And he made a lot of money for himself and his silent partner, whose name was Hanna, I think. Anyway, the old man had two daughters whom he sent north to college and in the summer they worked in the office. Dad said that that first summer he and Wayne were bringing cypress into the mill he got to know one of the daughters because Dad was little but he was the boss and handled all the business. Every week Dad and this young lady did business and, Dad said, he fell in love. But he knew there was nothing that could be done about it. He said he wasn’t rich enough to have a Negro girl friend “on the side” and besides, she was clearly more sophisticated and smarter than he was and her father would have killed him anyway. So they never said a word about it to one another but just looked at each other and enjoyed it as best they could. My dad was a good looking guy, so I suppose she could have taken to him.
3. For a short time when I was in high school we lived way out past the end of town in what was supposed to be a sub-division but hadn’t really taken off. We had a house on a big lot so every weekend I had to mow the lawn. The whole thing. In those days even working class white families had Negro women who “did” for them and the woman who came to our house on Saturdays usually brought her young son with her. “Junior Boy” was the only name I knew him by, that’s all his mom called him and that’s what we all called him. Junior Boy was about 6 the year I was a sophomore in high school, the year I got my driver’s license. On Saturdays I would drive over to Nigger Town to pick up Mrs. Mason and Junior Boy. They lived in a house on thick stilts over a field of red dirt that turned to red mud when it rained. You walked on a wooden plank across the yard to the front porch. They had electricity but the only water was from a common spigot among four or five houses. When we got back to our house, Mrs. Mason and my mom would talk and clean and Mrs. Mason would do the ironing and I would mow the lawn. But Junior Boy and my dad? Junior Boy loved my dad and Dad loved him and they would walk around the outside of the house seeing if there was any work to be done but by the time I had finished mowing and raking up the lawn and got back in the house, there the two of them would be, stretched out on the couch watching the ball game. And likely as not, one or the other or both of them would be asleep, Junior Boy curled up in my dad’s lap. Sometimes I’d see if Junior Boy wanted to help me wash the car and then he and his mom would pack up whatever food she and my mom had made and divided up for them to take and they would get in the car and I would drive them home. And then I would go find my friends and the rest of Saturday was mine.
4. My dad left his church when I was a senior in high school because the church, Mangum Memorial Methodist Church, not only refused to let two Black families join or even attend services, but passed a resolution to the effect that God disdained Black folks and so should whites. He just resigned from the Board of Stewards and converted to Catholicism a few months later, which was considered a pretty liberal thing to do in those days.
So that’s it. I don’t know what made him the man that he was but he was just that kind of man; I always knew him that way and always wanted to be just like him in that way. Other ways, maybe not so much, but that man, yes.