You sleep over a volcano,
which may erupt at any moment.93
—LAURA ARNOLD, DESCRIBING
THE SOUTH IN A DEBATE
ON THE MERITS OF MIGRATION,
TWO WEEKS BEFORE SHE HERSELF
LEFT NORTH CAROLINA
FOR WASHINGTON, D.C.
I am in the darkness
of the south
and I am trying
my best to get out.94
O please help me
to get out of
this low down county
I am counted no more thin a dog
help me please help me.
— AN UNIDENTIFIED
LETTER WRITER FROM
CHICKASAW COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI,
LATE SEPTEMBER–EARLY OCTOBER 1937
ADDIE B., who lived down the road on the same plantation as Ida Mae, rose early to feed the turkeys at her cabin across the field. Addie B. always fretted about her turkeys. She looked all over and called out to them. But there was no clucking or nipping or kicking of dust. The yard was barren. The turkeys were gone. Mr. Edd, the boss man over all of them, would be coming for his turkeys soon, to sell in time for Thanksgiving. There would be no explaining the disappearance to Mr. Edd. The economics were simple. The turkeys were money when money was the one thing nobody had. The punishment—she did not want to think about the punishment. Besides, she had an idea of what happened to her inventory. She decided to tell Mr. Edd her suspicions before he could ask. Mr. Edd rounded up some men.
Later that night, around nine or ten o’clock, the pounding started on Ida Mae’s door. It was like the sound of wild dogs trailing raw meat. It seemed far away at first, and then it drew closer, mad fists beating the bare face of the cabin. The cabin was dark, and Ida Mae was asleep. She was alone in the house with little Velma and James and her sister-in-law Indiana, who was meek and of little help. Her husband was not yet back from his errands in town. She threw back the coverlet and fingered the sides of the walls to get to the front door. She stumbled past the two little ones, who were, by some miracle, still asleep, stepped around the hearth and between the two beds on each side of the door. Indiana, in the bed closest to the ruckus, got up to follow her and stood behind her and watched.
Ida Mae cracked open the door and saw the men, four or five of them with chains and shotguns. She recognized the boss man, Mr. Edd. And she recognized his friend Mr. Willie Jim, another planter, but could not make out the faces of the others standing before her in the middle of the night.
She tried to dispense with them, told them her husband wasn’t in and she didn’t know when he would be back. That wasn’t why they were there. Willie Jim stepped forward to speak for them all. They wanted to know if Joe Lee was in her house.
Joe Lee was her husband’s cousin, who lived further down the road and would have had no business there that time of night, which is what she told them. He worked the land like the rest of them and, though well into his twenties, still lived on his father’s farm. He had a reputation for taking things that weren’t his. She said she hadn’t seen him.
“Joe Lee is in there. And we want him outta there.”
“What’d he do?”
“That’s alright, we want him outta there.”
They had searched the other sharecropper cabins. Somebody said they saw Joe Lee escape to her house. Willie Jim was getting agitated, thought she was ornery, disputing them like she was, and raised up his chain and drew it back to hurl at her. Mr. Edd stepped forward and told him not to. He liked George and Ida Mae, and he needed that cotton out of the field.
“Don’t you hit her,” Mr. Edd said.
“That’s alright. Let ’em hit me,” Ida said, stiffening herself.
“No, he ain’t gon’ hit you now,” he told her.
Willie Jim stepped back, reminded of what they had come for. The men fanned out, their heavy boots clomping the old wood boards on the porch. They surrounded the house and ran toward the back door of the kitchen, the cabin’s only other way out, and caught Joe Lee trying to get away. He had fled into the house as Ida Mae slept. He had darted past Indiana as she lay in bed in the front room. But Indiana was too afraid to tell anybody.
“Why ain’t you tell me you saw Joe Lee come through here?” Ida Mae asked her afterward. Then she thought about it and realized that if they had caught her in a lie, it would have been worse. And so the two of them concluded it was best that Indiana knew but didn’t tell and that Ida Mae didn’t know and didn’t lie.
Ida Mae couldn’t go back to sleep, and she couldn’t wait for her husband to get back home. Finally, she heard a motor rumbling outside. She ran out to get him.
“Get out. I got something to tell you.”
“What is it?”
“They come and got Joe Lee out the house.”
“I know Mr. Edd ain’t did that.”
“They caught him trying to step out the back door.”
They stood absorbing what it meant and not knowing why it happened.
“What way they went with him?” George asked.
A part of him wanted to go and set things straight, try to talk some sense into his boss man. Ida Mae didn’t want him to go. No good could come of it. She didn’t see which way they went anyway, black as it was. And they had been gone a good while.
EUSTIS, FLORIDA, DECEMBER 1941
GEORGE SWANSON STARLING
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE EARTH, at a harbor in Hawaii, a bomb exploded. It was at a naval base. Pearl Harbor. People heard it on the radio, not knowing what it meant.
The United States was joining the war over in Europe. George Starling got notice to report for an army physical. But the doctor looked him over and disqualified him on account of what the doctor said was a weak heart. George was scared he would die at any minute. But the minutes turned into weeks and then months, and he figured either the doctor didn’t know what he was talking about or his heart had recovered.
In the spring, there would be no work after the fruit was picked from the trees. George was hearing talk of war jobs up in a place called Detroit. The factories that made cars were rolling out planes and weapons twenty-four hours a day. He did not particularly want to go to Detroit. He didn’t have people there, nor did he know much about it. But they were paying a ridiculous sum of money—dollars an hour instead of pennies a box. He could make enough in a couple of months to last him a year. He heard they were so desperate you could get a job right off the bus. He floated the idea to his wife.
Inez didn’t want him to go. For most of their marriage, they had been living with Big George at his house on Bates Avenue. She spent her days sweeping up after the white family she had inherited from her mother and aunt and from her grandmother before them. She was scrubbing toilets when what she really wanted to do, she told George, was to go to beauty school in Tampa, the Angelo Beauty College, it was called, and learn how to fix hair.
She hardly ever saw George as it was. When he wasn’t out picking fruit, he was out in the backwoods selling insurance. Lately, he had taken to ferrying people around in his old car as if he were a cab driver. There were no taxis for colored people, so he took people to town for groceries or picked them up after the show to make a little extra money. Friday nights, all day Saturday, and into Sunday evening, George was gone, carrying other people to the things he and Inez could be doing together.
He called himself saving for the future. He had it all planned out. He would save enough money to put her through beauty school. Then she would start working and help him finish college in Tallahassee. That would be their freedom.
So he gave his weekends to his passengers. Sometimes they just showed up at his house for him to take them somewhere. Inez was stirring the grits for breakfast when Lil George came into the kitchen one morning.
“Well, I’m a run this guy downtown to do his shopping,” George said. “I’ll be back by the time you get breakfast ready.”
He took the man downtown and dropped him off with his groceries. On his way home, somebody else flagged him down.
“Hey, Lil George, whatchu doin’?”
“I’m not doing anything.”
“How ’bout running me downtown?”
He would start his morning with the best of intentions and not get back until dark. “But all the while I’m away from home, I’m working,” George said.
He knew he would be in for a fight as soon as he stepped in the door. “My wife would be swole up big as this room by then ’cause I’m gone all day.”
George figured as much and tried to soften her up.
“I know you thought I wasn’t never coming back,” he said.
She grunted, fuming still.
He told her what had happened and how people had flagged him down in the street and had no way to get their groceries and how one thing had led to another and you know there was no way to reach you because there weren’t any phones to call from and, anyway, look at what I got.
Fifty cents on this trip, a dollar on that one, and at the end of the day, George pulled in five, ten, twenty, sometimes thirty dollars in change.
“See how much money I made while I was out. I made all of this.”
He dumped it all on the bed, quarters, halves, and paper money. Inez was too mad to look at it.
“Well, all of this goes toward your going to school. That’s what I’m scuffling for. So you can go to school.”
She kept quiet. So he went on.
“I’m a let you save it now,” he said. “ ’Cause you know I was sincere. You put it in the trunk so you know where it is. So when you get enough to go you can go.”
But she wouldn’t get over all those lost weekends so easily. If he took her wants for granted, she would do the same for his. She stood there as if she hadn’t heard him. So George went and put the money away himself. Soon he had Mason jars full of quarters and halves, fruit jars filled with nickels and change rattling in tin cans, the start of a future in bottles all over the house.
It was the start of 1943. When the picking season was over and it was nearing spring, everybody’s money went dry. The people needing rides trailed off. George saw it coming and started talking again about going to Detroit for the summer to make enough for them to go to school. He made a note to himself: 1943 was the year for Inez to go to beauty school.
“When it gets a little bit warmer, when the fruit season is over,” he told her, “I’m going to Detroit to work. Then I could send you to school. It’s nothing to do around here during the summer. Ain’t no working. I can’t even make no money hustling. So I’m going out to Detroit and work and send you to school.”
George had it all worked out. Inez just listened. The neighbors had been telling her to watch after her husband. He wasn’t going to Detroit to work, they said, he was going to be with some woman, probably one of those schoolteachers he went to school with up in Tallahassee. Heard one of them was up in D.C. Bet he’s going up there to be with her. He’s not going to Detroit.
Inez was quiet. So he repeated himself.
“This year, you going to Tampa. I want you to go to school.”
“I don’t want to go to no school. I changed my mind. I want to go to Detroit with you.”
“What you talking ’bout? You been preaching about Angelo Beauty School, now you want to go to Detroit? You go on to beauty school, where you wanted to go. You can always see the world. You can’t always go to school. You’re not going to Detroit with me. That’s it.”
The neighbors would surely talk now. Some came up to George himself. “Why you not letting your wife go with you? They say you not going to Detroit. You going to D.C.”
He paid them no mind and caught a bus up to Detroit with his friends Sam Gaskin and Charlie Bollar, whom they called Mud.
The day he left, Inez was too mad and too hurt to say good-bye.
She headed to work. “I hope you all take care of yourselves” was all she could manage.
They made B-29 cargo planes at a plant in Hamtramck. George arrived in the late spring of 1943, and they put him to work on a jig making frame covers for the hatch doors and rudders of the cargo planes. They applied chemicals to the covers to make them strong but light. The chemicals were so flammable that anyone caught with a cigarette in his pocket was fired on the spot.
George set about learning the job and adjusting to a gray concrete city he wasn’t particular about when a cousin of his wife’s showed up unannounced. That was the point. Inez had sent him to see if George was really there and not with some other woman. The cousin reported back that George was doing what he said he was, and only then could Inez feel halfway good about going on to Tampa to take a short course in beauty culture.
George worked nights drilling holes around hatch door frames to attach the covers with screws. He had to bend or lie flat or get on his knees and twist himself to drill the holes straight.
The place was swimming with Communist sympathizers and alleged saboteurs, or so people said, in the hothouse of wartime. Because spies were believed to be inside the plants themselves, any missing or wrongly placed screws were enough to draw suspicion and reprisals in an already cheerless endeavor.
“This made it a nervous, nerve-racking situation,” George would say years later. “You know, you drilling all kind of ways and you trying at your very best, and every now and then, you gonna get a hole angle, it’s not gonna be right. But if you got too many of them, then you were in trouble.”
And every minute, George was scared the whole place would blow up from all the chemicals and paranoia.
Then on the humid night of Sunday, June 20, 1943, a fight broke out between several hundred white and colored men on Belle Isle, a park extending into the Detroit River on the east side of town.95 The fighting spread north, south, and west as rumors circulated among blacks that white men had killed a colored woman and thrown her baby into the Detroit River and, among whites, that colored men had raped and killed a white woman in the park.
Neither rumor turned out to be true, but it was all that was needed to set off one of the worst riots ever seen in the United States, an outbreak that would mark a turning point in American race relations. Until the 1943 uprising in Detroit, most riots in the United States, from the 1863 Draft Riots in New York to the riots in Tulsa in 1921, to Atlanta in 1906 to Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Springfield, and East St. Louis, Illinois, and Wilmington, North Carolina, among others, had been white attacks on colored people, often resulting in the burning of entire colored sections or towns.
This was the first major riot in which blacks fought back as earnestly as the whites and in which black residents, having become established in the city but still relegated to run-down ghettos, began attacking and looting perceived symbols of exploitation, the stores and laundries run by whites and other outsiders that blacks felt were cheating them. It was only after Detroit that riots became known as primarily urban phenomena, ultimately centered on inner-city blacks venting their frustrations on the ghettos that confined them.
The Detroit riots went on for close to a week, ending in thirty-four deaths and more than one thousand wounded.96 The Sunday night the riots began, as many as five thousand people joined in the stoning, stabbing, beating, and shooting, so many people injured that the municipal hospital was admitting riot victims at a rate of one a minute.
George was living at 208 Josephine near Hastings and Woodward and heard the mayhem in the streets and on the radio all through the night. He was living in the middle of the crowded colored quarter mockingly called Paradise Valley, where blacks were stoning the cars of passing whites, whites were beating up blacks as they emerged from the all-night theaters on Woodward, and an inspector on the scene reported to the police commissioner that the situation was out of control.
The rioting continued into the next morning. It was now Monday, the start of the work week. A co-worker of George’s called him up.
“Hey, Starling, what you gonna do?”
“Do ’bout what?”
“ ’Bout going to work.”
“Man, you must be crazy.”
“What you talking about?”
“Don’t you know? Where you been? You didn’t know it was a riot going on?”
“Yeah, but I ain’t got nothin’ to do with it. I ain’t in no gang.”
“This ain’t no gang fight. This is a riot.”
“Well, they ain’t gonna bother me. I ain’t done nothing to nobody. I’m going on to work.”
“You gonna get yourself killed.”
George had to take two trolleys to get to Hamtramck. He boarded the first in a colored neighborhood and instantly knew something was wrong. The colored people were sitting up straight; the white people were crouched in their seats so they couldn’t be seen out the window.
Wonder why these people down on the floor like they are? he asked himself.
The trolley made its way to a white neighborhood, and now the colored people crouched down and the white people sat up.
Well, what in the devil is going on? he said to himself.
The trolley pulled into the intersection. A mob two blocks long stood cursing outside the trolley.
What’s wrong with all them people? he thought.
The mob became a single organism descending on the trolley. The trolley operator moved fast. “He went back the other way,” George said. “That’s the only thing that saved us. And that’s when I began to realize the seriousness of this thing.”
He managed to make it to work that day. But the trouble wasn’t over. The rioting continued all day Monday and into a second night. When he got back home to Hastings Street that evening, a mob was approaching from Woodward, howling and turning over cars.
“I ran so fast till my heels were hittin’ my back,” he said.
And as he rounded the corner onto Josephine, he could see a colored mob forming. “They were turning over white cars,” he said, “dumping the people out like you dump ashes out an ashtray and setting the cars on fire.”
Some colored men in his block stood on the sidewalk, trying to figure out what to do. They had gathered the empty bottles in their flats to throw at people if it came to that. “We were wondering how it was gonna end up,” George said.
A white undertaker in the block joined the colored men contemplating the situation. He did not leave when the other white people fled. He fixed his feet on the ground with the neighbors who happened to be colored and let it be known where he stood. He might need their protection if it came to that.
“You know, them white folks raising hell over there on Woodward Avenue,” the white undertaker started to say.
“Yeah, they sure are,” George said.
The white undertaker drew closer and into their circle. “But us colored folks is giving ’em hell over on Hastings,” he said.
The colored men welcomed a new brother, and they all laughed at the meaning of that.
George stood on the porch and watched the National Guard tanks with machine guns on top parade through the streets. He sat up all night looking out the window as they passed.
He heard windows smashing and then saw a man with a sofa on his back. Another one had a shoulder of meat. A third had about five or six loaves of bread in his arm.
One morning, as the riots wore on, he passed a Florsheim shoe store while heading to work. People were grabbing shoes through the broken glass and running in the morning sun.
A co-worker was with him and ran over to the store.
“Come on, let’s get some,” he said.
“Man, I don’t want no shoes,” George said. “I don’t need no shoes like that.”
The friend went in without him, grabbed two shoes, and went tearing down the street. He was giddy until he looked at what he had. He had made off with two left shoes.
“Now he gonna go back and try to find the mates,” George said. George told him he was crazy.
“No, man, these good shoes,” his friend said. “If I find the mate to these shoes, I don’t have to buy no more shoes for a good while.”
He went back in the store, and in that instant the police showed up and caught him in the act. They fired shots, and one hit him in the stomach. He later landed in jail.
The looters took over after the mob cleared out. Within days, the freight trucks rolled up to Hastings and Josephine and all over Detroit and came to a stop in front of suspect stoops. Out came men in overalls pushing dollies, coming for the stolen merchandise. Minutes later, George saw a sofa come out of a two-flat. Somebody had seen the tenants looting and told.
When the time came to go back to work, George rounded the corner to get to the entrance and felt sick. “I got the feeling like I was walking into Alcatraz or Sing Sing,” he said, “to begin a lifetime sentence.”
At the plant he learned that several men he worked with had gotten shot in the rioting. One or two had been killed. Between the riot and the anti-Communist paranoia and the plant itself, it was time to go.
“Look, I can’t take it,” George told his foreman. “I can’t come in here another day.”
“Well, you know you are frozen on this job.”
“But I’m defrosting. I cannot, I cannot come in here no more. Now, you can take it any way you want. I’m just not coming back.”
“You know, if you walk out of here, you subject to be in the army in the next twenty-four hours.”
“I can’t help that,” George said, knowing he’d already been rejected for army duty. “I’m gone.”
“You have to wait till the pay period to get your money.”
“I want my money now. I’m a sit right here. I ain’t goin’ nowhere until y’all give me all of my money. Now, y’all can do what you want. I’m leaving.”
Finally they cut him a check. “And I left the next day.”
It was late summer now and going into autumn. There were only two places he knew of to go and live. One was New York, where he had aunts and uncles and no job. The other was Florida, where he had a wife, a father, the dim hope of going back to school, and a patched-together work life of whatever came up.
He caught a bus home to Florida with a sense of dread and defeat. He had gone to college and gone up north and now was returning to exactly the same place he had left. He went back to picking fruit. But instead of hundreds of men in their prime standing at the corner of Bates and Palmetto hoping to board the truck, a small cluster gathered there—old men and women, errand boys and domestics, children, too, who would never have made the cut before the war, along with the few young men like Charlie “Mud” Bollar, and Sam Gaskin and George, who hadn’t been chosen to go off to fight.
With the high rollers gone, the three of them reveled in their good fortune. Here they were the only strong pickers left. The trees heavy with fruit. The fruit rationed and prized like never before. The packinghouses helpless to get the fruit out of the trees and, not knowing how long the situation, meaning the war, would drag on, forced to pay an extra nickel a box to entice anybody who could crawl to get on the truck to come pick.
George, Mud, and Sam boarded the truck with the newcomers and rode out thirty, forty miles into the grove. Only it was different this time. George was seeing the world in a new light after being in Detroit. The three of them had gotten used to fair wages for their hard work up north and walked with their backs straight now. George, in particular, never had the constitution to act subservient, and his time up north, where colored people didn’t have to step off the sidewalk, only made him more impatient with the role the southern caste system assigned him.
He had gotten used to carrying himself in a different way, talking to white people as equals in Detroit. Now that he was back in Eustis, he made a point to do whatever he could to keep from addressing white people as “sir” or “ma’am.” “They’d say, ‘So and so and so, boy,’ ” he said. “I would never say, ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘No, sir.’ I’d say, ‘That’s right.’ ‘Sure.’ ‘Certainly.’ ”
“What you mean by certainly?” would come the indignant reply. “You don’t know how to say, ‘Yes, sir’?”
A colored teacher who had finished the University of Michigan ran into the same trouble in Mississippi at around the same time.97 He needed to send a wire to a colleague and went into a drugstore to do so. The drugstore owner asked where the wire was going.
“Do they have a phone there?” the druggist asked.
“Yes, they do,” the colored teacher replied.
“Do they have a phone there?” the druggist asked again.
“Yes, they have a phone,” the colored teacher said, wondering why the druggist hadn’t understood him the first time.
“Goddamn it, when you talk to a white man, you say, ‘sir’!”
The teacher, to avoid further escalation, addressed him as “sir” and walked out the door. There he saw a group of white men waiting. The teacher jumped into his car. “I didn’t run,” the teacher said, “but I made haste to my car and left that town just as fast as I could.”
George knew that the minutest breach of protocol could be risky but had a hard time submitting to it. The North had changed him, and Mud and Sam, too, and they couldn’t go back to the way they were before. The three of them had a plan. They were tired of having to take whatever pennies the packinghouses decided to pay them, and with the war on and not enough pickers, this was one of the few times the workers had any leverage.
George, Mud, and Sam decided to make the most of the situation and stand up for themselves like men. They took to strolling the grove and assessing it themselves before setting their ladders in a tree. Sam and Mud walked the grove as if they were the foremen and looked over the density of the fruit to see what they were in for.
George stayed with the crew of old men and women warming themselves by a fire in the fog. The workers wanted to know when they could start picking. George stood with them and told them the plan.
“Now, look,” he said. “Everybody sit down till we get the price straight. Nobody go to work.”
“What about the foreman?”
“I don’t care what the foreman say. Nobody go to work until we give the word.”
The old men and women were used to cleaning white yards and cooking in white kitchens ten or twelve hours a day for seventy-five cents, maybe a dollar. George told them if they could get a good price, they could make that much in an hour or two. Sounded like voodoo talk to them.
“We got to take what the white folks tells us,” they told him. “You can’t do no different.”
George looked back down the row for Mud and Sam to show up and back at his skeptical army.
“I don’t want to hear that stuff,” George said. “I been listening to that all my life.”
The old men and women worried what would happen if they didn’t get their price and worried all the more if they got it. With the war on, it was a new day, George told them.
“We got a chance to kind of get back at them,” he said, trying to inspire them to stand up for themselves. “I ain’t thinking about no future. I’m thinking about right now.”
Besides, Sam and Mud had already tried to scare the pickers into submission.
“Anybody put a ladder up under them trees,” Mud told them, “we gonna snatch it from under you and stomp you when you hit the ground!”
The pickers waited. Mud and Sam emerged from deep in the grove.
“Well, what it looks like?” George asked.
“It’s pretty good over here in one spot,” they said.
“Well, what do you think?”
“We’ll do it for twenty-two cents.”
George spoke for the group since he was the one who had been to school. He went to the foreman to start the unthinkable act of negotiating with a white man.
“What you paying for this?” George asked the foreman.
“Well, you know, this is good fruit, boy,” the foreman said. “Now, you can get well in here. These oranges big as grapefruit.”
“How much you paying?”
“We paying good. That’s fifteen cents a box.”
“That ain’t good enough. Nope. We can’t pick it for that. We want twenty-two cents a box.”
“Naw, we can’t give you that.”
George thought it over.
“Okay, we’ll do it for twenty-two cents. Straight through, good and the bad.”
“Naw, we can’t.”
“Well, we can’t pick it, then.”
“We forty miles from town.”
“I know. We still not gonna pick it.”
“Well, y’all pick a load. I don’t want to send the truck driver back empty. So y’all pick enough so he can take a load into the packinghouse. Then I’ll send word to the boss and tell him what y’all wantin’ to do.”
“No, we not gonna pick one. You can send the truck back to town, and we’ll wait. Got nothing to do.”
“Y’all just doing us this way because y’all got the advantage over us. This war ain’t gon’ last forever, and, by God, y’all gon’ pay for this.”
“We already paid,” George said. “All these years we couldn’t even ask how much you were paying for a box of fruit or we’d get fired. You gave us what you wanted to give us. You promised us one thing and give us another. You put the payday off whenever you get ready. Sometime you didn’t pay us, period. So now, far as I’m concerned, this is reckoning day. And I ain’t worried about after the war. You can pay us what we want, or else your fruit gonna hang out there. And they want it in New York. They want it all over the world, and you ain’t got nobody to pick it.”
The foreman needed the fruit out of the trees. He left with the truck driver and before long was back from the packinghouse. He told them to go to work. He would pay them twenty-two cents. This time.
The old men and women set their ladders in the trees and commenced picking, and by nightfall, they and these cocksure boys had made more in a day than they would have otherwise made in a week.
People could buy stew meat now and put Sunday suits on will-call at Ferran’s. The Mason jars of quarters Lil George was saving up multiplied. He knew the wages they were making out in the groves couldn’t last forever. Everything depended on the supply and demand created by the war, and who knew how much more time they had? He decided to make the most of it while he could. The way things were going, he could earn enough money for college and then some. Until then, while the money was flowing, he thought it was time to rent a place of their own and get out from under his father. Maybe that was what he and Inez needed, now that she was back from her short course in beauty culture.
“Go downtown and look in Thompson’s,” he told her. “Pick out some things you think you would like to have for the house, so we know what we’re doing when we move.”
“I don’t want to go down there and ain’t got no money,” she said. George always had these grand ideas, planning their future in his head. “How you gon’ buy any furniture?” she asked. “You ain’t got no money to buy no furniture with.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just go and look. You never can tell what might take place.”
One day he just took her by the hand. “Come on,” he said. “I’m a take you down to Thompson’s, and you gonna pick out some furniture.”
“Pick it out? What you gon’ pay for it with?”
“Get your coat and come on, let’s go.” George scooped up seven or eight jars of quarters and halves, and they went to Thompson’s.
“What you see in here that you like?” he asked her.
She saw a bed, a sofa, a dining room set.
“How much is that?” George asked the clerk, a white man.
“You could pay two dollars down and seventy-five cents a week on it,” the clerk said.
“I don’t want to know all of that. I want to know how much does it cost, and if I pay cash for it, how much can I get off?”
“Cash?” the clerk asked. “You gon’ pay cash for all this, boy?”
“I just might.”
“Let me see now.”
The clerk gave him a figure. George did some adding himself and figured the quarters and halves would cover it.
“Okay, I’ll take it.”
“Well, you know this is for cash, you know.”
“Yeah, I’ll take it.”
George went out to the car and came back with a box of Mason jars and set the jars on the counter.
“You got a can opener?” George asked. He had glued the tops on to keep the money from falling out or a thief from getting in. They cut the tops off, and George dumped the quarters and halves out on the counter. The coins clinked and rolled, and George started counting.
Inez stood looking first at the money and then at George. The clerk ran out into the street.
“By God, y’all come in here. You ain’t gon’ believe this. This damn boy in here got over three hundred dollars in jars.”
They counted out quarters and halves until George paid him for every bit.
“And when I left out of there,” George said, “he was still shaking his head.” Inez too.
The pickers had more money in their pockets than they were raised to think they had a right to, and times were the best they had ever been, which said more about how meager the past had been than how great the present was. There was a war going on, after all. They hated that there was a war, but they knew that it made them indispensable for once, and deep inside they wished it would never end.
ROBERT JOSEPH PERSHING FOSTER
THINGS WERE SPINNING FAST AROUND PERSHING, and, before he knew it, he had allowed himself to be pulled completely into the bourgeois world that he had become besotted with and that would be his ticket out of the world he had come from. He had been squiring around the daughter of the president of Atlanta University for two years now. The daughter, Alice Clement, finished Spelman on June 4, 1941, and it was decided that it was time the two be married. Shortly after commencement, a breathless announcement ran in the Chicago Defender:
Enlisting widespread interest is the engagement of Miss Alice Clarissa Clement, charming and attractive daughter of President and Mrs.98 Rufus E. Clement of Atlanta University, to Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, son of Mr. and Mrs. Madison James Foster of Monroe, La.
The announcement was made on Thursday evening at a party honoring Miss Clement.
That December, on the evening of the twenty-third, a Tuesday, and not by coincidence the anniversary of Dr. and Mrs. Clement’s own wedding twenty-two years before, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster married Alice Clarissa Clement and entered the insular and parallel universe that was colored society. Dr. Benjamin Mays, the president of Morehouse College and a celebrated figure of the day, married them. The groom was two days shy of his twenty-third birthday. The bride was twenty-one.
The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor just a few weeks before. But the troubles of the outside world were put aside that night. It was the social event of the season, played up in the Atlanta Daily World, the Chicago Defender, and the New York Amsterdam News; and here was Pershing right in the middle of it.99
“The wedding—” Pershing began many years later. “Can I brag a little? It was a monster. If you can visualize a Gothic chapel. Stained-glass windows. Long mahogany benches. Then a balcony. Pipe organs up the wall. A master organist.”
There were eight bridesmaids and a maid of honor in floor-length white taffeta and with tiaras on their heads. They carried long-stemmed red roses, heavy in their arms. There were eight groomsmen, including Pershing’s brothers Madison and Leland, in white tie and tails.
“White kid gloves,” Pershing continued. “Patent-leather shoes. We were clean as chitlins.”
As he recounted that day half a century later, he would not for some reason speak of the bride as much as the details of the spectacle itself. The Atlanta Daily World reported that she wore a gown of ivory satin, its neckline embroidered with seed pearls, and a floor-length veil that “fell from a crown of orange blossoms.” The altar was “banked with palms and ferns,” “numerous sixteen branch candelabra and three huge urns of gladioli and lilies,” in what the paper called “a setting of splendor and beauty.”
One of the groomsmen, Jimmy Washington, would always remember the night they got married. Because it was beautiful, he said years later, and it rained in sheets that night.
There would not be much of a honeymoon. School took them in opposite directions. Alice went off to New York to study music at Juilliard, an extraordinary thing for a young colored woman of the day. Pershing prepared to go to Nashville to attend Meharry Medical College, and the two saw each other when they could. It was wartime, and it seemed everybody was separated from their sweethearts.
Alice completed a year at Juilliard, and then it was decided that it was better for her to stay with her parents and teach in Atlanta than to live in Nashville with Pershing, who was caught up in his medical studies. She would be in familiar surroundings in Atlanta. Her father could secure an ideal position at a public school there for her, and neither she nor Pershing would have to trouble themselves with the messy details of keeping house at this stage in their lives.
By the time Pershing found out, it had all been decided. Pershing had no choice but to go along with it. What money he and Alice had was coming from Dr. Clement, and he was calling the shots. So Alice taught in Atlanta and visited Nashville when she could.
After a visit in the early spring of 1943, Alice discovered she was pregnant. She gave birth to a girl that December. They named her Alberta Ann, after Pershing’s beloved mother, Ottie Alberta. She had a brown velvet Gerber baby face. They wrapped her in baby bunting and began to call her Bunny, a name that would stick for as long as she lived.
Pershing finished Meharry in 1945 and moved to St. Louis to serve out his residency at Homer G. Phillips Hospital, the colored facility where Madison had served his. Alice was expecting their second child now, and her parents argued against her trying to raise two babies in St. Louis with Pershing working three and four nights straight as a resident.
“Why do that when you can live here?” they asked.
“See, they can show you a million reasons to keep that daughter and granddaughter at home,” Pershing said years later. “They were logical reasons. And you couldn’t beat ’em.”
That October, the second girl was born. Pershing named her Alice Emlyn, after his wife and the beloved sister he could never protect from the white men who called out to her in Monroe. Little Alice inherited her father’s big eyes and sharp nose and looked like a lighter incarnation of him. Everyone came to call her Robin, similar to Pershing’s actual first name, Robert.
She was born in Atlanta surrounded by the Clements while Pershing was working the ward twenty-four hours straight, until he was crosseyed and crazy from it.
“In the evening when you got through work,” Pershing said, “you said, ‘Whew, thank God.’ And you run upstairs, taking your clothes off on the elevator. Run to the shower. Get you a gulp, throw your whiskey, and get you two, three shots. Towel around you and hit the shower. And get out and get a cab and hit the streets. Anywhere. It didn’t matter where you went. Let me get away from this. And then you had to come home sober. And you had to sleep fast ’cause you had to get up the next morning looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in a crisp, clean uniform and white shoes. And you had to ‘Good morning, Mr. So-and-So.’ ”
A resident ahead of him noticed his work and suggested he go up for a surgery residency when the time came.
“You think I can do it?” Pershing asked.
“Yes,” the resident said. “Try.”
Pershing did as he said and started a new round of training that would last several more years and take him to hospitals in North Carolina and New York City to train in surgery.
Soon he began getting disturbing reports from home. His mother had taken ill.
It was cancer. Her kidney. He left to be with her. She had prayed to God every night to let her see her baby become a doctor. There he sat, a doctor in training now, reading aloud the Reader’s Digest to her. She tried to stand up to go over to him. But she couldn’t.
“What’s the matter?” he asked her.
He got up to kiss her on the cheek. She tried to speak. She was worried what would become of her son in this bourgeois world he was entering.
“Baby,” she said, “always be independent. You don’t want to be dependent all your life and have to depend on someone else for a drink of water.”
Pershing kept those words inside of him. In a few years, he completed his training, and, though she would not live to see it, he would become a surgeon at last.
For a time, Madison was the only colored physician in all of Ouachita County, Louisiana, after a doctor by the name of Chandler died. Years before, two colored doctors had been forced out of Monroe, the author Ray Stannard Baker reported, “because they were taking the practice of white physicians.”100
So Madison learned to step judiciously in his practice. He tended to the students at a colored college out from town and the poor people out in the country where the white doctors would not go. The country people paid him with the side of a freshly killed hog until they could get the money, which some never did. When Madison’s patients needed to go to the hospital, Madison could not admit them. He was not allowed in the hospital to practice. So he carried a hospital in his medical bag and made the front room of every shotgun cabin an operating room.
Madison had his hands full, and he enlisted Pershing’s help with his patients out in the countryside when Pershing was on break from his residency. Pershing was glad to help. But he did not want to be a country doctor. And he was thinking even then that he would have to get out of Monroe to be the doctor and the man he knew he could be. He wanted the shiny fixtures of a modern hospital and a staff of nurses at his side that he could direct like an orchestra.
Pershing was visiting once when someone sent for him to deliver a baby out in the country. He arrived with his satchel. Someone met him at the door.
“Doc, I think she’s ready.”
The fireplace was spitting ashes. The woman’s kinfolk stood drinking strong coffee and waiting for the woman to pass the baby.
Pershing saw her splayed flat on a cot, looking ready to burst. He set down his satchel and went over to her. He reviewed in his head the principles of the obstetrics course he had only recently completed. There was no point in pining for the trappings of a modern hospital or the equipment he was used to in medical school. He would have to make do with whatever was in the cabin and his medical bag. They would get through it somehow.
He reached toward her and felt for the hard surface of a human head at the beginning of life. The woman bore down and grunted. He in turn made note of the contractions and the baby’s position. He tried to help her bear down. But the baby didn’t come.
The woman had been through more births than Pershing had and could sense the tentative touch of a book-learned delivery. All this analysis, and still no baby.
“That’s alright, Doc,” she finally said. “Get on out the way.”
She rolled her round body off the edge of the cot. She grunted and squatted on the bare surface of the floor and pushed hard. Pershing watched and did as she said.
“Come on, now,” she said. “Catch it.”
He moved into position. A few grunts more, and the baby plopped into his hands. Shoop, bingo.
The woman paid what she could, which in the usual currency was not much more than food and a promise but was beyond calculating when it came to wisdom. He learned that all the book knowledge and equipment in the world didn’t make you a good doctor if you didn’t know what you were doing or listen to your patients. He learned a lesson that night that would stay with him for the rest of his life and would pay off in ways he couldn’t imagine.
Things appeared to be looking up for Pershing. He had traveled across the South for his degrees, been to St. Louis, spent summers picking tobacco in Connecticut with other Morehouse students, visited New York, seen the differences between North and South, and now, having deferred his military duty during medical school, was reporting to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for a training course for army medical officers about to begin their tours. He would be called Captain Foster, and it was from his short time in the army that he would plot the rest of his life.
He was bright and earnest, and, while that didn’t always get him what he wanted or deserved in the Jim Crow South, he was getting a break now, it seemed. The colonel, impressed with him, pulled him aside and suggested that Pershing could well make chief of surgery at his new posting.
“Foster, you’re the only colored officer with surgical training here,” the colonel said. “You don’t get this often, but I’m going to give you first choice.”
Pershing threw his shoulders back.
“Thank you, Colonel,” Pershing said. “Alright. Now what are my choices?”
World War II was over, and another, smaller one was brewing in Korea. He could go on to Korea, stay in the South at Fort Sam Houston, or go to Austria, a base of the European theater. The colonel encouraged him to go to Austria, and that’s what Pershing chose.
Thousands of colored soldiers had preceded him overseas during the two great wars—more than a million in World War II alone—and that service had been a defining experience for many of them. They were forced into segregated units and often given the most menial tasks or the most dangerous infantry tours. But they also experienced relief from Jim Crow in those European villages, were recognized as liberating Americans rather than lower-caste colored men, and felt pride in what their uniform represented.
They returned home to a Jim Crow South that expected them to go back to the servile position they left. Most resented it and wanted to be honored for risking their lives for their country rather than attacked for being uppity. Some survived the war only to lose their lives to Jim Crow.
In the spring of 1919, a colored soldier named Wilbur Little returned home to Blakely, Georgia, after a tour of duty in World War I.101 A band of white men saw him at the train station in his uniform. They ordered him to take it off and walk home in his underwear. He refused. Soon anonymous notes were warning him to leave town if he wanted to wear his uniform. Days later, a mob attacked him as he greeted friends congratulating him on his achievements. He was found beaten to death on the outskirts of town. He was wearing his uniform. He had survived the war only to be killed at home. Cases like that were cause enough for some men to go north.
Pershing put those things aside and chose to revel in the idea that he could actually be chief of surgery. Alice was elated. They had been married for eight years now and had never lived together more than a few weeks at a time. The two girls, Bunny and Robin, were just about school age now. Alice had been rearing them in Atlanta with her parents while Pershing did his medical training in different parts of the South. Now the four of them could be a family.
They arrived just outside Salzburg, and Pershing went straight to his new commanding officer. He wanted to make a good impression.
“Captain Foster has reported for duty, sir,” he said.
The new colonel was from Mississippi, and, in an instant, Pershing found himself hurled back to the South. The colonel had not expected his new surgeon to be colored, nor had he been told that this colored surgeon was supposed to be in charge—or, if he did know, he chose to ignore it. He told Pershing he had nothing for him to do.
“Why don’t you go out?” the colonel said. “Can’t you go somewhere? Come back in a week.”
“Well, I don’t have any money,” Pershing said. “I’ve come all the way from Fort Houston, and the next payday hasn’t come, Colonel.”
The southern colonel had no assignment for him, so Pershing had no choice but to wait until the following week. When he returned, he learned there would be no leadership position for him. A white officer would be chief of surgery, as it had always been. Pershing would have no title other than staff doctor. Jim Crow had followed him across the Atlantic, and it was hitting him that he would never get ahead as long as these apostles of Jim Crow were over him.
Still, he dutifully made his rounds when it was his turn, tending to the basic needs of the soldiers, itching to do something more in keeping with his credentials. It turned out that many of the patients were soldiers’ wives with gynecological and obstetrical complications that called for interventions that by now he was well equipped to handle. But for one reason or another, a superior officer always seemed to intervene and never let him treat the white ones.
One day a patient was in labor on his watch. The nurse thought it might be time. Pershing said it was still too soon.
“She’s not quite ready yet,” he told the nurse. “Watch her close, now.”
Other doctors tended to deliver when it was most convenient, pump general anesthesia into the patient and get it over with, he recalled years later. Cesarean sections were all the rage. But Pershing had learned from the woman in the cabin back in Louisiana that everything had its own time. He liked to let a baby come when it was ready. Others said he let the labor go on too long. But he thought it was a more welcoming way for one to enter the world if one were not rushed into it. So, while other doctors relied on general anesthesia, he preferred local for the sake of the mother and the baby.
A white doctor of his same rank caught wind of the delay. He stepped in over Pershing’s head and delivered the baby as Pershing watched, too hurt to speak and not daring to.
Never was there a rule written down somewhere, but that was how it played out. “You make the rounds,” Pershing said years later, “and you’re standing behind other doctors, and they’re talking about your patient.”
He was noticing it more and more, like how, whenever a white woman needed surgery, they never let him in the operating room. They sent him over to operate on the men. It was Jim Crow all over again, and he thought again about his short- and long-term prospects. It was reminding him that he had a decision to make. When he got out of the army, he would get as far away from Jim Crow’s disciples as he could.
For now he had no choice. He was under these people and had to make the best of it. He pushed the hurt and anger inside himself and decided that if all they would let him do was take somebody’s pulse, he would take it better than any doctor there. And so he doted on the few patients he got.
“I treated every white boy like he was the king of Siam,” he said, “and didn’t lose dignity. It’s a fine art.”
It all changed one day when a woman in labor suddenly stopped contracting. It was another doctor’s patient, the one who had intervened when he thought Pershing had let a labor go on too long. The doctor was getting second opinions and let Pershing come in this time. Pershing saw the woman on the operating table in preparation for a C-section.
He looked the patient over and gave his diagnosis.
“She’s in uterine inertia,” Pershing said. “The uterus is tired. It’s stopped pushing. You need to start a glucose drip of Pitocin to make the uterus start contracting.”102
The doctor decided to try it. The nurses later went to Pershing and gave him the news.
“The baby’s crawling,” they said. “The baby came.”
One evening soon afterward, he and Alice were at dinner in the officers’ club. The waiter asked what they were drinking and soon reappeared with another round.
“Compliments of the lieutenant over there,” the waiter said.
Pershing reached for Alice’s hand. They danced their way over to the table where the lieutenant, a white man from Kentucky, was sitting with his wife.
“You wouldn’t remember me,” the wife said. “But I’m the patient whose baby you just delivered. I must give you a kiss for saving me from a C-section.”
She gave him a kiss in front of everyone.
“You were the talk of the commissary,” she said.
People were taking notice. He was young, charming, and brilliant. People saw him in line and tittered about him.
“I hear we got a new doctor, and he’s colored,” people were saying.
“Would you have a colored doctor deliver your baby?” somebody else would throw in.
CHICKASAW COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI, FALL 1937
IDA MAE BRANDON GLADNEY
THE MEN WHO pounded on Ida Mae’s door that black night, who raised a chain up to her, frightening her and the children and her sister-in-law Indiana, who slept by the door, went and hunted down her husband’s cousin Joe Lee over the turkeys that had disappeared.
They tied Joe Lee’s hands behind him with hog wire and took him to the woods out by Houston, a few miles away.
They tied him up for stealing Addie B.’s turkeys, which belonged to Mr. Edd.
Joe Lee did not work for Mr. Edd—his father had a piece of land he farmed on his own. But it didn’t matter because any boss man in the ruling class could claim jurisdiction when he pleased. A colored man, a few miles west of here, was whipped when he asked a storekeeper for a receipt. If what Addie B. said was true, Joe Lee had committed a serious crime against Mr. Edd, and it didn’t matter who he worked for.
So they took him out to the woods.
They laid him across a log by the schoolhouse. They beat him with the chains that Willie Jim had raised up to Ida Mae. And when he said he didn’t know anything about any turkeys, they paid it no mind. They beat him until his coveralls turned red with blood and stuck to the surface of his skin as if with adhesive. Then they took him to the Chickasaw County jail and left him bleeding alone in the cell.
The next morning, Addie B.’s turkeys wandered back on their own to her cabin across the field. They had been roosting in the countryside and came cawing and clucking before George and Ida Mae knew why Joe Lee was captured in the first place or what had become of him. There were no apologies. Sometimes they just got the wrong man. Joe Lee was known for taking what wasn’t his, but this was one time when he hadn’t.
George went to Mr. Edd first thing in the morning to find out what happened and where his cousin was and to register his discontent. Ida Mae didn’t want him going in the state of mind he was in and told him to mind his words. He had to walk a thin line between being a man and acting a slave. Step too far on one side, and he couldn’t live with himself. Step too far on the other, and he might not live at all.
He got there and asked Mr. Edd what happened.
“Where is Joe Lee?” George asked.
“We tried to wait till you got there,” Mr. Edd said.
George thought it best not to press the matter of what happened to Joe Lee. All these years he had been loyal to Mr. Edd, and Mr. Edd had been fair with him. So he spoke only as a husband and father, which he felt was within his right.
“Very idea you upsettin’ my family,” he said, looking down as he prepared to leave and not quite knowing what else to do.
Joe Lee survived the night. The boss man told George to go get him at the jail. George, Willie, Saint, and the other colored men on the plantation took grease to peel the overalls off him, just as their slave forefathers had done after whippings generations before. They carried Joe Lee back to his father’s farm in the fresh clothes they put on him, and the people went back to picking cotton. The lash wounds on Joe Lee’s back healed in time. But Joe Lee was never right again, people said. And, in a way, neither was George.
On the drive back home, George searched himself, hard and deep. This wasn’t the first beating, and it wouldn’t be the last. Joe Lee had lived, but he just as easily could have died. And there was not a thing anybody could do about it. As it was, Ida Mae felt George was in danger for asking Mr. Edd about it at all. Next time, it could be him. George had a brother in Chicago. Ida Mae’s big sister, Irene, was in Milwaukee and had been agitating for them to come north.
He made up his mind on the way back. He drove into the yard and went into the cabin to break the news to Ida Mae.
“This the last crop we making,” he said.
EUSTIS, FLORIDA, 1944
GEORGE SWANSON STARLING
WORD SPREAD THROUGH THE CITRUS GROVES that a cell of pickers had taken to demanding twenty-two cents a box and refusing to pick if they didn’t get it. It was a miracle wage, and soon other pickers were trying to join Lil George’s roving union. But some got scared at the way George talked to the white people like he was equal and never went picking with him again.
The foremen who assembled the crews and oversaw the citrus harvest knew they were in for a long day when they saw George, Mud, and Sam awaiting pickup with other hungry workers at the corner of Bates and Palmetto. Most foremen had little sympathy for the pickers. Their job was to get the fruit out of the trees as fast as they could, and this back-and-forth over pay was wasting time. Even worse, these boys had no business telling white men what to do. Most foremen told the pickers to take whatever the packinghouses were offering.
The Blye brothers were different. They were among the few colored foremen around and had grown up with most of the pickers. Reuben, who towered over most men and had a way of making women forget their husbands; Babe, who liked to gamble and hunt possum; and Whisper, who could speak no louder than that because he had got his throat cut, had been pickers themselves and knew the packinghouses could pay more if they wanted to. Florida growers were grossing fifty million dollars a year from that fruit back in the forties, and the brothers felt the pickers deserved better.103
After assessing a grove, George and the Blye brothers conferred on the price the pickers should ask for. Then the brothers went and told the packinghouse it looked like the pickers flat-out wouldn’t work if they didn’t get their price, and they didn’t know what had got into them. The Blye brothers hoped to convince the packinghouses that, with the war on, there weren’t enough good pickers to choose from and they were stuck with whoever was left, crazy though these pickers may be, that the packinghouses needed to think about paying more if they wanted the fruit out of the trees, at least for now. Of course, the Blye brothers, being colored and walking a fine line themselves, didn’t put it like that. They just said the pickers were refusing and they didn’t know what in the world had got into them.
Back in the groves, the brothers confided to George, Mud, and Sam that they were within their rights to ask and that there was room to maneuver. The packinghouses were wringing the most they could out of all of them, including the Blye brothers, who had reason to believe they themselves weren’t getting paid what the white foremen were, this being the South in the 1940s.
The grove owners and their packinghouses had a near monopoly on the growing and selling of citrus. They were among the richest men in central Florida; their European vacations and their daughters’ cotillions and the visits of their children from the best boarding schools in the South were all chronicled in the local papers that everyone, including workers like the Blye brothers and George, could read. It was a multimillion-dollar industry fed by the demands of wealthy and middle-class families from Chicago to Long Island who expected orange juice with their toast and coffee every morning.
The brothers urged the three men and their frightened, thrown-together crew of pickers to stand their ground.
“Man, sock it to ’em, sock it to ’em,” Reuben told George, knowing how much the grove owners were making off the fruit and that they were likely cheating them all.
“Don’t pick it no less,” Whisper said. “Don’t pick it no less than twenty-two cents. Goddammit, I’m a tell the man y’all ain’t gon’ do it.”
Most times George, Mud, and Sam got their price right there on the spot. But sometimes they didn’t. They couldn’t depend on getting the Blye brothers as their foremen every time. And when they didn’t, some foremen just said no without telling the packinghouse at all. Some went to the packinghouse but accepted whatever the packinghouse told them. Others went ahead and sent the truck back to the packinghouse empty of fruit and waited to see what the owners said. Sometimes the packinghouses relented. But sometimes the driver would come back from the packinghouse saying, “Well, they say they not gon’ pay that.”
The pickers dragged back to the truck when that happened for the empty-handed ride back to town. George started to climb up with them. But most foremen weren’t like the Blye brothers and wouldn’t let him on the truck if he told the crew not to pick.
“You big with your big-mouth self,” one foreman said. “You get back to town best way you can.”
And so George had to thumb a ride for thirty or forty miles after facing down a foreman while his followers rumbled past him on the flatbed of the truck.
He was developing a reputation for stirring up trouble in the groves. These walkouts were beginning to look something like a union. The grove owners didn’t like unions, didn’t allow unions, and weren’t going to stand for it, especially from a band of colored pickers trying to take advantage of the war. Inez was scared for her husband but too disgusted to let it show. Didn’t he realize that he was colored in the South? Why couldn’t he be satisfied like everybody else?
Big George had been working with them when Lil George stood up to a foreman in Orlando.
The next day, Big George begged off. “I ain’t going with you,” he said. “Y’all too crazy.”
He knew, and everyone else knew, that every time George went out to the groves standing up to packinghouses, he was pushing the limits of what a colored man in Florida in the 1940s was allowed to get away with.
In the months that George had been rousing up the pickers, their world had grown even more dangerous due to the state’s desperate wartime need for labor. From the panhandle to the Everglades, Florida authorities were now arresting colored men off the street and in their homes if they were caught not working. Charged with vagrancy, the men were assessed fines of several weeks’ pay and made to pick fruit or cut sugarcane to work off the debt if they did not have the money, which few of them did and as the authorities fully anticipated. Those captured were hauled to remote plantations or turpentine camps, held by force, and beaten or shot if they tried to escape.
It was an illegal form of contemporary slavery called debt peonage, which persisted in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and other parts of the Deep South well into the 1940s.104 Federal investigations into neoslavery in Florida uncovered numerous abuses of kidnapping and enslavement and led to a 1942 indictment and trial of a sugar plantation company in the Everglades.
Lake County, too, needed as many workers as could be rounded up and in 1944 elected a new sheriff to see to it. He was Willis Virgil McCall, the six-foot-tall son of a dirt farmer who policed the county with a ten-gallon hat, size thirteen boots, and a Winchester rifle he did not hesitate to cock.105 He was openly linked to white supremacists and would be implicated in the deaths and abuse of dozens of blacks in what would become a twenty-eight-year reign. As soon as he took office, he set to work. He arrested forty pickers for vagrancy, including a man from Deacon Fashaw’s crew, in late January and early February 1945. They were arrested for not working on a Saturday, at a time when George, Sam, and Mud were leading actual strikes in the groves.
Each day, the danger was drawing closer, and there was now even more pressure on George’s pickers to work no matter how much George managed to win for them. McCall stepped up his arrests. In February, he showed up at the home of a picker from a crew in Leesburg, fifteen miles west of Eustis.106 The picker, Mack Fryar, had already worked that week, but, to the sheriff’s way of thinking, the picker had no business being at home on a Saturday instead of out in the groves. McCall ordered Fryar to come with him. When he asked why, McCall replied, “None of your damn jaw, just come on with me.” McCall struck the picker in the head with a blackjack for such impudence, knocking him unconscious in front of the picker’s wife and fourteen-year-old son.107 He then hauled the picker to the Lake County jail.
The FBI began an investigation, and an agent was seen visiting the picker’s wife, Annie. Local whites got wind of it and began plotting mob action because they saw her as “stirring up trouble for the sheriff and the county” by talking to the FBI. Neighbors warned the wife, and upon the picker’s release, the Fryars fled to Harlem, “leaving all their possessions, except some money from the sale of her chickens.”108
George, now an unintended union organizer, somehow managed to stay under the radar screen for months, or so it appeared, in the eleven hundred square miles of citrus land being policed by Sheriff McCall. But that could not go on forever. The orange groves had become a battlefield over more than just fruit but over the rights of the people lowest down in the citrus world and the caste system itself, and the only thing that couldn’t be known was how far George, Mud, and Sam could push it.
For several days late in the picking season, no rain fell from the sky. The limbs of the tangerine trees shrank in response. The stems became a tough rubber, harder to cut.
Lil George and his crew landed in a tangerine grove out in Sanford in the middle of this unpleasant development. They hated picking tangerines. The fruit was small, and it took more of them to fill a box. The very properties that made them easy to peel made them harder to pick. The rind broke and bruised almost at the touch, meaning it was harder to get a box of perfect tangerines. They had to be clipped flush without scraping the fruit, all while the picker was reaching between the branches and trying to steady himself on a limb. Then they had to be packed just so in the crate so the stem of each tangerine wouldn’t injure the rest.
However difficult they were to pick, tangerines were big sellers at market. Growers in Lake County were known for holding down their production costs, and thus netting “returns to the grower considerably above the state average,” according to a newspaper report.109
To do that, the grove owners were holding the pickers to nickels on a box. But, with the war on, tangerines were selling an average of four dollars and forty cents a box at auction in 1944, nearly twice the going rate before the United States entered World War II.110 Across the state, tens of thousands of tangerines were being shipped out every week, a good portion of them coming out of Lake County. There were 2.6 million citrus trees in Lake County, the third most in the state next to Polk and Orange counties.111
George’s crew arrived at the tangerine grove out in Sanford that morning. The foreman said the packinghouse would pay ten cents a box. George said that wasn’t enough what with all they had to do and how hard it was to pick fragile tangerines in the best of conditions, which, after the lack of rain, these weren’t.
The price was always in flux depending on the circumstances anyway. This was one time where the pickers saw more work for themselves and thought the price should reflect that. So, no, they needed twenty cents. The foreman held his ground. Lil George started to round up the pickers to head back home, to see if twenty cents sounded better to the foreman than no tangerines at all. George told his crew to get back on the truck, we’re going back to town.
“Well, we done come all this far now,” they said. “We may as well work today, and then we won’t come back tomorrow.”
This was always the hard part. The pickers liked the miracle money on the days when the foreman gave in. But when the foreman turned them down, they were scared to leave with ill will in the air. What was the point of antagonizing the boss man? Let’s go on and work while we’re out here.
But George knew that walking out was the only leverage they had.
“No, we not gonna work today,” George told the pickers. “We are not going to work today. Now, you made enough money yesterday. You already made more in one day than you make in a week doing day’s work. You ain’t never made over six dollars a week. Yesterday, you made seven, eight, nine dollars. So you not losing anything. You gaining. So you can afford to go home and sit down today. Now, we not picking.”
The pickers didn’t move.
“What are you worried about?” George asked them. “Just take it easy.”
“Well, we done warmed our pail.”
“So now you don’t have to cook. Just take that on back home and eat.”
Word got back to the owner of the grove that there was trouble in the tangerine stands, and he came out to the field himself. He demanded to know why they were standing there not picking.
“We not gonna pick tangerines for less than twenty cents a box,” George told him.
The man cursed and called them names. He had a gun on him like many a man, colored and white, in those parts at that time and told them he would use it if he had to. George, Mud, and Sam knew from hunting squirrel and possum how to handle a gun, too, and told him as much. The pickers, too frightened to speak, watched the standoff between George and the grove owner, not knowing how far either of them would take this thing or how all of them would manage to get out of this.
The men came to no agreement. The owner stormed back to his truck and sped away in a cloud of dust down an alley of his unpicked tangerine trees. George tried to step onto the flatbed truck to head back to town with his pickers. The foreman pushed him off.
“No, boy,” he said. “Y’all can’t work, you ain’t gon’ ride. These others can go back on here, but you ain’t going back on there.”
The pickers were scared to get on the truck and scared not to.
“Y’all go ’head,” George said. “Don’t worry about me. Go on and get in the truck. You ride. I’ll get back to town. Don’t worry about me. Just get on the truck.”
He hitched a ride back to town and wondered how long his little union would hold.
Fear spread among Lil George’s band of pickers after that losing day in the tangerine groves. The owner had come out and seen them not picking. All these walkouts, and there might come a time when the packinghouse wouldn’t let them work at all. The boss men might blame them for the fruit hanging unpicked in the trees. A picker would end up hanging from a tree himself before long, if this kept up.
They talked among themselves when George, Mud, and Sam weren’t around. They didn’t like how George, in particular, had a way of being what they considered impudent with white people in a way that made everyone nervous.
Things had gone too far, as the other pickers saw it. These boys had been up north and were going to get all of them killed. That night, after the defeat over the tangerines, they went in secret to the owners of the grove.
“Us come by to tell y’all how come us didn’t work today,” they said. “Them boys, Sam and Mud and Lil George. You know them is bad. Them boys is bad. We know y’all is always done a good part by us colored folks, and we wanted to work. But them boys told us if we put a ladder in that tree, they gonna snatch the ladder up and stomp us when we hit the ground. So we scared. We know y’all is good white folks and has always done a good part by us. And it wasn’t none a us.”
Sometime later, a young man was tending the grove owner’s yard. He was clearing debris around the garage when he heard voices inside. They were the voices of grove owners talking among themselves about people on the colored side of town, something about the trouble some men were causing in the groves.
The yard man recognized the name of Lil George Starling. Schoolboy had helped him fill out ration papers for sugar and gasoline. It was wartime, and he wouldn’t have gotten any if he didn’t have papers, and he wouldn’t have had papers if George hadn’t filled them out for him.
That night after work, the yard man went to Lil George.
“Lil George, I come to tell you what I heard them saying about you boys today in the garage up there,” he said.
George looked at him and listened.
“I heard them plottin’ that they gon’ take you boys out,” he said. “Say if they get rid a you three, that the rest of them they could handle. Say ’cause y’all got a big influence over them others. And so they scared a y’all. So they planning to get rid a y’all.”
The yard man said he heard mention of a cypress swamp eighteen miles out from town.
“They talking ’bout taking y’all out to Blackwater Creek,” he said. “They talking ’bout giving y’all a necktie party. They gon’ take y’all out there and hang y’all in one of them cypress trees.”
Something in George half expected as much. The man went on.
“I thought I would tell you ’cause you always were nice to me,” he said. “When I had papers to fill out, I would bring my papers to you. You would always do it for me. You never charged me anything. And I wanted you to know. I came out here to tell you y’all better watch yourself.”
“I appreciate that,” George told him, not wanting to betray the churning in his stomach. “Man, I ain’t studyin’ ’bout them people.”
Inside was a different story. “I couldn’t rest comfortable,” he said.
Leaving was his only option. He went to tell his father. Big George was trying to set out a little grove of his own at a place called Grand Island five or six miles out from town. He had just put his orange trees in the ground and had to haul water out to them to soak them so they could catch root.
Lil George helped him haul lake water in barrels. Together, they poured the pails of water at the roots of the trees every evening.
Out in the grove that night, Lil George told him his plans.
“After today, I’m not gonna be able to help you haul no water,” he said. “I’ll help you water these trees. Then I’m gonna get my clothes together, and I’m gonna take on off. Because I’m not gonna change.”
He told his father what his father already knew. Men had been hanged for far less than what George was orchestrating. And there would be no protecting him if he stayed. In Florida and in the rest of the Deep South, “the killing of a Negro by a white man ceased in practice even to call for legal inquiry,” a white southerner observed in the early 1940s.112
George and his father lived with that reality every day of their lives, and now it was right before them.
“So the best thing for me to do,” George told his father, “is to get on out from around here.”
FORT POLK, LOUISIANA, EARLY 1953
ROBERT JOSEPH PERSHING FOSTER
BY THE TIME his tour of duty in Austria was over, Pershing had worked his way to a position of esteem if not authority and won awards for his medical skills. He had worked long hours, odd hours, building up his reputation, but it had left him no further ahead. Most southern hospitals wouldn’t allow him inside an operating room no matter how gifted he was or what he’d done in the army. There was simply no place for a high-minded colored surgeon who thought he was as good as, or, to hear him tell it, better than most anybody else. He was now discharged to Fort Polk, Louisiana, and, with no job prospects and a family to support, was plotting his escape from the world he had known. But where? And to what?
He stayed awake at night weighing the options. All this education and no place to practice and live out his life as he imagined it to be. The only assurance of a job was back home in Monroe. Madison would be overjoyed to have his little brother join his small-town practice. But Louisiana was out of the question. In the time Pershing had been away, the Fosters had lost their place as the leading and often resented colored family in Monroe. His mother, Ottie, had passed away. His father, Professor Foster, had been edged out of his position as principal of Monroe Colored High School, to which he had devoted most of his adult life and identity. He had been forced into retirement and had to watch as a younger rival from his own faculty, Henry Carroll, not only ascended to the principal’s desk but also, through carefully tended connections to a former governor of Louisiana, James A. Noe, managed to get a new colored high school built and named after himself.
Robert watched the school go up and grieved for his heartbroken father. Just being a Foster in Monroe was like being in exile now. Besides, Alice had no interest in that small town. She wouldn’t stand for it, and Pershing couldn’t bear it.
He could return to Alice’s home in Atlanta. The Clements would be beside themselves. And that was the problem. Dr. Clement could surely set him up in practice, and Alice and Pershing could join colored society as the daughter and son-in-law of a distinguished university president. They would have a place card calligraphied for them whenever dignitaries came to visit—Eleanor Roosevelt, the Rockefellers, and so forth. They would have everything they aspired to. But at what price? He imagined he couldn’t so much as choose the seasoning on the roast with Dr. Clement down the street.
As it was, Dr. Clement was growing in prominence in Atlanta, looming larger than ever before, running for the Board of Education, seeking to become the first colored holder of a major office since Reconstruction.
Back in medical school, Pershing had begun suspecting he had lost his place as the man in his family. While he was away learning to be a doctor, the family grew accustomed to Pershing’s absence, had settled into routines and ways of being that could not be turned off overnight.
Alice and the girls were living in President Clement’s brick Georgian mansion with its circular driveway and Doric-columned veranda, its groundskeepers and servants, its chintz draperies and damask upholstery in grand parlors and receiving rooms. There, dignitaries gathered for tea and, in the evenings, Dr. Clement read to his beloved granddaughters in a club chair by the fireplace, pictures of the girls on the mantel next to the porcelain figurines. The Clements and Alice would gather the girls around the baby grand to sing along as Alice played.
Bunny and Robin had become adorable little girls in pigtails and ribbons and patent-leather shoes, but Pershing didn’t truly know them. He had missed the milestones in their lives, their first steps, their first words, their first day of school. It was the Clements who dried their tears when they fell and went over their homework with them.
Pershing could not blame anyone for what had become of his role in the family. He had agreed to the arrangement. Now he decided he needed to get as far from the Clements as he could to take possession of the family that was slipping from his influence. Atlanta was in the South, anyway. Atlanta was off the list.
He sat down and tried to figure out—where else did he know anybody? There must be someplace outside the South he could go. In the years since World War I, a large colony of colored people from Monroe had established themselves in Detroit. Faroker Johnson was one hometown man he knew. He was a dentist who had preceded him at Meharry and was practicing up in River Rouge. Then there was his boyhood friend Nimrod Sherman. He was a psychiatrist up in Detroit and doing alright for himself. But Detroit didn’t have the sophistication Pershing was looking for, and he didn’t consider it for very long. Same for St. Louis, where he had done his residency, and even Chicago, which was cold besides.
What he wanted was New York, where they never turned the lights out and had the best of anything you could think of. But he didn’t know anybody there. That wasn’t the natural route people from Louisiana took to get out of the South. They went where the railroad took them, straight north to Chicago and Detroit. Or west to California, where the climate was more to their liking.
So Pershing would have to think West, which was not a difficult thing to do. He had been hearing about California all his life, played pretend with Clara Poe and always said he was going to California before he even knew what it was. Seemed like everybody who left Monroe was talking California. There was a contingent up in Oakland, a branch down in Los Angeles, spreading out to Fresno and over to San Bernardino. He had names, lots of names. More than enough to make a practice out of. Not only was it out of the South, it was about as far as you could get from the South and the Clements, too.
He began to get excited at the very thought. No more stepping to the side door to get your meal like a hog at a trough. No more operations in somebody’s kitchen and lynchings in the next county. He could dress like he wanted, act like he wanted, be who he wanted and how he wanted to be it. He would not have to try to protect his daughters from some planter with snuff in his mouth and know he couldn’t. In California, he could stand up straight and not apologize for it. He would know what white people’s water tasted like and drink it whenever he wanted. It wasn’t one thing. It was everything. He was going to be a citizen of the United States, like the passport said.
He told Alice his decision. They could start out fresh in California, the four of them. He would go first and see it for himself. She and the girls would stay in Atlanta for now, and she could start packing their belongings. He would send for them after he got settled. All he had to do now was save a little money. And figure how best to get out.
A SERIES OF UNPREDICTABLE EVENTS and frustrations led to the decisions of Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Pershing Foster to leave the South for good. Their decisions were separate and distinct from anything in the outside world except that they were joining a road already plied decades before by people as discontented as themselves. A thousand hurts and killed wishes led to a final determination by each fed-up individual on the verge of departure, which, added to millions of others, made up what could be called a migration.
If there was a single precipitating event that set off the Great Migration, it was World War I. After all, blacks had tried to escape the South with limited degrees of success from the time the first slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619. The Underground Railroad spirited hundreds of slaves out of the South and as far north as Canada before the Civil War. Later, in 1879, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a former slave who made coffins for colored lynching victims and was disheartened by the steadiness of his work, led a pilgrimage of six thousand ex-slaves, known as Exodusters, from the banks of the Mississippi River onto the free soil of Kansas.113
In the ensuing decades, a continuous trickle of brave souls chanced an unguaranteed existence in the unknown cities of the North. The trickle became a stream after Jim Crow laws closed in on blacks in the South in the 1890s. During the first decade of the twentieth century, some 194,000 blacks left the coastal and border states of the South and settled in relative anonymity in the colored quarters of primarily northeastern cities, such as Harlem in New York and in North Philadelphia. Some were domestics for wealthy northerners; others were musicians, intellectuals, and exiled politicians of the Reconstruction era who would inspire colored people in the South by their very existence.
But the masses did not pour out of the South until they had something to go to. They got their chance when the North began courting them, hard and in secret, in the face of southern hostility, during the labor crisis of World War I. Word had spread like wildfire that the North was finally “opening up.”
The war had cut the supply of European workers the North had relied on to kill its hogs and stoke its foundries. Immigration plunged by more than ninety percent, from 1,218,480 in 1914 to 110,618 in 1918, when the country needed all the labor it could get for war production.114 So the North turned its gaze to the poorest-paid labor in the emerging market of the American South.115 Steel mills, railroads, and packinghouses sent labor scouts disguised as insurance men and salesmen to recruit blacks north, if only temporarily.
The recruiters would stride through groupings of colored people and whisper without stopping, “Anybody want to go to Chicago, see me.116” It was an invitation that tapped into pent-up yearnings and was just what the masses had been waiting for. The trickle that became a stream had now become a river, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and about to climb out of its banks. Some 555,000 colored people left the South during the decade of the First World War—more than all the colored people who had left in the five decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, which promised the freedoms they were now forced to pursue on their own.
At first the South was proud and ambivalent, pretended that it did not care. “As the North grows blacker, the South grows whiter,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune happily noted.117
Then, as planters awoke to empty fields, the South began to panic. “Where shall we get labor to take their places?” asked the Montgomery Advertiser, as southerners began to confront the reality observed by the Columbia State of South Carolina: “Black labor is the best labor the South can get.118, 119 No other would work long under the same conditions.”
“It is the life of the South,” a Georgia plantation owner once said.120 “It is the foundation of its prosperity.… God pity the day when the negro leaves the South.”
“With all our crimes of omission and commission, we still retain a marked affection for the Negro,” wrote David L.121 Cohn in the 1935 book God Shakes Creation. “It is inconceivable to us that we should be without him.”
The Macon Telegraph put it more bluntly: “We must have the negro in the South,” it said.122 “It is the most pressing thing before this State today. Matters of governorships and judgeships are only bagatelle compared to the real importance of this negro exodus.”
Yet as reality sank in, nobody could agree on what to do about it, debating to the point of exasperation. “Why hunt for the cause when it’s plain as the noonday sun?” wrote a white reader in the Montgomery Advertiser.123 “He doesn’t want to leave but he knows if he stays here he will starve. They have nothing to eat, no clothes, no shoes, and they can’t get any work to do and they are leaving just as fast as they can get away.… If the Negro race could get work at 50 cents a day he would stay here.”
And a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, put this question to the ruling caste: “If you thought you might be lynched by mistake,” the paper asked, “would you remain in South Carolina?”
When the South woke up to the loss of its once guaranteed workforce, it tried to find ways to intercept it.124 Southern authorities resurrected the anti-enticement laws originally enacted after the Civil War to keep newly freed slaves from being lured away, this time, however, aimed at northern companies coveting the South’s cheapest and most desperate workers.
“Conditions recently became so alarming—that is, so many Negroes were leaving,” wrote an Alabama official, that the state began making anyone caught enticing blacks away—labor agents, they were called—pay an annual license fee of $750 “in every county in which he operates or solicits emigrants” or be “fined as much as $500 and sentenced to a year’s hard labor.”125
Macon, Georgia, required labor agents to pay a $25,000 fee and to secure the unlikely recommendations of twenty-five local businessmen, ten ministers, and ten manufacturers in order to solicit colored workers to go north.126 But by the middle of World War I, those laws were useless. Northern industries didn’t need to recruit anymore. Word had spread, and the exodus took on a life of its own. “Every Negro that makes good in the North and writes back to his friends, starts off a new group,” a Labor Department study observed.127
So the South tried to choke off the flow of information about the North. The chief of police in Meridian, Mississippi, ordered copies of the Chicago Defender confiscated before they could be sold, fearing it was putting ideas into colored people’s heads.128
When the people kept leaving, the South resorted to coercion and interception worthy of the Soviet Union, which was forming at the same time across the Atlantic. Those trying to leave were rendered fugitives by definition and could not be certain they would be able to make it out. In Brookhaven, Mississippi, authorities stopped a train with fifty colored migrants on it and sidetracked it for three days.129 In Albany, Georgia, the police tore up the tickets of colored passengers as they stood waiting to board, dashing their hopes of escape.130 A minister in South Carolina, having seen his parishioners off, was arrested at the station on the charge of helping colored people get out. In Savannah, Georgia, the police arrested every colored person at the station regardless of where he or she was going. In Summit, Mississippi, authorities simply closed the ticket office and did not let northbound trains stop for the colored people waiting to get on.131
Instead of stemming the tide, the blockades and arrests “served to intensify the desire to leave,” wrote the sociologists Willis T.132 Weatherford and Charles S. Johnson, “and to provide further reasons for going.”
To circumvent the heavy surveillance, some migrants simply bought tickets to cities two or three stations away where they would not be recognized or where there was less of a police presence.133 There, under less scrutiny, they bought tickets to their true destination. Those who had somehow gotten on the wrong side of somebody in the ruling class had to go to unusual lengths to get out, one man disguising himself as a woman to flee Crystal Springs, Mississippi, for Chicago in the 1940s.134
Chastened by their losses, some businessmen tried conciliation, one delegation going so far as to travel to Chicago to persuade former sharecroppers that things had changed and it was time they came back.135 (The sharecroppers showed no interest and instead took the opportunity to complain about being cheated and whipped while in their employ.) In the 1920s, the Tennessee Association of Commerce, the Department of Immigration of Louisiana, the Mississippi Welfare League, and the Southern Alluvial Land Association all sent representatives north to try to bring colored workers back.136 They offered free train tickets and promised better wages and living conditions. They returned empty-handed.
When these efforts didn’t work, some planters increased wages, if only temporarily, and tried easing up on their workers to induce them to stay. “Owing to the scarcity of labor,” the Labor Department reported, “a Georgia farmer near Albany this year laid aside his whip and gun, with which it is reported he has been accustomed to drive his hands, and begged for laborers.”137
Oblivious to the hand-wringing, trainloads of colored people took their chances and crowded railroad platforms. Men hopped freight trains and hoboed out of the South in grain bins.138 Women walked off cotton fields in Texas, hiding their Sunday dresses under their field rags, bound for California. A granite quarry in Lithonia, Georgia, had to shut down because its workers had vanished. “One section gang left their tools on the spot, not stopping to get their pay,” Arna Bontemps wrote of one work site.139
All the while, in the places they left, the weeds grew up over the cotton, the rice and tobacco lay fallow and unpicked, and the mules wandered the pastures because, as the historian James R.140 Grossman noted, there was no one to hitch them to a plow.