Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Chapter 7, In which Wallace sees the other South

It is highly unlikely that my father ever saw a black person before he was grown. There certainly were none living on Jack’s River and it’s improbable that any visited there.
In fact, Wallace could have lived a considerable chunk of his adulthood before he ever saw a black person in the flesh, unless he encountered them during a brief stint working at the Alcoa Aluminum plant in Alcoa, Tennessee as a young man. I offer this conjecture partly because I went to high school in Fannin County and I don’t recall seeing a black person there until my senior year in 1969 when a Negro -- that would have been the term then politically correct -- came with a Chattanooga area high school to play basketball in our gym.
(The West Fannin boys would have won. We rarely lost in our gym and regularly advanced to the state AA tournament, going down only when we got far enough to meet Newton County.)
After my friends and I were old enough to drive -- legally, we drove the mountain backroads from the time we were big enough to see over the steering wheel -- I learned that two or three black families actually lived in Fannin County, lived in their own ghetto cul-de-sac in Blue Ridge. I remember going there only once, when my friend Rick Goss, whose father owned an office supply store in Blue Ridge and who told me about these underground citizens, took me there to quiet my skepticism that the place existed. We drove down a small street which went to the western edge of town where the pavement ended and the road dropped abruptly into a dell containing three shanty houses which were uncommon for Fannin County only because they were in town and close together. I later learned that the few children there were bussed to a “colored” school in Gilmer County. The adults worked at The Supper Club, a beer joint in Gilmer County.
Because I never heard anyone else mention the existence of this community, I suspect that most Fannin Countians only learned of it in 1971 when they were integrated into the school system. I know that the good folks at Blue Ridge First Baptist, perhaps as compensation for this oversight, recruited them as church members.
When Wallace and his family moved to Bartow County in the late 1940’s, they entered a different world. Although his church was in the Atco Mill Village, the house provided for the preacher was about a mile away in the Carterville city limits, a break for my sisters because it put them in the city’s excellent school system. This house in which I lived when I was born sat at the foot of Summer Hill. A hundred and fifty feet away, up over the crest of a steep hill, a large community of black people lived. There was absolutely no overlap of black and white family housing; past the street at the top of the hill no white people lived, no blacks below. As a preschooler, I recall black children regularly walking by our house and turning up the sidewalk of a busy street to Mr. Padgett’s store. I know that’s where they went because, as remarkable as it seems now, I also was allowed to make that same walk, unsupervised, to buy candy and cokes.
Since I was under six years old, I don’t know how my father established contacts in the Summer Hill community, but I do know that he sometimes visited and spoke at their church services. Atco Baptist, of course, tendered no reciprocal invitation to the black minister.
From 1959 to late 1965 we lived in Holly Springs, Georgia. To my knowledge, no black people lived there, and I would have known because I roamed its streets freely. Quite a few black people lived in the county seat of Canton, but I didn’t know it at the time because for me they were invisible, segregated from the schools, forbidden to shop in the same stores as white people.
The black people I saw as a child were on television, a few entertainers and baseball players, but more provocatively, on the news I watched nightly with my parents, courageous black southern ministers preaching freedom and equality to crowds of southern blacks, these same crowds marching into fire hoses, attack dogs, and billy clubs wielded by white southerners, photographs of civil rights workers slain. In spite of the parallel parade of white southern leaders blaming this turmoil on “outside agitators” meddling in sovereign state’s rights and my mother singing in the amen choir, I was horrified by the violent assault on non-violence and drawn to the sonorous intoning of freedom and equality which invoked the same biblical imagery on which I had been bred.

I usually paid attention to my father’s sermons. He was often funny, usually entertaining and, moreover, he was liable at any time to up and a tell a story with me in it. At a Sunday morning service in 1965 he told the congregation that if he were a colored person, he would look upon the Rev. Martin Luther King as a great leader of his people. To a young person of today, my father’s remark sounds like tepid textbook orthodoxy, but I remember being proud of my father, because even as an elementary school student I was aware that most white southerners, including my mother and virtually all of their elected leaders, viewed Rev. King as a demon bent on upsetting the divine order of things.

It was not long after that my father was summoned to pastor another church, a large country church in Fannin County where he had always intended to return eventually. It wasn’t until much later, too late to ask him, that it occurred to me that these two events were likely causally connected, and that he was probably gittin’ while the gittin’ was good.

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