The Cross and the Color Line

mlkMy experiences of race began in 1967, when Oxford joined many other communit

ies in North Carolina in “desegregating” its public schools. What this meant, specifically, was that two African American children, a boy and a girl, came to the previously all-white C.G. Credle Elementary. One black teacher described J. D. Adcock, the Granville County superintendent of schools, as “from the old ways — a cracker from his heart.” Adcock intended only to comply minimally with the Supreme Court’s edict — now 13 years old — in order to evade any legal challenge that would compel wholesale integration. In principle, “freedom of choice” prevailed, in that parents were free to request that their children be assigned to any school of their choice. In practice, two carefully selected middle class black children, a boy and a girl, enrolled at Credle. Everyone pretended they were not there.

My first memory of being in school with black children was standing behind the African American boy at the water fountain. I hadn’t noticed him in the line, and suddenly there he was, bent over the stainless steel spout. Deep down, I did not want to drink after him. I did not know why. The world had kenneled a vicious lie in my brain, at its core a crucial silence, since there was no why. Black was filthy, black was bad. And even at that moment, because I had also been taught to know better, I knew that the revulsion was a lie, someone else’s lie, and an evil lie at that. I did not turn away — I drank after him. But I succumbed slightly; when he moved, I took my turn and pressed the button down, but let the water run for a few seconds before I drank, bending over the arc of cool water but pausing for a moment before I touched my lips to it. I guess that made me a “moderate,” since there were quite a few white children who turned away.

In Oxford, I made my first black friend, although we were not peers at all. Mrs. Roseanna Allen was a tall woman with chocolate-brown skin and moist, beautiful eyes. She kept house for our family so that my mother could continue to teach school. In her starched white work dresses and rubber-soled canvas shoes, Mrs. Allen was quite imposing. By 1966, I had two little sisters, Boo and Julie, and Julie hadn’t started school yet. Mrs. Allen cleaned the house and washed the clothes and cooked our supper, while she took care of Julie.

Mrs. Allen revered my father for his well-known positions on racial issues. Reverend Tyson was somebody in her world, and she was intent on making certain that we understood why. “Your father believes in what is right,” she told us over and over again. She had full adult authority in our household; I remember her chasing me down the brick walkway in the morning, when she saw that I was wearing jeans with the knees kicked out. “Your Mama is a teacher and your Daddy is a preacher,” she huffed, turning me around quite forcefully, “and you ain’t going to school dressed like that.”

Southern white boys from time immemorial have issued glowing encomiums of nostalgia for their beloved “mammy,” hosannas flung practically in the same breath with their white supremacist diatribes. And thus I hesitate, really, to say how I felt about Mrs. Allen, for fear of falling into an embarrassing and perhaps unsavory cliché. But I loved her truly, and she was the object of great fascination for me.

It was not just that she was kind, although I can scarcely think of anyone outside my family who was kinder to me as a child. Roseanna was a matchless cook, and rewarded my enthusiasm for her handiwork with great indulgence. If I wanted a chocolate pie, I knew how to get one. Detailed and specific praise was the key — “How do you make that squash casserole so sweet?” or “I think that your chocolate brownie pie is even better than my grandmother’s chocolate meringue pie.” Her skill, her grace, and her good spirits made quite an impression on me, and I noticed how much my mother respected her abilities and her character.

And Mrs. Allen had what seemed to the Tyson children an exotic secret life. Her husband, Fred Allen, ran a taxicab service. If he got more than one call at a time, he might telephone Roseanna and ask her to pick up someone on the far side of town. She would trundle whatever children were in her care into her car, and off we would go. Since white people did not ride in “black” taxicabs, we were always off to pick up an African American who needed a ride from someplace we might never have seen otherwise to the hospital to visit a relative or to the post office to pick up a package. We saw the neighborhoods without sidewalks or pavement, the poor huddled in rundown houses. This was “Niggertown,” as the children in our neighborhood called it.

The older boys and even some of the younger ones knew about “Niggertown,” because they had visited uninvited many times. On warm nights, a gang of Oxford teenagers would pile into the back of a pickup truck and go “nigger-knocking.” They filled the truck bed with Coca-Cola bottles and rocks, and roared through the African American neighborhoods hurling them at pedestrians, windshields and windows. I heard tales of these vicious adventures many times. And then one Christmas, when I saw my cousins from Laurinburg at my grandmother’s house, they told me about some white high school boys near Maxton who had thrown a Miller High Life bottle out of a moving car and hit an elderly black man in the head, killing him. It seemed so awful, boys that young charged with manslaughter for what amounted to a senseless prank. But I knew exactly what had happened, I nearly whispered “nigger-knocking” under my breath when they told me the story, for I had known that one day those boys were going to hurt someone badly. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t our town or our boys who had killed someone; I knew even then that it was all part of the same evil somehow.

But until the day I heard about the murder, the sharpest memory of the color line that lingers in my mind is a spring day in 1968, when I was almost nine. Roseanna stood at the ironing board in between the twin beds where my brother and I slept, which she used as laundry tables on washday. I remember the smell of starch and the hissing of steam, and then the sudden realization that Mrs. Allen was crying. Silent streams of tears trickled onto my father’s white shirts. When I asked her what was wrong, she almost bellowed: “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” She seemed desperate and almost out of control. “They gone and killed Martin Luther King, that’s what’s wrong!” She choked hard on her sobs and buried her face in the laundry.

I knew vaguely who Dr. King was, and I knew that my father admired him greatly, but I was too young to understand even a little of the magnitude of that murder in Memphis. All I knew was that I wanted to comfort my beloved Roseanna. Never had I seen a grown-up crying like that. And so I said the only thing I could think of to say: “Maybe it will be alright, Roseanna, maybe somehow it will work out for the best.”

She lifted her head and almost roared at the obscenity of the thought. “Work out for the best? How could it possibly work out for the best?” Mrs. Allen’s face, contorted with tears and anger, looked at me with a stunned expression of rage. “How could it work out for the best that the man that God lifted up to save my people has been shot down like a dog in the streets? Did it work out for the best that Hitler killed six million Jews? Would it work out for the best if somebody burned your house down to the ground? Did it work out for the best that they took King Jesus out and nailed him to the cross?” Her head pitched forward into the crook of her arm again, and once again she sobbed into the laundry.

Somehow I managed to whisper, “We think it did, don’t we?”

“What?” she said, raising her red-rimmed eyes at me.

“We think it worked out for the best that they hung Jesus on the cross, don’t we, Roseanna? Jesus died on the cross to save us all from sin, didn’t he?” I asked her.

“Oh, child,” she cried, crawling toward me on her knees. “Oh, sweet child,” and before I could move she was kneeling in front of me, reduced to roughly my height by her kneeling, and she squeezed me tight, rocking me back and forth in a muttered mixture of tears and prayers, and she held onto me for a long, long time. Afterwards, she rounded up my brother and my sisters and gave everybody their own little bottle of Coca-Cola, and we took the thick green bottles out to the back steps, where we sat together for what seemed like the rest of the day. Mrs. Allen would wail and cry from time to time, and cling to us. When my father came home, I remember, he hugged her, which I had never seen before. It was a terrible, terrible day, how terrible it was I had no way to know at nine years old.

Timothy B. Tyson is the author of Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power and Blood Done Sign My Name, a memoir of violence in the summer of 1970. He teaches Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.