i just finished Sycamore Row by John Grisham. It’s set in Mississippi in the late 1980’s and as one of the characters so perfectly stated, “it’s always about race and money”.
I grew up in the South. My family goes back to the late 1700’s on one side and mid-1800’s on the other. They were shopkeepers, manufacturers and farmers. This meant that they owned slaves. My family has never discussed this, but you couldn’t farm in the South without slaves and at one point my ancestors owned hundreds of acres where a mid-size city has since sprung up. This meant potentially dozens if scores of slaves.
Growing up in the South, slavery was really not discussed. It was rushed past in history classes and at no time do I recall teachers or anybody really discussing the horrifying situation of slavery. Yes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Tubman, but not much more.
I once asked my dad where all that family money went and he basically said that previous generations pissed it all away. I replied that I wish they had left some for us to piss away. I guess this proves that my lack of financial acumen is buried in my DNA.
Back to Grisham’s book and now for a SPOILER ALERT: if you continue reading this post you will be spoiling one key part of the story.
The Grisham novel portrayed a tragic event in 1930 of a lynching for no reason other than racist greed. During one of my strolls down the country dirt road during my Off-the-Grid vacation, I thought about that climatic part of the story and about my own experiences with racism growing up in the South. One particular incident sprang to mind and I carefully thought about it because I was so young at the time…..
I was in the second or third grade, my parents had divorced and my mom was back in college getting the degree for the profession she always wanted. I’ll digress another time about that major accomplishment of hers and what it meant to me.
Anyway, we were living in a modest college town in a very rural section of a southern state. We lived on the second floor of an apartment building in a fairly large apartment complex (about 10 or so buildings). Below us lived the new university coach, his wife and their two little kids (younger than my mature 7 or 8 years). He was the first coach at this college to have black players on the team — it was not well-received by all. I can’t remember the sport but it was either football or basketball.
Our area of the South was turbulent in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I remember hearing the teachers at my public elementary school whispering that the Black Panthers were in the school. I had no idea who/what they were other than large felines. Regardless, I didn’t want to bump into them in the halls…
I was attending a newly desegregated public school. It was challenging for the adults. We had two housekeepers at the time. Lucinda who worked for us Monday through Thursday and Olivia who worked on Fridays. Lucinda would call my mom in the mornings sometimes and tell her “Don’t put the babies on the school bus today. I’m heading over now.” She didn’t want us in school if there were any signs of trouble. I have digressed to give you context of the bravery of the aforementioned college coach.
Back to my story: I couldn’t sleep one night. I don’t know why. I clearly remember looking out my bedroom window overlooking the parking lot and seeing the trash dumpster outside our building on fire. I ran for my mom and dragged her over to my window to see the fire (because of course she didn’t believe me).
Now it’s not just the dumpster, it’s a burning cross with men in hoods. I barely remember seeing that because my mom grabbed me and shoved me under my bed. She told me to stay put. My older brother missed everything because he slept through all of this.
My mom either called or ran downstairs to the coach’s apartment. I don’t remember that part. What I do know is that the coach was out of town, so his poor wife and kids were alone in a ground floor apartment with a cross being burned right outside. My mom brought them upstairs. That’s all I remember….
I wish I could tell you if the coach and his family stayed or moved on after that. I can’t remember. I don’t know what happened with the cross burning — I seem to recall that the police eventually showed up. I just remember thinking several years later as I matured, “Damn, I have actually seen a cross burning….” We were lucky — nobody was hurt.
Crazy shit, right? Everybody has interesting stories, this just happens to be one of mine…