I love when my students enfuse their stories with the atmosphere and attitudes of the place and era in which they occurred. Set in their historical context, stories become more complex and meaningful, and generally more emotionally powerful for the reader.
My students were moved by the story that follows, written by Hal Prange, a former high school history teacher, now a serious memoir writer. I observed racism when I was growing up in Southern California, but it was nothing like people experienced in the South. Hal’s story of 1950 Arkansas vividly captures an era we wish we could forget, but can’t…and shouldn’t.
Love on the Square
by Hal Prange
My Aunt Molly was in an absolute state of shock. She thought her baby sister, my mother, had lost her senses. The time was the summer of 1950. The place was DeWitt, Arkansas. At that time, influence of Jim Crow continued to prevail in the states of the Old Confederacy.
My parents had moved from Arkansas to Los Angeles in 1944. They had departed from the old home place in Crocketts Bluff, enlisting in the army of Americans who, during the challenges of the Great Depression, had scattered hither and yon in search of an opportunity.
In 1950 my mother knew that her elderly mother still residing in Crocketts Bluff would soon be striking out for the Promised Land. Mom wished to see Grandma for what surely would be the last time in this life.
She also wished to see her three siblings, two older sisters and a younger brother. My older brother, Red, was living at home in L.A. with Mom, Dad, my sister Betty, and me. Not wishing to travel alone, Mom asked Red if he would like to drive her back home. Red owned a Ford V-8 sedan that was in marginally good condition. He did not hesitate to say yes. My sister and I asked Mom if we could go, and she agreed.
Dad was not willing to join our group of travelers. He didn’t explain why, but we knew. If Dad went back home he would never be content living in California. We knew that Dad knew that he had to stay away from Crocketts Bluff. Dad would not have been able to abide living in Los Angeles for a single day after seeing home again.
The four of us stayed in Aunt Molly’s large two-story home during our sojourn back home. She and Uncle Cal were pleased to accommodate our wants and needs. Uncle Cal was a true son of the South. He was a walking encyclopedia on the Civil War, which he referred to as “The War of the Northern Aggression.” Most of his views on the mores of the Southern culture had, over the years, been adopted by Aunt Molly.
On our second day, after visiting with Grandma in her care facility, Aunt Molly drove us the fifteen miles to the County Seat, DeWitt. Betty chose to remain in Crocketts Bluff. She spent the day with her former school friend, Abby Anderson.
We were anxious to see DeWitt again. DeWitt was a farm town of some 2500 people. The town was laid out with the businesses situated on a square, with the court house in the center of the square.
Aunt Molly pulled into a vacant angular parking space in front of the Good Crop Grocery Store. Mom was eager to see her cousin Cedric, the owner and sole employee in Good Crop.
Cedric was an interesting study. He was an unusually threadlike-thin tall man. In public he always wore a white shirt and a narrow red tie. In hot weather or in the dead of winter he was never seen without his white shirt and red necktie. The grocer on the Square reminded one of a giant thermometer.
My brother Red and I followed the two ladies into the store. We exchanged socially prescribed inanities with the proprietor, and then retreated outside to wait. We began walking, and were soon joined by the women. The three of us Californians were struck by how so many things on the Square had changed.
“Look! They painted the Courthouse. Ugly color.”
“They have a movie theater now!”
It was a weekday morning with few people out and about. After walking for some five minutes, Mom nudged Aunt Molly and asked, “Isn’t that Lena Ross coming toward us?”
Aunt Molly replied, “I believe it is! Sure it is.”
Slowly walking toward us, dressed in her Sunday best, was a lone black woman. Who was she?
Why was Mom obviously getting more and more excited as the approaching lady drew closer?
Mom had delivered the last four of her nine babies at home without the assistance of a physician. She didn’t think she needed professional aid because she had Miss Lena. Miss Lena was Lena Ross, the community midwife in Crocketts Bluff. She had helped bring into this world innumerable children of the ’Bluff.
Miss Lena, along with providing a nimble hand whenever the stork was present, also helped Mom with the houshold chores whenever there was an illness in the home.
My mother loved Miss Lena. Miss Lena loved my mother. They were soul-sisters. As the two women became cognizant of each other, their pace increased. They were filled with anticipation, their arms held high.
The two met on the public sidewalk in front of Coker Hampton Drug Store on the south side of the Square in the southern town of the Jim Crow-dominated southern state of Arkansas.
There was a great collision. Both ladies, being rather corpulent, were not physically capable of leaping into each other’s arms. They merely collided at ground level. Their impact made a sound that one could describe as a composite of “thud” and “squish.”
Aunt Molly, standing nearby, was witnessing what for her was a tension-creating scene. She didn’t know how to react to this most unacceptable violation of southern customs. I’m sure she asked herself, “What if someone who knows me is watching what my sister is doing?”
The two old friends, yelling and screaming, found it impossible to end their hugging. With their rotund physiques, their hugs made it all but impossible to identify what part of the mound of black and white flesh was Miss Lena, and what part was my mother.
“Oh, Miss Edna, it’s plain heaven to see you again! It’s really you! You ain’t foolin’, it’s you!”
“Miss Lena, it’s been years, and the first person I see on the Square is you! You’re a real blessing!”
Aunt Molly, in a scolding manner and loud enough for both women to hear, said to her sister, “Edna, for goodness sake, you are not out there in California! Don’t you realize where you are?”
My mother and her friend ignored Aunt Molly’s admonition. I’m not sure that Aunt Molly’s judgmental words were even heard by the intended hearers. They were both consumed by the emotion of the moment. I was duly impressed that Miss Lena, upon spotting my brother and me, pointed to me and exclaimed, “There’s your baby, your youngest! He’s the one who weighed ‘leven pounds and ‘leven ounces when you borned him! Miss Edna, lets you and me set down on that bench over yonder and jabber awhile.”
If Mom and Miss Lena’s hearts had had windows, and if Aunt Molly had peered through those windows, she would have seen hearts overflowing with love. She would have seen hearts that at that moment in time were colorblind. Their hearts were only perceiving the color of love. It was a beautiful tableau. The scene on the sidewalk on the Square, in that small southern town, made Jim Crow so utterly ludicrous.
Two years ago, my wife and I were in DeWitt. We were walking by an elementary school where the school children were at play. My focus was drawn to two little girls laughing and being silly as they played on a teeter-totter. On one end of the seesaw was a cute blond-haired girl. But guess what! On the other end of the apparatus was an equally attractive African-American girl with long black pigtails and a fetching smile.
I observed the two exuberant schoolgirls holding hands as they ran in response to the tardy bell to greet their African-American teacher. I like to think that the grip of their little hands was a wee bit more firm as a result of Miss Lena and my mother’s planting a seed of love on the Square way back in 1950.