Monday, July 25, 2011

Trial of the Century (Revised)

My great-grandfather, who is the father of my paternal grandmother, was born in 1895 in the same Hot-As-Heck dismal place in North Carolina as my grandmother was born, and eventually my father. (Although my Dad made a run for it at the age of 16, and never returned.) My grandfather's profession, based on information from Ancestry.com, was "farmer".

Uh-huh...

Born at a time when birth certificates weren't necessarily issued for Black Americans, he managed to carve out quite a career for himself. He had five children, a wife, and LOTS of land. Nearly 250 acres at his death. None of his children ever had to buy land of their own; they simply built their homes on the land he owned. Large enough to farm, but there was no farming going on. The prevailing rumor (the one I choose to believe), is that he was a bootlegger, and whatever other activities would gain him some cash and kind treatment from a town that didn't welcome his "kind". The town had a lynching tree. Interesting that everyone knew that, especially considering that for a long time, there were only one or two families in the town who would have been candidates for it.

I always imagined this place as a very tense, hostile kind of environment for the family, and I imagine that there probably weren't close personal friendships formed between them and the neighbors. Dating was impossible; you had to leave town to find a mate, especially since you risked being the first casualty on that tree if you pursued romance outside of your race.

So, you understand, as the family grew, and the children had children of their own, they spread out across the United States. Most of the original set of kids stayed and grew old in North Carolina, but the grandkids went north, west, and east. Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles were popular destinations among them.

When you grow up in a town with a lynching tree, it is tough to undo the ideas you have about racism and how you are perceived. One of those grandkids moved to Los Angeles, and, oddly enough, was called to jury duty in LA in the mid-90's. She served as a juror in "The Trial of the Century." Yes, THAT one. Seriously. And we know how that turned out...

So, I'm particularly struck by the text of these pages in an old craft/etiquette/idea book of mine, written around the time of my great-grandfather's birth. Despite the language, it gives a glimpse of what race relations may have been like then, and how there was a certain fascination from the point of view of the author, that reminds me of the way the Grinch watches the "Who"s in Whoville celebrate Christmas with no presents. Note: no comparison intended between the Grinch and white people...

(Taken from Day Entertainments and Other Functions - Metropolitan Handy Series September, 1896)

This passage is about the Easter celebration, from the point of view of the (white) author.

"The little negroes, attired in the the latest styles...wend their ways to Sabbath schools, where they are to repeat verses in public... The children have brought from the woods loads of pink honeysuckle, yellow jasmine and wild laurel, so that the rude walls enclose a measure of sweetness and beauty not to be attained in the city cathedral at many times the cost, and it is safe to presume that the songs assiduously practiced for a week or more are sure to out-distance, in the literal acceptance of the word, any vocal efforts of a surpliced choir.... Singing, paying and preaching go on intermittently the rest of the day and nightfall witnesses the climax of the festival, when Easter becomes a veritable Candlemas... Everybody participates - the venerable, long coated elders, the fat cooks, swagger dining-room boys, house-maids gayly flirtatious, and children by scores, each and every one holding a candle in inverse ratio to the bearer's stature. All other lights are out and the candle beams waver weirdly upon intent, dark faces, as the procession moves along the aisles to the rhythm of of some rich far-sounding chant, such as we may hear only in the south from the lungs of a lusty negro congregation."

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