By Grace Washington
“Momma, don’t look so worried,” I said. I patted her arm and walked past her to the room I shared with my sisters.
“I ain’t worried!” she said in a huff. “You just ain’t got no sense is all.”
It took restraint for me not to roll my eyes. It would do no good to be disrespectful. It didn’t matter that I was a grown woman now, a college graduate. Momma could still remind me of her place in our house.
“As long as I lived under her roof,” she’d said time and again.
But now I was moving out from her roof and she was scared. With every piece of clothing I packed, her hands plunged deeper into the pockets of her uniform. I knew her heart was breaking, but it was time for me to go, even if where I was headed was scary and dangerous, even to me.
It had been two years since the Freedom March in 1962 when I had heard Doctor King speak. My heart swelled with pride when I listened to his speech. He gave such an impassioned plea for help with the civil rights movement. It had stirred something deep within my soul.
I knew then I wouldn’t be able to stay in my little town of Milledgeville, Georgia. If I did, I had only one choice, and that was to become a service worker like my momma.
I looked over at her, her hair graying at her temples already. My going to college was hard enough on her, but she was proud I had graduated, and magna cum laude, no less. The whole neighborhood got an earful about that. But the people Momma worked for didn’t even know she had a daughter that had gone to school. In fact, she hid that fact from most white folks. If they knew, it might make life very difficult for all of us.
No, if I stayed in Milledgeville, I’d end up walking with Momma every morning to Rosehill Lane where all the society matrons lived. I’d spend my days minding their children and doing someone else’s dirty laundry. They would give me those measuring looks when they wondered if I had taken some of their silver after I spent the afternoon polishing it. They would choose to treat me as if I were a pet, and pretend we were friends. Or they might scream and yelI if I didn’t stay in my place.
Staying in my place meant different things to different people. In Milledgeville, it would always be my job to know what my place was in any social setting.
I saw the writing on the wall. I could see how it would always be. I wouldn’t survive in Momma’s world. I needed things to change.
In Momma’s world, she was “Girl” and she had to jump whenever anybody told her to. The only place she could be just herself was at the Immanuel Baptist Church around the corner. They called her Mrs. Washington there. I’m not sure how she did it, but somehow, every Sunday, she managed to get all five of us kids washed up and down to the church. We went during the summer’s heat or winter’s ice. It didn’t matter.
My momma had made a name for herself at church. Even after working long hours at the nursing home, she was there for any family who needed her. She was known for always showing up on the doorstep of bereaved families with a baked ham or a caramel cake. Some days, her oven didn’t get turned off until late at night. In addition to looking after the white folks at the nursing home and the heartsick people at church, she tended to her houseful of kids and a sick husband, too.
Was it wrong that I wanted something different than that? It was 1964, and change was in the air. I wanted to be a part of that.
“Now don’t forget to bathe everyday,” Momma said, as if I might forget. “And don’t draw any attention to yourself. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Her eyes glazed over then. I could tell she didn’t hear me when I told her I would be okay and would do all that she told me. I watched her face for a minute. She seemed lost in another time.
When she looked back at me, her eyes were clouded with tears.
It’s just…so much can go wrong. And some things never change,” she said. Her voice trembled.
There was something different about what she said, a tone I had never heard before. It surprised me, so I just stood there and listened.
“There’s always going to be white people and you ain’t ever gonna change their ways no matter what you do.”
She reached in the pocket of her uniform and pulled out a worn out photograph.
“That was my brother,” she said. “Ben. I don’t even know how he got that picture made. He was always a charmer. He had his ways. And it’s what got him in trouble.”
“What happened to him?” I asked, even though I had my suspicions. Even these days it happened often enough that I didn’t really have to guess.
“I was just a girl,” she said. “It was after midnight. We lived in a two-room shack out in the woods.” She pointed somewhere in the distance, a place I had never heard of or been to.
“The hooded white men in sheets came up on our front steps. They banged on the door and hollered for Ben to come out. The whole family was terrified.” Even so many years later, her eyes were wide with fear.
“Daddy asked what business the man had with his son. Ben was only fourteen. But the man just fired a pistol in the air and said, ‘Bring us Ben or you’ll all get some of this. You got ‘til Three.’ And he started counting.”
“It didn’t take but one word for my brother to walk out onto that porch with the rest of us. We didn’t even blink twice before those men had him off the porch and strapped up in an oak tree right next to our house. They had the noose made already and they tied his hands behind his back.”
Momma shook as she told this story. I realized I was shaking too. I guided her to the bed and we sat down, both crying hard tears.
“Every one of those men grabbed some part of the rope and hoisted Ben into the air. He put up such a struggle. And then one of them yelled up to him. ‘You gonna whistle at another white woman, you nigga?’ But Ben couldn’t answer.”
Momma gasped at the memory. “His head lolled onto his chest and the only sound left was the creaking of the branch he was swinging on.”
She grabbed my hands tight and said through gritted teeth, “And now you’re going off as if you can change anything. Why in heaven’s name you got to put yourself in harm’s way? Where did you get this from? Ain’t nobody in our family got the gumption you got. Why’d you have to grow up and be like this?”
Tears blurred my vision. “Momma,” I said. “I got to do this for Ben. I got to do this so we don’t have to grieve like this anymore.”
She grabbed me and pulled me to her, sobbing into my neck. “But why you?” she asked.
Not an hour later, I had a moment asking myself the same question.
I boarded the bus and the driver simply looked past me like I didn’t exist.
All around me were empty seats, but my place was in the back. I felt angry all the sudden, sad and angry. I hesitated for only a moment at an empty aisle seat and the white woman sitting next to the window put her purse down, daring me with her eyes to just try to sit there. If I had, she would’ve caused some sort of ruckus. I might be kicked off the bus before I left my own town!
I moved on toward the back and tried not to show my anger. An old black woman on the next to last seat in the bus patted the seat next to her. She seemed upset about something and I assumed she was angry about the same thing I was. Her dark eyes flashed and her lips were pursed together tightly. She was dressed much like my momma, in a service uniform, but I couldn’t tell where she might have worked or why she was on the bus.
Once I got settled in, she leaned in close to my ear and whispered, “Did you really think you could sit next to that white woman? Who do you think you are?”
It didn’t much surprise me to hear her say those things. Momma probably would have said the same thing. But I said what I would have said to Momma, “Nothing will change until someone makes it.”
She stared at me as if I had slapped her and it nearly made me smile. She did remind me of Momma. And something about that gave me comfort.
“Now, you listen here!” The woman said. “You don’t know what you’re playing at.”
I looked down at the worn picture of Ben my momma had given me. It was true that my heart beat with fear for what lay ahead, but I couldn’t just sit still anymore.
The woman looked over at the picture and nodded.
“Somebody you know?” she asked.
I shook my head. “He died before I was born.”
“Oh yeah,” she said, her voice cracking. “We’ve all got one of those.”
The bus driver announced the next town ahead on my journey to Mississippi and any fear I’d had before disappeared. It was happening. It was really happening.
I reached out and took both of the woman’s hard, work-roughened hands. “Don’t you understand? Everything I do from now on is so we don’t have anymore of those.”
Grace Washington is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. We look forward to hearing more from her!