Category Archives: Segregation

The magic in names: slavery and my family

noni mike_NEW

Michael and Noni

My brother Michael remembers Noni,  our paternal grandmother, asking him, “Don’t you think it would be just terrible if you had to go to school with little colored boys and girls?” This would have been in 1954, just after Brown vs. the Board of Education; Mike would have been nine at the time. He remembered thinking about the black boys he played with at the swimming hole and in the park — about Dave and Frank and Harry — and said no, he wouldn’t mind.   He thought it would be kind of fun.

By the time I knew Noni, she was slip-sliding down into the slough of senility, thanks to a decades-long drug habit. I didn’t dislike her, but I didn’t exactly love her either. Dementia is never endearing and perhaps I sensed the hostility between her and my mother, although I was not to understand the considerable animus between those two until I was an adult. And then there was Noni’s every-Christmas-without-fail gift to me — a set of three gi-normous old lady panties. This was a gift to which I took considerable umbrage. Did my grandmother really think my ass was THAT big?

If my brain were an attic, in one part of that attic, tucked away down under the eaves, you’d find a mildewed hatbox full to bursting with mouldering confederate money, a battered steamer trunk stuffed with moth-eaten petticoats and tattered ball gowns and, a musty, dog-eared history of the Eastern North Carolina branch of the Hardy family published in 1964 by one David Hardee. Hardee, Hardie, Hardy – we’re all the same family; it was just that some of us could spell and others not. Lately, I’ve been poking around in that old corner of the attic, stirring up dust, sending up ragged clouds of moths, sifting through old mouse poop in an attempt to understand my family in the context of history and of race.

Which was how I stumbled upon an inventory of the Bertie County, North Carolina estate of  my forebear William Hardy. According to a will drawn up in 1793, the estate included:

  • Farm equipment — saws, fire tongs, shovels, hoes;
  • Produce – corn, potatoes, salt, flour, flax, cotton;
  • Livestock – 5 horses, 34 cattle, 15 sheep, 14 sows, 65 pigs and 47 other hogs, 22 chickens, 25 turkeys and 47 other fowls, 4 stocks of bees, a yoke of oxen;
  • Books – a Bible, Prayer Book, 3 volumes of Mares arithmetic, Harvey’s Meditations;
  • Furniture – tables, table cloths, chests, 4 beds, 2 pillows, 12 chairs, pots, pans, candles, candle snuffers, candlesticks, glasses, plates, knives, forks;
  • Tools and supplies– one file, one surveyor chair, money scales, 5 spinning wheels, 5 pairs of cards, carpenter tools, 1 cart, 67 weight of pewter, 2 saddles, 2 bridles, 2 grindstones, tailor shears, looking glasses, mill picks, writing paper, 40 barrels of turpentine, 1 bag, 2 wallets, 2 towels, guns

It also included, “Negroes as follows: Dave, Frank, Harry, Tom, Abram, Ben Rofe, Wink Bett,  Brutus, Andrew, Daniel,  Simon, Peter, Matt, Abram, Woman Bell, Woman Penn, Girl Rose, Girl Easter, Girl Polly.”

According to the will, the slaves were to be divided between William’s wife Sarah and his children. Only the sons got land, but everybody “received” one or two in slaves in formulations that read like this:

“Sarah Sutton received Matt and Simon and other sundries worth 118 pounds, 8 shillings and 8 pence.”

“Lamb Hardy received his 1/6 part of the land, negro boy Daniel, and other sundries worth 118 pounds, 8 shillings and 12 pence.”

It was their names that got me. You don’t think of a slave being named Dave, for example, or Frank or Harry and yet Dave and Frank and Harry they were and Penn and Rose and Easter and negro boy Daniel . . . and they were passed down from father to child in the same breath as forty barrels of turpentine (William was a cooper by trade) or a yoke of oxen. According to a Census of Bertie County taken some 67 years later in 1860, Ellinor Hardy, Humphrey Hardy and Jason Hardy all owned slaves — 79, 33 and 39 respectively — but these were merely enumerated; they were not named. The fact that I know the names of William Hardy’s slaves makes them more real for me.   Whereas Noni lamented a future in which her precious grandson might have to go to school with nameless “little colored boys and girls,”  Michael knew the names of his playmates and did not find the prospect of associating with them in any way problematic.  There is a kind of magic in names.

family crestIf I believed in God, I would ask Him for forgiveness — for generations of my family going back three centuries, for my demented. racist grandmother, and for myself.   But I don’t believe in God, so, instead, I’m sending this out across the arc of history, across the span of 220 years that separates us in time: Dave, Frank, Harry, Tom, Abram, Ben Rofe, Wink Bett,  Brutus, Andrew,  Frank, Simon, Peter, Matt, Abram, Bell, Penn, Rose, Easter, and Polly,  I am sorry and I’m ashamed.

And now it’s high time I clean out that bloody attic.



Colored washrooms

I grew up in the American South.  I remember colored  washrooms and water fountains whites onlyand swimming pools – clearly being black was thought to be water borne.  If you think that’s bad, my mother remembered the sign posted on the way out of Durant, Oklahoma, the shit-hole she was born in.   It read, “Any (N-word) caught in town after dark will be lynched.”

My home town, not a shit hole, was really two towns, separated by a railroad track. On one side of the track was Chapel Hill, home to the University of North Carolina and populated by professors and university staff and the merchants who serviced students and faculty.

On the other side was Carrboro, home to black millworkers, the legion of maids and yard men who worked for white people over in Chapel Hill and the taxi cab drivers who ferried them back and forth to their jobs.  Growing up we thought taxis were exclusively for black people. Nobody else took them. We all had cars.

Each town had its own high school – and then, the year I entered high school, they didn’t.  The high schools were integrated, merged into one and housed in a brand new building on the outskirts of town.  The principal of the white high school became the principal of the new, integrated high school and the principal of the black high school, its vice-principal.    What could go wrong?

Well, not a whole lot actually. Oh, there was a little pushing and shoving, some brandishing of lead pipes, but what really stirred the pot at my high school was interracial dating. That is to say, high status black boys – athletes or musicians – courting second-tier white girls.  By “second tier” I mean nice enough girls ranking maybe a seven on the high school desirability scale –   not quite enough looks and/or personality points to snag a high-status white boyfriend, but not a complete dog’s regurgitated snack either. (BTW:  In case you think I’m being unduly mean girl in my estimation o, I had no boyfriend whatsoever in high school. Of any rank … or race.  I don’t even want to speculate what the Hell tier I was on!)

This intermingling of the races (and  there was intermingling) may have set white parents’ hair on fire and culminated in all manner of groundings and ultimatums, but the ones whose butt  it burned  most were  black girls. They were furious and rightly so. They were also big.  If you were a white girl, you stayed out of their bathroom.  Because, yes, the school might have been integrated, but the bathrooms were not.  This wasn’t a formal arrangement, but it was understood.  And it was the black girls who enforced it.

One year I was on the staff of the school’s literary magazine and two of my fellow editors made a practice of hanging out at a filling station on the old Pittsboro Road, where they would goad the gas station’s owner — a hoary coot who looked kind of like Gomer Pyle’s evil twin — into making outrageously racist remarks.  “If any of them (N-words)  come around here,” he’d say, “I’ll bust me up a Pepsi crate and make ‘em wiggle.”  We thought this was hilarious.  Then, again, we thought abandoning a cow in the high school’s second floor lobby overnight was also hilarious.  Do you know how hard it is to convince a cow to go downstairs?

Recently I read Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, where a white employer fires her maid for using the family bathroom.

Then I remembered.

In the otherwise unfinished basement of the house I grew up in, was a bathroom.  It was just off the back porch, which, in turn, was just off the kitchen.  You could access it from the outside by a set of stairs.  No one ever used this bathroom.  It was smelly and full of cobwebs, and, besides, there were rats in our basement. My mother used to refer to them in the collective as “Willard.”

It had never before occurred to me what that bathroom was for.  Our maids – Altherea, who didn’t do windows, Camellia and then Amelia, daughter of Camellia — all used the same bathrooms we did.  After all, they were cleaning ladies.  How could they be unclean?  It was  illogical.

But there could was escaping the obvious.  The bathroom in the basement had been the help’s bathroom, the ‘colored’ bathroom.    How could I have lived in that house all those years – with its butler’s pantry and its back staircase and the button on the floor in the centre of what was our family room, but had originally been the dining room, placed there so that the lady of the house could summon a servant from the kitchen without rising from the table. . .  .  How could I have lived in that house all those years and not known what that basement bathroom was for?

I guess I didn’t think.

Tagged , , , , , , ,