Living Under Jim Crow

Living Under Jim Crow

Come listen all you galls and boys I’s jist from Tuckyhoe,
I’m going to sing a little song, my name’s Jim Crow,
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Ebry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.
— From the minstrel show “Jump Jim Crow” performed by Thomas Rice

My growing-up years – the 1950s and 1960s — were greatly affected by Jim Crow statutes enacted in mostly Southern states and municipalities that legalized segregation between blacks and whites.

More than 60 years later, this system of legal separation permeated every aspect of life in the South. Jim Crow dictated what we did, where we use go to the restroom or take a drink of water from public spaces, where we lived, the libraries we were able to use, the schools we were able to attend, social organizations and events, the kinds of jobs we were able to have, the kind of medical care to which we were entitled and just about every other aspect of life that guaranteed a substandard and unequal quality of life.

As described in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, the cultural show “Jump Jim Crow … was a centerpiece of an emerging American popular culture. Popularized, the character Jim Crow and his stage counterpart Zip Coon an urban dandy from the North caricatured African Americans as foolish, dim, lazy, sneaky, incompetent, untrustworthy, dishonorable, and without the strength of character required to be an American citizen and white. These degrading stereotypes, infused by distortion and propaganda, provided a substantial base on which to create a rationale for slavery: that African Americans required close supervision, and that only under the control of whites could such people be restrained.”

No wonder then, that stereotypes that continued throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st Century colored the way people of all races thought about African Americans through the images of movies, television, books, magazines and news coverage. In fact, these stereotypes were often the foundation for raising up or tamping down our own self esteem, based on what kind of media we consumed.

As a journalist, I would spend a great deal of my professional capital working to improve opportunities for content and human diversity in media. As a newspaper editor and as a member of various professional boards and committees, I went about the business of studying the history of newsroom diversity and developed my own training modules to help newsrooms — and readers — understand the dynamics of staff and content diversity. These roles even led to an opportunity for me to become the founding executive director of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute at Vanderbilt University, a program to identify and train non-traditional students for daily newspaper newsroom positions.

Started in the southern and border states, the term Jim Crow was eventually applied to the body of racial segregation laws and practices throughout the nation. 

The most important Jim Crow laws mandated that public entities such as schools, restrooms, lunch counters, drinking water fountains, transportation — including buses and trains — have separate facilities for whites and blacks.  Facilities for African Americans were always far inferior to those intended for use by whites. Jim Crow laws generated a decades-long struggle for equal rights.

The circumstance of my own birth in Columbus, Ohio, was due to segregated medical conditions in Savannah. Because my mother’s brother, Watson, was a doctor in Columbus, he made it possible for her to come stay with him and his wife during the pregnancy to evade services set aside for blacks in Savannah at that time. One such facility was Charity Hospital. According to the historical marker erected in 2003, Charity was the site of the first hospital in Savannah to train African-American doctors and nurses. Named for Doctors Cornelius and Alice McKane, it began on June 1, 1896, when a small group of African Americans received a charter to operate the McKane Hospital for Women and Children and Training School for Nurses. The original hospital was a five-room wooden building. Charity Hospital completed (a) brick structure in 1931 and continued until 1964.”

Similarly, the Georgia Infirmary was the first hospital for African Americans built in the United States. Chartered Dec. 24, 1832 “for the relief and protection of aged and afflicted Africans,” it was established by the Georgia General Assembly and funded by a $10,000 grant from the estate of Thomas F. Williams, a local merchant and minister.

In 1964 my family would have an unfortunate medical outcome as a result of a combination of Jim Crow and the Georgia Infirmary when my dad (the uncle I adopted as my father) had a stroke and was unable to get immediate medical attention due to the lack of having a doctor on duty at the time he was rushed to that facility. He lingered there in a coma for weeks and he never fully recovered. Ironically, today’s use of that facility is as a daycare facility for survivors of stroke.

Both Charity and Georgia Infirmary played an important part in health care for slaves and in the immediate post-slavery era. But by the time my generation came along, when medical advances were better, we did not have access to the “white” hospitals with doctors who trained at some of the region’s and nation’s best medical schools.

My daddy worked hard all of his life. As a mortician and partner with George Williams (no relation) of Williams and Williams Funeral Home in Savannah, he left home for work before daylight almost every day.

One Saturday morning in September 1964, like he did most Saturdays unless there was an early funeral, Daddy came home from the funeral home about 9 o’clock to freshen up and have breakfast with us.

“Hey, baby,” he called out to me when he stuck his head in my room as he passed my door before walking down the hall toward the master bedroom. I was doing my Saturday morning chores, cleaning my room before moving on to routine chores in other parts of the house.

“Hey, Daddy, ready for breakfast?” I called out to him.

“Sure thing. Hey, Cat,” I heard him call out to his wife, my Aunt Catherine, as he moved down the hall.

Aunt Catherine was in the kitchen and the scents wafting down the hall were inviting. On weekdays I was fine with eating a bowl of cereal before school. Weekend family breakfasts were special, especially one of my favorites — salmon croquettes and cheesy grits.

The exhaust fan over the stove was on a high setting that morning and I doubt she heard him, or even knew he was in the house since he always parked under the carport on the back of the house, away from  the kitchen up front.  

This Saturday morning changed our lives forever.

CRASH!!!!! The sound came from the bathroom.

“Daddy, you OK,” I called out to him, continuing to dust or make up my bed or whatever I was doing at that moment. No answer.

“DAAAADDY?” I called out to him in a sing-song voice.

Then another sound of something hitting the tile floor. We learned later that he was taking his shaving implements out of the medicine cabinet above the sink when they slipped out of his hands and hit the porcelain sink below.

The bathroom in the 1950s style house had two doors. One opened to the hall and the other one to the master bedroom. I raced down the hall and banged on the door. No answer. I tried to turn the knob; it was locked.

“Aunt Catherine!” I yelled toward the kitchen, not stopping for a second to tell her something was wrong. We both raced toward the master bedroom, where we found him on the floor — his ample body straddled across the threshold between the bathroom and  the bathroom. He had earlier taken off his dress shirt and tie, which were neatly hanging on the wooden valet he used every night to hang his standard undertaker black suit, white shirt, tie and socks, shoes on the base and his pocket watch in the little tray on top of the valet. He lay on the floor wearing a white tank  undershirt, and suit pants. His shoes were neatly placed on the floor by the bed. He was clearly planning to put on the same items later when he would return to the funeral home.

We tried to get him to tell us what was wrong. His hazel eyes were unfocused and glassy and he tried to speak, but he was hardly able to get out more than a mumble. His body was limp.

“He’s trying to tell us something,” I said. “Daddy, what’s wrong?”

I was 15 years old and I had never seen anything like this. I had no clue that he was having a stroke.

Apparently, Aunt Catherine didn’t know either.

“Go get a glass of water,” she ordered after we dragged his 6’3” body off the floor and up onto the bed. He lay there, eyes facing the ceiling, tears dripping toward his ears. When I returned to the room with the water we tried to get him to swallow. Then a foamy substance came from one side of his mouth. We knew it was bad.

“Call the funeral home; tell them to send the ambulance,” she said.

In 1964 in Savannah, if there was an ambulance service of medically trained personnel it was not available to blacks. Funeral homes were segregated (and still are, to a great extent). The “ambulance” service available to us at that time was run by the black-owned funeral homes. Working on a monthly rotation, if a black person needed immediate medical attention the funeral home responsible for the service that month would dispatch a vehicle and take the patient to Charity Hospital or the Georgia Infirmary.

I remember my parents telling me about bodies being DOA – dead on arrival. Frankly, I think quite a bit of black funeral homes’ business came from DOAs. It may have been the same with white funeral homes at the time. I don’t know. Those patients who didn’t make it to the hospital in time were immediately transported to the funeral home with ambulance duty. A family would then be able to transfer the body,  if requested.

On that Saturday morning, I picked up the receiver to the rotary phone and nervously but quickly dialed the number to Williams and Williams. I knew it by heart. 2-3-4-1-6-3-4, I carefully dialed the wall phone in the kitchen. The rotary dial wouldn’t roll around fast enough.

“Williams and Will-”

“Come quickly, I interrupted. This is Wanda. Daddy is sick.”

The ambulance made it across town from East Gwinnett Street to our house on West 41st Street in short order.

A couple of funeral home workers rushed in with a gurney and quickly scooped him up from his position laying across the bed, his feet still touching the floor. No medical diagnostic tools were present, no vital signs were taken. They were  just there for transportation.

“Take him to Memorial,” Aunt Catherine nervously directed as she climbed into the ambulance with her husband, who was still trying to slur out some unintelligible words. “Memorial” was the county hospital. We knew they didn’t take black patients, but they had doctors on duty. Obediently, the driver followed her orders.

“I’ll come over there in the car,” I said, rushing back into the house to retrieve the keys and lock up the house. Mudear, my grandmother who lived next door, had come over and she shooed me out of the house quickly. I was 15 years old, with a learner’s permit to drive with a licensed adult in the car with me. I didn’t care. This was an emergency and I had to go.

By the time I got to Memorial they were wheeling Daddy out of the hospital on the gurney and heading back to the ambulance. Someone at the hospital made it clear that they didn’t take “coloreds.”

Aunt Catherine, her eyes welling up with tears, said, “We’re taking him to Georgia Infirmary.”

The day was very long once we got to the second hospital. We sat for hours in a hallway, watching Daddy slip deeper and deeper into a silent state of what I would later learn was a coma. Georgia Infirmary did not have a doctor on duty that Saturday morning. There was no emergency room. No nurses came by to check on him. They. Just. Let. Him. Lie. There.

Emotions and anger were building up inside me. The first man I ever loved, the man who played practical jokes on me, who taught me how to write obituaries which may have been the foundation of my career, the man who winked at me as he ushered caskets down the aisle when I sat in the back of churches watching him work, the man who took me in when I was eight years old and loved me as if I were his own flesh and blood, who taught me how to drive a car in his company car, a Fleetwood Cadillac, who amused us with his made-up version of dancing that he called “the Georgia Hop,” the man who resembled my future husband in stature, in features and in temperament, the man who served his country in the U.S. Navy during World War II by processing and embalming the bodies of mutilated fallen heroes, the gentle giant at home who cursed like the sailor he was but who showed nothing but compassion to grieving families – THIS man was slipping away from us and there was nothing we could do about it. We were living in a segregated world that turned him away from a working hospital with doctors and nurses and prevented him from getting immediate and quality medical care.

“I need to go home,” I eventually said. Aunt Catherine didn’t speak. She just  sat there, staring at her husband, who was still breathing but lying still on the gurney in front of us. The two funeral home employees were still there with their boss. They weren’t budging.

I drove the two miles home, walked inside the house, looked at the empty, disheveled  master bedroom where we had removed my strickened father and then I lost it.

I doubled over in pain and I wailed.

I cried out to God:

“Whyyyyy?

“Whyyyyyyyyy?

“Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?”  

Daddy lingered comatose for weeks in the hospital. Eventually, he was released in a permanent speechless, paralyzed state. He never walked or spoke or worked again. Fortunately, because we owned a business and Aunt Catherine was still teaching, from what I could see his illness didn’t seem to cause our family any undue financial strain. However, at age 15 his illness kicked me into adulthood. I immediately took on household responsibilities like shopping for groceries, writing checks to pay bills and driving my grandmother where she needed to go. It forced me to grow up fast, attaining skills that would serve me well throughout my life.

Aunt Catherine became a caretaker for her husband, who needed help with everything imaginable. She was able to hire someone to be there during the day when she was teaching, and the “fellas” as we called them, from the funeral home came by daily to get him out of bed, and help with some personal care like bathing and shaving. But it was all on her at night and weekends.

W&W Funeral Home
A vintage copy of a photo of Williams & Wiliams Funeral Home,  in the 1950s.

Every now and then the funeral home workers would come get him and take him across town to the business, just so he could experience the familiar surroundings. All he could do was watch others work, but going there did put a smile on his face. Those visits were therapeutic, and gave us a temporary respite at home.

Even though his speech was impaired, he understood conversations and everything going on around him. If you asked him if he wanted toast for breakfast, he was able to nod yes or no. And we developed a kind of sign language for important things, like having to go to the bathroom or wanting to sit in the dining room in front of the sunny picture window so he could look out and see what was going on outside. Many times neighbors walking by would see him sitting there and tip a hat or wave, and he would sometimes wave to them to come in and sit a while and talk to him. He loved having company, even though he was no longer able to speak.

Before Daddy’s stroke we had family conversations about where I would be going to college.

“Stay at home,” he often said, “and we’ll get you a car so you can go to Savannah State College (later University),” which was about five miles away from our house. It was a matter of convenience and also probably loving  protection for parents to keep their kids close by for college. Maybe it was a Southern thing. It certainly was, culturally, a pattern in African American families.

Aunt Catherine and Mudear had other plans for me. Both of them, plus a few other women in our family, had gone to Spelman College in Atlanta and they wanted me to continue the legacy, which I was happy to oblige. I couldn’t wait to leave Savannah, not just because of what I experienced as a racially oppressive environment, but because home had become a sad place. I had the selfish desire to get away and not see my daddy’s daily decline in health. 

“You can go to Spelman and you don’t need a car,” Mudear and Aunt Catherine would remind me. For many years I had listened to women in my family talk about Spelman’s rich heritage of educating black women. Women like opera singer Mattiwilda Dobbs, actress Esther Rolle, author and poet Alice Walker, and Marian Wright Edelman, who founded the Children’s Defense Fund. In later years, women would continue to use Spelman as a catapult to career success and celebrity, including Keisha Knight Pulliam who played little Rudy Huxtable on The Cosby Show, Audrey Manley, who served the nation as surgeon general and then returned to Spelman as president of the college, Rosalind Brewer, who was president and CEO of retail giant Sam’s Club and  Tina McElroy Ansa, best-selling author, journalist and writing coach — and my Spelman roommate in Morehouse Hall our freshman year.

Mudear and Aunt Catherine were members of the Savannah “Spelman Club,” a group of alumnae who gave service in the community, and who encouraged high school girls in whom they saw promise to go to Spelman. Many — probably most of the local Spelman alumnae in the 1950s and 1960s — were teachers and they had direct access to girls who were outstanding students. These alumnae were perfectly positioned to  encourage and mentor girls that they deemed worthy for an education at Spelman. As a child and teenager, I tagged along to monthly Spelman Club meetings and I felt like an honorary member of the alumnae group. When we hosted the meetings at our home, I was proud to help prepare and serve refreshments. I sat through the meetings and took in all of the latest news about what was going on at the college, recent accomplishments of alumnae and planning activities to present to people in Savannah the values and opportunities of a Spelman College education.

When the time came, I applied only to Spelman College and I was accepted. I honestly don’t know if I would have been accepted in today’s competitive application pool. But I was ready to go to Atlanta and become what I had always heard was a “Spelman woman.”

We didn’t tell Daddy right away but a few weeks before it was time for me to leave for Atlanta, we went into the bedroom where he was sitting on the side of the bed, waiting for whatever care was to come next.

“Daddy, I was accepted at Spelman and I’m going to go to college there,” I told him. 

Slowly, his eyes became damp and tears streamed down his face. Then there was a look of anger and frustration and he fisted his left hand, the one that was not afflicted by the stroke. He repeatedly pounded the mattress on his left side.

“No. No. No. No. No,” he slurred out of one side of his mouth. He clearly remembered the conversations about him wanting me to stay home and go to college in Savannah. It was heartbreaking to see him feel betrayed, but I knew I had to do what I wanted to do. I grew up knowing that Spelman was my destiny and Aunt Catherine assured me that I was doing the right thing.

After I left for Atlanta in 1967, I lost track of some of the details of Daddy’s  care, but I know it was tough on Aunt Catherine. Mudear’s health also declined while I was in college and she moved her mother from next door into our house so she could look after both of them. Every time I came home from college I could see the weight of the caretaking burdens on my aunt. She tried to put on a good act for me, but I knew she was tired.

My grandmother proudly made it to my Spelman graduation, pushed into Spelman’s Sisters Chapel in a wheelchair for the ceremony. She was in frail health by then, but she was one fly woman, dressed in a dark suit, a church hat on her head and a very broad smile. She passed away two months later. At her funeral, Rev. Edgar Quarterman, our pastor at Second Baptist Church, said in his eulogy that he often visited my grandmother at home in her later years.

“Mrs. Walker told me she was praying that God would keep her around long enough to see Wanda graduate from Spelman College,” Rev. Quarterman said at her funeral. “She saw her graduate and I know she is at rest now.”

It was the first time I had heard that story.

As for Daddy, I recall that from time to time he was admitted to a nursing home, including into a Veterans Administration facility in Dublin, GA, more than 100 miles east of  Savannah. Aunt Catherine needed a respite but she never wanted to be too far away from him. It was taxing on her to drive back and forth to visit him in Dublin about once a week, but she did what she needed to do.

—————–

In 1972, a year after I graduated from Spelman College and a year after my grandmother, Mudear, passed away, I took a 12-week leave of absence from my first full-time job as a copy editor at the Providence (RI) Evening Bulletin to teach and edit in a summer program for non-traditional minority students at Columbia University in New York. I lived on campus in housing for graduate students.

Working alongside journalists Bob Maynard, Earl Caldwell and Charlayne Hunter-Gault that summer — all of them African Amerians who were trailblazers in daily newspaper newsrooms — was an honor that I’m not sure my youth allowed me to fully recognize that summer.

Aunt Catherine had not been to New York since 1964, when we attended the New York World’s Fair.

“Come visit me in New York,” I encouraged her in a letter that summer. At first she said no, she could not travel that far away from Daddy. She had moved him to a nursing home in Savannah by then. I continued to call and write her, entreating her to take a break. Finally, she said yes and we set a date for early August.

I bought her plane ticket and sent it to her. She would sleep in the bedroom of one of my three Columbia suitemates, a graduate student who was traveling that week. I purchased tickets to Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells concert at Lincoln Center.  We would go to Queens one day to visit Uncle James and Aunt Lillian, who lived in Woodside, and on the weekend we would drive up to Providence so she could see my apartment and the newsroom where I worked.

I was giddy with excitement the day Aunt Catherine arrived. She came with the stress of worrying about her husband but she said she was ready for a short vacation and the plans I had made.

Aunt Catherine loved music. She was a trained pianist and she had been a member of the Spelman Glee Club. She had played piano for Sunday School in church and she had directed the chorus at West Savannah School, where she taught 6th grade for many years.  But this LaBelle group was something else. Yet, I think she enjoyed the concert because she sensed it was important to me that she have a good time.

I had been to Lincoln Center several times, but always for more high-brow entertainment, sophisticated classical music or dramatic plays. This night was different. Patti, along with Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx, who made up the Bluebells, put on a show that left an indelible memory for Aunt Catherine and me. Aunt Catherine  went into Lincoln Center awed by the New York venue and the people who were there, and probably wondering “Patti who?” But she came out raving about the experience (except for the decibel level of some of the music) and we gleefully sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” Patti-style on the taxi ride back to Columbia’s campus.

It was a happy moment for both of us to share that experience, something we often talked about for the rest of her life. But when we returned to the residence hall that night, our world sank.

One of my suitemates said we had gotten a couple of phone calls from a James Walker, Aunt Catherine’s brother who lived in Woodside.

“He said to call him right away,” my suitemate said.

“Hi, Uncle James. You called us?” I said when he answered my call.

“Yes, I’m afraid I have some bad news. Put Cat (Aunt Catherine’s nickname) on the phone.”

“Hey, James,” she said and she started to tell him about the Bluebells and the great time we had at Lincoln Center. She only got a few words out when her face saddened.

“When?. … What time?”

Aunt Catherine had left Uncle James’ phone number with the nursing home in case they needed to reach her. Daddy had passed away.

So instead of completing her vacation week, including the drive up to New England, we immediately made plans to fly back to Savannah, to bury my daddy who compassionately waited for his wife to be around loving family members before taking his final breath.

6 thoughts on “Living Under Jim Crow

  1. This brought back so many memories of growing up in northern Virginia, and our many childhood trips to southern Virginia and North Carolina. Also recalls the painful loss of loved ones, especially in a big family. You described it perfectly. This article was perfectly timed for Black History Month. Thank you. Ronnie

    Liked by 1 person

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