Friday, February 12, 2010

I am Thankful for a Heritage That Included Inter-racial Friendship

“Son, stick out your hand and shake Ms. Rose’s hand.” I was about six or seven years old and that was the first of three times, as I recall, that my Dad instructed me to greet people properly; Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, and the elderly were his special concern. Shaking Ms. Rose Bailey’s hand was one of the formative experiences of my life. There was a blue sky; we were driving through Folkston Georgia on our way to the farm; I don’t recall if anyone else was with us. I do recall Dad saying, “That’s Ms. Rose. Let’s stop and talk.”

I knew where we were. We were on the edge of town headed north on Burnt Fort Road. We were in “Colored Town.” (Or replace “Colored” with the “N” word.) As Dad quickly pulled off the street and stopped. I looked out the window in the direction he was nodding. On the front porch of an old shotgun shanty sat an elderly Black woman. She was wearing a Quaker style bonnet and a long gingham dress. She was waving a paper fan, the kind with a picture of Jesus on one side and an ad for a funeral home on the other. As we got out of the car and walked toward her she arose and met us in the small patch of sand between the street and the house. I noticed how wrinkled and leathery her skin was and I was captivated by the twinkle in her eye and the sweetness of her voice.

As Dad reached out and shook her hand pumping it with a childish excitement and a grin on his face proclaiming this is a special person, he asked, “Ms. Rose do you know who I am?”

“Lord, yes. You’re Ab’s boy, Speck. That’s you ain’t it.”

“Yes, Ma’m, that’s me.” That’s when I got my instructions and I shook the hand of an elderly, African American woman.

They talked for a while asking about family members, including my Mom’s family. When we got back in the car and drove away I asked, “Dad who was that?”

“Why that’s Ms. Rose Bailey” he responded as if that would mean something to me.

“Who is she?”

“She and my Pa were youngins together and she was the midwife for most of the babies born in these parts. She even delivered you’re Ma and her brothers and sisters.”

Over the years I asked more questions about Ms. Rose Bailey. I wondered how an elderly Black woman could have such an important place in my father’s heart? You see, I grew up in the Deep South. Jim Crow laws were in place. There were refrigerated water fountains labeled “Whites Only” and right next to them were non-refrigerated ones labeled “Colored”. I was once chastised by a woman I didn’t know for drinking out of the wrong fountain; I was too young to read the signs.

What I discovered was a story of friendship across racial lines. It seems my Grandfather and Ms. Rose grew up together. They picked berries together and worked in the fields together. My Dad remembered Ms. Rose and her husband always stopping at his parent’s house sitting in a mule drawn wagon on their weekly trips for groceries. Dad loved to tell the story of the time Ms. Rose asked, “Ms. Irene do you mind if I have a glass for some water.” To get the picture of what follows you have to understand the well was in the front yard. A common dipper hung on the well.

My grandmother responded to the request, “Rose, I’ll get you a glass if you want one, but why don’t you use the dipper like everybody else.” Over the years we stopped and talked with Ms. Rose a few more times and I learned more of this story.  I discovered my grandparents always encouraged them to “get down and sit a spell.” If it was dinner time they were invited for the meal and sometimes accepted. As a child I drank from that same dipper and I tried to wrap my mind around the conflicting images of “whites only” water fountains and sharing a common dipper.  I could see the black couple sitting on the same long benches, eating at the same table where I had often eaten. There are alternatives to a culture of hatred.

I am thankful for a heritage that demanded respect for all people regardless of race or social standing. Beyond respect, it offered a glimpse into genuine friendship across racial lines and that in an age of extreme bigotry. It would be misleading to not admit my parents and grandparents were not free from all prejudice; they strongly opposed inter-racial marriages. I never saw a Black person sit at our table when I was growing up.  But parents, grandparents and great-grand parents were willing to literally put their lives on the line to defend the dignity of others. I might write more about that later.

The thing that amazes me most about my grandmother and grandfather Johns is how they took a righteous stand toward others without the personal knowledge of salvation. During my Dad’s childhood, they had unregenerated hearts and yet the image of God glowed warmly in their attitudes toward others. I now know they were an example of God’s prevenient grace, that grace which prevents the full effects of sin from overwhelming the nonbeliever and keeps open the possibility of salvation. The same grace that afforded me the opportunity to shake the hand of an elderly black woman and realize through my Father’s eyes I had touched the hand of someone very special.

Cleveland, Tennessee
February 12, 2010


Phil Hoover, Chicago said...

Now I am wiping tears from my eyes....You not only touched the hand of "Ms Rose.." you touched the hand of the LORD...

Anonymous said...

Ms Rose was a special lady.