ESSEX MEMORIES – Part 3 Raymond B. Wallace, Jr.
Guess I’m a sucker, clinging to gargoyles, bursting with “southern sentimentalism” – tagging it to Eudora Welty, and her prose – one of the all time literature gems of a life time.
Above all, Welty gave “home” a soft definition in “Some Notes On River County” – her travelogue about the Natchez Trace: “A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out. It flares up, it smolders for a time, it is fanned or smothered by circumstances but has been intact, forever fluttering within it, the result of some ignition. Sometimes it gives out glory, sometimes its little light must be sought out to be seen, small and tender as candle flame, but as certain.”
Home, called Tappahannock, had its share of opacity, or illusory expectations – in early 1940’s. Our narrative attempts a demonstration of being “smothered by circumstances” – the inherited kind. Regretfully, no grandfatherly wisdom here.
On that mid-April day, mother was resolute: “do not go up the street – it’s their day today”. What the heck is that….their day? It was an African-American holiday honoring the abolishment of slavery, for all time; black Essex County citizens poured into Tappahannock for festive parades, marching bands, shopping – and heavy celebration. Consequently, the town’s quiet routine morphed into spontaneous gaiety, social gathering – maybe modest law-breaking. Naturally, the Wallace children sneaked headlong up town.
Distant cousin, Alex Dillard, sardonically reminded me Sheriff Smith Newbill, in those days, kept law without deputies – any trouble that day had to be minor. Assuming their holiday designation centered on General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, telegraphing finality to Civil War; one could conclude that while celebrating past historical changes, these citizens were likely focusing on the desperate changes unfurling for their future citizenship. Full black rights, full black citizenship had the flicker of light on this occasion.
Stringent racial segregation became “the dog that caught the car” in those fearsome years ahead. When dad drove us to Ms. Virgie Harris’ Service Station, Brays Fork, VA, it was a trip toward an unknown enlightenment. Virgie Harris made head-snapping, homemade club sandwiches – irrefutably best in the South. The short drive became a Sunday night ritual.
Dad and Virgie Harris’s friendship had a peculiar charm – she held him in high regard. Harris allowed him hunting privileges, with Lewis Jefferies, on her property; Harris and Wallace clearly liked, respected each other. Ms. Harris was older, totally in charge, ferociously busy. She called him, “Raymond”…and that was that.
For a young white kid, Harris’ store counseled in confusing ways – only black men sitting on stools, or at tables, talking, drinking beer….Virgie Harris presiding. With finite resources, she exhibited tough business acumen, strong professionalism, but could be prickly with clientele, intervening with displeasure. With this Brays Fork business ubiquitously segregated, Virgie Harris would later serve as President of the local NAACP. Early on, I learned quickly – first dismissively, then summoning a new understanding, about “the narcissism of small differences.” After all, there were sad similarities in both uneducated whites, and uneducated blacks, weren’t there. The questions of disparity in public education were never observed by anyone. Harris’s nephew, Sonny Harris, would later inherit his aunt’s property, developing a impressive storage business there. The late Sonny Harris’ son is currently a college professor.
The DAW Theater daily exhibited a trapped culture of separation….blacks in the balcony, whites on ground level – for the exact same movie feature. The very adept Gladys Brooks operated the miniscule ticket booth, under direction of William Westin Wallace, theater manager, and erstwhile Bank of Essex associate – my Uncle Bill.
Sitting there, she’d prepare for ticket sales. Twenty minutes before the shows began; Brooks would address the two ticket windows. Looking out to the street, to her left, she’d view the white customer line; to her right – the colored people’s line. Democratically, she addressed one line of customers – then the other – back and forth – each purchasing tickets in sequence. Two ticket windows, two lines of racially separated customers, leading to two separate entrances – blacks upstairs…whites downstairs.
The DAW filled up Thursday, March 7, 1946, for Smiley Burnette’s personal appearance shows. Burnette, Gene Autry’s movie side-kick (Froggy), did 5 shows in one day. Both races loved him – some shows sold out, upstairs and downstairs.
Resembling shooting fish in a barrel, it’s simple to summon seductive traps when history generates charactures, and scapegoating of people. It can feed the craving of today’s agenda-driven intellectual…thus, with trepidation, this Essex Courthouse episode, where grandfather served as Clerk of the Court, comes hard.
In Essex court, this family could have been white…but it was African American. Occasionally I was allowed to “go to court” to absorb justice, experience it firsthand. This was a rough case: an almost total disassembling of an impoverished, minority Essex County family…by law. Watching with incredulity, this poverty-stricken black family, including at least nine children, mother with new baby in arms, strolled in, sitting on the front bench seats. The father, hounded in appearance, inhaling sadly, stared at the floor.
A group of five or six additional African American couples soon filed in -some considerably older than others – clearly very churched. These couples appeared prosperous, successful by comparison. This procedure would decide how an individual family achieved reorganization, disassembling under law. These biological parents were publically expected to purge their children – choosing who’d remain, who would be sent along.
The children’s faces were haunted – parents seemed almost casual, bordering on disengagement, helplessness. It had an almost improvisational quality about it. Each childless couple went before the judge, stoically waiting their assignment. One by one, the mother chose those to be turned over, quietly thanking the childless couples. It was one of life’s more discouraging moments.
A momentary silence fell.
The judge softly inquired about the baby in the mother’s arms. Appearing young, even to me, the mother responded, “Naw, I want to keep this one.” The law of Essex economics had spoken harshly, disassembling a family unit, whose chances for even subsistence success had failed. Court attendees appeared unmoved – conspiratorially quiet….the docket must proceed. God, I thought, the humiliation; there must be a preferable way.
Eudora Welty’s writing exacerbates the senses….she’s right. While light does prevail, sometimes dimly, weak flickers of day-to-day life don’t come easy; they often dish out prolonged, plugged-in suffering, even on us – in our town by the Rappahannock.