Coming of Age in Mississippi
Not only did I enter high school with a new name, but also with a completely new insight into the life of Negroes in Mississippi. I was now working for one of the meanest white women in town, and a week before school started Emmet Till was killed.
Up until his death, I had heard of Negroes found floating in a river or dead somewhere with their bodies riddled with bullets. But I didn’t know the mystery behind these killings then. I remember once when I was only seven I heard Mama and one of my aunts talking about some Negro who had been beaten to death. “Just like them lowdown skunks killed him they will do the same to us,” Mama had said. When I asked her who killed the man and why, she said, “An Evil Spirit killed him. You gotta be a good girl or It will kill you too.” So since I was seven, I had lived in fear of that “Evil Spirit.” It took me eight years to learn what that spirit was.
I was coming from school the evening I heard about Emmet Till’s death. There was a whole group of us, girls and boys, walking down the road headed home. A group of about six high school boys were walking a few paces ahead of me and several other girls. We were laughing and talking about something that had happened in school that day.
However, the six boys in front of us weren’t talking very loud. Usually they kept up so much noise. But today they were just walking and talking among themselves. All of a sudden they began to shout at each other.
“Man, what in the hell do you mean?”
“What I mean is these goddamned white folks is gonna start some shit here you just watch!”
“That boy wasn’t but fourteen years old and they killed him. Now what kin a fourteen-year-old boy do with a
white woman? What if he did whistle at her, he might have thought the whore was pretty.”
“Look at all these white men here that’s fucking over women. Everybody knows It too and what’s done about that? Lock how many white babies we got walking around in our neighborhoods. Their mama's ain’t white either. That boy was from Chicago, shit, everybody tuck every body up there. He probably didn’t even think of the bitch as white.”
What they were saying shocked me. I knew all of those boys and I had never heard them talk like that. We walked on behind them for a while listening. Questions about who was killed, where, and why started running through my mind. I walked up to one of the boys.
“Eddie, what boy was killed?"
“Moody, where’ve you been? he asked me. “Everybody talking about that fourteen-year-old boy who was killed In Greenwood by some White men. You don’t know nothing that’s going on besides what’s In them books of yours, huh?
Standing there before the rest of the girls, I felt so stupid. It was then that I realized I really didn’t know what was going on all around me. It wasn’t that I was dumb. It was just that ever since I was nine, I'd had to work after school and do my lessons on lunch hour. I never bad time to learn anything, to hang around with people my own age. And you never were told anything by adults.
That evening when I stopped off at the house on my way to Mrs. Burke’s, Mama was singing, Any other day she would have been yelling at Adline and Junior them to take off their school clothes. I wondered If she knew about Emmet Till. The way she was singing she had something on her mind and it wasn’t pleasant either.
I got a shoe, you got a shoe,
All of God’s chillun got shoes;
When I get to hebben, I’m gonna put on my shoes,
And gonna tromp all over God's hebben.
When I get to hebben I’m gonna put on my shoes,
And gonna walk all over God’s hebben.
Mama was dishing up beans like she didn’t know anyone was home. Adline, Junior, and James had just thrown their books down and sat themselves at the table. I didn’t usually eat before I went to work. But I wanted to ask Mama about Emmett Till. So I ate and thought of some way of asking her.
“These beans are some good, Mama,” I said, frying to sense her mood.
“Why is you eating anyway? You gonna be late for work. You know how Miss Burke Is,” she said to me.
“I don’t have much to do this evening. I kin get it done before I leave work,” I said.
The conversation stopped after that. Then Mama started bumming that song again.
When I get to hebben, I’m gonna put on my shoes,
And gonna tromp all over God’s hebben.
She put a plate on the floor for Jennie Ann and Jerry.
“Jennie Ann! you and Jerry sit down here and eat and don’t put beans all over this floor.”
Ralph, the baby, started crying. and she went In the bedroom to give him his bottle. I got up and followed her.
“Mama, did you hear about that fourteen-year-old Negro boy who was killed a little over a week ago by some white men?” I asked her.
“Where did you hear that? she said angrily.
“Boy, everybody really thinks I am dumb or deaf or something. I heard Eddie them talking about it this evening coming from school.”
“Eddie them better watch how they go around here talk. lug. These white folks git a hold of it they gonna be in trouble,” she said.
“What are they gonna be in trouble about, Mama? People got aright to talk, aln’t they?
“You go on to work before you Is late. And don’t you let on like you know nothing about that boy being killed before Miss Burke them. Just do your work like you don’t know nothing.” she said, “That boy’s a lot better off In heaven than he Is here,” she continued and then started singing again.
On my way to Mrs. Burke’s that evening. Mama’s words kept running through my mind. “Just do your work like you don’t know nothing,” ‘Why is Mama acting so scared?”
I thought. “And what If Mrs. Burke knew we knew? Why must I pretend I don’t know? Why are these people kill. lug Negroes? What did Emmett Till do besides whistle at that woman?
By the time I got to work, I had worked my nerves up some. I was shaking as I walked up on the porch. “Do your work like you don’t know nothing.” But once I got inside, I couldn’t have acted normal If Mrs. Burke were paying me to be myself.
I was so nervous, I spent most of the evening avoiding them going about the house dusting and sweeping. Every. thing went along fairly well until dinner was served.
"Don, Wayne, and Mama, y’all come on to dinner. Essie, you can wash up the pots and dishes In the sink now. Then after dinner you won’t have as many,” Mrs. Burke called tome.
If I had the power to mysteriously disappear at that moment, I would have. They used the breakfast table In the kitchen for mast of their meals. The dining room was only used far Sunday dinner or when they had company. I wished they had company tonight so they could eat In the dining room while I was at the kitchen sink.
“I forgot the bread,” Mrs. Burke said when they were all seated. “Essie, will you cut it and put it on the table for me?”
I took the cornbread, cut it in squares, and put It on a small round dish. Just as! was about to set It on the table, Wayne yelled at the cat. I dropped the plate and the bread went all over the floor.
“Never mind, Essie," Mrs. Burke said angrily as she got up and got some white bread from the breadbox.
I didn’t say anything. I picked up the cornbread from around the table and went back to the dishes. As soon as I got to the sink, I dropped a saucer on the floor and broke It. Didn’t anyone say a word until I had Picked up the pieces.
"Essie, I bought some new cleanser today. It’s setting on the bathroom shelf. See If it will remove the stains In the tub,” Mrs. Burke said.
I went to the bathroom to clean the tub. By the time I got through with it, it was snow white. I spent a whole hour scrubbing It. I had removed the stains in no time but I kept scrubbing until they finished dinner.
When they had finished and gone Into the living room as usual to watch TV, Mrs. Burke called me to eat. I took a clean plate out of the cabinet and sat down. Just as I was putting the first forkful of food In my mouth, Mrs. Burke entered the kitchen.
“Basis, did you hear about that fourteen-year-old boy who was killed In Greenwood? she asked me, sitting down In one of the chain opposite me.
“No, I didn’t hear that,” I answered, almost choking on the food.
“Do you know why he was killed? she asked and I didn’t answer.
“He was killed because he got out of his place with a white woman. A boy from Mississippi would have known better than that. This boy was from Chicago. Negroes up North have no respect for people. They think they can get away with anything. He just came to Mississippi and put a whole lot of notions In the boys’ heads here and stirred up a lot of trouble,” she said passionately.
“How old are you, Essie? she asked me after a pause. “Fourteen. I will soon be fifteen though,” I said.
“See, that boy was just fourteen too. It’s a shame he had to die so soon.” She was so red In the face, she looked as if she was on fire.
When she left the kitchen I sat there with my mouth open and my food untouched. I couldn’t have eaten now if I were starving. “Just do your work like you don’t know nothing” ran through my mind again and I began washing the dishes.
I went home shaking like a leaf on a tree. For the first time out of all her frying. Mrs. Burke had made me feel like rotten garbage. Many times she had tried to instill fear within me and subdue me and had given up. But when she talked about Emmett Till there was something in her voice that sent chills and fear all over me.
Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me—the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears. I knew once I got
food, the fear of starving to death would leave. I also was told that if I were ea good girl, I wouldn’t have to fear the Devil or hell. But I didn’t know what one had to do or not do as a Negro not to be killed. Probably just being a Negro period was enough, I thought.
A few days later, I went to work and Mrs. Burke bad about eight women over for tea. They were all sitting around In the living room when I got there. She told me she was having a “guild meeting.” and asked me to help her serve the cookies and tea.
After helping her, I started cleaning the house. I always swept the hallway and porch first. As I was sweeping the hail, I could hear them talking. When I heard the word "nigger," I stopped sweeping and listened. Mrs. Burke must have sensed this, because she suddenly came to the door.
"Essie, finish the hall and clean the bathroom,” she said hesitantly. "Then you can go for today. I am not making dinner tonight.” Then she went back In the living room with the rest of the ladles.
Before she interrupted my listening. I bad picked up the words “NAACP” and “that organization.” Because they were talking about niggers, I knew NAACP had something to do with Negroes. All that night I kept wondering what could that NAACP mean?
Later when I was sitting In the kitchen at home doing my lessons, I decided to ask Mama. It was about twelve-thirty. Everyone was In bed but me. When Mania came In to put some milk In Ralph’s bottle, I said, “Mania, what do NAACP mean?
“Where did you git that from? she asked me, spilling milk all over the floor.
“Mrs. Burke had a meeting tonight—”
“What kind of meeting?” she asked, cutting me off.
“I don’t know. She had some women over—she said It was a guild meeting.” I said.
“A guild meeting.” she repeated.
“Yes, they were talking about Negroes and I heard some woman say ‘that NAACP’ and another ‘that organization.’ meaning the same thing.”
“What else did they say? she asked me.
“That’s all I heard. Mrs. Burke must have thought I was listening, so she told me to clean the bathroom and leave.”
“Don’t you ever mention that word around Mrs. Burke or no other white person, you heahi Finish your lesson and cut that light out and go to bed,” Mama said angrily and left the kitchen.
“With a Mama like that you’ll never learn anything,” I thought as I got Into bed. All night long I thought about Emmet Till and the NAACP. I even got up to look up NAACP In my little concise dictionary. But I didn’t find It.
The next day at school, I decided to ask my homeroom teacher Mrs. Rice the meaning of NAACP. When the bell sounded for lunch, I remained In my seat as the other students left the room.
“Are you going to spend your lunch hour studying again today, Moody? Mrs. Rice asked me.
“Can I ask you a question, Mrs. Rice?” I asked her.
“You may ask me a question, yes, but I don’t know If you can or not,” she said.
“What does the word NAACP mean? I asked.
“Why do you want to know?
“The lady I worked for had a meeting and I overheard the word mentioned.”
“What else did you hear?
“Nothing. I didn’t know what NAACP meant, that’s all.” I felt like I was on the witness stand or something.
“Well, next time your boss has another meeting you listen more carefully. NAACP is a Negro organization that was established a long time ago to help Negroes gain a few basic rights,” she said.
“What’s it gotta do with the Emmett Till murder?” I asked.
“they are trying to get a conviction In Emmett Till’s case. You see the NAACP is trying to do a lot for the Negroes and get the right to vote for Negroes In the South.
I shouldn’t be telling you all this. And don’t you dare breathe a word of what I said. It could cost me my job If word got out I was teaching my students such. I gotta go to lunch and you should go outside too because It’s nice and sunny out today,” she said leaving the room. “We’ll talk more when I have time.”
About a week later, Mrs. Rice had me over for Sunday dinner, and I spent about five hours with her. Within that time, I digested a good meal and accumulated a whole new pool of knowledge about Negroes being butchered and slaughtered by whites In the South. After Mrs. Rice had told me all this, I felt like the lowest animal on earth. At least when other animals (hogs, cows, etc.) were killed by man, they were used as food. But when man was butchered or killed by man, In the case of Negroes by whites, they were left lying on a road or found floating In a river or something.
Mrs. Rice got to be something like a mother to me. She told me anything I wanted to know. And made me promise that I would keep all this Information she was passing on to me to myself. She said she couldn’t, rather didn’t, want to talk about these things to the other teachers, that they would tell Mr. Willis and she would be fired. At the end of that year she was fired. I never found out why. I haven’t seen her since then.
I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people. I hated the white men who murdered Emmett Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders Mrs. Rice had told me about and those I vaguely remembered from childhood. But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders. In fact, I think I had a stronger resentment toward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites. Anyway, it was at this stage in my life that I began to look upon Negro men as cowards. I could not respect them for smiling in a white man’s face, addressing him as Mr. So-and-So, saying yessuh and nossuh when after they were home behind closed doors that same white man was a son of a bitch, a bastard, or any other name more suitable than mister.
Emmett Till’s murder provoked a lot of anger and excitement among whites in Centrevifle. Now just about every evening when I got to work, Mrs. Burke had to attend a guild meeting. She had more women coming over now than ever. She and her friends had organized canvassing teams and a telephone campaign, to solicit for new members Within a couple of months most of the whites in Centrevile were taking part in the Guild. The meetings were initially held in the various houses. There were lawn parties and church gatherings. Then when it began to get cold, they were held in the high school auditorium.
After the Guild had organized about two-thirds of the whites in Centreville, all kinds of happenings were unveiled The talk was on. White housewives began firing their mai& and scolding their husbands and the Negro communitic were full of whispered gossip.
The most talked-about subject was a love affair Mr. Fox, the deputy sheriff, and one of my classmates were carrying on. Bess was one of the oldest girls in my class. She was a shapely, high brown girl of about seventeen. She did general housekeeping and nursing for Fox and his wife.
It was general policy that most young white couples in Centreville hired only older Negro women as helpers. However, when there were two or more children In the family, it was more advantageous to hire a young Negro girl. That way, they always had someone to baby-sit when there was a need for a baby-sitter. My job with Linda Jean had been this kind. I kept Donna and Johnny on Sundays and baby-sat at night when they needed me.
Even though the teen-age Negro girls were more desirable for such jobs, very few if any were trusted in the homes of the young couples. The young white housewife didn’t dare leave one alone in the house with her loyal and obedient husband. She was afraid that the Negro girl would seduce him, never the contrary.
There had been whispering In the Negro communities about Bess and Fox for some time. Just about every young white man in Centreville had a Negro lover. Therefore Fox, even though he was the deputy sheriff, wasn’t doing anything worse than the rest of the men. At least that’s the way the Negroes looked at the situation. Fox wasn’t anyone special to them. But the whites didn’t see it that way. The sheriff and all of his deputies were, in the eyes of their white compatriots, honorable men. And these honorable men were not put into office because they loved Negroes. So when the white community caught on about Fox and Bess, naturally they were out to expose the affair. Such exposure would discourage other officers from similar misbehavior.
Mrs. Fox was completely devoted to her husband. She too thought he was an honest man and she was willing to do anything that would prove him innocent. Soon a scheme was under way. Mrs. Fox was to leave home every so often. It had been reported that every time she was out and Bess was left there alone, Fox found his way home for one reason or another. Mrs. Fox left home purposely a couple of times while the neighbors kept watch. They confirmed the report that Fox would always return home. So one day Mrs. Fox decided to take the children and visit her mother—but she only went as far as the house next door. Bess was to come and give the house a thorough cleaning on the same day.
Mrs. Fox waited almost an hour at her neighbors’ and nothing happened. It was said she was ready to go home and apologize to Bess and call her husband and do likewise. But just as she was about to do so, Fox drove up and went inside. She waited about thirty minutes more, then went home.
When she walked into her bedroom there they were, her husband and Bess, lying in her bed all curled up together. Poor Bess was so frightened that she ran out of the house clothed only in her slip with her panties in her hands. She never set foot In Mrs. Fox’s house again. Neither did she return to school afterward. She took a job in the quarters where we lived, in a Negro café. It was said that she didn’t need the job, though. Because after her embarrassing episode with Fox, her reputation was beyond repair, and be felt obligated to take care of her. Last I heard of Bess, she was still in Centreville, wearing fine clothes and carrying on as usual. Fox is no longer deputy, I understand, but he and his wife are still together.
It appeared after a while that the much talked about maids raids were only a means of diverting attention from what was really taking place in those guild meetings. In the midst of all the talk about what white man was screwing which Negro woman, new gossip emerged—about what Negro man was screwing which white woman. This gossip created so much tension, every Negro man in Centreville became afraid to walk the streets. They knew too well that they would not get off as easily as the white man who was caught screwing a Negro woman. They had only to look at a white woman and be hanged for it. Emmett Till’s murder had proved it was a crime, punishable by death, for a Negro man to even whistle at a white woman in Mississippi.
I had never heard of a single affair in Centreville between a Negro man and a white woman. It was almost Impossible for such an affair to take place. Negro men did not have access to white woman. Whereas almost every white man in town had a Negro woman in his kitchen or nursing his babies.
The tension lasted for about a month before anything happened. Then one day, a rumor was spread throughout town that a Negro had been making telephone calls to a white operator and threatening to molest her. It was also said that the calls had been traced to a certain phone that was now under watch.
Next thing we heard in the Negro community was that they had caught and nearly beaten to death a boy who, they said, had made the calls to the white operator. All the Negroes went around saying “Y’all know that boy didn’t do that.” “That boy” was my classmate Jerry. A few months later I got a chance to talk to him and he told me what happened.
He said he had used the telephone at Billups and Fillups service station and was on his way home when Sheriff Ed Cassidy came along in his pickup truck.
“Hey, buddy,” Cassidy called, “you on your way home?”
“Yes,” Jerry answered.
“Jump in, I’m goin’ your way, I’ll give you a lift.”
Then Jerry told me that when they got out there by the scales where the big trucks weigh at the old camp intersection, Cassidy let him out, telling him that he had forgotten something in town and had to go back and pick it up. At that point, Jerry told me, he didn’t suspect anything. He just got out of the truck and told Cassidy thanks. But as soon as the sheriff pulled away, a car came along and stopped. There were four men in it. A deep voice ordered Jerry to get into the car. When he saw that two of the men were Jim Dixon and Nat Withers, whom he had often seen hang-big around town with Cassidy, he started to run. But the two in the back jumped out and grabbed him. They forced him Into the car and drove out into the camp area. When they got about five miles out, they turned down a little dark dirt road, heavily shaded with frees. They pushed Jerry out of the car onto the ground. He got up and dashed into the woods but they caught up with him and dragged him farther into the woods. Then they tied him to a tree and beat him with a big thick leather strap and a piece of hose pipe.
I asked him if they told him why they were beating him.
“No, not at first,” Jerry said, “but when I started screamin’ and cryin’ and askin’ them why they were beatin’ me Dixon told me I was tryin’ to be smart and they just kept on beatin’ me. Then one of the men I didn’t know asked me, ‘Did you make that phone call, boy? I said no. I think he kinda believed me ‘cause he stopped beatin’ me but the others didn’t. The rest of them beat me until I passed out. When I came out of it I was lying on the ground, untied, naked and bleeding. I tried to get up but I was hurtin’ all over and it was hard to move. Finally I got my clothes on that them son of a bitches had tore offa me and I made it out to the main highway, but I fainted again. When I woke up I was home in bed.
“Daddy them was scared to take me to the hospital in Centreville. I didn’t even see a doctor ‘cause they were scared to take me to them white doctors. Wasn’t any bones or anything broken. I was swollen all over, though. And you can see I still have bruises and cuts from the strap, but otherwise I guess Fm O.K.”
When I asked him whether they were going to do anything about it, he said that his daddy had gotten a white lawyer from Baton Rouge. But after the lawyer pried around in Centreville for a few days, he suddenly disappeared. Jerry’s beating shook up all the Negroes in town. But the most shocking and unjust crime of all occurred a few months later, about two weeks before school ended.
One night, about one o’clock, I was awakened by what I thought was a terrible nightmare. It was an empty dream that consisted only of hollering and screaming voices. It seemed as though I was In an empty valley screaming. And the sounds of my voice were reflected In a million echoes that were so loud I was being lifted In mid-air by the sound waves. I found myself standing trembling In the middle of the floor reaching for the light string. Then I saw Mama running to the kitchen, In her nightgown.
“Mama! Mama! What’s all them voices? Where’re all those people? What’s happening?”
“I don’t know,” she said, coining to my bedroom door.
“Listen! Listen!” I said, almost screaming.
“Stop all that loud talking fo’ you wake up the rest of them chaps. It must be a house on fire or somethin’ ‘cause of all the screamin’. Somebody must be hurt In it or some-thin’ too. Ray is getting the car, we gonna go see what it is,” she said and headed for the back door.
“You going in your gown?” I asked her.
‘We ain’t gonna git out of the car. Come on, you can go,” she said. “But don’t slam the door and wake them chaps up.”
I followed her out of the back door In my pajamas. Ray. mond was just backing the car out of the driveway.
When we turned the corner leaving the quarters, Ray.. mond drove slowly alongside hundreds of people running down the road. They were all headed In the direction of the blaze that reddened the sky.
The crowd of people began to swell until driving was utterly Impossible. Finally the long line of cars stopped. We were about two blocks away from the burning house now. The air was so hot that water was running down the faces of the people who ran past the car. The burning house was on the rock road, leading to the school, adjacent to the street we stopped on. So we couldn’t tell which house it was. From where we sat, it seemed as though it could have been two or three of them burning. I knew every Negro living In the houses that lined that rock road. I passed them every day on my way to and from school.
I sat there In my pajamas, wishing I had thrown on a dress or something so I could get out of the car.
“Ray, ask somebody who house it is,” Mama said to Raymond.
“Hi! Excuse me.” Raymond leaned out of the car and spoke to a Negro man. “Do you know who house Is on fire?’
“I heard it was the Taplin family. They say the whole family is still In the house. Look like they are done for, so they say.”
Didn’t any one of us say anything after that We just sat in the car silently. I couldn’t believe what the man had just said. “A whole family burned to death—impossIble!” I thought.
“What you think happened, Ray?” Mama finally said to Raymond.
“I don’t know. You never kin tell,” Raymond said. “It seems mighty strange, though.”
Soon people started walking back down the road. The screams and hollering had stopped. People were almost whispering now. They were all Negroes, although I was almost sure I had seen some whites pass before. “I guess not,” I thought, sitting there sick Inside. Some of the ladies passing the car had tears running down their faces, as they whispered to each other.
“Didn’t you smell that gasoline?’ I heard a lady who lived in the quarters say.
“That house didn’t just catch on fire. And just think them bastards burned up a whole family,” another lady said. Then they were quiet again.
Soon their husbands neared the car.
“Heh, Jones,” Raymond said to one of the men. “How many was killed?”
“About eight or nine of them, Ray. They say the old lady and one of the children got out. I didn’t see her nowhere, though.”
“You think the house was set on fire?’ Raymond asked.
“It sho’ looks like it, Ray. It burned down like nothing. When I got there that house was burning on every side. If it had started on the inside of the house at some one place then it wouldn’t burn down like it did. All the walls fell in together. Too many strange things are happening round here these days.”
Now most of the people and cars were gone, Raymond drove upto the little rock road and parked. I almost vomited when I caught a whiff of the odor of burned bodies mixed with the gasoline. The wooden frame house had been burned to ashes. All that was left were some iron bedposts and springs, a blackened refrigerator, a stove, and some kitchen equipment.
We sat In the car for about an hour, silently looking at this debris and the ashes that covered the nine charcoal-burned bodies. A hundred or more also stood around— Negroes from the neighborhood In their pajamas, night-gowns, and housecoats and even a few whites, with their eyes fixed on that dreadful scene. I shall never forget the expressions on the faces of the Negroes. There was almost unanimous hopelessness In them. The still, sad faces watched the smoke rising from the remains until the smoke died down to practically nothing. There was something strange about that smoke. It was the thickest and blackest smoke I had ever seen.
Raymond finally drove away, but It was impossible for him to take me away from that nightmare. Those screams, those faces, that smoke, would never leave me.
The next day I took the long, roundabout way to school.
I didn’t want to go by the scene that was so fixed In my mind. I tried to convince myself that nothing had happened In the night. And I wanted so much to believe that, to believe anything but the dream Itself. However, at school, everybody was talking about it. All during each class there was whispering from student to student. Hadn’t many of my classmates witnessed the burning last night. I wished they had. If so, they wouldn’t be talking so much, I thought. Because I had seen it, and I couldn’t talk about it. I just couldn’t.
I was so glad when the bell sounded for the lunch hour. I picked up my books and headed home. I couldn’t endure another minute of that torture. I was in such a hurry to get away from the talk at school I forgot to take the roundabout way home. Before I realized It, I was standing there where the Taplins’ house had been. It looked quite different by day than it had at night. The ashes and junk had been scattered as If someone had looked for the remains of the bodies. The heavy black smoke had disappeared completely.
But I stood there looking at the spot where I had seen it rising and I saw it again, slowly drifting away, disappearing before my eyes. I tore myself away and ran almost all the way home.
When I walked In the house Mama didn’t even ask me why I came home. She just looked at me. And for the first time I realized she understood what was going on within me, or was trying to anyway. I took two aspirins and went to bed. I stayed there all afternoon. When It was time for me to go to work after school, Mama didn’t come in. She must have known I wasn’t In the mood for Mrs. Burke that evening. I wasn’t in the mood for anything. I was just there inside of myself, inflicting pain with every thought that ran through my mind.
That night Centreville was like a ghost town. It was so quiet and still. The quietness almost drove me crazy. It was too quiet for sleeping that night, yet it was too restless for dreams and too dry for weeping.
A few days later, it was reported that the fire had started from the kerosene lamp used by Mrs. Taplin as a light for the new baby. Nobody bought that story. At least none of those who witnessed that fire and smelled all that gasoline. They were sure that more than a lampful of kerosene caused that house to burn that fast.
There was so much doubt and dissension about the Tapun burning that finally FBI agents arrived on the scene and quietly conducted an investigation. But as usual in this sort of case, the investigation was dropped as soon as public interest died down.
Months later the story behind the burning was whispered throughout the Negro community. Some of the Taplins’ neighbors who had been questioned put their scraps of information together and came up with an answer that made sense. Living next door to the Taplin family was a Mr. Banks, a high yellow mulatto man of much wealth. He was a bachelor with land and cattle galore. He had for some time discreetly taken care of a white woman, the mother of three whose husband had deserted her, leaving her to care for the children the best way she knew how. She lived in a bottom where a few other poor whites lived. The Guild during one of its Investigations discovered the children at home alone one night—and many other nights after that. Naturally, they wondered where the mother was spending her nights. A few days’ observation of the bottom proved she was leaving home, after putting the children to bed, and being picked up by Mr. Banks in Inconspicuous places.
When the Taplin family was burned, Mr. Banks escaped his punishment Very soon afterward he locked his house and disappeared. And so did the white lady from the bottom.
I could barely wait until school was out. I was so sick of Centreville. I made up my mind to tell Mama I had to get away, if only for the summer. I had thought of going to Baton Rouge to live with my Uncle Ed who was now married and living there with his family.
A few days before school ended I satin the midst of about six of my classmates who Insisted on discussing the Taplin family. By the time I got home, my nerves were in shreds from thinking of some of the things they had said. I put my books down, took two aspirins, and got Into bed. I didn’t think I could go to work that evening because I was too nervous to be around Mrs. Burke. I had not been myself at work since the Emmett Till murder, especially after the way Mrs. Burke had talked to me about the Taplin family.
But she had become more observant of my reactions.
“What’s wretg with you? Is you sick? Mama asked me.
I didn’t answer her.
"Take your shoes off that spread You better git up and go to work. Mis. Burke gonna fire you.”
“I got a headache and I don’t feel like going,” I said.
“What’s wrong with you, getting so many headaches around here?
I decided not to wait any longer to tell Mama my plan. “Mama, I am gonna write Ed and see can I stay with him this summer and get a job in Baton Rouge. I am just tired of working for Mrs. Burke for a dollar a day. I can make five dollars a day in Baton Rouge and I make only six dollars a week here.”
“Ed them ain’t got enough room for you to live with them. Take your shoes off," Mama said, and left me lying in bed.
As soon as she left, I got up and wrote my letter. About five days later I received an answer from Ed. He said I was welcome, so I started pacbing to leave the next day. Mama looked at me as if she didn't want me to go. But she knew better than to ask me.
I was fifteen years old and leaving home for the first time. I wasn’t even sure I could get a job at that age. But I had to go anyway, if only to breathe a slightly different atmosphere. I Was choking to death In Centreville. I couldn’t go on working for Mrs. Burke pretending I was dumb and innocent, pretending I didn’t know what was going on in all her guild meetings, or about Jerry’s beating, or about the Taplin burning, arid everything else that was going on. I was Sick of pretending, sick of selling my feelings for a dollar a day.