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Dorothy Spruill Redford was born in Columbia, North Carolina. After attending college in New York she returned to North Carolina to manage the Somerset Place State Historic Site. It was on this antebellum plantation that four generations of her ancestors lived as slaves. She discusses her book, Somerset Homecoming, on a special episode of North Carolina Bookwatch.
Looks Just Like Me
Somerset Slave Community: An Antebellum Genealogical Study
Daddy was at work the windy February morning I came to ask about Columbia.
He was seventy then and holding down three jobs. The granary was closed. Waldo had shut it down back in 1962, after he became the city's Commissioner of Revenue. But Waldo didn't leave Daddy jobless. He took him along, made him a janitor, and that's where my father worked for the next thirteen years--keeping the Commissioner of Revenue offices clean.
They retired Daddy at sixty-five, but he wasn't the retiring kind. He'd been doing a man's work since he was twelve, and he wasn't about to sit down until he had to. So he got on as a runner at a local bank, was hired to clean a judge's office, and clerked at a neighborhood hardware store. That was enough to keep his days filled.
Mother and he were living in town then, in Churchland proper, in a three-bedroom wood house Daddy built on land he paid for with some of his hogs. Six of us children were grown and gone. Rudolph, the youngest, was the only one still living at home. He was out, too, the morning I arrived to ask my mother who I was.
It was January 1977, a time when I had not been thinking much about the past.
I was thirty-three that winter, a single mother with a thirteen-year-old daughter. We lived in the South. Not the South of moss-draped oaks and whitewashed pillars--the snapshot images that spring to the mind of those who have not lived there. No, Deborah and I were in Portsmouth, Virginia, a gray harbor-front town of ships and sailors. I was a social worker, supervising three welfare offices that handled about a hundred cases a day. That was a good number, high enough to keep us all busy, knowing our jobs were secure. Sometimes it bothered me seeing my work that way, knowing my good fortune depended on someone else's bad. But I worked hard, and I was good at my job, good enough to think about moving that winter from our rented apartment to a townhouse--the first home Deborah and I would call our own.
My job, my daughter, and a mortgage--I had plenty to think about but not so much not to know that the world was sitting down that week to watch Roots. At least the world I knew. It was all my friends and co-workers could talk about. They watched it at night and talked about it in the morning--about Africa, about slavery, about finding their ancestors.
I was too busy with the here and now to think about there and then. But I watched, too. And as I did, it all rushed back, feelings I hadn't faced in years. Emptiness, anger, confusion, denial--most of all, denial. For thirteen years I had tucked those feelings away, telling myself they no longer mattered. Now they were back again, but with a difference. It wasn't just me facing the questions now. Deborah wanted answers, too. She watched, and suddenly she was asking about things we'd never talked about. Who were my great-grandparents? Where did they come from? Were they slaves? And their parents, where did they come from?
My daughter was demanding her past, but I could not give it to her without discovering my own. And that meant picking up where I left off the day Deborah was born. It meant going back to New York City, to Queens and Harlem, to Aunt Dot and Ivan. Back to Virginia, to my mother and father and sisters and brothers, to hogs in the pen and prayers in the living room. Back to North Carolina, to a hazy town of dirt streets and distant cousins, to the edge of the woods where the vaguest family memories and whispered stories stopped--and beyond which my own story began.
That town in the woods was Columbia, North Carolina, where I was born in August 1943. My parents were not much for history, for talking about the old days. But they did reminisce now and then. And this much I knew:
It was a busy place, hard on the Scuppernong River, at the seacoast edge of the state. The black part of town had seven little streets--none of them paved--and the white part had ten. The Norfolk Southern tracks ran through the center of town, keeping white and black homes apart and stopping at the edge of the woods, where the sawmill sat. For the railroad, that mill was the end of the line, the place where the tracks ran out. But Columbia would not have been there without it. Lumber made that town. For generations, loggers from miles around drove or floated their timber to Columbia's mill, where it was cut and loaded onto boats headed seaward or railroad cars headed inland.
My mother always referred to Columbia as a "boom town." She'd talk about the out-of-town bus coming through, and the trains rolling in, the movie house, the store, the hotel where her great-uncle worked. None of the small surrounding villages had those things, so Columbia was the hub, the big time.
By the time I was born, most of the men in town--at least the black men--were gone. Some had left to war. Some had left for work somewhere else. And some had just left.
There were a few black professionals around: teachers, ministers, shop owners, and of course one of the most successful men in town--the undertaker. But if a job took more than muscle, it was most likely taken by a white. Blacks worked in the fields, digging potatoes for twenty cents an hour. Some women became domestics, cooking and cleaning for white families. The black men who were lucky handled freight for the railroad or got on at the log mill. And some of them found more than one way to make money off those logs. My grandmother would tell us about her husband searching the river for logs that had sunk, logs that really belonged to the sawmill. He'd fish them out, plane them, and sell them on his own. There were men who earned their entire living just dredging up lost logs. There was no welfare in those days, so you did what you had to to get by.
My father went into the log woods--the thick pine forests where timber was cut--at twelve. A lot of boys just like him did the same thing, to support their mothers and sisters when the men were gone. My father's parents separated early on, so he and his mother took care of themselves and his sister. When he was old enough, my father got a job at the mill. By August 7, 1943, he was earning twelve dollars a week for fifty-six hours of work. That was the day I was born, and that was the day he left town.
It was a Saturday morning, and he and a white man named Leslie Snell decided to catch the bus to Virginia. There were already four children in our house, and my father could not support five on the pay he was getting. He had heard about a lumber mill up in Portsmouth that had big contracts with the Navy shipyard and plenty of jobs. So he just went. He left at eight in the morning, and I was born at two that afternoon, the only one of my mother's children to be delivered in a hospital. Old Doc Chapman, who delivered all the black and white babies in Columbia, always came to your house, gave you ether or whatever, and you bore your child right there. But not this time. I guess it was my mother's way of protest, being angry at my father leaving her behind, but she said, "Oh ho, this one is going into the hospital." That's another thing that made Columbia a big town. It had the hospital. Seven beds.
So my father stayed in Portsmouth, earning forty-two dollars a week, sending money to my mother and coming home when he could--a four-hour bus ride in those days. We lived upstairs in the home of my mother's parents, Momma and Poppa. Poppa wasn't working anymore. He was preaching. And Momma J, she was doing just whatever she'd ever done, which is not much of anything. She was in her own world, my mother would say.
I think Mother would have stayed in Columbia forever if Poppa hadn't died. But he got typhoid in 1944. My mother told me they put him in a front room of the house, with a cheesecloth net over his bed to keep the flies away from him. She said she could hear him breathing, hear his death rattle, hear him dying in that room.
When my mother packed us up and moved to join Daddy in 1945, she was pregnant with her sixth baby. And she was petrified. Back in Columbia, you walked everywhere. Nothing was more than a mile away. But here were things she had never seen before. She had never seen city buses. Stoplights. Traffic. She had been used to living in a large country house, with a big porch on the front and another on the back. A yard. Lots of room. And now she was in a two-bedroom rowhouse, squeezed up against houses full of strangers, sharing one bedroom with my father while the five of us slept in the other. There wasn't a lot of money, but more than that, we were living on pavement. There was no garden in the backyard. No field to go to for food. No way to make do for yourself except to make money.
Daddy couldn't earn enough. And with another child on the way, his family needed room. My mother's brother, Uncle Fred, lived in New York City with his wife Dorothy, my namesake. She was "Big Dot," I was "Little Dot." They had no children, they had money and they had time. When they offered to keep me for a while, my parents sent me north for a summer that lasted eight years.
My own memories begin in New York. I remember sitting in an apartment in Queens, looking out on elevated railroad tracks. Later, we moved to a house with a yard. I remember Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred playing cards in the front room once a week, while I sat on the floor in front of a large radio, listening to The Lone Ranger. I remember going to a concert and seeing men in sparkling red tuxedo jackets; I found out years later that one of those men was Count Basie. I remember Aunt Dot walking me to kindergarten every morning, and taking me to a movie every Wednesday afternoon.
Uncle Fred was my mother's oldest brother, a dark, tall man. And Aunt Dot was Momma J all over again. She was a small woman, light-skinned, just like Momma J. She had black curly hair that fell down to her waist, just like Momma J's. It was as if Uncle Fred had married his mother.
But there was more. Aunt Dot lived in a world far beyond Momma J's dream. When you looked at Aunt Dot, you knew you were looking at a lady. She wore the finest clothes: a Persian lamb coat, a full-length mink. These were working people--Uncle Fred had a job in a Manhattan cleaners--but Aunt Dot could squeeze a penny. Everything she bought had to be the very best, the most expensive she could find. And somehow she found a way to get it. In Aunt Dot's house, everything had to be just so. Even what we ate. Only the proper food--a salad every day. No fried foods, none of that Southern home cooking. On a special occasion we might have ham, but more often it was beef. At that time, if you ate beef that meant you were really living well. Real status. So we had hamburgers every Saturday, just like our Jewish neighbors. Fish every Friday, just like the Catholics. Mixed vegetables two nights a week. I still remember spitting those mixed vegetables back onto my plate. I hated mixed vegetables.
Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred were both from Columbia, but there was nothing on their dinner table that you'd see back in North Carolina. Nothing in their speech either, no Southern accent. They'd left all that behind when they came north in the late twenties. It had taken some time, but over the years they had managed to leave every bridge behind them in ashes. Back in Columbia, you were either black or white. And black meant black. There was no pecking order, no difference between fair skin and dark. Everyone was related. Everyone was linked. You can't discriminate on seven streets. But Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred came from two of the wealthier black families in town. They were used to feeling special. When they got to New York, however, they were nobody.
The worst thing you could be in New York, white or black, was a Southerner. Southerners were slow, ignorant, shuffling country folk. And if you were a black Southerner, you were the lowest of the low. Even the other blacks--the native New Yorkers, the West Indians--sneered at the South. So Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred did what they had to. Suddenly they were no longer from North Carolina. Suddenly they were Dorothy and Fred Littlejohn from Jamaica.
Suddenly, they were "islanders."
There wasn't much to it, really. They were chameleons, taking on the shades of their surroundings. And their surroundings were mostly white. The Queens neighborhood where Uncle Fred and Aunt Dot lived was almost suburban, closer to something in Virginia than in Manhattan. Stand-alone houses and separate yards. And lots of whites. There were only three black families on Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred's block. I used to play with the daughter of the Jewish doctor who lived across the street. Next door to us was my best friend Maryann, a little Italian girl. These were the kids I played with, white kids. The school I went to had more whites than blacks. We were the minority, but we were accepted. We did what the "well-to-do" did. We took in that matinee every Wednesday. We shopped at Gertz, the best department store in Queens. I took dance lessons, wore hand-knit sweaters, walked to school with a clean handkerchief pinned to my left shoulder, was even left with a sitter when Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred took a proper vacation. We were a model family, right out of the books Aunt Dot liked to read. To our white neighbors, to the white people Uncle Fred worked for, we were "okay" blacks. And Aunt Dot made sure we stayed that way.
But it wasn't easy. Not with me around. From the time I learned to speak, Aunt Dot spent each day praying I'd keep my mouth shut. Once a week we'd ride the subway into Manhattan, meet Uncle Fred after work and go out to dinner. Well-bred families did that. We'd meet Uncle Fred at the cleaners, and if there was one place the act counted, it was there, where Uncle Fred worked. Two days before we'd ride in, Aunt Dot would start the harping: "Don't tell them where you're from. Don't talk about Virginia." I knew where I was from. I knew I wasn't from any island. I knew Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred weren't either. And I was just the kind of little girl who would answer back: "Why can't I say what I want?" All the years I was there Aunt Dot lived in mortal terror, convinced I was going to pull the masks off.
When they had first come north, Uncle Fred had worked in a meatpacking house. But before long he was hired as a spotter at a cleaners. And he wasn't just any spotter. He was a mid-Manhattan spotter, something special. He only took stains out of the most expensive clothing. If someone had a nine-hundred-dollar dress with a spot on it, Uncle Fred was the man they called to take it out. That's all he did. He was a craftsman, a chemist.
But he was not the dandy Aunt Dot tried to make him. She put him in expensive suits, pushed him to act just the right way. But Uncle Fred was a loud talker. He had modified his accent, gotten rid of the Carolina ring, but he was still loud. And if he had a drink, he was even louder. He couldn't help cursing now and then, letting slip a nasty tale or two. He liked to have his fun. Once in a while he'd take me with him when he stopped in at the bar around the corner. He'd have his beer, and I'd stand on a chair and shoot pool. Not exactly the little lady Aunt Dot was grooming. We both had that streak of sassiness, Uncle Fred and me. I guess it's in the Littlejohn blood. And it drove Aunt Dot up a wall.
Manhattan and Queens. That's all I saw of New York. If Aunt Dot knew anything about a place like Harlem, she kept it to herself. To me, the only odd thing about being black was playing Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred's "island" game. Other than that, I never felt different. I had no reason to. There was a movement brewing out there--in the angry streets of Harlem, in the sweltering shantytowns of the South. Brushfires were beginning to crackle, flames that would soon gather into the sixties storm of civil rights and separatism, of Selma and Stokely. But I was untouched. Aunt Dot made sure of that. There was no conflict in her home. No rocking the boat. It was a delicate house of cards she had built, and she wasn't about to see it fall apart. I turned eleven in 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, of soldiers on the school steps in Little Rock. That was a big year for the movement. It was a big year for me, too. That was the year I moved back to Virginia.
I don't know why they brought me back. Maybe my father was finally making enough money to pull his family back together. Maybe I'd become too much for Aunt Dot to handle. There was no discussion, no one sitting me down and telling me, "Now, Dorothy, here's what's happening." That's not how things were done in Aunt Dot's house or in my parents'. To this day, I don't remember the trip down. I guess I was in a state of shock. The resentment, the hurt at being sent away by my own family as a baby, had been inside me for years. My parents never explained why they gave me away. And going back made me resent them even more.
I had been down over the years, for summer visits that never lasted more than a week. I had played with my brothers and sisters--there were finally seven of us then. But I never felt at home, and each time I couldn't wait to get back to Queens, back where I belonged. I hardly remember those visits. Aunt Dot's game had worked better than she could have guessed. But this time there was no return trip. I was in Virginia to stay. No more Wednesday matinees. No more dance lessons. No more of Aunt Dot's delicate dreams.
My family lived in a house now, near a black neighborhood at the edge of town they called Churchland. There were fields around us, and that's where many of the neighbors worked, picking melons, collards, and strawberries. My father had left the mill to work in a granary. We lived in a four-bedroom house right on the mill yard. Railroad tracks ran past our front yard, and the train came by twice a day. I remember the engineers who drove those trains--white engineers--throwing candy to us as they went past.
It was strange moving into that house. My brothers and sisters looked at me like I was from another country. The day I arrived I was wearing a little white Peter Pan hat, and I remember them picking at it, touching it like they'd never seen one before. I don't remember my impressions of them. I don't remember how I felt. All I remember is what happened to my things. I came in that door with what must have looked to my brothers and sisters like a world full of things--toys, clothes. And the first thing my brothers did was take my bicycle apart, piece by piece, until there was nothing left. My mother just looked at it, then looked at me and said, "Well, they don't have one."
There were other things my brothers and sisters didn't have. But my father worked hard to give them what he could. He spent fourteen hours a day at the granary, taking his pay both in money and in feed, which kept us in chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, goats, and hogs. Later, the hogs paid for our first car, a maroon Studebaker.
My mother worked, too, borrowing bus fare from a neighbor and finding a job at a Catholic infant care center--a place whites took their babies for adoption. She wasn't about to work in what she called "white folks' kitchens" for three dollars a week. Instead she left us home and went out each day to take care of those unwanted babies. She was proud of that single white cotton uniform she wore. She washed it every night, kept it spotless and brought home a paycheck of forty-eight dollars a week.
I was a stranger in a strange land, but I adjusted as best I could. I learned to climb trees and catch lizards, played in the dirt under our house, walked for miles down the tracks, balancing on one rail. I picked wild asparagus and blackberries. I learned to crab. But there was one thing I could never get used to, and that was the praying.
The closest Aunt Dot ever got to religion was reading her Unity magazine and mailing off her donation every week. Religion for her was a matter of personal ethics, of codes. Other than the lie she lived about the West Indies, Aunt Dot was as moral, as strict as they come, full of rules and words to live by. She didn't need any church to lay down the law for her.
But in my mother's house, the air was thick with religion--as good and old-time as it gets. Everything was a sin in our house. Playing checkers was a sin, if you did it on Sunday. Cards, rock and roll music--those things were sins any day of the week. And Sunday morning was a day all to itself. It began with breakfast. Food was my mother's way of showing love. If she couldn't provide a lot of material things, she could still feed us. It was a sin to cook on Sunday, of course, so she'd spend all Saturday night cooking. And we'd wake up Sunday to chicken soup for breakfast. I mean, this was soup made with the whole chicken. The feet would be sticking out of that soup, feet with the toenails still on them. We raised those chickens ourselves, then we cooked them, then we ate them.
Before breakfast, we prayed. Not a quick prayer at the table, either. This was a session that would shame most churches. Each of us children took a chair from the kitchen and set it up against a living room wall. Mother's chair was across the room, against a wall of its own. We would face the wall, drop to our knees, lean on the chairs and listen to Mother pray. And pray. If she had had a really hard week, it was a really long prayer. And if Momma J was visiting, it was even longer. Momma J was so pious, so perfect, that Mother had to establish that she was just as holy. They'd have a pray-off, and Momma J would go first. She'd pray for the living. She'd pray for the dead. So slowly, with so much feeling. Then my mother would take her turn. She'd pray a little faster than Momma J, but she'd pray longer.
Then Momma J would get happy. She would never shout or anything--Momma J was too proper for that. She'd just let out a little "Hoooooo. Hoooooo." Like a bird.
Mother would speak in tongues. She could only say one thing in tongues--something that sounded like "Ahh. Pasta. Ahh. Pasta." She'd do that over and over again.
And we would kneel there, shifting from one knee to the other on that hard linoleum floor. Whatever sinning we'd done that week, we paid for on that floor. After the prayer came the Bible verses. We had to memorize them the night before and prove we were ready for church, which came after chicken soup. We were at church two hours. Then we came home and had dinner--chicken dinner.
I never really fit in at home. I talked faster, I walked quicker. My mother told me later she actually would watch my walk and try to imitate it. "That Northern walk," she called it. I'd been to the city, I'd been exposed to things none of my family had ever seen, and that earned a kind of respect from them. Inside that house I was what Aunt Dot was trying to be in New York--special.
But outside, everything was different. Other blacks didn't like me because I was odd. And to the whites, I was just another black, nobody, nothing. In Queens, whites had been my next-door neighbors. The racism there was more subtle, an affair between adults, something kids like me and Maryann never sensed. I didn't know what racial tension was until I met Waldo's kids.
Robert Waldo was the white man who owned the granary. He was the man my father had worked out a deal with for our feed and our garden. Waldo's kids would sometimes come by our house for my mother to look after while their father was at the mill. They were little kids, much younger than I was. But they always called my parents Louise and Grady. These little white kids were talking to my parents the way they talked to me. And my parents let them. Robert Waldo was Mr. Waldo to me and to everybody else. I understood that. Aunt Dot had taught me that adults demand respect from children. She was Mrs. Littlejohn to everybody. Uncle Fred was Mr. Littlejohn. But here were my parents, looking so defenseless, so helpless, so unable to demand anything for themselves or for their children. I couldn't see that they were doing what it took to survive in a Southern town, just as surely as Aunt Dot was doing what it took in New York. All I could do was judge them and tell myself that it could never happen to me. I was different. This was my parents' world, not mine. Mine was back with Aunt Dot.
I didn't have much contact with whites in Churchland. There was a white beer garden across the street where we could go to buy sodas, but we absolutely could not sit there and drink them. Once in a while we would ride a bus with whites on it, but of course we sat in the back. And there was a bus that came through our neighborhood, taking the white kids to their school. We would be waiting for our bus in front of the house, and every single day those kids would come by in theirs and yell "Nigger!" at us. I'd never heard the word before.
Neither did I hear much about my relatives. We had an uncle who lived across the harbor in Newport News--Uncle Clinton, a huge dark man with a gold cross stretched across his massive stomach. He'd visit occasionally, but he was the only family member we ever saw besides Momma J. As far as my parents were concerned, there was no family beyond the walls of our house. My mother would talk about Poppa, and here and there she'd mention Aunt Dot's well-to-do parents. But that was it. Like Aunt Dot, my parents had erased the past. I knew why Aunt Dot had done it, but my parents' reasons were not so clear. Slavery was never mentioned around our house. The first time I heard the word, I thought some shame was attached to you if you even uttered it. I told myself it was just another thing about this place that had nothing to do with me. It was some kind of distant stain, something deep in the soul of the South, far removed from me and the life I'd lived in New York. When they talked about slavery in school, I was puzzled to think that an entire people could allow themselves to be enslaved--as puzzled as I was to see my parents allow little white children to call them by their first names.
There was a white school about a half-mile from our house, and after Brown v. Board, it was integrated--in a manner of speaking. The best and brightest of the black students were invited to enroll. But most parents, including mine, were too afraid of trouble to send us. No one wanted to see soldiers on those steps, so we continued making the thirty-six-mile round trip to our all-black school.
And I continued setting myself apart. One day a history teacher was telling us about the horrors of the antebellum South. What, he asked us, could have been the value of slavery? I raised my hand and suggested, "Maybe the slaves needed that time to adjust to the American way of life."
Another day, another teacher led us in singing the Virginia state song. But he changed the words from "Carry me back to old Virginny," . . . "where this old darkey's heart am longed to go" to "where this old soldier's heart am longed to go." I admired his defiance, but I did not feel his outrage. I was on the outside looking in. This was his shame, not mine.
By the time I began my last year of high school in 1960, the nation was pulsing with change, with a mixture of hope and rage. Rosa Parks had refused to move to the rear of the bus. Martin Luther King Jr. had stared them down in Montgomery. And there was a new president in the White House, a man named Kennedy.
But those things were a world away from me. I made no connection between the fact that Rosa Parks said no in Alabama and the fact that I was now able to sit in the front of a bus in Portsmouth. I didn't know who Rosa Parks was. Neither had I heard much of Martin Luther King Jr. My parents were too busy working to pay much attention to the news or to push us to notice. What they knew of civil rights, they kept to themselves. They had a fear of militancy, a fear for their children. Me, I was more interested in starching my crinoline slips, polishing my black-and-white Oxfords, rolling my socks around my ankles, stuffing my bra and biting my lips until they turned purple--my way of getting around Mother's ban against lipstick. There were picket lines in Portsmouth that year, sit-ins at the downtown Woolworth's, but I was more interested in boys than boycotts. And I was still a loner, still setting myself apart. My classmates may have had the movement on their minds. They may have been getting ready to join King and the cause. I wouldn't have known. I couldn't have cared less. I had one friend throughout high school. One. Her parents were in the military. She was not from the South, so she was okay.
I was seventeen when I graduated from high school in 1961. I had taken some college entrance exams and done pretty well, well enough to be offered scholarships to two black colleges, but I never gave a thought to going. Those colleges were in the South, and the only thing I had on my mind was leaving. They handed us our diplomas in June, and I was gone, back to New York, to Aunt Dot, to a world that made sense.
Only, it didn't make sense anymore.
I thought Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred would be the same, that I would be able to walk right back into my bedroom with my furniture. That I'd say I want to go to college, and they'd say "Okay, here's the money." But I'd been gone six years. Maybe Aunt Dot had had too much time on her hands once my room was empty. Maybe money had gotten tight. But Aunt Dot was working now, manning the line at the Ideal toy factory in Queens. I worked there that summer, too, pulling Deputy Dawg dolls out of a stuffing machine and stitching them closed.
That fall I enrolled in night classes at Queens College. I was going to be a psychologist. I worked days as a counter girl at a cleaners, right on the bus route to the school. Roy Wilkins lived across the street from that cleaners. A guy named Gus owned the place--Gus Bass. His joke was "I paid a lot for that `B.'" Roy Wilkins must have heard that joke every time he came in, and he still laughed each time. Such a gracious man, so dignified, a smile that just jumped out at you. I'll never forget him taking the time to talk to me--me, an eighteen-year-old girl working a cash register, and him the executive secretary of the naacp. That was the first time I paid attention to an activist group. To me, the naacp meant Roy Wilkins.
That same year I met a guy in my classes at Queens. He was the first person I'd ever known who was even close to being militant. He was reared in the North, and he was down on whites. He talked about hate, about the Black Muslims. I didn't understand the meaning of all he said, but I liked how he said it. I was, finally, ready for a cause beyond myself.
Over the course of that winter my eyes were forced open. In the South I had felt a cut above, playing the part of the sophisticate, the worldly woman. Now I was surrounded by people who weren't playing games. They talked of Malcolm X, of the Nation of Islam, of the Muslims. They had seen Malcolm X. They knew Muslims. Some of them were Muslims. They dizzied me with their ideas. They stunned me with their passion.
And they took me to Harlem.
I had never been to Harlem. Didn't know where Harlem was. To me, New York blacks were Queens blacks. That was the image I clung to throughout my exile in Virginia. The clean, proper, genteel blackness cultivated by Aunt Dot was the blackness I felt. The Queens blacks I saw when I came back, the kids who had been my friends and were now on their own, were people like Elaine Braithwaite, who went to a fashion institute in France. Or Willie down the block, whose family were Seventh Day Adventists, and to whom being a Seventh Day Adventist himself was still the biggest thing in his life. The people around Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred remained as untouched by the world beyond their neighborhood as my parents were in Churchland. The only thing that had changed in the six years I was gone was that the block was black now. The whites were gone, every one of them. The Jewish doctor still had his office across the street, but he had moved his family out. Still, the blacks in that neighborhood clung to the idea that they were upper-crust. They were Aunt Dot's kind of people. They were islanders in a literal sense, insulated from the world beyond their windows. But the waters around them were rising, especially in Harlem.
I'd never seen anything like Harlem. In Harlem, everybody was angry. Everybody was ticked off about something. A movement was alive there. A fire was smoldering. You'd walk into apartments, really huge apartments--you could tell these had been nice places at one time--but they were packed with people now. Angry people. People who were angry at the whites, angry at the blacks, just angry. That's where the voices were shouting. And I listened. There was nothing in Virginia for me. Now there was nothing in Queens either. I was adrift, groping for something to hold onto. But the voices in Harlem scared me. I didn't have the courage it took to commit to the separatism the Muslims preached. I didn't have the hate.
So I joined CORE instead. The Council of Racial Equality. More moderate than the Muslims, this was a group that said we could fight bigotry and still live with whites. We met to discuss jobs, open housing, raising funds for field workers in the South. We picketed the post office. Our outrage was orderly, our defiance dignified. And in the same way Aunt Dot had become an islander, I found through CORE a role I could play--that of an African.
I'd seen the African ambassadors walking in and out of the United Nations building, their clothing so regal, their heads held high. They looked the way I wanted to feel. I'd talked to some Africans and liked the way they discussed American slavery. It was something they said they could hardly understand. It was something to be ashamed of, they said, but the shame they felt was for their American brethren, not themselves. Their words were the same ones I'd spoken to myself in Churchland, lying in bed at night, counting the days until I could leave. The Africans I knew did not talk about their ancestors selling neighboring tribesmen into slavery. This was a fact they conveniently ignored. And of course I was not about to let historical reality interfere with my fantasy. I pictured slave traders invading peaceful villages with clubs and nets, marching their captives off to waiting ships. I identified with those Africans who had escaped the nets, who had kept their dignity intact.
I wanted that dignity. So I made myself African, wetting my hair each night, soaking it in grease, rolling it, sleeping in the rollers, picking it in the morning and patting it down. The ritual took time, but I had my Afro. And I felt good, I felt whole. Until the night my bluff was called.
A friend--a white Jewish friend from my CORE group--asked me to a West African concert. There would be Africans there, real Africans. I was nervous, wondering what to wear. I thought of a line from a Lou Rawls song: "My ancestors were kings of old, they ruled the world and all its gold." Gold. Elegance. I looked at the curtains hanging in my window. White cloth with brilliant green and gold edging. I could see them draping a black queen. With a stitch here and a tuck there, no one would recognize the material being sold in every cheap furniture store in the city. There was even enough for a headdress.
That night, I rode the subway to Greenwich Village, drawing stares all the way, convinced I looked like royalty. I no sooner took a seat at the concert than one of the musicians, a West African, approached and began speaking to me in his native language. It seemed the entire room had stopped to watch. I looked away, hoping he'd disappear. But he went on, pushing closer, uttering sentences I could not comprehend. Finally I shrugged my shoulders, admitting I didn't have a clue. He smiled and moved away. And I sat there, as emotionally naked as a confused nineteen-year-old could feel.
I was not African, but I was black, a fact to be proud of, my Muslim friends reminded me. Not colored. Not Negro. Black. Black was beautiful to the Muslims long before anyone ever heard of Stokely Carmichael. White, they said, was evil. White blood was poison. And that idea made things complicated for me, a brown-skinned black. I had the shading of my father's side of the family, and I knew where it came from. There weren't many things my parents told us about their pasts, but one thing my mother had told us tortured me now:
My father's father was white.
Before she married, my father's mother had two children by a white man in Columbia. A man named Norcom. He's dead now, but his children are still around, and they all know their connection to me. Both my father and my father's sister were fathered by that man. Norcom did what he could to help support my grandmother, until she met and married Henry Spruill. Once, Norcom gave her some of his own children's old clothing for my father and his sister. When his wife saw those clothes on two black children, she took my grandmother to court, claiming she had stolen the clothes. My grandmother listened. Then she answered: "I didn't steal them. Your husband gave them to me because these are his children."
It was known, but never talked about. And I did not want to know anymore. I could not bear the idea that I might have white blood inside me. I looked in the mirror at my high cheekbones, my almond eyes, and I decided I was part-Indian. American Indian, another proud race exploited by the white man. That's how I would explain my shading to anyone who asked. Aunt Dot had her islands, and now I had my Indians.
I was still taking classes at Queens when I met Ivan. Ivan Reid. We met on the subway. He was tall, dark, and well-to-do--he owned a knitting factory in Brooklyn. He was also fifteen years older than I was, a classic father figure, although I didn't think about that at the time. He had been separated from his wife for years, a separation that lasted until he died in 1985. He never got divorced.
Ivan was from Virginia, too, from Nassawadox, a seacoast town on the eastern shore. But he was a Queens-type black. He didn't have any more to do with his past than I did with mine. And three months after I met him, we were both concerned with something more immediate: I was pregnant.
I quit college and tried staying on with Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred. But Aunt Dot was unbearable. "Oh, Dotty," she'd moan. "How could you do this?" When I was seven months' pregnant, I moved into an apartment with Ivan. But by that time, he had already become almost irrelevant in my life. Ivan was a wonderful provider. He took care of me, and later the baby. He gave me the lifestyle Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred had given me. But the baby was my focus, the first anchor I had ever felt. She was something of my own, a living, breathing link. On New Year's Eve, 1963, little more than a month after Kennedy was assassinated, the three of us went to a party at Aunt Dot's. When the party ended, I told Ivan I was staying. As simple as that. He thought I was crazy, but that was it. Deborah and I were on our own.
For a time I supported us by baby-sitting. I bought porta-cribs and set up a nursery in the basement of Aunt Dot's house, so I could be with Deborah and still bring in a little money. Then, after a year, I moved to Brooklyn, into a one-bedroom apartment a block from where my older sister, Lethia, lived. Lethia took care of Deborah while I worked, first as a receptionist at Long Island College Hospital, then at an antique shop in Brooklyn Heights. The neighborhood was all cobblestone streets, near the waterfront. The shop was owned by a family of Jews, liberal Jews who wanted a black to work for them. I read every book I could find on antiques, spent eight months there, then came home to Virginia.
I had no choice. Both Lethia and I had sent our babies down that summer to stay with my sister Lenora in Portsmouth. It was the summer of 1965. When I came down to bring Deborah back to New York, I couldn't do it. Deborah was suddenly surrounded by a family, by aunts and uncles and cousins, by a cushion of warmth I'd never had when I was a child. She was being accepted in a way I never was. There was a wholeness there that the two of us would not have back in that Brooklyn apartment. And there was an opportunity to fill the gaps in Deborah's life that had torn mine apart. I decided then and there we were staying. Deborah was going to have a family.
So I was back in the South, the South I had spent my childhood ignoring, my teenage years denying, and my young adulthood forgetting. Some things had changed. The "White Only" signs were gone. Massive resistance in the schools had ebbed. There were still incidents, still violence, still racists, but the walls of bigotry were crumbling. The foundations, however, remained. Whites weren't about to step aside easily, especially when it meant giving up jobs. I went to work at Sears Roebuck in Portsmouth that fall as a clerk in housewares. A year later I was a manager of a division, when I applied for a job with the Portsmouth Welfare Department. I called and talked to the director, a white woman who assured me there was a vacancy. When I showed up for the interview, she gulped. She had heard my voice on the phone, and she hadn't expected to see a black woman walk through that door. She didn't hire me, but the welfare office in Chesapeake did. Two years later, I transferred to Portsmouth. And that's where I was working the week Roots aired.
I had given Deborah all the family I was able to--my sisters and brothers, their children, my parents. That was all the family I knew. But as we sat and watched Alex Haley's story of generations echoing through centuries, I realized what I had given her wasn't enough. It wasn't enough for Deborah, and it wasn't enough for me. As I watched Haley's family blossom on the screen, I realized there was no running away from the questions that had nagged me throughout my childhood. I was watching one man's story about one man's family. My own story had yet to be told. There was so much I did not know, so much to ask.
The day after the series ended, I'd found a how-to genealogy book in the paperback rack at the grocery store. It said you start with yourself, so that's what I'd done. I took a pencil, a notebook, even colored pens, and drew pages of diagrams of the Churchland mill yard, of the house we lived in, of the hog pen, even of the trees on our street. I colored the trees green. I wanted so badly to make my thin past come alive, and colored pens were all I had.
But my memories stopped at the mill yard. I hardly recalled Columbia. We didn't get the Studebaker until I was in high school, and then we'd only drive down to North Carolina maybe once a year. All I remembered of my parents' hometown were dusty lanes, cousins whose names I hardly knew, Momma J's attic, the pecan tree in her front yard--the hugest pecan tree I ever saw--and a cripple named Ben, who dragged himself down the street on his knees. Whenever somebody mentioned Columbia, I'd see Ben.
Ten years earlier I could not have walked into my parents' house with the questions I brought that winter morning. I was still too unsure then--unsure what I thought of them, what they thought of me, what I thought of myself. The resentment of my childhood still lingered. So did the confusion of my years in New York, the years just before Deborah's birth. But I'd come a long way. For a single black woman in 1977, I was making it. I had a good job, earning fifteen thousand dollars a year. I had my own house. I had what all the books coming out at the time were calling self-esteem.
And I still had my eyes on Africa. I was no longer wearing drapes, but I had the same need to belong there. Haley had traced himself back to the continent. I would, too. That's why I went to my mother, not my father. His line led to a white man, but my mother's line, as far as I knew, was pure. Her people were all very tall, very dark. They could take me all the way home.
Grady Spruill--that was my father's name. He never had had a lot of hair, but by now he was bald as an egg. Strong. Slender. His body worn hard and lean by work. And my mother, Louise Littlejohn Spruill. She grew up slim, got heavy during her childraising years, and was now small again as she wiped her hands on a kitchen towel and sat down to talk.
I didn't know what to expect. The questions I'd had as a child I'd kept to myself, making up my own answers. Guessing. Imagining hidden shame and shadowy guilt. I assumed that my parents' silence stemmed from some secret sorrow--all somehow linked to slavery and the South. I thought I knew the answers, so I never asked the questions.
Now, for the first time in my life, I was asking, and it was as if I'd loosed a rainstorm. My mother's eagerness, her pride, and the details of her memory washed over me, sweeping me into another time, into a place peopled by men and women I had never met. She could have taken me there twenty years earlier if I'd only asked. But I wasn't ready then. I was ready now. Her first story led to another, and the next to one after that. Neither of us knew it that morning, but this was the first step of what would become a ten-year journey.
Copyright © 1988 Dorothy Spruill-Reford. All rights reserved.