Pittsburgh’s greatest journalist Ray Sprigle spent a month living like a black man in the segregated South. Then he shocked the country with the iniquities he saw.
‘I quit being white, and free, and an American citizen when I climbed aboard that Jim Crow coach. . . . From then on, until I came up out of the South four weeks later, I was black, and in bondage — not quite slavery but not quite freedom, either.’ — Ray Sprigle
In 1948, star newspaperman Ray Sprigle of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette posed as a black man and traveled through the Deep South to see for himself what life was like for the 10 million blacks living under the oppressive and humiliating system of legal segregation known as Jim Crow.
Based in Atlanta at the home of his guide John Wesley Dobbs, a prominent black political leader, Sprigle, 61, heavily tanned, passed himself off as a light-skinned NAACP field investigator from Pittsburgh.
In May of 1948, Dobbs, 66, drove the unlikely duo of accomplished old dudes from Savannah to the dangerous and feudal Mississippi Delta.
The separate and unequal social, political and economic conditions Sprigle saw made him ashamed to be an American.
What he wrote in his subsequent 21-part newspaper series shocked the white North, pissed off the white South, pleased millions of blacks and started the first debate in the national media about the future of legal segregation.
Sprigle’s series was called I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days in both the Post-Gazette and in the only black paper that carried it, the Pittsburgh Courier, then the country’s largest black weekly.
Other major papers like the New York Herald-Tribune and the Seattle Times titled the series In the Land of Crow.
Sprigle was not a civil rights crusader. He always said he was a newsman in pursuit of a great story. A powerful, persuasive writer and a great reporter, he didn’t pretend to be objective.
The conservative Republican had no desire to balance his first-person undercover journalism with the arguments of the diehard segregationist Democrats that ruled the South.
My 2017 history book, 30 Days a Black Man, tells the whole story behind Sprigle’s newspaper series, how it was blessed by the NAACP and the huge impact it had on a country that was strictly segregated in the South by law and in the North by fact.
Here is Sprigle’s original 21-part series, which began Aug. 9, 1948, on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The language is exactly as it appeared in the PG.
‘I Traveled, Ate, Black’
By Ray Sprigle
For four endless, crawling weeks I was a Negro in the Deep South.
I ate, slept, traveled, lived Black. I lodged in Negro households. I ate in Negro restaurants. I slept in Negro hotels and lodging houses. I crept through the back and side doors of railroad stations. I traveled Jim Crow in buses and trains and street cars and taxicabs. Along with 10,000,000 Negroes I endured the discrimination and oppression and cruelty of the iniquitous Jim Crow system.
It was a strange, new-and for me, uncharted world that I entered when, in a Jim Crow railroad coach, we rumbled across the Potomac out of Washington. It was a world of which I had no remote conception, despite scores of trips through the South. The world I had known in the South was white. Now I was black and the world I was to know was as bewildering as if I had been dropped down on the moon.
The towers and turrets of the great cities of the Southland, painted against the falling night, as we rolled along the highways, represented a civilization and an economy completely alien to me and the rest of the black millions in the South.
Questioned Only Twice
Only twice in my month-long sojourn was my status as a black man even remotely questioned. A Negro doctor in Atlanta, to whom I was introduced and with whom I talked briefly, later turned to my Negro companion, who was leading me along the unfamiliar paths of the world of color, and demanded:
“What are you carrying that white man around with you for?” To which my friend replied:
“He says he’s a Negro and that’s enough for me. Have you found any way of telling who carries Negro blood and who doesn’t?” And if the doctor wasn’t convinced, he was at least silenced.
Another time my membership in the black race was doubted was my own fault. I broke my resolution to keep my mouth shut. For a couple of days I was alone in Atlanta, living in the Negro YMCA and eating in a small but excellent restaurant. Mrs. Hawk, the proprietress, tangled me in conversation one day-never a difficult task for anyone. So, I talked too much, too fast and too expansively.
A couple of days later she met my friend and remarked:
“That friend of yours — he talks too much to be a Negro. I think he’s white.”
Detected No Suspicion
But in literally thousands of contacts with Negroes, from nationally known leaders of the race to sharecroppers in the Cotton rows I was accepted as a Negro. I sat for long hours in Negro groups where we discussed everything from Shakespeare to atomic energy and the price of cotton. Neither I nor my companion ever detected any reserve or suspicion that I wasn’t just what I pretended to be, a light-skinned Negro from Pittsburgh, down South on a visit. I attended half a dozen Negro meetings, from YMCA banquets to political conferences and church gatherings — and was even called upon to speak.
My Contacts with whites were few indeed but here, too, I went unsuspected and unquestioned. Southern whites have long taken the position that when a man says he’s black, so far as they are concerned, he is. So the white folks never lifted an eyebrow when I sat in the Jim Crow sections of trains, buses and street cars, drank from the “For Colored” fountains in courthouse and railroad station, ate in Negro restaurants, sat in the ’For Colored” sections of rail and bus stations. Rarely is a light or white Negro questioned in the South when he seeks Jim Crow accommodations. Now and then a conductor or policeman will remind a passenger, apparently white, in a Jim Crow coach, or a light-skinned Negro entering a “For Colored” restaurant — “That’s for Negroes, you know.” But the usual response of “I’m where I belong” ends the matter right there.
He Took Guide
Of course I realize that if I had tried to make my way through the black South on my own, alone, I would have met with suspicion and rebuff on every hand from blacks and whites alike.
Fortunately, though, I didn’t have to go alone into the black world of the South. Walter White, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, took care of that. Out of his vast store of friendships of Negroes, North and South, he chose a man to lead me through the warrens of the black South.
And if there is any commendation due anyone for these chronicles, surely the lion’s share must go to that companion of mine. I doubt if there is a man living who knows the South, black and white, as he does. We ate, slept, lived, and traveled for four weeks. If I learned anything about the life of the Negro, it is because he took me to the places, the men and the women from whom I might learn.
Roll Along Through Night
We’d roll along through the night, our destination the Negro section of a town perhaps 200 miles away and for hours I’d listen while he recited long passages from Macbeth and Hamlet, Ingersoll’s essay on Napoleon — page after page from the best in English literature. All his life he has fought against thE oppression, the injustice and the discrimination weighing on his people. But there is no bitterness, no hatred in the man. To him, his “Southland,” as he always calls it, is the fairest country in the land. He loves his Georgia above all other states — he would live nowhere else in America.
In four weeks and 4,000 miles of travel we met and talked with the Negro leaders of the South. If in four weeks anyone can get the actual picture of the life of the Negro in the South — then I got it. Because that friend of Walter White showed it to me.
One last word as l begin this account of my four weeks of life as a Negro in the deep South. Don’t anybody try to tell me that the North discriminates against the Negro, too, and seek to use that as a defense against the savage oppression and the brutal intolerance the black man encounters in the South. Discrimination against the Negro in the North is an annoyance and an injustice. In the South it is bloodstained tragedy.
In the North the Negro meets with rebuff and insult when he seeks service at hotels and restaurants. But, at least in states like Pennsylvania and others, he can take his case to court and he invariably wins.
But in the South he is barred BY LAW from white hotels and restaurants. He is fined and jailed, and frequently killed, if he seeks to enter a railroad station through an entrance reserved for whites, to ride in the forward end of a street car or bus, or a railway coach sacred to the white man. His children are barred from white schools and denied an adequate education in the tumbledown shacks in which little black citizens are forced to seek learning.
No Northern white can deny that there is discrimination against the Negro in the North. Prejudice against the black citizen breaks out in race riots from time to time, as witness Detroit in recent years, and Chicago and Springfield, Ill., in an earlier day. But in the North, both black and white rioters go to prison. In the South only the black ones climb the steps to a gallows or serve term in a cell.
In short, discrimination against the Negro in the North is usually in defiance of the law. In the South it is enforced and maintained by the law.
Acquiring a Negro Appearance
This thing of suddenly switching races after more than half a century of life as a white man has its problems and difficulties.
Remember all those romances you’ve read in which the hero is going to turn Hindu, or Arab or one or the other of the darker races. Remember how almost invariably he goes to “an old woman” in tile nearby village and she gives him a lotion that turns him dark for weeks or months.
Well, my trouble, I guess, was that I couldn’t seem to find one of those old women. And in more than six months of searching I couldn’t find any lotion or liquid that would turn a white hide brown or black and still be impervious to perspiration, soap and water and the ravages of ordinary wear and tear.
Wait a bit though. Let me modify that last statement. Both Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh and a Long Island chemist I consulted did come up with a permanent stain. Both recommended any one of a series of phenol compounds.
But they thought it only fair to warn me that there was one little drawback. It seems that if you covered yourself thoroughly with one of them you’d find yourself thoroughly dead in from 15 minutes to 15 days, depending upon your resistance. I thanked them kindly for their assistance.
Tried Walnut Stain
Naturally before I turned to chemists and make-up experts and the like I had recourse to that old reliable stain of boyhood memory, the juice of walnut hulls. Walnut juice will stain the human skin, I am able to report. I am also able to report that a day or two later it will neatly remove the human hide.
Fortunately I took the precaution of applying it experimentally on a square foot or so of my chest. I was weeks in getting over that. I tried iodine, argyrol, pyrogallic acid, potassium permanganate. Come a little perspiration and I’d find myself striped like a tiger or spotted like a leopard.
Six months’ search and experiments and the expenditure of a couple square feet of skin (mine) and close to a hundred dollars and I was no nearer to getting away from the white race than I was the day I started.
There was one thing left — sure fire — but with one big drawback, the time required. That was sunshine and not in homeopathic doses either. But Pennsylvania’s sunshine is sometimes a mighty uncertain commodity. Now down in Florida — there the sunbeams were something else again. So to Florida I went.
I knew full well that one should be cautious in exposing tender human skin to the tropical sun. I knew that a half hour was the limit for a first day’s sun bath. So I lay out in the sun for an hour and a half. With the result that I spent that night standing up and rubbing soothing unguents into my flaming epidermis.
Well, as a result of my researches I am also able to report that Florida sunshine will remove hide much more efficiently than will the juice of walnut hulls. I peeled like a snake from head to foot. But when I could no longer light a match by touching it to my incandescent skin, went back to the solarium to accumulate my disguise.
At the start I had shaved head, practically down to the skull, had my glasses reset in enormous black rims, and acquired a cap that drooped like a tam-o-shanter. I was all set for “passing,” in reverse. This business of “passing” is a mighty private concern and how is anyone to get statistics on it?
But the fact remains that there are many thousands of Negroes in the South who could “pass” any day they wish. I talked to scores of them. Nearly every one had a sister or brother or some other relative who was living as a white man or woman in the North. Most Southern Negroes don’t approve of “passing” and when one of their number does it he cuts himself off from the black race.
One of the most interesting families I encountered — I only encountered the black half of it — was that of a Southern planter in one of the Georgia counties. He had maintained his white wife in the pillared plantation home. He maintained his black mistress — this wasn’t in slavery days when it was common — in a quite comfortable home on the plantation. He produced a mulatto son and a white daughter.
He must have been a reasonably fair-minded rascal at that because when he died he divided his plantation and his fortune equally between his black and white children. The son runs the plantation, turning over to his half-sister her share of the production of her half of the land. She is married and is a figure in Detroit white society — she IS white, of course. Several times her mulatto half brother has visited her and been entertained In her home. But when she comes South she has to stay at a hotel.
No Disguise Needed
So at last I scurried back north to Washington, met my companion who was to pilot me through four weeks of life as a Negro, and that night we were on our way south, just a couple of Negroes Jim Crowing it through the Southland.
As a matter of fact, most of my concern over acquiring a dark skin was so much nonsense. Everywhere I went in the South I encountered scores of Negroes as white as I ever was back home in Pittsburgh. Stories of 20,000 Negroes a year “passing” to the white race are a lot of hooey.
Looks to me from where I sit, as just another light-skinned one of millions of other light-skinned Negroes, that the noble white man got hold of this racial purity thing a little late. Where does he think these millions of white, light, and brown Negroes came from?
Think the stork found ’em somewhere?
Going South by Jim Crow Car
I quit being white, and free, and an American citizen when I climbed aboard that Jim Crow coach in Washington Union station. From then on, until I came up out of the South four weeks later, I was black, and in bondage not quite slavery but not quite freedom, either. My rights of citizenship ran only as far as the nearest white man said they did.
Not that that Jim Crow coach was particularly bad-when regarded solely as a railroad coach. In fact, it was surprisingly good. The reclining seats were comfortable. The wash room was really luxurious compared with those in some of the coaches I ride around home. Seats were numbered and reserved. There was no crowding.
But-even excellent accommodations are not going to reconcile intelligent, cultured Negroes to Jim Crow. My companion and I were having a little difficulty in finding the black section of the train. He encountered the daughter of an old friend of his, a handsomely-dressed, quite beautiful Negro girl, and asked where the Jim Crow coaches were.
“There’s the things we’ll ride in,” she said with a contemptuous wave toward the two pieces of Jim Crow rolling stock. It developed that she was a school teacher from Harlem on her way home to visit her aged mother. (Weeks later we passed through the sunbaked, dusty, sprawling little town where the mother lived. There was a vast difference between that unkempt town and the fashionable, cultured-appearing girl from Harlem with upswept hair-do and latest doo-dads in the way of costume.)
Both coaches were filled. The crowd was like any other group of travelers one might encounter anywhere except, of course, that nearly everyone was on the decidedly brunette side. Everyone was courteous and quiet. Even the inevitable drunk who seems to be standard equipment on every railroad coach in the world was annoying only because he was so insistently polite.
o, early in the journey, some of the many absurdities-idiocies might be a better word-that mark the Jim Crow system began to develop. To get to the diner we had to traverse half a dozen Pullman coaches. My companion stopped to introduce me to at least three Negroes riding Pullman-a doctor from Atlanta, a minister and a businessman. And I was astonished to learn that Jim Crow doesn’t go on a Pullman. If you’ve got the price you ride Pullman, no matter how black you are.
In the corridor of the dining car a long line of whites waited for vacant tables. My companion, leading the way, brushed unceremoniously past them.
“Oh, oh, now comes trouble, so early,” I said to myself. But it was just that he knew the ropes and I didn’t. There were no seats for white folks but at the end of the diner were two tables curtained off from the rest of the car, and vacant. They were for us colored folks.
So we sat down while the white folks stood. Just what protection that curtain affords the white folks I don’t think that any living human has ever figured out. We could watch them eat and they could watch us eat. There weren’t any curtains around the Negro waiters who served their food with black hands.
I don’t know what kind of service the white folks got from those waiters. But ours was something right out of the old South. Our food arrived on the jump – promptly — and hot. Our waiter “sirred” us as I’ve never been “sirred” before.
Across from us a family group took over the other table. He was a navy petty officer-spick and span-and black. His wife was pretty and fashionably dressed. Their baby had everything hung on him that the magazines say a well-dressed baby ought to have.
And then there was the baby’s grandmother-also right out of the old South. She wore a turban just like the one in the pancake ads. I noticed that her hands were hard and knotted and gnarled. I was to see many hands like that on little old colored women in the weeks to come. They get that way from long hours on a hoe in the cotton fields.
Becoming an Alien People
On our way back to our Jim Crow seats we pressed carefully through the queue of whites waiting to enter the diner. Then we staggered through the swaying Pullmans past the white folks but careful not to jostle or bump any of them.
Already I was in the pattern. Already I was experiencing the thing that was to grow upon me through the succeeding weeks. These whites already were a people entirely alien to me, a people set far apart from me and my world. The law of this new land I had entered decreed that I had to eat apart from these pa1e skinned men and women—behind that symbolical curtain.
For 300 years these people had told each other, told the world, told me, that I was of an inferior breed, that if I tried to associate with them they would kill me.
Already I had begun to dislike them. It did no good to tell myself that I was white — or that I would be white again four weeks hence. I was beginning to think like a black man. Not that I wanted to ride with these whites, nor eat with them.
What I resented was their impudent assumption that I wanted to mingle with them, their arrogant and conceited pretense that no matter how depraved and degenerate some of them might be, they, each and every one of them, was of a superior breed.
A Psychological change
In weeks to come I was to become seriously concerned about the psychological change that was taking place in my thinking. There were to be nights when I had sat for hours listening to grim tales of injustice, and cruelty and the wanton shedding of innocent blood, that I began to be worried over the problem of turning my mind white again. To tell the truth, I doubt if I ever regain the satisfied, superior white psychology that I took South with me.
Came morning — and Atlanta. Now I had been briefed for days on my manners and behavior as a Negro. And I went wrong before I even got out of the Atlanta railroad station.
I was ahead of my companion and mentor since I was traveling light and he was laden with more bags than an actor. Through the front portal of the station I could see the line of waiting cabs. Eager to be helpful I hustled ahead, intent on staking claim to a cab.
“Wait a minute,” I heard my friend call. “This way.” I backtracked and he led me through a door branded “For Colored,” to a small littered waiting room. Another door with the Jim Crow brand above it led outside.
Here was no wide portico, no line of cabs. In fact, no cab. Not until you called one. I knew of course that white and Negro passengers must wait in separate waiting rooms in southern railroad stations. But I didn’t know until then that there were black and white entrances to stations.
Just Police Inefficiency
But my mistake gave my companion an idea. He led me around to the front of the station and we defiled the white folk’s entrance by going through it. Nothing happened. So we tried it again. Still nothing happened.
“Well, why aren’t we in jail? Looks like the white folks are easing up,” I said to my companion.
He was actually disappointed. But his reaction was somewhat astonishing.
“Just another example of police inefficiency,” he asserted. “There usually is an officer on duty at that front entrance with the sole duty of shooing Negroes around to the side entrance.” My friend was all set for minor adventure and then the Atlanta police force let him down.
“Seriously though,” he told me while we waited for our Jim Crow cab, ordinarily we’d have been stopped and told to go to the colored entrance. There’d have been no unpleasantness unless we had refused. They wouldn’t even have called us ’nigger’ as they would have a few years ago. But if you have any idea you can walk through the white folks’ entrance to a railroad station — you just try it at any station in the South outside Atlanta. And I’ll stand back and watch-and bail you out.”
Politely I declined his challenge. That was the first, last and only time I disobeyed the white folks’ law during all my stay in the South.
Finally our cab, with the “For Colored” legend that Georgia law requires on its door, arrives. Half an hour later we debark at the home of -my friend-the way I feel right now, my only friend in all the world-just off Auburn avenue, Atlanta’s Black Broadway. Well — I’d asked for it. Now I was due to get it.
A Discussion in a Pleasant Negro Home
We’re at breakfast in this pleasant, comfortable, Negro home. One of the daughters is home on a visit from Tennessee where she and her husband are university instructors. The conversation drifts, as it inevitably will wherever and whenever Negroes gather, to the all-overshadowing race problem.
Her 5-year-old son is at the table too. Whenever she uses the word “white,” she spells it out w-h-i-t-e. She spells N-e-g-r-o too. So far, she hopes, her youngster doesn’t know the difference between Negro and white. He probably doesn’t because some of his relatives are as white in color as any white man and others range all the way to deep black.
Those spelled-out words highlight another and vitally important problem of the intelligent Negro.
When do you begin teaching your child how he is to live as a Negro? When do you begin teaching him the difference between black and white — not as colors but as races? When do you begin teaching him how to live under the iron rule of a master race that regards him as an inferior breed? When do you begin teaching him that for him, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are scraps of paper?
Parents Must Answer
Those are questions that every Negro mother and father has to answer.
“We try to let them have their childhood free of prejudice and confusion,” the mother says after we have shooed young Bobby out to play. “But we’ve got to tell them before they come up against the hard facts of discrimination and prejudice for themselves. You people up North have only one set of ‘the facts of life’ to put before your children. Down here we’ve got two. And sometimes I think the racial facts of life are the most important.” (When she says “you people up North,” she does so with the assumption that I, too, am a Negro.)
Generally the Negro child gets his first lessons in race relations before he goes to school. But one couple I know delayed. So one day their little daughter brought home a white friend, a girl of her own age. They had encountered each other when their pathways to school crossed — one on her way to her white school, the other on her way to the Jim Crow school house. The parents had to work fast.
First, as considerately as possible, they sent the little white girl on her way home with the understanding that she was never to come back. To their own little one they had to explain that she could not enter a white home except through the back door. That no white could enter a Negro’s house except on business and that certainly no little white girl could ever visit a little black girl.
Guest From North
All through the day, friends of the visiting daughter of my hosts were dropping in to see her. And of course Mr. James R. Crawford, the guest from Pittsburgh, was introduced to all of them. (James R. Crawford was the name I was using.) So what was more logical and natural than that Mr. Crawford should seek to slant the conversation toward a comparison between life in the South and the North?
The Southern Negro woman, particularly one of refinement and culture, has Jim Crow problems all her own. For instance, there’s the seemingly simple matter of buying hats and dresses. In most Southern cities — with the notable exception of Atlanta — no Negro woman is permitted to try on anything, not even a $200 dress if she’s got the $200 right in her hand.
In some millinery departments the sales girl will carefully pin a cloth over her black customer’s head before she’ll let her try on a hat. But in most places the Negro customer just picks her hats and dresses off the rack. If she touches them — she’s made a purchase — they’re all hers. All the women agreed that Baltimore was the worst town in the country for mistreatment of Negro patrons.
Shoe stores arbitrarily set aside certain benches in the rear of the store for Negro customers. Every woman there recalled what happened to Roland Hayes, famous Negro tenor, when his New York-born wife went into a Rome, Ga., shoe store for a pair of shoes. Hayes had purchased the plantation, not far from Rome, where his mother had been born and lived in slavery. He planned to establish a model plantation that would supply ideas, modern methods, pure-bred seed and stock to neighboring farmers, white and black.
In town for the weekly shopping, Hayes had dropped his wife off at the shoe store and had driven on to park. In the shoe store, Mrs. Hayes sat down on the first bench available. A white clerk, determined to keep his race pure, ordered her to a rear bench. She refused. By the time Hayes got back to the store a noisy argument was underway. “If it can happen to Roland Hayes in Rome,” agreed all the women, “it can happen to any Negro anywhere in the South.”
Telephone Is Ordeal
Even using the telephone is likely to be something of an ordeal for a Negro woman in the South. One quite frequent difficulty stems from a peculiar quirk of Southern white psychology. No Southern white who even pretends to be worthy of the noble traditions of the South — white supremacy — the purity of the race, the sanctity of white Southern womanhood would ever call a Negro “Mr.” or “Mrs.” He’ll call them “Doctor,” “Professor,” “Counselor,” but he’d cheerfully burn at the stake before he’d ever so far forget his white heritage as to call one of the creatures “Mr.” or “Mrs.”
All of which presents a pretty involved problem to your Southern telephone operator who is emphatically Southern before she is a telephone operator. She won’t say Mrs. to a Negro woman either — not if she knows it.
One woman in the group, on a visit to Jackson, Miss., some time ago, wanted to telephone her family in Atlanta. She put in the call and gave her name as Mrs. John Black — or at least Mrs. John Black will do for this story. If I used her real name she’d never get another long-distance call through as long as she lives. Anyway, the operator asked her, politely, “What’s your first name?” So she told her, “Grace.”
“Is this the colored woman, Grace Black?” asked the operator when she rang back a little later. “Yes,” was the response. A couple of other questions and the replies, “Yes,” “Yes.”
“Look here,” was the infuriated response of the operator, “don’t you yes me. When you talk to me you say ‘Ma’am’ if you know what’s good for you.”
Then there was the incident of a purchasing agent of Tuskeegee Institute who tried to call his wife from Atlanta. He put in the call for “Mrs. Morgan,” and gave the Tuskeegee number.
“What’s her first name?” demanded the operator. “There’s only one Mrs. Morgan there,” she was told. “Just get any Mrs. Morgan at that number and she’ll be the right one.”
“But she’s a nigger ain’t she?” was the wrathful response. “Do you think I’m going to say Mrs. to a nigger?”
Well, the next day Mr. Morgan was in the office of the telephone company manager. The lily white operator was summoned and summarily fired. But the soft-hearted black man interceded and she got her job back.
Negroes get normal telephone service in Atlanta today.
A Woman Tells How Her Husband Died
She is worn and aged and bent beyond her time. Nearly a quarter of a century behind a plow and a mule under blazing Georgia suns have done that to her.
In a haze of dull despair, this broken, hopeless Negro farm woman sits in this little parlor in Black Atlanta and tells her tale of murder.
“When the white folks gave him back to me he was in his coffin. I held his head in my hands when I kissed him. And I felt the broken pieces of bone under the skin. It was just like a sackful of little pieces of bone.
“I put my arms around him for one last time as he lay there. All down one side of him there were no ribs — just pieces that moved when I held him.”
Talking About Husband
That was her husband she was talking about—Henry Gilbert, 42 years old, Negro farmer, murdered by the white folks of Harris and Troup counties, Georgia, May 29, 1947.
Henry Gilbert was victim of the mores of the white Southerner. When a Negro kills a white man and escapes, somebody has to pay. Henry Gilbert just happened to be the Negro picked for slaughter.
Sunday night, May 4, Olin Sands, a white planter, in his pickup truck caught up with Gus Davidson, a young Negro with a bad record among both blacks and whites, driving his father’s car in front of the Union Springs Baptist Church. Sands accused him of driving over a calf lying in the road and began beating the Negro with a club. The Negro shot and killed him.
Henry Gilbert, a deacon and treasurer of the little Baptist church, was inside the church counting the evening’s collection. Mrs. Gilbert and the wives of the other deacons were waiting in front. At the sound of the shots they called their men folk and everybody started for home in short order.
Two weeks later, E. V. Hilyer, sheriff of Troup county, with two officers from Harris county, appeared at the Gilbert home at 4:30 in the morning. They arrested him on a warrant charging him with aiding and abetting the escape of Gus Davidson, despite the fact that a short time before Gilbert had had Davidson arrested and jailed for creating a disturbance in the church. Davidson, his father, Lovett Davidson, and their white employer, Luke Sturdevant, had all told Gilbert that they’d get even with him. The officers drove away with Gilbert just as it was getting light.
And that last glimpse of him in the early dawn, three gun-hung white men shepherding him into their car was the last time Carolyn Gilbert was ever to see her husband alive. He’d be dead “when the white folks gave him back.”
For the next 10 days Henry Gilbert drops out of sight while Georgia law drags him from jail to jail. Early Monday Mrs. Gilbert hurried to Hamilton. She was told her husband had been “carried” to Columbus where “the FBI wanted to talk to him.” Not until May 29 did Mrs. Gilbert get any definite word as to where her husband was being held. That afternoon two of her uncles, Jesse and Cicero Davenport, told her that Henry was back in Hamilton jail, that they had talked to him through his cell window.
Happy to Hear News
Friday morning, “happier than I could tell you, Mr. Crawford,” at the news that her husband was alive and well, she bustled through breakfast and got ready to go to Hamilton to see the husband she had feared was dead.
She was all dressed and was waiting for a neighbor to drive her into town when another neighbor, Willie B. Andrews, came in.
A white man, Mr. Louis Booker, had given Willie word to carry to Mrs. Gilbert. Her husband was dead. She’d find his body in a Hamilton undertaker’s rooms.
Thursday night County Policeman Willie H. Buchanan had gone into Henry Gilbert’s cell. “To get a confession,” he said afterwards.
“The nigger drew a chair on me and I had to kill him,” he explained.
Here is what the undertaker found when he fixed Henry Gilbert’s body up for burial:
His skull was crushed to a pulp both in front and the rear. One leg and one arm were broken. All the ribs on one side were smashed into splinters. He was riddled by five bullets fired at close range. That is what Georgia justice officially describes as “justifiable homicide in self-defense.” And Willie Buchanan, wanton killer, is “man of the year” in Harris and Troup counties.
The white folks gave Carolyn Gilbert less than a month to mourn her murdered husband in peace. Then comes Sheriff Hilyer again with another “aiding-abetting-escape” warrant and Carolyn goes to the same jail where her husband was murdered. She’s only there 24 hours, however, before Attorney Dan Duke has her out on $1,000 bail.
“I just don’t understand those white people,” says Mrs. Gilbert. “If Henry had an enemy in the world it was Gus Davidson. He was a bad man. He came into our church with a gun and threatened one of our deacons. Henry had him jailed for that. And right then Gus Davidson told Henry he’d get even. So did his father, Lovett Davidson, and so did Lovett Davidson’s white man, Luke Sturdevant.”
At Mrs. Gilbert’s preliminary hearing when she was held for court, Davidson testified he had seen his fugitive son eating breakfast in the Gilbert home.
“Why I wouldn’t have let Gus Davidson sit at my table. I wouldn’t have let him come into my house at any time — let alone when he was being hunted for murder,” declared Carolyn. Sheriff Hilyer himself pinned perjury on both Davidson and Sturdevant, but a justice of the peace held Mrs. Gilbert for trial.
Now word from Harris county is that the white folks want to drop the case against Mrs. Gilbert and just forget the whole thing. It won’t make much difference to the dry-eyed, huddled woman in the chair across from me. Her life is finished. And the life that Henry and Carolyn Gilbert had built out of toil and struggle through the years is finished, too.
Married for 22 Years
“Twenty-two years we were married before the white folks killed him,” she says, and there is not a sign of emotion in her voice. “We share-cropped two years and I worked with him in the fields from the day we were married. Then we saved enough to buy us a little old mule and we went to rentin’. We worked 17 years on our rented farm and saved our money until we had $1,350. So we bought us a farm a few miles out of Chipley. It was 111 acres and run down pretty bad. But we built it up, Henry and me, working from daylight to dark.
“Henry borrowed $1,000 from the man at the bank and he let Henry have it just on his note. We had the whole farm wired in. We had nine cows and four big hogs and two mules. Henry worked one of the mules and I worked the other. But we didn’t let the girls work in the cotton. Henry wanted learning for them. So they all went to high school in La Grange. Two of them go to high school here now and the other one graduated and works in Mr. Rich’s store.
“Henry paid back the thousand dollars he borrowed and the bank man lent him $600 more. Henry worked on the house, too. We had five rooms — big rooms and screens on every window and he screened in the whole back porch too.”
All of this, the murder of her husband, the simple story of her life, without a tear, without a tremor in her voice.
Suddenly she drops her head in her hands and sobs shake her.
“Every night I keep asking God to help me. But I don’t know what he could do. Help me pray. Pray for me.”
Me, a white man — even though she thinks I’m black — pray for Carolyn Gilbert. Who would listen?
Beginning a Trip Into The Back Country
Under a blazing Georgia sun we begin our journey of 3,400 miles through the black South. Cotton is greening the blood-red soil of the endless fields. It’s cotton chopping time, when the cotton plants must be thinned out. Family by family the Negro share-croppers are in the fields, children of seven or eight and grandmothers and grandfathers who totter when they walk but still are able to swing a hoe.
Not all of the women are in the fields, though. This is Monday, wash day in the South as in the North. All along the highway and the little side roads the iron kettles are steaming over fires in the yards — dirty clothes boiling clean.
We stop off for a drink of water and a bite of corn pone in the kitchen of Hannah Ingram. Hannah is one of the hundreds of Negro homesteaders on the Flint River project In Macon county. It’s a tract of some 12,000 acres bought by the federal government eight years ago and divided into tracts running from 50 to 200 acres. These were parcelled out to Negro share-croppers who could make a small down payment. They’ve got 40 years to pay out.
Hannah Keeps Going
Hannah Ingram is somebody. She and her husband were coming along fine, working from sunup to sundown, each of them behind a mule and plow, when Henry Ingram went down with a paralytic stroke four years ago. He hasn’t walked or used his arms since. He can’t talk. But Hannah kept the mules and the plows going. Two years she raised a crop. Then she played out. But the Ingrams are still going strong. Between them they had the land in such good shape that they were able to rent it for enough to feed them and make the required quarterly payments. Come 30 years and they’ll own their own land — as Hannah smiling said, “Down here or up there.”
Nothing would do but we must sit down and share supper greens and a slab of corn pone and plain water from the pump outside. Hannah was really hurt when I wanted to leave some money. I wonder what she thought when she picked up my plate after we’d gone. Bet that’s the first time corn pone sold for a dollar a slice in Macon county, Georgia.
This Flint River project is just a drop in an ocean, a bright clear drop in a dark and bitter ocean. A couple of hundred Negroes have quit their noisome, windowless share-croppers’ shanties to come out here to neat, substantial five-room houses, a well, a barn and a smoke house with each. Each house had its quota of solid plain furniture when the government sold it to the cropper.
Half Me Making Good
Young John Robinson is principal of the excellent school that boasts eight teachers. He judges that about half of the dwellers on the project are making good. One man paid out in four years instead of 40. The other half are just holding their own or falling back. Only a handful picked up and quit.
This Flint River project is fine but it would take 10,000 such projects to make even a dent in the evil share-cropping system.
By now I was getting pretty hungry. We’d had nothing to eat all day except Hannah Ingram’s corn pone. It was getting on toward seven, too, and what about a lodging for the night? Not a word from my mentor and companion except, “If we can make Americus tonight we’ll have a place to stay.” And what, I wondered, if we don’t make Americus?
But at long last we roll into Americus. And then I get another installment of the facts of life when you’re black and in the South.
We present ourselves at a fine, beautifully furnished home and are received with a welcome that warms your heart. In an hour we are making away with a bountiful meal. A comfortable room is awaiting us. So I learn how Negroes travel in the South. Only in the larger Southern cities are there hotels for them. Since I wanted to live my life as a Negro in the little towns and in the plantation country I didn’t get to stop in any of the big towns. But my friends tell me that life is pretty rugged in most Negro hotels.
Travelers Are Guests
So in every Southern town there are doctors, lawyers, undertakers, insurance men, who maintain open house for Negroes who are traveling. It’s a kind of reciprocal affair. When they travel, they are guests at the homes of friends whom they have sheltered. There is no question of payment but it is etiquette when leaving in the morning to press upon your hostess a contribution for her church or missionary society. Or if she’s an ardent member of the NAACP, then a donation to that organization. Through the years, this system of Negro travel in the South must add a good many thousands to the treasuries of Negro churches and other organizations.
As always, when Negroes gather in the South there is one thing they always talk about — the relations between the races — what are the white folks going to do next? And why not? That one thing overshadows all else in the life of the black man.
Here in Sumter county the white man has bowed his back and set himself to roll back the rising tide of franchise that is sweeping Georgia. The courthouse gang has “purged” the registration lists of 800 names of Negro voters. A bare 80 are left.
Defense Fund Raised
So the Negro leaders of the community — the men and women I’m talking about tonight — raised a defense fund of $600 to take the matter to the courts. They hired a lawyer and paid him $100. He made one trip to the courthouse. The committee hasn’t seen him since. But the “word went out” —that’s the expression when the white folks grapevine their warnings — that Sumter county Negroes had better drop their plans for a court fight.
It was effective too. The $600 war chest was quietly returned to the contributors and there’ll be no fight to restore the purged names to the registration lists. A teacher in the Negro schools who had headed up the NAACP branch in Americus was called in and told to quit teaching or quit the national Negro organization. She quit her job. Maybe the Supreme Court did outlaw the white primary, but the white folks of Sumter county have overruled the high tribunal. And as between the Supreme Court of the United States and the white folks, Sumter county Negroes are in no doubt as to which to obey.
They’ll live longer that way.
What It Means to Be a Share-Cropper
You begin to get a better idea of what it means to be a black share-cropper in the South as you sit on a home-made stool in the two-room shack of Henry Williams in Sumter county on the road to Americus in the Georgia cotton country. No northern farmer would keep his cattle in a shanty like this. And this place of Henry’s is far and away better than hundreds of others we have passed on our travels.
It at least has one window in one room. Many of these sharecropper cabins have none at all — just holes in the wall with a wooden shutter that can be closed against the sleet and cold of the winter. And when you close the shutters you shut out the light too, so you live for five months of the year in a dismal black cavern. In the summer you can leave your shutters open to the sunlight and wind — and also to the flies, mosquitoes and sundry other insects.
Discrepancy in Count
Henry, however, has no fault to find with his mansion. “Yessir,” he says, “got us four rooms here.” The two-room discrepancy between Henry’s account and mine is due to a rough board lean-to slapped against the back of his shack and bisected by a rough board partition. In one-half of the place is a rather hopeless stove where Mrs. Williams does her cooking. At that she’s far better off than scores of her neighbors up and down the road. They do their cooking in an open fireplace — with a kettle for collards or turnip greens, a skillet for fat-back and the corn pone baked in the ashes.
Henry has been a share-cropper for 29 years, he tells me.
“You been making any money these few years back with cotton and peanuts bringing big prices?” I ask him.
“You don’t make any money share-croppin’,” he replies, surprised at the question. “Some years you get some cash in the fall. Bad years you jest go over to the next year.”
Five Years His Record
Henry, like most share-croppers, admits that he “keeps movin’ ” in a so-far futile effort to do better for himself. Five years was the longest he ever worked on one plantation in his 29 years of share-cropping.
In 1946, he says, he “made” 14 bales of cotton and six and one half tons of peanuts. That year “The Man” (the landlord) gave him $800 cash.
Last year, 1947, he made 17 bales of cotton and 10 tons of peanuts. Despite bigger crops and equal if not higher prices, that year “The Man” gave him $700. Between crops he lives out of the commissary maintained by “The Man.”
Cotton last year brought about $200 a bale, with the seed, and peanuts sold at $200 a ton. That would be $3,400 for Henry’s cotton and around $2,000 for the peanuts — $5,400 in all with Henry getting half of it or $2,700. Of course out of that $2,700 comes tractor hire, if “The Man” supplies a tractor, fertilizer, and Henry’s commissary bill. But $2,000 for that seems just a little high. Even Henry seems to think so. Now, it could be that the $700 that Henry got was a perfectly fair settlement. Point is that Henry doesn’t know, I certainly don’t know — nobody in the whole wide world knows except “The Man.”
Never Sells Own Produce
In all his share-cropping, Henry has never seen any kind of an account of his operations. “The Man” never gives him a statement – no figures — just hands him a check or a bundle of cash. Henry never has had a bill or account of his purchases at the commissary. He has never known what his cotton or corn or peanuts sold for. Technically, half the crop he raises is his. But he never has sold an ounce of cotton or a single peanut.
Here is the pattern throughout the South.
Every Negro knows it and accepts it. It’s a custom, a tradition, just as basic as Jim Crow. No Negro dares buck the system. Everywhere I went, and I talked with at least a score of sharecroppers, I heard the same expression:
“If you go to figure behind The Man you’re gonna git trouble.” For that matter every Negro share-cropper I talked to admitted that he couldn’t “figure.” “The Man jes’ calls it off,” they told me, each with a wry smile.
Unable to “Figure”
Up in Macon county Henry Mann farms 22 acres of “The Man’s” plantation. Last year he raised two tons of peanuts and 11 bales of cotton. At $200 a bale and ton that would have been $2,600 — Henry’s share $1,300 — less, of course, his “furnish” and other expenses. He got $242 cash. Shamefacedly he admits he can’t “figure.” He wouldn’t “figure behind ‘The Man’ ” anyway. Year before, he says, he made only seven bales and a ton and a half of peanuts. He had a hospital bill to come out of his share and wound up with $30 cash for his year’s work. But Henry has a garden of his own and raises a few hogs each year. Apparently he’s convinced he is doing all right for himself.
On many plantations “The Man” won’t waste good cotton land in gardens for his croppers, so cotton grows “right up to the front door and right up to the back door.” On many other plantations “The Man” puts in a big patch of collards and turnips and other garden truck and assigns a couple of hands to take care of it. The share-croppers then buy it from “The Man.” Every stem of collards they eat is charged against them on the bill they never see.
Well it’s no use cluttering up the record with statistics. The story runs like that all over the South. It could be that the share-croppers I happened to strike were all worthless, lazy or liars. But in county after county in the plantation country of three states, I talked to Negro business men, professional men, undertakers, now and then a Negro farm agent. Certainly they know the sharecropping system and the black men at the bottom who produce the cotton and the peanuts and the corn. Not one of them but insisted that cheating a sharecropper out of his eye teeth was accepted and standard practice. Every one of them backed up his belief with instance after instance. I didn’t bother taking notes. I’d talked with share-croppers myself.
This share-cropping in the South is grand larceny on a grand scale. And the Negro is the victim.
Two Negroes Who Have
Earned Their Way
This is a “tough” town in a “tough” county. We break our journey to get a couple of bottles of beer in the picturesque juke joint that Jared Buford runs down here in the Negro section for colored folk. And again, “Jared Buford” is about as far away from his real name as could well be.
Jared just took over this little beer place a few months ago. He bought it out of the profits he made on his 100 rented acres outside of town. Jared himself is a tall, powerful Negro who moves like a great cat. He was three years in the Army, two of them overseas.
There’s one thing that Jared Buford would like to do. He’d like to vote. Just once. He’s never voted and he’s never tried to vote. And he makes it plain that as long as he lives in this county he’ll never even try to vote.
“No,” he explains, “nobody would ‘hurt’ a Negro who tried to register. They’d just pay you no never mind. You go up to the courthouse and tell the white folks you want to register. That’d be the end of it. Nobody would give you anything to register with. Come closing time you’d just have to go home.”
Just Like “Figurin’ “
Same way with this business of “figurin’ behind The Man (the landlord),” when we get to talking about the share-croppers in the county.
“Nobody going to hurt a black share-cropper if he figures behind ‘The Man’ or all around ‘The Man,’ ” insists Jared. “But if he starts fixin’ to DO anything with those figures — well that might be something else.”
So no Negro votes in this county and no Negro protests against the conscienceless and brazen exploitation of the share-cropper. It looks as though the white folks down here have worked out a foolproof system of “keeping the black man in his place.”
In fact, Jared has arrived at that conclusion himself.
“Ain’t no Negro in this county going to be hurt or killed as long as he keeps his place,” he says. “White folks here ain’t going to make trouble just for the sake of trouble like they do some places. I never had any trouble and I ain’t going to have no trouble. I’ve got my place here and on the farm, and the white folks got their place.
“This is our life down here in our end of the town. Oh, I know you folks back in Atlanta got your theaters and night clubs, but we get along without ’em.”
No, Jared isn’t going to buy a new car with his profits from his cotton and his beer.
“No Negro in this territory has got a new car and they won’t no Negro git a new car until every white man that wants one has it,” he says.
“No sir — no share-cropping for me,” smiles Jared when I ask him about his farming operations. “If I’m going to follow a mule all day I want to see something in my hand for it when I git through.”
He Pays Cash Rent
Jared rents himself a hundred good acres from a white planter and pays cash rent for it, $12 an acre or $1,200 for the farm. Last year he cleared $5,280 cash on his peanuts and cotton, and recites from memory the figures to prove it, so much gross, so much for fertilizer, draft animals and half a dozen other items.
In every word and gesture it’s plain that here is a black man who has worked out a way of life for himself. And it’s plain, too, that the white man doesn’t enter into that life. Here is a man, it seems to me, who has just cut himself off from white civilization. And is doing all right at it, too.
Over in Miller county we encounter a completely different type of Negro farmer. He’s Jordan Arline — and that’s his real name. Two generations of Arlines who have owned and farmed their own land have made Arline a substantial figure in the life of the county. Arline owns 600 acres of land, having added about 200 acres to the farm left him by his father. He, like most Georgia farmers, has got away in recent years from a one crop cotton economy. He produces cotton, of course, and pecans, peanuts, sugar cane from which he manufactures his own molasses — last year he sold a thousand gallons –corn, hogs, turkeys, chickens, and now he’s going in strong for beef cattle.
Got an Itemized Statement
He uses the sharecropper system to produce his cotton, peanuts and corn. And here again is a striking contrast between the returns a share-cropper gets when he works for a white man or a Negro.
Top sharecropper income on Arline’s farm last year was $1,514.21.His expenses for the year for “furnish,” fertilizer and the like, were $884.80. And he got an itemized statement of his account. He was good, but Arline wishes he hadn’t done so well. Because with all that money he decided it was foolish to work any more. So he bought a secondhand car and took to the road. When he went he took with him 35 head of hogs he had raised with his own feed on his own time, molasses and corn.
All of which seems to lend some degree of weight to the defense of the Southern white when he’s charged with ill-treating and cheating his share-croppers.
“They’re shiftless and undependable,” he explains. “No use tryin’ to do anything for them. They’ll just up and leave you any way.”
He Keeps Moving on
It is true. And why not? Your Negro sharecropper is always desperately bent on “bettering himself.” So he moves from plantation to plantation in the usually vain hope of finding one where he’ll not be cheated. And then he finds a planter like Arline, and finds himself at the end of the season with a fortune of $1,500 plus 35 hogs and corn to feed them! Who can blame him if he decides he’ll just quit work until he goes broke and has to find himself another boss? That was just too much money for a man who never had as much as $500 at one time in all his life before.
Last year Arline decided it was time to vote. At the county seat the white folks in friendly fashion indicated that they’d rather he’d forget the whole thing. Arline wired the governor, notified the Georgia Political and Civic League, a group of Negro leaders with headquarters in Atlanta, and went to see the United States attorney at Macon. Everything was kept on a friendly basis. Arline left the argument and contention to the lawyers. Result — Arline is registered and votes along with about 60 other Negro property owners. There was no earthquake, no stars fell and by now the white folks are pretty well reconciled to the fact that it isn’t going to make much difference to them whether the Negroes vote or not.
Jim-Crow Is Kicked In the Pants
Not since my boyhood days in the homes of my Pennsylvania Dutch relatives have I sat down to a table loaded as this one is.
Great platters of fried chicken – and listen, it’s Pennsylvania Dutch fried chicken, the gooey kind – not that abomination known as southern fried chicken that I’ve been getting for the past two weeks. And biscuits – light, fluffy and piping hot. And here’s a new wrinkle. The biscuits are baked in small pans – in the oven at a time. So when you call for a fresh one it’s right out of the oven. Three or four kinds of jam; big gobs of country butter. And great pitchers of real buttermilk – what’s left after you churn country butter – the first I’ve tasted in 20 years.
This 65 acres a few miles outside Chickamauga, Ga., is another little oasis in the desert of discrimination and injustice that is the black South. It is the farm of C. D. Haslerig, who has carved out a way of life for himself and his children on this fertile North Georgia farm.
The rest of our group attends a district meeting of a Negro fraternal order. I am here to eat.
Gather in Little Church
After the lodge meeting and a Gargantuan picnic dinner in a grove on the Haslerig farm we repair to a little church in a grove of pines. The ladies of the women’s auxiliary of the order have worked diligently preparing a little entertainment for the visitors from downstate. There are piano solos and some really excellent singing. There are several essays and recitations.
And here again, in this quiet country church, you realize anew the obsession the southern Negro has with this racial problem. It colors all his thinking and every phase of his life. Every recitation, every theme so laboriously written stresses only the one great facet of these people’s lives – their relations with the whites.
Called on to Speak
Brother Haslerig is chairman of the meeting. So it’s not too much of a surprise when he calls upon his house guest, Brother James R. Crawford, to offer a few remarks, preferably regarding the status of our people back in Pittsburgh. Now I have no objection to my deception of all these good people because if my mission succeeds it may be of some slight service to them. But making speeches as the representative of the colored folk of Pittsburgh would be carrying the deception a little too far. So I stand and bow and thank Brother Haslerig for the opportunity – and sit down again. To really sincere applause. Because the afternoon is getting on and the audience wants to go home.
This Haslerig family demonstrates that you can wring success out of anything. On their 65 owned acres they run a herd of prize Guernseys, raise thousands of broilers each year, eggs and hogs. In recent years they have farmed 200 acres of leased land which they expect to buy. Their nine children have graduated from Chattanooga High school, the oldest in turn driving the 15 miles each morning and evening.
Could Quit Right Here
Me, I’d be perfectly content to finish out this assignment in the Haslerig dining room – with, of course, rest periods in a rocking chair on the front porch.
But the rest of our group from Atlanta has to be back for the Fulton county Republican convention to pick delegates to the state convention. Political conventions run true to form, North or South. We even have a smoke-filled room in which to operate, a courtroom in the Fulton county courthouse where for an afternoon politics spreads Jim Crow like a rug on the floor.
But a week later when the state Republican convention is held in the same courtroom we learn that in other counties Jim Crow more than holds his own even in politics.
The DeKalb county delegation ran into difficulties. Republican national committee rules require that in Georgia, county conventions must be held in the courthouse. Which was OK with DeKalb county commissioners. Except that Negroes and whites couldn’t meet in the same court room. So the white delegates met in one courtroom and the Negro delegates in another. Messengers ran themselves ragged from one courtroom to another, taking two votes on every measure and proposal and then adding the ayes and noes to find out where they stood.
White Supremacy Jolted
So the state convention passed a resolution condemning the action of the DeKalb commissioners. The convention also passed unanimously resolutions demanding that all Georgians of whatsoever shade should not only be permitted to vote, but encouraged to do so. The convention also called for equal school facilities for all citizens of Georgia.
All of which was giving Jim Crow a hefty kick in the seat of the pants when you figure that among the white delegates who voted for the motion were such figures as Harry Sommers, former president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Colonel Elliott F. Tuttle, veteran of both world wars and retiring president of the Fulton County Bar Association, and C.J. Hilkey, dean of the law school of Emory University. Just a little more evidence that if the Negro is ever going to dent the more evil and vicious aspects of Jim Crow in the South it’s going to be accomplished through the franchise.
Despite the determination of the southern white never to “Mr.” a Negro, black and white delegates were mistering each other all over the place. They crippled their fingers shaking hands and even on occasion hugged each other. Southern white supremacy got an awful kicking around that day.
I found myself wedged in between a couple of white delegates from North Georgia. I was distinctly uncomfortable. I hadn’t been so close to white folks in weeks. Until one of them leaned over to me and confided:
“You know we don’t have many colored people up in our country, but you people ought to be allowed to vote. I served with a lot of your people in the Navy. They were damned good shipmates. Most of this stuff about you Negroes is just damned foolishness.”
So much for one lily white Georgian.
A Soldier Who Came Home to Die
When they call the roll of Americans who died to make men free, add to that heroic list the name of Private Macy Yost Snipes, black man, Georgia, U. S. A.
Death missed him on a dozen bloody battlefields overseas, where he served his country well.
He came home to die in the littered door-yard of his boyhood home because he thought that freedom was for all Americans, and tried to prove it.
It wasn’t that he didn’t get fair warning. He knew what to expect. And he got just that.
Early in July the white folks passed the warning through the Negro countryside around the little sun-warped country hamlet of Rupert, in Taylor county, Georgia. It was brief and to the point. The first Negro to vote in Rupert would be killed, ran the word.
Hadn’t Thought of Voting
Macy Yost Snipes hadn’t even thought of voting, so his friends told me. But when the word came that he’d die if he did -then he decided that he’d vote. He had never voted. He didn’t know where or how to do it. He went to Butler, the county seat, to register. There they told him he’d have to go back to his home town of Rupert to register, and later, vote. The white folks in Rupert let him register. There were already a few Negro names on the registry lists.
Bright and early on election day Macy appeared at the polling place – and voted. Afterward Macy told a friend that the white folks on the election board appeared “sorta dazed” as he cast his ballot. “It was like they thought a dead man was voting,” Macy said laughingly to his friend who told me the story of how a Georgia Negro died.
Private Snipes didn’t know it, but the white folks were right. He was already dead when he dropped that ballot in the box. The white folks just let him walk around another week before they buried him.
Riddled With Bullets
Just a week later four white men drove up to Macy Snipes’ home, called him out and after a few words riddled him with bullets and drove off.
Taking courage from the fact that the white folks had promised to kill only the first Negro who voted, another black man voted after Private Snipes. He was right. The white folks didn’t kill him. They just ran him out of the county.
But even after they had murdered him, the white folks weren’t finished with Private Macy Yost Snipes. The Snipes family owned a little burial plot in a Negro cemetery near Rupert. The mother and father of the dead soldier arranged with a Negro undertaker to bury their slain son in the family plot. But the day of the funeral the undertaker got word from Rupert.
“You try to bury that nigger here and you better have another grave ready for yourself.” The undertaker had a plot in another cemetery at the other end of the county. That’s where Macy Snipes rests.
Family Told to Get Out
But it wasn’t enough to murder the returned veteran and deny his body burial because he had sought to overthrow white supremacy by dropping his ballot in the box. The white folks decided that they wanted none of Macy Snipes’ family in their midst, either. The Snipes family were hard-working and respected farmers owning 150 acres which provided them with a better-than-ordinary competence. They were warned that they had better get out of the county. “Remember what happened to your son,” one note read.
So the Snipes family sold their farm and fled North. They live in Ohio now.
And what about the champions of racial purity’ who murdered Macy Snipes? Well, one William Cooper proudly claimed the honor of having fired the shots that dropped the young veteran in front of his own threshold. He hunted up the coroner and explained that he and his friends were just trying to collect $10 that Macy Snipes had borrowed from him. When Snipes told him he hadn’t any money he said he told Macy to go to work for his companion, a sawmill owner and the sawmill man would pay off Macy’s $10 debt.
“You don’t get me in no saw mill,” was Macy’s reply, according to Cooper. A few more heated words, said Cooper, and Macy’ started toward his door, saying, “I’ve got something in the house that’ll move you fellows off.”
“That’s when I shot him,” explains Cooper. There was no gun on Private Snipes’ body but there was $40 in his pocket and all the members of the Snipes family had through the years built up a reputation for paying their debts.
“Justifiable killing in self-defense,” was the verdict.
Well, what price a monument for Private Macy Yost Snipes now?
A Most Successful Negro Farmer
Given the right kind of white neighbors, the right kind of a community, the right kind of land and a terrific capacity for hard work, once in a while a Negro can do pretty well for himself in the deep South. Witness David E. Jackson down here on the outskirts of Adel, Georgia, in Cook county. But remember, too, that Dave is one in a million. So far as I know he’s one in ten million.
Dave Jackson owns and farms 1,000 acres of some of the best land in Georgia. He owns two blocks of business property in Adel, and a score of houses. He’s a stockholder in the newly formed bank. He lives in a 10-room modern home. He runs four tractors and four big trailer trucks. He operates two big produce warehouses in Adel. He buys and sells 100,000 bushels of corn every year in addition to the thousands of bushels he raises. He ships corn as far north as Tennessee and North Carolina. Last year he shipped 15 carloads of watermelons and he can’t recall how many trailer truck loads of early vegetables. He raises cotton and tobacco and hogs, 500 hogs last year, 400 this year.
Penniless 20 Years Ago
Twenty years ago he was a penniless share-cropper. He started with 27 acres of land for which he promised to pay $1,500 when, as and if, he ever got $1,500. He’s been buying land almost every year since until he reckons his holdings at a thousand acres.
How did he do it? Many farmers have done as well in the North. But how did a Negro accomplish it in Georgia?
Well, first Dave was fortunate enough to start in an oasis of decency and tolerance in a desert of oppression and intolerance. Then Dave’s generous heart probably had a lot to do with the fact that Dave is one of the best-liked men in the county.
Ever since he started with two mules and a plow, Dave has gone out of his way to help his neighbors. If a white plantation owner is caught with his cotton, or corn, or watermelon crop in danger, Dave is right there with mules, and tractors and trucks and himself and his two sons.
Favors Are Returned
And when his neighbor wants to know, “What do I owe you Dave?” Dave replies with a wave of his hand and, “Nothing at all. Some day you’ll do me a favor when I need it.” And they do, sheriff, county commissioners, city council, bankers, businessmen, the white plantation owners of the community.
But let nobody get the idea that there’s anything typical about the career of Dave Jackson or any other successful Negro farmer in the deep South. There are only a handful like him. And he and the others have become legends among their people. Why, clear across three states, in Mississippi, I found that Negro leaders had heard of Dave. To produce a Dave Jackson in the South you’ve first got to have a white community tolerant enough to sit back and let a Negro succeed. Then of course you’ve got to have an exceptional Negro. You’ve got both those conditions in Cook county.
Dave started as a share-cropper on the plantation of Wes Wells, probably the oldest white plantation owner in the community. He became a sort of general manager for Wells. With a growing family to maintain he didn’t save anything. Wells urged him to buy land and go on his own. Finally he found a piece of 27 acres for which the owner wanted $1,500.
Wells handed him $1,500 and refused a note or mortgage. Working nights after he had finished his jobs on the Wells plantation, Dave made $4,000 from two crops of tobacco. He paid off Wells and bought more land. He’s been buying more land ever since.
Has Five Share-Croppers
And Dave Jackson has five share-croppers on his plantation, too. He doesn’t provide them with “furnish” because he figures they ought to be able to raise their own keep on land he allots them. They do.
Last year he paid one cropper $1,600 in cash. Each of the four others got better than $1,000. The $1,600 man made his on 12 acres, four of watermelons, four of tobacco and four of corn. The least any of his share-croppers ever made was minus $1,400. He quit Dave after he had gone $1,400 in the hole.
“Mistake I made,” said Dave, “was to give him an $800 secondhand Chevrolet as an advance against settlement day. I knew he was a good man and I was glad to do him a favor. That auto ruined him. He had no time for mules or tractor. He just rammed around in that auto and the weeds took over.”
Others Have Done Well
There are other Negroes who have done pretty well for themselves on the land.
Over in Hancock county, near Sparta, there is A. J. Washington, for instance. He owns 500 acres and rents another 500. He uses a fallowing system so not all of his land is in cultivation in any one year. But last year he made 90 bales of cotton, a larger tonnage than any other farmer, white or black, in the county. He also operates a store in the Negro section on the edge of town. Dave had only three years of schooling in his life.
“But I’ll figure with anybody, backwards or forwards,” he boasts. Washington runs three sharecroppers on his land. Each of them made more than $1,000 in cash last year. That was clear of all expenses, even their living for themselves and families.
“I give ’em figures on everything,” explains Washington. “Not only that but when I go to the cotton warehouse to buy guano and fertilizer and seed I take ’em along. They hear what I pay and they see the bills. When I sell the cotton in the fall I take ’em with me to the warehouse again. They hear me dicker, they see the check I get. And right then and there I figure out their shares and write their checks.”
Washington has no trouble in getting the cream of the sharecroppers in the county. Perhaps with reason, because, as he say’s, he never heard of any other sharecropper in the county getting more than $500.
Negro Doctors Treat White Patients
Right here this Jim Crow thing gets to the point where it’s just plain silly — if a thing so replete with heartbreak and tragedy can ever be properly called silly.
Here we sit in the waiting room of Dr. — well let’s say Dr. Bradford Gordon. He’s got that kind of a New England sounding name but why mention it here, when it might be the cause of getting him Kluxed.
The room is filling up after the noon hour, white farmers in from the country with their wives and youngsters to get their teeth “fixed up.” Other, better-dressed whites, men and women, plainly city dwellers. And a handful of Negro mothers with their children. No segregation here.
When Dr. Gordon appears he proves to be very, very black. He Is a towering figure of a man, graduate of a famous northern university and a star on its football team. The man seems to beam with kindliness and courtesy. If he isn’t a gentleman, I never saw one. We chat a while.
White Woman First Patient
First patient to seat herself in the gleaming dental chair is a blooming young farm wife, as white as the doctor is black. Dr. Gordon’s big black fingers will operate drill and probe and chisel in the young white woman’s mouth. And in the mouths of hundreds of other white men, women and children, for Dr. Gordon is one of the most popular dentists in this great farming area.
But, if later that evening, Dr. Gordon, on his way home in bus or streetcar should seek to sit beside, or even near his patient he’d probably be arrested. If he tried it again he could very well find himself completely dead.
Dr. Gordon is just one of scores of Negro dentists in the South who, because of unusual skill, have found themselves with an ever growing white practice. One such Negro dentist the Negroes tell about made such a success down in this country that he moved to Nashville and opened elaborate offices. Now, they say, he’s gone completely Jim Crow and doesn’t accept any Negro patients at all.
White and Black Babies
Another day we drop into the office of Dr. C. C. Carruthers in a Tennessee town. Dr. Carruthers is aging fast now. He’s been in practice here for 32 years. He didn’t keep records of the babies he’s helped into the world but there were hundreds of them – some years almost as many white youngsters as black ones. Many of “his” babies are married now and have children of their own. If he noticed one of “his” babies on a railroad train for instance – and sought to enter the white coach to greet her – well, he knows better.
But there’s little enough of even the grimmest sort of humor in the impact of Jim Crow upon human lives.
Besides the Jim Crow regulations established by law, which are onerous enough, this Jim Crow pattern has been built up into a way of life in which even the few legal rights of a Negro are ignored.
No Justice for Negro
Records of actual court cases, prove there is no justice for the Negro in criminal court. Every Negro I talked to insists that there is equally no justice for him in civil courts.
“If you black, you never mess with no white man in court,” a black share-cropper told me when I asked him why he didn’t sue “The Man” (the landlord).
“All you git is mo’ and worse trouble.”
In different language, Negro leaders told me the same thing. A Negro banker I met, located in an area where there are few white banks, was urged by white plantation owners to deal with them for seasonal loans as he did for black farm owners. His reply was:
“How could I ever expect to collect in court if you refused to pay me?”
Testimony Not Given Weight
Frankly and openly, the courts and the law in the South let Negroes know that their sworn testimony in court is not to be given the same weight as that of a white man. Automobile insurance companies, when they do sell insurance to a Negro automobile owner never go to court when he is in collision with a white driver. They just pay. So, too, when a Negro without insurance collides with a car owned by a white man. There rarely is any question as to who was at fault. The Negro is told how much he is going to pay. And pays it.
If he goes to a white doctor or dentist he’ll probably get service. But he waits until all the white patients have been cared for. If it’s time for the physician to quit when he reaches his goal he’s told to try it again some other time.
He can’t enter a white library. But if there’s a colored library branch in his town he can go there and any book he wants is obtained from the white library.
Better Not Resist
If a white man attacks him, he’d better not resist. If he does he’s due for lynching. That’s why Negroes, if they do resist a white man generally try to kill him. If you’re going to be killed, better give the white folks something to kill you for, the black man figures.
In most Southern towns, benches in the little parks in the center of town are not for him. Some few towns have a few benches marked “Colored.” But not many.
But surely even if you’re black, if you’ve died for your country in France or Germany or on Saipan or Iwo Jima, the white folks will forget your color and remember only that you were a hero!
Reader, you don’t know. Here is the ultimate in Jim Crowism.
In every southern town you’ll find not one but two honor rolls, one for white, one for black, sometimes side by side, oftener the Negro honor roll hidden in the dingy Negro section.
No Negro is going to contaminate the white race by getting his name on the same honor roll with a white man even if he did die a hero in the service of his country.
A Visit to a Jim Crow School
Here on the outskirts of the pleasant, thriving little Georgia town of Bluffton in Clay County I go to school again. And what a school! This dilapidated, sagging old shack, leaning and lop-sided as its makeshift foundations give way, is the lordly white’s conception of a schoolhouse for Negroes.
This leaking old wreck of a shanty must be nearly half a century old. The warped old clapboards are falling off. Holes bigger than your hand give permanent cross-ventilation. There are no desks, no seats but rude benches. Two rough tables serve as desks. A few dog-eared school books are scattered on the tables. A “blackboard,”’ apparently home made, just a sheet of cardboard about two by three feet, is nailed to the bare studding.
Only redeeming feature of this thing called a school is the teacher. Tall and spare, gentle and soft spoken, earnest and intelligent, she reminds you of a typical New England school-marm with her sharp aquiline features – except for a deeper sun tan than one could ever get on a beach.
Has Taught Three Generations
For 27 years, she tells us, she has taught this little school. Three generations of little black American citizens have picked up the rudiments of an education under her kindly tutelage. She is actually proud of this school.
“The state furnishes us free school books now,” she says. “When I started in 27 years ago the only text book we had was my Bible that I brought to school. Some of the children were able to buy text books as the years went on and the whole class used them.”
There are 38 children in her school, divided into seven grades. She teaches them all. If all of her 38 scholars came to school at one time the little room would be crowded to suffocation. But now there is only a handful of little tots. All the bigger girls and boys are “excused.” This is cotton chopping time and cotton is more important than learning. The bigger boys and girls are also “excused” at plowing and planting time and again in the fall when it’s time to pick the precious cotton. The school term is eight months, she says. But only the little tots ever see eight months of schooling.
Salary Is $112 a Month
Miss Minnie Dora Lee draws a salary of $112 a month. When she started and for many years afterward she got $20 a month. It has taken the full 27 years of her service to climb to that magnificent figure of $112.
Miss Minnie Dora Lee’s school is typical of Negro schools in Georgia and the deep South. We could have found many far worse and did. Some few are better. What sets her school ahead of most of the other one-room shanties in the South where little black children get their three R’s is Miss Minnie Dora Lee herself. In her 27 years as a school teacher, Miss Lee has learned, too. Hundreds of southern Negro schools have teachers who never went beyond the sixth or seventh grades and are wholly unfitted for teaching. I encountered more than one instance where the leading white cotton planter of the district appointed the teacher of the Negro school. Usually on the basis that her father raised more cotton “than any other nigger I’ve got on the place.”
Catchword of your lordly, lily-white representative of white supremacy to justify all the phases of segregation with its inevitable train of discrimination, oppression, brutality and petty chicanery is the term “separate but equal.”
A Brazen, Cynical Lie
So far as the education of little black American citizens is concerned, that “equal” in the South’s pet catch phrase is a brazen, cynical lie and every white man knows it.
No Negro school in all the South even begins to compare in any way with its companion white school. True enough, I didn’t check them all. But I did see scores of them. And I asked literally hundreds of Negroes to help me find at least one Negro school equal to a white one in the same area. Not only did none of them know of such an instance but even the most radical opponents of segregation didn’t even hope for, expect or ask for such a miracle. Any of them would be glad to settle for just ordinarily decent schools for their children.
Right here in Clay county is a typical illustration of the bitter, tragic hypocrisy of that “separate but equal” lying catchword. Ride with me about a thousand yards down the highway past Minnie Dora Lee’s disintegrating old rookery. On the edge of Bluffton is the school for the white folks – the last word in small town educational plants.
A neat brick structure, with a wing on either side – at least six rooms. Grounds beautifully landscaped, a spreading playground crowded with all the latest equipment that money can buy.
Minnie Dora Lee’s school couldn’t cost more than $1,000 even today. This white folks’ school didn’t cost a cent less than $100,000. “Separate but equal.” It’s not even funny.
Feudalism Lives on In the Delta
Black of the rich earth and green of the springing cotton plants stretch from horizon to horizon. This is the fabulous Mississippi Delta, last outpost of feudalism in America. Here is land more fertile than any other in the world. Here close to half a million Negroes toil from childhood to the grave in the service of King Cotton, from sunup to sundown if they share-crop, from 6 to 6 if they work by the day.
Here are feudal baronies that run from 5,000 to 20,000 acres, where as many as 6,000 sharecropper families, wives and children, parents and grandparents follow the one mule plow and the chopping hoe all their lives.
On these tight little Delta principalities “The Man” (the landlord), is the middle justice, the high and the low. Mississippi law stops dead in its tracks at their boundaries. No sheriff, no peace officer takes a man, black or white off these acres until “The Man” tells him he may
Briefed On Tactics
Back in Jackson, the night before we started our expedition into the Delta, half a dozen Negro leaders briefed us on tactics, strategy and general behavior for our Delta tour as if we had been going into an occupied country to join the Underground.
“Don’t talk to share-croppers either at work or along the roads.” “Don’t argue if a ’rider’ stops you and asks questions.” (“Riders,” by the way, are the mounted patrols that plantation owners maintain as field foremen and general overseers. Mounted field foremen frequently are trusted Negroes. Overseers are white.)
In any event – whether because of the briefing or because our smiling brown faces aroused no suspicions – nothing happened.
We did stop one woman sharecropper near Scott, Miss., on the vast Delta Pine Land Company holdings. All we wanted was to find out where we were. The woman regarded us suspiciously and then started to give us road directions. Suddenly she broke off, slipped down the road embankment and disappeared.
Woman Scared Away
We found out why when we heard a horn honk behind us. We had blocked the narrow road when we stopped and a Mississippi car with a couple of white men in it had pulled up behind us. That’s what had scared the woman away. I didn’t feel so good myself. But when we pulled out of the way the car rattled on.
All the Negro leaders I encountered insisted that Negro life in the Delta was not far past the days of slavery. I couldn’t agree with them. In the first place, the Negro share-cropper or field hand can pull up stakes and leave whenever he wishes. No longer do deputy sheriffs pursue fleeing sharecroppers and drag them back to the plow and hoe to work out their debts. The Federal Government broke that up 10 years ago. But the Negroes still take no chances. I talked with one share-cropper who was getting ready to leave. He’d gotten his parents away on a “visit.” He was planning to send his children away in a few days. A relative had sent him tickets to Chicago.
Leave Quietly at Night
“Best way is to just leave quiet at night,” he confided. “That way there just can’t be any trouble.”
Delta Negroes are undoubtedly cheated out of their eyeteeth by “The Man” but certainly not to the extent that their brethren in Georgia are. None of them ever sees a statement of the prices brought by their cotton or of supplies they have bought form the huge commissaries maintained by the plantation owners. But there are few of them who get less than $500 cash at settlement time in the fall. And that’s good compared with Georgia. For one thing, the cheating is more honest here. It’s accepted Delta custom that the Negro gets about four cents less a pound for his cotton than “The Man” sells it for – al all the Negroes I talked to assured me.
Normally, life flows peacefully and uneventfully for the Delta Negro.
Seldom, almost never, does the Delta break into the headlines of the nation with the sensational lynchings and wanton Negro murders that spatter the bloody record of Georgia and South Carolina. Your Delta Negro seldom has any trouble with his white folks. Or if he does, neither the trouble nor the Negro lasts very long.
Reason is that the Delta Negro lives under an iron-clad despotism so ruthless and so efficient that your ordinary share-cropper and field hand seldom comes in contact with it. In the Delta, the Negro not only “knows his place” but he keeps it faithfully from childhood to old age. Or he never lives to reach old age. It’s seldom that the white folks have to kill a Delta Negro. But when they do it’s done quietly and expeditiously. And there are no “political and civic” leagues as in Georgia to start raising hell about it, either. Even the remarkably efficient and almost omnipresent NAACP functions limpingly in Mississippi. The white folks see to that.
Typical of Delta Negro killings was one that a group of Negro friends in one of the little Delta towns told me of. A Negro undertaker happened to be calling on a Negro share-cropper to collect a small balance on a bill. A “rider,” gun-hung like a one-man army, came galloping up. In the friendliest tone imaginable he called out:
“Jim, I just had to kill that brother of your down near his place. Better see to getting his body out of there” – and galloped off again.
No Fuss, No Questions
The undertaker, right on the scene, go the body. Next day the Negro minister preached the funeral sermon. They put the dead man in the ground and that was that. No fuss, no questions.
No Negro votes in the Delta. In all Mississippi with its more than a million Negroes, not more than 10,000 vote and those only in the larger cities where selected handfuls of Negro leaders are permitted to go through the motions of voting. But Mississippi, like Georgia a few years ago, is having Supreme Court trouble when the folks try to kill a Negro by “due process” with a rigged jury.
So just recently the county officials of one of the Delta counties called in a Negro friend of mine.
“Asa, we’ve got to make new arrangements,” they told him. “We want about six Negroes we can trust. We’ll let “em register and vote so we can put “em on the jury list.
“Supreme Court’s held up hangin’ of a nigger down below Jackson because no Negroes were called for jury duty. We got to see that that can’t happen here.”
Who said Mississippi white folks wouldn’t let Negroes vote?
A Marble Monument To Cruelty
In this little, straggling Negro cemetery, its graves weed-grown, its headstones leaning drunkenly, stands a magnificent sarcophagus of white Alabama marble. It is an astonishing thing to find here on the edge of this Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale. Quite likely there’s nothing like it all up and down the Delta in either white or Negro cemetery.
Within it lie the bodies of a dark woman and her baby, both dead in the hour of the baby’s birth. Proudly, Dr. P. W. Hill, wealthy Negro dentist, shows us through this gleaming mausoleum where his wife and baby lie and where some day he too will rest.
In all simplicity he regards it only as his tribute to the ones he loved.
Monument to Cruelty
But this beautiful tomb out here on the edge of the cotton fields is a monument to the cold-blooded cruelty of the white man; to the brutal mandate of a white world that black men and women must die rather than be permitted to defile a cot or an operating table in a white hospital with their black skins.
Marjorie Hill and her husband had planned to have their baby at home. Mrs. Hill was strong and active and in perfect health.
The competent Negro physicians in attendance foresaw no complications or difficulties. Her approach to motherhood was wholly normal until just a few hours before another little dark soul was due in this white world. Then something went tragically wrong. Only a Caesarian section could save his wife and baby, Dr. Hill was told by the doctors.
Clarksdale boasts of a small but adequate hospital. But it is sacred to white patients. Dr. Hill didn’t even seek admission for his wife and unborn baby. Just before midnight he put them into an ambulance and started a mad drive north to Memphis and its Negro hospital, 78 miles away, in a desperate race with death. Death won. Mother and new-born baby both died on the operating table just before dawn.
Has Learned Big Lesson
Dr. Hill, small,. spare, scholarly, reserved, is not, embittered. He has learned his lesson well. He is a black man in a white world.
“But, Doctor,” I insisted, “you didn’t even try. You didn’t even ask Clarksdale Hospital authorities to admit your wife.”
Both Dr. Clark and my companion broke in before I had finished:
“In the South,” they told me, “when you’re black you don’t try to fight the pattern. Hospitals are for white people. White people do not admit black folk to their hospitals. Black folk do not even ask for admission. They just die.”
But I wasn’t satisfied. Back home, and a white man myself again, I decided that here was one barbarity charged to my race that I’d disprove.
I wired Miss Louise Francis, director of Clarksdale Hospital. Western Union reported back that the wire had been delivered to her personally.
“Clarksdale Negroes insist that no Negroes are admitted to Clarksdale Hospital even in emergency such as auto accidents, Caesarians. Will you wire me collect if Negroes would be admitted under any circumstances?”
No Reply to Telegram
I have yet to receive a reply.
Twelve days later I sent Miss Francis a registered letter referring to my telegram:
“Would you then be good enough to let me know if under any circumstances such as an automobile accident in front of the hospital or an immediate Caesarian, would a Negro ever be admitted to your hospital?”
I hold a postal receipt for that registered letter but there has been no reply. Which seems to establish the record and prove that Dr. Hill made no mistake when he didn’t bother to seek admission for his wife even on the threshold of death.
A few years ago Miss Juliette Derricott, dean of women of Fiske University, and Miss Edna Johnson, one of her students, were fatally injured in an automobile crash just outside Dalton, Ga. Dalton has and had at that time a 40-bed white hospital. Again there was no attempt to seek admission for the two dying women. As one of the officials at Fiske University wrote me:
“It seems as if the unspeakable pattern made it not even thought of.”
The two dying women were taken to offices of different white doctors. According to the record they were afforded humane, skillful first aid. Then they were taken to the funeral parlor of a Negro undertaker. Later that night, Dr.L. L. Fatten, a Negro surgeon from Chattanooga, arrived with a Negro ambulance. Three round trips of 66 miles each were required before the two dying women and two other students less seriously injured were delivered to Walden Hospital for Negroes in Chattanooga. The crash occurred at 3:40 in the afternoon. It was nine hours later, 12:30, the next day, before all the patients were in the hospital – one of them, Miss Johnson, already dead.
Smiled at Indignation
Dr. Fatten is getting old, he has been in practice in Southeastern Tennessee and Northern Georgia for 33 years. He’s been encountering things like this all his life. He even smiled at my indignation.
“You’ll learn, if you stay with us here in the South,” he told me.
So I checked the “pattern” again. I wired F. K. Sims, director of Dalton Hospital, referring to the Derricott case and asking “If Negro would be admitted to hospital under any circumstances in emergency.” Mr. Sims got the wire but I have no answer. So I wrote him by registered mail for which I hold his receipt:
“Would you be good enough to tell me, in a case of extreme emergency, automobile accident, Caesarian, has your hospital ever accepted a Negro patient or would it accept a Negro patient?” And no answer to that one either.
Just last year, the track team of Clark College, Atlanta, was on its way by automobile to track meet with Tennessee A. & I. State College at Nashville. Near Pelham, Tenn., an army trailer sideswiped a car driven by Clark track coach Charles Mcpherson. Jeffrey Jennings and Joseph Brown, two Clark track stars, were passengers. Both Jennings and Brown were seriously injured. Coach McPherson was slightly hurt. State police called an ambulance and a five-hour tour ’that covered more than 100 miles began.
At two hospitals, at Sewanee and Manchester, both of which treat both black and white patients, every bed was occupied some by Negro patients.
But at Winchester Hospital, according to Coach McPherson, the desperately wounded patients were refused admission because they were black. They drove on to Fayetteville, Tenn., to a Negro hospital where both were admitted. Brown died shortly after. Jennings laid in a coma for three weeks and finally recovered.
Once more I checked this time on the definite charge that two Negroes, one dying were refused admission because they were black. So I wired Dr. Parker Smith, director of Winchester Hospital:
“I am told that on April 25, 1947, two Negroes badly injured in auto crash, were refused admission to hospital because they were Negroes. Can you inform me if this is correct?”
The wire was delivered to Dr. Smith. There has been no reply.
Then a registered letter with the same re quest for a denial of the definite charge. And Dr. Parker Smith is still silent.
Does anybody wonder that I found mighty little pleasure in that 3,400-mile tour of the South – much of it at 70 miles an hour? Every time we had a close shave with another car, I could see myself riding around in a Jim Crow ambulance, hunting a Jim Crow hospital while I slowly bled to death.
Letters to the Editor
The Post-Gazette printed another balanced batch of eighteen “For” and “Against” letters on August 25, 1948. Sprigle and the paper were praised for “publicizing the disgraceful truth” or “bringing to light one of the unpleasant aspects of our great country.” One woman blasted the racists who exposed themselves the previous week:
“If I hadn’t looked at the names and address on most of the letters you published… I’d have felt that I was reading the sentiments of “racially pure” Nazis. How smug, how safe and sure these writers against Mr. Sprigle’s series can be! Safe behind their white skins, and so far removed from anything so troublesome as the problems of the Negro race in the United States. Rather than suggest Mr. Sprigle return to the South in a white man’s role it might be countered that they should duplicate Mr. Sprigle’s role and see what their reactions are. It can safely be assumed their un-Christian, un-American, intolerant views would never permit them to make such an experiment.”
Seven of the ten “For” letters were from blacks. One of three black pastors was from Little Rock, Arkansas. A white Pittsburgh postal worker who worked with blacks every day said he was “proud to know them” and vouched for their character and work ethic.
Of the eight “Against” letters, the longest was a complaint from the editor of the Mobile Press Register in Alabama. Misrepresenting what Sprigle wrote, he claimed Sprigle admitted that Walter White of the NAACP had “arranged” his “stunt” and that White’s hand-picked agent “steered” Sprigle “only to the sore spots” he wanted Sprigle to write about.
Equally silly, a woman from rural Pennsylvania opined that “the Southern Negroes are the happiest and most care-free people in the world. Most of them don’t have anything and don’t want anything. Least of all they don’t want the white Northerner to stir up trouble with them.”
Other “Against” writers delivered slightly less racist versions of the arguments made by the initial group of negative letters. Sprigle’s series will “tend to encourage the Negro’s penchant for self-pity, a habit that is fast becoming an obsession with him.” Blacks were ungrateful for what fifty centuries of white civilization had given them. Blacks were perfectly happy with the way things were in the South and we Northerners should mind our own business, etc.
More original criticism came from a West Virginia man who charged Sprigle “no doubt” got the idea for his series from the popular book/movie Gentleman’s Agreement and deserved no “credit for originality, much less good journalism.”
Someone else noted, correctly, that Sprigle failed to point out there were lots of poor white sharecroppers and they were victims of the system too. And of course there was the sex angle: A man said though he believed the races should be treated equally, they shouldn’t mix in social situations for one important reason — “an awful lot of white people simply don’t like the thought that black and white might rub elbows and get ‘chummy’ with each other, especially when it involves members of the opposite sex.”
Nine days later, on August 25, Mrs. Roosevelt — the widow of the president that Sprigle and his late publisher Paul Block both openly despised and worked to defeat with their journalism in the 1930s — would give Sprigle another nice but awkwardly phrased boost.
Applauding the New York Herald Tribune in her column for publishing Sprigle’s again unnamed series, she said his articles “paint for us most vividly the situation of the Negro in the South, but they should also jog our memories of his situation in every one of our communities.” She said there were “some situations” in cities where “the Mexican or the red Indian or the Chinese or the Jew live in large numbers” in which “supposedly enlightened people still hold many of the prejudices accepted and practiced by our Southern citizens.”
To put her point more clearly and bluntly, she was reminding Northern white folks that the South didn’t have a monopoly on bigotry and discrimination.
The Falsity of “Separate but Equal”
This thing of bald and unashamed discrimination against little black American citizens in the matter of education can get really brazen. Witness the situation down here in District No.4, Madison county, Miss. What these lordly exemplars of white supremacy have done down here in the Delta country is to use the tax money paid into the county treasury by Negro property owners to build themselves a magnificent school plant at the Negroes’ expense.
What the Negroes got out of their tax money and the usual state contribution for school purposes is right here in front of us, hidden away on this back country road, a desert to dust in summer and a morass of mud in winter.
This school is new. And that’s all that can be said for it. When the white folks took Negro tax money and built themselves their fine school, they at least built a new school for the Negroes. But not until there was a storm of protest from all over the state – from whites and blacks alike.
The white folks of District No. 4 were going to let the little Negro pupils continue to pick up what education they could in their two schools, one in a church and the other in a lodge room.
Pay 90 Percent of Taxes
In this school district there are four Negroes to every white. That, however, is common in the South.
The unusual part is this: The Negroes own about 90 percent of all the land in the district and pay 90 percent of the taxes. And they haven’t one single little word to say about how their tax money is spent.
This new school building is just a big square box with two partitions breaking it up into four rooms. Only one of the rooms has desks. They are hammered together out of the scrap lumber left over from the building of the school. The scraps were picked up out of the mud. The mud is still on the desks. In the other three rooms there are no desks – not even muddy ones – just home-made benches and tables. There is one toilet for both boys and girls. It leans drunkenly in the wind.
Now let’s go back up to the highway to take a look at what the white folks built for their children with Negro money.
Here you’ve got a really up-and-coming school plant. Five buildings designed by a good architect. There’s the main school building, an agricultural building, a vocational school building, a gymnasium and a beautiful little bungalow for the principal. And nine-tenths of every stick and brick in it paid for by the despised and hated Negro. What price “separate but equal” now?
Teachers’ Pay Rates
Oh, in passing – let us not forget that the Negro teachers in that bare box back in the country get from $55 to $90 a month – there are four of them. Only the principal gets the $90. Minimum salary for white teachers in Madison county is $150 a month. There are 15 of them in the white folks’ school.
And why is the Negro school away back there on that dirt road? Well, when the white folks finally decided to open their hearts and the Negroes’ purses they called a meeting of the tax-paying colored folk to discuss the prospective new school. One young Negro property owner got up and broached the matter of location. A colored church organization offered a couple of acres on the highway for the new school. And free.
Somewhat shamefacedly the white school superintendent told the group:
“I guess I might as well tell you that the location is all settled. Mr. Pearl Hawkins wants it down by his cotton gin. So that’s that.”
And that was that. “Mr. Pearl Hawkins” is “The Man” in District No.4, one of the big plantation owners – and white of course. He wanted the school near his acres and his cotton gin because that makes it easier for him to keep his hands. Negroes throughout the South are literally desperate for education for their children. Given a school in the neighborhood they’ll put up with almost any working conditions, no matter how bad. So in Madison county many of the little Negro kids walk six miles to school every morning – and six miles home at night.
Discrimination Is Universal
Discrimination against the Negro school child in Mississippi is universal and vicious. Many counties do not even pretend to provide school buildings for Negro children. In rich Bolivar county in the fabulous Delta country there are 121 Negro schools. Only 31 operate in school buildings. The others stumble along in churches, lodge halls and even garages.
Bulk of the state’s school budget comes from a 2 percent sales tax. A million Negroes – half the population – pay their share of that sales tax. But, believe it or not, the white masters of Mississippi pay more just to haul their white children to their schools than they spend on the entire statewide Negro school system. The figures run 31/2 million dollars to haul white children – only 31/3 million to educate the little Negroes.
Nearly half the state’s 477,000 Negro children of school age have never even been enrolled in school. The southern states have compulsory school laws, just as in the North. But no state enforces the law as regards Negro children.
Trudge Along Dusty Highways
In Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, I saw groups of bright-faced, neat, little Negro children trudging the dusty or dangerous highways morning and evening to and from their tumble-down schools. From time to time the swirling clouds of dust thrown up by school buses would engulf them. The children in those buses were white.
In the South white children ride to school. The black ones walk one mile, two miles – often enough, six miles. Only in four or five counties in Georgia and the same in Mississippi are there any buses for Negro school children. They walk.
“Separate but equal” tell that to a million little black Americans struggling for an education against almost insuperable odds.
Atlantic Ocean for White Folks Only
For three hot and dusty weeks and 3,000 hot and dusty miles I’ve been looking forward to Brunswick and Savannah; the broad white beaches of the Georgia coast and a couple days of ocean swimming.
All right – here are Savannah and Brunswick. Here are the broad white beaches. Here is the wide blue Atlantic Ocean. But there’ll be no sea bathing for me. I’ve dragged those swim trunks all these miles for nothing.
And why? Because this is a strictly Jim Crow ocean and I’m black.
Along all the hundred miles of Georgia’s coast line with its scores of beautiful island and shore beaches, there’s not a single foot where a Negro can stick a toe in salt water. North and south, South Carolina and Florida have public and private beaches reserved for us black people. Not Georgia. Georgia is going to keep her share of the Atlantic pure and undefiled – and lily white.
Standard Fine Is $50
And if you’re black and you think that either I or Georgia is fooling about this thing – just try dunking yourself along Georgia’s ocean strand. The resulting fine is standard – $50 and costs. For trespass – no less. To get to the ocean you must cross someone’s land. That’s trespass. And that’s $50 and costs.
Last time anybody tried going to the mat with the sovereign state of Georgia on this issue was a couple of years ago when three you:ng colored girls decided they’d strike a blow for the freedom of the seas. Rena Atkins, Winsor Roberts and Inez Walke of Brunswick donned bathing suits, hired a cab and went to a deserted section of the Glynn county waterfront.
They never even got their feet wet. A county policeman herded them back into their cab, directed the driver to take them to the police station and locked them up. They were in cells all day until a professional bondsman seeking a fee notified friends and put up bail. Next morning they were each fined $50 and costs. Since then the Atlantic, around here at least, has been strictly white.
More recently the black folk of Savannah and Brunswick have been passing along another story about their Jim Crow briny deep. I didn’t bother checking it because it isn’t important except as it is so strikingly reminiscent of the jokes about Hitler that used to be current in Germany and the similar witticisms at the expense of Stalin, that come out of Russia now. And incidentally that faculty of laughing at their strutting overlords and their pretentions of superiority acts as a mighty efficient safety valve for the resentment that inevitably, now and then, must fill the Negro heart in the South. But to get on with the story.
Mangy Poodle Dunked
It seems that a poodle belonging to one of the rich society dames in the exclusive Sea Island Beach colony – white, of course had contracted a slight case of mange. Her veterinary suggested that daily salt water baths might ease the itch of the pooch. So the white lady ordered her maid to dunk the mangy poodle in the sea each morning. The maid obeyed, but after a few days of dog-dunking rebelled.
“I don’t thing it’s right,” she tearfully told her mistress, “that I have to take that dog swimming every day and if I tried to go in myself I’d be arrested. And that dog’s got mange and I haven’t.”
According to the story, the mistress dunked her dog herself after that, but she told the maid that she “found her attitude very unfortunate.”
All this in Brunswick and Savannah, known as the “best Negro towns in the South,” better even than Atlanta.
True enough the lot of the Negro in these cities is infinitely better than in most areas of the South. Records of both towns are free from outrages against Negroes that mar the history of many communities down here.
Never Had a Lynching
In all its 215 years Savannah has never had a lynching. It came close back in the days when the Klan was at the height of its power. A Savannah Negro was jailed, charged with shooting a white man. Savannah whites were content to wait for the law. But from Statesboro, seat of one of the adjacent counties, came a mob of Klansmen led by their Kleagle, intent on lynching the prisoner if Savannah folk were too soft to do their duty by the white race.
So the Savannah sheriff waited on the steps of the jail with a tommy-gun across his arm and when the mob arrived he calmly shot the leader to ribbons. There was no lynching.
In both Brunswick and Savannah there are parks for both black and white. Savannah has a small swimming pool for Negroes.
Savannah also has a modern 100 bed hospital for Negroes. Joker is, however, that city and county only contribute one-fourth of its budget. Three-fourths of the running expenses come from private sources-mostly from the North.
Twenty thousand Negroes vote freely in Savannah and hold the balance of power. The city has 12 Negro policemen, and they are making excellent records. In Brunswick 3,700 Negroes vote. A new juvenile detention home is projected for Savannah, and it will house both black and white children. In separate wings, of course.
But Jim Crow Rules
But Jim Crow rules both towns with an iron grip. In Savannah’s stately courthouse the only restrooms for Negroes are down in the janitor’s quarters. Negroes may ride only in Jim Crow cabs.
Glynn county, Brunswick the county seat, voted a $100,000 bond issue for a beach for Negroes. But the white folks killed the plan, and the Negroes are only going to get another park out of it.
Georgia bought the fabulous Jekyll Island, playground of the Rockefellers, Whitneys and Bakers for $800,000. It will build a great seashore resort for the citizens of Georgia. But there will be no accommodations for Negroes, despite pleas by most of the Negro organizations in the state.
In beautiful Forsythe Park, in Savannah, both white and black folk sit where they please. But in an adjoining extension park the tennis courts and ball diamonds are for whites only.
Dixon Park is a beautiful little spot running from Henry to Duffy streets. A few years ago park benches dotted the park. But now the Negro section has moved onward, so that the park is half in the white section and half In the black. Those benches might spell trouble under the circumstances, decided the city fathers, and they took them out. Now you’ll stand while you enjoy the beauties of Dixon Park.
A Leaf out of the Jim Crow Book
Here and there and now and then in the deep South you’ll find a Negro with a shrewd Yankee instinct for business, who is smart enough to turn the Jim Crow obsession of the southerner to his own substantial profit. And quite frequently that profit stems not from his own oppressed people, but from the lordly white man. I know at least one Negro who is an operator in a big way in downtown Atlanta business property. He works through a dependable white lawyer and his name rarely if ever appears in a transaction. Usually you’ll find Negro real estate operators dealing in white occupied property have to work that way.
But in one up and coming Georgia city we found a Negro real estate man who works it exactly in reverse. He’s one of the richest men, black or white, in his county. We stopped over with him one night. Nowhere but in the South with its inviolable Jim Crow tradition could you hear a success story like this one.
Buying on a Shoestring
“These crackers who insist upon buying farm or city property on a shoestring are almost bound to get behind on their mortgage payments after they have laid down all their ready cash,” he told us.
“Then they come to me to borrow money after they’ve been turned down by white bankers and mortgage companies. I tell them the truth, that I can’t lend money to a white man because I’d never be able to collect if I had to sue in a Georgia court. They know it as well as I do. But I tell him that if he wants to sell his equity, I’ll buy at a substantial discount, of course. I don’t fool him there, either. He knows he can either take a small cash settlement from me or walk off his place without a nickel to his name. Then I pay off the mortgage and tile property’s mine.
“Now I know it would be worth my life to try to sell to a Negro, even if I could find one crazy enough to buy. But I just sit back, hold the property, do nothing and say nothing. It’s not long before the white people in the neighborhood begin to get restless. The mere fact that a Negro owns property in the neighborhood is bad for white morale. Worse, it’s bad for property values. So before long somebody shows up wanting to buy. I sell. At my price. And you can be sure I never cheat myself.”
Proudest Realty Exploit
His proudest exploit, however, is a Florida deal he put over. He bought a clouded title for a pittance to help out a friend. Then he got to nosing around for a profit. He cleared the title without too much difficulty. He drove down to see his newly-acquired real estate and found that it lay directly in the rear of the somewhat pretentious estate of a Florida judge.
“Here, too, a threat – even implied – to sell to Negroes, would have been suicidal,” grinned the black Wallingford.
“But there was nothing in law, tradition or custom that said I couldn’t sell to a white man – any white man. So I just scouted around the community until I found the meanest, drunkenest, most shiftless cracker in 20 miles. And the one with the biggest family of tatterdemalion kids. He was famous for worthlessness which suited me fine.
“I asked him if he wanted to make himself a ten-spot just for taking a 10-minute automobile ride with his family. He did. So I picked an afternoon when I knew the judge would be sitting on his front porch enjoying his mint julep. I drove up to my house and unloaded the cracker family. I marched them through the house and back again and loaded them into the car under the astonished eyes of the judge.
Phone Call From Judge
“You’ll never get a better buy,” I assured them loud enough for the judge to hear. I took them home, slipped the cracker his ten and then kept right on going over the Florida line.
“Day or so later I got a telephone call from the judge. I’d seen to it that he didn’t have any trouble getting my phone number.
“Look here, you black so and so,” was his opening gambit. After that he really warmed up.
‘’’You sell or rent to them damn shiftless crackers, he assured me, and I’ll come up there and shoot you dead. What do you want for that place?”
“I told him and you could have heard his screams of anguish for miles. I just kept on talking about what a valuable property it was and how I would have to wait for a more generous buyer. Finally he fought off apoplexy long enough to tell me:
“Make out your deed and send it along with a sight draft. And if I ever see you again I’ll kill you.”
Well, it was funny. But when I reminded him that the judge could very well kill him and never do a day for it, the joke lost a lot of its savor.
Atlanta Is the Black Capital of U.S.
Atlanta Negroes like to boast that their town is the “Black Capital of America.” They react with horror and indignation to outrages against Negroes in the smaller towns of the South. They contribute thousands to defense funds to protect the rights of their people or avenge their wanton murder.
For hours they’d sit and assure me that “It can’t happen here.” But the bloody record of Negro killings in their own town proves them wrong. Reluctantly they’ll finally admit it.
That’s another thing I’ll never understand – the intense local patriotism of the Southern Negro. If he lives in Atlanta, then Atlanta’s the finest town in the world. And Georgia is the greatest state. He wouldn’t live anywhere else. And the Mississippi Negro will pound the tale and tell him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. As a temporary black man I’ll tell the world right now that there isn’t a square foot of the South that I like and if I were permanently black, if you ever caught me south of the Smith and Wesson line you could shoot me.
But if you’re black it isn’t too hard to get yourself thoroughly killed by a white cop, or a street car motorman or just a plain everyday gun totin’ citizen, in this “liberal” town of Atlanta.
Motormen Carry Guns
Atlanta is unique in the South in the matter of its kill – crazy street car motormen. An ancient law makes them police officers and gives them the right to carry guns.
There was Madison Harris, 22 years old, who had words with Motorman T. H. Purl. When he got off and started home, Purl stopped the car, called the young Negro back and ordered him to put up his hands. He obeyed and Mr. Motorman shot him dead. The examining magistrate ruled it justifiable homicide and that was the last of that – and of Madison Harris, too.
Walter Lee Johnson, another young Negro of 22, ought to have learned a lesson from that. He didn’t, though. He had “words,” too, this time with Motorman W. D. Lee. When young Johnson left the car, the motorman followed him off. Motorman Lee must have had a bunch of bad cartridges because witnesses testified that Lee’s gun missed fire twice. But the third time the firing pin hit a good one and Johnson followed Harris into the hereafter. That was justifiable homicide, too.
Standard Line of Defense
But you don’t have to be a motorman to kill Negroes and get away with it. Just last year when a Negro refused to quit smoking a foul-smelling cigar on the back platform of an Atlanta car, a retired mail carrier waited until he stepped off and then shot him dead.
“I thought he was going to reach in his pocket,” the killer explained to the magistrate. That, by the way, is the standard line of defense in the South.
Atlanta cops shoot quick and fast, too – and ask any necessary questions afterward. There’s this much to be said in favor of the shooting cops. They’re usually scared stiff all the time they’re on duty and a scared man shoots easily. They have good reason to be scared. In Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis and other Southern towns with a large Negro population they’re pitch-forked into a seething black maelstrom of crime. The white cop can very well find himself dead as he rounds the next corner. So his first thought when trouble looms is to grab his gun and shoot somebody quick.
This is true because there isn’t even a pretense of adequate law enforcement in the black belts of the larger Southern cities, particularly in – Atlanta., Birmingham and Memphis.
At Mercy of Criminals
Decent, law-abiding Negroes, not only in these cities but in the Negro sections of smaller towns, are at the mercy of the criminals of their race because the white folks in the South don’t regard it as a serious crime for a Negro to kill a Negro.
“Bad Negroes” do their four or five years in prison gangs for a killing. Then they come back to their home communities where they rule the more peaceful elements with gun and knife. Cutting, shootings, robberies bring only fines or short jail sentences to the offender. Intelligent and adequate policing could, of course, end this chaos of crime in the Negro areas in a matter of months. But the white folks don’t care and the better element of Negroes is powerless to force action.
I checked a few of the more recent police killings. There was John Mahone, black, drunk, disorderly and fighting with his wife. The cop shot and killed him. Thought he had a knife. The knife turned out to be a can opener.
D. Mance, 38, black and insane but unarmed. Cop was called to subdue a demented person. He did — with his gun.
Killed on Refusal to Halt
Over the De Kalb county line in an Atlanta suburb, a county officer was making a search for illegal whisky. Harris Miller ran. When he refused to halt, County Officer E. C. Dailey killed him.
Negro killings, by Negroes, hit an all-time high in Atlanta in 1941 when they mounted to 107. The year before there were 100. This year may set a new record with 43 killings up to June 1. Only bloody Memphis surpasses Atlanta in its record of Negro killings.
Negro leaders in Atlanta are powerless to institute any measures which would bring law and order to their community. First thing required, of course, is a complete overhaul of the entire police system with a proper system of training for police officers – something which most Southern cities haven’t thought of. Basic reform, of course, would be a change in Southern thinking. Atlanta, and the rest of the South have got to get the Idea that it’s murder to kill a Negro wantonly.
First Atlanta Negro Policemen
I watched the first Negro policemen ever to function in Atlanta during the first day of their service. They were neat, competent appearing Negroes, most of them ex-service men. But they were tossed into the teeming Auburn avenue section without any proper training for the hardest and most exacting jobs in the department.
And they were hamstrung at the start by being denied the right to arrest anyone white. Also they are not permitted to carry guns. That last rule is likely to cost the lives of some of them.
Take it from me, I didn’t feel any safer as one of Atlanta’s black citizens than I did in the sm3ller and more deadly towns in the cotton country.
Does the Negro Hate the White Man?
Strangely enough, the Negro in the South doesn’t hate the white man. It could well be that my four weeks as a Negro in the deep South falls grievously short in equipping me as an authority on the subject. But I’ll still stand on my opinion.
Remember that I talked at length with the real leaders of the Negro not all of them by any means – but with scores of them in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. They are the men on the firing line who are battling for Negro rights and Negro progress where it’s dangerous to do it.
They are the local heads of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, ministers, business men, college professors, doctors, lawyers, school teachers, Negro plantation owners, men of substance and influence in their own communities among both whites and blacks.
I wasn’t a white man interviewing them, remember. I was a Negro from the North, a friend of Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP. I was a guest in their homes. We sat for hours over their dinner tables. I slept in their guest rooms. We were just a group of Negroes talking things over.
Solid Basis for Hatred
Frankly, why the Negro doesn’t hate the Southern white is a mystery to me. Give me another couple of months, Jim Crowing it through the South – forever alert never to bump or jostle a white man – careful always to “sir” even the most bedraggled specimen of the Master Race – scared to death I might encounter a pistol-totin’ trigger-happy drunken deputy sheriff or a hysterical white woman – and I’m pretty sure I’d be hating the whole damned white race.
It seems to me that the intelligent Southern Negro has realized that this fabric of segregation with its development of vicious discrimination; its pattern of organized brutality and oppression – all of it with its roots in slavery – has become a tyrant over both White and Black.
There are – and every Southern Negro, field hand or college president, knows it decent, humane, tolerant white men and women in the Southland. The Negro knows too, that those white people lack courage – and it would take courage of a high order – to take a definite stand against the more vicious and unnecessary forms of discrimination. He knows they don’t approve of wanton, brutal murder. They just lack courage to condemn it publicly. He knows that they lack the courage to spearhead a movement to jail, indict, try and hang the trigger-happy “nigger-killers” who are the men who actually set the pattern for race relations in the South.
Might Be Mobbed
The least that could happen to any white who so “betrayed” his race would be to be dubbed “nigger lover” and see his wife and children and his business suffer. He might easily be lashed within an inch of his life by a hooded mob.
In practically every group of Negroes of which I found myself a part, somebody was sure to say in one fashion or another:
“I’d almost be willing to quit the fight for better education for our people for five or ten years, if I could have some sort of assurance that all of these cracker whites would get a sound education. That way, the cruelty and ignorance and gullibility would be educated out of them and they’d forget their hatred and intolerance of the Negro.”
Your more cynical, educated Negro has a sort of kindly contempt for most of the white race in the South. In business contacts he is accustomed to outsmarting the white – in cultural contacts he can’t help realizing that quite frequently he is the superior of the white man he’s dealing with.
And Nothing Will Happen
But no Negro in the South – no matter who he is and no matter how high his station – ever forgets that the white man always has the one final all-conclusive badge of superiority. The white man can kill him in his tracks, in cold blood, for fun or for no reason at all. And nothing will happen to the white man.
That’s the one thing that overshadows every phase of race relations in the South. It’s the terrifying specter that leers over the shoulder of every white man who talks to a Negro in the Southland. Why, I don’t recall hearing a single Negro refer to the “Mason and Dixon” line. To him it’s the “Smith and Wesson” line.
And despite all that, your black man in the South doesn’t hate the white.
But what he does hate with all his heart is the discrimination and the oppression that dog his footsteps from the cradle to the grave. He hates most of all the fact that he is but half a citizen. He has all of the obligations of a citizen but not a single one of the rights. He fights and dies for his country, but he can’t vote. He pays his taxes at a Jim Crow counter usually – but no Negro in the South has half the representation that a colonist had in 1775. The ringing sentences of the Declaration of Independence are a grim and tragic joke to him. He has no right of liberty that a Southern sheriff, court or white plantation owner is bound to respect. As witness the fact that he is killed by the score every year – and his slayers walk free.
He Wants Two Things
Those are some of the things that the Negro hates.
As for what he wants – two things. And in this order. First, the ballot. Second, proper and adequate education for his children.
At first when they’d tell me this every where it was the same, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee – I’d try to argue.
“Why not end murder first?” I’d demand. “Why not stop the senseless slaughter of Negroes in the South?”
One answer I got in Georgia will do for all of them – they followed the same line.
“Look,” this Negro leader said, “Voters don’t kill easy. Nobody’s going around shooting voters just to make a record. With the vote, the Negro will have a voice in picking his officials. That’s going to make it tougher for the candidate for sheriff whose only platform is the number of unarmed Negroes he killed.”
Don’t Want a Negro Party
No Negro I talked to expects to see an elected Negro official in the South in his lifetime. In fact many of them don’t want to – not for a long, long time.
As the franchise comes slowly to the Negro in the South, notably in Georgia where close to 200,000 Negroes will be registered this fall, what Negro leaders are on the alert to oppose is anything resembling a Negro political faction, or a Negro party, or even block voting by Negroes. They realize the danger of increased racial tension if that should occur now.
In Atlanta, where some 30,000 Negroes are registered, Negro leaders carefully avoid endorsing candidates. Who am I to say that there’s no quiet, under-cover proselytizing? But there are no public endorsements. For one thing, it probably would be a kiss of death for the favored candidate.
But, believe me, white candidates do diligently cultivate the Negro vote in Atlanta. They call on the Negro in home or office and solicit his vote in quite courteous fashion. How do I know? Brother, I was there.
What Does the Negro Really Want?
All my life I’ve regarded Eliza’s stunt of crossing the Ohio on the floating ice floes, with bloodhounds baying at her heels, as a pretty heroic adventure. Not any more. The night I came up out of the deep South in a Jim Crow bus, I’d have been glad to take a chance crossing on the ice if anything had happened to stall our jolting chariot on the Kentucky shore. And there’d have been no need of any bloodhounds to put me into high gear.
We rolled out of Kentucky across that old Ohio River bridge into Cincinnati – into safety and freedom and peace. Again I was free with all the rights of an American citizen. Again I was no, not white. Not yet. It wasn’t that easy. Down South my friends had done too good a job of making me into a Negro.
For many days I’d been looking forward to an elaborate meal in a luxurious restaurant with fancy food and prices and service and attention. I found one. And then -take it or leave it-I didn’t go in. I found a little lunch counter and ate there.
How Crossing Line Feels
I took a cab to the Hotel Sinton.
My first cab in four weeks that didn’t have “For Colored” on the door. And, safely delivered at the hotel, I hesitated again. So I went down a block, found a telephone, called the hotel, made a great point of the fact that I was a Post-Gazette man from Pittsburgh, asked for a room and got it.
I registered, talked fast, slid past the clerk as swiftly as possible and followed the bellhop.
I’ll bet I know one thing that no other white man in America knows. That’s how a white skinned Southern Negro must feel when he quits his race, “crosses over” and turns white.
On that bus trip across three states from Atlanta to Cincinnati, as usual, nothing much happened. Only that we Negroes had the least comfortable seats, ate in squalid cubbyholes -or not at all – and found our Jim Crow rest rooms filthy and evil.
Allowed to Stand Outside
Bus stations along the line were strictly Jim Crow. Usually we ate at a counter across a corner of the kitchen, right beside the food being cooked for the white folks. At the last station just before reaching Covington, there was no accommodation for us colored folk at all. But we were permitted to stand outside and watch the white folks eat. However, none of it bothered me in the least. I could have put up with anything. I was on my way back to the white world.
On that long bus trip North, as in all my sojourn in the South, in 4,000 miles of travel by Jim Crow train and bus and street car and by motor, I encountered not one unpleasant incident. Nobody called me “nigger.” Nobody insulted me. Nobody pushed me off the sidewalk.
As to that last, however, I might mention that I gave nobody a chance. That was part of my briefing: “Don’t jostle a white man. Don’t, if you value your safety, brush a white woman on the sidewalk.” So I saw to it that I never got in the way of one of the master race. I almost wore out my cap, dragging it off my shaven poll whenever I addressed a white man. I “sired” everybody, right and left, black, white and in between. I took no chances. I was more than careful to be a “good nigger.”
Could Have Gathered Scars
True enough, this would be a far better story if I could show scars left by the blackjack of some Negro-hating small town deputy whom I’d failed to “sir.” Or a few bullet holes, mementos of an argument with some trigger happy Atlanta motorman.
I could have gathered them all right. Just by getting “fresh” at the right time and place. But for me, no role as hero. I took my tales of brutality and oppression and murder at second hand. And was mighty glad to do so.
But if I were to become a Negro for four years or 40 years instead of a mere four weeks there’s one thing to which I could never harden myself. That’s the casual way in which these black friends of mine in the South refer to slavery. I have read my history, of course. I know that for 250 yeas slavery was a respected and respectable institution in the South. Less so for a shorter period in the North.
But to these people with whom I lived, slavery is no mere matter of history. They didn’t learn about slavery from any book. They learned about human bondage and the lash and the club at their mother’s knee. Most Southern Negroes, 65 or more, are the sons and daughters of slave parents.
Few former slaves are still living. They’d have to be well past 85 to know anything of it at firsthand. But sons and daughters of slaves are leaders of the Negroes in the South – and for that matter in the North, too.
Barbarism Still in Background
And when you hear a cultured, educated Negro, doctor, lawyer educator casually remark, “My mother was sold down from Virginia to a breeding plantation in South Georgia” — Well you realize that you’re not so far away from barbarism after all.
That pattern of 250 years of slavery still endures in the South. For 250 years, for instance, it was a crime, in some places, to teach a slave to read and write. And looking at some of the Negro schools in the South, it must still be a crime.
Discrimination, denial of the franchise to the black man, the South’s indifference to wanton murder of a Negro – all these, Negroes say, exist because the psychology of slavery still endures in the mind of the white South. Maybe that’s what a Negro friend of mine, a $20,000-a-year executive of a big corporation, had in mind when he told me before I started on this adventure:
“You’re going to learn that it’s hell to be a Negro in the South.”
Final Word to White Man
One thing more as this chronicle draws to a close. I don’t know if anybody in the South will read these articles. But if they do I hope no Negro gets killed or harmed because of them. No Negro that I talked to had any idea that he was going to be quoted. He thought he was just talking to a fellow black man from the North who wanted to find out how his people lived in the South. In many episodes related I have changed names and even locations. But where the story involves relations with the whites, the white man concerned is going to know that a Negro talked. I hope he’ll have forbearance in his heart.
And finally too, one last word to the white man in the South from a Negro, even though a temporary one.
Don’t be concerned that the Negro seeks to rise to the stature of manhood and American citizenship.
Don’t worry about him defiling either your hotels or restaurants or, above all, your race. Not one Negro did I meet who wanted to associate with white folks. True, all of them condemned segregation bitterly. But as they talked on, it developed that it was discrimination rather than mere segregation that they hated. Every man and woman I talked to, field hand or educator, betrayed the fact that he wanted as little contact with the white world as possible.
But here are a few things with which, it seems to me no decent Southerner could quarrel.
Plea for the Franchise
Quit killing us wantonly just to try out a new gun, or to teach us that it’s not good for us to try to vote, or just because you “don’t like a damn nigger no how.”
Next, let us exercise the franchise guaranteed us by the Constitution and the Supreme Court. You’ll never see a Negro party in the South. You’ll find that the Negro vote, when there is one, is going to split along the same lines as the white vote.
Give our children a decent chance at a decent education – the same kind of an education that you want for your children. And give our young men and women a chance for a university education – in law, medicine, engineering. We might even be of service to you.
Surely none of that is going to destroy the way of life of the white South. It probably won’t even appreciably dent white supremacy.