Join Lola Rainey on a guided tour through American history with her father and uncle, sons of a Texas sharecropper.
This is the second in a three part series. Read Part 1 of The Invisible World of Rural Black America here.
The interstate highway between Arizona and New Mexico stretches across miles of desert. Driving through the desert at 70+ miles per hour reduces the landscape to a blur of brown and beige with an occasional flash of green; it was hard for me to stay awake. My father kept trying to roust me from my languid, backseat-napping by including me in the rambling exchange between he and my uncle.
“Blind Barnabas, (my father’s nickname for me on our trip), look at that house over there,” he said motioning with his head toward a range of mountains looming in front of us.
“What house,” I said trying to locate it, “I don’t see a house.”
“The one on top of that big mountain right there,” he replied, “Wonder why a person would build a house on a mountaintop all the way out here?”
I followed his gaze to an imposing mountain in the middle of several smaller ones, located to the right of the interstate. Although I couldn’t see the house, it didn’t matter. My father just wanted to hear me talk. It was his way of staying alert during one of the most tedious legs of our drive.
“Daddy, you know the desert attracts all sorts of interesting characters,” I said, “I hope they have a lightning rod on the house; it’s got to be a magnet for lightning strikes.”
“It’s probably somebody who likes looking down on the rest of us,” my uncle chimed in, “I betcha that’s some view though, Bubba.” (Since my father is the oldest son in the family, his siblings call him “Brother” or “Bubba,” a traditional Southern term of endearment.)
After adding my two cents to the conversation, I drifted back to sleep, letting my two old guys continue to “chew the fat”, but whenever they reached a lull in the conversation my father would bark, “Wake up, Blind Barnabas!” to ask my opinion about something or another.
We made several stops on our first day of travel; once to have lunch and a couple of times for restroom breaks. Although my two old guys would have been content to eat cans of sardines and crackers for their meals, and would have driven straight through the night (in shifts) to reach Austin, Texas where my younger sister lived, they knew I wouldn’t agree to such an exhausting travel schedule.
“We don’t want to wear you out, Niecey. We need you to be rested and ready to work,” my uncle said to me.
I was given the four-star treatment: lunch and dinner at Denny’s and as stars appeared in the desert sky, we pulled into a hotel near the New Mexico/Texas border for a good night’s rest.
We rose early the next morning and after a quick breakfast at the hotel, we hit the road again. As soon as we crossed the Texas border, my father and uncle become more animated; the memories and stories started to flow.
“I thank God for the interstate highway,” my father said.
“Yes, sir! That’s right!” my uncle said nodding his head in agreement.
“Why should you be grateful for the interstate highway?” I asked.
“You don’t know how hard it used to be for black people to travel. We had to go through small towns where the police harassed you, where even if they served you, you’d pay more for things like food and gas ’cause you were black,” my father said.
“It was highway robbery,” my uncle said, “But what could you do? You had no choice. If the police pulled you over and said you were speeding, you’d have to pay the fine or go to jail.”
When I was a child, I recall traveling with my parents from the east coast to Texas one winter. My father was in the United States Air Force at the time. The back seat of the car was crammed full of groceries and we had an ice chest loaded with drinks. I don’t remember stopping anywhere along the way except to get gas or go to the restroom.
“Is that why we brought so much food with us the time we traveled from Delaware to Texas?” I asked my father.
“Yes,” he responded, “We never knew whether we’d find a restaurant to serve us in the towns we were passed through. Besides, if you found one that served black people, you’d have to go around to the back to place your order, then take the food with you.”
“Niecey, it didn’t matter if you were in uniform, either. They’d still treat you bad,” my uncle added.
“President Eisenhower did a great thing when he created interstate highways. He made it easier and safer for black people to travel around the country,” my father said.
My uncle smiled and said, “It also put a lot of those prejudiced ‘Mom and Pop’ stores out of business ’cause the interstate took away their customers.”
I looked up information on the creation of the interstate highway system after I returned home. President Dwight Eisenhower authorized construction of 41,000 miles of the interstate highway system when he signed into law the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. It was one of the largest public works projects ever undertaken by the federal government.
Expansion of the highway system, however, did little to improve black people’s access to public accommodations like restaurants, hotels and gas stations. That task was left to the states and produced mixed results. Equal access to public accommodations for all Americans remained an elusive goal until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Its enactment marked the beginning of the federal government’s aggressive enforcement of anti-discrimination legislation in the area of public accommodations. The racially integrated settings most Americans expect when staying at hotels or eating at restaurants is due in large part to the success of federal enforcement actions through the years.
We soon left behind the dry, dusty landscape of West Texas and I couldn’t help but notice my father’s and uncle’s transformations from retired, urban dwelling seniors to old country farmers seemed to accelerate as our route took us through the grassy hills of Central Texas. This was cattle ranching and farming country, familiar territory for them. They talked of hunting, fishing and farming, interlaced with memories, both good and bad, about being the children of a black sharecropper.
“See that long, wooden shack behind the big house over there?” my uncle asked.
He pointed toward a rickety, wood-framed structure, in an open field behind a fine looking brick home.
“Yes, I do,” I answered.
“That’s what we call a ‘shotgun house”,” he said, “It’s called that because you can stand at one end of the house with a shotgun and shoot and the bullet will go straight through the other end.”
“We lived in a lot of houses like that. There’s nothing to them. Just a bunch of boards nailed to a frame,” my father said, “There were so many holes in the walls, if someone came to the house all you had to do was peep through the cracks to see who it was.”
The two of them burst into laughter.
“Bubba, Bubba, remember how Mama use to buy that pretty wallpaper? She’d use it to cover up the holes in the walls to keep out the cold.”
My father chuckled. “Yeah, Trudie Bell was something else. She had her ideas about the way things oughta be and she wouldn’t give Daddy no peace until she got what she wanted.”
My paternal grandmother and I hadn’t been particularly close. She was a hard woman with a quick temper and a sharp tongue. When my parents weren’t around she called me “rice girl” because she said I spoke too “proper.” We seemed to be at odds over most things so I finally concluded she didn’t like me much; it became my excuse not to visit her often. Now listening to my two old guys talking about my grandmother’s “grit”—her determination to make a better life for her family by pushing and prodding my grandfather to reach for more, by standing her ground against unscrupulous landowners, by finding creative ways to feed and clothe her family—made me feel petty and small.
“Sometimes, Niecey, it’d get so cold inside the house, when you woke up in the morning, the fresh water we left in a bucket overnight would be frozen. And all we had to keep us warm was a wood burning stove,” my uncle said.
“You could always tell which of the girls were living high on the hog and which ones weren’t by looking at the back of their legs,” my father said. “Those wood burning stoves didn’t give off much heat so you had to stand real close to them to get warm. In the winter time the girls living in houses with wood burning stoves would have dark patches of skin on the back of their legs from the flames.”
“’No need to act like you’re doing better than anyone else, Sister,’ ’cause them dark legs told it all,” my uncle said, chuckling.
As my two old guys talked, I took notes.
“I want to remember this road trip and your stories,” I told them. “Maybe I’ll write an article about it.”
They seemed genuinely surprised that I thought people would want to hear what they had to say.
“You two are walking, talking encyclopedias on rural black America,” I said. “I think there are a lot of people who would enjoy hearing about the way things used to be.”
Neither one said anything more about my idea. They just gave each other a knowing look, the kind of look my grandmother gave me before she called me “rice girl.” My uncle took over driving duties at our second rest stop of the day and within minutes of sliding into the front passenger seat, my father fell into a deep sleep. We drove in silence for a long while. I was absorbed in my note taking, although I stopped often to enjoy the view of the countryside. There was something appealing to me about small town America. People seemed to move at a slower pace. There were fewer distractions, making it easier for people to focus on the important things in life.
After two days of traveling by car, I was feeling a little stir crazy. When I saw a road sign with an arrow pointing to Austin, Texas, I was elated. My father had rejoined the living. He and my uncle were discussing which route to take to connect to Interstate-35. As they talked, I noticed we were passing through a picturesque town with a German sounding name. There was some kind of local festival going on and the streets were filled with people.
“What a quaint little town,” I gushed.
“I don’t imagine there would be many black people living here,” I surmised, looking at the crowds of white people walking around. My uncle scoffed.
“This is Texas, Niecey!” he said, “Who do you think was doing the work around here?”
“You may not see us on Main Street ’cause we used the side streets and alleys. We couldn’t come through the front door: we had to go to the back door. All you have to do is turn off the main road and drive a little ways. You’ll find us,” he stated emphatically.
The point my uncle was making sunk in. The Black world he came from was invisible to most white people. He came of age at a time when “coloreds” lived in the shadows of white society. This notion of black invisibility, examined so skillfully and eloquently by Ralph Ellison in the great American novel, The Invisible Man, stayed on my mind. Knowing that my father and uncle had labored under the heavy cloak of invisibility for part of their lives filled me with sadness. The indignity they suffered was a pain we shared as a family.
Read the conclusion of The Invisible World of Rural Black America series: Part 3
Image courtesy of the author