Haunted by Jim Crow: The Grudges of An Angry 83-Year-Old

This story originally appeared in Dominion of New York

We met in the kitchen one Sunday afternoon, with a tape recorder to capture our conversation. Grandma Mattie had been a maid for white people most of her life and now, at the age of 83, harbored intense resentment against them. Like Minny, the beating heart in The Help, she was dignified and hot-headed and I wanted to capture her unfiltered thoughts. Visiting her in Cleveland in the summer of 2006, I started asking questions.

“White people can’t enter your front door, they have to go through the back?!” My Valley Girl, never-been-to-the South-self wanted to know.

She smiled widely then frowned sternly, “Those scoundrels are slicker than snot. Ain’t-no-way-they-stepping foot-in-here!”

When I ask why, she says she used to hate seeing crooked white insurance men coming into the projects, ripping off poor blacks.

Grandma is draped in a silky, flowing orange dress that radiates her creamy caramel complexion. Her silvery-grey curls are tangled. Her long knock-kneed legs are covered in sheer nude stockings and small moles dot her neck, down to her back. She used to freeze or burn them off but now that she’s wiser, she lets them sprout up freely.

Her kitchen is small and cozy and doubles as the eat-in area since she doesn’t have a dining room.  A small inspirational plaque hanging over the gas stove reminds her that, “age is an issue of mind over matter” and as a retired maid and seamstress, she still has plenty of life to live. She spends most of it in the kitchen preparing southern-style dinners or chatting with relatives from the touch-tone phone above the microwave.

Hovering over me like a mother hen, she schools me on some things.

“See, in the 1950s, white folks thought they could get away with anything. That Peter Winston sold me some nickel-and-dime insurance policy and came to collect his measly $2 every Wednesday.  Three o’clock on the dot. Cash only. I couldn’t keep him out completely, so I made him handle business outside on my back porch. Just like they made us.”

Grandma wasn’t hateful, just haunted by the ghosts of Georgia’s segregated past. Born in Macon, Georgia in 1918, she was a maid. Her mother was a maid. Her aunties were maids. Her great-grandmother was a slave. She could flip the script in her own damn spot if she pleased.

Did I agree? No. But this was her policy.

As for “regular” folks – i.e. black folks —  she liked them. The cocoa-colored milk man slipped through the screen daily and the whole neighborhood lined up for a slice of her slammin’ sweet potato pie.

Shuffling to the stove, she whipped me up an “old school” grilled cheese sandwich buttered in bacon fat, in between bites; I jumped to my next question:

“Was the Great Depression really that bad?” I asked.

“We were poor. But we never starved,” she smirked. “If we ran out of food, mama would go to grandma’s and get some syrup so I could make some sandwiches.”

The fourth of 12 children, grandma  had the ability to appreciate the smallest things, like syrup sandwiches.

She says her mother never bought diapers, either. “Every week daddy would buy 24 pounds of flour sacks, which were boiled, washed and reused to change the babies. It was pretty tough,” she sighed.

“You get to finish high school?” I probed.

“No,” she snapped. “Mama took in laundry, washing and ironing white folk’s clothes until she passed out–totally lifeless. I stopped going to school in the fifth or sixth grade so I could help her out and take care of my brothers and sisters.”

My eyebrows scrunched up and I focused on her sad, but true words.  I gave her the floor.

“Great Aunt Gertrude was no different, but at least she had some good, rich white folks who gave her
bundles of hand-me downs to sell for fifteen cents a pop. “They used to chop the heels off the shoes and give ‘em to us to wear. They were lopsided and stuff so I’d be walking lopsided all day. I was ten when I realized both of my feet were the same size.”  She cried tears of laughter until her side ached, then her facial expression turned sour. “ I wore a lot of shoes them white folks had. Me and my sisters fell out about that.”

An uncomfortable silence filled the room and grandma jerked her head away and  blinked into space, a deeply emotional response for such a tough soul. I felt the pain in her empty eyes. Tiptoeing lightly, I asked why at 18-years-old, she fled to Cleveland and left her siblings, kinfolk and tight-knit community in Macon, Georgia.

“More opportunities up North,” she gestured with her hands, as if saying “duh!”

By more opportunities, she meant more work as mammies or Aunt Jemimas for well-to-do whites. Pushing up her thin-rimmed glasses, she recalls the Rosenbergs, an elderly Jewish couple, for whom she cooked and cleaned.

“Now, I liked them,” she enunciated slowly, making sure I got the point.

“I used to make them tuna sandwiches and egg sandwiches and they gobbled them up so fast,” she giggled sheepishly, “I had to keep a few extra in the pantry.”

Finally, my grandmother encountered some white folks she believed were decent.” I fist pumped the air and now wonder why.

“Did they ever mistreat you? Even once?” I asked.

“No,” she jerked. “Ain’t no way I was gonna leave MY HOUSE to ride a cruddy city bus for anyone who treated me like dirt.” She reiterated again. “No way!”

Grandma and her husband, a blue-collar laborer, had four children, including my mother, whom they sometimes sent to visit her cousins as a child. Public accommodations in Macon, Georgia remained completely segregated, even in the early 1960s. After riding segregated trains and playing in Georgia’s rare, red dirt, my mother learned quickly, that the Deep South was different from Cleveland.

At the movies, she strained to see from the balcony like all the other black kids, while the whites snickered and giggled in front row. And once on the way to church, she drank out the “colored” and “whites-only” water fountain—damn near losing her life! Her cousins grabbed her by the neck so fast that she had to search their eyes for an explanation.

By 1951, grandma and her husband finally saved enough money to buy a butter yellow three-family home in a working middle-class neighborhood. My mom loved the swing set in the backyard and jumped out of it often, thinking she could fly. Grandma owned the building and rented out two units, one to a family on welfare and one to Ms. Mapp, an elderly tenant who lived there until she passed away. Grandpa died in 1962 and since grandma didn’t make a lot of money, she was thankful that she owned a house big enough to rent out for additional income.

In 1969, she bought the house whose kitchen we are in, a white-wood framed duplex located on the southeast side in a semi-integrated neighborhood, the only place I’ve known her to live. Ms. Colbert was my grandma’s favorite tenant. She was a nurse and single mother who lived in the upstairs unit for 30 years. She was like family. Whenever I came into town she’d race downstairs, hugging me and  stuffing cash in my pockets like my other aunties.

I jumped to my last question.

“You ever refuse to rent out your upstairs unit to a woman because she was too light?”

Grandma shot me an arsenal of explosive facial expressions, “She was w-h-i-t-e,” and exploded.

“No,” I giggled. “She just had hazel eyes and ‘good hair.’”

She clutched her cane and shot up from her seat, in a way that revealed pride, but also a great deal of pain. “That highfalutin’ hussy wasn’t livin’ up in here,” she pointed to the vacant unit she owned upstairs. “Point blank. Period.”

Grandma’s blacks-only rental policy was broad and inviolable. Uncle Charles explained last fall an aspect of the policy’s origins. He told me that during the late 1940s – just before she brought her first house — she tried to move her family out the projects and into a fabulous, 3,000 square-foot red brick home in an all-white neighborhood.

She peeled off her apron every night and traveled 30 miles to see the construction on her dream home.

The white neighbors were outraged when they found out some ‘colored-family’ was moving next door. When death threats started pouring in, she swallowed her pride and buried the pain deep in heart. Pure ass-kicking pain.

She knew she couldn’t go toe-to-toe with an army of angry whites. But she knew they wouldn’t ever be welcomed in her home, let alone live in it. And the policy seemed to apply to people who were black, if they appeared too white to pass her race test.

I caught grandma’s silhouette out the corner of my eye, mumbling ‘red necks’, ‘ole white folks,’ ‘hillbillies,” she disappeared into the hallway and I knew I better not give her any more shit.

Over the next five years, grandma would wither away, both physically and mentally. Her razor sharp mind would become warped by dementia, causing her to think she’s still living on her parents’ farm back in the ’20s. In the summer of 2011, I visited her in a nursing home in a quaint Cleveland suburb. I hadn’t seen her in three years and as we embraced, she urged me to put my coat on because it was chilly outside. In reality, it was one of the hottest summer days in Cleveland and streams of sweat were visibly dripping down my face.  Uncle Charles says her resentment towards whites has only gotten worse and she’ll call them names right in their face, including her caregivers. The pain of racism still stings like a freshly cut wound, and she is unaware of current events. She doesn’t remember voting for President Obama or the ground-breaking fact that he’s black.

Photo Credit: Dominion of New York

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