Sadie Mae Freeman could take mill end scraps and turn them into dresses, shirts, quilts and baby clothes. She’d been seamstressing on a Virginia plantation from the age of six.
“Had an old mistress by the name of Payne,” Mama said, “and pain is what she passed out. The meanest woman you’d never want to meet.”
She told us how Missy Payne would check her stitches to make sure they were tiny as hen’s tracks. If not, she’d crack Mama across the knuckles with a folded fan, hard enough to draw blood. Then she’d make her rip out the stitches and start over again. “Get any tears or nigger blood on my good muslin, I’ll give you worse than that, gal.”
“I never could do right by that she-devil.” Mama remembered, showing us the nicks and scars on her hands. “When they sold me down the river to Mississippi, I hadn’t even started my bleeding yet. I was miserable leaving my mama but happy to see the end of Missy Payne.”
My mama took that old pain and reconstructed it. The other colored sharecroppers called it “putting on airs” when she tatted out her threadbare dresses in needle lace. Papa went to the cottonfields in overalls that were patched in crazy quilt designs.
“I won’t have my family out here looking like tramps,” Mama insisted, “as long as I have a needle and thread.”
Most kids went around in flour-sack shifts. We did too, but ours were more than just flour sacks with holes for the head and arms. Mama used indigo, coffee or berries to dye them in colors. Then she cut out and handstitched them into regular dresses, shirts and pants.
The “quality” white women of Crawford’s Landing wore big hoop skirts with crinoline petticoats and all manner of lace collars and cuffs. My mother didn’t dress-make for those ladies, though she could have. All she had to do was look at a garment to figure out how it was made.
White folks did hire out their mending to Mama—the darning, hemming, letting out and taking in. Sometimes she’d sew women’s underthings too. When a garment was too worn for white folks to wear, they’d pass it on her way. Mama cut around the worn spots and gave old clothes new life. Come Sunday we’d be church-going in fine lawn dresses and velvet trousers.
The Yankee schoolma’ams at the Freedman’s School in Rosedale may have been white but they didn’t turn out in ruffles and ribbons like the Southern ladies. They had work to do and no time for hoop skirts and whalebone corsets to be getting in the way. In their high-necked gowns and pinafores, with books and slates in their carpetbags, they seemed to us like angels sent down from heaven. Miss Ellen and Miss Olivia were the ones that taught me my reading and also my sums. That’s how I came to know we were being cheated.
One day I saw a tote slip on top the chester drawers. Papa had brought it from the gin where they counted and weighed the cotton.
“Papa, this ain’t right.”
“What you mean?”
“We’re supposed to get $10 dollar a bale.” I had helped him count out nine bales that morning. “Mr. Adams owes us twenty dollars more.”
When Papa took me to see about the rest of our money, Mr. Adams shook his finger in my face. “Are you calling me a liar or a cheat, Vera Lee? Which one is it now?”
“Neither one, sir,” I ducked my head. “I thought you might had made a mistake.”
“God ain’t made a nigger what’s big enough to tell a white man he made a mistake. Uncle Jimmy, you best watch this gal of yours. You don’t want her coming into trouble.”
They called it whitecapping when the Nightriders came out of the hills to shoot up houses and burn crops. Colored men were beaten, lynched, and it didn’t stop there. Those Ku Kluxers wouldn’t have a lick of shame at stringing up a girl. Anybody tried to stop it, they’d be swinging alongside me.
When Miss Olivia told me they needed help at the colored school in Yazoo City, I took the news to Mama and Papa.
“They’re paying good money,” I told them. “And you know it ain’t safe for me to stay here.”
Mama threw her head back and sighed. “Why you had to stir up trouble with that old corn-cracker anyway?”
“I don’t know, Mama.”
“It ain’t your fault, Vera Lee. You’s a child. I blame your simpleminded father.”
“Your mama’s right.” Papa nodded, just like she hadn’t called him simpleminded. “Elijah Adams is the devil on earth. He used to be overseer at Crawford’s Acres.”
So it was decided. Yazoo City, here I come!
Miss Ellen gave me one of her old Yankee-styled dresses and Mama altered it. She let out my Sunday-go-to-meeting dress too, in case I kept growing after I got there. My other clothes went into the rag heap for quilt scraps or to be sized down for my sister, Sarah. Mama made up a mess of sashes, detachable cuffs and collars in different shades and fabrics: ivory lace, green velvet, blue lawn, calico print and red satin. I’d be able to switch them up to make my two good dresses seem like ten.
Miss Olivia hitched up the pony buggy and drove me to the station. I took the train to Greenwood then caught a mule cart that drove along a plank road cut in the hills.
“How about that?” the driver pointed when we came out the end. “You ever seen such a sight in your life?”
Beyond an iron bridge, the Queen City of the Delta lay glittering in the sunset.
“No, sir.” My breath caught in my throat. “I surely never did.”
Most Fridays I went to the Yazoo City post office looking for word from home. Mama and Papa could hardly write, so Miss Olivia did it for them. Once I unfolded a letter and found a wide-ruled sheet inside. Miss Ellen must have been practicing the twins their writing.
We misses you. When is are you coming home? Now we’re the ones picking bugs off of
Mama’s tomatoes. We keep them those nasty hornworms in a bucket. Miss Aldridge takes
and cooks them for supper. We sure is are glad Mama don’t doesn’t have eleven
Lincoln and Sarah Freeman
I stood there on Main with the page in my hand, just-a laughing fit to bust. A white lady came out the post office looking me up and down. Her patched homespun skirt showed she wasn’t from town.
“You know reading, gal?” she asked.
“Why, yes’m,” I answered politely and went about my business.
As I rounded East Canal, I felt a tug at my sleeve. The lady from the post office had been following me. She handed me an envelope. “Tell me what it says.”
The woman in patchy homespun had a right fancy name. The letter was addressed to “Mrs. Amanda Tewksbury, Benton, Mississippi.”
This son of yours is stationed in the chaparral of Hell’s Forty Acres. That’s what
we call Fort Apache but the other name suits it well. We were brung out here to pacify
the Indians. Company E of the 9th Calvary had a desperate skirmish with some
Comanche. They lost five coloreds of the Buffalo Soldiers and three civilians died.
Valley fever has got both the white and the colored dropping down like fleas. We
do our damndest to keep them Apache from running off or warring. They’re soon to
dispatch 5,000 soldiers on the trace of that rascal, Geronimo. In ’79 the Injun had done
laid down arms and surrendered. He don’t stay put but will flee the reservation when he
has a mind to.
We got word that Geronimo and his bandits was raiding cattle in the Sierra
Madres. We can only pray he don’t cross the border and if he did, the Mexicans will deal
him a hand. If not we might just have to go right over and get him ourselves.
Our Mississippi folk would never abide no savage in buckskin britches to lead
white men on a chase. If it was up to me, I’d knock them redskins into a cocked hat.
I sure do miss you, Ma. How are the little ones keeping? Did you get in the cotton
harvest? I hate to say so, but I did lose the last pay packet they give me. I have nothing
to send you but love. I pray next time there’ll be a dollar to spare.
Your loving son,
Jefferson Davis Tewksbury
Miss Amanda frowned. “Weren’t no bank note in there, was it?”
“No, ma’am,” I held up the single page. “He lost his pay packet, it says.”
“Gambled or drank it away, more likely. How am I going to feed the little ones?”
Hungry or not, no white person back home would have taken money from a colored though they’d steal it easy enough. I was surprised when Amanda Tewksbury cupped her hand to accept the seventeen cents I had on me.
“It’s hard times in the County,” she told me, “with the blasted boll weevil eating up the cotton. Thank you kindly, Miss. This will do me well.”
It was the first time any white person had ever called me “Miss.”
I learned that Miss Amanda Tewksbury came into town the odd Friday afternoon. Even if I didn’t get a letter I’d wait for her outside the post office. If she didn’t hear from her son, she would shake her head and go about her business. If so, she’d nod and follow a pace behind me. I’d lead her to some quiet spot where no one would notice a colored woman reading to a white.
One warm Friday in March I tied a blue lawn sash around my waist and went downtown to get my letter. Miss Amanda gave a nod and followed me out, turning to hold the door for somebody coming out behind her.
The white-haired old lady was sweating under a ribboned poke bonnet. I could see her old-timey serge walking dress with a bustle in back was well-made. But it was heavy for the weather and too fancy for the occasion.
The lady leaned against the building with a parasol in one hand, using the other to fan herself with the mail. “My word, it is a hot one. Isn’t it just the worst?”
“Oh, yes’m.” Miss Amanda seemed surprised that quality folk would pass the time of day with her. “It is a hot one.”
“You’re from out the County, are you?”
Miss Amanda glanced down at her scuffed men’s brogans, blushed and gave a nod.
The old lady lowered her voice but I could hear her plain enough. “They say the Klan’s been whitecapping out there. Any truth to it?”
Miss Tewksbury’s eyes flickered over at me. “Oh, I don’t know about that.”
I was turning to leave when she threw me a pleading glance and showed the edge of a letter. I stepped off to a polite distance and waited.
“It’s these Yankee troublemakers,” the old lady continued, “trying to put bottom rails at the top of the fence. What need do nigras have of schooling they can’t even understand?”
“You’re so right, ma’am. Niggers is like monkeys, you can’t learn them nothing. They’re not even smart enough to come out the rain.”
“Teach,” I blurted before I could stop myself.
Both women turned to stare.
“What did you say, gal?” the old lady asked.
“You can’t teach them anything.”
“Well, of all the brazen impertinence!” The old lady’s face turned blood red. Her grey eyes flashed at me then wandered past my shoulder. I had dropped my letter and backed away, bumping into someone behind me. I turned to see a tall white man with a red mustache.
“Whoa there, filly,” he laughed. You never could trust white folk’s laughter. They might be tickled at something you said. They might be fixing to lynch you.
“Pardon me, sir. It was an accident.”
The old lady’s red-faced scowl had shifted into a grin. “Is that you, Randolph Grandison? Why, it is! Gracious me.”
Ignoring her, Mr. Grandison reached down to pick up my letter.
“Good to see you, Miss,” he glanced at the envelope, “Vera Lee Freeman. How are you keeping these days?”
“Just fine, sir.”
He handed me my letter. “How is the family?”
“They are well.” I remembered my manners. “And yours?”
“Very well, indeed.” He looked up at the sun. “Are those storm clouds gathering yonder?”
I glanced up at the blue, cloudless sky. “You reckon so, Mr. Grandison?”
He tilted his hat. “Indeed I do. Run along now before it storms.”
Miss Tewksbury could find herself another monkey to read her letters. I knew how to come out of that kind of rain. I tightened my blue sash around me and hightailed it on home.