Memoirs


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It is an hour before sundown. I’m sitting in the White Eagle Bar on Swamp Alley in Yazoo, Mississippi, in the sultry summer of 1990. I sip a Lite beer gazing through the open door at subtle, changing hues of green as hovering sun slips behind a humble, clapboard shack. Long shadows stretch across the old dirt road. I’m at the end of my long journey home.

My Southern sojourn begins in New Orleans. After three days and three nights of drinking Hurricanes and Planter’s Punch, eating crawfish étouffée, mustard greens and gumbo, and listening to Dixieland on Bourbon Street, I hit the road.

While waiting in the New Orleans bus station I meet Abdullah Rageeb, a bearded brother in his twenties, garbed in a white turban and djellaba. He lives and works in New Orleans but regularly visits his family in Magnolia, Mississippi. He sits on the bus across the aisle from me. We talk. He speaks with deep conviction about his adopted religion of Islam. After I recount my travels to Africa and Asia he says, “You are truly blessed. Allah has been good to you. You are Muslim?” “No, I’m Episcopalian.” This perplexes Abdullah. “I’m the same religion as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.” His eyes light up with recognition. “The South African freedom fighter!” He exclaims.

Tomás with grandfather J.T. Gayton.He is curious about my retracing my roots from Seattle to Yazoo, Mississippi, where my paternal grandfather, John Thomas Gayton (J.T., to those who knew him well), was born in 1866. I tell him, “I’m the oldest of J.T.’s youngest child Leonard’s four children.”

J.T. was the youngest of five children born to David and Betsy Gayton, former slaves and sharecroppers. According to the 1870 census, David was born in Virginia in 1832 and was described as “B” for black and his occupation was “farm laborer.” David’s father was listed as “of foreign birth,” undoubtedly African. Betsy was described as “M” for mulatta and her occupation was “keeping house.”

As a young boy I would sit on grandpa’s knee peering into his deep black eyes while he told me Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby stories he had learned on his daddy’s knee in the Mississippi Delta. J.T. seldom spoke about his life in Mississippi.

According to family legend J.T.’s brother, Jefferson, was lynched following the discovery by a prominent white man that he and Jefferson shared the same woman’s romantic interest. J.T. escaped from Yazoo as Dr. Henry Yandell’s coachman and arrived in Washington Territory in 1888. J.T. settled in Seattle before the great fire of 1889.

After settling in Seattle grandpa met and married Maggie, a fair and comely young orphan from Tennessee. They raised a family of four children and became one of Seattle’s most respected pioneer families.

We pass through small towns with names like Ponchataula, Chatwa, Succotash and Osyka, names derived from the original Indian settlers of this lush region of pine, magnolia and kudzu. At each stop passengers get off the bus and purchase fried chicken and drinks from quaint convenience stores and exchange small talk with the laid back locals.

When the bus stops at Magnolia, Rageeb grabs his bundle and bids me As-salama Alaykum.

The bus pulls into Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, in late afternoon. A courtly, young, dark complexioned black man in shortsleeved white shirt and slacks offers me his cab. His name is John. John is tall, lean and laconic. I tell him I have a few hours wait for the bus to Yazoo. He agrees to show me around for a reasonable price. John drives me to the capitol building, where I view the portraits of former Mississippi governors. Among the rogues’ gallery hangs a portrait of the Yankee Reconstruction governor dressed in Union blue. I peer into the opaque eyes of men who, with perhaps the exception of the Reconstruction governor, defended slavery and racism for so many generations.

John then drives me to the predominately black Jackson State University and the site of the 1970 national guard massacre of protesting black students. This and the Kent State massacre sparked the spring of protest in 1970 that led to the end of the Vietnam War. I pay homage at this shrine to revolutionary youth who lost their lives for the cause of peace and justice. John’s father owns the cab company. John will inherit the business when his father retires. He is so busy working that he has no time to fulfill his dream of a college degree.

Later he drops me off at a Po-Boy restaurant and promises to be back in 30 minutes. Po-Boy specializes in soul food, with an up scale interracial clientele. The place is sparkling clean and the waitresses are considerate and courteous. I eat red beans and rice, corn bread and greens. After peach cobbler and ice cold lemonade served in a peach jar, John punctually returns and drops me off at the bus depot.

The place is crowded with people, a mix of black and white with at least one Mexican wearing a cowboy hat and boots. A chubby young white woman is tending to her irritable brown skinned baby. I speak to a black teenage girl sitting next to me about Mississippi and my grandfather. She is in her late teens and wears her hair straightened, as, regrettably, most African-American women wear their hair today. As we talk, she looks at me inquisitively and asks at one point, “What are you?” I tell her my story and board the bus.

In the seat next to me is a lovely dark complexioned woman. Mary Lou is her name. She lives in Yazoo City. She has sharp ebony features like a classic Benin bronze. I tell her what I tell everyone else who asks me why I am traveling to the Mississippi Delta. “I’m tracing my roots, visiting the birthplace and home town of my grandfather, J.T. Gayton.”

She tells me about a history of Yazoo County written by a native of Yazoo, Harriet De Cell.

We arrive at the outskirts of Yazoo City after sundown. The evening air is hot, heavy and humid. A chorus of cicadas welcomes me. Mary Lou tells me there is only one motel in Yazoo, located by the interstate a short distance across from the bus stop. I invite the young lady to join me for supper. She demurely declines, explaining that her family was waiting for her at the bus station. She is in a hurry to get home to her sick mother. Disappointed, I carry my bags across the road and check into the single story Yazoo Motel.

The desk clerk is a cordial spinsterish white woman. She gives me a room across from the small pool and roadside restaurant. The room is sparsely furnished, with a large bed and a too soft mattress, a chair, formica desk and a Gideon Bible. The desk clerk tells me it is a long walk to Yazoo City. Despite the late hour, I set off for town. I confess I am apprehensive, but “fools walk in where angels fear to tread.”

I cross the interstate and walk west along the two lane access road to Yazoo City. I don’t encounter a single soul on the way. There are no street lights, and the silence of the humid night is interrupted only by cicadas and an occasional barking dog.

My youngest brother, Peter Michael, visited Yazoo in the early ’70s. Peter didn’t remain in town for long because a white policeman encountered him soon after he arrived and told him in a menacing way, “You look like one of those college kids who came down to Yazoo stirring up trouble in the ’60s.” Peter was on the next bus leaving Yazoo.

After two miles or so, I come upon large plantation houses set off on each side of the road, looming like ghosts in the night. Antique lamps illuminate many of the living rooms. I peer through large windows at fine furniture and chandeliers, but don’t see a soul. It is eerie, as if all human life had disappeared, leaving empty antebellum reminders of a bygone age.

Downtown Yazoo at night is unremarkable, a couple of historic stone buildings, a main street and a few empty side streets, a 7-11, some fast food joints and no street lights. I don’t see anyone on the streets until I cross the railroad tracks into what is the black section of town. Several black folks linger at a well lit corner store and an occasional figure moves like a shadow on the unlit streets. The homes in the black part of town are run down clapboard shacks set down in ravines running along the roadside. I walk down the dark dirt road until my curiosity is satisfied, then I head back to the motel.

I’m hungry after my walk. I go down the driveway, past the miniature swimming pool, to the restaurant. To my dismay, the dining room is occupied by several burly white men and two uniformed white policemen. The policemen wear starched uniforms with little American flags on the shoulders. Discreetly I take a seat at the empty counter with my back to the diners. I reflect uncomfortably on the sit-in counters of the ’60s. I order a piece of pie, acting as cool as I can under their studied gaze. I imagine these guys in white sheets plotting to lynch me after supper. In the kitchen black women wearing white aprons and head scarves engage in chatter. Their conversation and giggling help relieve my anxiety.

I quickly finish my cobbler and return to my room, close the door and lock it. I occasionally peer from behind the curtains to make sure my would-be assailants haven’t followed me from the cafe.

I am angry with myself for reacting in fear to the presence of the white men in the restaurant, but it is an instinctive response, paranoia acquired from living in white America. I grew up like most African-Americans of my generation with a deep and abiding fear and resentment of the white South, especially the police. Bull Connor and the rampant violence inflicted on innocent blacks on TV in the 1950s and 1960s had reinforced the Southern legacy of slavery and lynching that my father showed me as a teenager on the cover of Life magazine: the charred and mutilated bodies of blacks hanging from trees and tied to burning stakes.

Seeing no signs of a mob, I undress, drop like dead wood onto the too soft mattress and fall into deep sleep. I dream about Yazoo and my grandfather, J.T., as a youth growing up with his two brothers and two sisters in a sharecropper’s shack. I see them toiling from sunrise to sunset in the cotton fields. I see them awakened, frightened and helpless, by night riding Klansmen who lynch Jefferson and other “uppity niggers.”

Early the next morning I set off again on foot. There is no public transportation in Yazoo County. The night before, the kudzu vines hung from the trees ominously in the moonlight. Now, in the daylight the rolling fields and woods are lush, green and benign. I wonder as I trudge toward town what sinister secrets lay beneath this bucolic scene?

I stop at the Chamber of Commerce in a small one story office building in downtown Yazoo. There is no one at the reception desk, so I stroll down the hallway and look into one of the rooms. I see a matronly white lady in conversation with a Rotarian type white man dressed in a white shirt and tie.

I say hello. The man stares stupidly at me, without a word of response. He seems uncertain how to react to my presence. The matron responds more cordially. She walks me back to the front door and gives me directions to the library and volunteers some information about the history of Yazoo and Benton, Mississippi. (Benton is a small town in Yazoo County where grandpa was born and spent his childhood.)

While standing on the steps of the Chamber of Commerce listening to her talk on about her relatives in Benton, I see a Southern beauty across the street with long wavy auburn hair, wearing a calico dress. The lace bodice barely conceals her lovely bosom. I am sorely tempted to introduce myself to her but a middle-aged white man wearing a baseball cap suddenly appears and assists her into a pickup truck and they speed away, removing a temptation that might have had dire consequences.

Leaving the Chamber of Commerce lady’s curiosity about me and my mission in Yazoo unsatisfied, I move on to the library. The library is located on a side street on the same block as the park and Confederate Memorial. The inscription on the memorial reads, “To The Vanquished Go The Victory.” Above these words stand two bronze, life size figures, a rebel soldier holding a rifle in one hand and a maiden wearing a bonnet with her hand placed on his shoulder as if in consolation. This tableau speaks volumes about human folly, the Civil War, Jim Crow and why many Southern whites will never forgive or forget the Civil War and Reconstruction.

An imposing, spired Roman Catholic church stands on the street behind the library. This is the largest church in town. At one time there was a Catholic convent school for black children where many of Yazoo’s blacks were educated.

Across from the library is a lovely brick Episcopal Church. The church doors are ajar, so I walk in and find a tasteful sanctuary with a simple silver cross over the altar. A beautiful icon of the Virgin Mary greets me in the vestibule. Alone in the church I feel more safe and serene than at any time during my visit to Yazoo. I walk into the adjoining cloister that leads to an enclosed empty space. On a ledge are remnants of melted candles in this empty place devoid of symbols or statues. A shrine to some unseen spirit, perhaps the Holy Spirit. What a wonderful idea.

I cross the street into the 19th century stone library. I find a collection of books about Yazoo, including the one recommended by the woman I met on the bus, Yazoo: Its Legends and Legaciesby Harriet De Cell. By studying her photo history of the region I learn that Yazoo was named after the Indian tribe that inhabited the area in the early days. According to De Cell, the Yazoo Indians were “a brave, fierce, intrepid and warlike people. Cornered, they fought to the death, if necessary.” Yazoo means “River of Death.” They buried their dead in sacred mounds. The delta region
was later inhabited by the Tunica Indian tribes, the Chickasaw and Choctaw.

The first Anglo-Americans settled in Yazoo in 1826. With the arrival of the railroad in 1884 the white population rapidly grew. The Yazoo River connected Yazoo City to Liverpool and Vicksburg. In those days it divided Yazoo City from nearby Benton.

In De Cell’s chapter on “Black Life in Yazoo” she captured the irony and tragedy of color and race in the South:

In fact the absence of comment in newspaper editorials, letters, diaries and journals about the opinions, attitudes and conversations of black people on the plantation in the midst of careful notations on weather, sickness, crops, visitors and daily activities was the most salient fact in the white man’s view of the black man’s world.

A poignant example of race relations in the antebellum South can be found in the following excerpt from De Cell’s book:

In 1860 the Yazoo Board of County Police established rules for administering lashes and created citizen’s groups to patrol the roads and to enforce the rules. These laws were designed to keep Negroes from gathering together and required that all Negroes be physically on the place of their master at all times unless they carried written permission from their masters to go to a specific place. The blacks were forbidden to meet with or talk to the slaves on adjoining places. There were constant references by whites for the need for control because ‘risings’ were always beneath the surface. The Civil War brought with its devastation and carnage emancipation for the slave and a brief respite from white oppression.

In 1870 federal protection for African-Americans in Mississippi disappeared. Military rule ended seven years prior to the general order withdrawing federal troops from the South and formally ending Reconstruction. W. E. B. Dubois summed up the situation for blacks in the South after the withdrawal of federal troops in his definitive historical tome Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880:

Black suffrage did not fail in the South during Reconstruction; it was overthrown by brute force.

One hundred years later Yazoo is represented in Congress by a native Yazoo resident, Mike Espy, the first black congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction. His office is in a converted bank, the most imposing old stone building in Yazoo City.

Upon entering Congressman Espy’s office I meet an attractive, knowledgeable brown complexioned young lady. Lizzy is an aide to Congressman Espy. She wears a fashionable business suit and has an equally fashionable hairstyle. Lizzy sits behind her pine desk and we discuss local politics. She says “there is grudging recognition of black political power in Mississippi but the greatest threat to social justice in the region is the growing power of the religious right. “Yazoo has the same problems as the rest of the nation,” she says, “drugs, unemployment and teenage pregnancy, just more neglected.” She refers me to a local yuppie restaurant and bar. I invite her to join me for a bite and adrink. She courteously declines and I hit the streets again.

I leave Espy’s office and walk to the railroad tracks to have lunch at a place called Fanny’s. When I enter the humble, black owned restaurant, I see seated at the far end of the table two white policemen in darker uniforms than the ones I had seen the night before at the roadside cafe. The officers are eating soul food and listening to a young nattily dressed black man complaining in a loud disparaging voice about the ‘easy life’ of public employees, like police and fire fighters. When the officers have finished their meal, one looks up at the loquacious brother and exclaims sardonically, “If your house was on fire, you’d change your tune sure enough!” “Amen,” I say under my breath.

After the cops pay and leave, I introduce myself to this brazen young man who had the temerity to openly criticize public servants in a small Southern town. He has recently moved to McComb, Mississippi, from Oakland, California, and is successfully selling insurance to blacks in the Delta region. He says, “I feel comfortable with the land and people in Mississippi,” and adds, “I had to get out of the city to survive.” I understand his meaning.

I order greens, catfish, cornbread, and peach cobbler. My picture is taken with my new friend from Oakland. I bid good-bye to the waiters and kitchen staff, and head out to begin my search for the bar Lizzy mentioned. I am hoping she will be there to meet me.

When I arrive at the yuppie restaurant and bar it is late afternoon. The humidity of the day is unremitting and I am looking forward to a cold beer. There is a small fountain in front of the place. The doors are locked; the place is closed. A heavy-set, middle-aged white man appears from the side door of the bar. He wears a hunting vest and carries a large rifle with a gleaming blond wooden handle. He walks to the adjacent parking lot and gets into his pickup truck, placing the rifle gently on the rack behind the seat before driving off. I decide to move on.

A few blocks up town, I see a cab parked on a side street. An elderly black man is sitting sideways in the driver’s seat with one leg hanging out the open door. He is chewing on a large cheroot. I ask him to drive me to the Yazoo River and to Benton, Mississippi, J.T.’s birthplace. We drive out of Yazoo City a few miles on a narrow country road to Benton. We cross the murky waters of the Yazoo River passing idyllic farm houses, pine trees and cotton fields.

Charlie drives me to the cotton fields where my ancestors had bent and stooped to pick the cotton that built the South. I walk out into the cotton fields, bend over and pick some souvenir cotton. I marvel at how a simple, lovely and soft thing could cause so much hardship for so many for so long. After riding over the timeless back roads of Yazoo past vast fields of cotton and short green pine we return in late afternoon to Yazoo City.

All the stores are closed. There is not a soul to be seen anywhere except one stocky black man washing windows at a local retail store on the empty main street. I stop and introduce myself to him. His name is Walter Allen, Jr.. Walter moonlights washing windows to put his children through college. During our conversation I tell Walter my grandfather was from Yazoo. We decide to meet later over a beer to finish our conversation at a black bar called the White Eagle. He will join me when he finishes work.

I cross the tracks into the black side of town walking past rundown shacks partially hidden among the trees and an abandoned red warehouse. I don’t see a soul on the streets. When I come upon a dirt crossroad I see a street sign hanging askew from a leaning post. It reads “Swamp Alley.” I am in the right place. I continue down the weary dirt road to the White Eagle Bar located in a small white wood frame building. Several black men are sitting on stools at the bar. They smile as I enter. I sit with them at the bar. I order a Lite beer and introduce myself, “I’m Tom Gayton from Seattle, Washington. My grandfather….”

As the sun slowly sets behind the lowly pines the shadows lengthen and I recall a passage from De Cell’s book: “The laws of this state presume a Negro prima facie to be a slave.” I have finally arrived home.