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I was a revolutionary, p.4

I Was a Revolutionary, page 4


I Was a Revolutionary

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  “Faith sound good from a preacher’s mouth, but it ain’t taking us out of Mississippi,” a man said.

  “Ain’t a preacher,” CK said. “I share my crop, same as you.”

  Another: “We been out here near three weeks. We’d do better to go back home than starving on these banks.”

  “No, sir,” CK said. “We must believe.”

  “Believe all you want,” the man angered. “You think you ain’t a nigger just cause you leave Mississip? Even this place you keep on about—Nigger Demus.”

  “Nicodemus,” CK said with a calm certainty that only stoked the man’s fury.

  “A nigger here, nigger in Kansas. Nigger everywhere,” he said. “I’m going home, is all I know. Me and mine. The rest of you know better, you’ll do the same.”

  The man walked off in a huff and CK decided to let him be, turning his attention to the others. “Just a little longer,” he said, sweeping across the row of skeptical eyes circling him. “The Lord will give us safe passage, I’m sure it.”

  Though a few families did turn back, most stayed, crowding along both sides of the river now. However, a few days later, when still no steamer had stopped, a white man showed up on the banks, speaking of jobs at a nearby plantation. “There’s work if you want it and you’re willing,” he said. “I need a few new hands.” Several followed and later that day another man, black this time, showed up alone. He called himself Dulcet, and in his hand he carried a small length of sugarcane. CK asked where he was from.

  “Up north. Holly Springs.”

  “Hill country.” CK nodded. “What you doing in the Delta?”

  “Work,” said Dulcet, tapping the sugarcane against the palm of his left hand as he spoke. CK could make out a thin row of holes along the object’s smooth rounded curve.

  “You play?”

  “I blow me some cane here and again.” When CK asked for a song, Dulcet said he wasn’t in the mood and put the fife in his back pocket. He’d just been fired from a nearby plantation.

  “Man from there come by earlier. Took some of ours.”

  “He got your people on the cheap,” Dulcet said, telling of how he’d been talking—just talking—to some of the others about better wages. “Hadn’t even said the word strike, but word got back to the foreman.” He paused, looking around at all the families on the banks. “He knew you all was out here—everyone’s talking about it in the towns—so he fired me,” Dulcet said, snapping his fingers. He took a quick swig from a clear bottle that seemed to leap out of his pocket. He offered it to CK, but he declined, so Dulcet took another furious swig. The burn of that rotgut whiskey filled up the space between them.

  “You alone, then?”

  “My wife and kids still there.”

  “You left your family?” CK said.

  Dulcet’s plan was to come back for them once he had a place set up in Kansas. “They say there’s land plenty there.” CK tried to imagine leaving Mil and Rachel behind in Mississippi, but that required a desperation he couldn’t summon. Dulcet turned the bottle slowly, watching the crest of the alcohol lower and rise. “Barely let me say goodbye before he run me off.” He looked like he might shout at the sky, but then just as quickly seemed to shake the thought away with another drink. “They think we got as much claim to money as their damn mules and gins. We built their wealth and receive nothing for it!”

  Dulcet’s words were starting to slide into one another, so CK set a steady hand on his shoulder and led him to the tent where Mil was frying pone and bacon rind in the kettle over a fire. Afterward they let him stretch out on their quilt for a tossing, angry kind of sleep.

  It wasn’t long after Dulcet showed up that a steamer finally stopped and with it came a wild outburst of hoots and hollering, those first sounds of joy on the banks. It was almost April and CK was lying on his back in the tent, Bible facedown on his chest, enjoying the balmy weather. Though his eyes were closed, he wasn’t sleeping. He was thinking of Nicodemus. If he thought hard enough, he could see it, that city on the plains. There were sturdy houses of plank and rock, not all of them big, yet none small. And a main street, with several stores, a post office, and a hotel. Not fancy, just enough. And all around those buildings were cattle farms and fields of wheat and corn and soybeans, stretching far enough to test the keen of one’s eye. And there was the church, so big as to fit all the people of Nicodemus, who would come each Sunday to sing and pray, and feel love and fear in the presence of the Lord. He could hear them—Glory be, glory to our Savior!—and he and Mil and Rachel were there with them, faces turned up toward the sky, singing. But now Mil was calling his name, folding back the flaps of the tent. “Wake up, CK! Ain’t you hear? A steamer come. For us.” He kept his eyes closed and when she came to shake him, he opened them suddenly and reached for her. She startled and let out a little scream. She wrangled from his grasp—“Got half a mind to get on that boat without you”—and hurried from the tent, but CK stayed where he was a minute longer, enjoying the wonderful soreness in his stomach and lungs as his body worked to quit that laughter.

  In Lexington, Talmen had learned his trade from his father, whom he’d followed around all those years before the war, carrying tools, watching. It was a handy skill, and Eugenia urged Talmen to build a wooden one-room where she and a few of the other women could carry out lessons for the children in town. For years before she and Talmen married she’d taught at a school in Lexington and she championed the importance of education for their children.

  “We got a school,” Talmen said.

  It was true. Eugenia and some of the other women took turns holding class in their dugouts using books borrowed from William Kirltey, one of the few who owned any books.

  “Ain’t a proper place for a child to learn.”

  “Ain’t a proper place to live either,” said Talmen.

  Their first dugout had been a flat recession in the ground, covered by a thin layer of wood, that had flooded easily in the spring rains. Next time they burrowed into the south side of a low-rising hill so that the slight slope would provide easy runoff for rain and ice melt. They’d taken strips of the thick prairie sod, gathered after plowing, and cut them into blocks, which they used to build up decently insulated walls to the six-foot-high ceiling. This dugout, a single small cavelike room, was vastly better than their first, but it was nothing like their home in Lexington, which wasn’t fancy but at least it had been above ground with several rooms where a person could be alone if he wanted. Over a year into their Kansas experiment, most people were still in the ground. Some had been able to build sod houses, and there were even two made of limestone cut from nearby quarries. But the builders of those homes, S. P. Roundtree and Thomas Baldwin, were town fathers and men of means. Talmen resented their comfort, when even Z. T. Fletcher had to run his general store, which was generally out of everything, from a dugout.

  “You soft-skulled if you spect me to build a school when we living in a hole.”

  “School first, above ground,” Eugenia insisted. “We have a baby now and he and every other will have his schooling.”

  Trees were harder to come by on the plains, however, and trading for lumber was costly, but when the issue was raised at a town meeting, the vote passed near unanimous. Talmen huffed about it some, but soon he and Rawl were meeting with a dozen or so other men late in the evening to discuss plans for the new schoolhouse. It was the busy sowing season and they could come to it only after a long day working the land, so they’d gather in the failing light of spring and work a few hours more, returning to their dugouts and families in the dark, with eyes so heavy they could barely finish supper. At night Eugenia threw hot ashes from the fire on the dirt floor of the dugout to deter the vermin and once she had seen Rawl and their daughter, Jesse Mae, to bed, she would join Talmen, who was often already asleep. Between them young Isaiah would rest, his swaddle dampened to keep away fleas and bedbugs. With their children almost full-grown, how Isaiah’s arrival had surprised them. Their
family had been one thing for so long and now so quickly was another.

  “Talmen,” she whispered one night in bed.

  “Mmm,” he answered, eyes closed.

  “You doing good. You doing right about this schoolhouse.”

  “I’m doing it for you,” he said.

  “No, Tal,” she said. “You doing it for Isaiah. For all us. You doing it for Nicodemus.”

  Imagine: To have left your home in Mississippi, packing all you could carry onto your back and languishing on the banks of a river for nearly a month, watching as others gave up and turned back, only to find safe passage with hardly a fare to offer, having to rely on the kindness of a white steamboat captain who said he couldn’t pass up any longer folks in such utter want, and then sailing on a few more days, nearly starving in the dank hull of the ship—to endure all of that guided by what felt in the darkest moments like a singular, quixotic compulsion—only to finally arrive in St. Louis to find thousands of others just like yourself.

  What was going on?

  CK stepped off the steamer asking that very question aloud. He walked along slowly with Mil and the baby, absorbing the sound and motion of a city far larger than any he’d ever seen. So many colored folks, all crowding around the boats. Some women and children sat somberly at fires while men walked around, either with great purpose or none at all, content to loaf on the levee. The group that CK had come north with, half a hundred or so, moved cautiously in mass, pulled slowly by the current of the city’s bustle. A white man in a gray suit approached them.

  “Just arrived? Where you folks coming from?” he asked, pencil and paper in hand.

  “Mississippi. Every corner, sir,” CK said. “I from Bolivar County. Merigold.”

  The man wrote that down, nodding. It was warm that April afternoon, and sweat matted strands of his brown hair sloppily across his brow, giving his otherwise smart appearance a hint of dishevelment.

  “Where you all headed?” He looked up, meeting CK’s eyes for the first time.

  “Kansas,” CK said.

  The man laughed.

  “What so funny bout that?” said Dulcet.

  The man shook his head, amused. “All of you going to Kansas. Amazing.” With that, his disposition seemed to change, losing its brusque urgency. He waved his pencil at the teeming streets. “I’ve been reporting on it for the papers. Never seen anything like it. Kansas Fever, they call it. Negroes from all over the South—Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas even. All heading for Kansas.”

  “All them?”

  “Every the last. Each thinking the government is gonna give him land and money just because Kansas was free-soil during the war. No plan whatsoever beyond getting to Kansas. Do that and everything will be okay, they think.” He shook his head, apparently pleased to inform them of their misadventure.

  “We ain’t refugees seeking free houses,” CK said. “We emigrants from that young hell behind us.”

  “They call you exodusters,” the newspaperman said.

  “We workers,” said Dulcet.

  “So you two led this group from,” he said, pausing as he scanned his notes, “Bolivar County?”

  “Ain’t no leaders but from above,” CK said. “Every black man’s a Moses now.”

  “I like that,” the man said, repeating CK’s words as he wrote. They left him standing there, writing on his paper, and took in the city. While whites looked on from inside large store windows, blacks mingled in the street in a surprised kind of stupor. After talking with some of the people they passed, CK was able to corroborate what the newspaperman had said: folks had come from all over, and everyone did seem to have their sights set on Kansas. Steamers were arriving, unloading more and more people, but none were boating them on to Kansas yet. Stuck once again, there wasn’t much to do but wait and worry and trust that God would deliver them soon enough. They took up residence, like most others, at the Eighth Street Baptist Church, which had opened its doors to these weary travelers. In the crowded basement of that church, people talked, people slept, people grew hungry, people preached the Word, people gamed, people stole, people gossiped, people argued, people cared for the sick, people crowded around when the bread and stew vats came out, people told stories, people played games with the children, people ventured outside into the city to look for work, people returned at night, and others never came back. Everyone waited.

  The trouble started when the whites from nearby towns stopped doing business. They’d been quite welcoming at the start, willing sellers and traders when Nicodemus men would hitch up carts and journey to one of these towns—Stockton, Ellis, Bull City, Hill City—for necessities. So in that April of 1879, when Talmen traveled to Ellis, he was surprised to find no one willing to trade for flour, meal, or the extra lumber they needed for the schoolhouse. He went from store to store, to the folks with whom he usually did business, who politely told him they were out of stock, and then to the others, more hostile, who called him names and told him to go on and leave already. It was there in Ellis that Talmen got first wind of the exodus.

  “Word out of Kansas City is that St. Louis is overrun with coloreds,” Mr. Ryer said when Talmen asked what gave. Ryer had always been friendly to him, and he and Talmen often spent a few idle minutes talking on the back steps of his store.

  “What that got to do with us?”

  “They say they’re coming for Kansas.”

  “That so?” Talmen said, scratching the grayed stubble on his cheek. “And that has folks here worried, huh?”

  Ryer said nothing.

  “Don’t know nothing bout black folk coming from the Lower. We from Kentucky.”

  “I know of it.”

  “We not trying to take nothing from y’all,” Talmen said. “Just a spot for ourselves. No harm to no one.”

  “Look, we never had any problems with you and yourn, but that don’t make some here less scared they’re gonna be run off by coloreds who want their land. Bad enough with Indians to worry of.” Behind the store, away from the main drag, was Ryer’s small house, nice-looking, and beyond that was a standing of white oak and sycamore. From where Talmen stood, perspective shrunk even the tallest of these trees to a size he could imagine felling and carrying home across his shoulders, but he knew the reality was that the great oak would crush him if he ever tried something so foolish. “I understand, believe me,” Ryer continued. “But you’re speaking to the clear of mind, Talmen. Those newspapers speak to the scared.”

  Talmen turned his attention away from the trees to Ryer.

  “Can’t you spare us nothing?”

  That evening Talmen returned to Nicodemus with what little Mr. Ryer could afford to part with, some cottonwood lumber prone to warp and a sack of poorly milled grain they’d have to parch or boil. It was nearing dark and he figured Rawl to be at work on the schoolhouse, but when Talmen passed by the site on his way into town none of the other men had seen him. It was only when Talmen returned home that he found his son standing outside the dugout, throwing dirt clods at the hillside.

  “What’s wrong?” Talmen said.

  “It’s the leastest.”


  “Yes, sir,” said Rawl. “Dr. Newth, he here.”

  Talmen looked at the door of the dugout, a well-fitting cover of thick oak that he’d traded for in a scrap shop in Stockton, painted a faded orange by its previous owner.

  “Ain’t well, Mama say. In his breathing.”

  The door fit snugly into the sod-walled entranceway but could be removed with a little effort, as Talmen did now, entering the dugout, where he found his Jesse Mae cooking supper over the sod fireplace. Eugenia was rocking the child, a crinkle of concern in her brow. She was standing near the cottonwood center pole that supported the ceiling. She could stand up straight, but Talmen and Dr. Newth had to stoop. The doctor was white and had recently moved to town, as had two other white men who were trying to build stores. It had caused a little concern, but at five hundred
to three, it was safe to say it was still an all-black town. And truth be told, they were fortunate for Newth’s arrival. Lucky was the frontier town that could claim a doctor. He was a morose man, however, an unfortunate disposition for a man in his trade. He’d just said something to Eugenia and was closing the top of his small cowhide bag, grimacing.

  “What’s wrong, Genia?”

  She shook her head, the sick child at her chest, shushing Talmen for quiet.

  When stuck and waiting in a place not your own, CK found, it was hard not to succumb to the feeling that you were living the same day over and again with little prospects for change. So he and Dulcet tried to keep busy, venturing into different parts of the city to look for work, while Mil tended to Rachel and commiserated with others at the church. They split up to cover more territory. CK worried over Dulcet, who sometimes showed up with a few coins and other times with just an awful burn on his breath. But CK did what he could. He knocked on doors, looking for jobs, and when turned away went to another. Every now and then one came through. A few Indian pennies to wash store windows or split wood, make a delivery of some sort to the other side of town. He tried to save for passage to Kansas—they’d left Mississippi with little more than twenty dollars, which had mostly evaporated—but now it seemed they might be stuck in St. Louis forever. People he spoke to in the streets were scared. There was talk that the city was so swamped by refugees they’d all be forced onto boats that would take them back south. As was his way in dark times, CK would smile, maybe place a steady hand on the dithering soul’s shoulder, and tell him to keep his faith strong. Everything would be okay. If they questioned how he could be so certain, he’d say, “Because I’m washed in the blood of our Savior.” Some grew angry, not wanting to hear any talk of a god that had allowed shackles all those years. Even Dulcet grew tired of his increased speechifying. One day when CK tried to talk to him about Noah’s slothful inebriation after the Flood, Dulcet called him foolish for believing in a white man’s god after what they’d been through. Stunned to hear such words from his friend, CK could only rejoin, “I’ll pray for God to turn your heart.”

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