Part 1. (Elizabeth was a black woman who lived in a tiny shack patterned after slave cabins in 1860 but this was 1951 in a tiny slum on a sandy road in Macon, Georgia. Grant’s Chapel was a hundred yards east of her home and my Aunt’s home was at the top of a slight hill a hundred yards to the south of the black folks church where it ran into Second Street. Elizabeth lived alone as many older black women did and collected $25 a month from welfare. She made a little more by doing ironing for Aunt Lil. I was six at the time and Elizabeth made it very clear without saying a word the contradictions that made white society on edge from a guilt that no one accepted. I felt the sorrow that was her life from the first time I met her.)*
“Yas’m. It sho has been a mighty cold winter. Sometimes I git to wishin summer hurry back. But then I thinks how it was las summer. Terrible.”
“I know what you mean, Elizabeth. I thought I’d die in August.”
Aunt Lil sat in a chair, folding clothes while the large black woman leaned over the ironing board set up in the living room. I watched from the entrance to my room as the smell of warm, clean clothes wafted though the house.
“Well, well. Looka here. Where did you come from, young man?’
“That’s my nephew, Danny.”
“My, my. Masta Danny. You sho is a fine lookin young man. I’d be mighty proud if I had me a son like you.”
I stood there, staring at the floor. Why, I wondered, did all the black people, grownups anyway, think I’m so special, so handsome. After studying myself in a wall mirror I had concluded otherwise.
Although I couldn’t put my finger on it, I began to doubt their sincerity. It seemed to me that everyone had the same lines and their glowing praise was an automatic response. But why?
I liked Elizabeth, though. She seemed a lot like Aunt Lil. They both talked about their families and the problems with young folks today.
Elizabeth never had a disagreement with Aunt Lil. Her response to anything was always, “Yes’m. You sho is right Miz Lil.’
But then, all the black folks who talked with Aunt Lil seemed to be thinking the exact same thoughts as her. Even when she did a complete reversal of a previous statement, Elizabeth was right with her, never missing a beat.
“No ma’m. I feels the same way you does.” she would say as she continued to iron everything in sight: shirts, pants, towels, washcloths, pillow cases, sheets, underwear. I felt embarrassed because their eagerness to agree was always overdone.
Four hours later the living room was stacked high with neatly pressed and folded things. Elizabeth made her way from side to side as she made her way to the door, eighty-five cents richer.
“Miz Lil, you lets me know if you needs more ironin next week. Jes tell my boy when you see him. You take care now.”
I watched her as she labored down the alley, stopping every few feet to breathe in the dirty air. I felt a lump in my throat and my heart ached.
Part 2. (Riding the Macon city buses made me uncomfortable because the black folks had a few seats at the back of the bus behind the rear door and sometimes I, Aunt Lil, and one or two other white folks were sitting up front where all the other seats were empty. But the black folks still had to stand in the aisle and behind the border, which was the rear door. But one day I was confronted with the strange reality of life in the south.)
School had let out for the summer and Aunt Lil and I were returning from a shopping trip to buy some pants and a new pair of shoes for me. My legs and feet decided it was time to go on a growing binge.
An old man, dressed in an odd-looking lemon-colored suit and wearing a dark gray bow tie, sat directly across the aisle from us. He rested both hands on a walking cane planted firmly between his legs. No other whites were riding the bus.
A black man had just boarded and attempted to find standing room by quietly asking others to move to the rear but there was no more space available. Even the stairwell had passengers holding on, maintaining a constant balancing act as the bus stopped, started, then climbed and descended the steep hills on the south side of town.
This resulted in the newest passenger being forced to stand in the aisle, just beyond the boundary for blacks . Technically, he was in violation of the law.
Once again I felt a growing stress. I checked the driver but he seemed unconcerned. At every stop I peered out the window, hoping that no more black folks wanted to ride.
But it wasn’t to be. There, at the corner of Pine Street and Second Street, two black women were waiting to get on. Both carried a bag of groceries in one hand and a purse in the other. One I recognized. It was Elizabeth.
They stood momentarily at the front and looked at each other with dismay. As they pondered their next move the bus pulled out into traffic. They surveyed all the empty seats on their unsteady walk to the rear but they had to stop directly across from us. The only whites on the bus now were me and Aunt Lil.
Elizabeth and her friend stood up and looked at all the empty seats but they remained off limits. Aunt Lil kept her eyes toward the front. Elizabeth stood up and tried to hold her groceries while the bus started and stopped. Her eyes briefly met mine but there was no smile, no acknowledgement.
The bus continued on. Sweat formed on my forehead. I felt self-conscious. I turned in my seat. Elizabeth, groceries and purse in one hand, was standing no more than two feet away. She held on to the railing with the other.
But her eyes were trained on me with an intensity I had never seen before in a colored person. I turned around, shaken. I could feel the hatred directed at me. But why? I was the only one who cared.
Elizabeth and her friend left the bus at Wyche Street, a block from our stop at the firehouse. When we stepped off under the pecan tree, Aunt Lil exchanged greetings with one of the firemen who passed the time watching traffic go by.
My legs felt heavy as I carried my shopping bags across the alley and up the dirty gray steps. The world is a cruel place, I thought, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Part 3. (I met Elizabeth again for the last time before moving away to a place in the country. Aunt Lil and I had gone to visit Uncle Luther who had a farm where I picked some blackberries and brought back with me. He convinced Aunt Lil to sell her house and move next to him. And I could stay with Aunt Lil and enjoy farm life.)
“Why don’t you take a couple of jars down to Elizabeth’s house and see if she wants to buy any. She’s in number 31. Turn left at the church and hit’s the fourth house on the right.”
I was reluctant to face Elizabeth after the problem on the bus but I wanted to earn some money to buy some comic books and other important things. I filled four mason jars with the blackberries and screwed the lids on, then put them in a grocery sack.
“How much do I charge, Aunt Lil?”
“Fort- five cents with the jars and thirty-five without. Just knock on the door and be polite.’
I made the turn at Grant’s Chapel and began to trudge through the dirty sand. It was quiet in the neighborhood. No one sat on the front porch of any shanty on either side. The only feature unique to Elizabeth’s house was the number 31 beside the screen door.
I knocked, probably too softly, I thought, but within seconds a voice called out.
“C’ mon in Chile. My goodness, what in the world brings you here?”
The small front room contained a couple of ragged chairs, a night table with a kerosene lamp and not much else. There was no interior wall, only outside planking nailed to two by four studs. She paid $6 a month rent.
Elizabeth sat in a rocker at the back of the middle room, shelling blackeye peas into a four-quart pot. On the left side of the room a large iron bed took up most of the area while on the right, in the middle of the floor, was a white porcelain toilet. A white, movable curtain offered a small degree of privacy.
It was the only available location for it because the cubicle at the rear of the house, barely large enough to turn around in, served as a kitchen. It was really the back porch with a screen around it.
“Morn’in Miss Elizabeth. I brought some blackberries we picked. Do you want to buy some?”
Selling wasn’t one of my strong points and I was prepared to turn around and leave.
“How much does you want?”
“Uh, forty-five cents with the jar and thirty-five without.”
“You know, my boy loves blackberry pie. I think one jar be plenty.”
She reached in her purse and counted out forty-five cents.
“Thank you, Ma’m.
She looked at me in a strange way, then smiled.
“Thank you, masta Danny. Give my best to Miss Lil.”
I walked slowly to the door. Something kept troubling me. I was about to reach for the handle when I turned around. The decision had been made but I still spoke with a shaky voice.
“Miss Elizabeth. I ‘m sorry for the way things are.”
I stood there, embarrassed, not knowing what to do next. Elizabeth sat there, studying me. I thought I saw her eyes glisten in the sunlight angling through the window. She reached for a handkerchief and dabbed at her face.
“Thank you, chile. You really is a fine young man.”
I felt relieved and opened the door to leave.
“Bye, Miss Elizabeth.”
“Bye, Masta Danny. Bless you chile.”
I was drained as I made my way back home, drained but satisfied. It was something I had to do. And besides, no whites would ever find out. The important thing, though, was that my mind was at peace, at least with regards to Elizabeth.
NOTE: This was based on a true story. A little later we moved to the country. I was sorry that Elizabeth never got the chance to go to school and have a rewarding life, or enjoy some of the things she would never have. And though an American citizen, she would never have the chance to reach that American dream. And most of all, she would never be respected as a human being. Not here.
*Danny Fortune is a pen name.