At my grandmother’s funeral in 1973 the plans were well laid; every detail even to the appointment of six pallbearers had been arranged, but while I waited in a family line outside the church with my wife and our sons for the coffin to be lifted from the hearse, the funeral director was calling for a missing pallbearer.
After his third call, overtaken with emotions I broke rank with family members and answered the funeral director’s call to fill in for the missing pallbearer. I took the white gloves from the funeral director and slipped them on, and then I grabbed the lead coffin handle. The funeral director notified the minister that we were ready and he started the funeral procession into the church. The pallbearers fell in line behind the clergy and the mourning family followed. The community was already seated in the pews. After we rested the coffin on a rolling stand surrounded with flowers, we sat in the side pews normally reserved for the Deacons.
My grandmother was named Emily Sanders at her birth in 1895. She was the second youngest of six children. Her parents, Ned and Elsie Sanders were born during slavery. This fact qualifies me for reparations if they come during my lifetime. According to the Census, I come from a long line of illiterate Geechee field-hands living in the shadow of Charleston, a city prominent in all the appalling measures of the history of slavery, from its beginning to the war fought to bring about slavery’s end. Emily Sanders grew up after the failures of Reconstruction and tyrannical terrorists produced an era and an area of hopelessness for black people. The great mandates of emancipation were being snuffed out and a harsher existence for black Americans called Jim Crow was brutally introduced. This is additional evidence in my reparations file.
Shortly after my grandmother married at the age of 25, the country entered the Great Depression, sandwiching her early life between the physical deprivation of civil rights and the dispossession caused by an economy that allowed only crumbs to fall to the underprivileged. Add to that the deliberate dearth of hospitals, schools, and social institutions and a true picture of the second-class wasteland that my grandmother knew crystallizes.
Emily Sanders never learned to read or write. There was not a school for her to attend; she worked in the fields alongside her siblings and her parents. It was through the circulation of the coins that her family earned as field-hands that she learned to count money and relate monetary value to things.
Her only education came from what she learned of the Bible from the literate in her church. This is also where she gained enough hope to persevere. The church, the Bible and its stories of struggles, faith, and triumphs in the afterlife is what sustained her and her whole community. All the misfortune that can befall a people had happened to the early survivors of the Middle Passage and the residual effects continued generation after generation; all that held them upright was faith in a tomorrow that repeatedly arrived empty of promise.
Shortly after World War I Emily Sanders met a man named Reginald Frank Morrison. It is believed that Morrison hailed from Kingston, Jamaica. It is unclear exactly when Morrison came to South Carolina; by the time he met my grandmother he was already a widower with four children. Reginald Frank Morrison had been married to a woman named Lena who took sick and died from lack of medical care. Lena had a daughter from another relationship and three children with my grandfather. When my grandfather and grandmother married in July 1920, Emily became an instant mother. They had four other children together. My mother was the second of those children. My grandfather and grandmother lived in a three-bedroom house with their five girls and three boys. I was later born in this house with a double fireplace.
Frank Morrison was a charming well-spoken man whose speech pattern resembled that of the Geechee Gullah speakers of the area but his words bounced around lots more rhythmically. He was a man of many skills with an entrepreneurial spirit; he was a baker, a cook and a shoemaker. But what really set him apart from the black population of the area was that he could read and write. He was considered to be so learned a man that he was offered a job, which he declined, as the area’s schoolteacher, though there was no school building.
My grandfather sold johnnie-cakes and pies that he baked and he repaired shoes for the few who could afford such a service. In 1926 the entire family moved to Charleston. Reginald set up a vendor’s cart and sold fruits and vegetable on the cobblestone streets of Charleston. Life in the city was hard, but then the Great Depression came and the family nearly starved.
The oldest daughter moved to Philadelphia. My grandmother moved back to the country with her four children. They could use the land surrounding the house to grow a vegetable garden and raise some chickens and pigs to eat. My grandfather stayed in Charleston with two daughters and a son from his first marriage. As things worsened, his daughters joined their older sister in Philadelphia. My grandfather then sent for his two young sons in the country to rejoin him in Charleston.
My grandmother, my aunt and my mother lived off the land; they ate crabs and oysters they caught in the creek, and wild berries supplemented the vegetable they grew in the garden. The little money they earned as field-hands they used to buy war ration stamps to buy rice, flour, grits, and kerosene to light the house. The chickens laid eggs and on Sundays a chicken served as dinner. A neighbor who owned milk cows gave them the skim-cream from off the top of the milk buckets, and neighborhood men who fished donated shrimp and fish. They lived in a hamlet of benevolent sharers.
My grandmother could do many of the things normally considered man’s work. She used an ax to cut firewood; she built and repaired her own chicken and pig pens – she used a hammer as well as a man could. She raised a few pigs and slopped them herself. She smoked a pipe and drank a little moonshine. And, of course, she was dedicated to her church. Her two sons who were being educated in Charleston came out to the country some weekends bearing much-needed staples and they helped around the house before returning to Charleston.
This was during the time of the Great Black Migration north that reverberated across the South. All of my grandmother’s stepchildren had gone to live in Philadelphia; some of the young people from her area had gone to New York City. My aunt Ruth heard from a cousin about a magical place called Harlem where everyone was black and working – where dignity and hope for a future was possible. Aunt Ruth went to New York in 1941, the year that I was born. Now the household consisted of my grandmother, my teenage mother and me. My father who was 21 was drafted into the army so it was five years before I ever laid eyes on him and him on me.
Things were really tough for my grandmother and for my mother and me. My mother found work in the cigar factory in Charleston, but because of the lack of transportation, she stayed in the city with relatives during the week and caught a ride home for the weekends. The little money my mother was paid helped me and my grandmother to survive. She also saved some money to purchase land to build a house on once my father returned.
My grandmother had a sister whose house was behind her own. This sister’s daughter had a baby a month younger than I was. So my grandmother would take me to her niece at nursing time and she nursed her son and me each upon her knee – I repeat, we lived in a community of benevolent sharers. I began to call my grandmother mama and I called my mother by her name as I heard others do.
My father returned home after the war. He married my mother and they built a house on the land my mother had purchased earlier. My brother and sister were born baby boomers over the next 20 months. Soon my parents’ relationship turned stormy and my mother took us to New York City to live with her sister.
I was nine years old when I started spending entire summers with my grandmother and it is from these times that I got to know her. She was a strict, loving and fair woman. She was dark-skinned and she laughed a lot. I remember her in three different weight categories. She was once thin and spry; then she was large and cuddly; and finally thin and sickly. She was five feet three inches and always wore a head wrap and an apron over her flock.
When I first started my summer visits, my grandmother still had a sister and a brother who lived nearby – another brother lived in Charleston. The brother whom she idolized because he was once a soldier and had fought with Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War had died many years before. He had given her his old sword and rifle which stood in the corner of her sitting room from even before I was born. Plus she had several cousins to exchange visits with. This was the foundation of her social life.
She took me to catch crabs and to pick wild berries. She sang spiritual songs in a voice that beseeched in a tone that had roots in the field hollers of slaves, a resonance that suggested in my mind that while God was not responding in her favor, God was surely listening, and if God was listening God couldn’t help but be moved.
We ate a diet derived from the slave menu of stables. She fried fatback and baked sweet potatoes and poured the grease from the fatback on the potatoes. She cooked chicken feet served over white rice. She place shrimp heads out in the sun to dry and then pounded the dried shrimp heads into a power, then cooked the power with okra and tomatoes to make a gumbo that tasted like it had shrimp in it. We ate fried crabmeat and grits or fried fish and grits. When we picked wild berries she made my favorite wild berry dumpling. I had wonderful summers with my grandmother.
I thought my grandmother was wise and could see into the future. When she had visitors, she spoke with such earnest conviction. The conversations were often about the many injustices local white people perpetrated against local black people. She heard stories from migrating field hands about the treatment of black people in other states. News about great racial tragedies arrived by word of mouth. Sketches of information about an early civil rights movement reached her ears. From all of this she surmised that the day would arrive when black people would make demands for justice. I heard her say as much in conversations with visitors though I was warned never to look grown people in their eyes when they are talking. “Look away boy ‘fore I spit in ya eye.”
My grandfather returned home to my grandmother in 1947, the year that my family left for New York City, and he died in 1948. My oldest uncle had married and built a home next to my grandmother’s house. He owned a successful shoe repair business in Charleston and he cut hair in the country on the weekends. My other uncle had been drafted into the army during the Korean War. My grandmother lived alone in her house but now her children supported her financially. Every so often she would go to New York to live with her daughters for a few months, but she would always be home for my summer visits where I received my tutorial on the burdens of black life in the South, and I still resolved that I would one day return to live there.
Reverend Ledbetter stood at the pulpit podium and announced the first four events in the service. Then Deacon Herman Frazier rose to offer a prayer to begin the service. He sang two verses of “This Little Light of Mine” before he knelt before the altar. Deacon Frazier started his prayer off with some common platitudes praising God. He asked for God’s blessings for himself, and for various segments of the community: the sick, the shut-in, the imprisoned, the sinful.
Deacon Frazier was a man widely known for his piously moving prayers. It had been said that once you experienced one of his prayers, you could get up, tip your hat to the Pastor and walk out of the church spiritually fulfilled. This day Deacon Frazier outdone himself. He told God about the evil that stifled the life of the woman in the coffin and he made the congregation relate to that by pointing out that that same evil was a quandary in their lives as well. “All the joys of heaven can never undo our earthly sufferings; what’s done on earth is done on earth.” He beseeched God to untie justice and turn loose righteousness and let them run plentifully through the white man’s heart. “Let one heart be a mirror to another,” Deacon Frazier concluded.
A preacher from a neighboring church read scripture from the Old Testament and a preacher from the town of Petersfield read scripture from the New Testament. The choir sang a rousing rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee.” The older women in the church stood on their feet and sang along; some of them became overwhelmed with emotion and started to shout and call on God. The most distraught of them were attended to by ushers.
The emotion became infectious throughout the congregation. This inspired the choir director to keep the song going to draw the emotions out; they were bringing the spirit of Christ into the church. The repeated refrain “Nearer to thee” seem to unhinge and heighten the emotions; heads shook from side to side, screams and shouts echoed through the parish, men jumped up and down in rhythm with the song, and many members of the family in the front pews began to cry. The Pastor signaled the choir director to bring an end to the song. It took many minutes for the emotions to calm.
The church secretary rose to acknowledge those who had sent cards and flowers, after which the choir sang a version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” in the tempo of a military marching song.
Then it was time for the tributes. The first one was given by Sister Alice Green. Deaconess Green spoke in a high-pitched squeaky voice of knowing the deceased since childhood as an honorable and good woman, a God-fearing woman of a noble character and a generous disposition. She spoke of how Emily Morrison never had an easy day in her life, but never grumbled, she just carried on and was always a pillar of the community, tending to the sick, counseling the troubled and aiding the destitute. This was the lesson Sister Green admonished the community to take away from “Sister Morrison’s” life.
The next tribute came from Deacon John Mungin Sr. who was married to my grandmother’s niece and was also my father’s oldest brother. Deacon Mungin was a diminutive man, a farmer and the patriarch of a large family. He had a wit and a fondness for allegory. “The moon like it ain’t in the sky in the bright of day; you only see the moon in the dark of night. But though you don’t see the moon in daylight, it still there doing what it always do, it’s just that you don’t see it, so you only credit the moon for what you see it do and you short-change it for it what it do in the daylight. People, God see in day and God see in night – God don’t short-change anybody, God gives us all our full retributions. God see through our heart even what you hide in the dark, so we can be sure that Sister Morrison done get what God’s got to reward her to.”
Then there was a solo sung by Sister Catherine Rivers as a prelude to the message from Reverend Ledbetter. After the solo, which was sung stirringly and had churned up much emotion among the congregation, Reverend Ledbetter rose to the podium while the emotional reaction to the song was still audible and he repeated the catchphrase in the song “God gone lift up that heavy load.” Cries of “I know he will,” echoed from the rear of the church to the front, “I know he will.”
“I say God-gone-lift-up-that-heavy-load,” Reverend Ledbetter repeated again, this time slowly, word by word as he thumped through his Bible. Reverend Ledbetter had just recently returned from a conference of black civil rights ministers in Atlanta, Georgia, focusing on the negative effects of racism on black people’s lives. He was an old-time preacher schooled in the strict administering of Bible teachings, but the conference had opened his eyes to the new theology of the Righteous Now that proclaimed that God wanted his people to receive justice here on earth as well as in the hereafter.
The conference’s central theme was that to mobilize our people to fight racism, they had to be taught that God wanted them to live better lives now. People needed to see the struggle for a better life for themselves and their children as God’s work. As one lecturer at the conference put it, “Ask them how do you spell rat? And when they ask why you want to know how to spell rat, tell them because that’s when you want your freedom – Rat Now. Preach the theology of Freedom Rat Now.”
Reverent Ledbetter left the conference convinced that he would for the rest of his life try to motivate people to improve their lives. “Freedom Rat Now” was what he was going to preach.
Finally he reached a place in his Bible where he had stored his funeral sermon. He unfolded the lined paper and smoothed out the crease with his hand. He looked down and took in a great amount of what was written.
“I’m tired of preaching funeral sermons about dead people who have never lived to dead people who have never lived. From this day forward I want to preach to a living congregation; a congregation who is engaged in the struggle for life, a people who will stand up for themselves, a people who will protect themselves and their children – a people who is unafraid.
“It is now too late to help all those who have passed before this day after having experiencing a shackled existence; an existence that was imposed upon us because we were like scrumming weasels afraid of out shadows. I put all that in the past. From this day forward you will walk through these doors with dignity and pride and I want each of you to be prepared to tell us all how you resisted the devil during any of the preceding five days. There is gonna be a new me and there is gonna be a new you.
“’Well the preacher ain’t said nothing to aid the bereaved family’ is what you all are thinking right at this moment. But lemme tell you something. A pastor’s most solemn duty at a funeral is to console the bereaved family – ain’t that right. Now tell me what’s more consoling then to be told that your lives are gonna be better than the life of the deceased, that you are gonna rise from off your knees on your own account and stand upright for Jesus and stand upright for Justice. What’s more consoling than to be told that you’re as of this very moment rat now free – in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
The choir started singing an almost muffled version of “What a Friend We
Have in Jesus” as the funeral director took charge of the viewing of the body and afterwards getting the casket to the burial ground behind the church.
It wasn’t until many years later that I came to disagree with Reverend Ledbetter’s judgment that my grandmother hadn’t lived. I understand when he implied that black lives had been impeded by slavery, Jim Crow and racial injustice, my grandmother included, but many of the people that suffered this experience still managed to bring value to their existence and to pass that value on another generation. I see myself as living proof that my grandmother lived.