Original mini-novel in three parts
Illustrations by Monique Saldana
Part III of III
Read Parts I and II in our June and July issues at www.ChangeMediaOnline.com
Mr. Coleman stopped his narrative. He took a deep puff on his cigar, leaned back, and shook his head.
“Even today I get a sick feeling in my stomach whenever I remember that moment. My whole world fell apart. But I was about to hear worse.”
Mr. Coleman took a deep breath and continued.
Little James Coleman stared at AJ Wythe uncomprehendingly.
“Never?” James asked in a trembling voice. “Miss Alma’s never coming back?”
“Didn’t you hear me boy?” Wythe asked harshly. “Are you deaf?”
“Why?” James asked plaintively. “Why isn’t she coming back?”
“I told her not to go!” Wythe spat out angrily as thick tears sprang from his eyes. “I begged her to stay. I told her the yellow fever would get her too.”
James gasped. A look of horror covered his face.
“Yes,” Wythe said. “She caught the fever and died. Miss Alma’s dead, Jimmy, Miss Alma’s dead.”
They both shuddered simultaneously. James swayed unsteadily on his feet and would have fallen if AJ Wythe had not grabbed hold of his shoulders. They stood like that for several moments, the older white man, ex-slave owner and Confederate officer, and the young black boy, locked in a shared grief.
Wythe spoke, his voice gentle now.
“You meant a lot to her, Jimmy. I don’t quite understand why a little colored boy meant so much to her, but you did. She believed in you. She said you were smart and hard-working and ambitious, and you’d make the world a better place if given half a chance.”
AJ Wythe paused.
“Jimmy, you meant a lot to Miss Alma, and Miss Alma meant a lot to me. So I’m going to give you more than a half a chance.”
James Coleman looked up at him.
“Jimmy, I’m going to send you through school. I’m going to send you to college. If you need seed money later on I’ll help you with that. I’m going to treat you as if you were my own flesh and blood.
“But Jimmy,” and here Augustus Jefferson Wythe’s voice became stern and forbidding, “Don’t you dare disappoint me. Or Miss Alma.”
James Coleman stubbed out his cigar. He leaned back, unable to go on, overcome with emotion. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
“I guess you didn’t disappoint either one of them,” I said softly.
“No,” Mr. Coleman replied, “I didn’t. But here’s the thing. AJ Wythe kept his word. He sent me through school. He sent me to Oberlin for college. He sent me to law school. He financed my first business ventures. He made me his agent. AJ Wythe kept his word and I lived up to his and Miss Alma’s expectations. That man, who owned my father like a piece of property, treated me like his own son. What are we to make of that, Mr. Briscoe, what are we to make of that?”
I shook my head. What could I have said?
“And yet you, by virtue of your white skin, felt you had the right to come over to me and say I had no business being at his funeral. Can you explain your reasoning to me?”
I turned red with embarrassment.
“I graduated college,” Mr. Coleman went on, “I graduated law school, I’ve started businesses, I founded a town for colored people, I’ve traveled the world, and yet you act as if I’m inferior to you simply because you’re white and I’m colored. Your reasoning escapes me.
“But again,” he continued, with considerable heat this time, “I really want to know why you told me that I had no right to be at the funeral of a man who made my ascent in life possible, who stood by me even when it risked the anger of his fellow whites. Why, Mr. Briscoe, why did you think you had more right to attend Augustus Jefferson Wythe’s funeral than I did?”
I felt my cheeks burning and I laughed uncomfortably.
“Did I say that? I don’t remember saying that!” I mock protested.
I sighed deeply.
“You’ve just made my life more difficult, Mr. Coleman,” I said. “I fear that what was a smooth road will become rocky. I can’t go on as I did before.”
We shook hands and said our goodbyes. I never saw James Coleman again.
I finished my story and looked up at McPherson standing outside my car.
“That’s why I turned on my race, as you put it,” I said. “We’re all human beings, Mr. McPherson, and more to the point we’re all Americans and we all have the right to vote.”
McPherson shook his head in disgust. The hostility had not left his face.
“Well, you were right about what you told that nigra. He set you on a hard road that ultimately led to your untimely demise. You see, Briscoe,” McPherson continued, “If you thought your story was going to change my mind you’re sadly mistaken. Any chance you’d get out of this alive has just vanished like the smoke from a nigra’s corncob pipe. The last thing I want is a bunch of overeducated darkies thinking and acting like they’re the equal of white men. Get out of the car.”
I could feel the sweat of tension start dripping from my armpits. I knew there was no way out; they were going to kill me. The most I could hope for was that my disappearance would cause an uproar. The newspapers and the federal government would get involved. With my blood and body parts on the ceiling and floor of the car, with shell fragments lodged in the seat, there would be more clues left behind than if I willingly got out and let them shoot me in the woods or hang me from a tree. My killers would be caught and would pay for their crime. Besides, I’d go quicker if I refused to move and made them shoot me in the car.
“Are you going to move, or do I have to shoot you right here?” McPherson demanded.
“Shoot me now, you ignorant racist bastard!” I shouted, my heart pounding. I thought those were its last beats.
McPherson smiled, and even in the dark I could see his teeth. He turned to his confederates.
“Let’s pull him out of the car,” he declared. “And don’t make it easy on him.”
Hands grabbed the door handles on each side of the car. I put the vehicle in gear.
Headlights of approaching vehicles appeared down the road. The lights were accompanied by furious honking of horns. The hands left my car’s door handles as my captors turned to face the newcomers. My would-be killers were no more expecting these visitors than I was.
Three old pickup trucks, even older than the ones holding me captive, trailed behind a newer model sedan. About 20 feet away the procession stopped. Each vehicle disgorged its occupants, black men of varying ages. Each man carried a rifle or a shotgun.
“Good evening, McPherson,” the leader, a tall young black man, called out cheerily. He was toting what seemed to be an M14 military rifle that he carried with confidence. “Don’t you know you and your boys are blocking a public road with your trucks?”
“Who the hell are you?” McPherson snarled.
“Your worst nightmare,” came the reply. “A nigra with a gun. In fact, a whole bunch of nigras with guns. It’s a slave rebellion, McPherson.”
“Very funny,” McPherson shot back. “If you know what’s good for you you’ll go back north where you belong. Pratt County belongs to me.”
“I don’t like it up north, McPherson. It’s cold up there. Brrr. Us darkies like the warmer weather. We’re from Africa, don’t you know that? This climate down here suits me fine. I might even settle in Pratt County.” The black man’s tone changed from bantering to ominous and threatening. “You’re outgunned, McPherson. Tell your boys to stand down.”
“Go mind your own business, Mr. Northern Nigra,” McPherson retorted.
“McPherson, Mr. Briscoe here had an appointment with one of the local folks. It’s very rude of you to detain him. It’ll be very dead of you if you don’t get out of his way.” The black man leveled his rifle. “Our Uncle Sam trained me to kill, McPherson, and I’d be very happy to practice that skill right here and right now.”
“Once you go back home these people will have to answer to me,” McPherson said menacingly.
“Let me tell you something, McPherson,” the black man replied. “If anything, and I mean anything, happens to these people, I’m going to come back down here with some of my friends, black and white, and we’ll turn your county into a hellhole. And that’s no idle threat.”
“Look,” he went on, trying to make his tone more reasonable and less threatening. “If you have any sense you’ll throw them some bones, some scraps from your table. They’ve been hungry so long it will seem like a feast to them. That’s what the Irish politicians did up north for the Jews and Italians when they first came over, and what the politicians do now for us black folks.”
“This isn’t up north,” McPherson spat.
“No, I guess not,” the man replied with resignation. “Back away from Mr. Briscoe’s car and have your boys move the truck that’s blocking the road. I’m not saying that again.” And with that his rifle moved in an arc until it was pointing at McPherson’s head.
“Are we gonna get run off by a bunch of nigras?” the one called Jim asked in frustration.
McPherson stared at the rifle aimed at him.
“Let’s go, men,” he said, and McPherson’s men immediately made their way back to their trucks.
The young black man called out: “Think about what I said, McPherson. It doesn’t have to be this kind of struggle. Offer them something. They won’t demand much.”
McPherson turned to face him.
”You’re wrong about that,” McPherson said.
The young black man extended his hand to me. I shook it and said, “Thanks for saving my life.”
“Well, Mr. Briscoe,” he said, “You kind of saved my life a few years ago. And I’ve wanted to meet you ever since then. My name is Crispus Coleman.”
He saw the look of surprise and puzzlement on my face and went on. “James Coleman was my grandfather. When I joined the service after college and became a Green Beret, granpappy asked me why I’d done that. I told him that I wanted to learn how to kill so I could kill white people.”
Crispus Coleman laughed.
“Granpappy hit the roof. Now you have to understand, he wasn’t just my grandfather. He was the respected leader of several black communities. Why, he even founded a town for colored folks down in Texas. And believe me, he acted like he was the paterfamilias that had to be obeyed. You didn’t cross granpappy.
“Well, the whole family knew the story of how AJ Wythe had made it possible for him to succeed, and how that gave us a leg up, too. He always said there were good white folks and there were bad white folks. He told us there were people who treated him bad and people who treated him good and that you can’t hate a whole race.
“But this time, when I told him I wanted to kill white people, he told me about you—Robert E. Lee Briscoe, the ex-Klan leader who became one of the first Southern whites to take part in the civil rights struggle, before the white community had even heard of it. And then granpappy shook his finger at me and said, ‘You can’t kill a man who hasn’t done you harm personally. And you can never know when a man will redeem himself.’”
Crispus took a deep breath and concluded thoughtfully. “Who knows what I would have done if I hadn’t had that talk with him? Instead of becoming a revolutionary and killing people, and probably getting killed myself, I’ve been working to get black people registered to vote. I got down to Pratt County yesterday and I was excited to hear that Robert E. Lee Briscoe was here helping sign up people to vote. That was the first time I’ve ever wanted to meet a Robert E. Lee.”
We both laughed and then I asked, “How is your grandfather?”
“He passed on a few years ago,” Crispus said sadly. “But he lived a long and full life.”
An older man came forward through the crowd. It was Sam, the one who had set up the meeting. “I’m sorry about what happened,” Sam said. “McPherson made me do it. But I got help as soon as I could.”
“That’s OK, Sam,” I replied. “All’s well that ends well.”
“End?” Crispus Coleman asked. “End? This struggle is just beginning.”
“I’ve had enough excitement,” I said. “I’m going back to Texas. I’m an old man. I can’t take too much more of this.”
“You can’t go home now!” Crispus insisted. “You’ve got to stay and work with us!”
I sighed heavily.
If I couldn’t refuse his grandfather, how could I refuse him?