Lucille Coleman was always ill. When I asked why, her eldest daughter, Elizabeth Stafford, 86, of Troy, replied, “Being poor and black in Mississippi.”
Midnight, Miss., was the town and a three-room, shotgun house on stilts was where Elizabeth, her mother, and her father, the Rev. Edward Coleman, lived, along with the six additional children of the 12 her mother birthed.
Elizabeth was the second oldest and was born in that Mississippi Delta town on Jan. 27, 1930. She reports that from her earliest days, “Mother taught us how to behave in Mississippi in order to be safe.”
These cautions were essential if her children were to reach adulthood with the potential to leave the state, and Elizabeth did at age 17- to attend college at West Virginia State University.
Elizabeth readily recites these behaviors from memory because, after all, her mother knew that those critically- important mantras needed to be ingrained in her children so that regardless of any stress they might be under, they could recall them and act upon them automatically:
• “When you are walking the 1 1/2 miles to school (white children were bussed), and the white children on the bus call you n***** and spit on you as the driver takes the bus through mud holes and the mud splashes on you, keep walking. Keep your head down, and don’t say anything.
• “When you’re in town and white folks are coming toward you, get in the street. It’s safer there.”
Elizabeth attended an all-black school and would come home from school and say, “Mommy, they made fun of us at school today,”
Lucille would respond, “Ignore them. Hold your head up high and keep going. All my girls are smart, and we don’t have to worry about what people say.”
The taunts from lack children came, according to Elizabeth, because “I was poor, wore my nappy hair in short braids, and carried a bologna or jelly sandwich or leftover biscuits in a paper bag for my lunch. Other kids carried their lunches in metal lunchboxes with Thermoses.”
A day that was especially terrifying for the family was when 20 white men, women and children came in two trucks to their house. Lucille was working in her flower garden and shouted to her children, “Run and get in the house.” One of the men had two hound dogs with him and positioned himself in the family’s swing and began his inquiry. Elizabeth indicates. “It was the KKK and the only thing that was missing were the white sheets.”
The man said, “They’s a white woman that says some n***** has been peeping in her winders, and we aim to find him.”
Lucille said, “You won’t find him here. Just the children and me are here. My husband is a preacher, and he’s out in the country looking after his church members. “
The mob ignored her and swept through the house. Finding no one except frightened children, and making no apologies, they left.
According to Elizabeth, her mother had a gentle demeanor, but her father, a hard-working Baptist preacher who provided income so that her mother could stay home with the children, had a different disposition: “Daddy wouldn’t back down, and Mother had to save him more than once.”
She cites an example. One day, her father and a friend tried to register to vote. Town official threatened to kill them, and Lucille intervened, “My husband is crazy, doesn’t have good sense. Please don’t hurt him. We need him. We’ve got all these kids to raise.”
Elizabeth says, “Everybody loved my mother. She was the Christian in our home. She was Christ-like. Because she was so loving and smart, people came from way out in the country to get her help. She helped them with their Social Security; she helped disabled veterans get their benefits for war injuries. Any time Black people needed paper work done, they knew Mother would do it.”
Almost as an afterthought, she says, “Woe be to the black people in Mississippi who didn’t have a white advocate.”
Lucille’s white advocate in Yazoo City, Miss., (the second town in which they lived) was attorney and circuit judge, Jeptha Fowlkes Barbour Jr.: “He knew my momma was smart and she had talents he could use. Mother could measure land with her feet, walk it off, no need to hire a surveyor. If Momma said that was the measurement of a piece of land, that was it. That’s what he sold it as.”
Pride in her mother gives way to sadness when Elizabeth speaks of her mother’s response to the death of her children. Her first born, Edward, was three years old when he died. “Edward had terrible headaches, and he died. Mother never got over that. She saved his little cap, and in the first years following his death, she’d get it out and touch it with this pensive look on her face.”
There was another death, and Elizabeth says, “I know I was just a child myself, but I still feel guilty.”
This baby was Mary Ann and she was 10 months old. Elizabeth was five and had stayed home from school that day to help with the baby. “I was rocking the baby and for the first time in weeks, Mother felt well enough to go outside. Before she left, she put a chair in the doorway, so that the baby who was already walking couldn’t get out the door and fall off the porch. On the other side of the chair was a wash tub filled with water. We had no plumbing and had to tote water. Remember, that three-room house was on stilts and the porch was really narrow, not really a porch.
“Momma had called out to me to stop rocking the baby and build a fire in the iron stove. I put the baby down and started building a fire. Momma was talking to a lady up on the hill. As a child that seemed far away to me, but it was just across the road.
“I heard the neighbor say, ‘Hi. How you doin,’ Lucille? So glad to see you. Feelin’ better?’
“Mother could sense when something was wrong, and I heard grief in her voice when she called out to me, ‘See about the baby.’
“The baby had fallen over the chair, and its little head was in the water in the tub. Had Mother known CPR, she might have saved her.
“White doctors didn’t wait on black people in 1935, and we had nobody to call.”
When Lucille Coleman died in 1973 at age 69, there were seven white Cadillac limousines and a police escort taking her body around the town of Yazoo City so that people all over town could pay their respects. Flowers, singing, and testimonials were a part of her service in Yazoo City that day.
All her family members were there, and Elizabeth says her mother could rest in peace because her seven children who survived to adulthood had college degrees and were educators. All that cotton the family had picked and chopped to pay their college bills had been well worth it.
Elizabeth taught officially for 39 years, and all her students learned quickly that there would be , as she words it, “no disrespecting of mommas in my classroom.” Any issues with students’ mothers could, and would , be handled in private.
BLACK LIVES MATTER. A simple look at history through the centuries tells us that for some Americans, black lives don’t matter, never have, and never will. All I can do as a writer and college teacher is to encourage those among us who believe, as I do, that changes in laws, policies, procedures, and the hearts of our citizenry are essential if we are to pledge the flag with honesty and integrity and say, “with liberty and justice for all.”
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or [email protected]