There’s a group on Facebook that focuses on remembering Tallahassee, Florida. The group’s idea of “the past” tends to focus on the memories of people who are younger than I am, so this means that when somebody asks something like, “Does anyone remember the Tsunami Cafe,” it turns out that the cafe came and went after was long gone from the town where I grew up.
Other than a few short stories in my Widely Scattered Ghosts collection–and brief mention in a long-ago novel–I prefer placing the action of my Florida Folk Magic Series in a fictional town west of Tallahassee. Why? Because I control the town and don’t have to worry about conflicting with real events there (because there aren’t any).
But placing story in Tallahassee has always bothered me because I haven’t been there since 1987 and really know very little about what’s happened there since then. However, my 1954-era novel Fate’s Arrows ends with the main character moving to Tallahassee. So, now I’m stuck. If I write a short story about her, it needs to happen in Tallahassee in the early 1950s.
Heck, I was in grade school then, so it’s not like my memories of the town will help. Fortunately, I may have found a resource that will work, one that focuses on what things were like before I was old enough to known about and/or understand what things were like in Tallahassee. It’s in the mail and will arrive by the end of the week.
I’m excited about seeing it so I can figure out just how to merge my fictional Pollyanna Hoskins character, who may or may not work for the CIA, into the real events of Florida’s capital. I hope I can make it work because–with some trepidation–I’m looking forward to going home again (figuratively speaking).
If the thing works, I’ll get back to you. If it doesn’t work, I’ll delete this post and–like the real CIA–will disavow any knowledge about anything, you know, due to national security.
You can’t go home again because, by the time you get there, they will have torn it down in the names of “progress” and “development.” Or, should you find your home, the neighborhood will be gone, especially the most historic homes and buildings that made the place what was.
Looking at Atlanta’s penchant for tearing down the historic old in favor of the nonessential new, the late historian Frankin Garrett called this so-called development “municipal vandalism.” I had the good fortune to know this man who had a great office filled with old reference books at the Atlanta History Center. He had a photographic memory of everything that ever happened in Atlanta, but was the most nostalgic and angry about landmarks that had been wantonly bulldozed for parking garages and new buildings without souls. Atlanta’s city planners learned their craft from General Sherman’s “urban renewal” work there in July of 1864.
When I was in high school, my mother told me my father couldn’t go home again because the natural forests and even the orchards of his youth had all succumbed to development. In many cases, houses–as Peter Seeger would sing about in “Little Boxes”–that were made of ticky tacky and looked all the same. I didn’t really understand what Mother meant until I reached the age my father was when she said it.
I have many memories of one of the first houses I knew as a child in Decatur, Illinois, a wonderful Queen Anne home with a beautiful vegetable garden and adjacent sidewalks which were perfect for my new tricycle. However, municipal vandals bought the land and tore the house down. This current patch of grass, entry drive way, and parking lot represent anti-progress:
My brother, who still lives in Florida and makes occasional trips to Tallahassee, still drives past the house my parents owned between 1954 and 1986. When we closed up the house for good, the front yard was still filled with pine trees. The current owners have decided to celebrate concrete with a few landscaped areas for decoration. Our “personal fifty-acre wood” behind the house has now been converted to an “upscale” subdivision that can be seen from the backyard of this house where I grew up. I’ve seen both via Google Maps, but I haven’t been back since 1986 and that’s just as well, for I would probably destroy all that hardscape with dynamite and a backhoe:
The older I get–and today’s my birthday–the longer my “municipal vandalism” list gets; places I never want to see again because of what people have done to them. My memories are much better than reality. I last saw San Francisco in 1987; I was surprised then by the amount of “development” that had occurred since my family lived there. “Progress” continues to occur, so I’ve retrieved my heart from that my city by the bay and hidden it in a forest that people have yet to “develop” into something that pales when contrasted with Nature’s work. I won’t bore you with my personal list of places where one bastard or another had no sense of history and/or no sense on the environment.
You probably have your own list.
P.S. I set my novels in the past because, in my imagination, it’s still there. The most recent of these is “Lena,” the third novel in my Florida Folk Magic Series.
In 1952, African American Ruby McCollum of Live Oak, Florida was tried and convicted of murdering a local white doctor whom she claimed had been forcing her to have sex with him for years. The Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction due to a technicality, but McCollum was judged insane before a new trial could be convened and was placed in a state mental institution. Those who covered the trial think it was prejudicial in multiple ways, including the fact that McCollum was allowed to say little or nothing in her own defense.
I mention this because, during this case, we heard the term “paramour rights,” the notion–stemming from the days of slavery–that white men could have non-consensual sex with any Black woman they wanted with little if any consequences. In the publisher’s description of one book about the trial, McCollum is said to have murdered her “white lover” rather than killing a man she claimed had been raping her for years. The word “lover” hardly applies.
Danielle L. McGuire writes in her 2004 “The Journal of American History” article, “It Was like All of Us Had Been Raped: Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and the African American Freedom Struggle,” Despite a growing body of literature that focuses on the roles of black and white women and the operation of gender in the movement, sexualized violence-both as a tool of oppression and as a political spur for the movement has yet to find its place in the story of the African American freedom struggle. Rape, like lynching and murder, served as a tool of psychological and physical intimidation that expressed white male domination and buttressed white supremacy.”
My novel Conjure Woman’s Cat mentions the rape of a black woman by white males. In my fictional account, the police don’t even bother to investigate because this was, sad to say, par for the course. Black women in those days were portrayed, even in official court transcripts, as sexual Jezebels, “Nigger wenches,” and as women who liked being assaulted by white men. When they claimed they were raped in the rare instances such cases came to trial, prosecutors asked if they enjoyed it.
A “classmate” of mine (I put the word in quotes because we didn’t know each other) was one of four men who raped an African American woman at gun and knifepoint. His sister was in my high school class. We knew each other but moved in different circles, so we never discussed the crime or the impact it had upon her or the family. In the high school yearbook, X was a senior and–as such–appears wearing a black bow tie, a white jacket, and a white shirt. He was active in school activities. He didn’t look like a man who would spend the rest of his life on the sexual offender lists.
He and his sister are still alive so I won’t mention their names or the name of the victim who has passed away. I never saw an interview with the victim or any account of long-term psychological damage after the verdict was announced. She showed great courage during the trial as she described the event and never flinched under defense attempts to paint the seven sexual encounters of the evening as what she wanted.
The first surprising fact in 1959 was that X and the three other thugs who committed the crime were arrested. The second surprising fact was that they were held in jail while awaiting trial. They had confessed but claimed the sex was consensual and made light of the whole thing like it was boys having fun. The biggest surprise of all is that they were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. How unusual this way for that day and time.
Those commenting on the disparate approach in the criminal justice system to the rapes of black women by white males and the rapes of white women by black males consistently view sex with a black woman as a rite of passage for young white men. This was probably the case in Tallahassee in 1959. Many think that the late Senator Strom Thurmond’s “affair” with an underage black maid in his family’s house falls into the “rite of passage” or “paramour rights” category.
Few people knew about the segregationist’s black daughter until after he died. His black daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who died in 2013, was silent about her birth father for 78 years wrote an elegant and even-handed memoir (Dear Senator) in 2006 that shows the confusion and disconnect between the black sons and daughters and their white fathers who were fascinated with black women. Commentators were quick to point out that apologists for Thurmond’s relationship with the teenage black maid employed by his family called that relationship an affair rather than statutory rape or sex under duress.
After years of executing black men for raping white women, the 1959 Tallahassee trial was a victory, a wedge driven into the status quo, a precedent showing times might be changing, even though the rapists were out on parole within six or seven years. In Conjure Woman’s Cat, the men aren’t convicted because–in the “real life” of 1954 when the novel is set–they seldom were found guilty of anything. In those days, that was life as usual.
I probably sound like my grandfather telling a when-we-were-kids story when I say that my brothers and I walked to school from grade school through high school–or rode our bikes. School buses didn’t serve in-town neighborhoods and parents didn’t serve as chauffeurs unless a hard rain was about to fall.
High school seems to far away now, it’s possible I’ve forgotten most of it. One student drove his Model T to school. That got a lot of positive attention except when he was out starting it (with a crank, of course) on rainy days.
Heck, even the early Volkswagens could be started with a crank and were light-weight enough for football players to carry them up the steps while the owners weren’t around and leave them in a high school hallway. As you can see, there are a few steps to navigate en route to the front door.
When I was a senior, I drove a car to school once in a while. It was a 1954 Chevy that wasn’t very dependable. It used more oil than gasoline and the driver’s side window wouldn’t roll up. Even though Florida winters weren’t all that extreme, we had to put a blanket over the front end on cold nights or it wouldn’t start in the morning. My bike was more dependable, though the older I got, the more embarrassing it became to arrive on a bike and be seen putting it in the “losers’ bike rack.”
It took me about 30 minutes to walk to school; fifteen if I rode my bike. Sometimes my car would make it half way and I could talk the rest of the way in five minutes if I was lucky and 25 minutes if I wasn’t.
After all these years, I remember the names of more of the girls I had crushes on than the names of my teachers; except for the teachers who were memorable for good or bad reasons. I think I got a good education in this school, played clarinet in the band, and was in the chess club.
Leon High was large and old: the school was founded in 1871 and is considered Florida’s oldest, continually accredited high school. The “new” building in the photograph was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1936. When I was there, we had almost 2,000 students in grades 9-12, though in years after that, the school board couldn’t decide whether the freshman belonged in the high school or the junior high school (now called a middle school <yawn>).
Getting to school progressed from not very far to farther since the grade school was the closest to my house, the junior high was right next door to the grade school, and the high school was just down the street. My brothers and I knew all these streets well since our paper routes covered a swath of neighborhoods from the high school to the north edge of town past our house. We knew every possible way of walking home.
When you were in school, did you ride a bus (school bus or city bus), walk, ride a bike, or get there in a revolving car pool of neighborhood parents?
In the 1960s, African Americans (organized in large part by CORE) picketed the two major down town Tallahassee, Florida, theaters, the bus station and numerous lunch counters because these facilities were segregated. I was out of town when this protest occurred in May 1963 at the Florida Theater. Most of the time, I was in town but stayed away from the protesters even though I supported their cause. I still regret this.
Why wasn’t I there?
Fear of the white hecklers who openly hobnobbed with police.
Fear of the KKK.
Fear of losing friends and becoming an outcast.
Worry that my father would lose his government job.
Worry that my mother would lose her church volunteer work positions.
At the time, these concerns were very real. Unfortunately, they are in somewhat different ways, still real today.
The late Patrician Stephens Due, a Tallahassee CORE volunteer and a student at Tallahassee’s Black college (FAMU) was at the center of many of the Tallahassee protests. She would write later in the book she co-authored with her daughter that when it came down to it, a very small minority of African Americans actively took part in sit-ins or picketing. Fewer Whites took part even though many of us always rode in the backs of city buses when there was space. That wasn’t enough.