Propped against the inside sideboard, William’s wheat-colored body moved with the wagon as it rambled up the dirt drive. Fortunately, it was too early for dust; spring was just barely in the air. Winter had been long and still hadn’t fully yielded. Defiantly, though, grass was greening, leafy fingerlings were rising from the ground, and bushes and branches were blushing shades of green or brown or white or fuschia.
The motion of the wagon, combined with the clodding, rhythmic clip of the shoe-hooved horses, threatened to pull William back into sleep. But the March-like gusts, in concert with the jerking of the wagon navigating the ruts in the road, made any thought of a nap fleeting.
So instead, William focused on the immediate need: warmth. He pulled the collar of his woolen suit jacket up and the brim of his chocolate brown, soft-felt fedora down, covering his eyes. William tilted his head towards his chest and watched his exhales hang in the air and make shifting, vaporous shapes. He crossed his arms and tucked his hands under the armpits of his jacket as the wagon slowly approached the confines of the shady farmyard, guarded by its five large pines.
The wagon jerked again and William realized they were now free from its shady expanse. The sun’s warmth grew in him slowly, the way the coal stove’s warmth grew in the kitchen on winter mornings. He relaxed and his eyes wandered down his lanky legs to survey his spit-polished black shoes. He recalled the hole in the sole of the one on the right, which he had carefully insulated with newspaper. William made a mental tick to watch how he exited the wagon; as they got closer to the church, he wouldn’t want others to notice. His eyes then took in his trouser legs. The fabric was becoming so worn that the creases barely held at the knees. There wasn’t much he could do about the shoes or the weariness of his brown woolen suit, though. New shoes, new suit – those were only wishes for now.
Those wishes turned William’s thoughts to the local men’s clothing store and he felt the stirrings of a chilling mental wind. What sense did it make for any black man to select an item of clothing and watch a white man try it on, only imagining how it would look on himself? In 1917? I would rather pay to ride the train to St. Louis and spend my cash where at least I’ll be treated like a man, thought William.
A man. The internal winds increased, circling those two words. The winds picked up questions, directing and driving them. Was he really a man? If so, what kind of man was he? What was he doing here? What was next for him? How could he be 25 and educated and have made so little progress towards his future? Who would have thought that he would be a cook recently, a position he was hardly disappointed to leave when Mrs. Madison said she didn’t have enough customers to keep him on at the diner?
William sighed. He knew there were few jobs for Negro men in Columbia at all. This was true even though he read in the local newspaper of the growing demand for exports from America for the Great War. Even some of Missouri’s own industries were prospering. The state was contributing mules and munitions, among other goods, to fulfill military contracts. But here he was, with all of his education and potential, full of the strength of youth, fighting furiously against a cold, numbing winter season of life.
William tried to shake himself free from his frosty mental gusts. He tilted his head and peered to his right, taking in the image of his two younger brothers. They were grown men now too – Charles and John. Although they were both employed – Charles at the barber’s and John at the auto repair shop – their suits were only slightly better than his own. But they had steady work. Through his still half-open lids William surveyed their faces and tried not to think that his situation was in any way tied to color. Either of them, with their wavy-straight brown hair and fair skin, could pass for white. William’s own dark complexion and coarse, brown-black locks made him the fly in their home’s buttermilk.
Poppa’s clicking sound, a signal to the horses, brought William back to the present. The wagon slowed to a stop and he hopped down from the back of the wagon, remembering the hole in the sole of his shoe and avoiding revealing it as he exited. Meanwhile, Poppa, in his black suit with starched white shirt and black tie, was already helping Momma from the buckboard and onto the walkway.
Here they were, at St. Paul A.M.E. William looked up at the large, Gothic and Romanesque two-story red brick edifice, a testament to the commitment of the local colored people to plan for, gather resources, and execute the construction of their own church. And now they had properly maintained it for more than 50 years of life! To William and those in the community, it represented accomplishment and provided security.
Standing before it, the five adjusted themselves gently before joining the others who were entering. Momma checked for her sons behind her, then proudly took Poppa’s extended arm and smiled as she climbed the stairs to the large, heavy oak doors. She reminded William of a mother hen with her chicks, and he could not help but give a slight smile himself as he watched her nearly float up the concrete steps in her patent black opera pumps. Her deep blue woolen suit fit attractively her just-ample frame (both her weight and the suit an assurance to everyone that her husband was a good provider). A lacy, white jabot graced her neck, highlighting the buttercream color of her mulatto skin. Her dark brown hair was pulled back into a bun; tendrils curled near her full face; and her white teardrop hat, with its milk-colored silk flowers, feathers, and netting, was tilted perfectly. White gloves, which fit snugly on her plump hands, completed the outfit. She was stunningly elegant; for a woman whose mother was a slave, she had made out all right.
William followed the rest of “Momma’s men,” as she liked to lovingly refer to them, through the doors. As they entered, William spied Mrs. Harrison. Petite, wafer-thin, chocolate-colored, and in her mid-40s, William noticed how smart she looked in her tan suit. She nodded at the family, then invited them to enter the sanctuary with her white-gloved left hand.
As they did, William was overwhelmed with a dizzying floral scent. “Hydrangeas,” mother whispered, nodding towards the plants on the windowsills as they took their usual pew near the middle of the sanctuary. Her comment made William smile again: not only did Momma pride herself on having a flower garden that was the envy of the town’s people whether black or white, but she thrived in flurry and busyness. Her current focus had been leading the decorating committee, but Momma was most often the lead whatever she was involved in, whether at church or in the community.
The organist played “The Old Rugged Cross” softly as the pews continued to fill. William glanced around and gave a head nod to some of his former classmates. Several were married now, some to a woman or two he had serious affections for himself in the past. No sooner did his thoughts rest there, though, than the mental winds returned. He braced himself against what he knew would now be his mind’s gale-force blast. William longed to be married and on his way in life. Although as handsome and smart as any, he was convinced he had nothing to offer. That thought caused a numbing cold to accompany the winds. His friends were on their way in life. And I’m nowhere, thought William.
But maybe, just maybe. After all, there was the Good Friday announcement made by President Wilson: the US would formally enter the war. William’s mental winds changed direction: was it insanity to think of war as a way out? Like the rest of the country, William read the sobering and terrifying stories of the battles and unimaginable losses of life. He had to admit that he was apprehensive, but his longing for change and the prospect of adventure overshadowed it. He was weary of this space he occupied – tired of the aimlessness and not feeling like a man. The thought of danger ignited something in him and gave him a place to focus and spend his energy, and his fear, and his longings.
Danger and the war had certainly been the topics at the barbershop the day before. The crowd of pre-Easter patrons debated whether President Wilson would invite Negroes to contribute to the war effort at all. The mix of men, from every station in life, agreed that once “separate but equal” became the law some 20 years earlier it had continued to eat through the hopes of the Negro for true equality – hopes ignited by the fires of the Civil War and the promise of Reconstruction.
Mr. Harvey, the shop’s owner, reminded the customers how hopeful they all had been when former President Taft took office. Yet Taft said that enforcing Jim Crow laws was an acceptable way to ensure that only the black males up to the task could vote. “And I told ya’ll President Wilson wasn’t goin’ to be no different,” he said slowly and loudly, peering over his glasses at the men in the shop and pausing for effect between clips. They agreed. President Wilson, in spite of all of his talk, made sure that Negroes remained second-class citizens by requiring segregation in federal facilities at work and lunch to “keep down friction between the races,” and “allow for a smoother functioning government,” William read in news reports.
The topic of whether Negroes would be enlisted had spilled into conversation in the farmhouse that morning, too. “Ain’t that somethin’,” Poppa had complained as the family consumed Momma’s Easter Sunday morning breakfast of biscuits, eggs, and bacon. “In spite of all of the contributions of Negro soldiers to this country!” he exclaimed. Respect, that was what the country owed them, he continued between sips of black coffee.
The four knew Poppa’s contention was tied to his Virginia-born grandfather, Fredrick, who served the Union forces with the permission of his Missouri slave mistress. A forward-thinking woman, she allowed her former charges to earn land in exchange for labor when the war ended, which was how Poppa, a mulatto like his mother, came to own their farmstead.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” continued Momma. “President Wilson goin’ along with those white folks who won’t treat Negro men like men. He should be ashamed!” Poppa nodded his head, agreeing with her comment.
“Him and those scoundrels who demonize black men, like those promotin’ that Birth of a Nation!” Poppa exclaimed. “Shameful!”
William roused himself from these remembrances to find himself the object of his mother’s stare. Embarrassed, he forced a smile at her and, in order not to worry her further, willed himself fully out of his mental squall and gave Reverend Johnson his full attention. Tall, dark, and in his mid-40s with salt and pepper hair, Reverend Johnson’s mannerisms were intentional and measured for impact. White-robed in honor of Easter, he was now behind the pulpit, motioning to the congregation to stand and join the choir in singing the final chorus. William stood and joined in:
“So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross…
‘til my trophies at last I lay down.
I will cling to the old rugged cross…
and exchange it someday for a crown.”
The church organ’s reverberations faded, and the harmony of voices evaporated. Reverend Johnson’s deep, melodic voice then rose and filled the space. “Now, it’s time for the Apostle’s Creed,” he announced, and they began to repeat in unison:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord ….
William glanced around the congregation; the church was full now. Consistent with the expectations of an Easter Sunday in a Protestant church, every pew was packed and people were dressed in their best. Men wore crisp, clean shirts and suspendered pants or suits; women were in starched blouses and skirts, or dresses, or suits as well. And there were hats. Men removed them at the door, but both men and women had straw hats; some men also sported fedoras. A few women were in ornate feathered, netted and beaded chapeaus.
William responded “amen” with the congregation and took his seat. As the service continued, his mind relaxed. He was grateful to have the outer world, and his own thoughts, closed to him for now. After all, how could anyone’s mind wander when there were the children? Singing now, their cherub-like voices floated in the air. Most were squirrely and visibly uncomfortable in crisp clothes and too-big shoes, but a few treated the attention like a spring shower and blossomed.
It was the singing of the adult choir, though, that moved the congregation; by the time they finished their selections, the Spirit was high. The pew row of deacons declared resounding “amen”s. Church mothers (the more elder women) and deaconesses, who were seated just behind the deacons and dressed in all white, were now deployed around the church, fanning various women who were moaning and crying in response to the Spirit’s moving. William even heard Mrs. Johnson, the Reverend’s wife, shouting “Praise Jesus!”
When Reverend Johnson returned to the wooden pulpit, he belted out “Oh, glory!” as the church continued its boisterous responses. Then the organist guided them, slowing the tempo and the volume until emotions ebbed.
With the church quiet now except for the occasional sound of a baby, Reverend Johnson began. “Today our Scripture text is I Corinthians 15, verses 1-5. Please stand,” he said, and began to read:
“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”
“Amen,” called Reverend Johnson. “Amen,” responded the congregation as they took their seat.
Reverend Johnson continued. “From this text I take the subject, ‘It Isn’t Over.’”
William heard a few more “amen”s from around the church as the Reverend continued. “The story of the last week of Jesus’ time on earth, and His perfect fulfillment of God’s calling on His life with His resurrection from the dead for our sins, is a tale that never grows old, wouldn’t you agree? We begin with such texts as Matthew Chapter 21 and Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And while in Jerusalem, Christ makes himself about His Father’s work,” he continued. “Jesus casts out the vile money changers from the temple. He continues to teach and answer the questions of the Pharisees. He performs more miracles of healing and makes more pronouncements of forgiveness. But then come false accusers, a meeting with Pilate, a crucifixion, and a Good Friday death.”
Reverend Johnson paused; William gratefully hung on every word.
“Now, I want to tarry here for a moment and ask us to consider the Resurrection story and its application to our current condition, the condition of the Negro, at this time in our history,” he said. “My children, I do not commit the blasphemy of suggesting that the Negro race replace that of Christ in this story, but I rather propose that we can find hope as we consider His story in light of our predicament in America.
“Because here is our Lord, perfect in every way, yet He is constantly examined for the purpose of finding fault,” said Reverend Johnson. “My brothers and sisters, is this not the case with our race as well? Although we are not perfect – no people are – during the one-half century we have been out of the cotton fields we have accomplished much.
“We have learned to write and read though often forbidden,” he continued. “Why even in our own Missouri it became illegal for even free blacks to receive an education. Yet we have produced accomplished authors and poets, doctors and lawyers.
“Sadder yet, we were even forbidden to preach God’s word in some places! But praise God, we now boldly proclaim His mysteries across our great state!” said Johnson. At that, “amen”s rolled and hands clapped throughout the sanctuary. Reverend Johnson paused until these subsided, then continued. “And make no mistake about it, we have also proven ourselves on the battlefield. We fought alongside the Father of our country, helped secure our own freedom in the Civil War, and we continue to excel in military conflicts.
“’Yes,’ you will say, ‘but to what avail?’” said the Reverend, wiping his mouth with his white handkerchief and peering at his written text. “Do not many white men continue to treat us like second-class citizens? Even as our President announced a mere two days ago, on Good Friday, our country’s commitment to entering the Great War and defending democracy, wasn’t a disparaging shadow cast upon the Black race because no clear inclusion of his ability to contribute was pronounced?”
Reverend Johnson’s voice rose, “I know my brothers and sisters – we fear that even after all we have accomplished in this foreign land to which we were brought, that we are still considered incapable in almost every arena. As a result, daily we suffer a type of death.
“But take heart my little flock,” he continued, lowering his voice dramatically. “Let’s return to our text. We know that Christ’s story doesn’t end with the conflict and abuse, or even His death.”
Reverend Johnson retold the story of the plot against Christ instigated by those who wanted to maintain power, “in the same way that many in power in our country want to kill both the body and spirit of our race,” he said. “Some would bury us, the way that they buried Christ! But we know what happened next!”
At this, the swell of “amen”s, “yes”es and “hallelujah”s filled the church.
“On that Resurrection Sunday, He got up!” exclaimed Reverend Johnson. “And brothers and sisters, we must get up too!” Shouts from the congregation grew louder.
“We know our God is with the lowly, and with the His help, we will have the victory!” Reverend Johnson proclaimed. At that, members of the congregation jumped to their feet and the sanctuary erupted again in praise. Although William didn’t move, he noticed that his cold, mental winds were not just forgotten, but gone. Strength was returning to his tired, wind-tossed mind and soul. And in his spirit he felt – he knew – the Good Friday announcement by the President, and a war, were the key to the end of his winter.
The organist began playing again, and William rose with the congregation and joined in the chorus of the closing hymn with renewed hope:
Up from the grave He arose
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes
He arose a Victor from the dark domain
And He lives forever with His saints to reign
He arose! (He arose)
He arose! (He arose)
Hallelujah! Christ arose!
Rollins has been a professional communications, science, and research writer. She has also been a freelance newspaper and magazine feature writer and has authored two children’s books under a modified pen name. Rollins is exploring the early part of the 20th century to understand her family’s roots.