My First Trip To Mississippi
Still recalling my very first visit back to our family home in Gore Springs, Mississippi. At least the first trip that I was old enough to remember. It was way, way back in 1955, shortly after the lynching of Emmett Till in the little town of Money, Mississippi. Money is only around 41 miles from Gore Springs. I had seen the articles in Jet Magazine that showed the explicit uncensored photos of young Till’s mutilated body. It was quite disturbing for a ten year old. My friends in Detroit and I talked about it often. Growing up in a city where we kids pretty much went anywhere in the city we wanted and had always been met with kindness by the Whites we met on our explorations, it was hard to imagine that anyone could have that much hate against another human being. Of course, we watched all the old war movies, but that was war and the villains were always foreigners.
Time to leave the safety of Detroit city life, my mom dressed me in my best Sunday suit and packed a bag of fried chicken for us to eat on the way. A friend drove us to the train terminal and we boarded our train. Back in the day, there were redcaps all over that helped with your baggage and directed you to the correct train. We kids always admired redcaps because they traveled all over and always seemed to be cheerful. Being a redcap must have been one of the greatest jobs in the world next to being a submarine sailor, I thought.
The train car we were ushered to was kind of luxurious and we were given directions to the dining car. However, when we arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, we were told that we would have to change trains at the Cincinnati terminal. That was a lie. We were simply ushered to a less equipped car and told that we would not be allowed to eat in the dining car since that was for Whites only. However, being a naive young kid from the city, I just assumed it was for rich people who happen to be White.
The rest of the trip went without incident and soon, we were pulling into the terminal in Grenada, Mississippi. We were not allowed to leave the train until the folks in the other car had left. They were all White. Debarking the train with my mom tightly grasping my hand, we walked to the terminal entrance and being somewhat thirsty, I started toward the nearest drinking fountain, not realizing that it was for Whites only. “No, you have to use the fountain over there”, my mom said. Sure enough, there was a sign that said “for coloreds”, but it wasn’t a drinking fountain, it was a dirty old pipe with a simple valve on it. I was sue glad my uncle Havis was there to pick us up.
On the eleven mile drive from Grenada to Gore Springs, we passed by a couple of gas stations. Most were just simple stations with a four foot square building and a pump outside. But when we came to a nicer station with several pumps and a real store, I told mom I had to use the restroom. Leaving the car, I ran to the first door I saw that said “restroom” over the door, not paying attention to the other sign that said “Whites Only”. Needless to say, my uncle properly corrected me and after some hurried explaining to an old White man standing outside, we walked into the store.
Inside the store, the atmosphere was decidedly different as my uncle Havis exchanged greetings with the store owner. We were in Gore Springs now and everyone in Gore Springs knew the Conley family. The store owner said I could have a soda pop if I was thirsty, being a city fella from up north and not used to the “Sippi heat”. My first act of kindness since leaving Detroit.
Not far from our family property, there was a small general store owned by an old White man. He was always nice and I enjoyed the long walk in the hot summer afternoons to go to his store for a soda just to sink my hand in the icy cold water of his cooler to grab a cold soft drink. Mississippi was a contradiction of itself. On the one hand, I saw the respect that people in Gore Springs had for my grandparents, and how friendly they were towards the family despite the racism Mississippi was known for. Taking our cotton to the gin mill in Calhoun City, the White farmers and mill employees would call my grandfather “Mr. Conley”. One man even called him by his first name, James. They had been good friends for several years.
The movie theater was in Grenada and required the eleven mile drive to get there, so it was a big deal to go to the movies. The movie theater was also segregated. Blacks had their own entrance in the rear of the building and had to sit in the balcony seats. That didn’t make sense to my since I knew about gravity and that popcorn and even soft drinks could always accidentally fall down.
One evening after spending a day in the field, the family gathered on Big Momma’s front porch for our usual evening of telling stories and gossip. The Conley houses sat in a sort of cul de sac at the end of the county road, so it was easy to see anyone coming down the unpaved country road. People didn’t accidentally come down that road. There were two old pickup trucks with White men in the cab and several White men in the beds. Some of the men were bold enough to wear their KKK hoodie things. They were also yelling a few words that weren’t proper for a ten year old to hear.
My grandfather ushered us all into the house, grabbed his shotgun, and stepped back onto the porch. The women were all saying stuff like “Oh Lord”, but we kids all gathered at the open window. There was some discussion between my grandfather and the gang of White men, they were evidently looking for one of my distant relatives who had eloped with a White girl. They ere long gone. My grandfather told the guys to get off of his property. Silence. Then there was “Yes sir, Mr. Conley” as they piled back into their trucks, turned around the old sassafras tree in the front yard and drove off, leaving a cloud of dust down the road.
I had a lot of respect for my grandfather before, but now I knew that he had a temper and not only was he a good farmer and an excellent hunter, but he could and would protect the family at any cost.