old habits

A vivid memory I maintain of my childhood was an early return trip to Atlanta…probably around 1959. We had moved from Atlanta to St.Simons the previous year and were due a visit with the grandparents and their Flager Avenue home.

I don’t remember why, maybe my mother was just showing off, but we took Emma Lee Ramsey, our Island “maid,” with us. Maybe she had family she wanted to see or more realistically, maybe my mother didn’t plan on spending much time with the kids this trip. So be it.

We planned on going to the movies…choosing between the Rialto or the Loew’s Grand, or my childhood favorite, the Rhodes Theater….it was unanimous…. the Fox Theatre and the magic of its architecture was the logical choice for a vacation movie.

I had seen Cinearama and Cleopatra (just to name two “C” movies) there when I lived in town. It was pretty much like going inside to feel like you’re outside under the stars, no matter what the time is outside.

You felt as if you were guests of Sinbad or Jamal, before there were really bad movies made about them. It was so impressively cool. I don’t remember what movie we were going to see, all I remember is that when we purchased our tickets, Emma Lee got a special ticket and was instructed to sit upstairs in the balcony area. Hell, that was where I wanted to sit…I love the balcony.

My mother’s voice echoes in my ears still, as I type this out.

“No, honey, you can’t sit up there. The theatre folks saved that area for Emma Lee and her people. She’ll be fine up there.”

I didn’t understand this Emma’s “people” thing. We were Emma’s people!

I’ve thought about that night many times. Back in the day, I really didn’t notice the two water fountains or the two public restrooms. I didn’t read about any lynchings or bloody racial demonstrations going on…..I was heavy into Landmark History Books. I loved history….still do. I love honest history.

I grew up in the south. My great-great -great and great-great grandparents depended on slaves to work their home, Retreat Plantation. My great grandparents always had black servants and black handymen to tend to their properties and children….not really “slaves”…. probably only difference is that the help got paid and went off property to their own homes each night.

My grandparents had Louise and Deez to take care of the house and kitchen and Monroe to keep the yard just right.

My young mind didn’t notice it, but the help was shrinking in numbers. When it came to my parents, we had one maid and one yardman. I guess I should have seen it coming.

Southerners were raised to be loyal and faithful to their “heritage.” A “heritage” of massive farms, known as plantations….plantation owners were the royalty of the south and many felt they deserved to be pampered at their every whim….or the heritage of hard-working ancestors, who struggled with nature and their fellow man to turn raw land into a successful revenue producer, passing the lands on from generation to generation.

It was a heritage of “we lost the war, but our brave,young soldiers certainly won our hearts”……”they fought as well as they could against odds too high”…….”because of their bravery, they will be honored as a part of our Southern heritage from this day forth.”

The south witnessed the horrors of being a defeated nation. Compound the morbid signs of physical destruction with the return of thousands of damaged soldiers….some damages mental, some physical, all disabling and all needing care that wasn’t there… with the prominently featured popular art of “carpetbagging”…officially those (southern-migrating Yankees) who sought their own personal gain from the reconstruction governments. They usually did this by threatening citizens’ livelihoods and seizing their properties, leaving former landowners in a state of despair and hopelessness.

I understand why many southern communities wanted to honor their local young men who had made the ultimate sacrifice so as to preserve the homefront. What better way than erecting a larger than life, statue of the southern soldier or leader, atop a massive horse, forever leading and inspiring his troops on to victory, even if the victory is for just a small green patch of a southern park, strategically complete with wooden benches and a squadron of pigeon reconnaissance.

I grew up expecting to see these statues signifying town-squares (when towns had main squares) and between the shrubs and  amongst the tree limbs in city parks.

I never considered the fact that most of these statues first appeared during a time when Jim Crowe laws ruled the south. Think of it as the way the south got back at northern politicians and newly-freed blacks. They mandated public segregation….schools, “public” transportation, restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains, just to mention a few.

The “down and out” White man of a decade after the war was gone. In his place, the “coming up/getting even” southern White man of the early twentieth century who had, once again, taken control of the southern way of life. It became slavery without real shackles, but shackled nevertheless.

It was still a divided populace just as before. This time the grudge held was not by the Blacks, who were legally free, but by the whites, who still bemoaned the fact that they had lost their subservient and cheap labor force.

With the Jim Crowe’s Guide to Southern Life, the pecking order had been restored. The whites jockeyed for all preferable positions, leaving the blacks/colors clinging to whatever branch or limb they could hold onto in the stormy, unsure lower layers. And that’s how it was.

This great big, colorful ball of democracy just keeps rolling along, adding colors and size as it goes. It’s always a bit different. Easy on the younger participants…everything is new, bright and glitzy: Really hard on the older participants….. so habitual in their ways…hard having to realize “their” world is “everyone’s” world, and “everyone’s” world is anything but habitual.

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