Read Alex Haley Online

Authors: Robert J. Norrell

Alex Haley (2 page)

For Palmer, the story became “nearly as fixed in my head as in Grandma's.” Palmer took the family story with him when he went to play with Arthur and George Sims, Fred Montgomery, and various white boys in Henning. “What a happy crew we were! . . . racing down by the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad,” waving and shouting at the passengers. They played baseball and hide-and-seek and shot marbles. When it rained, the boys—fifteen or twenty of them, most of them black but with six or so white boys, too—gathered in a barn or in the crawl space under a church. When Palmer told his family story, his playmates began to pay him special attention. That was his “first time in life to be ‘somebody,'” and he liked the feeling. He told how the masters and overseers were “all the time beating on the slaves until sometimes the slaves ran blood, or sometimes died of beating right on the spot.” Then Palmer told the boys about the time the white master hit the African's daughter, Kizzy, and she grabbed him and shouted: “You sucked your baby milk from my black titties! I'll whip you to death.”

Eventually the father of one of the white Henning boys appeared at Cynthia Palmer's door demanding an explanation for Palmer's stories. They were the truth as her family knew it, Cynthia answered. After that, none of the white boys came around. Good stories, Palmer discovered, told of conflict and violence, had heroes and villains, and inspired awe in some and discomfort in others.

Most of Palmer's childhood memories were from the time he spent at his grandmother's side. The two of them were often together in her kitchen—she cooked, and he sampled her culinary art. Cynthia constantly touched and petted him. “Even when she was grumbling something,” Palmer later said, “like ‘Boy, you've gotten all dirty,' her fingers would still be moving lightly and deliberately as if she were saying with them, ‘I care for you; I love you.'” Palmer was a grandma's boy, and the fundamental security of his psyche was rooted in their relationship.

* * *

About a year after Will Palmer's death, Palmer began to live most of the time with his parents, outside Henning. As he grew, he resembled Bertha, with his brown, fleshy face, as opposed to Simon's narrow, light-complected one. Simon, an extrovert and a performer, showed Palmer that storytelling was not just a feminine art. He loved to spin yarns that featured his own prowess. His sons would prompt him to tell about when General Black Jack Pershing sent for Sergeant Haley to save the day at the Western Front or when Simon scored the winning touchdown in a college football game. In time, the boys joked about the likely exaggerations, but they never doubted Simon's strong character.

With the sale of the lumber company, Simon embarked on a peripatetic life through black colleges in the South. The jobs he found paid poorly, and there was scant security at the often-unstable little colleges, which were mostly dependent on meager state funding and, sometimes, Christian denominational support. Simon taught first at Lane College, just forty-seven miles from Henning. The family returned to Cynthia and Aunt Liz most weekends. It felt to Palmer as if they never really left Henning. But in 1929, they moved more than five hundred miles to Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in the all-black town of Langston, Oklahoma, where Simon was appointed to a better position in the school's Department of Agriculture. Palmer recalled the strangeness of living where no one knew his family but also the fun of making new friends in Oklahoma. The hard, snowy winters, when jackrabbits froze to death under their house, also made a strong impression on him. The Great Depression descended so heavily there in 1930 that Simon was paid not in cash but in state-issued coupons. “I don't think my mother was very well adjusted to it,” Palmer remembered. Not far into their time in Langston, Bertha fell seriously ill, and Simon had to hire a woman to help tend to the children.

People had started to wander the roads in Oklahoma. One evening a white man knocked on their door and asked if Bertha had any work for him. No, she answered, but she could give him a plate of food. Sometime later, the Haleys were driving eastward through Oklahoma on their way to Tennessee when Bertha got very sick. Simon drove to a strange house in the dark and asked for a place for his wife to rest. The man of the house was the same man Bertha had fed. Palmer later remembered that evening as “being a very warm, almost religious experience.” Palmer often returned to that story as evidence of the inherently caring human relations of the South of his childhood.

In 1931 Simon accepted a significantly better position as dean of agriculture at Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical College, the state's black land grant college, near Huntsville, Alabama. The campus sat on a wooded area that the school claimed presented “a beautiful picture” to passengers traveling past it on the tracks of the Southern Railway. “Large limestone boulders, wooded areas of cedar, hickory, walnut and poplar, and sparkling water” from a mountain spring lent a “charm and picturesqueness surpassed by few school locations.” Local whites tagged it “Nigger Normal”—
was the term used to designate a teacher's college.

Conditions at the school were not good when the Haleys arrived. Simon's annual salary was $1,800, about $26,000 today, but Simon was told that the financial situation in Alabama “may render it impossible for salaries to be paid promptly.” The state superintendent of education declared that “financial chaos . . . aptly describes our situation.” Schools depended mostly on taxes on property whose value had plummeted. In 1931 the state of Alabama was issuing warrants instead of cash to Alabama A&M, and the college was not able to pay its faculty their meager salaries for the first half of 1932. In some cases, schools issued state-backed scrip that teachers like Simon usually had to sell to speculators at deep discounts to get cash needed at the moment.

The family moved into a small campus bungalow, one corner of which Simon turned over to an indigent student. “Dad would always find some way to cram somebody else in the house so they could get through school,” Palmer said. Ten-year-old Palmer and six-year-old George attended a small elementary school on the college campus. Simon relished his position as dean of agriculture. He put his students to work growing vegetables and raising livestock and poultry to feed those at the college. He taught them how to castrate male chicks and watch the capons grow to be as big as turkeys. He wanted more than anything to improve the farming practices of black sharecroppers in that part of Alabama. Simon often drove through the country, with Palmer seated beside him, visiting with local black men. “They received Dad in much the same way as Dad might have reacted if the Commissioner of Agriculture from Washington had arrived at our house.” Simon was evangelical about scientific agriculture. He preached a gospel of rotating crops, planting legumes, and applying lime to the soil, while Palmer played with the farmers' sons. “If Dad ever so slightly suggested something,” Palmer remembered, “the response would be polite, its phrasing and tenor such that you knew good and well the farmer wasn't going to do any such thing.” Such practices might work at the college on the hill, they finally said, because the school had lots of state money to spend on fancy farming—none of which these sharecroppers would ever have. They said to Simon, “'Fessor, that college ain't out here trying to make no living.”

Even so, Simon had Palmer keep a list of every farmer they visited, along with their wives' and children's names and their mailing addresses. After the crops were laid by in the late summer one year, he invited all the local farmers to the First Annual A&M Seminar of Farmers, a convention on the college campus, where he treated the sharecroppers as visiting dignitaries and presented demonstrations of scientific farming. At the end of the meeting, he gave each farmer a postcard to mail back, setting a time for a visit from the A&M faculty to advise him on farm problems. To Simon's great disappointment, no postcards were returned. His next strategy was to gather the sons of farmers and have each boy ask his father for the least productive acre on his farm; Simon would then teach the boys scientific farming methods, such as gathering humus from forest floors and collecting cow manure to enrich worn-out soil. Not much came of this effort either.

The single-crop, sharecropper existence offered almost no hope for improving material circumstances; most black farmers were trapped in a downward cycle of indebtedness and desperate poverty. Sharecropping was a cruel, hopeless system essentially immune to all efforts to improve it.

“Dad had his heart set on raising at least one of his sons to be what he called a ‘scientific farmer,'” Palmer later wrote, “and as I was the oldest I was his principal target.” Simon drove Palmer all the way to Tuskegee so that he might meet the great Dr. George Washington Carver, in the hope of encouraging his son to follow in those steps. Watching Simon's persistence in trying to improve the farming practices of poor black farmers in the Great Depression instilled in Palmer admiration for his father's determination and self-sacrifice, but Palmer did not share his father's ambition. He never actually worked on a farm and apparently never had any inclination to do so. What the boy took from the experience was an appreciation for the goodness and intelligence of rural southern people.

Soon after they settled in Alabama, Bertha again fell seriously ill, this time with a throat malady. She was hospitalized but got no better, and Simon had to bring her home. One morning a student of Simon's appeared at six-year-old George's first-grade classroom and led the boy home and into the room where his mother lay. Palmer remembered hearing “an awful, awful sound”—the death rattle. Soon the doctor said, “Well, she's dead.” Nobody said anything until George looked at his father. “Well, Dad, how can Mama be dead when her eyes are open?” Simon grabbed George into a tight hug and started crying. To little George, “it looked like the whole world was crying . . . the doctor and everybody.” George later said that his first real experience with God was one of fear. “That He would take from me . . . the person that I loved. . . . He certainly demanded my respect, God did.”

Palmer later said he suffered relatively little emotional trauma from his mother's death, because Bertha had not shown him much affection. At that time, “what I lived for was to get back to Grandma. She was the answer to everything.” That did not mean, however, that Bertha's funeral was easy for him. The worst part for Palmer was seeing his father crying uncontrollably. Bertha's casket was put in her music room at her parents' house to wait for the arrival of distant family members, several of whom emitted piercing screams through the nights of her wake that traumatized the little Haley boys. Bertha's funeral was held at the Baptist church, because the New Hope church was too small to accommodate the crowd of mourners.

When Simon and the boys returned to Alabama, his mother, Queen, came to help attend to the boys, but she “just didn't have much to say,” Palmer remembered. Various women began to pay attention to the handsome and pleasant young widower. He surely needed a helpmate. The woman Simon chose was a fellow Alabama A&M faculty member, an English teacher, Zeona Hatcher. A small, highly disciplined woman with a master's degree from Ohio State University, Zeona married Simon within a year of Bertha's death. The Palmer family, including Cynthia, was upset about his marrying before Bertha “got cold in the grave.”

Over the next few years, the Haley boys adjusted to Zeona with varying degrees of acceptance. For Julius, only two when Bertha died, Zeona was the only mother he knew; he was raised with Doris Ann, born about two years after Simon and Zeona married. George, well-behaved and studious, conformed to Zeona's expectations of good conduct. He called her “Mother” to distinguish her from his late “Mama.” Yet years later he could not remember Zeona ever having hugged him. Palmer did not use any name for Zeona and often was at odds with her. He was an indifferent student, which Zeona knew firsthand because she taught his English class in high school and caught him cheating. Her favored form of punishment was to make him memorize Bible verses. She liked Palmer least among Simon's boys, which the adolescent surely sensed. She thought he was lazy. During the summer when they were in Henning, she required that they write letters to her and Simon, which she marked for errors and returned to them. George later observed that “Mother” was greatly concerned with what “the public”—meaning the black folks in the college community—thought of her boys. Zeona enforced strict discipline on such matters as table manners. She instituted a system of rewards and punishments regarding the use of eating utensils and dinner napkins. She had high expectations for maintaining a good appearance. George, while recalling later that Simon was forced to watch Zeona's harsh ways toward his children—“he sometimes really suffered under that, trying to keep the whole thing going”—thought that his father endured too much of his Zeona's harshness in silence.
Although he was the least cooperative of the boys while living with Zeona, Palmer later credited her with teaching him household skills and the virtues of discipline. “She was very strong in teaching us manners and in how to live in a personal orderly way.” His munificent memories, given many years later, probably glossed over their conflicts during his adolescence. By the time he was a teenager in Alabama, Palmer was practicing the art of avoiding conflict.

A duality had emerged for Palmer between the structured life of school, closely monitored by Zeona and Simon, and the free existence of Henning, where Grandma doted on him and Aunt Liz entertained him with her stories. Little wonder that he later remembered life in Henning as an idyllic existence—and the other places scarcely at all, as if he had blocked them from his memory. In Henning Palmer read books and played with his local friends, including a white boy named Kermit. “We ate in each other's homes, slept on pallets on the floor, got spanked by our respective mothers from time to time.” Palmer later said such an interracial friendship was typical in the South in the 1930s. But perhaps also typically, their relationship came to a quick end when Palmer was about twelve. One day Kermit said to Palmer, “Pretty soon, you're gonna have to call me Mister.” Palmer later said he “froze at the remark and began to withdraw.”

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