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Authors: James Sallis

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The most blatantly leftist of these new unions, in counterpoint to the conservative AFL (which excluded Negroes), was the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, whose founders included Eugene V. Debs, then head of the Socialist Party, miner “Big Bill' Haywood and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, seventy-five-year-old organizer for United Mine Workers. Eventually wartime anti-Communist sentiments destroyed the IWW, but for the ten years of
its life it served as a beacon for the workingman and suffered the full might of antiunion forces, including 1915's collusive execution of the now-legendary Joe Hill.

The Negro agenda overlapped labor's at select points while remaining discrete, as with Venn diagrams. The dominant black voice of the time was that of accommodation as represented by Booker T. Washington:

To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relation with the Southern white man, who is their next door neighbor, I would say, “Cast down your bucket where you are …”

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest of folly.

Washington, born a slave and educated in the wake of Reconstruction reforms, bespoke a transliteration of middle-class values: hard work, deference to social forms, elevation through manners, education, and restraint; a doctrine that not only accepted but in fact, with its emphasis on doing one's best in a time of limited options, advocated the status quo, acknowledging individual and collective weakness. The accommodationists' advocacy of craft and agriculture, too, was sadly out of step with economic realities in this age of rapid industrialization and urbanization—as we witness in Joseph Sandy's life.

W. E. B. Du Bois stood in direct opposition to Washington's voice of accommodation. Northern-born, an undergraduate at Fisk University in the South where, encountering uninured the daily insults of racial discrimination, he grew ever angrier, Du Bois received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895. In 1905 he helped organize the Niagara Movement, committed to wresting leadership of the Negro community from accommodationists such as Washington and to denouncing persistently at every turn and opportunity the specter of white prejudice.

The growth of racism in the early years of the century, this move toward untying the promises of Reconstruction, encouraged development of Negro institutions and revived white interest, as during abolitionist times, in joining the fight for racial justice. In the century's first decade, 754 Negro lynchings occurred.

Plessy v. Ferguson
proved the watershed. Arrested for sitting in an all-white railroad coach, a seven-eighths-Caucasian Negro appealed to a Supreme Court whose earlier ruling held that companies controlling 98 percent of the sugar business did not constitute a monopoly, and who had jailed striking workers for restraint of trade, thereby corrupting the Fourteenth Amendment, originally meant to protect the rights of slaves, to protect business interests. If separation of races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority, this court ruled, then it is “solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it,” introducing not only the pernicious principle “separate but equal” but also the far more deadly sanction of doublethink: if those
are poor/sick/deprived, then surely it's because they somehow
to be. It's
problem. So with a blow are all Reconstruction's gains upended, thus is divisiveness given not only local habitation and name, but a pedigree our nation will overcome legally only sixty years later.

With this imprimatur, every former Confederate state rushed to enact “separate but equal” laws, sending Jim Crow to dance in gay abandon in the streets. Separate railroad cars became separate waiting rooms, then separate entrances, even separate windows. Shadowy fears of black men having sex with white women were everywhere exploited by those who had or desired power. Populist efforts to unite poor white with poor black, particularly in the South, were undermined by land and business owners driving in the chock of fear of black usurpation of jobs, locustlike hordes of black children, black economic power. Restrictive registration laws such as poll taxes and literacy requirements kept blacks away from ballot boxes. Beatings and lynchings were another great, time-honored discourager.

James Weldon Johnson held the great divide in African-American history to be that of the conflict between integration into a biracial society and withdrawal into separatism. Coopting white impulses toward racial justice spurred on by the time's flagrant racism, and believing with Johnson that isolationism denied an inevitable economic interdependence, the Niagara Movement shaped itself into the NAACP. In 1909, the year Chester Himes was born, W. E. B. Du Bois joined in founding this biracial organization, for whose journal
The Crisis
(in which Chester would later publish) he served as editor for a quarter century.

One result of racial unrest and Jim Crow was a mass exodus of poor blacks north and west trying desperately for better circumstances. All too often these better circumstances took the form of overcrowded ghettos with ramshackle housing, menial work when there was work at all, enmity from immigrant groups and other poor whites who feared their ever-tenuous footholds might be arrogated, the beginnings of inner-city despair. Race riots erupted north and south; the cities seethed.

One of the worst of the riots took place in East St. Louis in the summer of 1917, five years before Himes's family moved there, primarily because of white fear of a massive influx of Negroes from the South. Both the Democrats, courting poor whites, and unions, anticipating that Negroes might be brought in as strike breakers, played on this basic fear. For several days, as police and National Guardsmen stood by—and, some said, participated—fires were set, freight cars overturned, people beaten or shot down in the street. Whites set black homes ablaze and shot those who fled, throwing some back into the burning shacks, others into the river. “The bodies of the dead negroes,” one eyewitness testified, “were thrown into a morgue like so many dead hogs.”
At least a hundred were killed, perhaps 750 seriously wounded, three hundred buildings and forty-four railroad cars destroyed.

The riots had begun when on the night of July 1, an automobile (some said two) raced through the Negro section of East St. Louis firing indiscriminately into homes. Negroes rallied at the prearranged signal of the church bell at midnight and marched armed into the streets where they were met by a carload of policemen. An argument broke out, with a volley of shots fired into the car before it sped away, one officer killed immediately, another dying shortly thereafter. Soon mobs of whites and blacks clashed everywhere.

The report of a special committee convened by Congress to investigate the riots offers a glossary of exploitation, lawlessness, and subhuman conditions in the Negro ghettos.

During the year 1917 between 10,000 and 12,000 negroes came from the Southern States to seek work at promised high wages in the industries of St. Clair County. They swarmed into the railroad stations on every train, to be met by their friends who formed reception committees and welcomed them to the financial, political and social liberty which they had been led to
believe Illinois guaranteed. They seldom had more than enough money to exactly defray their transportation, and they arrived dirty and hungry. They stood around the street corners in homesick bundles, seeking shelter and hunting work.

Responsibility, the committee held, rested on the railroads and manufacturers who had lured the workers here with unrealistic promises, and on corrupt politicians, unscrupulous real estate agents, and landlords who took advantage of them once they arrived. The Negroes gravitated of necessity to “unsanitary sections” where they existed in “the squalor of filthy cabins” and fell inevitably into drunkenness and crime.

Notice of many kinds was being served by the riots in East St. Louis, soon to be echoed in cities all about. Underscoring the appalling conditions of Negro life in the ghettos, these riots gave troth to the volatile anger growing in those communities. No longer would violence against Negroes be met docilely. From now on Negroes, many having served their country in the war and returned home with new experiences, new attitudes, and a new sense of self, would fight back. As Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay wrote of the later riots:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.

If we must die, o let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain…

1901: Joseph and Estelle join the faculty at Georgia State College, Savannah. Joseph teaches blacksmithing, wheelwrighting, occasionally a history course. Estelle teaches English composition and music. Here their first son, Edward, is born. Apparently Estelle lobbies among the light-skinned black elite for an administrative position for her husband. This fails, and they move again to Greensboro.

1906: Joseph moves up to teaching his usual trades at the Lincoln Institute, Jefferson City, Missouri. It's a more prestigious position but, losing her social contacts, Estelle feels isolated. Here, two years later,
the couple's second son, Joseph, Jr., is born, and on July 29 the following year, Chester. Estelle had wanted a daughter, and until he was six or more dressed Chester, as did Rilke's mother, in girl's clothing. Estelle, with only her children to occupy her, plunges into whatever cultural activities are available and spurs on her husband's ambitions. Complaining of their poor speech, Estelle keeps the boys apart from neighbors' children.

1913: Joseph Sandy resigns his post. Reasons are problematic. Joseph's ambition, along with his wife's superior attitude and constant canvassing for position, may have alienated colleagues. Perhaps Joseph began to see his limits. In Himes's
The Third Generation
the protagonist's father resigns upon learning that a younger man who specializes in automobile mechanics is about to be made dean.

Whatever the reasons, the world is catching up with Joseph Sandy.

Now after a brief relocation to Cleveland, the family moved, south again, to Alcorn College in Mississippi. The site had been occupied originally by Oakland College, a school for whites established in 1830 by the Presbyterian Church and shut down at the beginning of the Civil War. (The first degree issued by any Mississippi college was conferred there in 1831.) After the war the facility was sold to the state and renamed in honor of the state's governor; in 1878, in accordance with 1862's Morril Act, it became a land-grant college, Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical. Himes gives in
The Third Generation
a fine account of the family's Mississippi arrival.

They moved like a boat down a shallow river of darkness beneath a narrow roof of fading twilight. As the road deepened, roots of huge trees sprang naked from the banks like horrible reptilian monsters. Now high overhead the narrow strip of purple sky turned slowly black…

The mules moved down the tunnel of darkness with surefooted confidence as if they had eyes for the night. They knew the road home. Professor Taylor tied the reins to the dashboard and gave them their head. It was so dark he couldn't see his hand before his eyes. The black sky was starless. As they moved along the old sunken road the dense odor of earth and stagnation and rotting underbrush and age reached out from the banks and smothered them. It was a lush, clogging odor compounded of
rotten vegetation, horse manure, poisonous nightshades and unchanged years. Soldiers of the Confederacy had walked this road on such a night following the fall of Vicksburg, heading for the nearby canebrakes.

The college provided a spacious house for which Joseph built much of the furniture; Estelle even had a servant for cooking and cleaning. As at Lincoln she kept the children apart from neighbors. She gave music lessons in her home and, since there was no elementary school for blacks, taught the children herself. Nonetheless, she grew restive. Alcorn College was set deep in the rural South, far from any city or town of appreciable size, accessible by gravel roads cutting through farms and sharecropper fields, and there simply
no cultural life. The boys, on the other hand, seem to have been quite happy at Alcorn, and Chester always remembered the period fondly. They were enthralled when, in 1917, Joseph bought an old Studebaker. They loved to sit in it pretending to drive. From time to time, taking the boys to his workshop, Joseph would teach them basic carpentry. A rare outing with him to the all-black town of Mound Bayou, with its wealthy black merchants and farm owners and its shiny automobiles, introduced the boys to a new face of Southern Negro life. They were fascinated.

Here Himes inserts a detail straight out of his own later fiction, the gun-toting neighbor lady of his story “A Nigger,” or any of a number of substantial women tugging a half yard of blue steel from among feminine attire in the Harlem novels.

My mother used to take us for rides in the country with a student driving, but we got into so many controversies with the cracker farmers of the county by frightening their mule teams that my father was dismissed from the school and driven from the state … Of course part of that was due to my mother's attitude; she always carried a pistol on our car rides through the country, and whenever a cracker mule driver reached for his rabbit gun she beat him to the draw and made him drop it.

Estelle's disquiet, while in truth not going so far as to express itself in gunplay, was palpable. She remained in distress at the lack of cultural life and intellectual stimulation, coupling it now to her growing concern
over the boys' education. Tensions also appear to have been accumulating between Joseph and Estelle. When she received an offer to teach in South Carolina, she accepted, taking Joseph Jr. and Chester with her. Cheraw, South Carolina, quickly proved worse than Alcorn. Within weeks Estelle withdrew to Augusta, Georgia, where two of her nieces taught at the Haines Normal and Industrial School. Estelle obtained a temporary position as music teacher and the boys were admitted to eighth grade. Many of their classmates were Geechies, descendants of African slaves from the Georgia Sea Islands, whose dialect Chester loved. For the first time Chester and Joe were among other black children.

BOOK: Chester Himes
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