Bass Mitchell: The signs
My father was a carpenter, a good one. He built houses. He did renovations. He took whatever carpentry jobs he could find. There were five kids in the family and we were always in need of something. Back in the 1960s, it wasn’t any easier to rear a family, especially a large one, than it is today. Might have been tougher. It was the time of Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, college protests, desegregation…there was a great deal of unrest in our country. I was entering my early teens and was beginning to be exposed to the larger world about me. Little did I know that soon I would be transported back to some of the most painful times in our national history.
It began when my father got a job renovating a large, multi-storied building. He was excited because he knew it would provide work for many months, and might even lead to other jobs.
Having failed at finding reliable help, he often took me with him (which shows how desperate he was). I didn’t even know how to use a hammer, at least properly. Do you know that it’s not easy using a hammer? It takes some guidance and practice. It’s also kind-of important to not hit the wrong nail, you know, a fingernail. I learned that the hard way. Dad called it, “The sickening thud.”
I was useful in going to the truck to get a tool or something else he needed, saving him some time and energy. Yes, I sometimes brought back the wrong tool. Do you also know just how many different kinds of tools there are?
In time, and under his tutelage, I learned how to use a hammer and a lot of other tools. I confess, however, that when it came to carpentry I was not a quick study. Looking back now, there have been many times when having more carpentry knowledge and skills sure would have come in handy.
To the younger generation, I would strongly recommend that you pay attention to your parents in this (as well as other things) – for they possess knowledge and expertise that you most certainly will find some use for in your future if not the present.
I don’t know how old this particular building was, only that it had been built well before World War II. Some company had purchased it and wanted it turned into office and storage space. The whole exterior was brick, pretty old ones Dad said. The walkways leading around it were also brick. The front steps leading inside were brick in a kind of half circle with an iron railing in the middle that needed scarping and fresh black paint. The front doors were wooden, quite large, and their white paint was weathered. It felt like this had been an important place, a building where important things happened.
There were a number of unusual things that happened when we were working there. I was replacing some of the bricks used for the walkways one day. When I lifted one that was partly cracked, I saw something stuck to the bottom of it. It was covered with red soil of some kind so I couldn’t make it out at first. I pried it off the brick and began to clean it. It was a coin. An old one. I could clearly see the date of 1861. It was a Silver Cent. I could hardly believe that resting in my hand, unseen for who knows how long, was a coin that was around when Abraham Lincoln was president. The crazy thought crossed my mind that maybe he dropped it! Well, OK, but it is possible, right?
Something else happened but a bit scary. We had to go underneath the building one day. We removed a small outside door to get to the crawlspace. It was dark under there and Dad had sent me to the truck to get a flashlight. Yes, smarty, I did know what a flashlight was, except I didn’t check to see if the batteries were okay. They weren’t, so I had to make another trip.
Having finally fetched a working flashlight, I handed it to Dad who crawled in first, with me following. We had not gotten very far when he said, “Stop! Back out!” It was not a suggestion. So I did, thinking that maybe there was some animal or snake under there, motivating me to back out much faster than I had entered. He stayed for a moment and I was getting concerned. Finally, he crawled out, holding two objects in his hands…
Dad crawled out, stood up, and started looking up and down the street. I noticed he held in one hand a shotgun. But it was unlike any I had ever seen. It had a short single barrel. It looked old. In his other hand was a small gray metal box. It was larger than a cigar box and had a small lock on it. It was dirty and a little rusty. It looked old, too.
My father examined the gun. With a click, it opened and both of us could see that it still had a shell in the chamber. Dad shook his head. I could tell this was worrying him, especially when he started to look around us again. I did, too, not knowing exactly why. We were on a side street. Nothing unusual and no one else around as far as I could see. Dad tried to gently remove the shell but apparently it had been in there so long that it wouldn’t budge. He laid the shotgun carefully on the ground and told me not to touch it.
He sat the box on top of a small brick wall beside us. He seemed a little uncertain or even afraid to touch it, considering, I suppose, that a gun was found beside it. But he picked it up and tried to open the lid. He did with little effort. We both looked inside – it was empty save for some dirt and a narrow slip of paper that looked like had been wrapped around something. It was brown with no writing on it.
“What is it?” I asked him.
He looked around again for a moment. “I’m not sure,” he said. “But this could be a safety deposit box or cash box of some kind. That would be my guess, anyway.”
“But what about the gun?” I asked, pointing at it.
“Well, it’s just another guess, but I’d say someone robbed a bank or store around here years ago, ran by here, opened this door and threw these under there, after having taken the money. He must have been in a real hurry.
Maybe the police were hot on his trail.”
We both looked at the shotgun and box, and could almost replay that very scene in our minds, like something from a crime movie. Now I understood why he was looking around and seemed anxious. But that bad guy or guys had long ago disappeared.
I had no idea that carpentry was so exciting, and said so. Dad assured me that it wasn’t and he would be most thankful to the almighty it nothing ever like it happened again. But I thought the whole thing was pretty cool.
We ended up taking the box and shotgun to the police station which was just a few blocks away. Later we did hear that some years ago there had been a robbery in town by a man using a sawed-off shotgun. He was never captured. Now, that wasn’t so cool, for the thought came to me, “What if he comes back to that building where we were working, looking for his gun?” I sure felt a bit uneasy over the next few days, looking over my shoulder from time to time.
Now after this Dad wasn’t all that excited about going back under that old building. But I could hardly wait. There was no telling what else we might find under there. So it was a real bummer that he wouldn’t let me go with him and said afterward that he didn’t find anything else anyway. I got the feeling that he didn’t look very much or at least everywhere under this building, which took up almost a third of a block. Yes, the thought crossed my mind to sneak under there but I thought better of it. OK. I chickened out. Happy?
The discoveries we made outside and under that strange, old building were pretty cool, at least to 12-year-old kid. But it was what I found inside that I will never forget and that to this day still impacts my life.
Bass Mitchell is pastor of Manor Memorial United Methodist Church in New Market.
As you entered the building, you came into a small corridor that opened into a larger hallway. That hallway ran the width of the front of the building and even around the building itself. If you turned left when entering and looked against the inner right wall, there was a water fountain. Further down from it were the restrooms for women and men. The bathroom doors, at least the top portions, had that thick frosty glass through which you could not see.
Nothing special about all of this, right? Well, be patient. There’s more.
Just above the water fountain was a sign. It read in large painted black letters: WHITES ONLY. Painted also on the glass bathroom doors was the same message, except in even larger letters.
Dad and I just stood there for a moment staring at those signs. He had a scowl on his face.
“I don’t get it,” I said to him. Well, I kind-of thought I did but wasn’t sure. I seemed to recall something about this from Mr. Plaster’s American history class.
I could see Dad’s jaw tightening. I had seen that before and it was seldom a good thing, like when I brought back the wrong tool. He finally said, “It means that white people only can drink from it or use these restrooms.”
That’s what I thought. But I still didn’t understand it. I looked around and never did find a water fountain or restrooms that said: BLACKS ONLY. The whole thing didn’t make any sense and was troubling even to a 12-year-old mind.
Over the weeks that followed, the topic came back up a number of times. Dad told me how black persons had often been mistreated in our country. He never could fully understand the reasons for it either. Some of his best friends growing up were from a black family that lived not too far from them.
“But why?” I asked.
He thought about it for a moment. “People can be pretty mean to one another,” he finally said. “It seems that we always have to have someone to look down on and blame for things. It ain’t right, of course. And that’s not how we ever treat people in this family. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
Then he said, “I have a job for you.” That job turned out to be removing those signs. The one above the water fountain was fairly easy to do because it was a stone tablet. I just took it down with a crowbar. I took it outside and threw it down. It cracked into pieces.
Now the signs on the bathroom doors were not so easily removed. They had been painted directly onto the glass. Looked like several coats, too, over a long time. I had to be careful not to damage the glass. But with a lot of elbow grease, I finally did remove them, with some satisfaction I might add.
I never heard my father say a single racist thing about anyone. He lived by what he said to me. That became even more evident not long after this…
I remember it well. We were coming home one day from working on that building. As we turned onto our street, we saw an elderly black woman walking beside the road, a bag of groceries in her hand. One of the daily summer thunderstorms had just let loose. She was trying to hold a tattered umbrella over her head. She was getting soaked.
“That’s Mrs. Smith,” Dad said.
He pulled over just in front of her. He got out of the truck and ran back to her. He took the groceries from her and escorted her as quickly as possible through the downpour back to our truck. I opened the door and reached out to help her inside. Dad handed me the bag of groceries, the bag was falling apart by this time. He ran back around and got inside.
We drove Mrs. Smith to her house. After a couple of trips, we got her and her groceries onto her front porch. Thank God the rain had let up some. She thanked us. We ran back to the truck, both of us drenched, and drove home. Mom couldn’t help but smile when she saw us. “I know there must be a good story behind this,” she said, stopping me at the door and making me take off most of my wet clothes before coming inside.
Later I found out that Dad knew Mrs. Smith and her family quite well. In fact, Mrs. Smith had a grandson who Dad hired to help him when I had to go back to school. That young man did know how to handle a hammer and in time started his own cabinet making shop. Dad used him to make cabinets for houses he was building.
As far as I know, Dad never said anything about all of this. But others told me much later that he did things like this for a lot of people in our community, and it didn’t matter their color.
So when our school was integrated in the seventh grade, it was no big deal to me. Lots of people were afraid and anxious about it, mostly politicians and parents from what I could tell. Most of the kids took it all in stride. We had very few problems.
When I got to high school, it was a little different. I loved sports and played baseball and football. That was the first time at least for most of us that black and white players were on the same teams. In some ways it was really like that movie starring Denzel Washington,
“Remember the Titans.” The black and white players didn’t get along at first. We stuck to our own little groups. Any coach will tell you that you can’t have a team, a good one, anyway, if it’s divided like that. Coach Conway tried to use this as an opportunity to break down some barriers and bring us closer together.
Now the coach didn’t have a lot of success in the beginning. In fact, the whole thing would have failed had it not been for Elijah Smith, one of the black players on our team. Eli, as we called him, was one of the best athletes I have ever known. Everyone looked up to him, even the white players, though some were jealous of his abilities. But as great an athlete as he was, Eli was an even better person. Eli made it his mission to help make us a team. He sought out the white players at lunch or recess or after practice, spending time with us, trying to get to know us and establishing some trust. To this day I don’t know exactly how he did it. But with his effort and that of the coaches, this group of players became a team, a kind-of band of brothers. That did a lot to help the whole student body to become closer.
A lot of these feelings and memories came back to me during the 2016 summer Olympics. Did you notice the diversity of athletes from our country? I was proud of them all, none more so than the women’s gymnastic team that for the first time won the gold. Simone Biles is African American, as is Gabby Douglas. Laurie Hernandez is Puerto Rican. Aly Raisman and Madison Kocian are white. Raiman is Jewish. I thought to myself, “This is America. This is what makes us a truly special and a great nation.” The thought also came to me that one day I sure would like to put that picture of them above the water fountain in that old building. In fact, I’d like to put it up everywhere.
It was tough getting all that “WHITES ONLY” paint off those restroom doors so long ago. It wasn’t easy because it had been painted and repainted many times. But it eventually had to give way. Racism, prejudice – they are like that. We’ve made some progress. But we must be vigilant. There are always powers out there who want to repaint and replace those signs perhaps with new words but the same old message. So it’s going to take a lot of effort to erase it, not just from policies, buildings, doors and walls, but most importantly from hearts and minds. I give thanks to God for my Dad, who first taught me this vital truth in the hallway of an old building and more importantly in how he lived each day. I hope I am passing along that same lesson to my children and grandchildren, for this really is the way to get rid of those signs forever. Just think – your greatest contribution to the world might not be something you do, but someone you raise.
Bass Mitchell is pastor of Manor Memorial United Methodist Church in New Market.