Backward Through the Story

I’m going to go backwards through this particular part of my story because I hate to end on a sad note. So that would place my friend John and me in 2005 in a small churchyard on Route 30 in Barbour County, Alabama somewhere between Clayton and Eufaula, from where we had just come. Mid-July and we’re standing in a patch of shade at the back of the church, the only relief available, it being three o’clock p.m. in the sunny damn hot south.

We’re in this yard because of a man named Peterson, Lyndon Peterson. We met him not a half- hour before in Eufaula. We met him because his name is Peterson and so is mine, his kinfolk are from those parts, and so are mine. I mentioned I was looking for this church, the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, did he know where it was and did he know about the lynching there of a young man named Peterson way back when? He said he did, that his mama knew about it too because she attended that church. Everybody in the church knew about it, even knew which tree the lynchers used, only you won’t find anything but the stump there now.

I’m going to get the hard stuff out of the way first. The Peterson boy—I call him the Peterson boy because his first name has been lost in the telling—was a young black man who lived on the high bluffs of Eufaula, right on its vast lake, where other coloreds lived. Every evening he’d go to fetch his girlfriend, who worked for a white family in town. One of those nights he went to get his girl, her last name was Hegley, her first name lost, too. The street was dark, it had no lamps. The door opened and someone came out; the Peterson boy thought it was Miss Hegley and stepped forward saying “Here I am.” But it was a white woman. I’m sure the white woman was just taken by surprise because it was dark. And maybe she carried what happened next in her heart until the day she died. And maybe she didn’t. She screamed.

She screamed and the Peterson boy, scared himself, ran away, which could have been the end of it because she was not molested in any way. But the white citizens of Eufaula couldn’t let it go. They interrogated and badgered the black population nonstop, until the Hegley girl, to her undying horror and regret, mentioned that her boyfriend came to pick her up at the spot of the encounter every night. They got up a posse, grabbed the boy from his home on the high bluffs, tied him behind a wagon, dragged him through the streets of Eufaula, castrated him, hung him on an oak tree near the church, and shot him.

This happened some time before World War I. There are no records so the exact date is lost. We have only the story passed down to us. This deed lived in the same century as I lived. This deed has breathed the same air I have breathed. You may well ask me why I care. It’s because he had a first name, and it was lost. Because he shares my name, so I own this.

Lyndon Peterson told it right. There was a church, a simple brick building with a white clapboard steeple and a sign that said Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church. In back there was a small graveyard, full of scorched grass. And there was a stump in the yard near the church. There were other trees, including a big oak tree some yards away, but it was the stump that belonged to the hanging tree, according to the tale.

I was glad there was only a stump. I didn’t want that oak there, intact. I didn’t want to look into the branches of such a tree, unwitting as it might be of its role in the lynching. A tree is supposed to be about life, not death. I wondered if it died naturally, of a disease, or if it was struck by lightning, or if someone decided to cut it down, a tree nourished on the blood of a long-ago boy who may or may not be related to me. If his blood is my blood, then perhaps my blood was in that tree. A tree perhaps the congregation could not suffer to live.

The stump is the right place to say a prayer to the soul of the Peterson boy, nothing else. John takes photos, is horrified at the same time, shaking his head and shooting. There is an anger so deep that you stop feeling it for a moment, and when it returns, it burns so bad from the inside out you want to peel off your skin to escape your body. But you can’t. I felt that way by that stump—400-something damn years of this shit. This world doesn’t deserve black people.

John is a white Latino, still I am comforted by his presence; he sees what I see and he understands. He stops shooting and I stand in front of him as if he can block all that sun. Even at six feet tall he is not nearly tall enough. The sun bakes the yard into a paralysis. The air doesn’t move. Nor the walking stick, or beetle, or the snake in the grass, all still. The superheated silence of the churchyard becomes more awful than the vision of a castrated man hanging from a tree. We stand for a minute more, listening to the occasional passing car until the church and the sad little graveyard behind it become too much for us.

Besides, John is ready for barbecue. It’s Thursday and in three days of traveling around he’s yet to have any—a true crime considering where we are. Strange how, when faced with death we scramble to prove to ourselves that we’re alive, and nothing says I’m alive like stuffing yourself with pork butt. “I’ve had enough of this,” I say. We quit the yard, jump into the car and peel out.

Back in Eufaula John had spotted a likely lunch spot. That was right after our visit with Dr. Moses Marcus Jones. Dr. Jones had been the last stop on a one-day tour of Eufaula. I had seen everything I had come to see for my research on the Peterson boy and was taking one last look at the tour brochure, when on the back page I saw site number 61 Milton-Moses M. Jones, MD.

“Wait!” I said. “Stop!” We were pulling out of Eufaula, about to go back over the bridge north. I was looking to take John to my grandfather’s land. Peterson land. Battle land. That would be the grand finale of the trip South. “Moses Marcus Jones, M-M-Moses Marcus Jones.” I could barely get it out of my mouth because I was so shocked at my own near miss. I had planned this trip so carefully, how could I have not thought to look this man up? He was the cousin of David Frost, Jr., the man who wrote the book, Witness to Injustice, in which I first read about the Peterson boy lynching. I had spoken to Dr. Jones over the phone two years earlier, looking for information. He promised to help me in any way he could.

 

We parked; I got out and walked in. Dr. Jones’s practice was as reassuringly old school as could be. There was a reception desk with a nurse and a receptionist and a waiting room with worn furniture, a few posters about diabetes and the like. Across the room was a sign with a large black “N” and a red circle with a slash through it. “Guess what that means?” John said five minutes later as he waited with me for Dr. Jones. I look at his rueful face and I didn’t want to say.

“Miss Peterson?” I turn and there he is, a warm-looking man in his late fifties wearing a doctor’s coat and gold-rimmed spectacles. “Why are you here?” he asks. He is smiling.

I explain that it was about the Peterson boy and Dr. Jones is on the phone calling every Peterson he knows within a twenty-mile radius. We talk about the book, and his practice, history, family trees. I tell Dr. Jones that before we were Petersons we were Battles, my great great grandfather was Amos Battle, and that my people lived and still live in the Battle Community the next county over. Dr. Jones knows the Battles, too, his nurse, very tall, a warrior queen in some other life, is a Battle. Dr. Jones tells us he knew a Battle woman who told him if she took him into the woods on Battle land in the afternoon and they went deep enough, it would be just like midnight. That’s how deep it is. That how much land there is.

“And I believe her, too,” he says.

Dr. Jones has occupied the 1850 Italianate style cottage that we’re standing in for nearly 30 years, but you wouldn’t know that from the brochure. In the Eufaula Heritage Trail brochure we learn about the architect of Dr. Jones’s house, and the unusual octagonal chimney, but not that Dr. Jones was the rare black resident in a relentlessly white town, and even rarer, a black physician. We are just about to leave when a Peterson, Lyndon Peterson, shows up and I mention that I’d like to go to Pleasant Grove Baptist, and well, you know the rest.

“By the way, that sign with the “N” on it means no narcotics; I took a closer look. They put those signs up so junkies don’t break in to steal dope,” I tell John as we drive to the church, although I could bet that he thought it meant the use of the word “nigger” was strictly forbidden on those premises. I can’t blame him—it was the first thing that sprung to mind when he pointed it out to me. Both of us stuck in a time and place that would require such a sign. Never mind that Dr. Jones’s last patient that afternoon was the frailest, whitest old lady, so white her veins were a delicate pattern of blue tracework over her face and hands. She was old enough to remember Jim Crow, and lived long enough to forget it. And she was thanking Dr. Jones like he just gave her the secret of eternal youth.

Still, the only other black person I had seen so far in Eufaula besides Dr. Jones, his nurse, and Lyndon Peterson, was an old man sitting on his porch just at the south end of a street called Riverside Drive. What I saw was a very black man staring at us from the porch of his brokedown wooden house. Weeks later John would remind me that the man had no legs and was sitting in a wheelchair. This is where our stories go off in two directions, at the missing legs. I didn’t see that his legs were gone, just a very black man’s impassive face. John saw his stumps.

I was keen on seeing the Shorter Cemetery, one of two in Eufaula I had on my to-do list. There were some gravestones I needed to read, possibly those of one of the lynchers. So we rolled down Riverside Drive; glimpses of blue blue Lake Eufaula peeked through a screen of trees to one side only yards away, while dusty, sleepy homes sat on our other side. The name of the drive, promising views and elegance but giving us neither, was a dead end. There was a sign saying we had found the cemetery, but the gate was locked up and chained. Behind the gate we could see a lane and trees and high grass. That’s when I looked to my right and saw the old black man. He was offering no assistance. Just sat on his porch at the end of the lane and stared.

We turned around and as we were driving out someone was driving in. He was a white man, with a buzz cut. Oh hell, he was one boll of cotton away from singing “Dixie” as far as I was concerned. He stopped, so John stopped.

It’s here I should explain that we were driving around in a red Sebring convertible, which I guess is unusual for those parts because we were gawked at and questioned wherever we went. Yet drive around in a bright purple Charger with spinning rims and nobody thinks it’s strange.

“What’re you people trying to do?” the man asks. Now I’m sure John will disagree with me, but I know I heard “you people” and that’s all I needed to hear. While John is talking, explaining that we’d like to see the cemetery, I’m looking at this man, and in my head am daring him to look at me the wrong way. At the moment there is no difference between my mouth and a .357 Smith and Wesson when it is loaded and cocked. Not a bit of difference. He’s looking at us a bit longer than he has to, and I see in his eyes that he’s thinking.

(Think before you speak, think before you speak, think before you speak, cracker, think before you speak, oh please I pray think before you speak. Because you know, and I know that if you don’t start none, won’t be none. The world has spun around 385,440 times since I was born in 1962, and many things have changed, and if I have to go to that special circle in hell or channel one of my meaner ancestors to get the anger and evil I will need to remind you that we done left the plantation—oh, I will.)

 All the man says is “I guess there’s a lot of history there, it’s worth visiting.”

(Thank you thank you thank you thank you white man from the South thank you.)

He gives the convertible the once over. “But you won’t, naw you can’t, you can’t go, you won’t make it in that car. Then again you could get out and crawl through the holes in the fence and walk down, the cemetery’s in the woods, but then there’s the snakes in the underbrush; it’s pretty overgrown.”

We decide to leave Eufaula.

 

Eufaula. It is a town I once only knew because any letters sent to my dad’s people in Battle went to the post office in Eufaula, there being no post office in the colored community. Now it is a place of paradox, of knowing what happened there, and seeing what I see, of reconciling that terrible thing in the church yard to the smiling blue-haired old ladies in the Eufaula Carnegie Library who couldn’t have been nicer when I asked them about the town’s genealogical records.

It wasn’t a fluke. EVERYBODY was nice. Even the son of Dixie didn’t have to stop and help us, but he did. The only truly mean person I encounter the five days I was in Alabama is a black girl working at a Stop-n-Shop, who glares at me while I serve myself an ICEE. She must have been having a bad day. Or she could just be one of those mean girls you hear about from up north, up my way. And try as I might, I still only saw about three Confederate flags in 2005, the same amount I saw on two earlier trips to Alabama. Of course we were three years away from a black president, and negroes not remembering their place.

We’re on the self-guided tour of Eufaula and I’m having a hard time evoking the Eufaula of the antebellum even while sitting in front of a neoclassical revival mansion that looks like any minute somebody in a hoop skirt is going to burst out of it and drop to the ground with the vapors. I’m sitting in the car watching the mansion shimmer in the heat. John jumps out and takes some photos and we practically speed by the Couric-Smith home on our way to somewhere, anywhere inside and icy cool.

If you recognize the first part of the name, it is because the big white colonnaded house used to belong to Katie Couric’s great great grandfather, a Frenchman who became a rich cotton merchant. He had slaves. Katie Couric’s people had slaves. She never said it in that broadcast, but it had to be so. Hell, John’s people on his father’s side, dyed-in-the-wool Confederates from Arkansas, had slaves, too. I don’t blame John for his great grands, no more than I take the blame that my grandfather was an officer in the German army during World War II. Levels the playing field. Skeletons are like that.

During a broadcast years ago, members of the Today show team researched their genealogy and during her segment Katie mumbled something about a well-tended slave cemetery being nearby. She was standing in front of the very mansion that sits baking on a silent avenue of mansions, all preserved thanks to the quick thinking of the prominent citizens of Eufaula. Having heard that the South had lost the war, someone ran out waving a white flag to the Union army, who had not heard the war was over and was preparing to burn the town down. The troops moved on and the Union officers had dinner with the mayor. “Eufaula remained intact, her people unharmed,” the walking tour brochure says. “Following the war, the town’s fortunes suffered from the loss of plantation-produced cotton and Reconstruction.” The darkies ran away and left us high and dry is what I want to add to that brochure, for clarification.

The well-tended slave graveyard was not so close to the mansion. It was in the Fairfield Cemetery a few blocks away from the Couric home, where Katie’s grandparents are buried. John and I were in that cemetery earlier, before we started the tour. I wasn’t looking for Petersons. I was looking for the memorials of “faithful Negroes” that white people had erected. I had read about them in my research of Eufaula and was curious. We found a lovely Jewish section, but no blacks until we asked the caretaker, who I was sure thought us two mad dogs rummaging around a graveyard in the heat. There is a Negro cemetery, but the headstones are gone, and who knows if anybody is even buried under the plain slope of grass where the ex-slaves are supposed to be. There are Confederates in the graveyard too, well marked and well-tended. I think about me poking around that town in Alabama in broad daylight with a white boy (well actually he’s brown enough with dark hair and eyes, enough to be Latino, which in part, he is) and have visions of me dancing with him on those Confederate graves in a red dress.

Back to 431, on our way out of town, it is here we see again the high cliffs on the lake for which the town was named, Eufaula being the Creek Indian word for high bluffs. In the early 1800s some white men, brothers, saw the Creek Indians cultivating the fertile river-bottom lands on each side of the Chattahoochee River and saw that it was good. Word got out and soon other white men brought their families to the area to live and work peaceably with the Eufaula clan of the Creek tribe, or so popular history suggests. Whites moved in, Indians were pushed out, battles were fought, and the Indians lost. In 1819 Alabama became the twenty-second state of the Union. In 1832 the Creeks signed a treaty of evacuation promising them lands west of the Mississippi. It, along with every other treaty the U.S. ever made with the Indians, was broken.

Lake Eufaula is not a big one, but it’s a long one stretching down to Georgia, a reservoir fed by the Chatahoochee River. We speed north on through Pittsview, past Hatchechubbee and up to Seale where we make a sharp turn off the Highway onto 26. We are going toward Hurtsboro, a half-horse town, so I can take John to Peterson land. I had been to Hurtsboro twice before. This is the third trip, and the first time I’m not with my father. Each time it gets a little less like a town and more and more like a color slide from a long ago vacation. Still at population 590 or so, it’s one of only two incorporated towns in my father’s home county.

Hurtsboro bustled when my dad was a young man in the 1920s and 1930s. Dad told me of how there used to be a feed store that did brisk business and a cane mill. He spoke of milling cane. Of watching the long green stalks being crushed underneath the grinding stone, or press, by 3-mule power. Of drinking fresh cane juice, a privilege bestowed on only those lucky few who lived near a mill. Of catching the smell of the juice as it boiled in a vat to make syrup. He would digress to the near-impossibility of finding pure cane syrup—nowadays its all mixed with sorghum or molasses, which was wrong. Now what’s left of Hurtsboro is a café, a deer-skinning business, and a hardware store, least that’s all we see.

We drive toward Battle across the old Seaboard railroad line that once a day took travelers from Birmingham to Savannah and back again, stopping at every tiny hamlet along the way. We drive across Battle Creek by way of Battle Bridge, which used to lay so low it flooded with a good rain and anyone caught on the wrong side of the bridge had to find shelter with kin until the creek fell. On the left is the old Battle cemetery, marked with a handmade sign, the place where my grandmother Annie Johnson is buried.

My cousin Tom Peterson won’t go to that cemetery. John, and Tom, and I are sitting in the home of Bennie Mae and Frank Johnson, residents of the Battle community for years, and friends of my father. I am related to Frank through my grandmother. “Won’t go up there,” Tom says.

“Why not?” I ask.

“I just don’t go to that cemetery. Besides, there’s snakes.”

“But there’s some good hickory nuts up there,” Bennie Mae pipes up.

“I don’t eat no hickory nuts from there.”

“Why not?”

“Look what they grew out of, look where the trees took nourishment.”

“The graveyard!” we all say at once, and laugh, but Tom’s not laughing. “There’s snakes.”

This obsession with snakes is not unwarranted, if I believe all the stories I hear. I haven’t seen any—not a one. Under the guise of public service, people go about snake killing with a zeal that’s just unnatural, weaving their snake-hunting stories into normal conversations. For instance, Bennie Mae and Frank are telling us about a church, a beautiful church, an old timey church somewhere not too far from Battle in a place off the grid called Zion or something like it. “They keep it nice.” “They rake the yard.” “They don’t have an indoor toilet.” “They use oil lamps instead of electricity.” “Once a month they have an evening revival.” “I’ve been to them.” “They’re real beautiful.”

“Except I check underneath the pews before I sit down to make sure there are no snakes,” says Bennie Mae.

“What?!”

“One evening a snake came in there so big it got stuck in the door!”

“What did you do?”

“We killed it.”

There are all kinds of methods of killing. “I kilt it with an ax.” “I clobbered it with a baseball bat.” “I swung it around until it died.” “I stomped on its head.” This cold hatred of snakes, one that was not passed down to me, makes me feel weird inside. Snakes strike in self-defense, kill for food. Snakes don’t ride through the night in posses in little white hoods and sheets, terrorizing the countryside. It’s the rare, if non-existent animal that kills for the sake of killing. Humans are the only ones.

We see our own snake finally on our way out of Battle. John is stretching the legs of the little convertible down the two-lane road that runs through the land of my kin when he says “Snake!” My eyes, which were focused on the endless pines ticked over to the road only fast enough to gain an impression of the snake. I turned around and saw the tail disappear down a grassy shoulder. John had not tried to swerve to miss it, the snake had not sped up to get out of the way. It was not an evil portent, we were not at a crossroads. Satan was not involved. Amazing what blind dumb hatred will make people do. I can’t help but think of the Peterson boy.

It is night now and we are minutes away from eating enough fried fish to make us sick. We are hours away from the rest of our adventure. We are days away from understanding a New South, and months and years away from it not making a bit of difference one way or another. The sky is so full of stars it makes me giddy. I always wondered why you can see the stars better in the country. And when pointed out to me, I, being the city dweller that I am, always became defensive, making excuses for the defect in the New York City night sky. It finally hit me, while I was down in Alabama, that you can’t see the stars in the city because the lights are just too damned bright.

It has to be dark enough.

Coda 

For five days total we’ll drive and I’ll see stand after stand of Southern Pines. Old growth pine and new growth pine, and grassed over land filled with grazing cows that used to be fields of cotton, punctuated now by lone oak trees that look put there by accident. I’ll see magnolia trees with blossoms as big as my head, a pecan grove that makes me think of church, wild plums and wild grapes-muscadine and scuppernong is what they call them.

We are speeding down 431 with the top down. John says he’s not speeding because he doesn’t want to get a ticket down there, but we are speeding, make no mistake. On either side of the two- lane highway are low embankments and trees. Above us and around us in panorama are thunderheads in size and shape not possible to view in our city. Ahead of us is the emptiest stretch of road on the Eastern Seaboard. You may find emptier out in Arizona or Montana. But this is it for here.

The top is down and we smell green and rain coming but we want to make it last, the wind pushing back our faces, the occasional bug caught in our open, laughing mouths, the cold damp, a coming storm, welcome.

We turn onto Route 26, at a sharp angle and quickly. That’s the thing about the road signs down there; instead of placing the sign early enough for you to figure out that you have to turn soon, they place them right at the turn, so you miss it half the time.

Route 26 looks like an experiment in electricity, lightning stretching down to touch the yellow center line, leading us, showing us the way, to Battle and Peterson land, to my kin. “That tree is burning,” John says and to our left, all alone, by itself, a pine is in flames, but it’s a Southern Longleaf, not like the pitch pines of New Jersey, where I’m from. They need fire to pop their cones and release their seeds. For this reason they are called fire climax pines. I’m like those pines, waiting to release the seeds of distrust of the South. Succeeding some, but not completely.

 


Image Credits: Donnie Ray Jones