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Ever Is a Long Time
A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past A Memoir
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Ever Is a Long Time
Ever Is a Long Time
A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past
W. Ralph Eubanks
Copyright © 2003 by W. Ralph Eubanks
Paperback edition published in 2005. Hardcover edition published in 2003 by Basic Books.
All photos, unless otherwise noted, are the property of the author.
Photo editing by Vincent Virga.
Published by Basic Books,
A Member of the Perseus Books Group
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address Basic Books, 387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY, 10016.
Set in Electra by the Perseus Books Group
Cataloging-in-Publication data for this book is available from the
Library of Congress.
ISBN 0-465-02105-0 (pbk.); ISBN 0-7382-0570-2 (cloth)
eBook ISBN: 9780465009800
05 06 07 / 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Colleen, and the life we share.
And for Patrick, Aidan, and Delaney, who are the future.
Time is dead as long as it is being
clicked off by little wheels; only when the
clock stops does time come to life.
— William Faulkner,
The Sound and the Fury
“Daddy, what’s Mississippi like?”
My son Patrick, then six years old, once asked me that question during my nightly ritual of lying in his and his brother’s beds just after turning out the lights. I wasn’t sure what I should tell him about Mississippi, so I hesitated before I spoke; still I knew his question had to be answered. As I lay there with him in the dim stillness of his room, I began to weave a story about the farm I grew up on and the simple and sometimes idyllic life my family led. I don’t remember exactly what I said to him that night. I do know that I shared with him one of the many happy memories of my childhood in rural Mississippi. When I finished my rambling reminiscence, his younger brother, Aidan, called out from the bottom bunk:
“Can we go there sometime?”
Of course I said that we could. “But we’ll wait until you’re both a little older,” I told them, a statement they did not question, displaying trust as only children can. Patrick then smiled and hugged me; I kissed them both goodnight and walked out hoping that my story would bring pleasant dreams, yet knowing that what I had told them was incomplete. Like the trip to Mississippi, the full story would have to wait a few years.
Since that bedtime conversation, I have thought about what I should tell my children about Mississippi; I do want them to understand the world that shaped me, for better or for worse. I should tell them that the Mississippi I grew up in had two cultures: a white culture and a “colored” culture. Mine was the colored culture, one in which poverty was common and those who challenged the status quo and supported integration and equality suffered economic and physical reprisal, even death. I should tell them that the first cut in establishing your status was the color of your skin; if you were black, education had relatively little bearing on your place in society. As a letter to the editor in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger once stated, “If every Negro in Mississippi was a graduate of Harvard, and had been elected as class orator . . . he would not be as well fitted to exercise the right of suffrage as the Anglo-Saxon farm laborer. . . .” The conventional wisdom was apparent: Any white person was superior to any black person.
I should tell them about how my father had the title “Negro County Agent,” was paid a fraction of the salary of his white counterpart, and worked in a tiny cinder-block building with a tin roof and no bathroom, in spite of being a college-educated professional. I should tell them about how my mother struggled to teach children from worn, out-of-date textbooks discarded from white schools. I should tell them that five years after their grandfather’s death my family was given the back pay for the years he worked for the Agricultural Extension Service for less than a white man who had the same qualifications.
Still I know these details reveal only part of my Mississippi background. The integration and opening of Mississippi’s closed society, sometimes called “Mississippi’s second reconstruction” by historians, served as the backdrop of my life from birth until I left Mississippi as an adult. When I was born in 1957, the mindset among white Mississippians was that a baby born in Mississippi that year would never live long enough to see an integrated school. Almost twelve years later, I walked into an integrated classroom, but with a small group of protesters outside bearing brooms and mops, threatening to clean me out of the school like a piece of trash.
Through my parents’ sleight of hand, as well as their professional status, my early childhood was left largely unscathed by the chaotic series of events that served as the setting of my childhood. If I wanted my children to have the complete story, I would have to tell them how my parents helped me escape all the terror of Mississippi in the 1960s.
But exactly how did they do this? This question had nagged at me for years, with my mother often just telling me when I posed this question, “It was hard, but we just did whatever we could.” After pushing the issue harder, my mother would launch into several elliptical stories, some that reached logical conclusions and others that, at the time, seemed baffling and illogical. In spite of the lack of clarity, the conversations with my mother stuck with me. And with her blessing I began to search for the answers myself.
Just about the time my children began to ask questions about Mississippi, and I began to ask my own, came the 1998 opening of the files of its Civil Rights–era spy agency, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. In a strident effort to maintain segregation and white supremacy, the state of Mississippi established the Sovereignty Commission in 1956 to spy on its citizens and keep a handle on anyone, black or white, who challenged Jim Crow segregation. The commission recruited informers, harassed Civil Rights workers, and accumulated files about individuals that violated their privacy and could be used to destroy them, and perhaps even kill them. In short, the Sovereignty Commission was empowered to “do and perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states, from encroachment thereon by the Federal Government.” The actions and inner workings of the Sovereignty Commission were secret and known to only a select few in state government. Although it was a small agency, its influence on the culture, mindset, and politics of Mississippi in the late 1950s and early 1960s penetrated every county and town in the state.
During my childhood, I knew nothing about the Sovereignty Commission. From what I had now read about the commission and the newly opened files, I knew that this organization had worked to instill fear in Mississippians like my parents: well-educated, progressive-thinking African-Americans, more commonly known as “uppity niggers.” Consequently, I began to wonder if the answers to the questions posed to my mother about Mississippi, as well as the ones I wanted to give my children, were in those files.
But I resisted.
Partly, I thought that the files would contain information only on activists who posed a threat to staunch segregationists, not ordinary, middle-class folks like my parents who were NAACP members back then, but could not be called front-line activists by any stretch of the imagination. Subconsciously, I was also afraid that what I might find would somehow tarnish the stories I enjoyed telling my children about Mississippi and defile my pleasant memories about growing up in Mississippi.
But one night I got up the nerve to check.
An Internet search took me to the website of the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which I discovered maintained a list of the 87,000 names collected by the Sovereignty Commission during its existence. The 124,000 pages of the Sovereignty Commission’s work are only accessible in the Jackson, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Since I didn’t have the desire to go to Mississippi, I decided this virtual exploration would have to do.
An alphabetical list appeared on my computer screen. I clicked on the blue hotlinked letter “E,” scrolled down the list, and winced to find “Eubanks.” Then I saw the names of my parents: Warren Eubanks and Lucille Eubanks, with my mother’s name misspelled as “Lucile.”
I began to feel sick, as if someone had suddenly punched me in the stomach. After walking away from the computer in disgust, I sat right back down and stared in disbelief at the names on the screen. Then it hit me: In addition to everything else I had to tell my children, now I also had to explain to them that the state of Mississippi had spied on their grandparents.
Since that night, I have been haunted by seeing my parents’ names on an Orwellian list of people who must be watched, lest they threaten the Southern way of life cherished by so many white Mississippians. After I tell my children about the spying and the harder-edged stories from my early life in Mississippi, the question that now stares me in the face is how much of Mississippi’s past remains in the Mississippi of the present? My own mixed marriage, though no longer illegal as it was in the past, is still very much a taboo. In the early 1990s when my wife Colleen and I traveled together in Mississippi, we got our share of idle stares. But we also found ourselves on the receiving end of a few hateful acts, like an attempt to run us off a country road. We even got our own separate seating time for breakfast in our upscale bed and breakfast, an obvious effort to maintain traditional standards of Southern decorum. When the innkeeper found out that I was a native of Mississippi, her sour expression and pursed lips seemed to say, “you should know better than this.”
When I do finally take my children to visit Mississippi, will they be welcomed there, or viewed as an affront to traditional standards of Southern society? Although I know that I cannot shield them from racism in American society, the Southern brand of racism is venomous and penetrating, particularly to an impressionable child. The Mississippi of my childhood was often nightmarish, riddled with scenes of intense poverty and despair, black churches set on fire by hateful whites, young bodies buried in earthen dams, and black men murdered by snipers while walking across their front yards. The all-pervading doctrine of the state was one of white supremacy rooted in the philosophical belief in slavery and perpetuated through segregation. The rules of segregation, in turn, were upheld with an iron fist purely to instill a sense of inferiority among the black citizens of Mississippi. And I was part of the group of people in whom a sense of inferiority was to be instilled, and at any cost.
Though the Mississippi I grew up in is different now from what it was when I was a boy, my experience is that there are still vestiges of those times lurking in unexpected places. For a child born today, the rules of Mississippi’s segregated society are difficult to understand. I have already tried to explain to my children that once upon a time, in Mississippi and throughout the South, I could have been murdered for the crime of loving their mother. Although they accept that as fact, they don’t understand why or how our marriage at one time could have been criminal.
Just as my sons don’t understand the randomness of miscegenation laws, I sometimes don’t understand why I feel so much affection for Mississippi. During most of my formative years, it was the closest thing to a police state as anything in this country.
Still, I want my children to know the joys I experienced growing up in Mississippi, for often I think that it has done as much for me as it did to me. Mississippi, the land and its history, inhabits and haunts me; its music and rhythms, both the joyful and the melancholy, have followed me my entire life, even when I tried to run away from them. I could never escape because being a Mississippian is the source of my inner strength. It lies at the core of my identity.
The memories of the Mississippi of my youth, though, are locked together with a sense of joy and wonder as well as fear and foreboding. Somehow I have to face up to these two Mississippi’s: the one I love and the one I hate. It’s time to stop running away from a place that is so much a part of me. Like my children, I, too, must know what Mississippi is really like.
Safe in a Sea of Calm
Place opens a door in the mind.
The years have a way of providing what seems to be an infinite distance, yet somehow that distance helps me feel more intensely the joys of growing up in a small town in Mississippi. Time has made it possible for me to see what I both loved and disliked, as if both sides are placed on a stage in front of me to observe objectively. As I stand back and watch these two sides of my early life, I recognize that it was both the comfort and confinement of small-town Mississippi life that prompted me to choose a life away from it. The same forces that nurtured and made me feel secure also suffocated me until I found it unbearable.
There are times when I walk city streets and feel my little town of Mount Olive, Mississippi, tugging at me, telling me to come back. It’s a good feeling, one that reminds me of people and places that I love: the calmness of fishing on the banks of a quiet lake, the smell of the food at a summer church revival, and a walk in the hills of my family’s farm with my dog. There is no feeling of suffocation, only affection. But I have visited rarely since I left Mount Olive behind, largely resisting the pull and choosing to love the place at a distance.
“Place opens a door in the mind,” Eudora Welty once said. As I tried to unravel the question of how my parents ended up on one of the lists of people to be watched by Mississippi’s segregation watchdogs in the 1960s, one place helped open my mind to the questions of what made my parents and my family marked people: the sleepy Mississippi town of Mount Olive. On its surface, Mount Olive looks like an ordinary small Southern town: black and white, rich and poor, with a few people caught in between. “Mount Olive is a place where nothing ever happens,” I remember writing to my cousin who lived in Mobile, Alabama, a place I thought to be far more exciting than my one-stoplight town. But as I began to bridge years of distance, I came to look at the world I knew growing up with a sharper perspective. Much more than I thought happened in that place where nothing ever happens. Tensions and excitement merely disguised themselves in a veneer of quietude, beginning with my own family.
Outwardly, we were an ordinary family: a mother, father, four children. Of the four children, there were three girls and me, the only boy, which felt like an unfair circumstance rather than an ordinary one to be born into. Like most of Mississippi in the 1960s, we lived on a farm, which was made up of eighty acres of rolling green pastures and dark rich fields planted in vegetables and fruit trees—all common in our part of Mississippi, except that we were black. My parents were college-educated professionals, and the middle-class aspirations my parents held could be viewed as both desirable and threatening to some whites. Like a number of black families in Mississippi, we farmed and grew cattle. However, we farmed not as our only means of making a living, but largely because my father was the county agent, or “Negro County Agent,” as he was labeled then. My mother held one of the few professional jobs a black woman could have: She was a teacher at what was then a segregated school. Farming our own vegetables and raising our own beef helped my family make ends meet on the meager salaries dictated by Mississippi’s system of segregation.
Mississippi’s social and political system was set up to keep black people poor and uneducated. Even if you had an education, professional options were few, and my parents held jobs that were part of that limited realm. When I was growing up, it all seemed painfully normal, nothing exceptional; but looking back now, I realize how extraordinary it was. We lived a dignified life in an undignified system of racial segregation, largely ignoring the confines of that system. What I asked myself time and again when I discovered a tie between my parents and the Sovereignty Commission files was were my parents threatening because of the way they lived their lives? Along with the feared outside agitating advocates of integration, what I knew and remembered from overhearing snatches of adult conversations was that people like my parents had to be watched and kept in line, just to make sure they did not try to rise above their station and try to be equal to white folks. Together, my parents fit the profile of the dreaded “uppity negroes” who had to be kept in check.
My mother had bright auburn hair that complemented her creamy freckled skin. She drove fast, wore smart dresses with high heels, and had a mouth more flamboyant than her conservative manner of dress. Lucille Richardson Eubanks radiated a sharp, pointed warmth that announced “approach with caution.” She held nothing back and maintained an undisguised disdain for Mississippi’s system of segregation. “We don’t drink colored water,” she would tell us if we went to drink from the water fountain marked “colored.” “Water is colorless, odorless, and tasteless,” she would proclaim loudly as we drank the cold water from the fountain meant for white people, daring anyone to stop her. Surprisingly, no one ever did.
Someone had to balance out my mother’s unrestrained boldness, and that job fell to my father. Warren Eubanks was a quiet, dark-skinned man, both the physical and emotional opposite of my mother. Though deceptively soft-spoken in demeanor and speech, he stood his ground with white people. Clearly, he approached the world of segregated Mississippi far more gingerly than my mother. In order to survive, he had to.
My sisters and I developed within these separate realms of the same family: the unrestrained openness of my mother and the measured, yet determined, approach of my father. Knowing that I would have to navigate the world as a black man, my father kept me rooted in his realm, taking me with him wherever he went, even to work. My sisters, Gretta, Sharon, and Sylvia modeled themselves more on my mother’s brash personality and style, a characteristic that differentiates us to this day.
The tensions of those two worlds came to be balanced thanks to the farm. It threaded our lives together, for the land was both our passion and our pride and joy. Life there revolved not so much around our different personalities and mindsets, but more around the rhythm of the seasons and the work dictated by those seasons: planting, harvesting, pruning peach trees, moving cattle from pasture to pasture, stacking hay bales. Perhaps it was the rhythm of those seventeen years we lived on the farm that masked the extraordinariness I now see in my family, for there was a sameness in what we had to do from season to season and year to year. In the comfort of that routine, each of us developed our own unique set of inner resources to bring excitement to what was an isolated, staid, and ordinary existence.
I constructed an inner life for myself that shut out the daily chores on the farm. I wrote letters to children in faraway countries, read books about those places, and imagined myself there, even as I played games with my sisters. That same inner life also sequestered me from that topsy-turvy world of race and racism that controlled the Mississippi of my childhood. Shielded by the distance of years, I decided to go back to Mount Olive to take a closer look at a world I sometimes navigated with my eyes only half open. On a crisp fall day in 1999, I drove into Mount Olive, Mississippi, down Main Street for the first time in almost ten years.
If I was going to figure out what had landed my parents in the 1960s on one of the many lists maintained by Mississippi’s Sovereignty Commission, I realized my search had to begin in Mount Olive. It wasn’t exactly what I planned, for I thought I could figure out all the connections between my parents and the Sovereignty Commission through examining the commission’s archives. There was much information in those archives, so much that I felt considerably overwhelmed. It was after spending hours in the Sovereignty Commission files, reading the grotesque tales included in its investigations, that I felt Mount Olive tugging at me. A voice seemed to say, “I’ll help you figure out all of this.”
I had always felt safe on the streets and roads in and around Mount Olive. And the people were friendly there. Now I knew this was the place that had shielded me from the hateful side of Mississippi, the very side I had been experiencing during hours of reading the Sovereignty Commission files. And I needed to feel safe again because I had discovered that some of that detestable, unsavory side of Mississippi lurked beneath these very streets during my childhood.
Up until the age of seventeen, Mount Olive was the only place I had ever called home. When I left to go to college, I never came back, and neither did my family. We sold our beloved farm when my father got a promotion that took our family to north Mississippi. As fate would have it, my childhood and my direct tie to my childhood ended at the same time. Two years later, my father was dead after a bout with cancer, shutting the door on my life in Mount Olive even tighter than before.
To my three sisters, Mount Olive seems like a vague memory, just an anonymous place where they grew up. I am the third of the four of us, the one who has returned to Mississippi the most. I was not able to shake free of it. All of us live in the East now, me in Washington, D.C., and my sisters in its suburbs and in Virginia. We all share fond memories of our farm and the town of Mount Olive, but for me, it’s different. Mount Olive is forever imprinted on my senses and sensibilities. No matter how sophisticated I think I have become from my years in the East, there is still a bit of the wide-eyed country boy in me who grew up on a farm off a hot blacktop road outside of Mount Olive, Mississippi. I can’t let that go. I guess that if I ever abandoned that bit of the country boy, I’d just be putting on airs and pretending to be a born sophisticate, which is something I am not.
When my parents decided to sell the farm, I went on a walk with my father to talk about it. I asked him not to sell; I told him that maybe one day I would come back, live in Mount Olive, and raise my own family on our farm. At the time I thought I would go to medical school, a career path chosen solely at my father’s urging, which I naively thought would provide me the means and status to live the life of a gentleman farmer, a lifestyle totally at odds with being a black Mississippian. “Ralph, be a realist, not a sentimentalist,” he told me. “It’s a lot easier on your heart.” We didn’t talk about it anymore. A long silence fell between us. But what he said to me that day has stuck with me all these years. As I walked the streets of Mount Olive twenty-five years later, I finally began to understand what he meant.
The streets seemed practically deserted on the day I visited Mount Olive and bore the visible signs of graying decay that looms over many small towns throughout Mississippi and the South. Only a few of the stores I remember were still there, most overcome by the super Wal-Mart nine miles down the road in the town of Magee. Although Mount Olive appears to be fading from the lively little town it once was, no matter how much it changes, my vision of Main Street Mount Olive, Mississippi— my home town—will always shine as it did when I was a boy on that much-anticipated trip into town each Saturday.
There was a time when Main Street seemed to be bustling with activity, filled with wonder, people I knew, and exciting places to explore. My father and I would leave our farm on Saturday mornings in a steel-blue and white 1962 Chevy Bel Air to go to the feed mill or to poultry and livestock auctions on a vacant lot on Main Street, sometimes with my father serving as the auctioneer. Around ten o’clock the whistle of the Illinois Central Railroad would overwhelm the voice of the auctioneer as the train breezed through town filled with passengers from the North on their way South. When I got bored with the auction I would go to Powell’s Drug Store and read comic books. Some I would buy, many others I would not, but I read them cover to cover nevertheless. Across the street from Powell’s was the town’s only phone booth, which I liked to play in since the light came on inside when you closed the door, a small treat for a small country boy. The phone booth was next door to the Green Tree Hotel, where on Sunday mornings, we drove to get our copy of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, after a Trailways bus had dropped it off on its way to New Orleans.
- On Sale
- Oct 11, 2007
- Page Count
- 264 pages
- Basic Books