A Paper for NoondayMarch 3, 2001
Presented at Noonday by A.K. Carey March 3 2001
In 1985, at age 76, my mother bought a computer, taught herself how to use it, and sat down to write a history of her family as seen through the lens of the Civil War and its aftermath. She said she wanted to show how the beliefs and values of her family had grown out of the intellectual and social currents of reconstruction. What she was especially trying to do, I think, was to understand and justify her own attitudes: especially those she held of African Americans.
Now what she set out to do is very difficult. It is tough to pin down the sources of the values and beliefs that guide our behaviors, and even more difficult to relate them to the abstractions of historians’ as they try to capture a period’s assumptions. Mother was born in 1909. Her childhood was the period of the First World War. Her young womanhood was the 1920’s. Her attempts to relate her and her family’s beliefs and actions to the socially and economically distant days of reconstruction were futile. Too much had changed in the way she saw herself and reacted to her environments for her to be successful in finding the sources of her beliefs in the trauma and struggle of the civil war and its aftermath.
But though Mother was a generation removed from reconstruction, and her attempts to relate the actions of her family and friends to that heritage, are not successful, what she did do, was to create a charming and lively picture of life in a small Southern city in the early part of the 1900’s. Though I do not find either the sources of the family’s values or the way those values derive from the circumstances of reconstruction, I feel that I have gained understanding of why she failed in her attempt to explain her values in terms of those of a previous generation. For in trying to understand the stories she tells, I ran into the same insurmountable walls of generational drift that she had.
One of the things that struck me over and over again as I read the finished version of mother’s memoir, is how foreign many of the events and behaviors seemed to me, events that she never puzzles over or feels a need to explain. If she had explained them, I could not only have understood how and why these incidents occurred, but it would also indicate that Mother had gained perspective on these events, that she realized that the time had passed when the values and beliefs that bred them were current and assumed; in other words, that she looked back on them with a changed understanding. Mother’s history illustrates for me how great the gap is between even closely related generations, how difficult it is to understand the motivation, values, and feelings of people who have lived even twenty years before we have. When mother wrote her book, she was looking back nearly a hundred years; when I read it, I am looking back even farther: no wonder that motivations and values seemed fuzzy.
There are three things I would like to do in this paper. I would like to explore some of these incidents that I find amazing but that she seems never to question, the incidents that it seems to me, time has erased from the realm of circumstances I can imagine or understand. I would also like to share with you some of the stories that delight and charm me as mother tells us about her family and neighborhood. And I would like to begin by telling you about the process by which she arrived at her final product, a not uncomplicated journey through the thickets of historical research and computer frustration.
But first a word about my process in this paper. I will begin with mother’s process of composing her memoir, how she went about it and what worked and what didn’t. That is discrete enough to be easy. But my other two goals intersect. If I arrange chronologically the incidents she describes, then the ones that elude me intertwine with those that delight me. I don’t think that you will have trouble telling which is which, since I think that the puzzling incidents will puzzle you too. But I’ll begin with Mother’s process.
Mother’s original intention was to begin her biography with a history of West Raleigh in the early years of North Carolina State University where her father spent his professional career. In line with her original goal, she wanted to show how the college grew from the political and economic exigencies of reconstruction. She began with the carpetbaggers because she had a book about them in her library. But that didn’t get her to the College and her neighborhood.
So she went to the public library and began to read NC history at the time of the founding of the College in 1889. But as any researcher knows, nothing ever actually begins anywhere. Within days she was all the way back to the War of 1812 as she tried to explain the economic and industrial growth of the Southern States (always capitalized in Mother’s book).
She spent several chapters of this first draft on the Civil War and its economic foundations and then on the rise of a postwar populist demand for more training for the sons of “po’whites” who farmed small acreage and had owned no slaves. Another chapter was required to explain the competition of North Carolina State and the University of NC at Chapel Hill for funds from the state legislature. The actions of the federal government, especially the Morrrill Act of 1862, the federal mandate that created Land Grant Colleges, were also described at length. She read books, took notes and wrote the most deadly dull and unconvincing mish-mash you can imagine, much of which, I suspect, was plagiarized.
Finally, at the end of this rambling and boring 40 page catalogue of dates and facts, she tells the family anecdote of Richard Stanhope Pullen, a wealthy Raleigh man, and suddenly her story comes to life: Here is what she wrote:
It is said that Mr. Pullen vowed never to take a wife, or own a slave or a dog, and it is true that he never married. But he did have a body servant named Washington Ligon, called Wash by Mr. Pullen, and Wash owned a dog. Mr. Pullen would walk along the streets of the little town of Raleigh carrying his umbrella, with Wash pulling a wagon full of tree switches, and the dog following behind. Mr. Pullen would stop and point his umbrella to indicate the spot he wanted a tree to be planted. Wash would then dig a hole, and plant a sapling from the wagon. In this way Richard Stanhope Pullen is credited with adding 5000 trees to the cityscape of Raleigh [though I would say that it was Wash who should have been given the credit].
Mr. Pullen enters her story because it was he who gave the land of NC State College. Once again he, Wash, and the dog are a picturesque trio. As Mother describes it,
When Mr. Pullen gave the land to the College, he and Wash marked the land to be donated and the location of all the driveways and walk ways. He did this by walking ahead of Wash who led a horse pulling a plough, that was followed by the dog. Mr. Pullen pointed out the boundary lines with his umbrella and Wash guided the horse that pulled the plough to mark them for the surveyor who walked behind them.” (22-23)
But after recounting this charming scene, Mother again lapsed into a lengthy account of the speeches that were given at the dedication of the first college building.
After listening to her opening chapter two or three times, my children began asking her if she remembered any other stories that her family had told and what it was like in her home and neighborhood. Did she ever remember! She wrote a wonderful chapter that was set in the family home after dinner on a Sunday evening. Here is how it begins:
Every evening after supper and on Sunday afternoons, the family gathered in the library or the nursery or in Mama’s bedroom. That’s where the sewing machine was, and Mama often sewed in the evenings. In winter a fire burned in the fireplace, and in summer the electric fan whirred quietly. Dinner was at six-thirty, so by a little after seven, they began to trickle in. My married sisters would come each with her husband and one child -they had just one child each- and stay for an hour or so before the children’s bedtime.
The adults talked to each other and the children half listened. It was now that family lore was passed on, never consciously, mostly through “in” jokes and family sayings. It was now that each succeeding generation unwittingly learned by a sort of osmosis what was acceptable and what taboo was. For instance, Mama objected to what she called unnecessary noise, such things as fingers drumming on a tabletop. She would place a calming hand on a wiggling child and say, “Stillness of body is a sign of good breeding.” Or she would settle a discussion as to whether or not someone had acted wisely in a given situation with another of her behavioral guides in motto form: “Politeness is to do and say, the kindest thing in the kindest way.” (1).
When my children and I heard this family story, we all saw the light at the end of the tunnel. This could be fun if we could just turn her head from the history of North Carolina to the history of her family and neighborhood. She told us some other stories and we loved them, but she resisted making them the focus of her history. In fact, it made her quite angry that we were so stupid that we couldn’t understand or appreciate what she was trying to do. Instead, we too often fell asleep. It took months of urging, but she finally put away the history books and set herself to writing about what she remembered and trying to explain and justify, both for herself and us “what was acceptable and what was taboo” for her family and society
Even if mother had to give up her attempt at placing her family in the great sweep of historical events, she has certainly succeeded in creating a vivid picture of family life in a small southern city in the first decades of the 20th century. Her father was an engineer and a teacher at what is now North Carolina State University, but was then North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. The College was founded in 1889 with 50 students, all at least 14 years old and with the ability to read and write and do fractions. These North Carolina boys, who had all furnished evidence of “good moral character” (26) paid 20 dollars a year tuition and an additional 8 dollars a month room and board. Mother says that the men who founded the College “were not concerned with the rights and wrongs of the Civil War or Reconstruction. They were anxious to get on with life, to deal with reality, …[to train] young men who wished to acquire skill in the wealth-producing sciences’” (20).
Her father, Wallace Carl Riddick, joined the faculty of 6 men in 1892, when the college was just three years old. He was, at that time newly graduated from the graduate engineering program at Lehigh . He wrote to his sweetheart, Miss Lillian Daniel of Weldon North Carolina, and said “Come on down and marry me, Lilly. They are paying me so much money that I’ll never be able to spend it all.”
And so she did. They were married in October 1893, and moved into a rooming house near campus while he taught his classes and built them a house across the street from the College. They immediately set about having babies and spending his 125 dollars a month.
I think it’s a wonderful story, and it sounds familiar and eternal. But when mother begins to tell the story of her mother’s childhood, I switch from delight to mystification. This is one of the places where Mother takes for granted events and attitudes that stupefy me.
Mother’s mother, Lillian Daniel Riddick, was only two in 1873 when her mother died from complications after the birth of her sixth child. Her death left her husband, a storekeeper with three surviving children, two sons and a daughter. The eldest son was 14, my grandmother, Lillian, was two and the baby was only a month old.
After the death of his wife, the two youngest children, Lillian and Raleigh, were sent to live with his sister, and he and the eldest boy, Walter Eugene, lived in rooms over the store. So far, it is a sad story, but one that is easy to understand under the circumstances. But three years later in 1876, the eldest son, Walter Eugene, went off to Wake Forest College , at age 17, and astonishingly …..took the two younger children with him!
They all went to live with Mrs. Purifoy who rented rooms and ran a primary school (or maybe she was a late 19th century day-care provider. But mother definitely says, “school.”) Lillian was 6 and the baby was four, and they both apparently went to Mrs. Purifoy’s school while Freshman Walter Eugene was at his classes. They were there with him for the whole school year. In the summer they went back to Weldon and lived with their aunt, but in the fall, they returned to Wake Forest with Walter. They stayed with him for all four of his college years.
When he was graduated, about 1880 or so, Lillian, my grandmother, who must have been around ten or eleven, was sent to Chowan Baptist Female Institute until 1888 when she was graduated and moved back to Weldon to live with her elder brother. Their father had died the year before, though Grandmother might well have gone to live with Uncle Walter even if their father had been living.
This is a story that I find incomprehensible. How could you send your 6 and 4-year-old children off with a 17-year-old college freshman? Granted a college freshman may have been more mature then, but two little children? And if there was a Mrs. Purifoy in Wake Forest, wasn’t there one in Weldon? There must have been something wrong with her father. Or maybe it is a case of values and behavior so changed in 100 years that we can’t begin to understand each other’s motivations and behavior.
Even if it was not unusual in 1877 to send your son off to college with two young children, I would have expected it to seem unusual in 1980. But mother devotes only one, factual paragraph to it, while she devotes two pages to the family’s connection to George Washington and two more to Uncle Walter’s speech at the Confederate day Celebration in 1911. She does say that her mother “never talked of her childhood or spoke of her father.” (31). But my mother’s rationale is that grandmother “didn’t like to be reminded that her father was ‘in trade’ for she put great emphasis on what she called ‘the dignity of profession.’” My guess is that there wasn’t much of a childhood to speak of, and maybe even Grandmother resented being sent away from home at age 6 in so apparently callous a way.
But back to life in early West Raleigh. The five Riddick children, of whom my mother was the youngest, lived with their parents in their big old house on Hillsboro Street, across from the college. Anyone who knows Raleigh knows that this is now a busy city street with shopping malls, bars, restaurants, parking lots and heavy traffic, rather like Ludlow. But in 1900 it was a country- residential area for the faculty and their large families. The roads into the city were mud and deeply rutted, but there was trolley line that connected west Raleigh to the downtown area.
The house grandmother and grandfather had built was rambling and commodious with a porch that wrapped around three sides, rocking chairs, a widow’s walk (for drying walnuts), a parlor with a davenport, a library, dining room, butler’s pantry, kitchen, ham room, nursery, seven bedrooms for the family and guests, and an extra bedroom and bath for Mr. Ruben Isaac Poole (more about this later). There was also an attic that stretched over the whole house. Outside were a back porch and a clean-swept, back yard where hogs were brought in from the farm and butchered in the fall and ice cream was made on summer Sundays, a vegetable garden, fruit trees (apple and fig), a barn, chicken yard and house, and a house for servants.
This house brings me to another aspect of mother’s memoir that surprises me, but that she never seems to question. Grandfather was president of the college from 1916 to 1922. He and Grandmother had five children and busy social and professional lives. Yet they seem always to have had their house inhabited by teachers and students. All through mother’s childhood and beyond, the back room and bath of the upstairs hall were occupied by a teacher at the college like Mr. Ruben Isaac Poole. Mr. Poole seems to have crept in and out, never giving anyone reason to notice him. He was “quiet, friendly and formal.” He never disturbed anyone. But Mr. Poole was not the only one.
My grandfather believed most heartily that world peace depended on understanding other cultures, and to that end he arranged for foreign students to come to NC State. In the early 1920’s when mother’s two sisters were away at college, he arranged for four Chinese students to attend NC State and to live in unoccupied rooms in the president’s home. Three of the boys majored in textile engineering and one in agriculture. They played on the tennis team and joined the Literary Society and the professional organization. They were “neat and polite” and brought raw silk and lechee nuts to the Riddick girls. They lived with the President’s family for the two years they were there, graduating in 1922.
Grandfather also arranged for Serbian students to attend the University and for the College to underwrite their tuition and board. But they did not live with grandmother and grandfather. I wonder if race might have been the reason why Professor Poole and the Chinese lived with them. In the 1920’s in Raleigh North Carolina, maybe no one would rent to a quiet Jewish man or to neat and polite Chinese students. Perhaps it was economics. I don’t know if they paid rent or not. But since the Serbian students didn’t live with mother’s family, but in the dormitory with other students, race seems a good possibility for the strange living arrangements of Mr. Isaac Poole and the Chinese students.
When I wondered at this arrangement, however, it did not seem strange to Mother. Even 70 years later, she did not consider it worth speculating about. The only information she offers about Mr. Poole is that, once, when there was a fire at the College in the night, Mr. Poole heard the fire engines and crept out of the house without waking anyone. Mother never forgave him for depriving her of the excitement of the fire in the machine shop that burned up my grandfather’s automobile.
Another story mother tells without any apparent puzzlement is of a local murder. According to mother, her best friend’s aunt, “inadvertently shot her husband.” Here is what happened. The husband, “a rough-type man, a German,” was in bed cleaning his gun. His wife, the aunt in question, came into the bedroom telling him to come to eat breakfast. As mother says,
he refused to budge although he had been told repeatedly that his breakfast was ready. Finally his wife came into the bedroom, picked up the gun he had been cleaning and playfully pointing the gun at her husband she said, “If you don’t get out of bed I’m going to shoot you!”… Then she again “playfully” pulled the trigger, shooting her husband through the heart and killing him. (93-94)
Mother’s editorial comment, written in 1990, is, “I know none of the details, but if she were accused of murder, she was most certainly acquitted.” (94)
Grandfather must have been the most approachable of presidents. Mother takes for granted what seems amazing to me, that he would always be available to the students and faculty. He sat on his front porch every evening, and faculty and students stopped to discuss problems. Students borrowed books from him and stopped by to chat when they were returned. Mother reports that a Raleigh friend who was a student while grandfather was president told her that “Papa went to Rhodes Drug Store every weekday at ten in the morning and again at four in the afternoon. He bought a Coca-Cola and talked with students who came up as he drank his Coke. Papa did this purposely…. so that any student could have access to him, discuss any problem without having to make a formal appointment.” (67).
Grandfather was president during World War I and the influenza epidemic of 1916-1918, and Mother says that she and her sister caught the flu early and recovered without complications. They were then thought to be immune, and as the boys became sick and the infirmary filled up, she and her sister were delegated to deliver the boiled custard and calves-foot jelly made for the sick students by the professors’ wives. And she says the families of the boys would stay with us, “of course,” when they came to nurse their sick sons, who, she said “began to die like flies” (106). Imagine, if you can, Joe Steger with a house full of parents whose children were at UC dying like flies!!
Mother’s life as the youngest daughter of the President of the college was exciting and full of adventure. She was 6 or 7 when he became president and around 13 or 14 when he went back to teaching, and became Dean of the College of Engineering. He also, at one point, coached the football team, but I think that was when he was a young professor. At any rate, the stadium used to be named Riddick Stadium. Today, that edifice has been torn down and replaced by another more modern stadium elsewhere named something else. Riddick Stadium is now Riddick Parking lot.
Mother and her sisters had the run of the college buildings and grounds, especially when school was over. Then, they went through the boys’ rooms, looking for anything that might have been left behind: a pencil, a pad of paper, sometimes a handkerchief. They prowled the gloomy space under the bleachers after football games for combs or coins that might have been dropped by the spectators. They spent winter afternoons in the college kitchen where Amos, the cook, would make them small loaves of bread and gingerbread men. On summer days, Mother would cross the street to her father’s office in the administration building to ask him for a dime for an ice cream cone.
One of my favorite stories is about three little girls and their pet goat. Sooner, a white goat, belonged to mother’s best friend, the one with the dead uncle. “Sooner” was short for “sooner buttcha as not,”(89), and it was so mean, it had to be tied at all times. A favorite game was getting as close as possible to the tied goat and then running away as it turned, head down, and attacked.
One night Sooner was stolen, and the little girls found out that a bunch of college boys intended to paint him red and lead him onto the football field the next Saturday. Sure enough, during half-time, the goat appeared on the field, front end white, rear end red. The children had prepared themselves with stout sticks, and they rushed out of the grandstands, attacking the college boy leading the goat. He retreated in the face of the children’s fury, and the girls triumphantly led Sooner back to his yard, as the crowd cheered.
But that wasn’t the end of the episode. The little girls got some workmen to make them wooden paddles, and for days thereafter, whenever they saw any of the guilty college boys, they ran after them flailing them with blows from their wooden paddles. The boys couldn’t fight back against ten and eleven year old girls and were forced to retreat in ignominy.
As pleasant as life in a small southern college community must have been, it certainly had its down sides. The Civil War was 50 years in the past and its passions and pain were distant, just distant enough to wipe away the grime, poverty, and blood and substitute glory and heroism. As Mother says “Southern children grew up on tales of cruelty at the hands of Yankee soldiers. They read Ditty, Dumps and Tot and The Little Colonel series and steeped themselves in the glories of the prewar south.” (133).
When mother was a student in the primary school at St Mary’s, her teacher, Miss Katie McKrimmon hated Abraham Lincoln. She had her students cross out his name when it appeared in their schoolbooks. If his name were mentioned, the class of little girls booed. They cheered and clapped, however, at the mention of Lee’s name. On February 12th ,Miss Katie would say “Whose birthday is it?—Lincoln’s—there, I told you. Now forget it!” (119).
Race relations and especially the relationship of her family and herself to their servants (for so all the African Americans of her acquaintance were) seems to be especially fascinating to mother. She believes that she is completely without prejudice, and to this day has tried to live her life so, but, of course, she, as are we all, is bound by the assumptions, stereotypes, and values of her culture. This is an area to which she devotes much attention, and she works hard to show where she feels that her families’ beliefs were in error.
Mother is careful to make a distinction between her family’s attitudes toward African Americans in general and their feeling about the African Americans that they knew. For instance, mother says Mama sincerely believed that it was the desire of every black man to run off with a white woman. But mother goes on to say that”this applies, of course, to black men in the abstract. She was fond of and completely trusted the black men she knew personally. Many of them worked for us, keeping the yard and very large garden; waiting on the table in a starched white coat when we had company, and finally as a sort of male nurse or caretaker for my father after he turned so angry when mama was taken from him by death”
Many of mother’s stories have to do with the love she felt for the servants who passed through her life. There was Julia who did the ironing and who was stationary and available for conversation with a little girl. It was Julia who sat with her arms around the two little neighbor girls comforting them when their mother died of influenza. There was Amanda Rogers, mother’s nurse until she was 8, who took mother to the AME church and as she says “did her best to turn me into a little southern lady.” (140). There was Aunt Alice who lived “in a little house in our backyard” and who would act out scary stories for the Riddick children sending them terrified home at night.
But mother’s stories also suggest many unexamined assumptions about African Americans, especially that the men, were immature and childish, and happy to be cared for by their wiser and more knowing employers. This is illustrated well, I think, by mother’s recollections about the state fair.
Mother has very happy memories about the State Fair, held in Raleigh every September. Every booth gave away free samples and cotton candy was warm on its paper cones. There was the switchback, or roller coaster for children to ride, and Mother remembers vividly the great switchback accident when the two cars on the coaster, both full of St. Mary’s girls, collided, throwing the girls in all directions. The college boys heroically appeared and constructed stretchers to carry the injured back to St Mary’s.
There were displays of the biggest pumpkins and best green beans, of pies and cakes, cows and goats. Mother and her friends used to enter a couple of jars of preserves from her mother’s pantry so that they could get in free as exhibitors. Her father was appointed Inspector of the Sideshows. His job was to be sure that all the side-shows passed the test of decency. So untroubled was he by the possibility of indecency that he took his 10 year old daughter, my mother, with him on his inspection tour.
But as mother’s memoir proceeds, it turns out that there were two fairs, a White Fair and a Negro Fair. Here is what mother says:
Every year the Negro Fair was held after the State Fair closed down, for blacks were not admitted to the State Fair. Of course much of the Exhibition Hall had been cleared out, for entries had been judged and blue ribbons awarded, the sulky races run, and a good many of the side shows had folded their tents and silently stolen away to a more lucrative spot. But many of the games of chance stayed, and it was quite an honor to be the president.
For as there had been a president of the White Fair, so there was appointed a President of the Colored Fair. Both were positions of great honor. But a white man was appointed to help with the Colored Fair. There was a good bit of jocose conversation about this position, but in the black community having to have a white consultant didn’t deter from the importance of being President of the Colored Fair. (103)
It doesn’t sound like much of a fair to me, with no exhibitions, sulky races or side shows. And how on earth can she say that the Black community didn’t mind having a white man appointed to help with its fair?
She goes on to tell a story that completely and sadly embodies her period’s notions of the black male.
Lillah Smith was the cook and maid in our family whom I well remember. She blamed God and bemoaned the fact that He ever made black people. Lillah’s life held a tragedy. Her husband Ham was a prominent member of the Negro community and at one time was President of the Negro Fair…. Something happened to cause Ham to fall into disrepute. I never found out what it was, beyond my mother’s excuse, “he fell into the hands of unscrupulous white men”. Whatever it was, Lillah apparently blamed Ham, Ham was dead by the time I remember, but my sister Lillian told me that she went to see Lillah once and found that she had somehow managed to tie Ham to a tree and was beating him with a stick. (137).
This story of Ham and Lillah seems to have fascinated mother, who, though she never comments on it or doubts it, has included it five times in her memoir.
I find the whole fair incident very troubling. I guess I can imagine that in 1916 African Americans couldn’t go to the State Fair. When I was a little girl during WW II , the servants at Nags Head swam at a different part of the beach. But that grandmother couldn’t even give the poor man credit for getting into trouble by himself, seems a bit much. And the part about Lillah tying him to a tree and beating him, seems downright impossible. But mother never questions the events. There remained in her set of assumptions that which made possible and even appropriate (though under unspecified circumstances), such treatment of a prominent black man by his wife.
The final chapter of mother’s book takes us up into the 1920’s and is less concerned with small town life and beliefs than it is with her experiences as a young, single, working woman. I find it very interesting. And this, I think we will all understand.
Mother went to Westhampton College in Richmond Virginia at age 16 (maybe this sheds some light on the incident of grandmother and Wake Forest. Were children that much more adult in their teen-age years? Or were colleges that much more parental? ). At age 20 she came back, graduated but unmarried, to live with her parents and go to Miss Chess Harbarger’s Business School.
As a college graduate, Mother was exempted from Business English, but she took shorthand and typing, and after graduating, she got a job with Occidental Life of New Mexico which had just moved its home office to Raleigh. But she was only there for a few months before one day the President called her into his office and fired her because he said that she was a ”social butterfly.” Mother didn’t know what a social butterfly was, but she rushed home to tell her parents who were eating lunch. They were so upset, mother says, that they couldn’t eat the ice cream that was served for dessert.
Though she says that her social life wasn’t all THAT exciting, she describes being a flapper during prohibition, going to dances at the Country Club and drinking bootleg whisky behind the riding stable. But she was soon working at the Wake County Savings Bank for Mr. Grimes and Mr. Vass. She was called “Miss Genie,” and the only drawback that she felt at being the only woman in the work force was that there was no ladies room, and she had to go across the street to Boylan Pearce Department store to go to the bathroom. Mr. Grimes and Mr.Vass also owned a realty company and an insurance company. Mother noticed that month after month no insurance polices were sold, and she felt this was a wasted opportunity. So one day she offered to buy the business from Mr. Grimes. He refused, but was enchanted by her offer.
Most days, Mother rushed home from work at 2 PM when the bank closed to listen to popular songs on the radio. She says that
Too often on sunny days, I would get a telephone call from Mr. Grimes. “Miss Genie,” he would say, “I’ll pick you up in fifteen minutes.” Grudgingly, I would turn off the radio and go outside to be picked up by Mr. Grimes in his great big car. We would ride around the countryside, looking at the outside of the property proposed as security for a loan request. I don’t think either one of us knew what we were looking for. I know I didn’t.
But the property had very little bearing on whether or not a loan was approved anyway. The main criteria were the knowledge of the borrower, his character and his reputation as a solid citizen and hard worker. To this day, I carry the recollection that most of the loans were made to Black congregations to build churches. (169-70).
In 1932, when Hoover closed the banks mother was ready to do her part. She says
On the evening the news of the President’s action reached Raleigh, my mother was having a dinner party, and we ladies were properly dressed in long dinner gowns. Just as Beatrice Young was bringing in the desert (apple pie with ice cream on the top) the call came that I was needed at the bank. Like an old war-horse, I responded immediately, jumped in the car, chiffon dinner dress and all, not even eating my dessert.
When I reached the bank, I found Mr. Grimes, Mr. Vass and Mr. Little elbow deep in forms to be filled out, discussing with some asperity how the job should be done. I jumped right into the middle of the discussion with confidence, telling the three men exactly how the job should be done. Tensions began to rise. Finally Mr. Little said to me, ”Miss Genie, for God’s sake get back to your typewriter and let us run the bank.” (171).
At the time and in 1990, that seemed right and appropriate to her.
But Mother certainly did not come out of that environment as a shrinking, southern violet. She is a confidant and assertive woman who once said to me “I never saw a workman doing any job that I didn’t feel I could do better.” As you can easily imagine, this sometimes made it difficult for us to keep repair men.
Mother would have loved Noonday, and would have enjoyed giving you her history herself, without any impertinent commentary. Mother lived through her period and understood it. That there is much of it that I cannot understand is not evidence of her failure as a writer or my failure as a listener. From one generation to the next, generational drift is, I think, inevitable.