Yellow Ghosts of a Time Best Not Forgotten
An excerpt from my upcoming book, Letters from a Family Farm.
These Spring 2021 reflections seem more appropriate than ever to share in 2024 on Dr. King’s birthday.
Mom was a semi-single mother for our first three years on Excalibur Farms, as Dad had not yet retired from the military when we moved there in 1965. His last station was the Pentagon. He spent weekends and Wednesday night on the farm with us, but it was Mom holding down the fort — Fort Excalibur, that is — for the rest of the week. Today that “commute” is almost exactly 100 miles, and you can do it in about two hours on divided highways when traffic is light. In 1965, the roads were not nearly as good or straight. Most of Dad’s commute was on two-lane roads with narrow or non-existent shoulders. It must have been an ordeal in those days and in that Volkswagen Bug, especially at night after a weekend of farm work. Nowadays, my military colleagues on an assignment apart from family call this “geo-batching.” I wonder if that term was in use when my Dad had a tiny apartment near the Pentagon.
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Mom soon found a helper to tame this chaos: Mrs. Wizey Carpenter. She would pick up Wizey a at her house a couple of days a week. Wizey and her husband Charlie lived near the Hood Mercantile store and gas station in Wolftown, on an unpaved dead-end road. That road also led to a small Baptist church called Rock Hall Baptist. It was probably less than a mile from our farm as the crow flies. That road had no sign then, but people called it Rock Hall Lane. It has a street sign now, courtesy of the 911 system that replaced “Rural Route” system sometime around 1990. I suppose that the lane was named for the church. Looking back, I wonder if the lack of pavement or signage had anything to do with who lived on that road and who went to that little church. The Rapidan Baptist Church where some county officials go to church -- less than a half-mile away -- has always had pavement, even in the parking lot.
Sometimes Charlie would come along, to help out around the barn or in the fields. But Wizey is the one I remember most. She was a buxom, Black woman going grey who didn’t take much nonsense, instructing us in ways to be helpful as well as considerate. One admonishment that I remember was “if you clean that spill up right as you make it, the kitchen’ll stay clean until I get back to help your Mommy.” We still called my mother “Mommy” then. Mom appreciated Wizey’s approach with us. They had only one disagreement: the way Wizey carried laundry baskets. Wizey would pack two baskets with laundry, then hoist one on each hip to make the trek from the bedrooms to the spring porch on the opposite end of the house where the washer was. This was fine with the wicker baskets, but the new-fangled plastic “snag-free” baskets that Mom prized did not hold up well with this step-saving system. The brittle plastic soon deformed and cracked. Plastic technology has come a long way since then.
I now know that “Wizey” was a nickname. Country folks tend to give out nicknames early and often, frequently based on some bit of childish foolery or perhaps a lesson learned the hard way. Black country folks are ever so much more so inclined to give nicknames — and they keep the nicknames all their lives as a badge of honor. Kind of like fighter pilots and their “handles.” I don’t recall Wizey’s story of her nickname, if she ever shared it with me. As a child, I imagined she got it for her wisdom. She was always at least one step ahead of us kids. Unfortunately, not knowing her given name has made reconnecting with her family hard.
Wizey told me once that she had been born on our farm, and lived there for many years. I had a vague childhood image of her living in the upstairs apartment — the farmhouse had been split into two for a time before we moved there. Or perhaps in the old Jackson homestead, which we later took to calling the Tenant House after several attempts to use it for farm help in need of housing. When I asked, however, she waved toward the northeast and said, “The place is long gone.” I forgot this for many years.
When I grew old enough to help Mom around the house, Wizey’s visits became less frequent. By the time Mom went back to work as the sole physical therapist in the four-county area (Madison, Culpeper, Rappahannock, and Orange), I was ten and back-filling Mom on just about everything around the house and many barn chores. There were days when I did wish for Wizey’s help and companionship, but Mom said she was completely retired and deserved it.
The last I heard about Wizey was when I was in college. Mom called to tell me that she was gone. Charlie had called a few evenings earlier because Wizey was really sick, and asked her to come help. “Charlie was beside himself,” Mom related, “so I went right then. I knew it was really bad when I walked into the house -- I could smell the infection at the front door.” Wizey had a prolapsed uterus. This is something that we usually associate with difficult childbirth, but it can happen much later, especially when a woman has had difficult childbirths. “I don’t know how long she had been suffering,” Mom told me, “But as soon as I saw the prolapse, I called an ambulance to get her to the hospital and called an OB/GYN surgeon. But it was too late — sepsis. She died yesterday.”
Mom was pretty upset about it, but she did not elaborate beyond the almost-clinical description. I picked up on an undercurrent of anger even on the phone. Was she mad at Wizey for not calling a doctor right away? Or at Charlie for waiting until Wizey was so sick? But Mom had “gone clinical” on it and I knew that she would not welcome questions. Mom’s own mother had died of ovarian cancer, and I had to piece together that story from crumbs, as Mom had herded me to my first OB/GYN visit as a teenager. She held my hand through the painful exam that the health-class film (narrated by a male doctor, of course) said was painless. Mom thought her stubborn mother had died far too young because she refused to see a doctor about her symptoms. “I’m not going to turn my tail up like that to any man except my husband,” she said when my mother (by then a young medical professional in the military) urged her to go to a doctor. I remember my mother going rounds with our veterinarian’s wife, who died of breast cancer rather than undergo a radical mastectomy, the only breast cancer treatment option offered there in the 1970s. My mother was on the front lines of convincing many rural women to seek medical treatment, in time when modesty kept women from talking about “female problems” and women’s OB/GYN health care mostly consisted of helping a woman through childbirth and her final days. I remember my mother’s words when I told her about my struggle in the 1980s to get insurance coverage for preventative measures like pap smears. My OB/GYN doctor had to lie on the forms that I had some “symptoms,” because insurance companies did not cover women’s preventative care, only illnesses. “A man can always get another wife,” Mom said, her words tinged with bitterness. “Nobody has put a dollar sign on a woman’s contribution to society, so preventing her from dying is too expensive.” That turned out to be the key to getting preventative care for women. Once we were in the workforce, we could speak to the value of a woman’s life in terms that employers – some of whom were large corporations and health insurance purchasers – could understand and they joined the fight. We made good progress -- for women who had jobs with health insurance, that is. Jobs requiring formal education. Like mine, my ticket to wider world, the sky and space.
It was only much later that I realized Wizey may have had reasons other than feminine modesty to not call a doctor. Perhaps Charlie chose to call Mom for help instead of a doctor because even in the late 1970s, he feared the response of the medical establishment would be nothing. A lifetime of hard work on the margins of society would not have earned an elderly Black couple the same care that I would have gotten. Perhaps Charlie had already tried calling a doctor and was told his concern was unfounded. Perhaps Mom was his last call rather than his first. Charlie and Wizey would not have been able to pay much for the treatment and may have feared being turned away for that reason. They may not have known about new laws that required the state university hospital to treat everyone in a life-threatening case, without regard to ability to pay.
Madison, after all, was slow to catch up with civil rights legislation. My parents led in integrating the county schools; yet, it has taken me many years to understand that Wizey’s and Charlie’s decision process would have been profoundly different from that of mine or of our white friends. I find myself in the position now and again of coaxing my friends into going to the doctor, or being their intermediary, helping them interpret medical reports or doctor recommendations or understand the side effects of prescription drugs. There’s an extra reluctance among my older Black friends to confront the medical establishment. Or even ask questions of a doctor. I think a bit of my mother’s mantle has descended on me, a much less-worthy banner-carrier when it comes to health care. I did learn to question authority, something critical to being a health advocate. I have been slow to understand how hard that is for many people, especially those born and raised with no examples. It’s hard for me to understand what my life would have been like without two parents who knew that “no” was a starting place for negotiations rather than the end of the conversation. My Black friends had a lifetime where the “no” came earlier and oftener. Wizey and Charlie grew up in a world where doctors only treated white people.
I am thinking of Wizey now, after a hike up the mountain road on this early spring day. Part way up the mountain road on our farm, a tiny cabin once stood. All that remains now are the foundation stones, large grey cornerstones and smaller intermediate stones, jumbled by the collision with the logging equipment that skidded through there, our rediscovery of them in the 1980s. Most of the year, you have to be looking hard to spot them. The stones are not that different in color or even shape from the ones that the mountain disgorges periodically along the nearby creek. The distinguishing feature is the arrangement, no longer quite sketching out a rectangle about the size of the living room in our farmhouse. In the spring, however, a crooked line of daffodils emerges before there are leaves on most of the trees. Those flowers mark what was once a doorstep and a path down to the spring that provided water to the cabin’s occupants: little yellow ghosts of a dark past, where someone made a family home out of a single-room cabin.
I mentioned the cabin remains to my brother Jeff one day, and his response was: “Oh, you mean Wizey’s cabin.” The connection stunned me. I don’t know how I missed that connection all these years. The ruins are northeast of the farmhouse, in the direction Wizey pointed. Apparently, Wizey’s family were sharecroppers or laborers on this farm after the Civil War.
A look at the topographical maps and the Department of Agriculture’s soil surveys (1899-1935) reveals another dark truth: while there’s a nice spring and creek in that hollow, and a patch of fairly level ground that was cleared in those days, the soil quality is poor. It’s not the worst on our farm, but it’s Class IV. There are seven classification levels. Class I is the most fertile and Class VII is the rocky mountainside. Class IV soil has a commodity crop index of 0.3 to 0.5. Definitely not the best soil around either – the better land on this farm tops out at in Class II with a commodity crop index of 0.69. Class I soil has commodity crop indices up to 1.0 in theory, but the best farmland in the Midwest US has commodity crop indices well above 1.0. The lay of the land limits the sun around Wizey’s cabin, too. It would have been hard work to feed a family there.
What would I have accomplished if that cabin had been my beginning? The tidy little cottage where I visited Wizey and Charlie in the 1960s and 1970s had an indoor bathroom and a large garden. That cottage was high on the hog compared to that tiny one-room cabin with no plumbing or electricity or heat other than a fireplace on our farm. I have never lived in a home without a flush toilet and hot water. Growing up, I visited school friends without indoor plumbing. I also had some primitive accommodations on humanitarian aid missions as an adult. That gives me a clue, but only a clue.
A Black girl in Wizey’s day might aspire to being a teacher in a segregated school or a midwife. A very, very few might become a nurse or a nurse’s aide in a hospital serving a Black community, but the education for that would mean leaving home and kin for a city. More likely was work as domestic help, or in a school cafeteria making lunches for white children. Or cleaning their school. To think I chafed at many opportunities to become a teacher, nurse, or secretary.
For a Black man coming of age in Madison County then, the options were perhaps more limited: farm laborer, sharecropper, handyman, groom at a racing stable. A few became carpenters and worked in a local furniture factory and built homes in the black communities. A very few saved enough to buy a small farm. A few became preachers, but not full time. Saving souls was something they did in addition to hard work.
Our friend Luther Hill was a farmhand and sharecropper. But my parents never called him that. He was always introduced as a Farmer -- and our friend. He farmed much of the Eddins’ farm in the next county. I suppose that was how he and my Dad met — the large Eddins family was involved in many businesses in the area and owned the local Ford dealership. One branch of Eddins hatched a plan to build a golf course and “country club” on part of their farm. They pulled my parents into those discussions as Mom and Dad had been avid golfers during their military years. Or perhaps they met when Dad and Mom were managing a farm near the Eddins farm for an Army friend who was doing his own version of “geo-batching.”
Luther and Dad helped each other on various farm projects. Dad needed a farming mentor and Luther’s equipment was old. Luther would help us with the heifers one day. Dad would help Luther the next day with our new tractor. They’d bale his hay and ours faster than he could do his own with his tractor. Or Dad would plow some ground for Luther with our six-bottom plow – Luther’s plow only had two -- while Luther changed out disks on our harrow. After the hay was done or the earth was turned, they’d spend some time hanging on the fence row just chatting.
One day, the Eddins’ invited them in for lunch. Dad was seated and being served in the dining room when he realized that Luther was not in the dining room and there wasn’t an empty seat. He was shocked to learn that Luther was being served lunch in the kitchen, alone. I recall him describing this that evening at our dinner table, in disbelief.
Dad never accepted another lunch invitation from that family. When Thanksgiving came, Luther had dinner with us — in the dining room. It was not the first time our dining table had been surrounded by people of different skin colors or ethnicities or faiths. Mom and Dad had friends from all over the world, and Dad had frequently brought colleagues to the farm for weekends. I was only beginning to understand that my family’s attitudes were different from many others in our neighborhood. When I asked, Mom told me that she’d seen a lot of men bleeding for their country in the war, and their blood was red no matter what color their skin was. She did some bleeding of her own during the Battle of the Bulge, injured while helping to evacuate the wounded of the 761st Tank Battalion. Those were the Black Panthers, the most decorated tank battalion in the war. They also had the highest casualty rate, because they were always in the hottest part of the action.
Racial attitudes drove my parents’ decision to buy a farm several years before Dad retired from the Air Force. My parents had purchased a lot in a Maryland subdivision, and designed a home for his last military assignment. I remember playing in the dirt on that lot, plucking the twine between the stakes marking our future home’s foundation, aware that my parents were arguing with someone. My father mentored a brilliant young Black colleague, an engineer who had taken a transfer from Ohio to Maryland to work with my father at Headquarters. Dad suggested that he consider building a home for his young family in this new subdivision, where they would be neighbors. The developer refused to sell a lot to Dad’s colleague on that same block because he was Black. When my parents found out, they cancelled their lot purchase and building contract. That was probably the argument I vaguely recall. Mom and Dad abruptly pivoted from building yet another suburban middle-class home to buying a farm over a hundred miles from that development.
Maybe I shouldn’t say “abruptly.” Mom and Dad admired the “farm kids” they knew: resilient, uncomplaining, able to improvise a solution with whatever they had. Their war experience had taught them that the farm kids were most likely to get their units out of a jam when the shooting started. I can imagine them looking at each other over the cancelled building contract and saying, “What now?” “We’ve been joking for years that we wanted to raise ‘farm kids.’ Maybe we should start now….?” “We aren’t getting any younger!” “Could we really just buy a farm? Would we really miss these suburbs?” And that’s the short version of how we ended up on a farm in Madison. It was a gigantic leap, especially for my Dad, who had never lived in the country before, let alone farmed. For Mom, it was a shorter leap, as she had been raised in the country by a sawmill operator.
But Dad and Mom may have failed to see that they had jumped from one kind of fire into another. When we moved to Madison in 1965, there was a community pool at the American Legion Hall. At least we thought it was the community pool. Mom took us there for swimming lessons during our first couple of summers. I did not notice then that our Black neighbors were not taking swimming lessons with us. I did not notice their absence in school, either. It was only around the farm and co-op that I met our Black neighbors. I guess I did not realize how many Black kids there were in Madison County until after our third summer in Madison, when the schools were finally desegregated – fourteen years after the US Supreme Court declared public school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. The evening news in 1968 was full of civil strife in cities and stories of “busing” white kids into predominately black neighborhoods and vice versa to integrate the schools. This was hard for me to understand, because in Madison what had to be done was to STOP busing Black kids past all-white schools to their “separate but equal Negro” schools. We did not use the term “Black” then — it was “Colored” or “Negro.” In my family, other terms got your mouth washed out with soap, and you didn’t look for encores on that experience.
Until 1968, Madison had a Negro School for lower grades, but the older Black kids were bused to a high school that served several counties. It was actually a vocational training school, not a truly academic high school. I wonder if these students got the same high school diploma that the white kids got. Years later, in Texas, a Hispanic naval officer told me that he got a trade school certificate for drafting when he graduated. He was told it was a high school diploma. When the engineers at the design firm where he worked as a draftsman offered to sponsor him at University of Texas for an engineering degree, the university refused to admit him. He was shocked to discover that he did not actually have a high school diploma. In San Antonio, Texas, as in Madison, the students who were not white were only given choice of which vocational program, not a choice between an academic college-prep course and a vocational course. My Texas friend was able to take the GED and get into University of Texas with the help of his co-workers. From there, he went on to US Navy flight school and a long career at NASA. In Madison County, my Black friends did not find many such mentors.
The busing in Madison finally stopped in September 1968. The Negro school was converted into the elementary school for the entire county. The white elementary and middle school became the integrated middle school. The high school integrated as it was. The Black multi-county vocational school—George Washington Carver High School--became the vocational school for everyone. It had some good programs, too, such as drafting, which my older brother enjoyed. So there was a remnant of busing: if you wanted to take those vocational classes (which also included auto repair, welding, air conditioning repair, and cosmetology), you took a bus from your home high school to George Washington Carver Vocational School for half-day sessions.
The new elementary school hosted all of the first and second grades, but only half of the third grade. I was “tracked” into the lower half of the third grade. I didn’t know what “tracking” was. Years later, when the school was required to open up its records to students, I found that my early IQ test scores were low, and that was the “official” reason for tracking me into the lower half, despite the fact that my reading grade level was far beyond third grade. Perhaps my dyslexia (undiagnosed then) gave me trouble on the IQ test. I actually had no idea that anyone was testing my IQ then. So the low track could have been explained by that IQ test score – or not. Looking back, it seems that was likely just rationale to fill those third grade classes at the formerly Black school with the few white students whose parents would not complain. I wasn’t complaining about anything but the cold lunches, mostly baloney and Wonder Bread sandwiches. I hated baloney, no matter what it was between, but Wonder Bread was my idea of truly disgusting. At home, I made the bread from scratch.
I was very happy about the fact that there were students new to me, students who did not know how un-cool I was, having been born outside the county. I made new friends. In the meantime, Mom investigated my complaints about the school lunches. Mom discovered that not only did the school lack a fully-equipped kitchen, but also had no steam table to keep cooked food hot while serving the entire school lunch. She also discovered that the school had no Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), the way that parents and teachers and school administrators collaborated back then. My parents and a few others caught in this lurch organized the first meeting of the PTA at the “new” school. Much later, someone at that meeting related to me the awkward moments of that first PTA meeting. All the attendees were white parents. They soon figured out that whoever got elected would have to meet regularly with the school’s Black principal, Mr. Brody. The school district had inherited Mr. Brody along with the school. Most of the parents were scared of going to a Black man and telling him that they wanted to make changes in ‘his’ school. Finally, Dad said he didn’t understand the concerns – it wasn’t like Mr. Brody spoke a foreign language or anything like that. My Dad was immediately elected PTA president, without even a formal nomination. And Mom was elected both secretary and treasurer the same way.
The school did not have equipment to serve hot lunches because the school had been limping along underfunded for decades. The current year’s budget was getting sucked up fixing deferred maintenance – plumbing, roof leaks – and the addition of two temporary classrooms for the third graders. Mr. Brody’s response to my parents’ offer of help for the kitchen was greeted with “Praise the Lord.” Mom didn’t lose a minute. The very next month, my mother organized the first elementary school Halloween fund-raiser in the high school gym. Mom thought kids should make their own Halloween costumes, so most of my memories are of the costume creation. I dressed up as a cowboy, complete with a stick horse that I had made out of a spare rake handle and a large stuffed sock and felt ears and eyes. I did not win the costume contest. Maybe the judges found that a cowboy with long braids falling out from under “his” hat was not credible. One of my brothers did better (Honorable Mention) with a robot costume composed of several large boxes spray-painted silver.
Besides the costume contest, games, baked goods sales, and something Mom called a “cake walk” raised enough for the first steam table and stove. The cake walk – a new thing in Madison – consisted of paying a quarter to join a circle of people marching around to music until a blind-folded moderator picked the needle up off the phonograph record. If you were the one standing on a particular number drawn out of a jar when the music stopped, you got a cake donated by some generous home cook. This was really popular.
The cake walk and the school Halloween festival became an annual fixture in Madison for decades, well after that little school kitchen was equipped. Long after that building was abandoned for a brand new primary school. That old school is partially converted to school board and administrative offices now. The rest seems to be storage for old desks and supplies, judging from my reconnaissance mission in 2009. I was on the county finance committee then, auditing the school’s use of funds. I was amazed at how small the building was, with low ceilings and small windows, considering it was built long before air conditioning.
Another thing that happened the year of school integration was the “temporary” closure of the pool at the American Legion. Suddenly, the pool needed “major repairs” and just as suddenly, there was no money to pay for them. That pool still sits empty, a temporary closure stretching more than fifty years. That same year, the Eddins – yes, those Eddins – broke ground on a development called “Country Club Estates” on one of their farms in the next county, including a pool, tennis courts, and a golf course. My parents had been avid golfers during their military years, so they had already signed up as charter members for the golf course and pool. I played “caddy” with enthusiasm that year, bent on convincing anyone and everyone that I was really an eight-year-old adult. This was before my Dad’s experience with Luther eating in the kitchen. The golf outings were few before ending altogether, with my parents’ excuses ranging from “too busy with the farm” and “it’s not the same as it was in our military days.” Probably both true. I recently found their golf clubs in the attic – in dry-rotted leather golf bags. An internet search revealed they were not anything special for collectors, so I left them at the “Share Shed” at the waste transfer station. I recall that we continued to use the Club’s pool for a few years; Jeff and I participated in local swim meets as teens. Jeff became good enough for military academy varsity swim team, but I brought up the rear on most events. I needed a horse to get anywhere faster than anyone else, in or out of the water.
Somehow, I got magically “re-tracked” in the fourth grade into the “smart kids’ class” for middle school, without my new Black friends. In that class, I found that my social connections and my family’s history of supporting the integration of the schools made it very difficult to make friends with most of the “smart kids.” I won’t repeat some of the names I was called. One of my best friends was a mixed-race girl, so you can guess. I was more clueless and socially awkward than idealistic then. I honestly did not understand why these kids were acting that way. It didn’t help that I also would defend anyone getting picked on, regardless of race. I had nothing to lose by coming to the aid of an outcast student, being an official “foreigner” (pronounced “furrenner”) and outcast myself. Fortunately, the bullies themselves eventually forgot why they picked on us. Perhaps they forgot that they ever had picked on us. A few Black students somehow eventually made it into the “academic” group, and several became athletic stars for the school. My mixed-race friend was elected home-coming queen as a senior, eight years later. She became an airline flight attendant, probably a pioneer on her airline. Flight attendant was not on her personal career radar in 1968, when we met. She was in the air on 9/11, not far from the Pentagon. I can visualize her remaining calm and comforting her passengers as her flight was diverted to the nearest airports, all the while wondering about her colleagues on the doomed flights. I know she had a lot of practice calming upset people in school.
Madison did not completely close public schools to avoid desegregation and route the funding to private schools formed for white kids, like some other Virginia counties did. The trap that most of my Black neighbors were caught in – underfunded or unfunded education leading to low test scores which in turn was used to track them into marginal classes and vocation programs – only recently became clear to me as I helped my mothers’ caretakers to navigate the health care system, figure out doctors’ instructions, file taxes, get loans, and balance checkbooks. These are capable, kind, dedicated women with whom I trusted my mother’s life. They are nearly the same age as I am, the product of the public school system as I was. Yet, they are functionally illiterate. I got to college poorly prepared for it by public schools, but I got there, and with enough education to figure out what I needed to do to survive there. The gap between me or the local doctor and these friends is now so great that neither the doctor nor I understood that they might not be able to read the label on a loaf of bread or a can of beans and add up the grams of sodium or sugar. It took me an embarrassingly large number of chats before I finally “got” this and found an effective way to explain food nutrition labels.
Teaching these employees to navigate the modern financial and tax systems continues to elude me. Many of my Black neighbors are unbanked, leaving them at a huge disadvantage in running a business and even getting a car loan. I have had to take copies of checks paid to my employees to one or another used car dealer that I would never dream of getting a car loan from, to prove that they were employed and getting paid. It seemed like such a simple thing to me. Take the cash you just earned and go to the bank and open a checking account. Use checks to pay for things until you have a credit score. Use a credit card with a low limit to make a few small purchases. Then you can get a lower-interest bank loan for a car purchased at a better price from a reputable seller.
But one day as I passed the Court House and the building that used to be the bank, I remembered my own first bank experience. My father took me to the “real” bank with my little toy coin bank, maybe when I was eight or so. I was quite proud of my little pot-metal coin bank, despite the fact that it was one of my older brother’s cast-offs. It featured a tiny spring-loaded gun in the hand of a cast metal cowboy. You put your coins in the bank by cocking the spring on the little gun, placing the coin on the barrel, and hitting the spring release. If you did this right, the coin would be “shot” into the slot over the “bank” door and raise the hands of another little metal cowboy at the bank’s entrance. The little bank was nearly full, so Dad took me to the Second National Bank of Madison. I wondered why it was called the Second National, as it was the only bank in Madison then. There, Dad introduced me to a balding older man wearing a grey suit and black tie. I don’t remember his name, but I remember how he was dressed, because few people in Madison wore ties then. He patiently and gravely explained passbook savings accounts to me. He showed me the big vault to reassure me that the real bank would keep my money safe and even pay me something called “interest.” I shook the coins out of my cowboy bank into a tray on the banker’s desk. I left with a tiny blue book recording that I had deposited nearly twenty dollars, excited about “interest.” I kept that account for at least two decades, opening my first checking account there as a teenager, once more feeling welcomed.
But, duh. I finally realized that if my friend Mary and her father had entered that bank lobby in 1969, they would have been asked to leave. Not that her father would have even tried to enter that building. When he was a young man, he’d have been threatened with physical harm at the polls and perhaps the bank also. At the least, a bank employee would have called the sheriff who might have arrested him and charged him with attempted robbery. That’s all before he even got to the part that Virginia law allowed banks to confiscate the balances in savings accounts if they had not had a deposit made in a certain number of months. Lots of poor depositors lost savings with that law. No wonder her father did not have a bank account. And probably her grandfather and great-grandfather. Or mother. No wonder neither of her parents took Mary to the “real” bank with her toy bank to open a passbook savings account when she was nine years old. The lesson beaten into her family was “don’t trust those bankers.” Mary and I have lived on two different planets when it comes to financial management.
Now the Second National Bank is long gone, absorbed into a truly national bank that then closed the local branch. The building houses the county’s social services office now. Another couple of banks built branches at the north end of town and they have changed hands and names too many times to count. I thought that the Black gentleman – also wearing a grey suit and black tie -- who now handles new accounts at one of those would be able to make Mary comfortable, but I can’t get her to go see him.
A walk through the Town of Madison on the main street takes you through a sort of “square” that’s not quite a square, formed by that old bank building, the Court House, and the War Memorial Building, and the fire station-turned sheriff’s office and Tanner’s Feed and Antiques. When I was growing up, the War Memorial Building had an auditorium on the top floor where most of the 4-H and farm meetings occurred, as the building also contained the Virginia Cooperative Service “county agents” who were the 4-H club supervisors. After meetings adjourned, we would call parents on the sheriff’s phone (the sheriff’s office was also in that building). We would play outside around the Monument to Madison County Confederate Dead. The inscription, often felt by young hands looking for a way to climb the monument, reads: “Plant the fair column over the vacant grave. A hero's honor let a hero have.” As a child steeped in fourth-grade Virginia History class -- which emphasized states’ rights, “culture,” and then brutal destruction of crops by Sherman’s Army causing starvation as the reason these men died fighting the US Army -- I imagined that grieving families had erected the monument immediately after the “War Between the States.” My parents had made sure I knew that this vague word “culture” happened to include slavery. Still, slavery did not seem to be a prominent part of Madison’s history. I know of only two farms in the county that had slave quarters. Stories of starvation in the latter days of that war were part of local New Year’s celebrations, told as the black-eyed peas were passed around. General Grant’s and General Sherman’s armies took all the crops that northerners thought were fit for human consumption. The US Army left the “cow peas” because those were not considered fit for human consumption. They also took the cows and pigs and horses and mules. Many southerners got through the winter of 1864-65 by eating cow peas, now called black-eyed peas, which were available because the livestock that would have eaten them was gone. I suppose that with the war ending in 1865, eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day 1865 could become a symbol of good luck.
In 2020, I participated in a quiet, orderly “Black Lives Matter” march from the Madison County Library to the War Memorial Building, around this monument and back. I had begun settling my own memories into context, but I realized that day that I did not know the real history of this monument. A quick search after the march revealed that the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) erected this monument “on behalf of the Madison Confederate army veterans” in 1901. The UCV was not a local organization at all. Headquartered in New Orleans, the UCV was formed in 1889 out of a merger of several southern confederate veterans’ groups. The United Daughters of the Confederacy was an affiliate. The UCV wore uniforms and had officers and ranks—sounds a lot like a militia, doesn’t it? Madison’s monument was donated to the county one year before Virginia’s poll tax was revived in the state Constitution. Beginning in 1904, a citizen had to pay $1.50 per year to vote. On his first registration to vote, a citizen had to pay three years in advance, a total of $4.50, about $130 in today’s dollars. If you got behind in payments later, you had to pay back taxes to reinstate your voting rights. This poll tax remained in place until a 1966 Supreme Court ruling invalidated it. The Virginia legislature is only now repealing the poll tax law, fortunately not enforced for decades.
To get to the front door of the Second National Bank in 1969 to open my savings account, Dad and I walked past the Monument to Madison County’s Confederate Dead. Leaving the bank, the first thing in our line of sight was that monument. The other war monument on that green, a much smaller obelisk honoring Madison citizens who died in five other wars including the two World Wars, was not placed in the town square until 1991.
The foundations of wealth that my parents used to boost themselves from hard-scrabble working roots to farm ownership – bank accounts and education and a job above subsistence level – were not available to our Black neighbors. Nor was the healthcare that got us through so many illnesses.
I pause at Wizey’s cabin on my walks up the mountain, sometimes sitting on a cornerstone to look at her daffodils on early spring days like this one, wishing that I had understood this in time to have made a difference in her life.
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