The cot was hard, but the blanket was warm as Tom Jefferson stretched his long legs beneath the unfinished wool. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he began to wonder if joining the Navy had been the right decision for the proud grandson of a runaway slave.
His hatred for the South and the inescapable ostracism attached to his skin, had forced him to leave home in search of his worth, which he was certain could be found on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line.
As a boy, he dreamed of the North as an enticing alternative to the segregated South due to its storied distinction as a place where colored folks prospered and liberty prevailed. He imagined it as a separate and unstained land, unspoiled by the evils of slavery, where the color of a man’s skin held no consequence…but that vision was shattered abruptly upon his arrival on base.
The sight of separate barracks was puzzling enough along with the segregated mess hall, but the incident on a city bus eight weeks later, left him enraged, disillusioned and mystified.
Jeff, as he was called back home, had just completed boot camp and was excited about being granted a 48-hour weekend furlough to explore the great city of Chicago. He heard the popular gambling game of Policy was run by colored gangsters with bodyguards, and rich colored folks lived in big houses. Though he was somewhat rattled by the diminished image of the North he had envisioned, his stomach still twirled in anticipation, as he stood in line with the other recruits to board the bus into town.
He was anxious to see the fabled city for the first time and visit its legendary Southside. He’d heard a lot of stories about a place called Bronzeville, where it was said that pretty colored gals waited in long lines at fancy nightclubs to meet Negro sailors from the nearby base.
When the bus arrived, he eagerly stepped forward and was the first to enter the big striped doors. He quickly took a window seat behind the driver, so he could be the first one off the bus when it arrived at its destination. As he settled in his seat, he was shocked to see something he had never seen in the South…a holstered gun strapped to the bus driver’s side.
Why would he need a gun on a bus? He thought to himself. He wondered if some of the sailors might get drunk and rowdy on the way back to the base after a weekend of leave.
Fueled with eagerness, Jeff tapped the driver on the shoulder to ask how long it would take to arrive in the city. The driver turned around slowly and leaned his bulging body forward in his seat. He stared menacingly into Jeff’s eyes. The scowl on his face had been fashioned over time.
“Boy,” he bellowed through broken discolored teeth. “What the hell wrong with you? Are you stupid or somethin’? Get back there in the back where you belong! Only white sailors sit upfront on the bus!”
Jeff was stunned. In the South, he was accustomed to sitting behind the invisible curtain that separated blacks from whites, but he never expected to experience the same humiliation up North. After all, he reasoned, he was in the Land of Lincoln, where white men had fought freely and died for the liberation of coloreds. It didn’t make sense to him that the “rules” in the North would be no different from the South.
His belly twisted in anger, as he got up and walked slowly to the back of the bus. He was glad only a few sailors had boarded and witnessed the forced indignity. He watched somberly, as the other black sailors walked instinctively to the back of the bus, as if commanded by some unseen authority.
As the bus rumbled noisily along the cobblestone streets, Jeff resented the contrasting sounds of the breezy laughter of the white sailors, and the subdued chuckles of the coloreds.
Suddenly, the noise among the sailors grew faint, as a big, black sailor stood and ambled toward the front of the bus to get off. When a white sailor sitting in an aisle seat tripped the man, he fell to the floor.
The bus driver yelled out “Niggers must use the back door to get off the goddamn bus!”
The white sailors snickered and hooted loudly, while the black sailors stared straight ahead in an obsequious silence. The stillness in the back of the bus seemed to echo a collective resignation to the burden of black skin.
The boisterous laughter of the white sailors became enveloped in a tense quiet when the black sailor began to rise slowly from the floor. All eyes were upon him, as he stood and loomed over the white sailor who tripped him.
Jeff prayed silently that the muted anger in the sailor’s eyes would explode in his fists, and he tensed his muscles in preparation to assist. He flinched in disgust when he glanced around at the sullen blank faces of the colored sailors for some sign of unity, but there was none.
The white sailor stood and glared at the black sailor, daring him to retaliate, while three other sailors jumped to their feet and began chanting.
“Hit that nigger! Hit that nigger!”
Soon, the entire front section of the bus was shouting and Jeff could sit still no longer. With his heart thumping loudly against the blouse of his uniform, he stood and stepped boldly into the aisle to show support for his fellow seaman.
Against the whispered warnings of the sailors seated behind him, he moved forward slowly with clenched fists, just as the black sailor shoved the white sailor back down in his seat.
Jeff froze in his spot. When the driver stopped the bus abruptly, rage flared in his eyes, as he watched the burly man rise from his seat and cautiously approach the black sailor from behind. He snatched off the sailor’s cap and struck him hard on the head with the butt of his gun
When the black sailor fell to the floor oblivious to the cheering of the white sailors, or the almost inaudible grumbling of the blacks, the bus driver shouted for quiet, as he ambled back to his seat. Over the loudspeaker, he cautioned the black sailors again regarding the use of the front door. “All colored servicemen must use the back door to exit the damn bus!”
He then drove the bus to the police station, and honked the horn in loud succession, as if it were a routine measure. Police poured eagerly out of the station, as if being called to battle, and boarded the bus with wooden nightsticks in hand. As they dragged the unconscious sailor from the bus by his heels, a small crowd gathered to watch as he was tossed into the street like a bag of flour.
Jeff moved slowly back to his seat, gazing helplessly into space. His body trembled with anger, as the fumes from the bus poured through an open window. Controlled tears burned behind his eyes, as his mind recorded the scene for later replay in his dreams, where he was already haunted nightly by the vision of a white man’s face frozen in death. As the sounds of normalcy slowly replaced the air of tension left by the incident, Jeff recalled the night before, and his quest for sleep that never came.
The big wall clock ticked slowly, as Jeff stared blankly into the dark ceiling of the barracks. He listened keenly to the sleep sounds of the other recruits, which served as a serene backdrop to the memory of what happened the night he left Georgia for the safety of the North. He smiled to himself, as he recalled the unfathomable bond of friendship that had kept him alive.
Out of what had become habit, he reached from under the blanket to rub the spot on his neck, which seemed to still sting from the burn of a rope. As the ships’ bells chimed harmoniously in the distance, he recalled once again that fateful night, which had settled into the depths of his tortured mind.
It was June 10, 1940, and Jeff had run out of gas on the edge of Death Ditch Road, a dark, dangerous stretch of highway in Augusta, Georgia, which was the only route to his girlfriend Cherry’s house. He contemplated the four miles he’d have to walk if he headed back home, and he was torn between fear and a pledge he’d made.
He knew his six-year-old daughter Pepper would be standing in the door waiting for him and would go to bed crying if he didn’t get there to tuck her in. He had never broken a promise to her, and that night was more important than ever. He had enlisted in the United States Navy and was leaving town the next morning.
When his truck stopped, panic gripped him hard, as he sat frozen behind the cold steering wheel weighing the least risk of sitting alone in his truck until daybreak, or walking the unlit road to Cherry’s. He reached beneath his seat for his shotgun, but it wasn’t there. He moaned in despair, when he remembered he left it leaning against the wall of a neighbor’s barn. He knew too well that an unarmed black man caught out alone after dark on Death Ditch Road was a suicide request. This was due to the good ol’ boys who shouldered prized shotguns in search of “loose nigras” violating what they called, “the colored curfew.”
It was widely known that a number of colored men had disappeared on the road over the years, and their bodies were later found hanging under a nearby bridge. His neighbor, Mr. Hubbard Smith, was one of them. He was found hanged when he decided to walk home one night along Depot Row after his truck got a flat tire. His body was found the next morning by his two sons who went looking for him.
As Jeff watched the last sliver of light succumb to a dark blue sky, he didn’t know what to do, but he made the decision to do one thing he had never done before. He prayed for protection from a God he wasn’t sure existed. He thought about his Grandpa Yank and all the stories he heard growing up about the mythical voice that guided him through “all the dangers and snares” of his life, and he wished for something similar to help him out of this predicament.
With raindrops softly pelting the windows of the truck, he convinced himself that a deadly encounter was unlikely, due to the impending storm that rumbled in the distance. He decided to take his chances on the forbidden road. He would stoop walk alongside the dusty route in the tall grass barefoot, to avoid being seen or heard.
When he tried to get out of the truck, the rusty lock on the door jammed, forcing him to climb through the window to get out. He pushed his hunting knife into the hidden pocket of his sleeve and tied his shoes around his neck. His heart raced recklessly, and the knocking of his knees seemed to be in rhythm with the beats, as he stepped into the tall grass.
When the rain began to pour, he started running, with the cool night air snatching his breath in spurts. As he headed toward the familiar shack on Depot Row, he bent low as he ran. The lights of a passing car forced him to the ground, where he laid flat in the high wet grass until it was gone. After two pickup trucks rumbled by within minutes of each other, he decided to crawl on his belly for the rest of the way. His clothes were wet and muddied, as he shivered in the unfamiliar cold.
His body heaved in relief when he finally reached the small bridge leading to Cherry’s house. Trees and shrubbery surrounded him, as he stood to cross the old wooden planks. The damp air enveloped his body, as he surrendered helplessly to a sneeze he’d fought hard to suppress. Suddenly, he heard a low whistle behind him, and a shotgun barrel clicked in his left ear. He turned around slowly and gazed into the baleful eyes of the meanest white man in Richmond County…Lan Jessup.
“Nigga, whatcha doin’ out heah at night runnin’ with no shoes on? “Whatcha don’ done?” Lan asked, with a big wad of tobacco stuck in his jaw. His words were slurred, and his breath reeked of sour whiskey mash.
“I ain’t done nuttin,” Jeff replied, speaking in a jargon he used only when he needed to appear subservient to white folks. His eyes bucked wide in fear.
“I jus’ ran outta gas up yonder, Mr. Lan. My truck’s down the road. I was jus’ trying to make it home by supper.”
Lan’s dark eyes held unbridled hate, as he moved his face closer to Jeff’s. He was big and muscular like Jeff, but taller. Straw and dirt covered old scratches on his face, as if he’d been in a recent fight. His long blonde hair was matted and squeezed under a ragged railroad cap.
“Whatcha up to, Nigga? You know betta than to be out on this road at night!”
He turned his head to spit, but changed his mind and spat the tobacco in Jeff’s face instead.
“You ain’t telling the truth! Everybody knows your pappy’s farm is back the other way down Piedmont Road. You out yo territory boy, and I think I’ll jus’ hang you as a lesson to other niggas runnin’ round out heah at night up to no good. Now, walk ‘head of me, foh I blow your brains out!”
Jeff’s lips twisted in fury, as he wiped the tobacco juice out of his eyes with the tail of his shirt. He willed his face to hide his disgust, as his mind whirled into motion. He knew he had to think fast. He wasn’t about to become a victim if he could help it. He knew Lan’s family was poorer than any family around and was always looking for handouts. He also knew Lan wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him.
He thought of the hard-earned twenty dollars in his pocket, and decided to try what his sister Texas called his “mojo charm.” He knew Lan was dumb and easy to trick, because of what he had done to him years before when they were boys.
They were ten years old when they found out they were the same age and through coincidence had been born on the same day. It was discovered at the annual picnic fair, given by the town’s richest resident, Jed Hollingsworth, in honor of his son Bo’s birthday.
Tolerance Day was the only time of year when black and white kids came from all over the county to play side-by-side and romp gregariously under the reluctant yet subservient eyes of their parents, who toiled long hours at the Hollingsworth Mill. Huge crowds of white, black, rich and poor gathered each year at the Hollingsworth Estate to pay unified homage to the powerful Jedediah Hollingsworth, while he sat pompously on his wide veranda, greeting all those seeking favor.
Jeff and Lan were the first to line up for the watermelon-eating contest, where the grand prize was a new bicycle. Neither of them won, but later when Lan told one of the judges it was his birthday, the man gave him a silver dollar. When Jeff overheard what happened, he told the man it was his birthday too, but the man only gave him a quarter.
Jeff walked away sulking, but later came back with a plan. He decided to pretend he discovered something and wanted to confide in Lan. He showed him his coin, with a sour face, and pointed out that it was a rare one because it was minted in 1920. He explained that no bank would give $50.00 (which he claimed the coin was worth) to a colored boy, but he was willing to trade, because a dollar was still more than he had. Lan bought Jeff’s reasoning, and with a triumphant grin agreed to the trade. Jeff ran home with the dollar in his pocket, giggling all the way.
Jeff’s mind was jolted back to the present when he heard Lan click the barrel of his rifle again, and he began to move faster. He prayed silently that Lan didn’t remember the incident of their youth. He decided to try his luck.
“Look here, Mistah Lan. I’ll give you this twenty dollars I just earned, and show you where I saw Mr. Jed Hollingsworth himself bury a big bag of money last week, if you lemme go!”
Lan pushed him toward the tall bushes alongside the bridge and grabbed a rope off the saddle of his horse.
“Nigga boy, do I look stupid or sumpin’? Hell, Mr. Hollingsworth would never stoop to bury no money in the dirt. He too high and mighty for that, and I ain’t ‘bout to let you trick me again. I remember what you did when we wuz boys, and if I had knowed where you lived, I woulda come and got my dollar back! Now let’s put this rope ‘round your neck, and get off this road. I don’t want you to try and run ‘fore we git up in them trees. Now, git goin’ and when you get over yonder, git down on your knees and put your hands behind your back!”
Jeff’s heart pounded frantically, as he walked farther into the woods. When he reached a cluster of tall trees, he bent to the ground in silent obedience to the pointed shotgun. He fought back tears, as the heavy twine rope was pulled tight around his neck. His cousin’s fate of four years ago flashed before his eyes as he stared at the thick tree branches above his head.
His cousin was fourteen years old when five white men snatched him from his home in the middle of the night, after they claimed he winked at a white girl passing by on a school bus earlier that day.
Jeff shuddered at the memory of the body swaying slowly in the cold night air, and his uncle’s grieving screams. Lan’s voice broke through his thoughts.
“Wait a minute! I almost forgot! Stand up boy and give me that $20.00 out yo pocket, foh we take another step further!”
Rising slowly from the ground, Jeff suddenly remembered the hunting knife in his sleeve. He pretended to reach into his pocket for the twenty-dollar bill, and pulled the knife down in a quick flash. He caught Lan by surprise when he reached suddenly under the barrel of the gun, and stabbed Lan first in the stomach, and then in the throat.
Lan fell to the ground, still clutching his shotgun. His gurgled cry was loud, as he fell face first in the red dirt. The rain stopped and Jeff’s clothes were covered in blood, as he knelt in the grimy mud. His body shook, as he struggled to catch his breath.
He grabbed the shotgun with trembling hands and began to run toward the bridge. He stopped suddenly and looked around him. The dark woods were confusing, and for a moment, he lost his sense of direction. He felt disoriented, as he began slowly walking backward. He tripped over a large boulder and fell hard to the ground. His ankle twisted, as he tried to break the fall.
In the distance, he heard voices. His head throbbed with pain, as he struggled to rise. A sudden rustle of leaves nearby stopped him. Someone was watching. He could feel it. He listened closer for the sound of human movement, but heard nothing.
Suddenly, the clouds shifted, and the moonlight shimmered brightly through the trees behind him. He turned slightly and saw the shadow of a man standing some five yards away holding a pistol at his side. Jeff’s heart thumped wildly against the wall of his chest, as the man began walking silently toward him. He spun his body around on the ground and pointed the shotgun at the man’s head.
“Halt!” he shouted, as he panted for breath. Drop your gun or I’ll shoot you where you stand!”
A familiar voice spoke softly out of the darkness.
“Now, Thomas, I’m sho you wouldn’t want a man to drop his brand-new pistol on this heah dirty ground, would ya boy? Especially, since I was watching you from across the bridge and wondering if I was going to have to shoot Ol’ Lan for you.”
Jeff breathed deep in relief. It was his friend Bo Hollingsworth and Jeff almost broke into tears at the sight of him.
“Boy, I must commend you on your wit, cuz you sho’ got yo’self outta that trouble quick,” Bo mused, as he walked over and kicked Lan’s body with his boot.
“Too bad we ain’t got time to bury Ol’ Lan…but it don’t matter. No one would ever suspect a colored man killed him. As much as he liked to fight, the sheriff will probably figure he finally lost one with some of those good ol’ boys from the hills.”
Jeff’s breathing slowed, as he struggled to speak.
“Man, how did you find me?” he asked, with a bewildered look
They were also the same age and had been friends since they were twelve years old. It was a popular puzzle the whole town whispered about, because Bo was white and the son of the richest man in the county, and Jeff was black, and the son of an illiterate farmer.
“Boy, I been looking for you, and I knew you’d be at Cherry’s tonight. However, when she said you hadn’t come yet, I began to worry since I know you too smart to be out on this road at night all by yo’self. I figured you had run into a snag.”
“Man, this wasn’t no snag!” Jeff replied, as he stared down at Lan’s dead body. “This was a near lynching!”
Bo chuckled. “Well, long as you know that I almost rescued you, I’m satisfied. And since we still got our heads, unlike Ol’ Lan here, we better git outta here, fo’ somebody else shows up.”
Jeff was overwhelmed to see his friend. Bo was strong and taller than most men his age, and Jeff drew from his strength, as Bo pulled him up from the ground.
Suddenly, the bushes behind Jeff’s right shoulder parted and a huge figure lumbered out of the woods toward them about forty feet away. Jeff didn’t turn or move a muscle, and Bo stopped breathing.
Terror filled Bo’s eyes, when he recognized Lan’s brother, Chain, and the ever-present shotgun he carried at his side.
“Hey Bo, is that you?” he yelled, as he staggered closer to where Jeff had his back to him and Bo was facing him. Bo didn’t answer.
“You seen my brother, Lan?” he asked in a drunken slur, as he flashed a wide grin. I was s’posed to meet him down the road a bit, but he ain’t showed up yet. I thought I’d come looking for him, but I can’t seem to find him.”
Bo fingered the trigger on his pistol, as he stood in mute silence afraid to move a muscle. Jeff was frozen in fear, as he stared questioningly into Bo’s eyes. Chain Jessup was bigger than both of them, and the best shot in the county-drunk or sober. Jeff was convinced that he and Bo were about to die.
Suddenly, Chain spotted his brother lying face down in the dirt.
“What happened to my little brother?” he screamed, as he dropped down to his knees. Tears flooded his cheeks, as he lifted Lan by his neck and cradled his bloodied face in his big hands.
Jeff still held the knife in his hand, when Chain looked up into his eyes in stunned recognition. The look on his face was etched in death, when Bo fired a single bullet into the back of his head.
Suddenly, they heard loud voices on the other side of the bridge, and Bo and Jeff bolted wildly into the darkness, running fast toward the Hollingsworth Estate.
The next morning before dawn, after exchanging a tearful good-bye with his little girl Pepper and her mother, Jeff boarded a train bound for Great Lakes, Illinois, to Camp Robert Small Naval Base, with fifty dollars in coins from Bo's piggy bank, while Bo slept soundly in the biggest house in Augusta.