III: Black Renaissance
In the spring of 1927, I was invited to read my poems during commencement week at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and the week following at a Y.W.C.A. conference in Texas. I had never been in the South before, nor had I ever been offered such attractive fees for the reading of my poems, so I accepted both invitations, leaving Lincoln immediately after examinations.
I had heard of Fisk largely through the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers, and I was anxious to see that distinguished old institution of Negro learning in the Southland. My visit there was a delightful one. For the first time I stood before a large audience of my own people, reading my poems, and I was thrilled, because they seemed to like those poems—poems in which I had tried to capture some of the dreams and heartaches that all Negroes know.
While I was at Fisk, the headlines in the papers grew bigger and bigger about the Mississippi rising in flood. And then the river broke its banks. The Y.W.C.A. officials wired me that it was impossible to hold their conference in Texas, because too many of the delegates were from the flooded regions and could not come. With the fee from my Fisk engagement and the settlement the Y.W.C.A. made for their cancelled agreement, I decided to spend the summer traveling in the South. First I went to Memphis to see Beale Street.
On the train between Nashville and Memphis, a party of Fisk students with whom I was traveling played an amusing joke on me. They knew it was difficult for Negroes from the North to get used to the Jim Crow customs of the South, or to know exactly what one might or might not do. I learned, for instance, that in Nashville there were certain parks Negroes could not enter or cross. If a park lay between you and your destination, you could not walk through the park as a white person might do. Being colored, you had to go around the park. I knew, of course, that Negroes were compelled to use Jim Crow waiting rooms at the railroad stations, and ride in the Jim Crow car up next to the engine. And I rather expected to see a lynching every day; but about such subtleties as parks, I was ignorant.
However, the South is not entirely as bad as it is painted, although I did not know that my first week there. So on the way to Memphis, I sat in the dusty Jim Crow car and discussed my thoughts and apprehensions with the students. The sun was very bright and the cinders from the engine flew in the windows, so I put on a pair of smoked glasses that I carried to protect my eyes.
Shortly the train stopped at a small station to water the engine, and we had time to get out and stretch our limbs, and buy ice cream cones from a platform vendor. While I was standing on the platform, some of the Fisk students came cautiously up to me and whispered in my ear: “Mr. Hughes, don’t you know the white folks down South don’t allow Negroes to wear smoked glasses?” Quickly I snatched my glasses off and looked around to see if any white folks had noticed me wearing them!
The students laughed loudly, then I knew it was only a joke. But I had heard true stories of cities where colored people were permitted to drive only second-hand cars; and other cities where they had to step off the sidewalk when a white man passed; and towns with signs up:
NIGGER DON’T LET THE SUN
GO DOWN ON YOU HERE
so I thought maybe it might be possible that there was also a feeling against colored people wearing dark glasses to protect their eyes from the sun. But it was only a joke, like that famous Mississippi sign:
DARKIE, READ AND RUN!
IF YOU CAN’T READ, RUN ANYHOW!
which was probably invented in vaudeville.
I was disappointed in Beale Street, and it was not until several years later when I visited it in company with W. C. Handy that that feeling was somewhat removed. Portions of Fifth or Lenox Avenues in New York’s Harlem were, I thought, equally tough, equally colorful, and quite as colored as the famous Memphis thoroughfare. So I went on down to Vicksburg, Mississippi.
By now, the waters of the river were raging, and it was possible to go to Vicksburg only by a roundabout way. The main thing I remember about the town is a river front café with marvelously misspelled signs on the wall:
ALL FIGHTIN MUS BE DID OUTSIDE
IF YOU WANTS TO PLAY THE DOZENS GO HOME
WHEN YOU EAT, PAY ER RUN
CAUSE MR. BOSS GOT HES GUN
The papers said a vast camp for flood refugees had been established in Baton Rouge, and that thousands of Negroes and whites who had never been out of the plantation country before were being housed there. The Negro papers said the flood was a blessing in disguise, rescuing hundreds of black field hands and their families from peonage. I felt like going to talk with these field hands, so I struck out for Baton Rouge.
I found Baton Rouge a charming city to look at, but very southern in its prejudices against Negroes. And the treatment of the flood refugees there, according to race, was and is a classic example of Dixie today.
The white refugees were brought down the river to the city in steamers with cabins and covered decks to protect them from the elements, while the Negroes were transported on open flatboats, exposed to the wind and weather.
In Baton Rouge, the Red Cross had housed the whites in a group of tree-shaded buildings that were former government barracks, I believe. The Negroes were housed in an open field in small tents, where the mud was ankle deep when it rained.
The whites were given three hot meals a day, the Negroes, two. The whites received regular rations of tobacco, snuff, and candy. The Negroes got what was left over, if any, of these delicacies.
The Negroes, some of them, had horrifying tales to tell of forced labor at the point of a gun on levees that finally gave way; of terrified whites fleeing in all the available boats and leaving their black workers to find the way to safety as best they could; of hair-raising nights on roofs or knolls or flood surrounded portions of the levee, fighting back snakes and little wild animals that sought refuge there, too.
Most of the refugees could not read or write; most of them had never seen a city before; some of them had never been off the plantations where they were born; some of them, grown, had never had ten dollars at once in their lives.
“But are you going back to the plantations?” I would ask.
The camp was guarded and the Negroes would look at the guards; they had no money; they knew nowhere to go; they would generally say: “Yes, suh, I reckon we is.”
Baton Rouge depressed me terribly; so, having the money to go away, I went. I bought a ticket for New Orleans.
The day before I left, I stayed at the colored refugee camp all day. Near sundown I was sitting on a pile of dirt from the ditches of the improvised drainage system, talking to a field hand of perhaps thirty, short, powerfully built, with a face dark as Africa. A little distance away, near one of the tents, his wife sat on a box, playing with three small children. She was a good-looking, brownskin girl in a blue flowered dress.
“She’s mighty proud o’ herself cause she’s got one of them dresses out o’ the barrel that come this mornin’.” the field hand said.
It was not a bad dress to be from an old clothes barrel, and she looked good in it as she sat laughing with the young ones.
“Your kids?” I asked, nodding toward the three children.
“Sho is,” he said. “All boys.”
Two of the children were quite dark, but the skin of one of them was an ivory-yellow, near white. A curious contrast, two dark, one light. I think he read my thoughts.
“ ’Course,” he said, hunching over on the pile of dirt, “one chile truthfully ain’t mine.”
“Oh,” I said.
“That little one yonder, the meriney, belongs to de overseer. But I treats him like it’s mine.”