The Cement Angel and the Murder of a Child

Earl Varner’s Mother

The old African American woman cried silently, spoke a sentence of two, sniffed and wiped her hands across her face, spoke another few sentences, and cried again. She repeated this as long as we talked. The woman, Earl Varner’s mother, is gone now, as are Willie Townsend and Sheriff Holley. Mary Robinson and I are old. All these years later, Miss Varner’s grief must finally be assuaged. But Mary and I still feel guilt about triggering her tears twenty years ago.

Old Crimes

Earlier that day in August, 1998, Mary Robinson, a fifty-five-year-old African American social activist, and I had talked to a retired black deputy sheriff, Willie Townsend, in Wetumpka, Alabama. Mary was raised on a farm near there as part of a sharecropping family during the time of segregation. I was a white oral historian from Arizona who at that time had collected the stories of 100 poor and working-class women. We were writing a book and had uncovered several old crimes committed by whites against blacks they kept in virtual slavery.

Cracked Sidewalks

We had asked Townsend about the death of a 15-year-old boy years before. He told us the boy was electrocuted because of a suspected rape of a white woman. Then the deputy said, “Earl Varner’s mother’s still alive. Someone should talk to her.” Earl Varner, he explained, was a different black boy who had died after being stopped and questioned by Sheriff Holley, the feared white sheriff from Mary’s childhood.

Townsend told us how to find Earl Varner’s mother’s house, and we drove through Wetumpka’s African American neighborhood, down side streets lined with trees and cracked sidewalks. Finally, we came to a small, white framed house with a front porch. Insects hummed as the sun set. Black children with bikes stood in the street watching us, and Mary asked them where Mrs. Varner lived. They pointed to the house.

Wooden Rocking Chair

We went to the front porch, and Mary knocked on the door but no one came. The children said Mrs. Varner was home so Mary went around to the side door and knocked on it. “Miss Varner, are you in there? We’d like to see you for a minute.” No one came. I knocked on the front door again. A graceful wooden rocking chair and potted plants sat on the front porch.

Finally, the side porch light was turned on, and an old woman opened the screen door. Mary said, “Miss Varner, don’t be frightened. My name is Mary Robinson, and this is Fran Buss. I grew up near here, and Willie Townsend gave us your name. We’ve been trying to figure out some things that happened when I was a child, and we’d like to ask you about your son Earl.”

Her Face Was Broad and Strong

The old woman was large boned but not heavy; her face was broad and strong; she had few teeth; and she wore a hair net and a loose fitting, stripped dress. She was barefooted.

“Come on in. I’ve been sick,” she said and motioned us inside. She left the door open and night insects buzzed outside.

Cement Angel

I looked around the room. A bust of a cement angel with delicate hair and wings was centered on a chest on the wall to the left, and photos of young people in military uniforms were arranged around the angel. Mary established connections with Miss Varner. Mary had been in Miss Varner’s daughter’s class in school; Mary’s dad’s girlfriend lived a few blocks over. “If you’ve been sick, we don’t want to make you feel bad,” Mary said, “but we’re writing a book and wondered if you could tell us what happened to Earl.”

Mama, You Work So Hard

Tears brimmed in Miss Valner’s eyes. “He was my oldest boy, and he was so sweet. He kept saying, ‘Mama, you work so hard. I’m gonna take care of you.’ But the sheriff and his people in Wetumpka was upset with Earl because he be dating a girl who was half-white and looked white. Then Earl be coming home one night from work in Montgomery, and he was stopped by Sheriff Holley. Holley accused him of drinking. Earl said he didn’t have but one, and according to the story, Holley bashed him ‘cross the head. He crushed my Earl’s skull.”

Miss Varner told us that Sheriff Holley then transported Earl to jail, charged him with resisting arrest, and gave him no medical care. Earl died in jail that night, and Miss Varner knew nothing about the arrest until someone came to inform her that Earl was dead.

The Dark Seemed to Envelop the World

As we spoke, the dark seemed to envelop the rest of the world until it seemed only the still grieving mother, Mary, the angel, circling moths, and I existed. A little later Miss Varner’s other adult son came home and confirmed the story. He stated that he was only fourteen when it happened so he does not remember the details clearly, but after Earl’s death, civil rights groups attempted to prosecute Sheriff Holley with mixed results. Holley and his supporters continued in power.

Outraged and Impotent

I think now about Miss Varner’s grief, which already had lasted for decades. What part was the despair of loss of a child and what part the impotent frustration of living in a culture where whites regularly got away with committing crimes against their black neighbors? Surely, the civil rights protest must have given her some sense of solidarity, but she must have felt so outraged and impotent when Holley was ultimately sentenced to one year’s probation.

Police Murders

Police murders of black and brown people continue into the present. According to a study conducted by Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in the U.S. African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. For black women, the rate is 1.4 times more likely. Groups like the Black Lives Matter, formed in 2013, have become a vocal part of the movement against police brutality.

Incidents like the Michael Brown shooting in Fergason, Missouri in 2014 turned such police brutality into a hot button issues, but largely, like the Earl Varner killing so many years ago, they have been largely unpunished and the black community faces increasing frustration.

Her Son’s Name Alive

Mary and I finally left Miss Varner that evening two decades ago, carrying with us a guilt for having disturbed her. Before we left, we promised to do our best to keep her son’s name alive. We included his story in our book, The Moisture of the Earth: Mary Robinson, Civil Rights & Textile Union Activism.

We felt like we’d tapped into an emotion that seemed to move through Miss Varner into the basic web of life. Our experience was so intense we would be motivated to carry it with us throughout our lives. Miss Varner handed us some of the burden of her memory, and it spurred us to subsequent action.

Posted in African American, Inequality, Injustice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Which Side Are You On?

John & Viola Smith

Bloody Harlan County

In 1980 the immaculate old woman told me, “We sneaked out in the middle of the night. Just took the children and fled. Left everything and everyone I knowed.”

Earlier Joanne, an activist nun, told me about the woman and the woman’s husband. I had been visiting the wives of striking coal miners in Stearns, Kentucky when the nun took me on a tour of the coal fields and showed me gun shot holes in a building. “You really must visit this wonderful old couple way up in the mountains,” Joanne said. “They escaped from Bloody Harlan County with their kids in the 1930s. They know all about the coal wars back then.” She drew me a map of how to find the couple.

As soon as she said, “Harlan County,” I thought of the labor organizing song written in 1931 by Florence Reese for the Harlan County coal union campaign”

“They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair (the sheriff)
Which side are you on?”

Rein of Terror

It referred to the coal-mining strikes, battles, executions, and bombings that took place there in the decade long conflict between 1931 and 1939 after the miners tried to unionize.

Backed by violent government forces, coal owners and bosses fought the striking miners, burning them out of their houses, cutting off food, and executing organizers, resulting in a “reign of terror.” The union struck back, and the number of miners murdered remains unknown.

Waterfalls and Strip Mines

I was anxious to meet the couple who escaped such violence, and I followed the map up the mountains past creeks, waterfalls, and strip mines. Finally, I passed an old bridge and other landmarks and I saw a small brown and white trailer behind a run-down house and nearby tar paper shack.

Railroad Hat

Sitting next to the trailer was an old white man in an railroad cap, ragged undershirt, pants, and suspenders, and next to him sat a thin and angular elderly white woman wearing a print dress. A dog tied to a rope around a tree howled mournfully, chickens clucked, and three small children hurried inside the tar paper dwelling. A red truck with no wheels and containing wood was parked outside the trailer, and from the corners of the bed of the truck, wooden figures pumped up and down in the wind.

I pulled into their road, and the old woman, Viola Smith, stood up to greet me and started to talk. She explained that the nun had told her I would be coming and that she and John had both grown up in a company town in the coal fields of Harlan County.

Her mother raised four girls, she explained, and sent six sons to work in the mines along with their father. They all eventually died of black lung. Viola continued her early history, telling me that when she was fifteen an at a county fair, she met John. They were married at sixteen.

Sweet at Sixteen

John spoke up, “Well, I’ll tell you. She was just as sweet at sixteen as she is today,” then he spat a large chunk of chewing tobacco onto the ground.
Viola went on, “John went into the mines and I started a having babies. Didn’t expect anything else out of life.”

John spoke again. “I’ve been working ever since I can remember. Finally, I started in the coal mines. When we had three or four children I was working in the mines from daylight to dark for fifty cents a day. You worked ten hours. I lifted coal for twenty cents a ton. I never did like the mine, but it was where there’s money.

Almost Couldn’t Breathe

“The first time or two when I went in the mines very far underground, it seemed like I was lost. I didn’t know where I was at or anything. Imagine yourself a sitting in a tunnel, and it’s real dark and you can’t see a wink and you don’t even know which way the door or window is. But after a day or two that feeling didn’t matter so much. The way I look at life is that work is a gambling that you have to do everyday. And the men in the mines get so they almost can not breathe.”

I noticed while John was talking that Viola was also chewing tobacco and carefully patted her mouth with the hem of her dress. John continued to whittle.

If the House was Afire

Viola spoke again, “It was back in twenties and thirties when the unions started. The company got violent. It burned houses with people in them; it was a nightmare. You don’t know how hard it was. People was killed in the county all around. I was almost afraid to go to sleep at night ‘cause I was afraid I might not be able to get the children out of the house if it was set afire.”

“The majority of the people consented to go along with the union,” John continued.

Viola interrupted him and said, “The union leaders sent back to Virginia to get truckloads of food for the people, and when the food got to us it was rationed out, just a little bit to each family. That first winter was really bad. But I had spent my whole life in the company towns, and I was so used to having all sorts of people all around.


“Then we heard about a little bit of land that could be homesteaded up on top of a mountain in Virginia, and we decided to take the children and flee. We left in the middle of the night, but it was so hard to leave everybody we loved. To move up there alone without family or friends. We tried to sneak away.

“Still, the land up there was beautiful, with all kinds of trees, especially the chestnuts and wild cherries. And there was creeks and mountain springs. And there was a fog lots in the early morning and at night. Some mornings, everything was like in shadows. And beautiful wild flowers bloomed, Johnny-jump-ups, wild violets, buttercups, and farewell-to-summers. In the wintertime fog would freeze ice and icicles would be on the timber, and then the fog would lift, but the ice would stay on the trees and the sky would be so blue. At night I remember a big moon lighting up the snow and ice. I don’t know whether an artist could have painted it so pretty.

“But still life was hard. It was hard getting used to being so alone; it was so different than the mining camps where I had grown. But you couldn’t get work, you just had to dig it out of the ground. Honey, there was a few years there when it was really hard. The hardest time we had.”

Old Legal Documents

After twenty years of building their farm, their house burned down, and they had to start again. Then, suddenly, a few years later, John and Viola were told that old legal documents proved the land belonged to someone else, and they were evicted.

They moved back to town, and John went back to the mines, although he could never accept it. Some of the mines were unionized now, but still people died from their work. The children were grown by then, and Viola also went out to work. for a motel and cleaning.

I visited with them many times over two years. Our relationship was always warm and loving. One of the last times we met, they invited me in their tiny trailer for supper, and we ate biscuits, potatoes, beans, and eggs.

John chuckled and said, “Her biscuits are the best they can be. I oughta know. Been eating them for 59 years.”

Seeking to Decay

After we finished our food, John walked down to his daughter’s house. Viola looked me in the eyes and said conspiratorially, “I’ve only had one problem with John, and I’ve had it all our days. I’m so neat and tidy, and John seems just to want to decay. First is mother kept him from it, then we got married and I started in.”

I wrote to them for years, and Viola wrote short letters back with her shaky handwriting. I always thought of them when I heard of violence aimed at unions. Finally, I received a letter on lined paper from Viola.

She said, “I don’t know if you’ll hear from us again. Me and John are pretty old. Knowing you meant so much to us.”

I never heard from them again. I think of their warmth and love for each other, and I especially remember their hard work. They never knew what was going to happen one day to another, but they persevered. May we do the same.

Posted in Appalachia, Inequality, Injustice, marriage, oral histories, Poverty, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Unions, violence, white Americans | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

God in Prison

“I Hollered at God”

“I hollered at God,” Maria Elena told me as we began to drive my rental car towards the immigration office. Maria Elena continued, “Dear God, Where are you! If there is a God, where are you?”

It was the winter of 1988, and I had visited Maria Elena Lucas again. At that time she was a migrant worker and organizer for the United Farm Workers. Maria Elena lived in Brownsville, Texas, along the Texas-Mexico border. We were working on a book about her life.

Born in 1941 and the oldest of seventeen migrant working children, she had a total of three years of education before she was pulled out of school to work full time. As an adult, she carried her seven children to work with her in the fields, then campaigned for Cesar Chavez.

Homeless Refugees

At the time I visited Maria Elena, violence in U.S. backed wars in Central America intensified, and waves of refugees flooded the United States. Suddenly, U.S. immigration policy changed. Previously, Central Americans could apply for refugee status, then disperse throughout the United States. Now those fleeing the violence in their home countries were held back at the port of entry. Within days, the Border Patrol Agency in Maria Elena’s town trapped thousands of homeless refugees.

Distraught by the suffering she witnessed, Maria Elena picked me up at the airplane and drove me out to where the refugees camped. My tape recorder ran between us in the front seat. Countless Central Americans spread out in front of us.

Mesquite Grove

They crowded into a mesquite grove, clustered in long lines in front of the Immigration building, and waited by a fast food stand. Toilet paper and cardboard littered the ground. A group of children wearing light sweaters and jackets rushed up to our car, stretching out their hands in supplication.

A barefoot woman with long dark hair and a flower in her sweater, pushed a baby to us. “Porfavor, Senora,” she begged at our window. Other people, wrapped in blankets, watched us from where they sat on pieces of cardboard. A blond woman handed out sandwiches from the back door of an old station wagon, and a group of Central American men climbed into the back of a truck. We drove slowly through the crowd.

“It makes my skin shiver,” Maria Elena said. “How do you call it? I want to choke, like I’m suffocating when I see this. I’m so helpless, and I want to kick the government in the back end.”

I asked if most of the people were Nicaraguan.

“They’re all kinds, hondurenos, nicaraguences, guatamaltecos, salvadorenos. Some people bring food, and I come and fill out their applications because a lot of people exploit them so terribly. Some of these cars are people that transport them out of kindness, but a lot are coyotes. They charge them enormous amounts of money.

“Look at the kids. You just feel like spitting at these cruel laws. Imagine when it’s raining and it’s cold. They’ve got nobody to turn to, nobody. Some people from here even opened an office that charges the refugees maybe five dollars for making copies or two dollars for translating a couple of lines. That’s cruel. The people sleep in the woods, on card boards, blankets, rags. Some of them sleep in ditches, no blankets.

Corn on the Cob

“Some ladies from a church brought big pans of food in a pickup. All the food I could bring was corn on the cob. Pablo [Maria Elena’s partner at that time] bought a field of old corn, real cheap. It was late in the season and going to waste. So we cooked whatever we could in big tubs on a bonfire outside. Then we brought it to these people, fed them, and went back and cooked another batch.”

I looked at two little girls. Their noses ran, and the older girl twisted the sleeves of her sweater as she stared at us. A group of school-age children sat in the ditch.

“The people here have no place to wash their face or go to the restroom, and they are just like little animals on the ground. It haunts me,” Maria Elena continued.“For days and nights I kept seeing their hands like that, and I thought, I have so little, not even a house. What can I give, my God, what can I give?

“Where are you, God?”

“Like I said, I hollered at God. I cried, ‘Dear God! Where are you?’ I get so angry, I say, ‘If there’s a God, where are you?’ I wonder many times, Fran, if it’s true that there’s a glory. If there’s a glory, maybe it’s another kind of prison also, a prison because God doesn’t come out of it. Where is he? Maybe he’s also a prisoner.”

Everything is Wrong

I did not know what to say. Maria Elena continued, “I don’t believe that God puts us to a test or punishes us. And I believe that God puts a lot of himself into us. But there’s also that evil part that is destroying ourselves. It’s some kind of very powerful evilness that we have around us, and it’s too sad because we live in a paradise, not just here, but the whole world. God gave us so much knowledge and all those people with good hearts, but everything is wrong. And I wonder if there is a God, where is he?”

Maybe God Divided Himself into Us

She stopped speaking for a few moments, then continued, “The first day I saw this, I went home and thought, Maybe I was meant to represent God. Maybe God divided himself into so many little pieces and gave each one of us a little piece of himself so that we could carry on with something good.

Maybe that’s where he’s at; in me, in you, in the people that he thought might be able to do something about it. I said to myself, Go back there and keep on filling out applications and keep on crying and keep raising hell. Maybe when all those particles of God come together, we can form one strong force of God and put him together again.’”


That night I lay awake in Maria Elena’s tiny trailer and stared at the ceiling, thinking of the people we saw and Maria Elena’s idea about God. I wondered if God could be imprisoned in me. Maria Elena had given so much. How could I not give a little?

The next morning I transported two Salvadoran women from the mesquite woods north to a meeting place where they would get a ride. Two blocks after they climbed into the back seat, Border Patrol began to follow us. I stopped at a stop sign, and Border Patrol pulled up next to me. I thought, I’m going to be arrested. I don’t have my medicine with me. I know no lawyer or support group in Brownsville. What will happen to the refugees?

The agents looked over at me, then the driver listened to his radio and spoke into the microphone. They laughed, waved at me, and pulled away. I turned back to the women sitting in my car. “It’s OK,” I said in English. The blood flowed back into my face.

God Radically Imprisoned in the World

Through these years, I have thought of Maria Elena’s idea of God as radically imprisoned in the world. It seems close to the belief she had when she was a child that God dwells in nature and that nature represents God.

Her further insight, that God needs us to bring God together, speaks to me every day. In some ways, many of us are imprisoned by Covid-19, but I need to believe that we will find ways to serve as God’s hands and heart and mind in this world. The world needs us even more than it did before.

Posted in hunger, Inequality, Injustice, Latino, Poverty, religion, Social Justice, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Special Sense of Justice

Nine Thousand Poor Mexican Americans

Outraged at the news, Rose Augustine and her best friend called a neighborhood meeting in South Tucson. They made coffee and handouts for 40, but 9,000 poor Mexican American lined up outside the door. A week before, Rose had looked with horror at the newspaper story. The water she’d consumed throughout her life and the life of her sick children was poisoned by the toxic chemical trichlorethane, TCE.

The water was run off from the nearby missile plant. It had been stored in her neighborhood in South Tucson in leaking ponds that were not lined because they thought poor people would not complain. No wonder her children were sick and perhaps would die. No wonder cancer crawled down the streets of the barrios.

A Spunky Child

Rose had been a spunky child. Her cousin laughed. “You were a plucky kid. I’ll always remember working in the cotton fields, looking up, and, there, your black braids would be bouncing down the rows. You were always running and skipping when we should’ve been working.” It’s true, Rose always had a spirit in her. She lived with her mother and grandma in Tucson’s barrio during the 1940s.

One day she found a little girl crying behind her grandma’s house. Rose asked why, and the small child said she was hungry. Rose, who said she was always nosy, followed the child into the little girl’s house and found the child’s mother too sick to feed her. Rose ran for her grandma to bring help. Her interference saved the mother and the child. Her first organizing, Rose said later.


Life was poor but good for Rose, whose mother worked in a Mexican restaurant to support Rose, her older brother Mundy, Rose’s grandma, and herself. Then her brother got sick with tuberculosis and was shipped to a sanatorium. Worried about the spread of TB, the county health commission, who paid little attention to the impoverished neighborhoods of South Tucson normally, devised a plan to restrict the spread of TB in at-risk populations.

They considered the Mexican Americans to be especially dirty and disease prone because of “unhealthy” cultural practices. Consequently, they set up a “preventorium” in the nearby mountains. The plan was to take healthy children from their parents and put them in an orphanage-like setting and make them live regimented lives, eat Anglo food, break their Mexican American cultural practices, and work outside.

Swept Away

The county chose Rose, who was already mourning the absence of her brother, and swept her away from her beloved mother and grandmother, who were only allowed to visit her once month. “No, I want to go home,” Rose cried to her captors. “This isn’t fair. I don’t want to go.”

Rose slowly adapted to the regime but hated the food. At night she longed for her family and her sweet childhood in the barrio where she slept outside in the summer and watched tiny lights flick on and off as the neighbor men smoked cigarettes sitting out in the dark.

Rose Augustine

A smaller girl slept next to Rose in the preventorium. She cried day and night. “I want Mama, I want Mama,” she sobbed, then begged Rose to take her home.

Rose sat on the side of the girl’s bed and held her hand. Finally, she waited until everyone else was asleep at night, then whispered to the younger child. “I’ve got a plan. We’ll run away. I want my grandma and mama too.”


Rose and the little girl waited until staff were resting after lunch, then Rose took the little girl by the hand, and they ran down a path behind the buildings. As time passed they hid behind cactus and bent down in a wash. Rose knew the way home because she’d gone to the mountains with her uncle to gather wood, but it would take days to reach their part of town.

They soon drank the little water they’d taken with them. They heard men from the preventorium searching for them, but at night they hid by the edge of the road going down the mountains whenever they saw headlights of cars. Finally, hungry, thirsty, scratched, and dirty, they were caught. Separated, Rose lost track of the other child.


Then two weeks later, Rose’s mother stormed into the cluster of buildings. She shouted in Spanish and English that she was taking her child. When she’d found that Rose had run away, Rose’s mother went to the court house and raised such a commotion the county officials finally gave up and agreed to let her retrieve Rose.

“Running away was the first time I fought the government,” Rose told me years later.

Environmental Justice

Rose eventually grew up, married, continued to live in the South Tucson barrio, and had children. Then her children got sick with rare diseases. Finally, Rose and others discovered that their drinking water had been poisoned by TCE toxic chemicals when a nearby by defense contractor dumped chemicals into poorly lined ponds near community’s water supply. Rose was furious, called a meeting for forty and 9,000 people came.

“It wasn’t fair,” Rose told me years later when I interviewed her for an oral history project. “They didn’t care at all about us Mexicans. It was like we weren’t even people. Our people got sick and died, and they didn’t even care.”

Rose led the fight against the chemicals, and the government finally declared it a superfund clean-up site. Rose also became an international fighter to end environmental racism. The spunky kid grew up and never stopped resisting oppression.

Special Sense of Justice

I think about Rose during this time of struggle. She is 84 now and too old to protest, but her heart is with those trying to foster a more just society. She hopes for their success and sends prayers for their health. Rose has had a special sense of justice throughout her life, and it continues with her, giving her strength in her old age.

Posted in environmental justice, Health care, Inequality, Injustice, Latino, Mexican Americans, Poverty, toxic waste, Women's Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Geography of Hope


I have a memory. It is of a friend so cut off from all that was accepted that she seems almost a breath, but she was important. I remember her face right as the tips of our breasts began to grow. Her face was firm, regular, the Greek classical look I’d been taught to associate with beauty. We were eleven years old. Somehow even as I saw her face, I saw its promise hollow out with poverty, her teeth begin to sink, but there was such fierce possibility in her eyes.

Hopscotch Chain

First I see her, then I see her mother, dark haired from a family of brownish blonds. Her mother, just thirteen years older than us, hovered, waiting for us outside our elementary school. She carried her own hopscotch chain, and the three of us would play. Now I see their home. Tar paper on wooden scaffolding, a junked truck, packs of friendly dogs. April. I say my friend’s name.

Mismatched Pair

We shared one gleaming pair of patent leather shoes. My feet outgrew them by the time I had worn them three times. She loved them too, she said, because they came from me.

We were a mismatched pair. The school expected success from me and not from her. It was like the world swept her away from me. The forces that took her out of school were so strong we didn’t even get to say goodbye. One day, we were eleven, best friends, then we went to junior high, and she was gone.

Foreclosed Potential

I thought I knew what incest was. I heard it whispered about when grownups mentioned April and her mother. Foreclosed potential, I thought. In my memory adults explained that April had no hope because her family lived outside city limits. Past a line, fathers had absolute claim. There was a geography of hopelessness. Somehow I knew how wrong it was. The soles of my feet tingled with its injustice.

Idea of Injustice

Today, nearing eighty, I think about the idea of injustice. Why did my feet tingle when I thought of April? Something seemed so wrong, but I had no words for it. What happened to her life? I’ve been searching for a functional definition of justice as I write a book whose name came to me while I slept. I suddenly sat up in bed one night and said, “Redemptive Memory: Women Activists and the Search for Justice.”

My definition of justice seemed simple when I started to write. It was what I believed in since that time when I lost April to her father. It is when something seems terribly wrong. Do we know it when we feel it like I did as a child? Did April’s father have an absolute claim to her because he is a man? Because he is owned her as a parent? Because the hierarchy supported him? Didn’t the community have an obligation to her despite the fact that she lived beyond city limits?

What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Fran at Twelve

I recently read Michael J. Sandel’s book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? He asks how we define a society as just and answers:

“To ask whether a society is just is to ask how it distributes the things we prize–income and wealth, duties and rights, powers and opportunities, offices and honors. A just society distributes these goods in the right way; it gives each person his or her due.” [p 19]

Outside City Limits

Certainly, by yanking April out of school our society took away from things we prize: the opportunity for a fulfilling and economically adequate life and her bodily, psychological, and sexual integrity, something world cultures are now beginning to recognize as a right for females as well as males. The community showed no respect for April or her mother’s life.

Also, Sandel says that we need to answer the question: “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” My childhood community answered that it was not part of the stories of those farthest on the margins of valued human characteristics. They were not part of the stories of those outside of city limits. Thus, April was to lose her innocence, and my good friend would be taken from me.

U.S.- Mexico Border

For the last 33 years I have lived in Tucson, AZ, a community near the U.S.- Mexico Border. When I hear about the injustice done to undocumented immigrants, the soles of my feet still tremble with the sense of wrongness I experienced when I was eleven years old. April had scant hope because she lived outside the city border.

Undocumented children also have little hope because they live outside the national border. Instead, they freeze, get sick, have little to eat, and are attacked by the violent while they huddle just south of the border. Now they and their families get covid-19.


Based on my reading and all my years of living, I believe in a universal human community and that all people share responsibilities for each other. My childhood community seemed to deny this responsibility to April and her mother to a degree that still shocks me. I also believe that to deal with women’s oppression, such as that experienced by April and her mother, we must deal with structural inequality, where a hierarchy is built directly into our society.

We must at all times realize that we are intersectional people, with multiple identities operating simultaneously. April was poor, female, and a child. She was also white. If she had been African American, she would have had additional obstacles. Consequently, changing structures require dealing with multiple levels of oppression


I also believe that women are especially empowered not by social change models imposed by the outside, but by grassroots work as agents of change themselves. Perhaps April and her mother physically survived their mistreatment, and some activist reached out to them and helped them empower themselves. Perhaps April had an extraordinary internal spirit and insight that led her to take leadership in such actions, despite being forced out of school and into an abusive situation.

Things like that do happen. Maria Elena Lucas, the farm worker organizer who I’ve written about earlier, is such an individual. She only had three years of school and was severely abused, but she reached out to other women like her and helped them have more productive and fulfilling lives.

A Geography of Hope

Those of us who were touched by lives like April’s and Maria Elena’s bear responsibility. We can do grassroots work ourselves. We can form alliances with those from different backgrounds than are own. April could not be expected to bear the weight of her life on her own.

We are a part of a web of life, a world community. No one is outside the city limits. No child’s whole being belongs to a father or the male structure that supports him. There should be a geography of hope.

Posted in incest, Inequality, Injustice, Poverty, white Americans | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Dead Negroes in Swamp”

[June 7, 2020: This will add history to the events of the past two weeks.]

White Mob Closes In

Mary Robinson and I were writing a book about her life. The daughter of African American share croppers in Alabama, she organized as a textile and civil rights activist as an adult. In 2020, I handed Mary a copy I had made of the Alabama Journal, from December 30, 1932. In bold letters it said, “POSSE CLOSES IN ON NEGRO REDS IN SWAMP,” then described 20 automobiles loaded with armed white men who left Tallassee, Alabama to hunt blacks who were trying to organize a black and white share croppers’ union.

I also showed Mary the Montgomery Advertiser, from the same time. It talked about “four or five dead negroes” laying about in the fields. Mary ran her fingers down the pages, shook her head, and clicked the roof of her mouth with her tongue. “The talk about them like they was dead cows. Why didn’t I know about this?” she wondered.

Alabama Share Croppers Union

I had been at the Library of Congress reading old files from the NAACP when I came upon information about the Alabama Share Croppers’ Union from the 1930s. I made copies of the newspaper articles and took them to Mary the next time I went to Montgomery and saw her.

Mary suddenly said, “They refer to the Greathouse boys of Liberty Hill. Maybe they be talking about Rev. Greathouse’s kin? He be from up there by Camp Hill. We’ll ask him.”

We made phone calls for directions, left Montgomery, drove north, and began to wind our way through the Piedmont uplands of Tallapoosa County with its green wooded hills and bluffs. We eventually crossed the Tallapoosa river to Tallassee, the community out of which the posse rode.

Finally, about thirty miles from Mary’s childhood home, we arrived at a yard filled with flowers. We walked up to the front door of the blue frame house and knocked. No one answered. We rounded the corner, stepped beneath an arch of pink flowers, and rapped at the door. A balding man, maybe in his late sixties, answered the door. He recognized Mary. “Hey, Rev. Greathouse,” Mary said enthusiastically.

Revolt in 1932

Mary introduced me, then took out the newspaper article. “Mr. Greathouse, Fran brought this from the NAACP Collection at the Library of Congress. It said something about a big revolt, a riot, they had about 1932, and it talked about the Greathouse boys. I wondered if they was kin to you?”

Rev. Greathouse skimmed the article. “Yes, they are,” he said. “They’re some of my brothers and my father, too, Tomas Gray. He was one of the leaders. The posse shot my uncle, Ralph Gray. Through the mouth.

“See, I was born in 1928, the youngest in a family of nineteen kids, so I’m too young to be involved, but I knowed about it. You should talk to my oldest brother. He’s ninety-three and can remember everything. The shoot-out was a big event.”

Posse in the Woods

He gave us directions to his half brother’s house. We thanked them, left, and drove down a curved, country road. Thick trees lined the path on both sides. I pictured people trying to outrun a posse in those woods. We finally came to a brick house, set back from the road, and were met at the door by Grady Canada’s polite sixty-two year old daughter. Mr. Canada was a tall, very dark, strong appearing man of ninety-three, with large ears and hands, deep blue eyes, and prominent cheekbones. He was African American, but also part Crow and Comanche Indian. An oxygen tank sat next to him.

Mr. Canada said he knew a great deal about the Share Croppers’ Union, although he had not actually joined. Instead, he had worked in the local textile mill for thirty-two years, two months, and seventeen days.

As an illegitimate child of Tomas Gray, he had been raised by his grandfather who taught him to be a blacksmith, so he had not been as deeply influenced as much as his siblings by his father’s and uncle’s radical ideas.

High Powered Rifles

“Did you ever attend any of the Share Croppers Union meetings, Mr. Canada?” I asked.

“Yeah, just once,” he answered. “It was in an abandoned house. Me and a couple of boys got there just about good sundown, between sundown and dark. There were about six men standing out there with high power rifles.

They said, ‘Go in.’ We did and there wasn’t hardly any room to sit down. A man was up making a speech, but there was so much smoke in there from cigarettes and kerosene lamps that you could just see the top of the men’s heads. We sit there about five minutes, and I told the boys, ‘I’m leaving.’

“‘We too, we too.’

“We hightailed it back home. We didn’t go back no more. I was scared when I seen them men standing out there with them rifles. I knowed they expecting trouble, that something was going to happen. I got eight kids depending on me.”

“Why were they forming the union?” I asked.

“See, the whites they worked for wasn’t giving them nothing. They’d work them and cheat them out of what they made, so they made a union out of it.”

Joined Together

“Did people say it was Communist?”

“Yeah, they said it was, but it WAS NOT. I don’t know if it was a branch off of it, but they called it a union. A Share Croppers’ Union, that was the name it was. Black, colored people, weren’t the only ones who wanted it. Poor white people did too. They all joined in together.”

“Were the people religious?” I asked.

“Yeah, some of them was. And some of the meetings was in churches. I would say that they, the union, was in the right, but I just don’t like rioting.” He laughed, “Not me.”

Gun Down His Mouth

“That meeting that you went to, was that before your Uncle Ralph was killed?”

“Yeah, it was eight or ten months after that when Ralph was killed in front of his family. They stuck a gun down his mouth and pulled the trigger, but his daughter fought them like a lion.”

Mary Robinson, 1980

I had read about a young woman named Eula Gray, a daughter of Tommy, and I asked Mr. Canada if he knew her.

“Sure did,” he said. “She was my half-sister. She was Secretary of the Share Croppers’ Union. So, anyway, when it was too dangerous for my daddy to run the union, Eula took over.”

“She was young when she did it, wasn’t she?” I asked.

One of a Thousand

“About eighteen or nineteen. Eula was one in a thousand. She stood her ground. From the time she was a little girl, she was strong. See, I was born out of wedlock so she was my half-sister, but I was the oldest of all the kids and she was the third. I was four months older than my younger half sister, and Eula was two years younger and we played together.

“She was always into something. Our daddy raised peanuts. He’d have two or three or five bushels of peanuts, and he’d hang them up in a room, and Eula’d take her finger and run it around in the sack and get them so that the peanuts would sift through holes, and she could get them out. Anything Daddy put out, peanuts, peppermint candy, she’d get in and take some out. She wasn’t mean, just mischievous. She loved to get into things. The only way to keep her out of a cookie jar was to hide it.”

Sewing Meetings

“I read,” I said, “that women were really involved with the unions, that they had what they called ‘sewing meetings’ where they’d organize and study.”

“Yep, Eula organized the whole thing, the Union. She was the head of it for awhile, but womens had separate little meetings of their own. If it was too dangerous to leave literature around, they stuffed it into the stomachs of dolls they made at the sewing meetings where they would organize.

“The sheriff, them, knowed about Eula, but they couldn’t hurt her too bad. My brothers was too close by. The sheriff said they didn’t want to have to kill them all. They knowed they’d bother one, they’d have to kill them. They didn’t want to do that, but they was cruel. They was rough.”

Across Generations

We continued to talk, then Mary and Mr. Canada turned to religion. I listened with interest and thought about Eula Gray. I thought about contemporary women union organizers I’d met when Mary introduced me to them.  I pictured them talking to Eula Gray across the generations.

I did not think to interrupt Mr. Canada and Mary to ask what eventually happened to Eula Gray, but I imagined with her spunk, Eula Gray ran up again the power establishment at various times.  I would have loved to learn more about Eula Gray’s life, but my time in Montgomery was limited and my attempts to find out more information let to dead ends. When I think of her and her family I think of the courage it took to risk all in such a difficult time.

Posted in African American, farm workers, Injustice, murder, oral histories, Poverty, poverty, Racism, Roots of Injustice, Social Justice, Unions, violence, white Americans, Women's Issues | 2 Comments

God Smiled

The Child Who Spoke Poetry

One moonless night, when we lived in rural New Mexico, I drove eleven-year-old Toni Jones home. As usual, she had spent the weekend with my husband, family, and me. It was a normal weekend. She played with Barbie dolls and plastic horses with my children in the flowers and dirt of our backyard, then practiced her flute on the porch.

It was dark when I drove her back to her family’s cabin in the mountains outside of our town. We chatted in our VW bug as we passed dark fields and lighted ranch houses. The stars were bright above us and the mountains were black to our left. “How are things with your granddad?” I asked.

“The Old Man was cussing at me yesterday,” Toni said, her voice angry. Then she broke into a big grin. “And all at once, God just smiled at me over the Old Man’s shoulder, and I smiled back.” She laughed. “And the Old Man got flustered and cussed harder, and I just turned my back and walked away.”

Filled with Toni

Sometimes I feel filled with Toni, the girl from long ago. I remember a winter afternoon in New Mexico when the sky was blue and the mountains clear. It was 1975. My husband David and I, our three kids, ages 10, 8, and 7, and our friend Louise and her three kids, Peter, aged 12, Toni at 11, and Eric at 8 hiked back from the canyon, through two feet of snow, dragging an enormous, snow covered Christmas tree.

Toni jumped ahead, laughing and throwing snow-balls at the rest of us. She made it back first to the former chicken coop Louise’s family lived in and put more wood on the fire in the small stove that kept the room warm. When we arrived, lugging the enormous tree, the coffee was warm.

Chicken Coop

Louise and her children lived in the tiny coop behind her father’s house, the only place he would let them stay when Louise, who was white, came home in disgrace to the ranch with two half-African American children. The Old Man, as Louise called him, was especially cruel to the kids. Still, Louise felt unable to cope with life in town and swore she would never leave the land again. When Toni was three, Louise gave birth at home to Eric, a blond child without a named father.

Spun of Gold

One time in the summer, we three adults and six children climbed up the mountain on the other side of the road from where Louise had her small home. We headed to the high barn where Louise cared for some cattle for a man named Les. Les, like Louise’s father, was cruel to children, and I especially worried about him around Toni.

That morning, when we all finally made it to the barn, the six kids climbed into the hay mow and slid down the hay. I have a colored photo of them in the hay, lit by a side window. Toni and her other brother Peter have brown skin and dark hair, while their younger half-brother Eric’s hair seems spun of goal. Toni called him the “golden boy.” With light coming through the window, Eric’s hair glowed like a halo.

Deep Chuckle

After the picture was taken, Toni sat in the barn’s second floor window and dangled her legs out. Her knees were red and scraped from her running and jumping. The tips of new breasts pressed against her T-shirt. God, keep her safe, I prayed. Toni called down to us and laughed her deep chuckle.


David, our kids, and I moved to Wisconsin not long later, but Toni visited us. A carnival met across the street from our house at the same time, and the kids spent long hours over there, with me supervising them as much as I could.

Toni, now aged 13, met a boy working the Ferris Wheel named Jesús and suddenly fell in love with all her 13-year-old heart. Now I watched her constantly, letting her laugh and joke with Jesús, but as far as I knew, not be alone with him for long. When not with him, Toni sat on our porch stoop and whistled loudly at him. Across the street and from back in the carnival, he whistled back. I stood back from them as they said goodbye.

Toni visited us from time to time, but the carnival was gone and her exuberance had lessened. I do know she treasured her small packet of letters from Jesús. Then, when she turned fifteen, she ran away from home in New Mexico. She talked about living with us, but it never quite worked out.
At times, she lived on the streets. She gave birth to a daughter and stayed with the parents of the baby’s father, then ran away again. Much time passed.

Something Terrible

Finally, Louise called me. Obviously, something terrible had happened. “Toni’s dead,” she said as if it was hard to breathe. “Murder.” The act was very violent,Toni Practicing Flute and Toni’s body was not found for some time. They never knew who’d done it.
I was overcome with grief and guilt for having not intervened in Toni’s life in some effective way.

We went back to New Mexico to perform Toni’s memorial service. Afterward, I stood on the hillside overlooking the chicken coop in which Toni had been raised. The wind blew, and I thought of the birch tree that we were planting in memory of her.

I remembered her telling me that the “old man” cursed her, then God smiled at her over his shoulder, she triumphed and she walked away. Decades later I still actively mourn Toni.

Other Tragedies

Other tragedies rocked Louise. Peter was arrested for burglary and sent to prison. Eric grew into a young man, fought in the first Iraq War, came home with PTSD, and shot and killed himself. Now Louise lives alone in the house she inherited from her father, whose land she never left. Louise often doesn’t see people for days at a time.

She doesn’t feel alone, however. She has a large portrait of Eric above her bed, and she talks to the spirits of her children. Finally, Peter was let out of prison in Denver where he was held. He contacted Louise, and they have a warm and loving phone and letter relationship. She also has framed photographs of Obama and his mother set around the house.

Toni’s Story

I’m not sure why I included Toni’s story in a blog meant to be basically energy-inspiring during the hard times we are all going through. But Toni’s memory has always inspired me to try to make things better for other children. She has always seemed so real to me. The little girl who spoke poetry and for whom God managed to smile.

Posted in African American, Injustice, love. mother, murder, poverty, Prisons, Racism, religion | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Dilemma

Terrible Dilemma

In May 1942, a young Japanese America woman, Mary Tsukamoto, was faced with a terrible moral dilemma. Should she help her desperate people in the short run when that meant cooperating with the government when the government was going to commit a crime? Should she fight the government and in the process hurt the people she loved the most? Mary made her agonized decision when she had no idea of the long-term consequences.

 The Train

Finally, on May 29, 1942, at the beginning of the U.S.’s entry into WWII, a train chugged through the night into the desert. The people Mary had tried to help were crammed into it. As it swayed back and forth, a mother cradled her feverish child in the women’s restroom where the small girl had been quarantined. The two-year-old’s face was red with measles. Outside the bathroom, a young woman’s back arched and groaned in labor. At the other end of the car, an elderly woman sobbed, holding onto the hand of her dying husband. Mary Tsukamoto’s five-year-old daughter jammed her face into her mother’s chest and cried.

The train full of people of Japanese heritage passed through the wastelands, beginning it’s trip to Jerome, Arkansas, where the families would be imprisoned for the remainder of World War II.

 Subsistence Grape and Strawberry Farmers

Decades later, Mary Tsukamoto, leaned stiffly forward, tears rolling down her face, as she told me the story of the imprisonment of 1100 innocent Japanese heritage people. She was a small woman of sixty-six when I interviewed her in 1982. At the beginning of the war, her community of Florin, California was flourishing, despite being made up of poor grape and strawberry subsistence farmers.

But government officials panicked that people of Japanese heritage might spy for Japan, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order committing Japanese background people, children as well as adults, to detention camps for the remainder of the war. This was despite the fact that no Japanese American ever committed an act of sabotage or spying.

Signs on Telephone Poles

Mary was a leader in the community as a young woman, and after signs went up on telephone poles informing people that they were about to be evacuated, the government asked Mary to help the people prepare to leave their homes. Mary was torn by the cruel request, but she had transportation and eventually tore around, helping the desperate people get to doctors and dentists, lawyers and banks. It was hopeless to fight the government during a war, she reasoned, and by assisting with the preparations, she could keep suffering to a minimum.

We Left Our Berries to Rot!

“On the last day, strawberries were red in the fields, in the peak of the season we left our berries to rot!” She told me, crying hard. “And many farmers depended on that crop to pay back debts they had borrowed in the stores and shipping companies. And some families had only two hours to get ready. The military came running over and said, ‘You’ve got to go today.’ And families were out in the fields, picking berries at the time. Some families were in the middle of their lunch, eating. How terrible those families must have felt, leaving their dishes and running! Food half eaten. . . So it’s a real sordid story.”

The Ugliness Came Out

Mary told me, “And when we arrived in Jerome [after the train trip], all the ugliness came out. We were herded together in terrible heat, and tar was dripping in from our barracks. So many feelings were hurt and some of us blamed us, and people were running around trying to come and tell me that it was my fault that families were split up. That I had betrayed them by helping with the evacuation. We were tearing at each other. When you get frightened, you do that. The ugliest part of us came out, and we were surprised that we were doing that to each other. We had been friends.”

Old Before They Should Have Been

Eventually, the families settled into the barracks and tried to survive. “But,” Mary continued, “the evacuation destroyed so many. Many people were broken; they never were the same. They just mentally lost their minds, and some committed suicide and some never came back. Many of them got sick when they were young. They were old before they should have been.”

Blood on her Hands

When the war was nearly over, most evacuees were released and settled in different parts of the country. Whites had burned much of the Japanese community in Florin. People who came back lived in chicken coops, but Mary and her family settled back on their farm which had been saved by their loving white neighbor.

Mary tried to rebuild her life but was tormented by the accusations that she had cooperated with the government. Was that true? What should she have done as a leader in the community? Should she have led others in a decision to fight back? Was her neighbors’ blood on her hands? In the meantime, she resumed her life as a teacher, emphasizing to the young people that the evacuation and internment had been terribly wrong. “Never again,” she told them. “We must never let this happen to another people.”


Eventually, the Japanese American Citizens League pressured Congress into forming a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians; in 1981 the commission held a series of hearings concerning the wartime experience. One of the hearings took place on August 12, 1981, at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. About 450 people were in the audience, and speakers were each given five minutes to state their views on the evacuation, recall memories of it, and make requests for redress. Mary was among them.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an official apology that provided both compensation of $20,000 to each survivor of the camps and funds to promote Japanese American culture and history. By then, many of the survivors were dead.

Could It Happen Again?

In the last part of our interviews, Mary said, “I teach children and they need the truth, because if they don’t have that, they don’t have anything. Then there’s nothing to be proud of, really, being an America. It makes me upset when people say it could never have happened in America, that they never heard about it and so it didn’t happen.

This is why I’ve been telling my children at Jan Ken Po Gakka [the school she founded], ‘It did happen and you learn what happened and tell everybody what happened so it can never happen to anybody else again.’ That’s my terrible fear; that we won’t speak up; that we’ll get old and die, and it will happen to somebody else.”

 Contemporary Detention Centers

I never saw Mary again, although we kept in touch. I’ve thought of her repeatedly during the immigration crisis of 2019 when the Trump administration imprisoned asylum seeking immigrants, including children, in detention centers along the border between Mexico and the U.S. Many people protested against the government actions, calling the imprisonment of asylum seekers immoral and liking the detention centers to the internment camps in WWII.

No More! No More!

Former surviving Japan American inmates from one of the WWII detention centers, the Crystal City Department of Justice internment site, met and demonstrated with others at the present-day family detention center in Dilley, Texas. “No More” and “Never Again” their signs proclaimed.Satsuki Ina, who spearheaded the pilgrimage, stated that, “We’ve got to take these prisons down. They’re inhumane.”

Thus, Japanese Americans still struggled for justice; Mary’s call of “Never again,” was repeated; and it seemed like Mary’s spirit hovered over the demonstrations.

The Right Thing

Mary never knew if for sure if she had done the right thing during WWII, but she lived with her doubts and didn’t let them stop her. She continued to teach and organize throughout her life. Some young people hurled accusations of collaboration with the government at her and others who had helped with the evacuation. She felt these accusations deeply and struggled with them.

Certainly, her decision to prepare people for detention was the great moral dilemma of her life. But with full knowledge of her quandary, she struggled on. She didn’t let her doubts stop her from moral action later. As an old woman, I, too, have regrets and confusions about behaviors in my past, but they must not stop me. Despite my moral perplexities, I am called upon to act decisively in my final attempts to affect the world.

Posted in farm workers, Inequality, Injustice, internment camps, Japanese Americans, oral histories, Prisons, Racism, Social Justice, World War II | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Death of the Black Doll

The Black Doll

The sobbing African American girl hurled the black doll onto the ground and started to chop it with a hoe. The broken-hearted child, Mary Robinson, was born in 1943, the daughter of black sharecroppers. She grew up on a white-owned farm in the countryside north of Montgomery, Alabama.

Decades later, she stared into my eyes. and told me, “One Christmas, Shane [her sister] and me each got a doll, the only one we’d ever had. But when we looked at our dolls, Shane got a white doll and I got a black doll, and neither had no hair. I was little, probably six or seven, and I began to holler. I didn’t want no black doll. I wanted a white one like Joy’s [her white friend] or at least one like Shane’s.

“So Mama told me that there was only two left, ‘cause Santa Claus didn’t have but two. He had a black one and a white one, so he gave the black one to me.

Little Bitty, Hard Rubber

“I felt so bad, I beat that doll to death. It was a hard rubber doll, little bitty, with no hair, just lines on it. And I took that doll out there behind the smokehouse. We had a big stick, and I beat it and beat it and beat it ‘til I beat off all the legs, the arms off, the head off. And all the time I was beating it, I cried, “I don’t want you, you old black doll, you!’ I just cried and cried.

“The doll was hard, and it took quite a bit of beating to break it apart. Then I went and got me a hoe and I chopped it into pieces, and I buried every one of those pieces into a different hole. “For a long time didn’t nobody knowed what happened. Shane made her doll all kinds of clothes, and I thought her doll was much prettier than mine had been. Finally, one day she was playing with it, and Mama asked me, ‘Mary Jimmie?’


“‘Where your doll at?’

“I told her and she said. ‘Well, I bet you one thing, young lady. I bet you ain’t never gonna get you another one!’

“And I never did. I beat that doll of mine ‘cause I just could not stand the idea that my sister had a white doll and I had a colored one.”

The Klan

Mary gazed at me after she told me her story about killing her doll. We had just met, and I’d turned on the tape recorder. I was stunned. I felt like my heart was broken that a little girl should feel such self hatred and fear. I just shook my head back and forth.

Mary and I have talked about that story frequently over our 40 years of friendship. She said that when she thought back at it, she was simply terrified of being African American. “I was plumb scared to death of the Klan.”

Psychological Tests

Mary’s granddaughter Sasha

I sat drinking Mary’s coffee and thought of psychological tests of African American children that were done before the 1954 Supreme Court order to integrate schools in the South. The results of those studies, done by Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark, were presented as evidence in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka. In the experiments black children were given either white dolls with yellow hair or brown dolls with black hair and studied for their reactions. The children responded with enthusiasm and praise to the white dolls and forcefully discarded those that were black.

Stick Figures

I am white and my ex-husband and I had adopted one of our daughters. She was mixed race–African American and white. Shortly after her adoption, I sat in a doctor’s office and thumbed through a magazine. I turned a page and saw reproductions of children’s drawings. A series of self portraits of young black children displayed stick figures, often missing arms or legs, mouths, eyes, and hair. Another series, also drawn by the same black children, depicted white children. These images were drawn in full, complete with arms, legs, hands, hair, smiles, and eyes.

I sat motionless for a moment. Was this the internal reality my culture was going to teach my vibrant baby daughter? Perhaps my love for her would not be enough. My heart sank, and the moment stayed with me. Now Mary and I stared at each other, puzzling over a crime done to a little girl so long ago.

An Exuberant Functional Person

I would have found Mary’s story of killing her doll too heartbreaking to write about if Mary had not grown to be such an exuberant, functional person. Not only did she overcome her childhood fears and self-hatred, but she became a leader in the African American freedom movement – participating in the civil rights crusade, especially in voter registration. and then being recruited as a worker to integrate the all white textile plants.

While she was working in the J.P. Stevens textile mill in Montgomery, she was recruited again, this time by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, where she became a leader. She went on to take part in other political activities.

Center Woman

Now, old like me, she no longer participates directly in politics, but she is a “center woman” for her large extended family and multitude of friends, whose activism she encourages. I am inspired by Mary’s granddaughter Sasha Johnson, also a political activist who takes after her.

Child Labor

I try to analyze the process that took place in Mary’s home community and the larger society as they helped her develop positively from such a cruel, tragic, and exploitative beginning. The whole cotton production system that underlay much of the industrial development that has made categories of white Americans rich was based on child labor and the constant work of African Americans families. Living on white farms, entire black families toiled from sunup to sundown for barely subsistence wages. They were kept in place by hunger and violence.


Certainly, Mary was an resilient child, but from what did her resiliency come? The violent social setting into which she was born was designed to break her, to devastate a poor, black girl’s heart in such a way. It depended on a population of workers who had been so hurt and hemmed in by violence they would not resist. But they did.

Give God Time

Beginning with the African diaspora, the enslaved millions fought back, often drawing on their African heritage. Mary learned those techniques from her black community and beloved parents. She also lived just north of Montgomery, and in 1955, Rosa Parks took her famous bus ride. Mary was fascinated with the early civil rights movement, skipped school in order to observe it, and began to participate as soon as she was older. Within years, she also came in contact with the labor union movement and drew upon it’s centuries of history.

She also drew on her own personal inheritance. She was intelligent, nosey, observant, and energetic. She had a profound religious faith in the tradition of the black church, and she had a vision of justice. When racial violence occurred, Mary’s mother reassured her that there would be a better world. “Give God time. Give God time,” she explained to her children.

She Lights the Path

Many people touched Mary’s life in a profound way. They are so important I will describe them in a subsequent blog. Mary also lights a path for those who come in contact with her. When I am tired and discouraged, I call Mary. Just her greeting lifts my spirits, and within minutes I am renewing my commitments. Watching the news and working her phone, the child who murdered the doll made in her image, now keeps circles of people inspired to work for a better world.

Posted in African American, Inequality, Injustice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

God Gave You a Big Mouth

Snake Running Loose

The first time I visited Irene Mack Pyawasit, a Menominee Native Woman living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was in the early evening of one of the first days of spring in 1979. I drove into the alley of the old, crowded, inner-city neighborhood where she lived. The alley was filled with black and brown children playing ball. Irene’s gray shingled cottage stood behind an battered two-story house from whose open windows came the shouts of children.

I parked the car and walked to Irene’s cottage door. Early stalks of tulips and crocuses lined the walk, and soft pussy willows bloomed across from the door. I knocked on the door, heard the bark of several dogs, and was greeted by the sign:

Open the door with ease,
I’ve let the snake run loose.

Shrewd Sense of Humor

Irene was a Menominee woman in her late sixties who interviewed me three times before she agreed to let me interview her. She had light brown skin, a wide strong-chinned face, and gray and white hair pulled back in a bun and decorated with stick jewelry. Her face was intelligent and alert, and she had a mischievous smile and a deep, firm voice. Her total presence was of Irene P. Mackcompetency, strength, keen awareness, and a shrewd sense of humor.

Menominee Reservation

Irene’s understanding of history and tradition was deeply rooted in the Menominee reservation of her childhood. The reservation, located in Northern Wisconsin, is a watery labyrinth of lakes and forests where the loon calls, bears still roam, and there is an abundance of deer. Ferns grow tall and thick in the deep woods, and the earth is soft with pine needles and leaves.


It is from these forests that the Menominee have derived their livelihood, but the people are poor. In Menominee County, 35.8% of the population live below the poverty level, while the national average is 13.1%.

Encouraged Education

At the time I interviewed Irene, a number of the Menominee remained on the reservation, living intimately with the land they so deeply loved. Many others moved from the reservation to Milwaukee and other urban centers in an attempt to improve their conditions.

Even there their hard lives continued. In order to change these hardships, Irene encouraged education in a variety of ways. Irene and her husband taught informally, and she worked at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, recruiting Native students.

Tough Little Old Woman

Schooling had been forced on Irene when she was a child by requiring her to attend notoriously bad and cruel government and mission boarding schools. But before that, she was raised by her beloved grandmother. Irene told me, “My grandmother was a tough, little old woman, but a good one.

God Gave You a Big Mouth

She taught me a lot of things, and the first thing she taught me was not to be afraid of the white man. She said, ‘God gave you big mouth, and I’m going to teach you how to use it.’” Nevertheless, Irene was swept away from her grandmother and shipped far away to schools whose main purpose was to break the Indianness from the children, “To kill the Indian and save the man.”

Keep Religion in her Heart

Irene’s grandmother taught Irene that the schools would try to destroy her, but they would not succeed. Irene was strong, her grandmother told her, and she would keep her religion in her heart.

Still, staff in the schools used violence; deprivation of food; cold; sexual assault; separation from families; and forced assimilation of dress, behavior, language, hair styles; and religious practices to try to break native children. The government designed institutions to kill the culture, destroy the spirit, and break the resilience in the child.

Some Did Not Survive

Some children did not survive the treatment. According to the Meriam Report [a 1928 government investigation ] “. . . Indian children were six times as likely to die in childhood while at boarding schools than the rest of the children in America.”

Little children were made to follow strict regimes and stripped of signs of the indigenous identity. Young women were trained to do low paid labor, especially as poor servants in white homes, and/or to raise their own children to be diligent laborers in the working class. Likewise, young men were trained to be subservient and non-resisting workers in farms, factories, the military, or other industrial jobs.

Bitterness in her Voice

Irene spoke, the bitterness still in her voice, “After our classes were over in the morning, we had to go to our various duties. Some of us worked in the field picking grapes, sugar beets; some of us were assigned to the dairy barns; some of us were assigned to the homes of the government employees.

“And that’s where they thought they were going to have a lot of fun with us because we were a bunch of dumb Indians girls. I was twelve but I taught one of the men a lesson that I’m sure if he’s still alive, he’s never forgotten. His wife wasn’t in the house at the time, and he came in from the dairy barn and thought he was going to have some fun with me.

“He tried to push me into a corner between the door and the refrigerator, but I gave him a good example of what a knee was built for. I had him walking like a camel.

“They took his word against mine and figured I was disobedient and unruly. Of course, I was punished, but I never went back to that house to do any more work.


“For punishment, I had scrubbing duty on my hands and knees, and I had what seemed like miles to do. I had stairways, hallways, and dormitory floors. I had no privileges to go downtown, no recreation privileges at any time. I had to scrub and scrub and clean and clean and clean and clean. I had about three or four months of just scrubbing duty to do, but still I got him away from me.”


Irene resisted throughout her life. She worked for a circus throughout the depression, teaching children and adults between shows. She became involved in tribal politics and was the first woman in her tribe to ever represent it in Washington as an official delegate. She was a registered lobbyist for the federal House and the Senate.

She and her present husband traveled, giving religious leadership in the Big Drum. She has taught her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren their religious beliefs. She wrote and made recordings of stories and legends, preserving them for upcoming generations and served as a mentor to young political leaders. Her future hopes included teaching Native history.

I lost contact with Irene before she died, but I continued to study Indian resistance, which has developed and continued in a multitude of ways.

Additional Ressistance

Adults and children resisted the boarding schools throughout their years of existence from the late 19th century through the 1970s. Parents camped outside of the schools so they could see their children; children ran away. Eventually, children from the schools got to know each other outside of tribal identification and formed the Pan Indian Movement of the past decades. These students took a largely negative experience and turned it into a cultural and political crusade that has done much to increase the life prospects of indigenous people today.

House Made of Dawn

Speaking of resistance such as the lifetime of struggle described by Irene Mack Pyawasit, N. Scott Momaday, writing in House Made of Dawn, stated, “They have assumed the names and gestures of their enemies, but have held on to their own, secret souls, and in this there is resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting.”

Posted in Menominee, Native American, Native boarding schools, Poverty, Racism, religion, Social Justice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment