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.
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.
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.
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 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.