By Vivian Gibson
Excerpted from The Last Children of Mill Creek (Belt Publishing, 2020), a memoir of growing up in the segregated St. Louis neighborhood of Mill Creek Valley, which was destroyed under urban renewal in the late 1950s. Vivian will be discussing her book (virtually) on May 19 with Left Bank Books.
My parents’ marriage cut across class lines. My mother had “married down.” My grandfather did not approve.
My father was the grandson of Mississippi slaves, and the son of a thrice-married and divorced mother who had cleaned white peoples’ homes and cared for their children in two states by the time they settled in St. Louis in 1929. They joined the wave of blacks moving north to escape the tyranny of Southern apartheid and seek a better education for their children. Arriving when he was fourteen, he attended the newly constructed Vashon High School—built to accommodate the city’s fast-growing black community in Mill Creek.
By 1937, when he met my mother, my father was a truck driver who sang baritone in a quartet on weekends. He was handsome, with a deep, dark, smooth complexion punctuated with dimples when he smiled, revealing behind his full lips beautiful white teeth that shone like fine china. But nothing in his early years in the South, and little in the crowded, cold- water row houses in Mill Creek had prepared my father for my mother. She was a six-foot-tall and rail-thin college basketball star, whose milky-white complexion and shock of chestnut brown curls drew all eyes when she entered a room. Her subtle Alabama accent and mischievous smile embodied sophistication and breeding, the likes of which Daddy had never seen.
Mama’s years as a wife and mother in St. Louis bore little resemblance to her early years, but her small-town Southern bearing was always perceptible beneath the surface of the urban poverty in which she found herself. She was different from most other women on Bernard Street. They had all travelled from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama in that great black migration north during the 1920s and 30s. But to those who knew her before, it was surmised that Mama had left the better life behind.
She possessed a subtle self-confidence that came from a combination of training and appealing physical distinctions. Her college education afforded her a more refined manner of speaking, albeit with the upward gliding vowels of an Alabama drawl, and she charmed the Jewish store owners and insurance men who were the white people encountered most in our rundown enclave. “Hi, Miss Frances,” is how the neighborhood children greeted her to elicit a warm “Hey, baby” in return.
Our neighbors were familiar with the broad range of shades among “colored people” from “light, bright, and damn-near white” to blue-black and every shade of brown in between. But white store clerks and waitresses assumed Mama was white when she glided up to the downtown department store counters of Stix, Baer & Fuller, or Scruggs, Vandervoort & Barney with her favorite hat angled just as she had seen in a recent issue of McCall’s magazine.
During the early war years some items rationed to white women, like silk and nylon stockings that sold at inflated prices, were simply not sold to black women at all. Like so many coded rules of that time, women of color avoided the embarrassment of being told by an indignant white store clerk that the items they sought were “out of stock.” So Mama enjoyed shopping for her friend Marguerite, who owned a beauty shop and was one of only a few black women she knew who could afford to purchase the highly prized hosiery. And while downtown shopping for her friend, she was always treated with the respect and service reserved for white customers when she sat and sipped a Coca-Cola at segregated lunch counters, just because she could.
On Sundays, she didn’t attend the Baptist church with Daddy and many of our neighbors. She and her older sister Bennette (shortened to Bette), who had joined her in St. Louis in 1940, attended Jamison Memorial CME Church at the corner of Leffingwell and Washington. It was a historically black denomination of the Methodist Episcopal Church, like the one they had attended back home. The church would later change the CME in its name from Colored Methodist Episcopal to Christian Methodist Episcopal. She was the church secretary, and Aunt Bette was the Sunday School superintendent and played the piano for the children’s choir. Aunt Bette, who had been a schoolteacher in Alabama, was now divorced, and had no children of her own, while Mama had two kids and another on the way by the time Aunt Bette arrived in St. Louis.
Aunt Bette and Mama were a matched pair of lithe alabaster beauties. Mama often laughingly encouraged her older sister, “C’mon Bette, let’s go downtown and be white for the afternoon.” They were mildly amused by their risky and fleeting forays into unwelcome territory. Their resentment of entrenched racism was assuaged only briefly by dressing up, boarding streetcars, and crossing the color line at will.
Daddy, meanwhile, looked like the man on the Cream of Wheat box: the iconic dark-skinned Negro with shining eyes and a wide grin showing faultless white teeth. His job was to maintain streetcar tracks and empty the trash at Public Service’s bus garages and streetcar sheds throughout the city. He had a booming, perfectly pitched baritone laugh that came from his diaphragm deep inside his barrel chest. It was an honest laugh that we didn’t get to hear until weekends and holidays, when he didn’t work eighteen-hour days.
The tone and timbre of his speaking voice made you forget the smell of gasoline and sweat on his gray work coveralls, and the thin orange sponge attached to elastic that stretched around his head to prevent the sweat on his forehead from dripping into his eyes. His careful diction deflected attention from the dingy, damp handkerchief tied around his neck. Daddy was of average height, about five foot ten, and round and robust— his big belly was hard, not jiggly, no doubt from lifting heavy trash cans and dumping their contents into the back of a truck for eight hours a day.
There was order and dignity in how my Daddy lived his life. That included laying down the law and enforcing it at home. Daddy didn’t smoke, drink, or curse (except for the occasional “damn”). But the one infraction that would get us kids shocked out of a dead sleep by the crack of his long leather belt across the palm of his hide-like hand was leaving dirty dishes in the sink. The only child of a woman who was away from sunup to sundown taking care of the domestic needs of others, Daddy was left to cook, wash, and clean for himself as a child. So he had rules for cleaning the house, especially the kitchen. That was a good thing because Mama’s indulged upbringing had not prepared her to be interested in nor proficient at any of those activities.
However, Mama did implement schedules and routines for chores. The four older girls rotated washing and drying dishes. My brothers Randle and Honey swept and mopped the kitchen floor, and I emptied the trash. Ferman, the baby, always seemed to be too young for any assignment.
Daddy would get home from his second job as the janitor at Northern Baptist Church around ten p.m.—enough time to eat something, watch the late evening news, and go to bed for the night. All the children were in bed, asleep or at least pretending to be, when Daddy passed through the middle room to the kitchen each night.
The need to keep trash and garbage out of Daddy’s sight was understood by all. His cardinal rule was: “Eat everything you put on your plate.” If he happened to see uneaten rutabagas, half-eaten cornbread or, God forbid, meat left on a chicken or pork chop bone in the kitchen garbage after dinner, he hit the ceiling. “Who threw this good food away? Y’all can throw away more with a spoon than I can bring in with a shovel.”
If you were awake when he got home, you would have to do something that was not one of your assigned responsibilities, and there was no greater indignity than to be told to wash a dish left in the sink when it was not your day to wash dishes. But the worst infraction was when Daddy felt a greasy plate or glass because somebody washed the dishes in cold water. The single light bulb hanging from the ceiling would flash on with a snap of its dirty, waxy string to reveal wide-eyed children cowering in their beds. Daddy would bellow, “Get up, get up, get in that kitchen and clean it.” Some brave soul would whimper, “Daddy, it’s not my day.” Daddy’s answer was always the same: “I don’t care whose day it is, all of you get in there and clean that damn kitchen.”
Mumbled accusations flew as we shuffled around the crowded kitchen in mismatched pajamas, threadbare nightgowns, and oversized undershirts. We heated water for dishwashing, re-swept, and re-wiped until we heard the reassuring sound of Daddy’s snoring coming from the front room. Only then did we peel off in silent resentment and return to our beds. He would be up again in six hours to go to his day job.
Needless to say, we didn’t see Daddy much. If you avoided the magic dinner hour during the week, and were in bed by ten o’clock at night, you could go without seeing him until Saturday morning. He left home at five o’clock in the morning. When he arrived back home at precisely five o’clock in the evening, he had forty-five minutes to eat his dinner from a folding TV tray while watching the evening news. This strict ritual took place in front of our two used and stacked televisions—one with a picture and no sound, the other with sound and no picture.
At 5:45 p.m. he then walked two blocks west on Bernard Street to Ewing Avenue and another half-block south to Northern Baptist Church. He had lived in no less than six locations in a four-square block area of this neighborhood for the past thirty years. Every man, woman, and child knew who he was and could set their clocks by his trek. As he passed, there were familiar refrains: “Evening, Ross.” “Hi, Mr. Ross.” Maybe even “Hey, Daddy.” Other greetings were simple nods or a slight wave of a hand.
Our church was one of the scores of former churches and synagogues left behind as the white congregations moved west with the expanding city and county. Daddy unlocked the church for the evening services and meetings, then proceeded to open windows in summer and adjust the furnace in winter. He cleaned and made minor repairs until ten p.m. on most nights. On Tuesdays, he interrupted his cleaning to conduct choir rehearsals. On Wednesday nights he tiptoed in and out of prayer meetings. And on Thursday evenings he joined the male chorus rehearsals. The weekly practices and the choir members who attended them made up a large part of Daddy’s social life. You could feel the air of camaraderie and frivolity, mixed with pride in their musicality. Even the laughter before, during, and after rehearsals vibrated on pitch in the otherwise empty sanctuary. Singing was a simple joy that he managed to squeeze into his crowded life.
Our way of living was greatly influenced by how Daddy lived as a child in Earle, Arkansas, which was honed from his mother’s experiences in turn-of-the-century Mississippi. She had lost a child in a fire as a young woman and had to leave Daddy alone before and after school while she worked. We heard the familiar Southern father’s story about having a hard life growing up in “the country.” Daddy “chopped wood in the morning, then walked five miles to school with no shoes.” Sometimes the story was embellished to add “in the snow.” We got no sympathy from him when we were stuffing cardboard in our shoes to make them last to the end of the school year. And he would get mad if he saw us playing outside in “perfectly good shoes” in the summertime instead of going barefoot. But it worked for me—I loved the feel of warm dirt sifting through my toes. It was like he had picked up Earle and plopped it down in the middle of St. Louis. And of course Daddy’s nothing-wasted attitude was most important when it came to food. Not that we had any leftovers—my brothers made sure we ate everything at every meal. But Daddy could find comfort food in the dregs of a meal—more commonly known as pot liquor.
Pot liquor is the flavorful and nutritious broth left over from a pot of greens. It’s a rich liquid seasoned with smoked pork, salt, pepper, vinegar, and the tangy, tart flavor of slow- cooked turnip, mustard, or collard greens. It could be used as a tonic for a sick child or a hearty base for soups or stews. But Daddy drank it steaming from a bowl like a soothing hot toddy after coming in at night from his second job. Sometimes there were one or two slices of cornbread left over as well, wrapped in waxed paper and set to the side for Daddy to crumble into his pot liquor or his other catch-all liquid, buttermilk. He and my grandmother could munch on buttermilk-soaked cornbread like it was a bowl of ice cream. With sugar sprinkled on top, it’s not half bad.
Though pot liquor, buttermilk, and cornbread were not uncommon among Southerners, Daddy also enjoyed other, more enigmatic edibles—he loved to gnaw on bones. He was okay with others throwing bones away once all the meat was eaten from them. But he enjoyed bone marrow, and he went for it—chicken bones, pork chop bones, even neck bones that were gnarly and hard, he gave them his best shot. When he was finished with a neck bone, it was gray and dry like a carcass that had been baked in the desert sun. But the pièces de résistance were pork rib bones that were the rack for meat he had smoked and basted with vinegar-water for six hours in our backyard on the Fourth of July. The combination of time, low temperature, and moisture rendered the collagen in the bones to a pliable density that he chewed and savored long after others had moved on to dessert.
Finally, there were two staples that accompanied every meal except breakfast: a whole (as in unsliced) peeled yellow onion, that he bit into like an apple, and a jar of cold water, kept in the refrigerator at all times in a designated sixty-four- ounce Sho-is-Fine syrup jar with a top—known exclusively as “Daddy’s water.” No one was allowed to drink it so that it was always cold and available whenever he wanted it. ■
Vivian Gibson is a native St. Louisian who grew up in Mill Creek Valley, a neighborhood razed in 1959 to build a highway. Her essay “From Sunup to Sundown” was included in Belt Publishing’s “The St. Louis Anthology” (2019), and served as the seed for The Last Children of Mill Creek, published by Belt Publishing in April 2020.
Cover image of a parade in Mill Creek (undated, Creative Commons).
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