~~~Saturday, April 18, 1953~~~
“Can we come in?” The woman said with a sheepish smile and her hand on the door. “It’s rainin’ fit to start the second flood out heah."
DeDe stared at the two faces on the other side of her screen door.
“I'm Hephzibah Kelly, and dis mah husband, Jabo.”
“Of course, where are my manners? I wasn’t expecting guests. Today being Saturday, and the men out doing whatever it is men do on Saturdays.” DeDe smiled.
Jabo returned her smile, but Hephzibah held a steady gaze into the house.
DeDe opened the front door wide, while her unexpected guests pulled open the screen door.
Tall and wiry, Jabo stooped over walking through the doorway. His eyes registered everything immediately. “Sho is uh nice place y’all got heah.”
“It’ll do until we get our mansion up yonder,” DeDe said. Neither Hephzibah nor Jabo registered a grin. They stared instead at the furniture, the buck head on the wall, and the kitchen linoleum. “Well, please, come sit at the table. Would you like anything cold to drink? It’s gettin’ warmer. Summer’s just ‘round the corner.” DeDe’s instant politeness smoke-screened her quest to find out about a person. The minute she talked to anyone her eyes were everywhere—glaring into their soul. Within seconds she had strangers pegged. It had always scared the hell out of James Curtis, but fascinated Thirl.
She led the Kellys to her kitchen table and motioned for them to have a seat. DeDe didn’t remember Hephzibah being so pretty. Her hair was dark as a crow’s wing, smoothed back, but frizzed out around her forehead. Her licorice smooth skin contributed to her looking younger than her years. A blue cotton waistless dress hung from her shoulders to her knees, and her stockings were rolled down to her ankles. “We came heah, Missus Nettles ….”
“Oh please, call me DeDe.”
“Miz DeDe, we came heah ‘cause we good friends of Savina. Your James and Savina aimin’ to marry. I knows that ain’t no secret.”
“No, but I believe it’ll happen later than sooner, with the strike and all.”
“True, Miz DeDe. Tha’s fuh sho.” Jabo dropped his head wearily. His gray hair curled in tight clumps around his ears. A frost of unshaven stubble smudged his chin, and his eyes were light blue to the point of grayness. Veins ran along the top of each thick bicep. His pants hung loose and rumpled.
Hephzibah eyed her husband and continued. “You knows I work for Mist’ Bradley.”
“Yes, I heard that.”
“I try to stay outa the white man’s business. I do. But Jabo and me, we love Savina like our own. And we love your boy, too, Miz DeDe. He’s a good boy. Savina say we can trust you.”
“Thank you, Hephzibah.” DeDe smiled. “How long have you known James Curtis?”
Jabo stared at his wife. “Oh … well, me and James Curtis shoot da breeze sometimes when da women folk visit … after they finish work over at da Bradley house.”
Hephzibah cleared her throat. “I’ll state the reason for our call. Jabo do it better though. You tell her. You tell Miz DeDe what you heah.”
Jabo slid down in his seat, steepled his fingers and looked across the table to the wall. “When ah retired last year from da mine, Mist’ Bradley offer me a handyman job at his house. Fixin’ whatnot ‘round his place. Big place, you ever seen it?”
“No, I’ve heard it’s lovely.”
“Yes’um. Anyway. Ah was layin’ a new rug in they dinin’ room two days ago and ah heah Mist’ Bradley talkin’ on da phone. Comp’ny men ought not to make da strikers mad. They gone start a war, Miz DeDe. It gone be a bad one. Strikers took over da garage in Dille as a new headquarters and made it a cook shack too.”
DeDe grabbed her throat, and her eyes filled. “What else do you know, Mr. Kelly?”
“Only reason Ah’m stickin’ my ole’ neck out, is ‘cause Savina love James Curtis. She loves her daddy, too. Hephzibah and me jus’ want yo family to be safe. Tha’s all.”
“Someone at da FBI owes Mist’ Bradley a favor. He calls Mist’ Bradley from time to time. Sent two deputies—askin’ da strikers lots of questions. Pretty rough stuff, what they say to each other.” Jabo paused and lowered his voice.
“Mist’ Bradley say, iffen he could fine a way to split ‘em, to make all Widen men see that da UMW’s jus’ a bunch of lef-wing troublemakers, don’t have their best interests at heart, well, then, this strike be over in a week.” Jabo paused again and stared out the window this time. “Ain’t gone happen, tho’.”
“He say, the UMW sees Elk River Coal and Lumber as a test case. Win heah, they win da whole state. They dug in for da duration. As long as it takes. Now, ‘cause of da comp’ny men shovin’ pickets off da hill, the union is cocky as hell. ‘Cause of they threats, they think Mist’ Bradley gone throw in da towel, jus’ give them whatever they damn want. Mist’ Bradley say it’ll go on for a while, and probably be some men gettin’ hurt or worse.”
“Later, ah heard two of them union fellas walkin’ in da woods near my place. They been collectin’ lots of guns. They laugh and say they gone shoot the first man drivin’ in the comp’ny convoy one mornin’ this week. Don’t know what mornin’. Could be this town be havin’ a few funerals next week, he say.”
“Why didn’t you tell this to Mister Bradley?”
“Ah jus’ a handyman, Miz DeDe. We don’t speak much. Like ah say, ah don’t stick this ole’ neck out for jus’ anybody. Still, it gone on too long. Them comp’ny mens, they cain’t take they family in and out of Widen. Been months for mos’ of ‘em, ‘ceptin on Election Day. Da only day they able to get out of Widen. Thank da Lawd, nobody got killed.”
“Worse part, Savina’s daddy, Mist’ Odie, he sent word to Mist’ Bradley at da house today. He say he die before he work in non-union mine, and he say he take a few Comp’ny men wid him.”
DeDe straightened in her chair. “I’ve been sitting here thinking, I’m going to have a special women’s prayer meeting at my house this Wednesday evening. I’m inviting every woman in this town. Hephzibah, you and Mama Ola are more than welcome to join us.”
Hephzibah crossed her arms in front of her. “That’d be nice, but I don’t know how the white ladies in your church take to coloreds invadin’ they prayer meetin’.”
“You have as much right to divine protection as the rest of us. I want you here, praying with us.”
Jabo chuckled. “Oh we protected. We do like da Hebrews. We sprinkle da blood over our door, tell da Angel of Death to pass over this house. It work too. You should try it.” He pushed his chair back from the table and grinned as one does when disclosing an unsettling secret. “Da rich man thinks we’s all niggers, Miz DeDe. They call my home nigger holler. But all Widen is nigger holler. You and yo’ kind well as me and mine. You jus’ got a little more jiggle room, tha’s all.”
DeDe caught Hephzibah’s eyes darting around her kitchen. “We’re not rich, Mister Kelly. Nobody in this town is rich, except Mister Gandy and, of course, Mister Bradley.”
Hephzibah stood and pushed her chair into the table. “Jabo don’t see what I see. They’s not rich, neither. I sees they socks, they underwear. I wash they clothes and I sees how Mist’ Bradley worry over his bills. Some days don’t even get home ‘til way late at night. And his wife is sick. Always a guard there protectin’ his home with a gun. Nah, he ain’ no rich man.”
Jabo held out his hand. “Was nice talkin’ to you today. Ah hope we didn’t put yuh out none.”
DeDe smiled. “I enjoyed the company.” His touch was warm, firm, and yet gentle. A double-handed shake. Preachers always grabbed you with both hands, one squeezing your palm and the other squeezing your wrist. “You’re a minister of the gospel?”
“Yes’um. How you know that, Miz DeDe? Lawsamercy,” Jabo chuckled. “Ah preach every Sunday in our church up da holler. Come visit sometime?”
DeDe’s eyes opened wide, her mouth quivered for words. She’d never received an open invitation from a colored church, nor had anticipated attending a service surrounded by Negros. But there was always a first time. “Yes, when the strike is over, I’ll be glad to visit. Thank you for your kind comments about my son, and thank you for warning us. I hope my emergency prayer meeting will reach God’s ear.”
“Ah be bringin’ Hephzibah and my mama by Wednesday long ‘bout seven. They’s prayin’ women. Prayer warriors. It be after dark, that way nobody sees. That be fine wid you?”
“Yes, of course.” Her eyes met Hephzibah’s and the two women embraced. Another first.
~~~Wednesday, April 22, 1953~~~
Opposing sides filled DeDe’s house quickly. Women sympathetic to the union and company women, who wanted the strike to end, managed to exchange a few polite nods, stares and smiles. The ladies, lacking for words, gathered in opposite rooms of DeDe’s house—company women in the kitchen and union women in the front room. Despite the heat, tension chilled the air. Some hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in months. It wasn’t until a tiny, elderly lady named Ossie Casto, whose flesh was the color of toadstools and whose memory was so eroded she thought they’d come to pray for President Roosevelt, stood and sang the wedding song Oh Promise Me that giggles erupted throughout the house.
Stifled words longing to be said spilled out of their mouths and the rooms converged on one another. Long hugs, apologies, and passing the tissue box—DeDe heaved a sigh of relief and put her purse away. The healing was long overdue.
Opal Hamrick arrived late. A wide-bottomed, pale, hard-looking woman of forty-five or so, she carried a Jello mold in her hand. Her husband, Jack, had remained on the strike line despite being fired by the company. Opal hugged DeDe so hard her hair had to be combed again. “DeDe, you’re so skinny, I’ll bet you have to squat to fart.”
Tessa Butcher, Bonehead’s wife, was nine months pregnant with her fourth child. Her swollen bare legs above tight ankle socks held the interest of every woman in the room. A topic of conversation, along with possible remedies, it was a welcome diversion from the strike.
Each woman searched for conversation to divert themselves from the past months of living in a war-torn town. Sylvia Dodrill complained she’d lost her shape with her last child. But Fleeta Thigpen disagreed, stating the only thing wrong with Sylvia was her faded yellow hair that clung too close to her skull like some giant ear of corn with not enough silk. The Digg sisters, Lottie and Goose, busied themselves in DeDe's kitchen, making lemonade and cutting the crust off cheese sandwiches. Tootsie Barrow, Imogene Sanders, and a heavyset woman with thin legs and wide fee, Edith Holcomb, exchanged recipes. Pearle Gibson arrived late with her Bible-toting Aunt Hattie Mae from Summersville.
The old woman walked over to DeDe and immediately knit her brows together. She gave DeDe’s hand a gentle squeeze. “The Lord holds a flashlight as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, dear. He helps us find new life in the midst of the valley.”
Embarrassed, Pearle grabbed her arm and pulled her to a seat in the corner. She mouthed a “sorry” to DeDe. But DeDe smiled. She smiled because it was all she could do. Chilled for a moment as Hattie Mae’s words shook her to the core, DeDe turned her attention to the other women in an attempt to rid her mind of the old lady’s words and to remind herself that the room wasn’t cold. In fact, she had opened all the windows. The temperatures had broken records that late April evening. The heat and humidity inside the house caused some to stand and catch a breeze while their dress hems lifted in the hot air and moved around their legs like a sigh in church.
When DeDe answered the door, and Hephzibah and Mama Ola stepped into the house wearing their best clothes and holding their Bibles in the crooks of their arms, the room shut down. Not one woman’s chin quivered. A dozen pairs of inquisitive eyes glared at their hostess.
DeDe spoke in a commanding voice. “I invited Hephzibah Kelly and her mother-in-law to visit with us this evening. You all know Mama Ola. I prayed hard about it. I believe God laid it on my heart for them to be here. We are all women, women of faith, women who want an end to the strike, but above that, we are women who know how to love. Women who want our families safe. These women do too. And they have voiced their love for my family. I am proud to have them in my home tonight. I want you all to welcome them.” The words dashed against her teeth, the wave of emotion unable to carry them farther.
Mama Ola’s wide smile showed a mixture of gaps and brown teeth. Her white hair glistened against her dark brown skin.
DeDe’s pleading glance fell on Opal, who chewed her gum in short, irregular snaps. If Opal would accept them, the rest would follow. Opal stood and walked over to Hephzibah. “Your boy, Highpockets. He did a fine job buildin’ my hog pen last summer. Got good manners. It’s nice to meet ya both. C'mon ladies, meet DeDe’s guests.”
DeDe breathed deep. A breeze moved against her sweaty back. She pulled her sticky blouse from her skin, and decided to stand still--allow the air to dry her clothes while the rest of the women surrounded her two new friends from Colored Holler, welcoming them in the name of the Lord.
The social hour passed. DeDe intended to devote the next hour to the scriptures, reading and praying. She scarcely found her voice as she preached. “I’m going to read the scripture Pastor Jessie read last week in service. Please turn to Ephesians the sixth chapter, verses ten through seventeen. I believe it’s appropriate for this evening.”
“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
The room fell into a weighty hush. Darkness seeped in from the outside and filled the house, even with DeDe’s single lamp that sat on her bookcase. The night sounds of frogs and crickets and an occasional dog’s bark were the only noise. Then, as if on cue from God, these sounds also ceased.
There was no breeze to speak of. The air around them felt heavy and dead. The screen door to the porch was open and DeDe’s white chiffon curtains at the windows suddenly blew gently inward and billowed like angel’s wings, as if some supernatural being had glided into the room. Lottie put a hand to her mouth. The breeze stopped, the women froze, and their fanning ceased. Nothing moved, not even the wind.
The singing came from outside. As if a choir were floating up Nicholas Street. A soft carol of voices. The song escalated in strength, grew stronger, louder, and became recognizable—a chorus. A mass of voices singing in a heavenly language. The sound grew as if someone had turned up the volume on a radio. It floated through the doorway and as it did, a light came with it, filling the room. It expanded and appeared to seep into every mind and heart. And then, just as it came, it descended out the west window, as if someone opened a vacuum and the singing was sucked out.
No one could speak for a period of unknown time, as every watch on every wrist had stopped. Even the mantel clock on DeDe’s bookcase ceased to chime the hour. Sounds of murmured praise came first from their lips. Hephzibah whispered to Opal that she saw tongues of fire over each woman in the room. Opal reached for her hand and smiled. “I see ‘em too.”
Questions oozed from every mouth … “Did you hear it?” “Yes, what did you hear?” “What was it? A choir?” “Angels, yes it was angels singing.”
Sylvia and Tessa believed it was the radio next door and an electric surge. Lottie and Goose cried. Ossie, Opal, Tootsie, Imogene, Fleeta and Edith sang, “Praise Him, Praise Him, Praise Him in the mornin’, Praise Him in the noontime, Praise Him when the sun goes down …”
One by one, the ladies bid their teary good-byes. Pearle pulled DeDe aside after most had gone and a few waited for their rides. “Was it a sign? A good sign or a bad sign? What’d it mean?”
Hattie Mae couldn’t hold back any longer. “It was a sign of the second comin’.”
“Oh, hush, Hattie Mae! You don’t know that.” Pearle shook her head at her elderly aunt.
“I know somebody’s comin’,” she said.
Hephzibah looked at Mama Ola. “What you think, Mama?”
The old black woman stared at DeDe and grinned. “She know. She know what it was.”
Pearle’s hand, still on DeDe’s arm, trembled. She asked her again. “What do you know, DeDe?”
“I know it’s late. Thank you all for coming.”