We Gather Together

By Nancy Bourne

ast Thanksgiving my Uncle Jimmy shoved a newspaperman who was taking pictures in front of our church and knocked down his camera. His picture was on television. Uncle Jimmy is leaning over the man, his face just furious. At the edge of the picture you can see a policeman, all blurry, running up to stop the fight. What you don’t see are all the Negroes, who had been coming out of the church, dressed to the nines. They disappeared, just like that, before you could turn around. I know. I was there.

It’s what comes of trying to integrate, my daddy said. He was dead set against it when the Reverend Coleman announced his plan a month or so before. He stood up in the pulpit and told us he had invited the colored Baptist church to worship with us on Thanksgiving Day.

“I got nothing against the colored,” Daddy said. “But they got their own church. It’s a damn fool idea to try to mix them in with us.”

And Uncle Jimmy said, “I don’t care what those Communists on the Supreme Court say, I don’t associate with the colored and I never will.”

Some of the men decided to talk to the Reverend, bring him to his senses. I know because my daddy was one of them and told me all about it.

“The Court meant for schools to be integrated, not church,” they told the Reverend. “The colored will feel uncomfortable mixing with the professional people we got here at Main Street Baptist.”

But the Reverend just smiled. “Remember what you used to sing in Sunday School? Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.”

“Bible says nothing about mixing,” the men said.

“We all worship the same God; we’re all Baptists. It’s time we came together in thanksgiving,” the Reverend said.

I didn’t know what to think. I was fourteen, and the only Negro I’d ever known was Luther, the janitor at our church. They say Mr. Huntsman, the mayor’s father, was his daddy, which is why his skin is so light. But of course that doesn’t make Luther white. I’ve seen the colored maids on the back of the bus on the way to work, and the garbage men. But I don’t know any of them. We don’t have a maid; Mama and I clean.

When I first heard we had to go to school with the colored, it scared me half to death. The white boys in my school are rough enough without having some colored boys fighting and talking dirty. And everybody says they’re a lot dumber than we are. But it’s been a couple of years since the Supreme Court said we had to integrate, and so far nothing’s happened to change the schools. So I couldn’t understand why the preacher wanted to make trouble at church.

On the other hand, I’d always looked up to Reverend Coleman; everybody did. I thought of him as good a Christian as a man could be. Maybe because he was always so nice to me, called me by my name, Shirley, complimented me when I played the piano at Sunday School. He always stood real straight in the pulpit and opened up his arms like the painting of Jesus, telling us that God would forgive us no matter how nasty we’d behaved. And when it was time for hymns, he’d throw back his head and sing louder than anybody. So when he asked why God would want us to turn a family away from our church just because they’re colored, I didn’t know what to think.

Every Sunday until the big day, Reverend Coleman read the parable of the Good Samaritan to make his point. And he wore down most of the deacons and some of the women with his arguments. Not my mama, of course; she always sided with my daddy and Uncle Jimmy. And they were against it. But they got outvoted.

*     *     *     *     *

Uncle Jimmy is the President of the Bank of Virginia and the Chairman of the School Board. He’s always been my favorite uncle. He doesn’t have any children himself, so he’s made my brother Sonny and me his substitute children. Uncle Jimmy laughs a lot, and he brings me Hershey bars, and he once gave me a little bronze statue of the Empire State Building, which he had bought in New York City. He’s very handsome with lots of wavy red hair, not like my daddy who’s almost bald.

But mostly he’s my hero. Like the time we were at a Lion’s Club picnic on Luna Lake, and Daddy and Uncle Jimmy took us out in a rowboat. Sonny was only two and of course he couldn’t swim, so Mama said he couldn’t go. But Sonny kept climbing into the boat and smiling at Daddy. So when Mama wasn’t looking, Daddy pushed off.

I put my hand in the water to feel the cool on such a hot day and watched the ripples coming out from my fingers. I liked looking at Uncle Jimmy’s shoulders while he did the rowing. They were full of muscles and getting red from the sun. He’s much stronger than my daddy whose shoulders are thin and bent forward. Maybe from bending over the cash register at the store all day.

All of a sudden I heard a splash. I looked around, but Sonny wasn’t in the boat. And he wasn’t in the water. I started screaming.

Then another splash and the boat started rocking so bad I had to hold on with both hands. It was Uncle Jimmy. He’d jumped in. Daddy was yelling and I could hear Mama calling us from the shore. It seemed to go on forever. Once in a while my uncle’s head would burst out of the water, his red hair plastered to his forehead, and then back down he’d go. Finally, he pulled himself into the boat, which was rocking so bad I was afraid it would go under. He flopped down on his back, soaking wet. Sonny was spread out on top of him like a rag doll. They lay there without moving while Daddy was pulling at them and I was screaming and screaming. Finally Sonny opened his eyes, slowly, like in a dream, but he wasn’t looking at anything.

“Row!” Uncle Jimmy yelled, “Row!” He picked Sonny up and hit him hard on the back. Nothing happened. Then he laid him down on the seat and put his mouth on Sonny’s face. I watched him breathe into my brother’s mouth, then suck the breath back in. We were all quiet now, waiting, and Daddy was rowing hard. When we hit shore, Mama jumped into the water, sundress, sandals and all, crying, “Where’s my baby?”

Uncle Jimmy didn’t look up; he just kept breathing for Sonny, hunched over him, wet and white and serious. All of a sudden, Sonny wiggled. Then he started choking and crying and spitting up water, but he was breathing for himself.

Daddy grabbed him and wrapped him in a beach towel. Mama was crying and hanging on to Daddy. I hugged Uncle Jimmy, and he put his arms around me.

*     *     *     *     *

Daddy insisted that we leave for church right after breakfast that Thanksgiving morning to make sure we’d be seated down front.

“Don’t want to sit behind the colored,” he said.

I didn’t want to go. But daddy made me. He said, we’d always gone to church on Thanksgiving and no niggers were going to keep us away. So I put on my brown felt hat with the veil, which Mama always made me wear to church, and my white gloves.

The church slowly filled up with folks we knew until it was about five minutes before the ten o’clock service was to start. The organ was going full tilt with Onward Christian Soldiers.

“Looks like we’re safe,” Mama whispered.

“Not a chance,” Daddy whispered back.

They were walking in a bunch down the side aisles, the men in dark suits, the women all dressed up in bright colored dresses, red and blue with big flowers, and feathers waving off their hats. They didn’t look like maids or janitors or garbage men. The girls in pigtails and stiff little skirts faced straight ahead as they followed their mamas down the aisles, hanging onto their hands. The boys were all in suits. I didn’t see Luther anywhere.

“All rise.”

It was Reverend Coleman. He had slipped in when I wasn’t looking and was standing in the pulpit, his arms spread out, that big smile on his face. Next to him stood a tall, fat man, with rough skin the color of dark chocolate. He had on this light blue suit and a red tie, but he wasn’t smiling. He didn’t even look at us; he kept his eyes on his hymnbook, which was open in his hands. I figured he wanted to be there about as much as I did.

Reverend Coleman spent a long time welcoming everybody to our church and saying what a glorious Thanksgiving Day God had provided. He said a prayer and then the organist belted out “We Gather Together To Ask the Lord’s Blessing,” and the choir joined in. The church was full of people by this time, all the white people in the middle, the colored on the sides, so you would think we’d fill up that place with singing. But the sound was pretty pitiful. I didn’t feel like singing, and I guess the other people felt the same. But I could hear Reverend Coleman’s voice, deep and steady, way out in front of everybody, “He chastens and hastens His will to make known.” I couldn’t hear the black preacher, but his lips were moving.

After the hymn, the service proceeded as usual. The choir sang, the deacons from both churches passed collection plates, the colored preacher read the Beatitudes from the Bible, and Reverend Coleman preached about “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Except for the fact that we were sitting with a bunch of colored people, it didn’t seem much different from other Thanksgiving services.

Every once in a while, I’d look over at Uncle Jimmy. He was sitting on the front row with the other deacons, but kind of to the side, so I had a good view of him. I noticed he wasn’t singing during the hymns, which was unusual for him; he loves to sing. And whenever either Reverend Coleman or the colored preacher started talking, he looked down at his lap.

During the last hymn, Reverend Coleman walked up the aisle through the congregation and waited at the door to greet people as they filed out. I started to join the line.

But Daddy said, “Hold on there, Shirley. Let them get out first.”

By the time we got to the preacher, the church was nearly empty. I shook Reverend Coleman’s hand and started down the stairs in front of the church. Then I stopped. The yard below was packed with people. Some I’d never seen before. And there were cameras everywhere. Big boxy cameras on stands with men crouching behind them. It was a mess. People were running away from the cameras, down Main Street, and men holding pencils and notebooks were running after them, shouting questions. I could hear them.

“How many Negroes were in that church today?”

“Did the Negro preacher give the sermon?”

“What was it like to sit next to Negroes?”

Main Street was full of cars but they weren’t moving, and all around and between the cars, all kinds of people were yelling, “Nigger lover, nigger lover.”

Reverend Coleman rushed past me down the stairs into the crowd.

“These are religious people,” he kept saying. “Let them pass.”

But the newspapermen ran past him, bumping into him, paying him no mind.

“Back into the church,” Daddy ordered. “We’ll go out the back way.”

I stood there.

“Shirley!” his voice was harsh.

“Uncle Jimmy!” I cried. Because I had just seen him, in the middle of all those people.

“You got no right to take pictures of my church,” he shouted and pointed at a cameraman who was focusing on a colored woman in a big red hat. She was looking all around like she’d lost somebody.

The man motioned for Uncle Jimmy to get out of the way. But he didn’t.

He walked over to the camera and with a loud crash knocked it onto the sidewalk. The cameraman started after Uncle Jimmy. That’s when my uncle shoved him and he fell.

“Shirley!”

As I turned back into the church, I heard the sirens screaming.

*     *     *     *     *

Afterwards, on the news they kept showing the picture of Uncle Jimmy, leaning over a man, looking fierce, and the broken camera smashed beside them.

The TV announcer said, “Today, in Spottswood, Virginia, James Sherwood, President of the local Bank of Virginia, assaulted a New York Times photographer to prevent his taking pictures of the first integrated church service in the state of Virginia.”

“Turn that thing off,” Daddy yelled. But I kept watching.

The man on TV was talking at the top of his voice, “Mr. Sherwood was arrested at the scene but was shortly released and is free on bail.”

“Goddammit, I said turn it off.”

Mama was sitting crouched over the kitchen table, her nose red and swollen. She still had on the hat she’d worn to church, the one with the black feathers. Daddy sat down beside her and put his arms around her.

“Don’t you worry, sweetheart. Jimmy will get off. He was just protecting our church. The judge knows him. He’ll see it was self-defense.”

“Why did he break the camera?” I asked.

“He didn’t break the camera. The camera fell down while he was trying to keep those New York people from stirring up the colored.”

“But he knocked that man down,” I said.

“Go to bed,” Daddy said. “We’ll talk about it in the morning.”

For the rest of the Thanksgiving holiday Daddy refused to talk about it.

On Sunday, Reverend Coleman asked God to help us forgive those who revile and persecute us. I wasn’t sure whether he meant the New York Times or all those people in the street, calling us names.

*     *     *     *     *

I didn’t want to go to school the next Monday; I figured the kids would be asking me a lot of questions. But it turned out they were too busy arguing about whether Elvis’s voice sounded dirty when he sang Blue Suede Shoes on the radio.

So when Mr. Jefferson, out of the blue, asked our Social Studies class whether we thought knocking over a newspaper camera was a violation of Freedom of the Press, I was stunned.

Henry Matthews waved his skinny arm in the air. “He shouldn’t have done it. The newspapers have the right to record the news.”

That got Barry Arnold going. “They shouldn’t have let niggers in that church in the first place.”

Everybody had an opinion, mostly against the colored.

Mr. Jefferson started walking up and down the rows of desks, his head bent forward like he was listening, his hair hanging in his face, his pants dusty from chalk. Then he stopped at my desk. I sat very still.

“What do you think, Shirley?”

I looked up, scared. Did he know it was my Uncle Jimmy who had knocked over the camera? I couldn’t tell. But I had to defend him.

So I said the first thing that popped into my head: “He had to do it.”

“What do you mean?” He walked back to the front of the class.

“He was protecting the people at the church.”

“Protecting them from what?”

“Those newspapermen were chasing the church people.”

“Were you there?” Mr. Jefferson asked. He was looking at me like he was really interested.

I nodded.

“Would you tell us what you saw?”

Everybody turned to look at me.

“It was my Uncle Jimmy,” I said, “and he was protecting those people when they were coming out of church.”

“Do you think that gave your uncle the right to knock down a news camera?”

I felt my face get really hot.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “You weren’t there.” I was trying not to cry.

Well that started it. Everybody was yelling, blaming Uncle Jimmy, blaming the church, blaming the colored.

“Shirley, would you see me after school?” Mr. Jefferson said. Then he clapped his hands. “That’s enough of Current Events. Open your books to page 45.”

I ran out of the room before the tears came. I hid in a stall in the girls’ bathroom until I heard the bell ring for the end of the period. Then I ran home.

*     *     *     *     *

Mama could tell something was wrong the minute I got home.

“It was Mr. Jefferson,” I said.

“What about him?”

“He said some mean things about Uncle Jimmy.”

“What things?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” I felt I was somehow to blame. I had talked back to Mr. Jefferson, which was a first for me, and I hadn’t gone to see him after class. Plus I’d cut school. I was scared of what Daddy would say, but at the same time I was really mad at Mr. Jefferson.

So Mama let me be, but when Daddy got home from the store, he went after me until I told the whole story.

“The son of a bitch nigger lover,” he said under his breath. “He’ll hear about this.”

And then, to my surprise, he hugged me really tight and told me I had done the right thing. And Mama hugged me. And later Uncle Jimmy came over and teased me about being his lawyer. I went to bed almost happy.

The next morning when we arrived at school, Daddy surprised me by parking and jumping out of the car.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

I didn’t like the sound of that and made a beeline for my locker.

But he reached out and grabbed me by the elbow. “You’re coming with me, honey,” he said.

“I don’t want to.”

But it was too late.

Mr. Christopher, the principal, smiled at Daddy and shook his hand.

“Come on in, Earl,” he said. “What’s on your mind?”

I’d never been in the principal’s office before, and I was surprised how messy it was. Textbooks were stacked on the desk, on the table, some even on the floor, and there were papers everywhere. We sat at the table on wooden chairs, Daddy and me on one side, Mr. Christopher on the other. I looked out the window.

Daddy started right in. “Rick, you’ve got a teacher here who’s preaching integration politics in the classroom.”

“Yeah?”

He turned to me. “You tell him what happened, Shirley.”

Mr. Christopher is a short man, not much taller than the students, but he has these beady eyes that make you feel guilty, no matter what you’ve done, and he fixed those beady eyes on me.

“I don’t want to get anybody in trouble,” I said.

“You won’t if you tell the truth, young lady.”

So I did. I told him what Mr. Jefferson said about Freedom of the Press and Uncle Jimmy. I didn’t want to, but I did.

“You see?” Daddy said. “See what I’m talking about? Harassing my girl like that. You have to do something, Earl. That man has no place in the classroom.”

“Thank you,” Mr. Christopher said. “Why don’t you go to class, Shirley?”

I was only too happy to do that. As I left the room, I heard Daddy say Uncle Jimmy’s name and something about the School Board.

There was a substitute in Social Studies that day. And Mr. Jefferson didn’t turn up the rest of the week, which was a big relief.

At lunch period on Friday, Henry Matthews came over to where I was eating with my friend Sarah. His slide rule banged against the table as he leaned over me. “I hope you’re satisfied, now that you got Mr. Jefferson fired.”

“I did not.”

“Well, your daddy did. He bullied Mr. Christopher into firing the best teacher we ever had in this dump of a school.”

“You’re lying,” I said.

After Henry left, I asked Sarah, “What’s he talking about?” But I knew and I felt sick to my stomach.

“I heard a rumor,” she said, “that Mr. Jefferson was leaving, but it can’t be your fault.” She hugged me.

I could have told her the truth. About my talking to Mr. Christopher. But suppose it got out. Sarah’s my best friend, but still, she might let it slip. And I didn’t want anybody to know about it.

So I said, “I hate Henry Matthews.”

*     *     *     *     *

It’s January. Mr. Jefferson never came back. We’ve been having one substitute after another in Social Studies, and we haven’t learned a thing. Even though I still blame Mr. Jefferson for what he did to me, I have to admit he made Social Studies interesting. Henry Matthews and his friends are still mad at me.

Mr. Jefferson isn’t the only one leaving town. Reverend Coleman announced at Christmas Eve service that he’d got the call to a church in Washington D.C.

“How come you’re leaving?” I asked him last week. It was after choir practice and I noticed the light was on in his study.

“Hi Shirley,” he said. “Come on in.” He has a wonderful smile.

“Don’t leave,” I blurted out.

“I don’t like leaving,” he said, “but it’s the right time. Besides, have you ever been to Washington?”

“No Sir.”

“Well, you have a treat in store when you and your mama and daddy come to visit me.”

“Is it because of Thanksgiving?” I asked.

He smiled again. “Is that what you think?”

“I guess so.”

He was quiet for what seemed like forever. Then he said, “It’s not your Uncle Jimmy’s fault. Don’t think that for a minute. It’s just time for me to go.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.” I started to leave, but then I realized how bad I needed to talk to somebody about Mr. Jefferson. And Reverend Coleman seemed the right person. Maybe that’s why I went to his office in the first place.

“Mr. Jefferson is leaving too,” I said.

He looked up, like he was surprised I was still there. “Mr. Jefferson, the teacher?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Why is that do you suppose?”

“They say he got fired.”

“That’s pretty serious.”

“He shouldn’t have been talking about Uncle Jimmy in class.” I could feel the tears coming.

The Reverend got up from his desk and put his arm around me. “Come over here, Shirley,” he said, and sat me down beside him on this brown sofa he’s got in his office.

“They say I’m to blame. That I got him fired.”

“How can they say that?”

I told him about Mr. Jefferson talking about Freedom of the Press. About how I had defended Uncle Jimmy. About how Mr. Jefferson had treated me.

Reverend Coleman was looking at me in such a serious way. “No wonder you’re upset,” he said.

That’s when I started crying. I just couldn’t hold it back.

“It’s because of me he got fired.” I was sobbing. “Daddy made me tell Mr. Christopher what happened. And he got fired.”

Reverend Coleman sat there, with his arm around me, letting me cry.

Finally he said, “It’s not your fault, Shirley. You didn’t do anything wrong. One of these days you’ll have to decide what you think about breaking cameras and Freedom of the Press, but whatever you decide, this wasn’t your fault.”

He pulled a paper napkin from his coat pocket and handed it to me.

“Do you understand?”

I nodded and wiped my eyes. I wanted to believe him.

*     *     *     *     *

Uncle Jimmy came over last night to celebrate what he called his David and Goliath victory.

“How bout that, kid?” he said. “Your uncle whipped the mighty New York Times.”

“You did?”

“You bet. They agreed not to press charges.”

“Were they going to send you to jail?”

“I was never going to jail, sweetheart. Not a chance.”

“Your uncle was a perfect gentleman,” Mama said. “He offered to pay for the camera.”

Uncle Jimmy popped the cork off a bottle of champagne and poured glasses for him and Daddy. Mama, Sonny and I had orange juice.

“Let’s drink a toast to Shirley.” He winked at me. “She’s rid this town of two trouble-makers.”

I put my glass down. “Huh?”

“Your Mr. Jefferson’s out on his ear. I made sure of that. And good riddance to Preacher Coleman.”

“That wasn’t me!” I cried out.

He picked me up and twirled me around. Laughing and laughing. I’ve always loved it when Uncle Jimmy holds me up like that. But this time was different.

“Put me down!” I was sobbing.

I struggled out of his arms and looked around.

“You don’t know,” I said. “You don’t know anything. It’s all a mess!”

They were staring at me. Nobody was laughing.

___

Nancy Bourne’s stories have appeared in Forge, Upstreet, The South Carolina Review, Summerset Review, Carolina Quarterly, Quiddity, Persimmon Tree, MacGuffin, Thin Air, Bluestem Magazine, The Long Story, Shadowgraph, The Steel Toe Review and Ursa Minor

Since retiring from a career of public school legal advocacy, she has been tutoring a variety of students, ranging from inmates at San Quentin State Prison to fifth graders in a low income public school.


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