Ch 1: The Star Is Out

“Hang on for five more miles!” That’s really all I remember Papa yelling. In between the sharp pains, he yelled “Keep pushing!” My little brother, Tyrone, was holding the lantern and we were down to the last piece of wick. The wheels on the wagon bumped with every rock on the dirt paved road. It killed Papa that he had to drive the wagon instead of tending to me.

The night was dark and cold, and foggy. I kept hearing sounds in the trees around us. Tyrone, was only 12 but he had a lot of Papa in him. He was strong and eager to prove he was a man. He held the lantern and kept wiping my forehead with wet towels while reminding me, “It gon’ be just fine Mattie. It gon’ be just fine.”

I don’t know why anybody would want to be a girl. Seems like the only thing a girl was born to do is cook, clean, and make babies for men. Boys could make money. Boys could chop wood. Boys could pick their own future. From what I could see, it was twice as hard for me. Not only was I a girl… but I’m a colored girl. Papa said this new place we were moving to had more opportunities for Colored People… even Colored girls.

15 Pushes

“Papa, you gotta stop the wagon,” Tyrone yelled. “Mattie is dripping water like a spring!” Papa pulled the wagon over to the side of the road and climbed to the back of the wagon. He told Tyrone to grab both my hands. As my little brother held my hands tight, Papa spread my legs and reached inside my womanhood. It felt like someone was pulling my soul out. “Push Mattie! Push!” They were both yelling the same thing over and over. “I’m trying!” Papa looked at me and demanded, “Dammit try harder!”
It took 15 pushes before I heard a sound. Then, it happened.

The winds suddenly stopped blowing and the crackling sounds of the trees paused. The horses’ grunts and squeals were upstaged by a subtle whine. Papa had pulled my baby out. It was hard to see clearly with all the fog but Papa cut the long string thingy off with his knife and wrapped the baby in the only towel that didnt have water or blood on it. I looked up and saw Papa handing me my baby with a pillar of fog hovering around him. The closer he got to me, the clearer I could see him as he handed me my baby.

“It's a boy,” yelled Tyrone with excitement. “I’m gonna be an Uncle!” Then, Papa grabbed Tyrone by the collar and told him, “Don’t you ever say that again! This here gon’ be yo’ brother. Do you hear me boy?” Without even looking up at Papa, Tyrone held his head down and replied, “Yes suh.”
I looked at my baby and looked at Papa and I could tell he was waiting for me to reply. I replied, “I understand suh.” But in my heart, I knew no matter what we had to tell people he would always be my baby.

“Looka here. When we get here. People gon’ be asking questions. They gon’ be lookin’ and’a staring. They gon’ be wondering shit and dis what we gon’ tell ‘em. Your mammy died, cause dat’s the truth. We know the good Lawd took huh in huh sleep but don’t nobody in dis new place know dat. 'Deys gon’ believe what we tells dem.”

Tyrone and I listened as Papa explained. “All they need to know is yo mammy died while giving birth to dis here baby and we moved here to start a new life. Is dat understood?” We both replied, “Yes suh.”
It was 1919, and Colored folks were fleeing the South. Papa heard about this new place where his friend had bought land and his friend sent word that we could move there and have better opportunity. Mr. Gurley was his name and Papa said he was helping Colored folks get work in this new land.

Papa goes to workI didn’t believe it. It wasn’t common for Colored folks to buy land and own property, but Papa was an honest man. If he said it, we had no reason not to believe him. Papa said there was oil in this new place and Colored folks could find good work there. All I know is I was willing to move anywhere if it would give my baby a better chance than the life we had back in Mississippi.

Many Colored men were killed for all kinds of reasons. Looking at White womens, talking smart in front of the White mens… even for getting food out the trash that White people threw away could get you killed. So, wherever Mr. Gurley had us going couldn’t be any worse than where we were.

The Arrival

When we arrived in this new land, Papa met with a man named A.J. Stafford. He had a place there with many rooms in it. Colored folks who migrated there from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and even Texas were staying there. The people at The Stafford House were very nice to us. They gave us a room to stay in. It already had a bed in it and some towels. Papa said Tyrone and I could stay in the bed and he would sleep on the floor. “Dis just for da time being. I start work tomorrow. Soon we gon’ have our own house. Now get some sleep,” Papa said.

A young girl with a baby couldn’t get a job or go to school. Plus, everybody frowned upon her. Papa knew the easiest way for me to have a fair chance is for him to claim my baby as his. People would be sympathetic to a widowed working father. He’d find work faster and other Colored women volunteered to help Papa with the baby because their hearts were filled with sorrow when they learned his wife had passed.
Papa was a good-looking man too. Even when Mama was alive, she had to get a whole lot of women straight. They used to look at Papa out the side of their eyes at church. Mama had to get Hattie May Jenkins straight after a prayer meeting one time because mama said Ms. Hattie was “fast in her ass”. I never knew what that meant.

There was also the time Mama overheard the ladies at the hairdresser talking about Papa. She overheard Earnestine Cook talking about Papa. Mrs. Cook said she’d take that horse to her stable and ride it all night long!” All the women were hee-heeing and kee-keeing until Mama walked in and they tried to change the subject. Earnestine Cook was getting her hair pressed. Mama grabbed the hot comb put on Earnestine’s nose. For a whole week all the kids were calling Mrs. Cook “Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer!”
Papa was working with the Buffalo Soldiers out in San Francisco up until 1913. When he came back to Mississippi it was hard to find work and times were hard. Mama became ill and Papa had to find work. So, he left us to go do work in a place called Pine Bluff, Arkansas. That’s where he met O.W. Gurley.

Papa was tall, dark, handsome, and very smart. People always said what made Papa smart is because he knew how to muster his way through any situation, and he knew when to keep his mouth closed.
Mr. Gurley had moved to this new place before us. Mr. Stafford had been there before Gurley. Those two men were unlike any Colored Men we had ever seen before. They were dapper and smart, and they had what a lot of Colored Men wanted… money.

The next morning, Papa got up to go to a job that Mr. Gurley had set up for him. A lady named, Pauline, helped me with my baby… I mean my ‘brother’. Papa took Tyrone with him because he was enrolling Tyrone in a school they had named after Mr. Booker T. Washington.

Maybe This Is HeavenI had never seen anything like this place. Colored Folks owned businesses here and they didn’t even have to hide their money. Colored men wore expensive suits and their shoes were polished shinier than a White Woman’s jewelry. Colored women looked like fancy White women. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even see any White women. I thought I was in a dream. I remember thinking to myself, “Dis must be what Heaven look like.”

There was a knock on the door of our room. Pauline put the baby down and answered the door. As she opened the door, a young boy announced “The Star is out!” I looked out the window again because I wondered how they could see stars in the sky in the daylight. Pauline explained to me that “The Star” was their newspaper. People waited each week for the Star to come out because it was the glue which held everybody together.
Everybody read The Star. It was owned by a colored man named A.J. Smitherman. If you wanted to know what Susie Bell would be cooking this week, you had to read The Star. Susie Bell and her brother owned a Cafe called Bell and Little Cafe. I couldn’t believe a Colored person actually owned a cafe that you could go and sit in and white folks hadn’t closed it down.

The Star knew what everybody in the town was doing. If you wanted to know what time Mary Parrish’s typing class would start, you had to look for it in The Star. Mrs. Parrish had a weekly typing class in the Woods building where she was teaching Colored Folks how to use this thing called a typewriter. Even more amazing is that the building she taught her class in was the Woods Building and it was owned by a Colored man.
For blocks and blocks all you saw were Colored people working and living a good life. I wished Mama could have been alive to see this! I couldn’t tell if people were coming or going because there were people who had been living been living here for a while and there were tons of new people just like us, arriving every week.

As the weeks passed, Papa was getting close to saving enough for us to get our own house. Tyrone was doing well in school. Papa had hired Pauline to nurse the baby and Pauline allowed me to walk through the town in the daytime.

One day, I passed by the Red Wing Barber Shop and I saw these White men inside arguing with some Black men. One of the White men yelled at John Smitherman. He was AJ Smitherman’s younger brother.
The white man yelled, “Keep the niggers in line and we won’t have no problems ‘round here boy!”

John Smitherman, was a deputy. He was one of the people that White people depended on to keep the Coloreds in line. They White man yelled, “We can’t have nigger girls walking around wearing fancy hats and shit! My wife don’t even have hats like that! What u think it look like for Nigger fellas to have houses with three bedrooms when we got good hard working white men who can’t even afford to buy a house. God Dammit tell ‘em to tone it down. It's better for everybody!” The White men stormed out of the barber shop.

When they came out of the door, one of the men saw me. He asked, “What u looking at gal?” I told him I was new in the town and I was just seeing how things work around here. The white man told me, “Listen here gal. This is how thangs work round 'chere. Coloreds stay over here and good White folks stay across the tracks. As long as you keep your legs closed and stay on your side of the tracks you won’t have no problems. U hear me?” I looked up at him and said, “Yes suh!”

Rich Coloreds

As they walked away, Pauline, came over and grabbed my hand. “Gul, I leave you for one minute and you go fetching trouble.” As Pauline was pulling me, I was mesmerized by a building I had never seen before. It was huge with lights around the top of it. I saw these fancy Black people instructing men who were working on the sign on top of the building. I didn’t know who they were but they looked like the kind of people I wanted to be like when I grew up. Pauline told me they were John and Lula Williams. She said they were rich. I never knew there were rich Colored People until that moment.

The woman had on a pearl necklace with a fur wrapped around her neck. The man had on a perfect tailored suit, and it was blue, like the kind the important White men wore. The lady saw me looking at her. She beckoned us, “Pauline what’s that you got there?” As we walked toward the lady and her husband, I felt like I was looking up at two Colored Angels.

“My name is Mattie. Mattie Lee Carr. Me and my daddy and my brother just moved here a few weeks ago. We are living at the Strafford right now,” I told the lady. They looked at each other and then looked at Pauline. “So, this is Eddie Carr’s daughter? The newbies?” Pauline confirmed that’s who we were.

The sign on top of their building lit up as we were speaking. The word ‘Dreamland’ was bright and people up and down the street started cheering. John and Lula owned the Dreamland Theater among several other places they owned.

I asked the pretty lady, “Is that the name of this town, Dreamland?” She flicked her cigarette and rubbed me on my shoulder. Mrs. Williams smiled and said, “It may as well be called Dreamland because THIS land is where dreams come true for Colored People and here you can be whatever you want to be.” I was so inspired that I blushed. Her husband winked and said, “Welcome To Greenwood.”

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