Dateline: Biloxi, Mississippi
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Deborah L. Parker
He had the looks of a scruffy middle aged Sidney Poitier but his swag was all Fred Sanford, with just the right mixture of Falstaffian character qualities: robust, bawdy and brazen. He was working the night shift as the front desk clerk of a rundown motel on the seedy side of Biloxi, Mississippi. Even before releasing my right hand after the obligatory first meeting handshake, he had informed me, “The name is Marvin M. Harris. The M is for Marvelous.”
Biloxi is a sea port city with a colorful past steeped in the now long ago antebellum glory days of the Old South. Unfortunately, to a first time visitor, the city’s present is a mere one step ahead of urban decay. In Biloxi’s case, big city eastern seaboard problems have found their way onto the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Stately southern mansions still dot several well preserved and protected inland sub divisions, majestic Magnolia trees bordering wide boulevards. But the tourist industry has all but dried up and left town, a concession to the rapid development of what the locales refer to as “the Redneck Rivera,” the Gulf Shores, AL area, about 60 miles up the coast.
The Jimmy Buffet parrot head types spend little time in modern day Biloxi, it being no Margaritaville. It is instead as blue collar as a beach front community can get, still a sailor’s town, ripe with a full supply of all the shady enmities that sailors enjoy.
The evening shift on this particular winter week day, Marvelous informed me, had been slow. He was on the 4 pm to midnight shift. He preferred the midnight to 8 am schedule. It paid a dollar an hour more. “Not as busy, either,” he told me, “but there are still a few more problems on the grave yard shift.” Such as, I asked? “No custodian on duty after midnight, so I got to clean up the puke in the lobby myself.”
I guessed his age to have been between 65 to 70 years. But he also appeared to have lived a hard life, the sort that can make a man appear older than he really is. Manners did not allow for me to inquire, but even if my estimate is off by a decade either way, he would still have been of the last of a generation of blacks to have lived in the south under the Jim Crow laws of segregation. I asked about coming of age in Mississippi under such discriminatory laws, when separate but equal was the law of the land, strictly keeping the races separate.
“You assuming a lot, my friend, what makes you think I grew up in the south?” The accent, maybe, I responded? “I went to an all-black school,” he answered with a head nod to my inquiry about growing up in the Mississippi of segregationist laws. “Terrible schools. Teachers, most of them, couldn’t even read themselves. Back then all of our teachers were black and most were poorly educated because the college’s blacks could go to in those days were not good colleges. The books, the few we had, were the ones sent down from the white schools when they were done with them. Most didn’t have the covers even left on them but I guess they were good enough for us nigger kids. But tell you what, we behaved or they would beat our little black asses until we couldn’t sit down. My, oh my how those teachers could swing that paddle. Today, the schools are still segregated, but not by law, but instead by choice. The white kids all go to the private academies, but we do have lots of well-educated white teachers in the local public schools. They teach my grand babies.”
“We couldn’t even go to school in Biloxi, not for high school, anyway,” Marvelous remembered. “They sent us up to Gulf Port to what was known as the 33rd Avenue High School. It is where all the ‘colored’ children, as they referred to us in polite society back then, went. It was the law up until the early 70’s. School building still there, but when Katrina blew through, it darn near took it down. Not much left. It is named after the address of the street it sits on. Think about that? You ever hear of a school named for its address? Guess the white people in charge back then figured there was not one nigger from the area, going back 100 years, that was worth naming the school after,” he said with a laugh. “And no self-respecting white back then wanted their name on the front door of the town’s nigger school.”
Marvelous asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was now a professional vagabond pretending to be retired, but I had previously spent 30+ years in public education. “You was a teacher,” he said, in a tone that told me I was now sitting dead in his sights, I just wasn’t yet sure why. It would not take long for me to understand. “Yes,” I confirmed, “15 years in a class room and 15 years as a building administrator.” What did you teach, he asked? “American History,” I told him.
“Well, let me tell you about history, Mr. History teacher, our true history, not that stuff they want kids to learn in schools, but the truth, how it really was,” Marvelous responded with a condescending tone in his voice. “See, I like history, it’s kind of a hobby of mine. I love to read. Pretty much self-taught. I quit school in 8th grade when I turned 16. But I always knew if I was to make anything in this life I had to know how to read. Black kids today just don’t understand how important education is. So many good people a long time ago sacrificed so much, just so black kids today can sit in a class room. Some even gave their lives and these dumb punks today throw it away. Throw way the opportunity we were denied for so long, the right to an education. It makes me just sick to see the waste. And you know the real shame; it’s the black community allowing it to happen, a self-inflicted wound.”
It was time, Marvelous told me, for a quiz and he was now the one at the head of the class. “Now tell me what you know about Woodrow Wilson,” Marvelous asked, leaning across the front lobby desk, the gleam in his eyes now matching the shine on his gold front tooth, oblivious to the two young ladies of the evening who had just entered the lobby. Attired in four inch heels and two inch skirts; they loudly argued about who did or did not hold seniority on the street corner outside the front door.
Later, when the bickering between the two began anew, interrupting our conversation, Marvelous quickly and decisively ran both out of the lobby. “Dumb ass crack whores are the only whores that are left to work on the street anymore. The hookers with any class at all, now days, they all use Craig’s List,” Marvelous said.
Woodrow Wilson, I responded, drawing out the pronunciation in a way that showed I was calling up from my well educated history teaching brain a plethora of information that would prove overwhelming by sheer volume for this night shift desk clerk wannabe historian.
Woodrow Wilson: “President of the United States, highly educated, served as President of Princeton University, created the League of Nations after WWI, considered the most educated president ever,” and I added, after a long pause to draw out the drama of the knockout punch of knowledge I was about to unload, “probably had a nervous breakdown the last three months of his final term. Most historians agree now that his wife really ran the nation during that time, with Wilson sequestered in the White House 24 hours a day in his bedroom. Sequestered, that means hid out,” I clarified for my new friend.
“You left out the most important part,” Marvelous said, ignoring my condescending addendum to the end of my lecture. “Wilson was the biggest racist in the history of the American Presidency. Even worse than some before the (civil war) who had owned slaves.” Taken aback slightly by this tidbit of trivia, I recovered quickly. “I do know that was rumored, the racism,” was my retort. “Rumored,” Marvelous answered. “Rumored; your white ass. It is a fact, but I bet you never taught it to those kids in your class, now did you?”
Marvelous was now in full control of this conversation. “All this Princeton stuff, the League of Nations and its 14 Points (damn, I thought, I forgot to mention the 14 Points), all bull shit. Wilson came from the South. He came to the presidency in 1912 with considerable help from the black vote. Back in that time, blacks were very much aligned with the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln. Teddy Roosevelt had been the progressive leader of the Party and had served seven years in the White House, but the Democrats made a big push to win over the black vote in 1912 and it worked, get Taft out. When TR couldn’t get the nomination away from Taft and (he) formed a third party, the Bull Moose Party. That is what we need today, a man of action, like Teddy, but that is another story, so back to Wilson. They (black voters) got Wilson elected. And you know what the first thing he did when he got to Washington to pay back blacks for their loyalty? Wilson segregated everything, both in the city and in the government agencies buildings. Made it the law. Blacks and whites now had to work in separate buildings, if they worked for the government. If circumstances made it so it was not possible to separate whites from blacks by buildings, then Wilson ordered that curtains be hung between white and black workers, to discourage association. Bet you never taught that to your students, now did you, Mr. History teacher?”
Later when I researched Wilson’s race segregating history, I found that Marvelous was extremely accurate in his rendition of a very sad chapter in our nation’s past, one, as Marvelous had predicted, I had never taught to my students.
“Now listen to this, it should be a very important part of our history and should be taught to every school kid in America, but it’s not.” Marvelous was rolling now. “The worst domestic riots in the history of this nation were racial riots and came in the later years of Wilson’s (tenure) and the year’s immediately after his terms in office. He set the tone for the 1920’s, the worst decade in our history for intimidation and the denial of civil rights to black citizens in the South.”
“I will give you an interesting fact, the first example of air bombing of civilians, anywhere in the recorded history of the world happened right here in this country, came during the race riots in Tulsa, OK in 1921. Our military bombed black neighborhoods in Tulsa. They, our military, understand, dropped dynamite on the black neighborhoods of Tulsa and killed at least 70 innocently random people. We are not talking now about Syria or Iran, mind you, we are talking about Oklahoma, OKLAHOMA, and nobody remembers. Did you ever teach that to your students?”
Back on my heels now, Marvelous smelled blood in the water and moved in for the intellectual kill. “Tell me about the Reconstruction Era, the year’s right after the Civil War,” he asked? I once again gave him the standard text book rendition: The defeated southern states were treated as a conquered nation by the northern victors. Blacks in the southern states were put into positions of governmental authority by northern forces. Although noble in intent, the complexity of governing a nation by a group of just freed and uneducated slaves proved to be too much and was a dismal failure. Eventually, the north out of frustration, withdrew its troops and thus the enforcement of the reconstruction mandates it had put in place. With no agency of power to enforce the laws of equality, whites took back all local and state power in the southern states and a Jim Crow segregated society became deeply entrenched for the next 100 years.
Once again, Marvelous was neither impressed nor in agreement with my assessment. “Bullshit, more bullshit,” was his evaluation of my knowledge of Reconstruction. “You know less about Reconstruction than you do about Wilson, and that my friend is limited,” he said.
“Did you know that Reconstruction in Mississippi worked just fine,” he stated, “as long as the federal troops were there to enforce the law that all men are equal? Once they (the Feds) pulled out, then fear took over and terror was used to take back all the gains of Reconstruction. The Klan rose to power and the darkest chapter in the history of this country, even worse that slavery itself, came about. Jim Crow and segregation was released upon my people, my ancestors, and eventually upon me.”
He was not yet through; he had one more good and strong volley of academia ammunition to fire across the bow of my sinking ship. “Here is a fact you will not find in the history books,” Marvelous announced. “Did you know that the first public school mandatory laws for school attendance in Mississippi; and the first laws that obligated the state to support compulsory education for white children (were) passed in 1870 by an almost all black state legislature?”
“How ironic that it was black politicians who made the laws that for the first time allowed white kids in Mississippi the right to go and get a free public school education. Right here in good old boy Jim Crow Magnolia state Mississippi. Did you ever teach your students that fact when you talked to them about how Reconstruction failed because blacks were not ready to lead,” he asked, with no attempt to try and hide the triumph in the tone of his voice? I remained silent, defenseless to the onslaught. Marvelous answered for me, “No.”
“And you know why you didn’t,” he prodded, rhetorically? “Because, Mr. History teacher, no one ever taught you.”
They have now.