South of Little Rock

by George Rollie Adams

The following is an excerpt of the first three chapters of South of Little Rock, George Rollie Adams’ novel of race, family, and small town life in the South in the 1950s.

Chapter 1

Sam Tate and his son Billy were the only white faces among the two dozen ball players sweating under the July sun. Gran had warned Sam about coming here. It ain’t right,” she said, “and people will talk.” He thought no one would notice, let alone care. But someone did. As the sharp crack of bat against ball echoed across the weed-infested park, a lone figure in a pine thicket high up beyond right field shifted sideways for a better view.

            “Catch it, Mr. Billy! Run, Mr. Billy! You can do it, Mr. Billy!” the batter and other Black Tigers shouted. In Unionville, like everywhere in southern Arkansas in 1957, blacks said “Mister” to all white males, even twelve-year-olds.

            “Go get it, son!” Sam yelled.

            The baseball sailed high and deep toward the unpainted board fence in right field, and the boy ran barefoot and shirtless, straining to make a backhanded grab.

            “Faster, Mr. Billy, faster!” Leon Jackson, the Black Tigers’ player-manager called from center. He had invited the Tates here. This was their third practice with the Black Tigers on the town’s only regulation diamond. The Unionville School District had built it right after World War II for the white high school. For a while, a white amateur team, the Lumbermen, played on it and Sam anchored their infield at first base. When the club folded after a few years for lack of enough players, the district let the Black Tigers use the field twice a week in summer. But no school board member ever thought whites might play with them.

            Being here meant a lot to Sam. In the five years since his wife died giving birth to their daughter Mary Jane, he had filled his spare time with baseball. He read about it, listened to it, talked about it, and played it. At forty-six, he could still hit, run, and throw. Until recently, though, he had only been playing in his horse pasture with Billy.

            When the ball, stained brown from heavy use, smacked into the boy’s well-oiled glove, the players shouted, “Rabbit on the run, Mr. Billy, rabbit on the run! Throw it to second, Mr. Billy!”

            Billy pivoted, skipped forward, and put his entire body behind a throw to cut down an imaginary base runner. The ball landed short but everyone hollered approval anyway. Sam wished Judith Ann could see how hard their son played and what fun he was having. Along with her sandy hair and blue eyes, Billy also had her spunk. She would be proud of him.

            “That’s some ballplayer you’ve got there, Mr. Sam,” Leon said, as he trotted over. “You want to go in and take a few cuts? See what you can do with B. J.’s fastball today? I’m gon’ catch him a spell.” B. J. Long was the team’s ace pitcher.

            Sam had been waiting for the chance, and he and Leon moved off toward the first base dugout, a wooden bench under a shed covered with tarpaper. One end had been boarded up to hold grounds-keeping tools and the Black Tigers had leaned their bats against the cobbled door. Sam picked out a Micky Mantle model and grabbed two others to swing with it and loosen his arms and shoulders.

While he limbered up, he watched Leon strap on shin guards. He was a few years younger than Sam, a tad taller at six three or so, and dark as midnight. Leon owned a dry-cleaning shop at the end of an alley behind Farmer’s State Bank, directly across Main Street from Sam’s Oklahoma Tire and Supply store. He and Sam discovered a shared passion for baseball when Leon bought his team’s first bats and balls at Sam’s store. Soon they were exchanging Major League scores and statistics when they met on the street or in the bank.

When they bumped into each other the day after the All-Star Game, Leon got so excited talking about Minnie Minoso’ s spectacular game-ending catch that he asked Sam to come to the Black Tigers’ Wednesday afternoon practice. In summer, Unionville stores closed at noon on Wednesday so their owners and employees could do chores, go fishing, or loaf. With time to run some errands and still get to the workout, Sam accepted the invite and asked if he could bring Billy. They felt a little out of place that first time but now they just played ball.

As Leon settled behind the plate, Sam tossed the extra bats aside, reset his cap over wet black hair, and stepped into the right-handed batter’s box. His sleeveless undershirt, tucked into khaki pants, was also sweat-soaked, and his arm and shoulder muscles, toughened by years of hard work, glistened in the heat. He took a couple of practice swings then dug his cleats into the dirt and stared toward the mound, body relaxed, eyes focused on the ball.

B. J., a brown beanpole propping up a pair of faded overalls, went into his exaggerated Satchel Paige windup, kicked his left leg high, and tossed an off-speed pitch straight down the middle. Sam swung easily and lofted a long fly to left, where Charlie Foster stood dead in his tracks and hauled it in. Two medium fastballs followed. Sam cut early and a little high on the first one and pulled it on the ground outside third base. He hit the second one on the nose, to left again. Charlie back-peddled and hauled it in just short of the fence.

“Rabbit on the run!” Leon yelled. “Rabbit on the run!”

Sam stepped back and Leon turned to his left, still in his catcher’s crouch.

“No need to stir around when Charlie’s throwing,” he said. The ball left Charlie’s hand just above his head and rose scarcely more than twenty feet before arcing down and popping into Leon’s mitt waist high about two feet inside the base line.

“He’s not throwing so good today,” Leon said, looking up at Sam and smiling. “He made me reach for it.”

Sam grinned and stepped back into the box. “Come on. Let’s see some more heat,” he called to B. J. “I’m feeling my Wheaties now.”

The skinny pitcher spat a stream of Beech Nut tobacco juice toward short and toed the rubber again. Without a word, he added twenty miles an hour to his next offering. Sam hit it smack on the fat part of the bat and sent it soaring over Charlie’s head into a stand of oak trees beyond the fence. One of the other Black Tigers scrambled over the boards to retrieve it.

“Way to hit, Mr. Sam! Way to hit!” the players shouted.

Sam blasted the next one farther into the trees but more toward center. Beyond right field, the man on the hill retreated deeper into the shadows.

“Give me some breaking stuff now,” Sam called to B. J. “I’m ready for it.”

“You sure about that, Mr. Sam?” Leon asked. “He’s looking awful good out there.”

“You bet.” Then louder to B. J., “Show me all you’ve got.”

B. J. spat another stream of brown slime and turned the ball over in his bony fingers. “All right, Mr. Sam,” he said after a moment, “if you really want her, here she comes.” He wound up like a windmill again and unleashed a nasty pitch that curved sharply down and across the outside edge of the plate. Sam swung hard, grunted, and missed by half a foot. The other players held back grins.

“Let me see that again,” Sam called.

B. J.’s eyes twinkled. “All right, sir.” He let fly a second time with the same result.

“Again,” Sam said, and inched closer to the plate. Even with the adjustment, he managed only to trickle the ball down the first base line.

“Goddamn it, B. J., what do you call that pitch?” Sam called out. He was a deacon in the First Baptist Church, but like his daddy before him, he could cuss a blue streak when the mood took him.

B. J. spat again. “I call her Miss Lilabell.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because she’s sneakier than Delilah and wickeder than Jezebel.”

 “Well, I don’t think I need to see Miss Lilabell again today. Go back to the straight stuff.”

After a few more swings, Sam stepped away so others could hit, grabbed his glove from the dugout, and headed out to join Billy shagging flies. The Black Tigers had let the boy bat earlier, and he remained content to run down balls for them.

As Sam jogged across the infield, he watched the players running, catching, and throwing and listened to them whistling and calling to each other. He admired their skill and easy manner and wondered what it would be like to play in a game with them. If the Lumbermen could have used black players, he thought, there might still be a team he could play on. Like most everything else, though, their Tri-County League was segregated. Meanwhile, the Black Tigers played pick-up games with black squads from other towns, and until now no whites paid them any attention.

When Sam reached right field and turned to face the batter, the man on the hill slipped from his hiding spot, looped around to his truck on the far side, and drove off without anyone seeing him.

Chapter 2

Five hundred miles north of Unionville, Larkin and Velma Reeves were worried. Larkin, a thin man with slicked-back hair and a pencil moustache, pushed the afternoon newspaper aside, set a serving tray on the patio table, and handed glasses of iced lemonade to Velma and their daughter Becky. They sat on cedar chairs he had built, along with the table, in the basement of their suburban Kirkwood, Missouri, home. July had brought sweltering heat and the women were wearing sundresses and sandals. Larkin had on Bermuda shorts. They had been arguing off and on since last evening. Becky had an offer to teach seventh grade in Unionville, Arkansas, and Larkin, a high school principal for twenty-six years, did not want his only child taking a job in a school she had never seen in some small town in the middle of nowhere. More than that, even though she was thirty-five, he hated the thought of her moving so far away.

“You’d be better off laying out a year and waiting for something to open up around here,” he said, nodding toward the St. Louis skyline.

“Dad, I love you,” Becky said, flashing a dimpled smile and flipping strands of auburn hair away from sparkling brown eyes. “But you and mom are overreacting, and you know it.” Gestures like these had melted her father’s resolve before but not this time. He and Velma, who taught third grade, were proud that Becky had followed in their footsteps but the Unionville position seemed risky.

It had come open when the woman holding it quit unexpectedly and, according to Becky’s understanding, took a similar position elsewhere. With the start of school only weeks away, Unionville officials scoured Arkansas and every neighboring state in search of a replacement, posting as many ads as they could afford and conducting interviews by telephone. They learned little about Becky except that she had a teaching certificate and experience, was not married, and could relocate on short notice. She learned even less about them.

“You haven’t met anyone down there,” Larkin said, frowning. “You don’t even know what kind of facilities they have, or what textbooks they’re using.”

“Come on! They said I’d be teaching in a practically new building. And you know I’ve never been tied to textbooks. You and mom taught me better than that.”

“Honey,” Becky’s mother asked, trying a different approach, “are you sure you can drive that far?” A trim woman admired for her Latin good looks and sunny humor, Velma normally did not worry out loud like this. When Becky had come down with polio during her teens, Velma helped her work through months of hospitalization and painful therapy and later encouraged her to chase her dreams. Now, however, Velma seemed willing to do anything to keep her daughter from going south, even reminding her how hard she found long drives because the polio had left one leg shorter than the other.

“I have to do it, Mom,” Becky said, putting her hand on Velma’s arm. “I want to work, and I still like being in a classroom.” She had been seeking an assistant principal’s job or similar position but had exhausted all possibilities for the coming school year. Since finishing her master’s at the University of Missouri in the spring, she had gone on nine interviews and received zero offers. More than one recruiter, after seeing her limp, suggested that helping to manage an entire school would be too much for her.

Velma took a deep breath and let it out slowly, searching for the right words. “I understand how you feel,” she said, “but this just seems too rushed.”

Becky sighed and sat back. For a long time, all three sipped their lemonade in silence. A light breeze stirred the warm air and raised the scent of potted petunias.

“Look, Mom, Dad,” Becky said after a while. She leaned forward and set her glass on the table. “I’ve handled a lot of different situations and I can handle this one. It’ll be fine until I can get something else, so I’m taking it.”

They had to admit she had always been resourceful. After beating polio, she had worked during most of World War II as a clerk in an aircraft factory then earned a degree from nearby Fontbonne University and taught at a private academy in Illinois before going to graduate school.

“Becky,” Velma said, coming to what concerned her most, “there a lot of mean-spirited people down South. The farther you go, the worse it gets. I looked up Unionville on the map. It’s not far from that place in Mississippi where someone killed that poor Emmett Till boy just because he said, ‘Bye, baby,’ to a white girl. And you know what it was like for your Great-grandma Charlene and your Grandma Abigail living in New Orleans.” 

“But Mom, that was a long time ago. And they were madams for gosh sakes.”

“Yes, they were, but they didn’t have much choice about it. That’s why Momma sent me up here to live with Cousin Lottie—to get me away from all that. Now I wish they’d given me Lottie’s last name too.”

“What difference does that make?”

“None probably,” Velma said, “but Clémence isn’t exactly common, and Momma and Grandma both owned a lot of property. What do you think will happen if somebody down there starts nosing around?”

“Oh, Mom,” Becky said, getting up to clear the table, “no one up here has ever bothered about you, and no one down there is going to bother about me.”

Chapter 3

“Gran’s gon’ be mad again, ain’t she?” Billy asked, as he climbed into the Ford pickup with the Oklahoma Tire and Supply Company’s OTASCO logo on the sides. He and Sam were leaving their fourth Black Tigers practice in as many weeks. They smelled bad and dripped sweat on the seats but Sam did not mind. He felt the kind of tired that satisfies both body and soul.                

“Yeah, I reckon so, son,” he said, starting the engine, “but you let me worry about that. And don’t say ‘ain’t.’ Your momma taught you better.”

Dusk trailed close behind when they pulled into the gravel driveway on the northwestern edge of Unionville, but they still had time to pick the purple-hull peas they had not gotten to before heading off to play ball. The white frame house set well back from the street, and Sam parked in front of the matching garage that still held the Ford Victoria Sam had bought for Judith Ann and now drove only on Sundays and family outings. As he and Billy climbed out of the truck, Gran and Mary Jane came from behind the house.

“Daddy, Daddy!” called the freckled-faced little girl rushing toward him in t-shirt and shorts, pigtails flying. “You’re home! I helped Gran feed the chickens. Ain’t you proud of me?” 

“Yes, I am, sweetheart,” Sam said, grinning broadly. He reached down, swept her into his arms, smelled the sweetness of her sun-bleached hair, and overlooked her grammar. “I’m very proud of you.” Like Billy, she had been a planned baby, long tried for, and Sam had promised Judith Ann before she died that he would pay attention to their education. With Gran’s help in almost every way except Billy’s homework—she had done all her book learning in a one-room school—he kept his word, most of the time.

“Where have y’all been?” Gran asked, as if she did not know. “Them peas are gon’ dry up if y’all don’t hurry up and pick them. Dadgum it anyway! I don’t know why y’all want to go off over there with them coloreds.”

 “But Gran,” Billy said, “they’re good ball players. And Leon says I’m good too.”

“That don’t make me no never mind,” she said. She wore a flour-sack apron over a faded house dress, and a bonnet covered her white hair, up in a bun as always. Wire-rimmed glasses perched on her nose. “It ain’t about you. It’s about appearances and what’s proper, and y’all ain’t got no business being over there.”

Gran was knee-high to nothing and pushing eighty-one, but she ran the Tate household. She had been born Ida Belle Pruett, the youngest of six children, on a hardscrabble farm just ten miles away, the same year Rutherford B. Hayes entered the White House and ended Radical Reconstruction. Her daddy fought under the Confederate stars and bars at Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and dozens of other places where men killed each other mostly because of slavery. She grew up listening to him rail about Northern carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags, and she was firmly committed to the notion that whites and blacks each had a place and ought to stay in it.

“Aw, Momma, let the boy alone,” Sam said with a shrug. “It’s just good clean fun. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Yeah, it does. It ain’t fitting and sooner or later you’re gon’ see that.”

While Gran took Mary Jane inside to wash up and help set the table, Sam and Billy left their baseball gear on the back porch and headed through the yard toward the vegetable garden. The Tate home place covered seven acres and Sam loved every inch of it. Elm, oak, and messy chinaberry trees dotted the large front yard, and out back a tin barn with a new coat of red paint held hay and oats and gave cover to Old Ned, a chestnut gelding still good for plowing and gentle enough for the kids to ride. A small outbuilding housed laying hens and another held pullets for fattening until Gran wrung their necks for Sunday dinners. 

The garden lay between the house and barn. A mesh-and-barbed-wire fence kept Old Ned and varmints out. Billy did not say anything more until he and Sam got through the gate, grabbed bushel baskets from a post, and started picking. Then he asked, “Daddy, what did Gran mean back there? I don’t understand what’s wrong with playing ball with Leon or what it is you’re gon’ see.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it, Billy, and I’m not gon’ see anything but B. J.’s curve ball coming off the fat part of my bat one of these days. Gran just doesn’t understand baseball, that’s all. Hurry up now and let’s get these peas done.”

***

Except for Mary Jane, no one said much during supper. Gran was still puffed up like an old sitting-hen, and Sam and Billy concentrated on the warmed-over pork chops, butter beans, and sweet corn they washed down with milk they drank from jelly glasses.

After supper, Gran said, “I’m gon’ work on my new quilt. What peas y’all don’t shell tonight, Ollie Mae can do in the morning.” Ollie Mae Green was the part-time cook and maid Sam hired after Judith Ann died. She worked for the Tates on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

Most times when Gran was piecing and quilting, she worked in her sitting room on her own side of the house, but when she was cutting out pattern pieces, she liked to spread her cloth, templates, and scissors on the pink-and-gray dinette table in the kitchen. While she arranged her things, Sam brought in a basket of peas from the back porch.

“I want my own bowl,” Mary Jane said. Usually she worked from Sam’s bowl or Gran’s so they could help her cull any peas with brown spots.

“Okay,” Sam said. “You’re getting to be a big girl now.” 

He spread newspapers on the floor, took three large mixing bowls from a cupboard, put one on the table for himself, and handed one to each child. They dropped cross-legged to the linoleum floor and began helping themselves to pods from the field basket. Sam took a dinette chair. As they shelled, they tossed the hulls onto the newspapers.

Pleased with her new status as a pea sheller, Mary Jane said in the best grownup voice she could muster, “So, Gran, what kind of quilt are you making this time?”

The little girl’s manner and question warmed the room. Gran did not wear her false teeth except when she went to church or when special company came, and a toothless grin spread through her wrinkled face.

“I’m making you a memory quilt, hon. It’s gon’ be a sampler.” 

 Gran had been quilting for as long as Sam could remember. Every Tuesday morning at nine o’clock she got together with Emma Lou MacDonald and Almalee Jolly to quilt and gossip, and she was always showing him and the children something new she was working on.

 “I got a bunch of y’all’s old clothes saved up,” Gran said, “and I got more patterns than I’ll ever have time to make up regular so I’m just gon’ put a bunch of stuff in one quilt.” From a lined oak basket woven years ago by her daddy, she lifted bits of cloth, laid them on the table, and shared the memories they held. “I done cut scraps out of old clothes,” she said to Mary Jane. “Now I’m gon’ cut my pattern pieces. This here blue scrap come from an apron I made for your momma when her and your daddy got married back in ’thirty-nine, and this red piece is from one of his old shirts when he worked at the gasoline plant out yonder at Newton Chapel.”

 “What’s that black one?” Mary Jane asked. “It’s not pretty like the others.”

 “That one’s real special, hon. It come from the suit my daddy wore after he come home from the Civil War.”

“Tell us some war stories, Gran,” Billy said.

“Yeah,” Mary Jane begged, “tell us about the soldiers.”

Gran liked telling stories almost as much as she liked quilting. “Well,” she said, taking scissors and cloth in hand, “your great-granddaddy joined up right off the bat with the Third Arkansas Regiment. Went all the way through the war and come out a captain. He said if General Stonewall Jackson hadn’t got hisself killed at Chancellorsville, we’d have beat them Yankees.”  

As she talked, Billy hung on every word. Mary Jane did not understand much of it, but she liked listening and was waiting for the part about how the Confederates ran out of food and tried to make coffee from acorns.

Sam had heard it all dozens of times, and as Gran cut her shapes and talked, he slipped into memories of his own. How he came home from college short of money and went to work delivering groceries for Hadley’s Food, Feed, and Seed. How he met and fell in love with Judith Ann. How he took out a loan and opened a general store across from the high school on Newton Chapel Road. And how he worked evenings at the gasoline plant during World War II to make his payments and put his little brother through college.

The storytelling and remembering continued until they shelled all the peas. Then Gran said, “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”

Sam glanced at the gingerbread clock sitting on a wall shelf. This was early for her. She usually sat up all hours listening to gospel singers and preachers on powerful radio stations in far-away Nashville, Tennessee, and Del Rio, Texas.

Sam said he would finish up in the kitchen, and while Gran put away her quilting stuff, he hugged the children and sent them off to get ready for bed. Afterward, as he washed and blanched the peas for freezing, he could not help worrying. He had been taking care of his mother ever since his daddy died. With his brother Herman out of college and off working in the Texas oilfields, Sam and Judith Ann had moved in with Gran. That was when Sam sold the general store, borrowed more money, and bought the Otasco franchise and a sideline of building supplies.

“Can we sleep in the hall tonight, Daddy?” Mary Jane asked, padding into the kitchen carrying her well-worn Fuzzy Bear and dragging one of Gran’s quilts. “I’m hot.”

The Tates’ Arctic Circle swamp cooler never lived up to its name, so Billy and Mary Jane liked to bed down on a pallet just inside the screened front door. There they could catch an occasional breeze and go to sleep listening to katydids, crickets, and the lonesome-sounding horns of freight trains traveling the Rock Island line.

 “Sure,” Sam said. “Just be sure to latch the door.”

When he finished the peas, he switched off the kitchen light and went onto the back porch to have a Chesterfield. This was about the only time he smoked and it had been his nightly habit for five years. Now, however, his thoughts turned less to Judith Ann than to Gran.∎

An Interview with George Rollie Adams

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