by Elaine Greensmith Jordan
I have an old push-broom in the garage — like one I remember from long ago, when I noticed another push-broom in the hands of a silent man.
We’d decided to spend the summer in Virginia, after our junior year in college. We’d go to a town called Petersburg. It would be exciting for us sheltered 19-year-olds — to go far away from our California college to a town where my boyfriend was a youth leader in a Methodist church. We’d work as his assistants with the Sunday school children. He assured us he’d take care of everything. And he did — except he couldn’t ease our shock at being set down in the reconstructed South of 1955.
My friend Ann, a blue-eyed blond with a wide smile, was a science major from California. I was her tall, brown-haired literary friend, also from California. We were both comfortable with church work and enthusiastic about a trip to historic Virginia. We arrived in Petersburg on a hot day in June. My boyfriend greeted us heartily, as if
we’d landed in a delightful resort. However, except for his high spirits, Petersburg seemed sodden with low energy. Movement was slow. Voices were muted; the air moist. Indoors, ceiling fans provided the only movement of air. Virginia felt like the outer reaches of the Amazon.
“You two Yankees?”
“No. We’re from California.”
“You sound like Yankees.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
As ignorant college students, we didn’t know we’d stepped onto a Civil War battlefield where General Grant had cut off supply lines to the town during a horrendous attack, decimating and killing. The people in the church remembered everything. Ann and I were not aware of this memory of suffering. It seemed inconceivable, even laughable, that we were suspected to be enemy Yankees, as if we were part of a battalion hiding out in California waiting to invade and burn down houses. Actually, we’d invaded Petersburg from a prosperous western town, all sunshine and orange trees.
We didn’t realize that when rage reconstructed the South after the Civil War, it built a zone of customs while we in the sunny West panned gold and irrigated our deserts.
“You walked over here to the house in those pants?”
“Yes. They’re comfortable —"
“We don’t wear pants on public streets.”
“I see. I’m sorry.”
“We’ll drive you back.”
We had no language to access the culture, no map to help us find our way in this wooded land where the Civil
War burned a slash through wounded hearts. As a young college student who should have known better, I knew more about ancient Roman slave practices than I did of the American South in the Fifties, but we settled into our little Petersburg rental, and under our desultory ceiling fan Ann and I talked into the night about this curious place.
Despite our clumsiness, the church work with the children was fun. Watched by the silent custodian, Washington — leaning over his broom — we set about getting to know the church. Along with our students, we planned a party at the church for the Black children who lived in a local orphanage. We’d have games and treats and perhaps build friendships. Church members seemed to approve.
“That sounds like a nice idea.”
“We could set up tables in the back area and eat outside!”
“Yes. That would be fine, except …”
“Is something wrong?”
“The Negro children won’t use the church bathrooms, of course.”
Did she really say that? As a white girl in the segregated South, I have to say I wasn’t infuriated. We adjusted. We were the outsiders and wanted to get along. Ann and I couldn’t articulate — or even feel — any outrage; that would come later. Still, we took note, made sure we’d remember.
“Would you like to stay and teach in our schools?”
“I’m only 19! I have no degree!”
“That’s not a problem. Our Negro schools need teachers.”
In Petersburg I was part of a ruling class, a privileged order. Like our church custodian, Washington — never without his broom — Black folk were servants, silent and apart, while I could be loud, pushy, and in front. I’d swept into a storybook place where jobs were offered. I was a princess to whom people bowed. If I’d been twelve years old, I’d have enjoyed the deference.
One day the tidy white church secretary gave us startling instructions: “That Nigra woman can’t sit on our church steps. It wouldn’t be right.”Through the window, we glanced outside to see a woman in a straw hat fanning herself. She rested on the church steps next to her shopping bag.
“What are you saying? We can’t tell her to move!”
Then Washington spoke from where he stood in a doorway leaning on his broom. “I’ll take care of it.” What must he have thought? Maybe you can’t really know what it’s like to live in a divided world until you push a broom in a bathroom you can’t use.
Now, from my older perspective, I look over my spectacles at my town, at Prescott in the present day, and am aware that divisions are still with us, still separating the favored from the marginalized. Even in our so-called ‘Everybody’s Hometown’ we’re being served by people who don’t have real names, people who don’t meet your eyes, people who avoid being alone in a room with you. Worse still, a recent standoff on the Square reminded me that some here are ready to attack protesters carrying signs for equity.
Those disturbing events bring back Virginia memories — and the image of Washington leaning on his
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years. Photo of Elaine’s garage by Don Jordan.