Wednesday, August 9, 2017


The Land of Cotton

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963

Trying hard not to stare at the clock, I looked about the dreary choir room at JFK High School, wondering if anyone would show up for class.  It was 1967 – the height of the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi – when Blacks risked their lives if seen using a “Whites Only” bathroom.  Ku Klux Klan members wearing pointy hoods threatened anyone who dared speak out against segregation.  For almost a month now, I’d been living in the midst of it all, in a small, all-black town surrounded by cotton fields.  What, I wondered, was a forty-five-year-old white, Jewish mother of four from Massachusetts doing teaching reading to children who lived in barren shacks with no electricity or running water?
I thought back to the time less than a year earlier when I’d been living in Newton Center, an upper middle-class suburb of Boston, surrounded by friends and family.   My husband Leon’s pediatric practice was flourishing and all the medical school bills were paid off.  We lived in a 3-story 10-room house in a neighborhood with top-rated schools and wooded playgrounds.  On weekends, we dined in elegant restaurants and attended the symphony and ballet.  I couldn’t have been more contented, but Leon had grown weary of his work.  The more successful he became, the more he felt driven to do something more meaningful that would impact not just his family and patients, but the world.
Over lunch one day in the spring of ‘67, Leon asked, “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?”  Accustomed to Leon’s games, the children responded quickly.  Jo, our 10-year-old who was in the midst of a novel about the American Southwest, said “Arizona.”  Charles, who was a year older and shared my dream of living by the ocean, chimed in with, “Hawaii!”  When Leon turned to me, I remembered how I’d loved our recent visit to San Juan for our twenty-fifth anniversary.  “Puerto Rico,” I said.
Then Leon dropped a bombshell.  “We’re moving to Mississippi.”  He had spent the morning in an interview with two physicians from Tufts University, Jack Geiger and Count Gibson.  They had started a federally funded clinic in a public housing project five miles south of Boston.  The first of its type in the United States, the center brought health care to the urban poor right where they lived.  Leon had heard about the project and wanted to explore the possibility of helping in some way, perhaps by donating some of his time.
After meeting my husband, Jack and Count realized that they’d found much more than a pediatrician to help out occasionally at their Boston facility.  Instead, they saw Leon as the medical director for a clinic they planned to build in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.  It was to be funded by the newly created Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington DC and would be a role model for how best to serve the rural poor.  They offered him the job and he accepted on the spot.  By the time I knew about it, it was a fait accompli.  In a matter of hours, my life had changed forever.  My Don Quixote was ready to tackle windmills and I knew – despite my misgivings – that I would be by his side.
I’d known that Leon meant to make a difference in the world since the first time he walked me home from high school 30 years earlier and said, “When I step off the curb in Newton, it matters in China.”
During our college years, our friendship blossomed from best buddies to sweethearts.  We were married in 1942, just before he went off to World War II as an Army Air Corps pilot.  When he came home, he started medical school, and for the next t25 years, I supported him in every way that I could.
As was typical of the wives of my generation, I didn’t think I had any choice but to go where my husband led, our three youngest children in tow, into the terrible poverty of the Mississippi Delta.  Everyone said I was a trooper.  They didn’t know that inside I was terrified, fearful about my children’s safety, concerned that the schools would be inadequate, and despondent at leaving Connie, my college-age daughter behind.  But I buried my fears and did my best to appear in good spirits about what lay ahead.
I’d been raised to take an interest in politics and public affairs, and Leon and I frequently got involved in local elections, hosting parties for candidates and helping to get out the vote.  Now we had an opportunity to walk the walk, to become more than parlor liberals, and it was much more enriching and educational than I’d ever thought possible.  But the transition wasn’t easy, particularly at first. For months I had agonized over where we would live.  The few homes with power and indoor plumbing were all occupied and there wasn’t time to build anything new.  After much fruitless discussion and frustration, a workable solution had been proposed.  Trailers.

So  we moved to Mississippi and set up two trailers on a vacant lot on one of the town’s two paved roads.  We were centrally located – two blocks from the public schools in one direction, and two doors down from the Catholic school in the other.  The road was paved to a point just beyond the Catholic school, where the town ended and the road turned to dirt.  There, the endless fields of cotton began.  Soon, one of those fields would house Leon’s new clinic.
We arranged the two trailers so that the narrow sides faced the street with about ten feet between them.  Leon and I shared the larger trailer with Jo, wanting to keep our youngest child close by.  The second trailer housed our two boys.  Thirteen-year-old Philip was thrilled with his independence, but his brother Charles was scared to be so far away from his parents.  To get from his room to ours, he had to go outside, down some stairs, across the muddy yard, up some more stairs, and through another door.  To my younger son, 10 feet felt like 10 miles.
The boys were actually no further away than when they were on the third floor of our house in Newton and I was on the second, but I too was concerned.  With the addition of a connecting porch, the problem was solved.  I turned my attention to my next task, converting those two trailers into a home. Our trailers became a haven of comfort in the midst of poverty.

Once that was accomplished, I found myself with time on my hands.  Leon drove to work at his temporary facility and the children walked to school, leaving me alone.  At first, the opportunity to slow down after 25 years of working two jobs while raising a family was a welcome relief.  I read, listened to music, and did needlework for hours on end.  But the more I rested, the more restless I grew.
The quiet was broken one day by a knock at the front door.  Not expecting any visitors, I was surprised by the sight of a shabbily dressed, elderly man.  As I said, “Good morning,” he handed me a note written on a page from Leon’s prescription pad.  It said, “Please feed.”
He mumbled, “Dr. Kruger asked me to give you this.” I took another look at him and realized how painfully thin he was, his cheeks caved in and the skin on his arms hanging loosely.  He’d gone to the clinic because he felt weak and when Leon examined him, he discovered that the man was starving.  Since the clinic had no food bank, Leon decided to send him to me.  The scribbled note was his way of maintaining his patient’s dignity.  Instead of telling him he was being sent to the doctor’s home for a meal, Leon had said, “Our phone isn’t working yet.  Would you mind bringing my wife a message?” Knowing that the man couldn’t read, he hadn’t even bothered to put his note in an envelope.  I immediately understood the situation, thanked the man for his assistance and invited him in to join me for lunch.
Later that evening, Leon told me the clinic had to do something to get food out to the community, and it wasn’t long before he’d arranged for the clinic pharmacy to distribute a few simple grocery items.  This raised some eyebrows from the bookkeepers back in Boston, but when they were reminded that the cure for malnutrition is food, they stopped complaining.
The next night over dinner, Leon told me about  the problems he faced at the clinic.  They didn’t yet have all the equipment they needed.  The local staff members they’d hired were still in training.  Every medical condition was exacerbated by poor nutrition.  I listened intently and asked questions, but having spent my day quietly entertaining myself, I had nothing to talk about in turn.  When Leon pointed this out to me, I admitted I was restless by myself all day, and he said, “I can see why.  Back in Boston, you helped out in my office, handled the bookkeeping for your father’s diner, and the children came home from school each day for lunch.  Now, you can’t work with me, your father is 1500 miles away, and the children are gone all day.  You need something to do with your time besides reading and doing your needlework.”
Leon began making suggestions, quickly focusing on the local high school.  He told me the school was in desperate need of teachers, that many of the faculty members were poorly trained and working outside their areas of expertise.  And he reminded me that for many years, I’d dreamed of becoming a teacher.  That vision started in the fifth grade when my teacher, Miss Gianferante, was so inspiring that I looked forward to school every day.  She made learning an adventure, and I’d wanted to grow up to be just like her.  But those days were long gone, and despite Leon’s encouragement and his fervent comments about how badly I was needed, I hesitated, concerned that I wasn't qualified.
When Leon gave up trying to convince me, I thought the matter was settled, but the next morning  the school superintendent, Charles Jones, showed up at my door.  Before I even had a chance to invite him in, he said, “Mrs. Kruger, your husband tells me that you can teach.  We’re really short-handed over at the high school and I’d appreciate it if you’d consider helping out.”
“Mr. Jones,” I answered, “I’ve never been trained as a teacher.  I know nothing about managing a classroom.”  But for every objection I raised, he had another reason I should give it a try.  Finally, worn down by his insistence that I would be a fine teacher, I agreed to start and asked him what time I should show up the next morning.
 “Why wait until tomorrow?  Can you come right now?”
 So I grabbed my purse and followed him in my car to the John F. Kennedy High School.  Several times I was tempted to turn around, go home, call the superintendent and tell him I’d changed my mind. But he had reached me with his passionate description of the sad plight of the students.  His confidence and Leon's in my ability gave me the strength to continue driving.
When we arrived at the school, Mr. Jones took me to the library.  As he opened the door, I saw almost a hundred students lounging around.  They weren’t reading or doing homework; instead, they were either sitting around talking, or sound asleep with their heads down on the tables.
“Is this a study hall?” I asked, disturbed by the apparent waste of time.
Shaking his head, he said, “No.  When I set this up, I was hoping they’d work, but with inadequate supervision, this is the result.  I’ve got empty classrooms where I could put them, but not enough teachers.  Now you know why we need you.”
Introducing me to the students, Mr. Jones selected 35 and told them to follow us.  He then walked to an empty classroom, where he left me to my own devices, never asking what I would do.  As the door closed behind him, I looked out at the sea of trusting faces, and was taken aback by the sudden awareness that all these young people looked alike.  How could I be a good teacher if I couldn’t tell one student from another?  I thought of the stereotype that all black people looked the same and realized  that even with my liberal background and commitment to living in an all-black town, the stereotype held true for me.
In white communities, we identify people by eye, hair color, and hair style.  In my classroom, all I could see y was that everyone had brown eyes and black, curly hair.  As I grew to know my students, however, I discovered other ways of telling them apart – the shape of the face, body build, height, how they talked and walked.  By the third week of school, I could recognize my students even from the back.
Within minutes of starting my first class, however, it was obvious that I had another problem.  I started out by asking the students to introduce themselves and tell me something about their backgrounds. They might as well have responded in a foreign language.  Their rural dialect was so strong I could barely understand a word they said.  How was I ever going to teach them literature if we couldn’t communicate?  What had I gotten myself into? 
Unwilling to give up, however, I decided to begin by teaching them the phonetic alphabet a la Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle.  Then I discovered that even this would be difficult, since most of them couldn't  read.  At the end of the day, I went to my principal and proposed teaching a remedial reading course during the last period, a time typically devoted to athletics and elective classes.  I volunteered to do this under two conditions:  no one would be required to attend and those who chose to do so would receive a passing grade just for trying.  He agreed and we decided the class would be in the choir room – located behind the gym – because it offered the promise of privacy where students could learn to read without facing the cruel teasing of their classmates, so common among adolescents.  I was optimistic that students would value the opportunity and come voluntarily.
And that’s how I ended up pacing about the empty choir room waiting for students who apparently had decided not to show up, my confidence fading once again as I began to view my endeavor as a quixotic quest.  Fifteen minutes went by.  Then twenty.  I’d been teaching for less than a week, yet already I cared tremendously for these young men and women who faced such a difficult, uphill battle.  Several months ago, I wouldn"t have believed such a place existed in the United States, a place where so many people didn’t even know the alphabet.  But here I was in Mound Bayou, the country’s oldest and largest all-black town,  owned by Blacks and dating back to the end of the Civil War when a group of freed slaves had been given the land to create a town.
This unusual history is what led to the selection of Mound Bayou as the home of Leon’s new clinic.  Because no white people lived or worked there, the Ku Klux Klan usually kept its distance and the residents were relatively safe.  Knowing that any medical facility established for the black population was likely to become a target for arson, bombing, and shootings, the federal funding organization and Tufts University were concerned for the safety of the staff and patients.  The more the matter was discussed, the more attractive Mound Bayou looked as a site for the medical facility, offering at least a semblance of security for the clinic and its employees.
There were no guarantees, of course.  Even in Mound Bayou, the townspeople occasionally had to deal with drunken Klans men driving by and shooting off their guns in all directions.Whenever that happened, everyone ran into their homes and lay on the floors in the back rooms.  By the time every boy was 13 years old, he knew how to handle a rifle or shotgun in case it was necessary to defend the family.  In many homes, a loaded gun was kept next to the front door.
Just a few months before we moved there, a 14-year-old black boy in a nearby town was dragged behind a car to his death because someone said he had looked “funny” at a white woman.  Just by living in Mound Bayou, my family and I had become the target of that same hatred.  The Ku Klux Klan loathed us for interfering and viewed us as carpetbaggers intent upon disrupting their established order.  What a difference from our life in Massachusetts, where our liberal ideas were respected and we could take a stand against the evils of segregation and discrimination without fear of consequences.
As my thoughts wandered back from my former life, about 20 young men walked into the choir room and quietly took their seats.  They stared down at their hands to avoid eye contact with me and with each other.  Why were they so afraid?  And why were there no girls?
My questions were soon answered when one of the young men began to speak.  “Mrs. Kruger, we’re the football team.  Coach told us about your class and said it was more important for us to learn to read than to be out on the field.  He said we should all come here for the first hour of practice.”
 No wonder they were hesitant.  They hadn’t come because they wanted to learn to read.  They came because the football coach – the man who decided whether they’d spend Friday night out on the field or riding the bench – had told them to come.  So much for my idea of offering the class on a voluntary basis only.
I knew I had to say something to ease the tension.  I began by telling them how lucky they were to have a coach who understood the importance of reading.  Then I spoke of a recent article in Sports Illustrated describing how black athletes were getting scholarships to play football in college.  The young men played until they used up their eligibility or got injured and then were sent on their way without a degree.  In many cases, the athletes never attended a single class.  They arrived at the schools unprepared to learn because they couldn’t read.  Four or five years later, they returned to their hometowns no better off than when they left.  Now that these JFK High School students had come to me, however, I wasn’t going to let that happen.
I could tell they were still nervous.  Although fierce on the football field, these athletes were scared little children in the classroom.  The mother in me wanted to wrap my arms around them and reassure them that everything would be all right.  I had to find a way to build their confidence.
“You can’t read because you’ve never been given a proper chance,” I said.  “But you are perfectly capable of learning.  I know you are.  And I’m going to show you how.”  As I spoke, I saw them sit a little taller in their seats, already beginning to think that perhaps they could.
We worked together for weeks, sounding out the simplest of words and then moving on to the harder ones.  I had them trace the letters in the air and memorize shapes the way they’d memorize the plays for their football games.  We chanted the alphabet together, just as I’d done with my own children when they were toddlers.  Gradually, my students began to recognize words on the page, and it wasn’t long before they mastered the second grade books I’d borrowed from the elementary school.  My throat tightened the first time one of them read an entire book aloud to his teammates.  I knew I had found my calling.
Each of those football players was special to me and I enjoyed attending their games every Friday night during the fall.  The whole community turned out for the social event of the week.  I remember the first time our family attended, we were impressed not only with the level of play, but also with the band.  When the JFK High School Marching 101 took the field at half time, we were treated to a top-notch performance, especially surprising given the town’s poverty and the school’s lack of resources.  The band director was a highly talented individual and he spent as many hours working with his musicians in the band hall as the football coach spent with his athletes on the field.  The band members strutted about in the elaborate formations they’d practiced for hours on end and the music was inspiring, with everyone playing and marching in perfect time.  For a tiny school in an impoverished town, they did an amazing job.  I was especially moved by the sight of my son Philip marching with the band, the only white face in a sea of black.  I had been so worried that he’d have to give up his music lessons when we left Newton, yet here he was, participating in an excellent program.
I spent a lot of time that evening reflecting on how different our life was from what it had been a few months earlier.  A Friday night in Boston was likely to include dinner at a restaurant, followed by a play or a concert.  In Mound Bayou, we sat under the Friday night lights watching our gridiron warriors with the rest of the town.  We may have given up our sophisticated existence in New England, but we’d gained the community spirit that runs so deeply in small towns throughout the nation.  It would take a while before we were accepted, and that acceptance would never be complete.  But we could tell it was already starting to happen by the warmth with which we were greeted by our new friends as we arrived at the game.  People approached us, eager to introduce themselves if we hadn’t already met, and quick to ask how we were settling in.  Upon realizing that we didn’t shy away from physical contact, many asked if they could touch our hair, curious to see what a white person’s hair felt like.
In many ways, Jo was the first to assimilate.  She was outgoing and enjoyed playing basketball and football.  She made friends at school and in the neighborhood and she frequently shot baskets with them in the schoolyard or threw the football around in the yard.  Leon and I thought she was adjusting beautifully to our new life in Mississippi, as illustrated by the way she responded when one of our friends visiting from the north asked her if she ever forgot that her new friends were black.  She said without hesitation, “Of course not.  I’m looking at them and can see that they’re black.  But sometimes I forget that I’m white.”
Delighted that she loved her new school and hung out with her friends every afternoon, we failed to notice when she stopped playing football within days of our arrival.  We didn’t know that the boys tackled her whether or not she had the ball, and once she was down on the ground they were touching her inappropriately.  The situation grew worse at that first Friday night game.
  When we sat down in the bleachers, Charles and Jo had stayed with Leon and me, watching and cheering.  Charles, shyer than his sister, stayed with us, but Jo was eager to go find her friends.  Instead, some older boys found her, wrestled her to the ground and pinned her while they reached under her shirt.  She squirmed away and raced back to the stands to sit with her father and me for the rest of the game, not telling us why she’d returned.
A few days later, she told me what had happened, begging me not to tell anyone else because she was so embarrassed.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Surely, the boys were just roughhousing and had  touched her inadvertently.  I suggested that she might have misread the situation, but she told me about the football games in the yard and how she’d been fending off the boys all week.  I was furious – furious with the boys for being so cruel to my 10-year-old little girl, and furious with myself for not having recognized what was happening and stepping in to stop the abuse.
What upset me most of all was how helpless I felt.  I wanted to gather up my family and leave town and forget all about it.  But I knew there was no going back.  It had been obvious from the moment my husband first told me about the plans for the clinic in Mississippi that he already viewed it as his raison d'ĂȘtre and was more concerned with saving the world than taking care of his wife and children.  There was no way he’d consider returning to Boston.  Rather than initiating what would inevitably be a miserable conversation, I  honored Jo’s request for privacy and never told Leon what had happened.  I felt broken and beaten down inside, but shielded those emotions from the outside world.  I forced myself to be Aura the Trooper, just as I always had and almost convinced myself that everything would be fine.  After all, we were working for a worthy cause.  Didn’t that make us immune to danger?
My father, however, never let me forget that by following my husband to Mississippi, I’d placed myself and my children in a perilous situation.  The first time I spoke with him on the phone after the move, he was irate.  It was the night of that first football game.  When we’d left our trailers, the phone was installed but not yet working.  As we came in the front door at the end of the evening, however, I heard it ringing.  Yes!  We finally had service.  I ran to the kitchen to grab the phone before the caller gave up, hoping it was either my parents or my 19-year-old daughter, Connie, who was attending college in Massachusetts.  It was my father.
Before I had a chance to tell him how wonderful it was to hear from him, he bellowed, “Wat kind of a town do you live in?  You must be out in the middle of nowhere!”  He went on to complain that he’d been trying to reach us for 3 days, calling every few hours.  Each time, the operator told him that our phone had not yet been installed.  Finally, earlier that evening, she said the phone was working, but there was no point in putting the call through because we weren’t home.  When he asked how she could possibly know that, she said, “They’re at the football game.”
My father wasn’t always as abrasive as he was to that poor operator.  Most of the time he was delightfully charming, flirting with the ladies and chatting with the men.  But he was also fiercely protective when it came to his family and was frustrated when he couldn’t reach me by phone.  In the past, he’d always been able to talk with me whenever he wanted, to hear for himself that everything was fine.  Or if things weren’t going well for me, he could listen and then tell me what to do to make it all better.  Now, for the first time in my life, he couldn’t take care of me and it disturbed him deeply.  The lack of phone contact was just the outward manifestation of a break in our relationship.  He didn’t care that I was a 45-year-old married woman with children of my own.  I was still his daughter and he needed to be there for me.  He would always want to tell me what to do and I would always try to obey him.
His controlling attitude started when he was nine.  He became the man of the family at that tender age because his father died when his bicycle was hit by a train.  Sam, the second eldest and the oldest male, took responsibility for his older sister, four younger sisters and a younger brother.  My grandmother, totally committed to the well being of her large family, expected Sam to be equally dedicated and demanded a great deal from her son, still only a child.  He never complained, knowing she expected even more from herself.
Twenty years later, when my younger sister and I were still toddlers, Sam’s drive to take care of his wife and daughters took an unusual twist.  It was the late 1920s and his career as an insurance agent came to an abrupt end when he was accused of running a gambling ring.  Family lore has it that it was a matter of mistaken identity, that a cousin who was doing just that had used Sam’s name instead of his own, imagining that Sam would never know or care.  As door after door closed in his face, Sam decided that the only way he could make enough money to support his young family was to accept his murky reputation and actually become a racketeer.
I was oblivious to his illegal activities until I started junior high school.  When he finally told me that he ran a gambling ring, he swore me to secrecy, saying, “You can’t talk about it with anyone outside the family because I could go to jail.”
Jail!  I didn’t want my father sent to jail.  Frightened by the prospect, I knew I’d never say a word about it to anybody.  Dad, seeing the look of shock on my face, tried to soften the blow.  “What I do may be illegal, but nobody gets hurt.  Some day in the future, the government will take over running the lottery and make it legal.”  Of course that is eventually what happened, though my father didn’t live long enough to see his prediction come true.
Dad may have thought it was okay to break the law, but I felt terrible.  How could my parents have lied to me all those years, pretending Dad had an honest job?  No matter how much I hated it, though, I did what he asked and never told a soul.  It ate me up inside to hide the truth, but I never dreamed of going against my father.  He said it was for my own good, and I believed him.
 As I grew older, I steadfastly told myself he wasn’t really a gangster; he didn’t carry a gun and hurt people.  It was just a job.  He had nothing to do with the Mafia and was just my daddy who took care of me and loved me.  And maybe that’s the case.  I’ll never know because I didn’t dare ask.  All I knew was that he’d promised to get out of the “business” by the time I began to date so that respectable young men wouldn’t be scared away.  And he almost kept that promise.

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