Sunday, March 1, 2009

"Momma Julie"

Between 1940 and 1970, during the Second Great Migration, more than 5 million black people moved from the Southern United States to theNorth. Julia Mae Gadsen, "Momma Julie," was one of them.

Momma Julie chewed tobacco. She dipped snuff. And she carried a pocketknife and a straight razor in her pocketbook. She took me to church and made me go to Sunday school. She enjoyed watching "Creature Features" and, if I behaved, let me stay up late some nights to watch them with her. She called them "monster movies," though. Momma Julie, my maternal grandmother, made me say "yes, ma’am," and "no, sir." And she taught me to have respect for my "elders." Momma Julie drank whiskey and Maxwell House coffee, but because she told me, "it’ll stunt your growth," I couldn’t have any. And whenever I was "mannish," Momma Julie would make me get a switch off one of the trees in the yard.

Momma Julie had a "special friend," Mr. Chuck, who loved to take me to the grocery store with him because I could recite all the popular TV commercials of the day. He would point to something on the shelf and say, "Cliffie, what's that?"

"Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. They’re grrrreat!"

"Get it!" he'd say. And I was only so happy to obey Mr. Chuck. Oreos. Lay's potato chips. Cracker Jack. 

I’d return to Momma Julie’s with a bag full of "junk," as she would call it, a very happy boy.

"Chuck, why’d you’d go and get Cliffie all that junk?" she’d say. "Now, I told you about that!"

"Aww, Julia Mae," he’d answer, "he’s a good boy. Let him have it." And he’d wink at me.

"What do you say? Before I put this junk up and give Mr. Chuck his whipping for being mannish."

"Thank you, Mr. Chuck." 

But I’d already thanked Mr. Chuck. And I’d already had my fill of Baby Ruth bars and pop and ice cream and potato chips and other junk by the time we’d made it back to Momma Julie’s, so I was good to go.

According to my beloved Aunt Becky, Momma Julie got it in her head that Durant, Miss., was not the place she wanted to raise her family in the 1940s. She had a girlfriend in South Bend, Ind., and she wanted to move there. Momma Julie's husband, Robert, had other plans. You see, Robert Gadsen was one of the few blacks in Durant who owned a piece of land back then. He grew cotton. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t read or write. He was one of the "smart" ones.

This wasn’t enough for Momma Julie. The last straw came when she watched as one of her small daughters slogged through mud on her way back from a second-rate, "colored" schoolhouse one day. She knew she had to make a move, but my grandfather wasn't budging. The marriage was doomed.

Momma Julie thought about her girlfriend who’d settled in Indiana, and that was where Momma Julie decided her girls would grow up. During a "vacation" in South Bend, Momma Julie stayed with her girlfriend and planned her "escape." She’d told my grandfather that when the time was right — after the harvest — that she’d take the train up North to visit her girlfriend for a little while. Their three girls would stay with him, help him keep up the place, until she got back. That was fine for Robert Gadsen. He was not going north. The white folks liked him, he owned land, so he had it going on in Mississippi. Why should he leave?

Momma Julie rode a train north to Indiana, where she started her plans for a new life. Her girls — my mother, Lucille, and my aunts Rebecca and Doris, were going to get good educations, finish high school and make something of themselves — away from Jim Crow. She got a job as a domestic and started saving money. According to my Aunt Becky, Momma Julie would write home each week and my grandfather, a proud man despite his illiteracy, would have his oldest daughter read the letters to him. What he didn’t know was that Momma Julie would write, in essence, two letters; in one part of each letter, she’d tell Aunt Becky what the real plans were — when she’d send for her and her sisters, and things like that. She was not to read my grandfather that part. Instead, Aunt Becky would only read the part that said things like "We’re having a good time" and "Yesterday we went shopping, after church."

Reading is, indeed, fundamental.

After it became apparent that Momma Julie had no intention of returning to Mississippi, she got my grandfather to send her girls north. She insisted. Momma Julie didn’t take any mess. And my grandfather had to comply. Besides, in a man’s world, he had daughters. No sons. He’d be better off, and he could start over. He got them each a one-way ticket to Chicago. With their clothes, some fried chicken, biscuits, fruit and a few dollars, the girls were Chicago-bound. Aunt Becky was 12, Mommy was 6 and Aunt Doris was 4. Folks those days tended to take the cheapest rail ticket possible. This resulted in many people from Mississippi moving to Chicago, 90-plus miles west of South Bend, Ind.

When they got to Chicago, however, the girls didn’t have enough train fare to ride the rest of the way. Aunt Becky got on the phone and made a collect call to South Bend. Somebody called somebody else and before long, an "uncle" who lived in Chicago showed up at the station and paid for the girls to get from Chicago to South Bend on the South Shore commuter train. Folks from down South looked out for one another in those days.

It was dark when Momma Julie was reunited with her girls. And they started their new life together. Up North.

Momma Julie was 51 years old, a year younger than I am now, when she died in 1965 after complications from a stroke.

Listening to the two women near Santa Barbara's Stearns Wharf talk the other day about Tyler Perry’s "Madea Goes to Jail" made me think about my Momma Julie and how much I miss her.



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