It was a hot Saturday afternoon on Aug. 13, 2011. My husband, Frank, our only daughter Elizabeth, and I headed to the Starkville picture show to see “The Help.” We went to the 4:45 p.m. showing. Frank and I had not read the book, but Elizabeth had read it. We are all native Mississippians as well as generations before us. I am a native Starkvillian, and Frank is from the heart of the Mississippi Delta, Money, Mississippi, Leflore County, where 13 year old Emmett Till was brutally murdered, and thrown in a river. Frank was his same age. We know that Missisisppi will never be get over his death as well as the three murdered young men who were civil rights workers from up north near Philadelphia and the shooting and killing of Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader in Jackson by another Leflore County white man.
We drove off to see the picture show, as I call it. Our three grown children tell me all the time, “Mama, quit calling it picture show. It’s cinema.” We had trouble parking since the parking lot was almost completely full. People were everywhere, and I began recognizing lots of people I knew who were standing in front of the movie theater. They had seen the first showing at 2:15 p.m. I walked on into the lobby to stand in a long line waiting to get our popcorn sprinkled with buttered salt, Cokes, and huge boxes of Junior Mints. It would not truly be a Saturday picture show without these three treats, which are terrible for our healthy bodies. I wondered if we would even find a seat. We had to stand in a long line filled with people of all colors and ages. I had a feeling from just glancing at the audience standing in front and in back of us that we were all about to see and share a slice of our past 1960 life here in Mississippi. We slid into our comfortable, rocking, soft seats, munching on our treats with anticipation of what lay ahead for us.
Frank and I looked at each other and whispered, “This was our time of life - the late 1950’s and 1960’s. We survived as we lived through it all. Frank was born Sept. 15, 1939, and I on March 4, 1942. I quickly looked over to my right side at Elizabeth and whispered, “You cannot believe all the changes I have experienced and seen in my lifetime. We’ve come a long way, baby.”
Before we had even left Elizabeth’s home on our way to the picture show, our only daughter, 32-year-old Elizabeth (we also have two sons, Frank, Jr., 44 and McReynolds, 37), who are all married with families of their own, asked me about the tiny extra bathroom right off the kitchen of our family home, 501 Louisville Street, for six generations that we called the help’s toilet. “I don’t remember it, Mama,” but I have heard you tell me about it.” I said, “Elizabeth, it was right off the old back porch area still connected to the house, and it was tiny with only a toilet in it. There was cord with a light bulb dangling from the tall ceiling. There was barely enough room to even turn around in it.” In 2003- 2006, when we restored the home, we tore it down to build the large art studio/sun room on the back of the house. I do remember as a little girl spending the night at Granny’s, we just never went into this small mysterious bathroom. It was as if we were not allowed inside, but it was just there. Gosh, 100 years have come and gone in this home and land bought in 1904, by Papa Pearson, Wiley Bartley Pearson, my own great-grandfather, who built it. It took us almost 100 years for Mississippians to finally make changes for the betterment of life for all us. Papa Pearson was another generation born in the late 1800s, buying this land in 1904 and completing this home in 1911. Elizabeth represents our bright, caring, wonderful new generation.
I remember when I was 3 or 4 years old spending the night all by myself with my Granny in this home. We were eating our supper when we suddenly heard someone slightly tapping on the back door, and Granny, Daisy Pearson Lewis, quickly went to to see who our visitor might be. There stood an very cold, thin, poor, older black woman asking, “Do you have any food left over for me to eat? I am so very hungry and starving.” Granny said, “Yes, just wait here for me to return.” I saw Granny quickly get several cold pieces of homemade bread and bacon left over from breakfast, and she carefully wrapped them up in a starched white cloth napkin. Her white hand slipped the leftover breakfast food into the cupped black hands of a complete stranger. I had followed Granny to the back door. We heard the screen door slam, and together, we watched her slip off into the darkness of the night’s sunset as she was making her way down the old dirt road we simply called, “The Lane.” which is now Wood Street. Our old family home is on the corner of now one of the two busiest streets in Starkville, Louisville and Wood Streets. I also remembered the sweetest little short, maybe 4 ft. tall black girl who washed dishes for Granny. She had to stand on a stool to reach the sink. She was adorable, and I loved her very much. I used to talk with her when I was down visiting Granny. I remembered when we moved here permanently from Mississippi State University (then Miss. State College) to live with Granny since she had the beginnings of what they used to call “hardening of the arteries.” Mama had to find and employ full-time help for Granny. She lived on the north side of the home, and we on the left side. Angeline and Laura came into our lives. My brother, Johnny, and I would sit out on the porch and listen to Angeline sing, “I’ll Fly Away.” Laura added her own perfume one night right behind my ears when I went to my first dance. It smelled awful for weeks later. Angeline and Laura were members of our family, and we loved them dearly. They helped Mama for ten years until Granny’s death.
The picture show began, and we suddenly began reliving our own past lives. We saw lots of scenes we quickly recognized from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and of Greenwood and Money. The scene of the lone convertible riding along those dusty Delta roads with cotton fields flanking both sides of the road to a home in the distance reminded me of when I met Frank’s parents, Josephene and Bill Davis for the first time. I was shocked to see that Frank grew up in the flat lands and in the “smack middle” of a cotton field. I was a “hillbilly girl” from then Mississippi State College. Frank lived in a totally different flat world than me. He remembers his Mama’s cook, Tama, who later had a granddaughter who got an education, and she came to Mississippi State University to work at a nice office job here. He has told me stories about his childhood and his very best friends were Addie and Mamon. When he got in hot water with his Mama, he would go outside and skip away to eat a bite of their delicious supper. He could smell Addie’s cooking, and he could hear Addie humming and singing a song as he walked faster to her tenant house without plumbing and electricity. Callie pulled Frank out once of a boiling pot of water that they used to wash their clothes in. Callie saved his life. It was quiet and sometimes lonely in the Mississippi delta. The only sounds in the autumn of the year would be the sounds of the ax as it cut the firewood for those cold winter nights ahead. Mamon was the hostler; he took care of the horses and mules. Tama, Addie, Mamon, and Callie were his second family. Frank’s daddy farmed the Wesley Plantatiion and later Four-Fifths Plantation, which was 5,000 acres of land that he planted in cotton and soy beans. Frank had a great growing up life the Delta.
We began to see and recognize scenes in the movie of Equine Plantation in Minter City, our capitol city Jackson, and the old Mayflower Restaurant. The names of Gov. Ross Barnett, Medgar Evers, The Citizen’s Council, The Jackson Journal (which was a spin-off of The Clarion-Ledger). We saw the rich white ladies of the Jackson, Mississippi’s Junior League living in their very well-to-do homes compared to the poor black ladies of our Mississippi Delta living in their little shacks and tenant houses. We heard of “Sugar-Ditch” a couple of times, reminding us of two totally contrasting ways of living life every day. We recognized Shea McRae who use to live in Starkville and whose daddy was once head of the College of Architecture at MSU. Shea was near Elizabeth’s age at Starkville High School playing a small speaking part in “The Help” as one of the boyfriends of one of the young ladies. Elizabeth leaned over and and said, “There’s Shea, Mama.” We think we saw one of Big Frank’s classmates from Greenwood High School dancing in one of the scenes. It was as if we were watching our younger days and a younger time flash up on the big screen. Our past life seem to be passing by right in front of our eyes. We thought the clothes, hair styles, furniture, cars, and everything just fit the 1960’s to a “T.”
“The Help” definitely took us back to our past. Gosh, what a life we lived. What changes have been, and they were made in Mississippi for a better existence for all of us in the deep south. Our Elizabeth can only imagine. We were all born as American citizens. We all deserve opportunities that America offers to each one of us. Our founders said, “We are all created equally.” We had to make these changes in America to make our Mississippi more beautiful and more livable for all her people. I commend those brave Mississippians like Hodding Carter, the editor of the Greenville newspaper who had strong convictions of what was the right thing to do back in the late 1950s-1960s and who took his old Royal typewriter and pecked with his fingers on the key board writing his editorials, saying, “Let’s change Mississippi and do the right things for this state and for America.”
“The Help” ended, and we rubbed our eyes from the darkness of being inside the picture show for about two hours.We wiped away a tear or two off our cheeks, too. Out into the summer sun shiny afternoon light we pushed open the front doors, and we headed outside into the brightness searching for our car. I turned and saw many black and white people leaving the picture show, and suddenly thought, “When I was a little girl, we had an upstairs in the old State and Rex picture shows right here in Starkville where they, the black people, climbed up those stairs into the balcony to sit and watch the Saturday afternoon John Wayne western shows, and we, the white people sat below in the comfortable main floor area. Why? Were we whites folks better than they? No. We were all just American citizens. Why did we have a black waiting room and a white waiting room downtown at Dr. Feddy Eckford’s medical clinic, on now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive? Yet Dr. Feddy had all black nurses. We would rather have Bessie Wynn, a favorite black nurse, give us a shot than Dr. Feddy any day.
When Elizabeth, who is now all grown up with her own family, asked me even before we left her home on South Washington Street, “Mama, why did y’all really have a black bathroom in the old family home?” All I could say to her was, “Elizabeth, it was a different generation and a different time. Your daddy and I tore and took out the tiny bathroom that was used only by the help who cooked, cleaned, and took care of babies and children, and Granny when she became helpless in her old age. We dearly and with all of our hearts loved the help, and they were treated with kindness, tenderness, and most of all, with great love because they were our family members, too. Times have changed for a better Mississippi, and we have made a wrong right here in Mississippi and a much better America. “The Help” was a great title for the book and the movie. I suppose someone greater than both of us who is a very compassionate, God above helped us all make better, more beautiful changes for the greatest country on the face of this earth, The United States of America. Way down south in Mississippi, where the white cotton sways and grows high and tall and catfish jump in muddy little ponds and lakes. The Mississippi River gently rolls along, big oak trees blowin the wind, and people say, “Y’all come over to see us and sit a spell in the ‘ole swing on the big ‘ole wrap-a-round porch.” People are friendly, giving, caring, and so sweet. You know how lovely our sun rises and sun sets are our wide open spaces in our sky.
I am an artist, and Mississippi herself is like much like an artist, too. She, in the late 1950’s and 1960’s and even today gets out her art supplies, squirts lots of colors on her palette, and uses lots of white and black paint tubes as she mixes colors to create a beautiful painting of a world that is made up of many people, places, and things. We should treasure, respect, and most of all, love our unique differences that all of our Mississippians possess. I think of Mississippi as a cotton basket filled with white cotton just picked from those hot Delta fields. Just look at this cotton basket overflowing with fluffy white cotton with its brown/black hand woven wooden basket. It was hand-made by Uncle Jessie on Wesley Plantation in Money, where Frank spent his childhood in the middle of a cotton patch of thousands of acres of pure white cotton. Frank loved Uncle Jessie who lived to be an old man dying on the plantation where he was born a slave. Let your eyes see how beautiful the contrast of white and black compliments each other as I blend these two colors together. It takes the two colors helping each other to make this one painting so stunning.
It’s a simple painting I painted in 1974. See all the various shades of dark and light greens, and the cotton balls are so white and fluffy. Each piece of cotton could be our Mississippi people holding hands, helping each other to still make more changes today in 2011 right where we live in little towns of Money, Minter City, Itta Bena and the big cites of Starkville, Jackson, Hattiesburg, Biloxi, Tupelo, and growing Olive Branch to create an even better state today and tomarrow. I made the main subject of this painting a simple cotton basket overflowing with cotton, representing people who are fat, slim, tall, short, funny, sad, poor, rich, red, yellow, black and white. See the dark dirt around the sides of the basket to pick up the dark brown and black pieces woven into to make this basket so pretty. This cotton basket is sitting in the brown dirt in the dusty, hot cotton fields of Money just waiting to be taken off to the near by cotton gin to later be made into a 100% cotton shirt to be worn until it becomes ragged and old.
Mississippi, you are like an old cotton shirt that has grown old. and I see your threads have been worn down. A few holes are in your sleeves, and your collar is frayed and soiled. You made many changes over these years, and we all got some help along the way. I am so thankful that so many positive things have happened since the late 1950s and 1960s in my Mississippi. On Aug. 13, 2011, whites and blacks could sit together in the picture show where there was no upstairs balcony for blacks to sit, but this time, we all sat together in one downstairs picture show watching a story written by a Mississippian, and filmed in Mississippi too. Today, we help each other every day to be good citizens and much better people. May God let us never forget our past, and may we strive to always mold and make us all have a greater, sweeter, kinder future ahead for all Mississippians and for all Americans. It’s all up to each one of us to make our life the best we can, as we have the opportunity to live on the rich black dirt of this great state. Mississippi, ole’ girl, we love you.
To you, my readers and my viewers on a hot Saturday afternoon in August, in a dark, cool air-conditioned pictures show, my painting, “The Cotton Basket” became my visual gift to share with you as an artist. Thank you, God, for the help.