I wasn’t totally sure if I was doing the right thing. If I was caught, then I was sure going to be in a hell of a lot of trouble. But I was also sure that I was doing what was right for the people of my town, and that was what mattered.
I picked my way south on tiptoes, keeping to dark alleyways and deserted side-streets, my heart in my mouth. I was determined not to be seen by anybody who might report this back to my father. What I was doing was dangerous, but I was willing to take the risk if it meant trying to help make things better for the black families that lived in not just Alabama, but the entire south of the United States – and the North, too. It was risky, it was probably stupid, and if I was caught trying to help the blacks then I was surely going to be condemned. But it was something very close to my heart, and I also knew that Mae Turner would help me.
It was to her house I was now making my way, avoiding the main streets and ducking out of sight of any passing cars on the road. I was going to meet her and few like-minded people at her house, to talk about what we would do to save the town from falling into prejudices too strong to break out of. I was nervous, I was scared, but I knew I had to try otherwise it would be on my conscience for the rest of my life.
My breath coming in gasps, I finally reached the run-down estate where Mrs. Turner, her two sons and daughter lived. I felt rage boil in my veins as I picked my way down the litter-filled street, eyeing the blocks of apartments so dilapidated that they didn’t look fit to live in. All the trash dumpsters were overflowing. I noticed that there were no cars parked here – yet another privilege this unfortunate group of people had been stripped of so cruelly. I also picked up on the fact that in every window, the blinds were drawn tightly. There were no lights on.
And then car headlamps swept the entrance to the estate, and my heart galloped a mile in my chest. My palms were slick with sweat and my blood froze. The glare of the headlamps rested for a split second on the tall, grey buildings on either side of me, before turning and the car drove off in the opposite direction. I let out the breath I wasn’t consciously aware I’d been holding. I was safe – for now.
I knew the flats by sight, though I wasn’t sure straight away in which block Mrs. Turner lived. Painfully aware of the pressing darkness, the empty, deserted alley, I crept along the dirty cobbles to the first block. The front porch was grey and the paint on the front door was peeling. Tacked onto one side of the porch was a grubby piece of paper with the names of the residents written on it, and their apartment numbers. I scrutinised it in the darkness – and found what I was looking for quickly enough. M. Turner: 306. I tried as best I could to steady my nerves. And then I reached for the dirty brass doorknob and pushed the peeling front door open.
And immediately recoiled in fury. If I had thought that the outside alley was bad enough, the inside was worse, much worse. It was freezing cold; no oil for heating here. The only light was a single bulb hanging from the ceiling by a thin wire. The stairs were littered with trash and smelled strongly of damp. The carpet on the stairs was thin and worn and faded. The walls were painted a dreary gray. My breath misting in front of me, I began to climb the splintered staircase up to apartment numbers 299-309. I was worried about what I might find once I reached Mae Turner’s apartment. If the squalor I saw on the streets, the dirty looks they were given by the white people, the racist name-calling were anything to go on, I wasn’t sure what to expect here, in a slum-like apartment where Mrs. Turner and her family were forced to live.
The spindly staircase twisted sharply upwards, the gaps between the different floors abnormally wide. More work for the blacks, probably. By the time I had reached Mrs. Turner’s floor, I was seething, my teeth gnashing together with the effort of not screaming in injustice. How could my race, the people I knew so well, do this to these families, these people? How could anyone be so prejudiced, stoop so low as to attack, oppress, and even kill (I swallowed hard) a group of people based on the colour of their skin?
I treaded the narrow twisting corridor, painfully aware of my footsteps against the creaking wooden floorboards. Here and there, iron nails protruded from the slats, and I tried hard to avoid stepping on them. I shuddered to think how many children might have caught their hands and feet on those nails, coming and going from this apartment block every day. Mrs. Turner’s apartment was near the end of the corridor, a green-painted door with a grubby brass 306 nailed to it. There was no peephole or letterbox, only a tiny keyhole. I couldn’t hear anything from the inside, so I breathed deeply and raised my fist to knock three times on the door.
It didn’t take long for the door to be opened. I was on the doorstep for half a minute before I heard the distinct clatter of many chains and the door swung squeakily open. Mrs. Turner appeared in the low doorway, her round frame filling most of the space. Tears were dried on her wrinkled cheeks and she was wearing an apron dusted with flour. She had a cloth rag in one hand.
“Oh, Lydia, darlin’, you came. Come inside, quickly, don’t wan’ta be seen now, do we? Come in, come in, they’re all waitin’ to meet you” Mrs. Turner ushered me in hurriedly, and closed the door with a snap behind me.
The apartment was a tiny, one-room area. In the space where a couch might have been, there were two sagging mattresses with blankets haphazardly piled on top. A small, scrubbed table sat to the right of the mattresses and behind them, the cramped kitchen counter curved around most of the room. There was no washing machine, no vacuum cleaner, no hairdryer. The metal sink didn’t have taps; a bucket of water stood next to it, full to the brim. A tiny stove with only two rings and an equally small oven sat at the end of the kitchen counter. The rest of the space was taken up by a tin bathtub – again with no taps – and a small refrigerator which was humming loudly in the corner.
“It sure ain’t what you got at home” Mrs. Turner said sadly. “But it’s all we got, I’m afraid. I’ll just give the boys a shout, and then you can come and meet ‘em”. Mrs. Turner disappeared around a corner. She had evidently been baking; there were bags of flour on the counter and a baking tray in the tiny oven. I hadn’t noticed until then, but the whole place smelled of fresh scones.
I scanned the room, not daring to take in too much of the place. There was hardly room for two people in here, let alone a family of five. It was then that I noticed a row of photographs sitting atop a single shelf on the wall; no wallpaper, just bare brick painted the same gray as the hallways.
I picked my way across the floor to inspect them. They showed the Turner family; Mae with Dennis and his two brothers, laughing whilst a small girl played hopscotch; Mae and whom I supposed was her husband; one of the whole family together, but the husband wasn’t in this one; and finally, the middle photograph, and the biggest, was a photograph of Dennis on his own. It could have barely been taken within the last year. All the photographs were in black and white. I wondered how they had been taken, as the Turners clearly did not have much savings.
“This is Lydia, Lydia Marchfield, boys. She sympathises dearly with our situation and wants to help us fight back. Ain’t that right, honey?” Mrs. Turner had returned. I put the photograph of Dennis back on the shelf and turned back to face her.
“Yes. I want to help you get a better life, to change things....change the way they treat you and everyone else like you” I replied.
The two boys stood on either side of their mother. They were obviously older than me and their deceased brother; they were built and stocky, but quite tall at the same time. One – the younger, I think – had tightly curly black hair and dressed in a shirt and trousers that looked as though they had been on his back for more than a few days. The other boy had hair shaved very short, so short he was almost bald, and had a chip in his tooth that showed when he smiled at me.
“You sure are brave, then” the older brother chortled. “It’s good of you to take an interest in us, you white people normally don’t.”
There was a slightly awkward pause, and I had the funny, rather unsettling feeling that this brother had not warmed up to me yet. I felt that he was sceptical. I couldn’t blame him; being a young, white girl - whose father fronted a vicious and murderous group of extremists - in a young, black man’s house – if it could be called a house – was practically a felony according to the Law of the state.
“I’m Terrence, but everyone calls me Terry” The younger brother extended a lean, brown hand towards me. Despite my nervousness, the fear of getting caught, the fear of being found out for who I was, I took his hand and shook it.
If my racist and brutal father could see me now! But I didn’t care. If it meant helping the black race fight for a better way of life, then I would take the risk for what was right. To hell with the Ku Klux Klan, if that’s what it would come to. They had no pride in being so prejudiced.
“It’s very nice to meet you” I said shyly. The younger brother smiled.
“We don’t get you people coming here ever’day, so when Ma came home and told us – that, you know, you cared about the kind of life we live from day to God awful day, and that she ‘eard you prayin’ for us....well, it gave me some’in to be happy about, ain’t it?” He turned to his brother, whose dark eyes were fixed on my face.
“It sure did” Mrs. Turner agreed quietly, and she dabbed at her eyes with the cloth rag she still held in her hand. I suddenly felt a rush of compassion for Mrs. Turner and her family. It was at that moment that I also realised that there was someone missing.
“Excuse me, but where’s your daughter?” I asked. Mrs. Turner’s shaky smile faded from her face.
“She is at a friend’s house” the older brother – I still didn’t know his name – said in a hard voice. For some reason, I wasn’t sure I could believe him.
“Look sugar, it’s gettin’ late and your papa sure won’t want you seen around here with us, so I think it’s best you get on home” Mrs. Turner suggested kindly. “Maybe we can talk another time, when things ain’t so risky”.
My heart sank. My disappointment – and worry - must have shown on my face, because Mrs. Turner then softened her expression.
“Don’t think we don’t appreciate what you’re tryin’ to do for us, Lydia, ‘cause we sure do. But times are hard, and I’d hate to think of you gettin’ into trouble for our sakes” she explained, patting my hand with hers.
And all my previous anger and injustice and horror welled up inside me, and I silently vowed to come back to see the family – and try, in the meantime, to think of something, anything that would help me to help them. What my father – indeed, what the whole town – was doing was disgusting and wrong and if it meant getting into trouble, then I had to do something to help. It was what I believed in. Hadn’t mom always told me to fight for what I believed in?
“I’ll come back, Mrs. Turner” I reassured her. “I hate what they’re doing to you, it’s not fair and it’s not right. You can be sure of having my full support” I nervously brushed down my skirt with my palms.
“You should get goin’, you don’t wanna be seen” Terry ushered, nodding towards the door. “It was nice meetin’ you, though” he added with a smile.
“You too” I replied.
I allowed myself to be lead out of the door, which was quickly shut behind me. I was left standing outside in the bare hallway. My mind strayed back to the photographs on Mae Turner’s shelf. The family, under strain from segregation and discrimination, a family who had lost one member forever. As I treaded back along the creaking floorboards and down the poorly lit, litter-strewn staircase, I found myself wondering how many more families had been hurt and ruined by the majority of people who thought that they were ‘clearing the population of tumours’ by driving out the black community.
A big clock in the main hallway that I hadn’t noticed before showed that it was nearly 11pm. I had to get back before anyone noticed I had ever been gone – a feat that looked suddenly frightening this side of my late-night excursion. As quietly as I could, I pulled the front door open and stepped out into the mild night. The stars were twinkling in the inky sky, but the moon was concealed behind the tall grey apartment blocks, appearing deepest black in the night. I pulled my jacket tighter around me and set off at a quick pace, avoiding the trash on the floor and stumbling slightly on the rough stone floor of the alleyway. It wasn’t really cold – Southern autumns were never cold – but it was below mild. I would have to be quick and quiet if I was to get home before someone caught me red-handed.
As usual, I kept to the side streets and avoided car headlamps. It was not proper behaviour for a young woman to be out on her own after dark – not without a chaperone – so I was risking a lot being out on my own tonight. If my father caught me, I could not imagine how much trouble I would be in. I would be put under house arrest until I graduated high school and my mom would have to supervise me in everything I did just to make sure I never left the house again.
I thought about the Turners, and how hard their life must be. I heard the catcalls, the racist insults, and the name calling on the street. I saw the ‘No Colored Persons Allowed’ signs in store windows, the marches in the streets, my father amongst them, holding large banners in the blue, red and white of the American flag with discriminating slogans on them in huge letters. I saw the way the people in town avoided the coloured people in the streets, walking on the opposite sidewalk if one of them happened to pass, hastily pulling their children away from their vicinity, turning pushchairs in the opposite direction. And I remembered the apartment, the tiny living space with barely room for two people let alone five – four, I reminded myself, because Dennis was no longer alive – with only space for two mattresses, a tiny counter and bathtub. No more.
I reached my street after twenty minutes of walking, but as I turned the corner I froze where I stood. The downstairs lights of the house were on and the drapes were open. Could my parents possibly know....? But surely not! I couldn’t think how they could have found out I was gone, because it was highly unlikely that they had checked on me in my room. They never do that – so why did they pick this night to do so? How could they pick tonight of all nights to check on me in my room after I had gone to bed?
I forced my foot to take another step forward. I was unable to believe that my parents had decided to snoop around the very night I had sneaked out alone!
I had barely gone a few paces when someone gripped my arm roughly.
I tried to twist away, but the hand holding me tightened and pulled me back. My heart raced ahead as my breath caught in my throat. Then I was spun round carelessly.
And I came face to pale white face with my furious, enraged father. His eyes were livid, past reason. His face was red with anger, his usually sleek dark hair askew. The parts of his face that weren’t red were a very pale, alabaster white.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing out alone, young lady?” he growled. “Who were you seeing?”
I froze, unable to move. What could I say that would sound believable – and what would be the right thing to say?
“Who were you with?” Dad demanded, shaking my arm roughly.
“I was....out” I stammered nervously, my palms sweating the way they always did when I was frightened.
Yes, I was frightened of my father. Fifteen years old and frightened of my father, the racist, the abuser. I had every right to be afraid.
“Out where?” Dad snarled, his face now inches from mine. And then, to my horror, I saw realisation cross his white face. His eyes bulged huge in their sockets, and his mouth twisted into an enraged grimace.
He knew I’d been amongst the Negros tonight, talked with them – socialised with them, if that’s what you would call it.
“You...were with......them!” he spluttered furiously, his fingers pinching my upper arm in a vice grip. “You were with them, those stinking, good for nothing Negros, weren’t you? Weren’t you?” he thundered. “Weren’t you?”
The sidewalk was flooded with light, and I realised that the neighbours had heard the commotion and pulled back their drapes. I could imagine them peering out of their upper windows, and the thought made me embarrassed and angry.
“Lydia, answer me! Were you with those common filth or not?” Dad yelled, yanking my arm so hard I fell forward on the concrete. He didn’t bother steadying me as I tripped. Terror and fury clouded my vision. I had no choice but to tell him the truth.
“Yes” I whispered hoarsely. My lips barely moved, but my father was quick to read them.
Then, so suddenly, he let go of my arm. His face was unreadable – no expression. It seemed almost as if the anger had faded. He closed his eyes and passed a hand over his face. My heart was galloping in my chest so hard that it physically hurt.
My father stepped back from me, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. I was too afraid of what might happen. My father was a brutal murderer – I had seen that for myself. I had just crossed the line. I didn’t know what he was going to do.
I had barely registered what was happening when something flat and solid collided with the side of my head and knocked me down onto the sidewalk. My head crashed against the wall behind me and I crumpled, winded, to floor. My eyes were swimming from the pain in my head and my breath was coming in great, shocked gasps. I had enough strength left to look above me, and saw my father, his face twisted with rage, towering over me. His hand was raised, palm down. That was what had hit me. I gingerly pressed my fingers to the tender spot on my head and withdrew it to find that, luckily, I wasn’t bleeding.
I was in shock. My own father had hit me. It was unheard of! It was expected for fathers to be strict, yes – but this! I could scarcely believe it, even with the watering eyes and the pain in my head and my shocked breaths.
Then my father was gripping my arm again, yanking me up off the cold concrete sidewalk, and dragging me back towards the house.
“How dare you disobey me? How dare you lower yourself to the company of such filth, fraternising with the lowest denominators of society! My own daughter, mixing with Negros, the shame of it!” He fumed, wrenching open the front door and shoving me roughly over the threshold.
“You’ve got some nerve, young lady” he spat, picking me up and pushing me up the stairs. “Mixing with people like that, the nerve of you, my own daughter with such scum....you best hope none of the others hear about this....” He carried on, keeping a firm grip on my upper arm as he went. I was forced along the hallway and my father kicked open my bedroom door.
“Get in here. Don’t come out until I tell you to. You’re under house arrest for the next month, do you understand? That’ll teach you to fraternise with scum, Lydia. You are only allowed out for meals and to use the bathroom, and you are to no extent allowed out of this house. Goodnight” And he clicked off the bedroom light and slammed the door.
I was left slumped against the bed in the darkness, shocked and furious and above all, terrified. All I had wanted was a chance to show the black community that they were not entirely alone in this horrifying oppression and struggle for white supremacy. Doing so had left me with nothing. I didn’t know what else I could try, as my only attempt had ended so badly. I wouldn’t be able to contact Mae Turner again. I wouldn’t even be able to reach their street again.
I know that it’s weak to give up after a bad first attempt, but what else could I do? I had tried to help, but ended up making things worse- for myself and for the Turner family.