TOO PROUD TO BEND: Journey of a Civil Rights Foot Soldier
Most people have heard of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on the bus, and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. inspire the masses with his declaration of “I have a dream.” But pivotal as those moments were, they could not begin to reflect the horror of life in the segregated south for black Americans. They fail to capture the hostility, the intimidation, the ever-present dangers felt by so many during the 1950s and ’60s; these same struggles led a group of brave individuals to fight for racial equality in the United States in the upcoming years.
One such civil rights soldier was Nell Braxton Gibson, the eldest daughter of a pair of African-American educators in the Jim Crow-era south. In Too Proud to Bend, Gibson provides a valuable glimpse into her life as a young black girl during this tumultuous era in history—and the pain, disappointment, and loss that paved the way to the dawning of the civil rights movement. Part candid memoir and part informative account, Too Proud to Bend strikes a balance of captivating storytelling and historical accuracy that will appeal to fans of Maya Angelou and Anne Moody alike.
Too Proud to Bend: Journey of a Civil Rights Foot Soldier
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Chapter 1: Heaven Help Us All
Veiled in a mist of fog and confusion, I hold tightly to my mother’s hand as we make our way along the crowded street. My father walks ahead of us in the dark, carrying suitcases. We move past Negro homes where people are throwing buckets of water on flames leaping from the roofs of houses. People are screaming, crying, and using garden hoses on patches of burning grass. Despite my mother’s calm, I sense fear. Babies are crying, and women are sobbing softly, so I can tell this night is unusual. Families beside us have loaded what they could salvage onto flatbed trucks and the tops of cars: sofas, chairs, radios, mattresses, suitcases, lamps, and fans are all tied down with rope and cord. Older people and women with babies ride inside the truck cabs as the exodus of Negroes surges forward. Streetlights cast shadows on the road. When we approach the outskirts of town, my father spots a large black sedan idling in the distance, and the three of us go to it. He climbs into the front seat. Mother and I step onto the running board and settle down in the back. The windows are rolled up, making the air inside steamy and difficult to breathe.
I wake and sit upright in bed, drenched in perspiration, close to tears. The motion startles my husband, Bert, who wakes up to see what the matter is.
“It’s my nightmare,” I tell him.
“The nightmare I’ve had ever since I was a little girl, the one where Mother, Daddy, and I are escaping the city in a mass exodus of Black people. It’s like a premonition of something bad that’s going to happen.”
“Something that’s going to happen, or something that’s already happened?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I used to think it happened, but when I asked Rosemary (my sister) if she remembered it, she said no.”
“Come here,” Bert says, taking me in his arms and holding me until I fall asleep again.
It is the spring of 1978. I am a wife and mother in my midthirties, and I’ve been troubled by this dream for as long as I can remember, a dream that always leaves me anxious.
During the summer of that same year, my parents come to New York from California for a visit. Prodded by Bert’s suggestion, I wonder if the dream I’ve had all my life is really a memory of some event from long ago. So when Mother and I are alone in the kitchen preparing dinner, I describe the dream to her and ask her if anything like that ever happened to us. Self-consciously and a bit sheepishly I add, “Rosemary says she doesn’t remember it.”
Mother is so astonished by my question that she stops helping with dinner and stares at me with her mouth open. “Of course she doesn’t remember,” Mom finally says. “She wasn’t born yet. You were only fourteen months old! What you are describing is the Beaumont race riot.”
I turn off the stove, get out my tape recorder, go into the living room where Dad and Bert are reading newspapers and discussing sports, and ask my father and mother to tell me everything they remember about that long-ago night. Dad puts down his paper, gets up from the chair he is sitting in, and joins Mother and me at the dining-room table. Bert puts his paper down too and comes to sit and listen.
It was summer. The month was June, and my mother, father, and I were boarding with Mr. and Mrs. Matthews, because Mother and Dad had not found a home of their own yet. Mother read me a bedtime story, while flashes of flames from nearby oil rigs created reflections against the windowpanes. When my bedtime story was over, Mother turned off the lights so she could open the doors and windows and let air blow through the screens to keep the house cool. No one had air-conditioning back then. After putting me to bed, she sat alone, waiting for Daddy to come home from his office at the Negro branch of the YMCA on Neches Street in Beaumont where he was the boys’ work secretary.
Meanwhile Daddy sat alone in his office, waiting until it was time to lock up and go home. It was strange, he thought, the building being so unusually quiet. It had been quiet like that on the previous night, too, and that was odd because the Y was the place where men went to talk, shoot pool, and play cards and table tennis. There wasn’t much else for Negroes to do in segregated Beaumont, Texas. Following a long wait, Dad decided the evening would probably end as it had the night before, without a single person stopping by. So he locked the windows and doors, left a few lights burning for safety, and headed out toward the nearest bus stop. He was almost there when he saw a bus coming, so he started running toward it, waving his arms for the driver to stop, but the driver never even slowed down. Agitated, my father headed to another bus stop and boarded it when that bus came to a halt. Settling into a seat, he noticed that there was only one other passenger. That too was odd, because city buses were usually full of people riding home from work or places like the YMCA at that time of night.
When the bus reached our neighborhood, my father got off to walk the last blocks to our house. That’s when an elderly Negro woman called out from a rocking chair on her front porch, “Hey, mister, what’s all the screaming and yelling about?”
For the first time, Dad became aware of noise in the distance. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it’s a fire.”
Without giving it much more thought, he continued walking home. Mother greeted him at the front door. The two of them laughed when Dad told her about the old woman on her porch who inquired about the noise.
“Some people are so nosy,” he said. “They want to know what’s going on blocks away from where they live.”
Not long after that they retired for the night.
The following morning, when Daddy started out to work, a Texas Ranger stopped him.
“Where you goin’?” the ranger demanded.
“I’m going to work,” Dad told him.
“You ain’t goin’ nowhere. Beaumont’s under martial law. You go on back home. Ain’t nobody goin’ to work today.”
By the time Dad returned home, Mother was on the telephone with Wendell Douglas, the executive secretary of the YMCA where my father worked. Mr. Douglas had called to say that an hour after Daddy left the Y, a gang of whites marched up Neches Street yelling racial obscenities and firing bullets into the YMCA building. They had shot out all the lights and left bullet holes in the wall behind the desk where my father had been seated. The first bus that passed by Dad the night before had been commandeered by angry whites, who pulled every Negro off and beat them. Every Negro, that is, except for Dr. Charlton, a physician who was so fair-skinned, the thugs mistook him for white. Mr. Douglas told Mother he and his family were leaving town, and they weren’t planning to return until the rioting blew over. He had called because he knew Mother and Dad had one young baby and another on the way and he wanted to offer them safe passage out of the city.
Listening to my parents relive the events of that 1943 June night, I suddenly become aware of the fact that the “mist” in my dream was smoke rising from the homes of Negro families—homes that had been torched by rioters. And hearing of the bullet holes behind my father’s desk, I shudder to think of how close I came to losing him that night. Had he not left the office early, bullets that ended up in the wall behind his desk might well have killed him.
Bringing myself back to the story unfolding in my dining room, I learn that after we entered the Douglases’ car, it joined a long procession of vehicles leaving the city. Mother and I sat on the backseat with Mr. Douglas’s wife, Bill, and their toddler, Wendell Joseph. Dad and Mr. Douglas rode up front as the adults tried to piece together what had happened.
“His wife, Bill?” I interrupt.
“Yes, her name was Bill,” my parents confirm. As they do, I realize I have southern girlfriends named Charles, Harold, Sammy Lee, and Spencer. In that light, the name Bill seems less strange. Bill, they continue, was the most frightened of anyone in the car. As a child, she had survived the notorious June 1, 1921, race riot in Greenwood, Oklahoma, and the experience had left her desperate to get out of Beaumont with their young son, lest that riot have a similar effect on him.
Greenwood, known in 1921 as the Negro Wall Street, was completely leveled in less than twelve hours, leaving some three thousand Negroes dead, and over six hundred homes and successful businesses lost. The town sat across the railroad tracks from Tulsa and was one of the most affluent all-Negro communities in the United States. It had twenty-one churches, twenty-one restaurants, thirty grocery stores, a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, and two movie theaters. The entire state of Oklahoma had only two airports, but a reported six Greenwood Negroes owned their own planes. Twenty-two years after the destruction of that city, the memory of the race riot that took place there still haunted Bill Douglas as our two families escaped Beaumont.
Beaumont, Texas, was the city to which my parents had moved two years after they were married, so my father could accept a better-paying job than the one he’d left behind in Georgia. But the city in which they had placed their hopes exploded the night a white woman claimed she was raped by a Negro shipyard worker. Based on her accusation, the police rounded up Negro men at random and threw them into jail. Later, under FBI interrogation, the woman admitted to having lied, but her initial claim had caused a Negro worker at an all-night ice stand to be shot and killed by whites in a passing car and had led to mass disorder throughout the city.
Under further investigation the underlying cause of the violence was revealed to have stemmed from the hiring of Negro shipyard workers who performed technical skills that commanded good pay, while white workers, lacking those skills, were relegated to lower-paying jobs. Their anger over the hiring of Negroes for the better jobs boiled over when rumor of the “rape” of a white woman spread through the city.
I learn later that Beaumont wasn’t the only city that experienced a race riot during the summer of 1943. Negro-white relations were shaky all across the country where tension and fear gave way to distrust between the races. The new status among Negroes, based on their having been trained in government service jobs, had grown from sixty thousand to three hundred thousand hires between 1940 and 1944, and that had caused deep resentment among whites in the South as well as the North. Among the riots that took place that summer were an outbreak in Harlem and two in Detroit, the worst of which occurred in June.
Leaving Beaumont that hot June night, we headed for Houston, eighty-four miles to the west. The Douglases planned to stay with relatives there. Mother attempted to locate the mother of a Spelman College classmate of hers who she hoped would take us in, since Negroes were not allowed entrance into hotels except as maids or cooks. Jim Crow laws forced us to rely on relatives and friends when we traveled and sometimes to even impose on Negro strangers. It would remain that way for the next twenty-one years.
After our arrival in Houston and welcome into her home by my mother’s classmate’s mother, Dad kept in touch with friends in Beaumont who let him know when it was safe to return. Weeks later we went back and moved into a new place on Threadneedle Street in the Pear Orchard section of Beaumont, one of the few Negro neighborhoods that had escaped the riot. For many Negroes who returned, the city would never again be the same. It had once held a promise of dreams fulfilled for those who flocked to her gates during World War II, but after the riot a large number of Negroes from Texas in general, and Beaumont in particular, moved to the West Coast seeking employment in the shipyards there, where they again hoped for lives better than the ones they had left behind.
My recurring dream of our escape from Beaumont ceased as soon as I learned the origin of it, but I believe that that early memory was the launching pad from which my lifelong commitment to justice began.
NELL BRAXTON GIBSON (c)2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED