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Friday, June 17, 2011

No. 47 Annis & Mississippi

Geographically, Harkers Island is part of the South — even the “Deep South.” But to the extent that such applies to race relations, the Harkers Island of my youth was a world apart from the tobacco and cotton crescent that stretched from the tidewater area of Virginia to the piney woods of eastern Texas. Racial stereotypes and attitudes may have been as deeply seated here as in Beaufort, New Bern or Raleigh, but at the Island there was a distinction that was also very much a difference.

It was as simple as it was historical. The economic patterns of the antebellum period kept the Banks communities in general, and Harkers Island in particular, apart from the plantation culture that dominated social relations before and after the Civil War. In short, the absence of those plantations also meant the absence of the Black communities that sprang up in and around them. The demographic patterns that had been established before the war continued, and even hardened in the decades that followed.

In some places, Harkers Island included, there were virtually no black families at all. An exception that all but proved the rule was next door to our house. In the home of Tom Martin Guthrie and his wife Evoline lived an old “colored lady,” Annis Pigott. She had spent her entire life as part of white families and was as much a stranger to the harsher aspects of the racial barriers that prevailed in inland communities as anyone and everyone else on the Island. Annis died an old and “wrinkled” woman  before the time I could remember. It was said that her appearance was more typical of her gender and age than of her race. In fact, according to my mother, she did not know that Annis was “black” until she was one day visited by her brother from “town” whose color revealed both his race and that of his sister.

Annis Pigott with the family of Cleveland Davis
Her death certificate indicates that she was over a hundred years old at the time of her passing in 1952. If true, it means that she would have come of age even before the outbreak of the Civil War, and, just as importantly, lived most of her life during the turbulent times of Reconstruction and Jim Crow segregation. Tracking her on the census data from the late 19th century until she shows up near Hancock Landing in 1950, indicates that her home was always on the Banks or one of the other Core Sound communities. Hopefully, that distinction may have shielded her from the more stereotypical images of what life was like for a domestic black woman of that era.

After Annis died a few months before I was born, the nearest Negro families to Harkers Island were at North River. Except for Saturday trips to “town,” I lived almost my entire life as a child without interacting with anyone of another race or color. The Island that I knew was about as “lily white” as one could ever imagine. In fact, until the troop deployments of World Ward II brought soldiers and sailors from elsewhere who met and married local girls, almost every surname on the Island was either English or Scotch-Irish in origin. Willis, Guthrie, Lewis, Moore, Chadwick, Davis, Gaskill, Hancock, Brooks, Nelson, Rose, Fulcher, Yeomans, Hamilton, Styron, Salter, Russell, Fulford ... all of them thoroughly British or Gaelic.

But when I was about eight years old, and growing into an intense love for baseball – watching it, playing it, reading and talking about it – I came to know the very first black man that I can remember. His name was James Archie, but no one called him that. Rather, he was known to everyone simply as “Mississippi,” the same as the state he called home. (According to Stacy Davis, he was from Hattiesburg, MS and was born around 1936.)

He worked in Henry Davis’ fish house, and lived in a small one room frame office at the foot of the dock that had been built as a market for Henry’s oldest son, Wayne. It was no more than ten feet square and had no facilities other than a cot to sleep on. Mississippi loaded fish into boxes and the boxes onto and off the carts that ran on a short makeshift railways that ran to and from the two docks — one out on the water for loading from boats and the other at the shore for loading onto trucks. He had originally been with a crew that manned a larger fish house at Atlantic. While there he made friends with Wayne who invited him to come work for him and his father. During his time at the Island he ate at the Davis family table and was treated as  a part of their family.

With a large round face, closely cropped hair, and a deep bass voice, he could have been cast as a character in the popular Broadway play of the era, “Showboat.” In fact, it’s not too hard to imagine him entertaining himself while sweating on the docks by belting out a chorus of “Old Man River.” But it was his sinewy physique, from his neck and shoulders down through his arms and chest and all the way to his hips and calves that made him so well suited for his job of lifting boxes of fish, shrimp and clams that weighed well over a hundred pounds. He would jerk them with a hook, or even his bare hands, and hoist them above his head as he stacked them on the cart or into the truck. All the while he was singing, whistling or talking constantly to anyone who could hear him.

Those same strong arms that lifted the fish boxes could do wonders with a 36 inch baseball bat. In what some have called Baseball's Golden Age, and the heyday of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, who were from his neighboring state of Alabama, this man called Mississippi became our very own Negro League All-Star. And with this one we could actually watch him play rather than just reading about him in the Sporting News or hearing about it on the radio.

Fish house work was mostly in the early morning and late evening, when boats came in with their catch. During the day Mississippi usually had time to come with Wayne, or Wayne’s cousin “Corn Cobb,” to the baseball field we had fashioned on some vacant pasture land behind the home of Johnnie Willis. It was the property of a retired Methodist preacher, “Mr. Johnson.” (Because cattle once grazed there, after the 1964 Republican National Convention held in San Francisco's “Cow Palace,” some of us started calling our field “Johnson’s Cow Palace.” We even posted a hand made sign to that effect.) No matter where we were in our games, when word arrived that Mississippi was on his way, the excitement was palpable and we quickly reconfigured our teams to make sure he had a place.

Our field had been fashioned to dimensions meant for lanky young boys who were still filling out their bodies. Those distances proved woefully inadequate when Mississippi came to the plate. He would hit the ball so hard that infielders always moved back several steps to protect themselves for those few occasions when he hit anything other than towering fly balls that had to be retrieved from deep in the pines and yaupon bushes that were our fences. Since we had only one ball, and it was usually taped and dirty, searching for and finding it in the green thickets of early summer was not always easy. But that distraction was well worth the trouble because of the excitement of watching this enormous “colored man” hit the ball farther than anyone we had ever seen.

Just as when he was working on the dock, he was as jovial and happy as anyone you could ever imagine. He laughed just as loud and hard as he played and worked. Unlike Annis, given his age and background, he must have known firsthand the sting of the racial prejudices that were the norm of that era. But he never let on even the faintest sensitivity that he was in any way different or apart from the rest of us, either at the fish house or on the ball field. Perhaps it was for that very reason that we came to feel the same way – that he was just another bigger and stronger one of us. After an initial consciousness of his distinctive color, at least in regards to everyone else in our finite group, that difference inevitably gave way to an appreciation of his person and of his character and talents. After a while he went from being Mississippi the colored man, to Mississippi the hard worker, the ball player, and the friend.

I’m glad I had that lesson as early and as profoundly as I did. I think it made me a better person then, and especially in those later years after integration when I would come to sit with, play beside, be taught by, work together, and be friends with black men and women in every aspect of my life. The lessons I had first learned at Henry’s Dock and at Johnson’s Cow Palace have served me well and often.

1 comment:

  1. Joel,
    Thanks so much for sharing this story. I have heard Daddy speak of Mississippi on several occasions. This story sheds another light on my understanding of him and what the Island was like during my parents' youth. Even though I have said it in jest in the past, I guess it is true that Harkers Island wouldn't be the same without Wayne Davis! :) Love you and your works.
    Thanks, again!