Son Ham’s Hat
By Connie Curry
Vol. 14, No. 2, 1992, pp. 15-17
I first met Matthew and Mae Bertha Carter in January 1966. I was Southern Field Representative for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker service organization. My job was to investigate the reports of intimidation and reprisals against black families who were attempting to desegregate the schools under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In order to comply with federal guidelines, many Southern school districts instituted “Freedom of Choice” plans which provided that all parents could send their children to the school of their choice. The white opposition assumed that black families would not dare choose to send their children to an all-white school.
In fact the Drew Municipal School System was so sure of its control of the situation that they opened up all twelve grades to freedom of choice, while many neighboring systems began with only one or two grades, adding one each year. Drew was and is a tiny cotton town in the middle of Sunflower County, in the middle of the Mississippi Delta. The Carter family sharecropped twenty-five acres on the Pemble Plantation nine miles out from Drew, but their choice of schools fell under the Drew plan. On August 11, 1965, Mae Bertha and Matthew were the first black parents to enroll their seven school-age children in the previously all-white schools in Drew.
In 1990, I decided to record the story of this “choice” which so dramatically changed the Carters’ lives. Often on my research trips Mae Bertha and I would get in the car and ride around Sunflower County. On one of our drives,
we passed by land that once had been the Birch Plantation. Mae Bertha’s mother, Luvenia Slaughter, had lived here until she married in 1919. “Right over there,” said Mae Bertha pointing to a collapsing barn, “is where they shot down my uncle. Right in that field. A mob crew shot him down like a rabbit. I was ’bout seven years old but my momma says that when they shot him, it blew the hat right off his head. No one would even go pick up poor old Son Ham’s hat. The people were too afraid. That hat it just blew and blew across the fields.” Mae Bertha’s story of her uncle, Son Ham, is one of many such stories one hears in the Delta, undocumented, anonymous except for those who witnessed the tragedy or grieved for the lost loved one.
On another day, another car ride, near a place called “Hitchin’ Hill” on the outskirts of Drew, Mae Bertha pointed to collapsing barn. “You know that’s where they actually murdered that Emmett Till boy. It belonged to a cousin of one of those white people who killed him.” Emmett Till was the fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The all-white, all-male jury took one hour and seven minutes to acquit the two white men accused of the crime. ‘They put him in the truck,” Mae Bertha said, “and then they put him in the Tallahatchie River. Some black peoples near Hitchin’ Hill heard him holler, but they all left a long time ago.”
Unlike Son Ham’s story, Emmett Till’s story was widely reported. The written accounts and graphic photographs of his mangled body shocked and outraged the nation and galvanized the burgeoning civil rights movement. The story sank deep into the psyches of young black and white people who were themselves fourteen at the time. Nine years later during Freedom Summer many of them would come to the Delta and do work that changed the social order forever.
Emmett Till’s story also affected the Carter family in a manner completely unforeseeable at the time. Naomi, third child and third Carter daughter, was twelve at the time of the murder.
She vividly remembers hearing about it and hiding in the house with her brothers and sisters when it got dark and their parents weren’t home yet. The impact of the fear, the closeness of her age to that of Emmett Till and the rumors that the killing had taken place so close to their plantation made her realize for the first time what racism could really mean.
She feels sure that the realization became a lasting impetus for her own later involvement in the Civil Rights movement; she returned to Sunflower County in 1965 to
march, sit-in and go to jail in Jackson. She became a constant source of support and encouragement for her parents and the younger children in their choice to attend the white schools.
On an earlier trip to Mississippi, I had driven with my sister Ann, her two-year-old son Walker, and my friend and neighbor from Atlanta, Lisa Rogers, to a few miles north of Greenwood to look at the well-preserved remains of an old plantation house.
We were lost and in need of directions. The road was flanked by cotton fields as far as the eye could see, but in the midst of these cotton fields was what appeared to be the remains of a derelict town. We stopped, Ann and Lisa got out to photograph some old stores. Ann went inside a filling station, which seemed to show signs of life, to ask for directions. When she returned to the car, she mentioned that the old man behind the counter had eyed her with suspicion and hostility.
I had not paid much attention to our whereabouts up until then. However, as we turned back towards Greenwood, I looked back and saw by an old road sign that we had been in Money, Mississippi. Money, as it stands today, consists of an abandoned cotton gin, a post office trailer, a filling station and two old stores, both vacant with peeling paint and faded signs. Across the railroad tracks are a few ramshackle houses. I realized that Ann and Lisa had been poking around with their cameras at the very store where the events leading up to Emmett Till’s murder had taken place.
Even before our visit to Money, another moment brought Emmett Till to mind. It was November 5, 1989, and I was in Montgomery, Alabama, attending the dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial in Montgomery consists of a curved black granite wall and a large circular black granite table inscribed with the names of forty who died during the struggle for civil rights. A constant stream of water from the center of the table flows evenly over the names. The wall behind reads, in a Martin Luther King Jr. quotation from the prophet Amos.
We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
On the morning of the dedication, before thousands of people thronged to the ceremony, Julian Bond, his brother James, his mother Julia and I had gone early to see the memorial. As we sat on a nearby wall in the early autumn sunlight, we saw Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother. Slowly she traced her son’s name on the table, and as her finger formed the letters engraved there, her tears mixed with the flowing waters of the black granite and spilled into the pool below.
I have been back to Money once since my first visit. I had wanted to return with full knowledge of where I was. Lisa accompanied me, and we had brought along a friend of hers, Walker Sims from nearby Sumner. The trial of the two men accused of Emmett Till’s murder had taken place in the courthouse in Sumner. It had been raining for seven days. The road to Money runs north right between the Yalobusha and Tallahatchie rivers. Both had overflowed their banks and swallowed up the cotton fields. The brown water came up to the narrow country roads and, right or left, it looked as if houses and trees were sitting in the midst of lakes.
Marooned cats and dogs sat on the porches of homes that residents had abandoned for higher ground. It was the bleakest and coldest of days and a strong wind whipped waves across the flood. We felt the strangeness of being surrounded by waters that extended to the horizon, and the fear of being stranded. Two pickup trucks stopped to watch us until we moved on. I sensed, as I often would on these trips, a place that did not want to be reminded of its past.
After fifteen years as director of the Office of Human Services for the City of Atlanta, Connie Curry is working on a book about the Carter family, “Silver Rights: One Family’s Struggle for Justice in America.” Another segment of her research for the book appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1991.