June 21, 2006

My First Lynching

By Craig Cunningham © 2006

I was doing a girl named Sherry when I saw my first lynching.

It was 1953 in Morrisville, Mississippi, and I was 26. I been back from Chicago for about four months. I was a woodsmith, or so I liked to think I was. The men in our family had all worked with wood, all the way back to slave times. Folks would come from miles around for our chester drawers and chiffarobes. I hadn't learned as much as I should have, what with my daddy going off to the war and never coming back. My momma and I raised my four sisters, but my skills just were never up to what we'd been known for. So I became just another colored hand, just a little more skilled than most.

In Chicago I mainly did roofing jobs in the colored part of town, up and down Lake Street. I made it through three winters there and figured I was making a fine life for myself. I had a roof over my head, a wool wrap and matching suit, a pair of crocodile boots I'd won in a card game, and always enough money in my pocket for weekends. Attended Providence Baptist every Sunday. I was peculiar for the time as I didn't drink or women all my paycheck away. Guess that's what scraping for my sisters taught me, which put me ahead of most.

I came back to Morrisville in April after Momma wrenched her knee. Momma was a cook for Mr. Benjamin Rubenstein's house. I'd known the Stein boys since I was eight. Sammy was a year behind me. You'd have thought he was the runt of the litter as he was always smaller than most, bespectacled, always had his nose in a book. He was never good in any sports, always short of breath. Now Eli. Eli was something different. He had a fire that burned white hot, like he was ready to shoe twenty stallions.

He was Nellie's age. My sister Nellie was born in 1930, which always made it easy for me to figure her age. Mr Ben and Miss Ruth were strange folks. They always let Nellie and me play with the boys back of the old canning shed. Ben would teach me to read and study, how to figure things good. I was always trying to help Sammy hit a ball or catch, something to keep him from just being a bookworm knucklehead. Nellie and Eli were always making up stories. They'd act out from books like Huck Finn or Moses or they'd just make up their own. Some would make me bust out laughing, once I peed on myself from it. They had this one where they were two mules whose tails were tied together. Well, I can't remember much of it, but it was a sight to see.

The house had fallen apart when I came back. There was two leaks in the kitchen and the floor in the parlor was warped. Nellie still lived there as the oldest girl, Boo was 16 and about to get married, Harriet was 13, and little Joline was 11. Joline came nine months after my Daddy shipped off for the Navy, so I always could figure that out too. Boo and Harriet had dropped out of school to help keep the house going and food on the table. Nellie worked sewing for Hillman's, which only had the fanciest clothes you could find south of Memphis and north of Jackson. Girls became ladies after putting on their first Hillman's dress. Nellie worked in the back of the back, with Mr. Hillman having Nellie work on his best customers. Boo was a maid for Dr. Walker and his wife, Isabelle. Miss Isabelle had come from Italy after the war, so she added difference to Morrisville. Boo had it pretty easy as Dr. Walker's little girl Sophia was quiet as a church mouse, always reading or playing the piano.

Boo was about to marry a butcher by the name of Whittaker Dobsen. Wit was a good fellow who helped the whole family. He was a widower but not too much older than me. My momma approved, and there wasn't much I could do anyways even if I had a mind to, which I didn't. People talk about spoiling babies in the family, and Jo definitely was cared for more than most. He was the last link to our Daddy, and I don't think there was a day that went by that my Momma or me didn’t say something about it.

I found some odd jobs around town, fixing tables or cabinets and such. A handyman most would call it, but I looked at it as getting me ready for more. There was a juke joint, a hole-in-the-wall named Pappy Pit, that folks would go to most Friday nights, and this certain Friday night I'd had a good week. Most folks would pay me even on a Friday cause I would still come back on a Monday. I left the house and went down to Pappy's after dark, after I'd had a good meal with the girls and Momma and Wit. Wit had cooked up some week-old ribs that he'd squirreled away, and they were some kind of good. Boo had tried to show off, making greens and peas and some chicken necks and cornbread. Boo messed up the cornbread something fierce, so I got some white bread and butter to finish everything off.

I got to Pappy's with the place jumping. I was probably the only one there who was good with RC Cola's instead of something stiff, but they mainly left me alone. I'd had my eye on Sherry, a string bean of a girl, for a few weeks. We'd danced a bit the last week, but I didn't have too much time on my hands so it didn't amount to much. To tell you the truth, I have pretty much forgotten anything we said that night. I just remember her stroking my arm and pressing her knee into my leg and knowing what would come that night.

Sherry and I had snuck back of the old Jew school out across from the feed store. She had brought an old quilt, and I wasn't about to argue. She pulled me down under an old oak, wisteria hanging down like one of those big jungle snakes. The bugs weren't too bad, course I wouldn't have noticed anyways. Sherry was skin and bones except from the shadow, where her chest looked out of sorts with the rest of her. I'd found that girls with something wrong them made up for it when they did it. Sherry had pulled me behind her before I could get my pants off, so I just got after it with my belt still flapping against my behind.

I heard the truck skid on the rocks, and I stopped like I was Goliath. I stared in Sherry's eyes, took her jaw in my hand, and tightened my grip. We knew trouble had made it's way out there, as nobody went to the Jew school since it had burned down. It was bad luck to most.

There was three boys who piled out of the truck bed, with the fourth coming out from the truck. The three pulled a fellow out of the truck, and he tumbled to the ground. His hands were behind him, but he popped up like a rabbit who'd just been nicked. The driver had a two by four and hit that boy back of the head like some Yankee ballplayer would. It was then that I saw the yellow shirt in the moonlight, and I knew I was watching Wit get killed.

We colored folk knew how it went, and Sherry better than most. Her uncle had got lynched for pushing back on a white boy in Mendenhall. I knew they had Wit cause of the lemon-colored blouse he wore to supper. It was his finest shirt, and he put it on at the end of each Friday to see Boo. I held my hand firm on Sherry's mouth, my manhood still hard on her bare leg. I could tell she had shut her eyes, but I sat there and watched Wit get hung. I'd heard of all the different ways they could hang a fella, this crew made a mess of things. I could make some of it out in the moonlight, how they threw the rope over the big limb, how they all pulled Wit up. It took all four of them to pull him, with two of them dropping him the first try. His legs were running like you would run home to supper after hearing the bell. I heard a few shouts, but mostly I heard the blood pounding in my ears. The crew climbed back into their truck after a bit, and they rode off.

I held onto Sherry for another few minutes as you never know when folks might come back. Soon as I let her go, she snatched her drawers and the quilt and just started running. She still might be running to this day, and I can tell you that girl looked like a skeleton running in the moonlight. I went up to Wit, sneaking down on all fours like we did when we'd play war. I'd hoped that he had a breath in him, but he was probably finished before his legs quit on him. He had brains down the back of his head where the board had split it open. His lemon shirt looked crimson, just like you'd see those Tuscaloosa boys wearing in the fall. Wit's eyes were wide open, with one popped and bulging. I'd heard of the smell when this happens, but I can tell you Wit didn't smell no worse than a day done at the butchers. He looked a lot like a side of beef hanging in the smoking room. He was as thick as a bull, and he looked more than a man dangling there.

If I'd known his people, I might have cut him down, but doing so would have been taking my life in my own hands. I didn't, so I didn't. I got back to the house after midnight that night. I let Boo sleep, but I stayed up on the porch that night, my shotgun tightly between my legs. And I had some old pork and coffee before I told Boo that her love had been hung during the night.

Craig Cunningham is a married father of three boys living in the suburbs of Atlanta. His career often takes him throughout Asia and Europe and he's lived in New Jersey, Detroit, and Phoenix, but there remains in him remnants of the small town in Mississippi where he was raised.

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