I must have been five years old, or maybe six, when Robert Mosley, the white kid who lived next door, told me one day that the end of the world would come when the moon shone in the daytime. I walked over to the edge of our back porch and peered up into the bright, blue, midday sky of East Texas. There, clear as anything, was the moon.
I went crazy, bursting into uncontrollable tears and running into the house to find my mother, the only shelter I could imagine against the cataclysm I was sure would occur momentarily, destroying everything and everybody I knew and loved. I can’t say it for sure, but I suspect Robert Mosley went home and had himself a good laugh.
About ten years later, when I was a sophomore in high school, I once again thought the world was about to end. And this time it was no joke.
It was October 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis was building toward a climax. So terrified was I that I skipped basketball practice after classes and rushed home from school to my family’s house in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver. I wanted to hear the news and be with family when the fiery, thermonuclear end came. I remember burying my face that evening in my father’s lap and crying, wondering why my life had to end before I had really had a chance to live.
Of course, my life didn’t end then. A nuclear holocaust apparently was too much for the leaders of the United States and the USSR to contemplate.
My life began on December 17, 1946, in the colored wing of Yettie Kersting Hospital in Liberty, Texas. Mother said she was one of the lucky ones in the ward that day: She had a bed to lie on, but some women had to sleep and nurse their babies on mattresses on the floor.
My first name was supposed to be Joel. In fact, if you go to the state of Texas’s birth index, you’ll find me identified that way: Joel Don Wycliff, born December 17, 1946, to Emily Broussard and Wilbert Wycliff.
It was my paternal grandmother who urged them to change it to Noel because I was born so close to Christmas. So they did, and on my birth certificate I became Noel Don Wycliff. Why they started calling me by my middle name I don’t know, but I suspect it was a gesture of self-assertion by Mother, who, not for the first time or the last, resented Grandma’s interference.
My coming-to-be occurred at a highly consequential juncture in history. During the nine months I was in utero, the League of Nations officially went out of business and the new United Nations held its first meetings in New York; the World War II allies hanged ten convicted Nazi war criminals (an eleventh, Luftwaffe commander and Hitler deputy Hermann Goering, cheated the hangman by committing suicide the day before he was to be executed); India moved inexorably toward independence from Britain; the first bikinis went on sale in Paris; former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson died; singers Leslie Gore, Linda Ronstadt and Cher, actress Candice Bergen, baseball star Reggie Jackson, businessman/buffoon Donald Trump, politicians George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and actor Danny Glover were born; Mother Francis Xavier Cabrini became the first American to be canonized a saint; Notre Dame won college football’s national championship; America conducted its first underwater nuclear bomb test; Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis staged their first show as a comedy team, and one of the last multiple lynchings in the United States happened in Georgia, when a mob of white men murdered two black couples near Moore’s Ford Bridge.
Liberty, my birthplace, lies astride U.S. Highway 90, about halfway between Houston and Beaumont. But we lived—my parents, my older brother Francois, and I—in Dayton, Texas, about six miles west, six miles closer to Houston. Dayton and Liberty once had been parts of the same municipality, but at some point “West Liberty” morphed into “Day’s Town” and then into Dayton.
The town derived its name from an early white settler, Isaiah Cates Day, a Tennessean who moved to Texas in the 1840s. According to the lore in the local black community, Day was as prolific a procreator as he was a farmer and a stock raiser, which he gave as his occupations in the 1860 and 1870 United States censuses.
The 1860 census showed Day to be a substantial slaveholder, and the 1870 census made clear the effects of slavery’s abolition on his financial fortunes. In 1860, when the Civil War started, Day had real estate worth $25,000 and a personal estate valued at $65,000. No doubt a substantial part of that personal estate consisted of the 52 humans listed as his property in the census’s “slave schedule.” By 1870, after the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, Day’s real estate holdings had diminished to $5,000 and his personal estate to $2,500.
By the one account I have been able to find—that of a woman named Laura Cornish, who was a slave on his plantation at emancipation—Day was about as good a master as a slave could have hoped to have.
“We all calls him Papa Day ‘cause he won’t ‘low none of his cullud folks to call him ‘Master,’” Mrs. Cornish, by then an old woman, told an interviewer from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project in 1937. “He says we is born jes’ as free as he is, only de other white folks won’t tell us so, an’ dat our souls is jes as white, an’ de reason we is darker on de outside is ‘cause we is sunburnt. I has hear of lots of good white folks an’ and some bad white folks, but I don’t reckon there was anyone what was as good to the cullud folks as he was.”
If “Papa Day” treated his slaves almost like family, it may have been because some of them were. One of his slaves, Amanda Gibbs, gave birth to ten children, all of whom carried the surname “Day” and at least some of whom were, according to family lore, fathered by Isaiah Day. There is no documentation to establish this claim definitively, and the documentation that does exist is sketchy and far from conclusive. But presumably Amanda Gibbs, the best witness of all, knew who fathered her children.
The 1870 census—the first in which freed slaves were included on their own accounts as people, not property—lists a “Mandie Cribs,” who at the time was 42 years old and had five children of the same last name in her household. Mandie Cribs, it seems pretty clear, was “Amanda Gibbs,” the white census enumerator having used her nickname (the same one used by Laura Cornish in her WPA narrative—“Aunt Mandy”) and heard “Cribs” instead of “Gibbs.” Just where the name Gibbs came from nobody seems to know. Significantly, “Mandie Cribs” and her five listed children all were marked down as mulatto, i.e., of mixed black-white parentage.
Exactly where Mandie Cribs’/Amanda Gibbs’ five other children were on census day 1870 isn’t clear. But one thing is clear from family records and testimony: All ten children were always referred to by the surname “Day,” not Gibbs or Cribs.
The youngest child in that census listing, two-year-old “Lit”—her given name was Leana—grew up, was married twice and gave birth to two daughters and two sons. The second of her daughters, Ida Belle Brown, was my paternal grandmother, the one who insisted I be named “Noel.” Ida’s only child, a boy named Wilbert, is my father.
Wilbert—“Daddy” to me and my siblings—was 28 when I was born, and not quite a year off of active duty with the United States Army, where he had spent 15 months with the all-black 92nd Division in Italy during World War II. He came home in January 1946 with three Bronze Stars and a first lieutenant’s bars. And he quickly discovered that if war had been hell, peace as a black man in the American South was, well, hellish—even if that black man had helped save the world from fascist tyranny.
On my birth certificate Daddy’s occupation is given as “Blacksmith.” Truth is, he was sharing a workplace and a diminishing amount of available work with his father, my grandfather, Socrates “Sprig” Wycliff, a blacksmith who was himself the son of a blacksmith, Sylvester “Big Papa” Wickliff. (Socrates changed the spelling of his last name after he opened his own business, so as to distinguish himself from his competitor-father.) Even as early as 1946, blacksmithing as a trade at which a man could make a living was on its way to history’s dustbin. There was just enough life left in it that I would be able, as a teenager in the early 1960s, to spend summers working with Grandpa in his shop and earn enough money to pay my Catholic high school tuition.
Mother—Emily Ann Broussard—and Daddy were married on June 2, 1942, in a Catholic ceremony at St. Patrick’s Church in Bisbee, Arizona. Mother was a devout Catholic, raised in a Dayton household where, for reasons of finances and distance, going to mass on Sunday was not always possible but getting each new baby baptized was a priority.
Dayton eventually got its own black Catholic church, but during Mother’s youth the closest was in Ames, a small black settlement just east of Liberty. “We had no car,” Mother said. “Very few people had cars. When babies were born and had to be baptized, Mama would pay [a neighbor] to take her to Ames to get the baby baptized.”
There was a white Catholic church, a so-called “mission church,” in Eastgate, a Czech settlement a few miles west of Dayton in the direction of Houston. Mother recalled that in 1933, when she would have turned 11, the parish priest in Liberty, Father Michael Hurley, who also served the Eastgate mission, gave black children in Dayton permission to attend religious education classes in Eastgate so they could prepare for First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
One family, the St. Julians, provided a wagon and a team of horses. And children from several families rode through the pastures to St. Anne’s in Eastgate for Tuesday morning classes. On the day they actually received the sacraments—September 11, 1933, mother recalled—a neighbor who owned a flatbed truck, Mr. Ed Paul, let the families use it to transport the children to St. Anne’s.
“Our parents spread sheets over the truck bed so that our used clothing—washed, starched and ironed—wouldn’t get soiled on the way to mass,” Mother said. “In those days, those intending to receive Communion had to fast from midnight until after they had received the sacrament. So each family brought a box of food for their children,” who would have gone about 12 hours without nourishment.
Mother’s Catholic faith was solidified by her years living with nuns, members of the Sisters of the Holy Family, in their convent while she attended school at Our Mother of Mercy Parish in Ames. She was able to do that for three years, thanks to her mother’s oldest sister, Amanda Darby, who had become Sister Mary Ambrose in the New Orleans-based order of black nuns.
Daddy, by contrast, was raised pretty much indifferent to religion. His father, Socrates, was Catholic but had been divorced; that put a wedge between Socrates and the church, and so between his son and the church. Wilbert’s mother, Ida, was Baptist. Daddy says he grew up going to whatever church was handy or, as often as not, to no church at all. But when pressed, he says he was raised “basically Baptist.”
But respecting the Catholic Church and abiding by its requirements was part of the deal in marrying Emily Broussard, and so Daddy took the deal.
They were married in Arizona because Wilbert, 21 at the time, was in the Army, stationed at nearby Fort Huachuca, where he and the rest of the 92nd Division were preparing for deployment to the European theater of the great war. Mother, two weeks shy of her 20th birthday at the time, had come out from Dayton on the train. When she returned home a few weeks later, she carried not only a new last name—Wycliff—but also what would become the couple’s first child, Francois, who would be born on March 24, 1943.
Mother and Daddy both were born in Dayton. And except for the time she spent in school in Ames, Mother had lived there her entire life. She was the second oldest of ten children. Her parents—Napoleon “Paul” Broussard and Ezildia Darby Broussard—were refugees from Louisiana, from the region around Lafayette known as Acadiana—Cajun country—for the French-speakers who settled there after being expelled from Canada’s maritime provinces after the French and Indian War ended in 1763.
In slavery times, Louisiana had been one of the places slaves referred to when they spoke fearfully of being “sold down the river.” So Acadiana also was home to a large population of black people, many of whom emigrated to East Texas in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. For the most part, they moved in search of economic opportunity, but in many cases they literally fled ahead of lynch mobs.
Paul Broussard—“Papa,” Mother called him, and we children followed suit—had come to Dayton in 1919, following in the footsteps of an older stepbrother. Both had somehow run afoul of white folks in Louisiana and sought refuge in the relative freedom of East Texas.
Mother said Papa had spent a year in jail in Louisiana for carrying a concealed weapon. He also reportedly incurred white wrath by opening a small business where he cleaned, pressed and tailored men’s clothes. This apparently stirred resentment among whites, who accused him of wanting to “make his living like a white man.”
For most black folks then in that part of Louisiana, making a living meant laboring long hours in sugar cane fields for little or no money. By comparison with what they faced in Louisiana, even segregated East Texas seemed progressive. And so they came in large numbers to towns and settlements like Dayton, Liberty, Raywood and Ames.
In December 1919, Papa “slipped back” into Louisiana to marry Ezildia Darby, the daughter of Simon Darby and Mella Provost Darby of Youngsville. Immediately after their marriage on Dec. 3, the newlyweds lit out for Dayton, where they bought a lot at the corner of Austin Street and Cleveland Road on the north end of town, built a small house and set about raising a family.
Paul was 39 then and Ezildia 25. The neighborhood where they lived was called the French Settlement, because it was heavily populated with people like them: French-speaking black folks from Louisiana, most of them Catholic.
I have no personal memory of Ezildia—“Mama”—who died at age 55 in 1950, just after I had turned 3. The few photographs of her that exist show a tall, slender, dark-skinned woman. Mother said she was an outstanding cook. When she left Louisiana after her marriage, the husband in the white family for which she had worked reportedly lamented the loss of “the best cook in the area.”
“Zilda,” as she was known to her friends, was immensely popular in the French Settlement and, as a result, the Broussard house was a favored gathering spot in the community. The neighborhood women would meet on Zilda’s front porch to drink strong coffee, brewed and served by her daughters, and share gossip, while their children played in the yard.
I do remember Papa. He was tall, salt-and-pepper haired and had skin the color of a polished pecan shell. In my memory, he would walk down the road to our house every evening to eat dinner and listen to Gabriel Heatter deliver the news on radio. I’ve since learned that Heatter was regarded as a voice of optimism, a man who always found the silver lining around any cloud. “There’s good news tonight!” was his signature greeting. But at the time, his voice seemed to my child’s ears too full of portentous quaver to be delivering good news. And Papa always seemed to me to walk away from the broadcast disturbed, not heartened, by what he had heard.
Nine of Paul’s and Ezildia’s children lived to adulthood. The youngest, a boy named Richard, died at about seven weeks of whooping cough. The eldest, Grant, died at age 21 in January 1942, after a life marked by severe illness and disability. Apparently as a result of a fall from a tree when he was still in grade school, the right side of his body simply ceased to grow properly, Mother said.
Between Grant, the first-born, and Richard, the last, came four girls and four other boys. Emily was the oldest of all these, born June 15, 1922.
When Paul and Ezildia first settled in Dayton, he “worked for the railroad”—the Southern Pacific. As their family grew—and as he and Ezildia prospered during the 1920s—Paul added to their house. He was, Mother said, a “jack of all trades”—carpenter, field worker, yard man, anything that would bring in a buck. But his desire to have his own business, to be his own boss, had not been extinguished by his experience in Louisiana.
About 1927 he built another small structure next to his house and opened a barber shop and a shop where he would clean and press clothes and order men’s suits. On weekends, from a different side of the same building, he and Ezildia sold ham sandwiches, cold drinks, gum, candies, homemade ice cream and kerosene for lamps to people from the neighborhood.
“They did real well until the Depression hit in the early 1930s,” Mother said. “When the bottom fell out of everything there was no work other than yard work and field work. A whole day’s work for $1—picking cotton, potatoes, peas, and so forth.”
For her part, Ezildia took in washing and ironing, a task in which her daughters helped. “We had no electricity,” Mother said. “We heated our irons on wood-burning stoves. We had to wipe them real good and clean before putting them on a white garment. Later on, when we got up in the world, we bought a furnace that we could put coal into to heat the irons.”
The Depression seems to have done what racism and other obstacles could not: demoralize Paul Broussard. He was reduced to going out each day in search of work. If he was lucky, he found something and could bring home food for his family. Many times he found nothing.
Mother described him as “a meek and mild person,” although that hardly squares with the image of a man who acquired and carried a gun to defend himself against racial terrorists in Louisiana and who persisted for years in the determination to have his own business. What Papa seems to have become was a defeated person—defeated by the Depression, defeated by…circumstances.
In 1953, with his wife deceased, most of his children out of the nest and only himself and Ambrose, his youngest living son, in the old house, he decided to visit Seattle, where three of his children had migrated in pursuit of jobs in the postwar economic boom.
Ten months later, in July 1954, Papa died at Providence Hospital in Seattle after what a Seattle newspaper obituary described as “a long illness.”
My last memory of Papa was of his body lying in a coffin in our living room in Dayton. Relatives came from all over—Seattle, Houston, Louisiana—for the funeral. He was buried in the black Catholic cemetery in Ames, where most of our family are buried.