Sunday, September 11, 2016


            That first trip to Kentucky was an ordeal by asphalt. We left Dayton on August 26, 1954, a Thursday morning. If my parents’ memories are accurate, there were eight of us sardined into our green Chevy Bellaire sedan: three adults—Mother, Grandma and Grandpa—and five children—Francois, Karen, Chris, Ida and me. Daddy was already in Ashland—he had started work there in June, returned to Dayton in July for Papa’s funeral, and then gone back to resume his job duties and find a house for us to live in and schools for us children to attend.
The three adults were crucial, because we would be traveling through the South and this was the era of segregation. Stopping overnight at a motel to rest was not an option, so we needed enough drivers to be able to drive straight through, more than 1,100 miles virtually non-stop. And long-distance car travel in those days was immeasurably harder than it is now.
There were no divided four-lane interstate highways with convenient rest stops and restaurant facilities. It was all two-lane roads, often with little or no shoulder, so the margin for driver error was narrow to nonexistent. You passed through the middle of every -burg and -ville and metropolis along the way, stopping at every red light and hoping not to run afoul of local cops looking to make their ticket quotas by stopping out-of-state drivers going a mile or two over the posted limit. You were at the mercy of every driver of a broken-down jalopy or a rickety pickup hauling hay or old furniture or anything else that might come tumbling out of the truckbed. If the driver ahead of you had decided to take a Sunday drive on Thursday, you had to carefully pick your chance to pass him so you could travel at the posted maximum speed.
If you were black, the troubles were compounded. If you needed food, you had to go to the rear of whatever hamburger joint or ice cream stand you stopped at to be served. Most black travelers tried to avoid the need for that by packing plenty of pre-cooked food in their cars, including, almost always, a large supply of fried chicken. The chicken always smelled delicious and mouthwatering at the start of the trip, but by the end the smell was more likely to induce nausea.
The gas station where you stopped to fill up (“Raglar or ethyl?” the attendant would invariably drawl) might or might not have a restroom for “colored.” And especially at night, you had to be on the watch for gangs of “good ole boys” out to have a good time by running black folks off the road—or worse.
We had an added complication on this trip: We were part of a two-vehicle caravan. We were following the truck that carried all our household effects. The truck was owned by a white fellow from Dayton, Herman Payne, who was a friend of Grandma and Grandpa. He had agreed to move our stuff to Ashland for $300. So as we traveled—from Dayton to Beaumont in Texas; through DeQuincy, DeRidder, Leesville, Alexandria, Monroe and Bastrop in Louisiana; up through Greenville in Arkansas; through Clarksdale in the Mississippi delta and on up to Memphis, Humboldt and Clarksville in Tennessee, and finally into Kentucky, through Bowling Green to Elizabethtown to Bardstown and Versailles to Lexington, Winchester, Morehead, Grayson and, mercifully, Ashland—we were constantly trying to keep up with Herman’s truck, driven alternately by him, his wife Muriel and Uncle Sam Wickliff, Grandpa’s youngest brother, who was an auto mechanic and was recruited as a third driver for the truck.
As the adults took turns driving, we children took turns being carsick and, especially after we got into the rolling hills and mountains of eastern Kentucky, throwing up. (In later years on other trips we learned how to deal with that problem: We ate saltine crackers all the time. As long as you were forcing something down your gullet, nothing could come up.) And when we got antsy, the adults would distract us with a game: See if you can spot the billowing tarp over the bed of Herman’s truck ahead of us.

We got to Ashland early the morning of Saturday, August 28, and found our way to the house at the south end of town that Daddy had rented for us. I don’t remember much about the house except that it was on a hill and the front yard sloped steeply down to a sidewalk and the street. I recall being amazed that we were going to be living on a paved street, with sidewalks next to it, instead of a highway with drainage ditches on the sides, or on a dirt road.
Daddy and the three other men promptly began unloading the truck and placing things in the house. Mother recalled that they were almost finished when, abruptly, everything came to a stop. A white man showed up at the front door and began talking with Daddy. Mother said she couldn’t hear what was being said at first, but saw that Daddy began to look “downhearted.”
She walked to the front door where Daddy and the man were standing.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
Daddy explained that the man was the landlord, and he was saying that some of the neighbors had called him and complained when they saw a “colored” family moving in. As far as he was concerned, the landlord said, we could stay in the house, but he couldn’t know what the neighbors might do.
That was no consolation to Daddy, who replied, “How do you think I would feel going off to work every day knowing my family may be in danger?”
Under these circumstances, Mother and Daddy both realized, we couldn’t remain in the house; they would have to find another. But also under the circumstances, we would have to stay in this house at least until they could find a new one. The landlord suggested that Daddy go to the police and ask them to keep a special eye on the place as long as we were there.  
At this point, Herman spoke up. It is important to appreciate who Herman Payne was. If you had been a Hollywood casting director looking for someone to play the quintessential redneck, you couldn’t have picked anyone better than Herman. Big, redheaded, not particularly well-educated, he was a workingman, scuffling to make a living however he could. He and Muriel had a passel of children, and I still remember going to their house for a visit one night before we moved away from Dayton. They had an old piano and someone played it while everybody sang, “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.” (I remember it so well because, once again, a word tripped me up. I thought everybody was singing “Hell, Hell, the Gang’s All Here,” and it gave me a bit of a thrill that everybody was singing so lustily this word we children were forbidden to speak.)
Anyway, pointing to Mother, who was five months pregnant with the baby who would be my sister Joy, Herman addressed the landlord. “This woman has been on the road for three days,” he said, “and she’s in no condition to be moving anywhere tonight. Now I’m gonna spend the night in my truck out back with my shotgun, and if anybody comes around here trying to mess with these people, they’re gonna have to deal with me.”
And he did.
Daddy went to the police and told them about the situation. The police said there had been no racial incidents in that part of town, but they agreed to keep a special watch on the house that night.
The next day, Sunday, Daddy and the other men went out to look for another house. Daddy had previously noticed a vacant house on Central Avenue, also in south Ashland, but had been unable to find anyone who could show him the place or tell him how much the rent might be. On this Sunday, however, luck was with him. He knocked on the door of the house next door and found the residents home. It turned out that the lady of the house, Christine Kinney, was handling the showing and renting of the place for the owner, who lived in Cincinnati.
Mrs. Kinney—or “Miss Chris,” as we children later learned to call her—showed him the place. Daddy rented it on the spot and we moved in that same day. There was no need to spend another night at the house on the hill, no need for Herman Payne to sleep in his truck, cradling his shotgun.
That house, at 3137 Central Avenue, was our home for the next four years. Like every other house we lived in, it was too small—living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, one bath. But that was par for the course in those days of big families and little affluence. Our parents had one bedroom, the girls had another. Francois and I shared a foldout couch in the living room and Chris…I don’t recall where Chris slep[DW1] t. The living room had a mantle, something I had never seen before, and a fireplace that we never used. There was a porch that wrapped around both the front and the south side of the house. The yard—a big one with a tall apple tree in the center—was on the north side.
Most important, the house was safe. The neighbors to the south and east were black, those to the north and west were white. There was no friction in the neighborhood. There would be no racial danger here.
Safely housed at last, we children still needed to be schooled. And so on Monday morning, not yet twenty-four hours in the new house, Mother took Francois, Karen and me to enroll us for the first time in Catholic school. It would also be, not incidentally, the first time that Francois and I would attend school with white children.
I had finished first grade and Francois had finished fifth in June at Colbert Elementary School in Dayton. In Ashland, as in Dayton, the public schools were segregated. Had we gone to public school, we would have enrolled at Booker T. Washington, the colored school in Ashland. This even though the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled four months earlier, on May 17, 1954, that separate but equal had no place in public education in the U.S. It would be half a dozen years before public schools in Ashland were integrated. But Daddy didn’t want to wait.
It was his boss at the prison, Walter Graybeal, who suggested that he look into sending us to Catholic school.
“You’re Catholic, aren’t you, Wyc?” he asked. “Well, why don’t you send your kids to Catholic school just like anybody else would?”
Daddy knew it wasn’t as simple as doing “just like anybody else would.” But he liked the idea and decided to go and see if his black Catholic children really could attend Holy Family School.
It was early August when he went and knocked on the door of the parish rectory on Winchester Avenue in north Ashland. The housekeeper answered the door and Daddy asked to speak to the pastor. Within a few minutes he was talking with Msgr. Declan Carroll.
With his florid face, snow white hair and unmistakably Irish brogue, Father Carroll was another of those characters who could have been sent from central casting. He was, in fact, an Irish immigrant, born in 1886 in the village of Clashmore in County Waterford on the southern coast of Ireland. He and his family moved to the US around 1897. They settled in Covington in northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Young Declan attended St. Xavier High School and then St. Xavier College in Cincinnati. He went on to St. Thomas College at the Catholic University of America from 1906 to 1910. In 1911 he attended St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore as a student for the Diocese of Covington. He was ordained on June 21, 1911, by Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, and returned to Covington.
Daddy told him that he was new to Ashland, that he was employed at the Federal Correctional Institution, that he was Catholic and he wanted to enroll his children in the parish school. Without hesitation, Msgr. Carroll replied, “I don’t see why your children can’t attend our school.” But just to be sure, he said, let him confer with the bishop, in Covington. He promised to call Daddy at work the following Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Daddy said, he was summoned to his departmental office to take a phone call. It was Father Carroll.
“Mr. Wycliff, the bishop says that the Catholic schools are for all Catholic children,” the priest said. “Your children will be welcome in our school.”
At that point, the old priest could have congratulated himself and gone back to business as usual. But he didn’t. A few weeks later—actually, it seems to have been on that very Sunday when Daddy was scrambling to find us a new place to live—Msgr. Carroll took to the pulpit at mass and made an announcement.
According to one of Daddy’s colleagues at the prison, Carroll told his parishioners that there were going to be “colored children” attending the parish school that fall and that he wanted them treated with decency and respect. And if anyone did not do so, he said, that person would be denied the sacraments of the church.
Mother wasn’t aware of that, however, as she stood with Francois, Karen and me at the school that Monday morning. What she was aware of, she said, were news reports about black children in another Kentucky town, Sturgis, being “stoned” as they tried to integrate their local public school. “I thought,” she said, “that they might try to stone me.”
The registration site was the convent, where the Sisters of Divine Providence, who staffed Holy Family, lived. The convent had a large, screened front porch where mothers and their children congregated to wait to register. Mother nervously approached the building, opened the door and took a position near it, with her back against a wall and her three children drawn in close—in case, she said, she needed to make a fast escape.
For several minutes no one said anything, either hostile or welcoming. And then, a lady standing on the opposite side of the porch with a little girl approached.
The woman smiled and asked, “What is your little girl’s name?”
“Karen,” Mother replied. “Karen Wycliff.”
“Why, that’s my daughter’s name, too!” the lady exclaimed. Then, turning to her daughter, she said, “Karen Horgan, meet Karen Wycliff.”
The woman’s name was Virginia Horgan, and her gesture of friendship broke the ice for Mother and dispelled her fears of being stoned or spurned. “You’ll never know what a smile can mean to a person,” Mother used to say when she recalled that day.
Her anxiety was relieved, but she wasn’t the only one with concerns. I was full of anxiety, and I’m sure Francois must have been also. My fears came to the fore on the first day of classes, when Sister Helen Joseph marched our second grade class over to the church for mass. Half the class filed into pews on one side of the center aisle and the other half went to the other side. Whether because my last name began with a “W” or because I was tall or for some other reason entirely, I was at the back of the formation on the left side.
After mass, we were supposed to file out of our seats into the middle aisle, genuflect, and then walk out with a partner who would be coming from a pew on the opposite side of the aisle. As the children in the rows ahead of me filed out, my anxiety grew. Would I have a partner or would I be all alone? What if none of these new people, these white people, wanted to walk with me?
Suddenly, it was my row that was moving out into the aisle. And then it was my turn. I stepped out of my pew, genuflected and looked to my right, where my partner should be. And there was a boy, about my height, with dark, crew-cut hair, waiting to walk out with me. His name was Johnny Thompson, and it turned out that he and his big family lived just a few doors north of us on Central Avenue. He liked to play army and, he later informed me, he liked “Ike”—President Dwight Eisenhower. I didn’t care about Ike, but I liked Johnny, that day and always, because he was my partner and I was not left to walk alone.
Even after that episode, my anxieties about my new circumstances were not over. After the first marking period, I brought home a report card on which Sister Helen Joseph had noted that I didn’t participate much in class discussions, didn’t associate with my classmates and was, in general, not fitting in.
Daddy took me aside one night for a conversation about this. I recall sitting with him at the table in our green-walled kitchen as he asked me gently what was wrong. I don’t recall that I had a coherent answer for him. I think he already knew that I was full of fear of my new surroundings—the city, the school, the people, the novel experience of being so much among white people—and full of longing for my old surroundings—my cousin Sam Brown and my friends in Dayton, Grandma and Grandpa and their house and farm, Dayton and all it represented in terms of home.
What has stuck with me through all my years was one question that Daddy asked me: Would you like to go back to Dayton and live with Grandma and Grandpa and go to school there?
The answer to that one was easy. Yes—and no. Of course I would like to go back, but I didn’t want to be separated from him and Mother and all of my brothers and sisters. Seven years old is too young to struggle with such a dilemma.
Of course, I don’t think Daddy would have sent me back to Dayton anyway. I know that now. But I didn’t know it then.
Somehow, after that conversation, I began to find my footing at Holy Family and in Ashland. Over time, I made friends in class and became a good student. But God! How hard those early days were!
They must have been even harder for Francois, who was just at the threshold of adolescence when we moved and who had been accustomed to spending as much time at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house as at ours in Dayton. I once tried to ask Francois about that move and his feelings about it, and his response left no doubt in my mind that he felt cheated by having been forced to move. He wouldn’t talk about it much.
Of the three of us who were in school that year, Karen, I think, had the easiest time. She had not been in school previously and so had no old patterns and expectations to overcome. She quickly made friends—Pamela Marzetti, the daughter of another of Daddy’s colleagues at the prison, and Judy Terreo, whose father owned an office supply store—were her great pals, along with Karen Horgan. Karen became the mascot for the seventh and eighth grade cheerleading squad. And she thrived.
Ultimately, all of us thrived academically. We learned to “talk proper”—pronouncing “er” in the standard American way instead of as “uh,” the Brooklyn, Boston, African-American way. In Dayton I had been one of the better students in my first grade class, but Sister Helen Joseph made me a bluebird instead of a cardinal in her reading groups. I distinctly recall being upset about this and put a whip to my horses to get into the top group, the cardinals.
With Mother’s enthusiastic approval, Sister Helen Joseph also converted me from writing with my left hand to writing with my right. Among her other beliefs, Mother was convinced that one was in some way in the grip of the devil if one was left-handed. So she had the good sister perform an exorcism. I have always felt as if that enforced change left me in some measure permanently confused.
Francois, who had taken piano lessons for several years already, thrived as a piano student under Sister Mary Herman, the music teacher at Holy Family.
Mother used to relate how some of the other mothers in the school asked her one day whether she allowed us to watch television. Yes, she replied. The other women said they thought that perhaps she did not, because it was well-known that the Wycliff children were the smartest in their classes and they thought it probably was because we didn’t watch TV.
In fact, we were avid TV watchers. But we were equally avid readers, thanks to the Sisters of Divine Providence. Those nuns were motivational geniuses, using fancily decorated “holy cards” and slogans like “Readers are Leaders” to inculcate in us and our classmates a love of reading. I remember my fourth grade teacher, Sister John Catherine, reading aloud to us in class in brief installments a book called “Outlaws of Ravenhurst.” I could hardly wait for each new day to hear what came next in that book.
The reading habit planted in us by the nuns was fertilized by the presence in Ashland of a public library, where there was no color bar. Karen and I first, and later Chris, fell in love with a series of biographies of famous (and some not so famous) Americans. Each book had a blue cover and was emblazoned with the name of the subject—Zebulon Pike: Explorer, George Washington Carver: Scientist, etc. For months, we went to the library in Central Park and brought home one, two, three of these biographies at a time. At some point, Daddy grew tired of seeing those blue-backed books and felt we needed to vary our reading. So he declared that he didn’t want to see another of those blue books come into the house. Read something else, he said.
We quickly discovered that the library carried the same series with orange covers, and shifted to those. Our hunger for biographies was satisfied and Daddy’s desire for variety in our reading was frustrated—by a simple change of colors.
There was one gap, one hole, in our Holy Family experience—at least in mine and Francois’—and that was in relationships with members of the opposite sex. The proscription against interracial romantic relationships, or even just boy-girl friendships, was something neither Father Carroll or anybody else could—or would—knock down in that era. And if that wasn’t clear to us before, it was unmistakably clear after the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955.
As a result, I think, we both grew up stunted to some degree. I know that Francois was attracted to certain young women in his class, but dating or even being social friends with them was out of the question. It was the same for me. When all the boys in my class fell in love with the “it girl” of a particular moment, I kept my silence and my distance. That was life.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016


If leaving Dayton was deliverance for Mother and Daddy, it was another thing entirely for us children—at least for Francois and me. For with the exception of the brief, traumatizing few weeks that we lived in Orange, Texas, I had never known a home other than Dayton and our house on the Cleveland Highway. And from my seven-year-old’s perspective, it was as good a home as anyone could want. Everyone and everything that mattered was there or within easy reach—or at least I thought so.

If you walked out of our front yard to the highway and turned right, or north, you would reach Papa’s house after about a hundred yards, then Cap Kelley’s house and his little store, then Uncle Sam Broussard’s house and then St. Joseph the Worker Church, our church, where we went every Sunday morning without fail and Mother sang in the choir and Mr. Warren St. Julian sold ice cream cones after mass.
Beyond the church was Diane Paul’s house—Diane was a first-grade classmate of mine and I was supposed to marry her when we were grown up and old enough to get married. And beyond Diane’s house was “the overpass,” where the highway rose to cross over a set of railroad tracks and which marked the limit of the world as I knew it in that direction. Beyond the overpass lay…I didn’t know what, but who needed to know?
If you walked out of our yard and went left, or south, you quickly passed the Blue Gables, a honky-tonk for white folks that had blue neon lights around the edges of the roof and an illuminated sign that contained a mysterious word—“RENDEZVOUS”—and then you were headed toward downtown Dayton. That’s where all the stores were—Remke’s or the QP for groceries, Mansfield’s or McGinty’s for drugs, Friedman’s for hardware and dry goods. Mother shopped mainly at Remke’s and Mansfield’s; Grandpa used to say he “traded” at Friedman’s, and all the adults in our family seemed to be on especially good terms with Sol and Esther Friedman, the owners.
Downtown was where the white schools were and where it seemed most of the white people lived. It also was where “the shop” was—Grandpa’s big, red, corrugated tin-covered blacksmith shop, with its rear wall only a few yards away from the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. Grandpa seemed to be the only colored person in Dayton with a business downtown—except for the very brief period when Mother opened a small cafĂ© across the street from Grandpa’s shop.
If you kept going south past downtown you’d end up at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house—after passing Black Jack’s tavern and Colbert Elementary and Colbert High, the colored schools, and Grandma’s church, Pleasant Hill Baptist, and a lot of houses and farm fields owned by colored people with names like Luke Walker, Gil Booth, Obie Jackson and Alfred Deaver.
If you turned left when you got downtown, you’d be headed east toward Liberty, where Aunt Stella, Grandpa’s oldest sister, and her husband, Uncle Luther Wells, lived and ran Wells Mortuary, and where we would occasionally go to the Chevrolet dealership—Mearns Chevrolet—when something on the car needed fixing. There was a streetlight next to Mearns that attracted bugs of enormous size and number. (Mother used to tell the story of how I, a notorious daydreamer, was inspired one day to muse, “Dem bugs sho was big in Yibitty.” I was about six years old before I could correctly pronounce the letter L.)
East of Liberty was Ames, where Grandpa had grown up and where his father, Sylvester “Big Papa,” and three of his six siblings—Edward (“Timme”), Frances, and Magdalene (“Mac”) still lived. By the time I came along Big Papa was a shrunken little man who looked to me somewhat like the cartoon character Popeye and who seemed always to sit stiffly upright in a chair and talk in a barely audible voice when we went to visit him. But in his younger days he had been a formidable character. Born Sylvester Sostain Paul in 1864 in Verdunville, St. Mary’s Parish, Louisiana, he decided early on that cutting cane was not the way he wanted to live his life. So at age 14 he apprenticed himself to an old German blacksmith in Franklin, Louisiana. After learning the trade, he opened his own shop near St. Martinville. Eventually, he made his way to Texas--first to Orange and then to the Liberty area, where he and a cousin, Terrance Trahan, each bought several large tracts of land, and helped create the settlement called Ames. In 1894 he married Epheme Pradier. And for reasons that family members and others have speculated about endlessly, somewhere along the way from Verdunville to Ames he changed his surname. Sylvester Paul became Sylvester Wickliff.
Uncle Timme, a tall, barrel-chested man, farmed and ran a Gulf gas station on Highway 90 and had a small factory where he made the sweetest, most delicious cane syrup in the world. He was the only person I knew who seemed to have fingers as big and thick as Grandpa’s. Aunt Frances always seemed to me so pretty but also so terribly fragile. Aunt Mac seemed just the opposite: strong and feisty and robust and opinionated. I liked her.
Ames was where the black Catholic cemetery was, hidden way back in the woods, and where what seemed to me the biggest church in the world—Our Mother of Mercy—stood near the railroad tracks.
If you turned right when you got to downtown Dayton you would go west toward Houston, passing along the way the liquor store just beyond the Liberty County line where Mother would go periodically to buy a bottle of Mogen David wine for Papa, and the roadside curio shop where I once threw such a fit that Daddy bought me a little plaster cow that I coveted. I promptly became terrified of it when we got it home and, to shut me up, someone hid it behind the piano. A short time later, Francois, unaware, shoved the piano to the wall and smashed it to bits.
Houston was where Mother’s sister Cecilia (“Nannan,” we called her, because she was Francois’ godmother) lived in a neighborhood called Pleasantville with her husband Uncle Robert Melonson and our cousins Wanda and Wayne and Gary. Another of Mother’s sisters, Aunt Georgia, and her husband, Uncle Dewey Collette, lived in another neighborhood called Third Ward.
Houston was where Mother once drove with all of us children in the car to pick up Daddy when he was working at “the SP shop,” the Southern Pacific Railroad roundhouse. I remember seeing the giant train engines and worrying that Daddy might get crushed by one of them and being relieved when he finally walked out and got into the car and was alive and healthy.
And Houston was where every once in a very great while we would go downtown, where the tallest buildings in the world stood and where there was a five-and-dime store—Kress, I think—where they had a lunch counter and those tanks with red and yellow beverages in them and I wished mother would buy me some but she never did.

Yes, everything that mattered was either in Dayton or close to it. Everybody, too.
I could roll out of bed in the morning and, within a few minutes, meet up with my cousin Sam Brown and our friends Willie Kelly and “Hap” Thompson and half a dozen more. I remember one morning after a heavy rain we went wading in the roadside drainage ditches and caught dozens of crawfish, which we carried back to my house and took turns crushing in the driveway with Francois’ bike and being surprised that the stuff that spurted out of them was yellow. Daddy came home that day and was furious—whether about the yellow mess all over the driveway or about our wanton destruction of helpless creatures I don’t remember.
If I wasn’t playing with friends, I could walk down to Papa’s house and see him or one of my uncles. I especially liked Uncle Frank. He taught me how to make a bow for shooting arrows, although I never really got good at it. When we got a dog, a German Shepherd, Frank named it: Spiegel. Spiegel couldn’t have been with us more than a few weeks before he was killed by a truck on the highway.
I remember once watching Frank eat a plate of rice and beans. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone eat with as much obvious enjoyment as Frank ate that meal. 
And he taught me words. Frank was the first person I ever heard use the word “tolerate.” “I’ll not tolerate that behavior,” he told me one day, sounding very arch and proper. I don’t recall what the behavior was, but I did remember the word, and even had a tolerable understanding of its meaning.
            I learned another big word from Frank as well: “telesweer.” That’s the way it would have been spelled if it had actually been a word, but it wasn’t. It was what I heard when Frank would sing the first line of a Nat “King” Cole tune of that time: “They tried to tell us we’re too young.” But I heard “They tried to telesweer too young” and wondered what it meant. I thought it must have been something exciting, because adults always seemed to be telling us kids that we were too young to do one thing or another—stay up late, hear a certain song, go to a show—and they were always the things that seemed most exciting.
There was an old man in Dayton, a ragpicker named Mr. Sipp, who pushed a big two-wheeled cart in front of him all around town. If you honked your car horn at him as you passed, he would shout out, “Go ‘head! You got your gas and lube and your steerin’ wheel in your hand!” Every time we would drive past Mr. Sipp, we children would beg Mother or Daddy to punch the car horn. They almost always refused.
I learned many years later that Mr. Sipp had been born a slave and that he had cuts and markings on his ears that indicated who had owned him.
And then there was Parrain. His real name was William “Bud” Bryant, but we called him Parrain—“godfather” in Louisiana Creole French—because he was Grandma’s godfather and that’s what she called him. He and his wife, Miss Rosa, lived next door to Grandpa and Grandma at the end of a dead-end road on the south end of Dayton. Years later, when I read Alice Walker’s novel “The Color Purple,” I thought she surely must have modeled her characters “Mister” and “Celie” after Parrain and Miss Rosa.
Parrain was the brother of “Grandma Lucy,” the woman who raised Ida after her own mother, Leana “Lit” Day, died. Parrain had what surely must have been one of the most well-traveled houses in the world. When he found himself squeezed off his own property in the nearby community of Five Mile Settlement, Grandma invited him to move his little three-room house to her property in Dayton. He did, and he and Miss Rosa remained there for several decades. Then, at some point in the late 1950s, Parrain had a falling-out with Grandma and Grandpa. I’m told it stemmed from Grandpa’s rebuking him one day for the high-handed, threatening way he habitually spoke to Miss Rosa. So he had his house moved back to Five Mile Settlement, to a piece of land owned by a relative of his. After a few years there, he had the house moved back to Dayton, to a spot about half a mile from Grandma’s and Grandpa’s. After he died in the early 1960s, Grandma invited Miss Rosa to return to her place, which she—and the house—did. The house remained in that spot until Miss Rosa died in 1983. It finally was moved to a spot behind Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house, where it now serves as a storage shed.
Parrain already was very old when I first met him. He was of middling height, dark-skinned and, in my recollection, always wore dark pants, a long-sleeved dress shirt and suspenders. Daddy tells me he always wore a necktie. He carried a walking stick everywhere he went, but I never knew him to go anywhere but around his own house. That’s where we kids would find him when we would go to visit Grandma and Grandpa.
“How’s your little health?” he would invariably greet us. He always called Francois “Transfuh” and Karen “Caroline.” My name must have been too simple to be mangled or, more likely, played with by this clever old man. He referred to his front porch as “the gallery”—he pronounced it “gal-ry,” leaving out the middle syllable—and he liked nothing better than to sit there and regale us children with tall tales and pseudoknowledge.
The land where his and our grandparents’ houses sat is at the top of a hill. The hill slopes down for about 100 yards to a swampy area, wetlands that are part of the Trinity River bottom. The bottom used to be heavily wooded and dense with brush—a genuine thicket. And Parrain delighted in telling us about the “wild man” who lived down in the bottom.
I had no concept then of what a wild man might be or do, but he sounded pretty scary—and that’s just what Parrain wanted. I lived for years thinking there really was a wild man—a crazy, savage, beast of a man with tattered clothing and untamed hair—living down “under the hill” and waiting to wreak havoc on me and those I loved if we didn’t keep a careful eye out for him.
I’m sure Parrain had never been closer to an airplane than the ones we occasionally saw fly over that rural part of Texas—cropdusters, mostly. But he knew exactly how to fly one and he told us.
“If you want to go to St. Louis, you le-e-e-e-an this way,” he would say, tilting his upper body to one side. “And if you want to go to New York, you le-e-e-e-an that way,” and he would shift in another direction.
Parrain contrived one day to show us how to catch a bird. He took a wooden crate, flipped it bottom up in his bare front yard, and propped one end up with a stick to which he had attached a long string. He sprinkled a little chicken feed on the ground around and under the crate and then we sat on the gallery, waiting for some hapless sparrow or bluejay or mockingbird to walk under the crate and be trapped when we yanked the stick out. And we waited. And waited. And waited. It seemed a good idea at the time.

But the person who mattered most to me in Dayton was Grandpa, Socrates “Sprig” Wycliff. I loved the man and I loved being in his presence. I loved his mannerisms and I loved the manliness of him. There was nothing he did that didn’t intrigue me.
It is hard for me now to separate my perceptions of him before we left Dayton from my perceptions afterwards, the ones I acquired while spending summers with him and Grandma and working with him in the shop. But it doesn’t really matter much. He was the same Grandpa all the time.
“The shop”—his shop—was a wonderland to me. It must have measured 30 feet across the front and about twice that from front to back. It was bisected down the middle by a series of posts about 10 feet tall. On the post nearest the front hung a green Dr. Pepper clock with the 10, the 2 and the 4 highlighted. Those were the times of day the company advertised were good to have a Dr. Pepper.
One side—the side west of the posts—was a storage area. The bare ground over there was covered with odd pieces of pipe, angle-iron and other types of metal, and wood in various sizes and shapes. The lighting was dim at best and, to an outsider, the space looked disorderly. But Grandpa seemed to know, down to the smallest piece, exactly what he had there and precisely where it could be found.
The other side of the shop, the east side, was the main working area. It contained the forge, where Grandpa would heat metal objects—plow points, mower blades, rods, all types of implements—and the anvil, where he would hammer the fiery hot metal pieces to sharpen or reshape them. Right next to the front door was an arc welding machine and tanks of acetylene and oxygen, which Grandpa used to join pieces of metal together or cut them into pieces, as the task required.
Farther back in the shop were a bandsaw, which always filled me with fear, even when I was much older, and a huge mechanical hammer, which fascinated me. Grandpa used these tools very infrequently. Sometimes when he was away briefly, I would flick the switch and turn the hammer on just to watch the big drive belt go whirring over the wheels that drove the machine. Occasionally I would even go so far as to put my foot on the lever that engaged the belt and made the hammer go up and down. What power!
Scattered throughout this business side of the shop—hanging from nails hammered into posts, propped against walls or simply “hung up on the ground,” as Grandpa liked to joke—were tools of every size, shape and description: wrenches, tongs, chisels, screwdrivers, hammers, measuring devices. Some of them he used every day; some he used almost never. And yet, when he needed a tool, he always seemed to know just where to find it.
At the very back of the shop was a rolltop desk that didn’t seem to get much use. About the only thing I can remember about it was the pads of invoice sheets imprinted with the words “S. Wycliff and Son.”
For a young boy, the shop was a place of mystery and wonder and excitement. I loved going there to watch Grandpa work and, later on, to work with him. A few years ago, while on vacation with my wife in the upper peninsula of Michigan, we came across a blacksmith shop on Mackinac Island. I walked into the building and was immediately swept away in a tsunami of nostalgia. The smell of coal burning in the forge took me back to the days when I would watch as Grandpa, bespectacled, sweating and clad in his work “uniform” of blue bib overalls over a long-sleeved shirt, would push a piece of cold metal into the coals of his forge and then, a little while later, pull the same piece out, glowing red-hot. Gripping the metal with tongs held in his left hand, he would whirl and place it on the anvil. Then, his lips pursed in concentration, he would begin pounding it with his hammer, a five-pound sledge that he had made for himself. As the metal cooled and reverted to normal color, its shape would be changed under the pressure of Grandpa’s hammer blows and taps.
Reflecting on this observation years later, I recognized a principle that I have observed in numerous contexts. It isn’t the amount of raw strength one brings to a task that matters; it’s the technique one employs in using the strength one has. Grandpa was no muscle man—far from it, he actually was pretty skinny. But he knew how to use the muscle he had and could wield his sledge like an artist wields a brush. 
He was an artisan who took immense pride in his work. When a new customer would come and ask him whether he could fix some broken piece of equipment, he would say, “I’ll fix it, or I’ll fix it so nobody else can fix it.”
As interesting to me as Grandpa’s smithing was his talking and that of the men, black and white, who would come by the shop just for conversation. Sprig’s shop was a gathering place, and the discussions would range from the weather—always a concern in an agricultural area—to the great political issues of the day. And I was struck by the fact that Grandpa seemed to speak so freely with the white men who came there. There was no submissive “yes, sir” or “no, sir” as I heard many other black men say routinely when they talked to white men.
I later discerned a lesson in that: Even a black man could enjoy a certain freedom if he had a unique skill or ability that white folks needed. Grandpa was the only blacksmith in that area at that time, and so he was in something of a commanding position. Later on, I saw the same thing demonstrated by Archie Summers, the black cook at the Albert Pick motel restaurant in Terre Haute, Indiana, where I worked as a dishwasher the summer before I started college. “If I don’t work, nobody works,” Archie used to say. And he was right.
Grandpa was a blacksmith, but he was more than that. He also farmed the twelve acres on which he and Grandma lived south of Dayton, and he raised livestock there as well—cattle, sheep, chickens. During summertime, he would contract with people who wanted fields mowed to do the mowing in return for the hay. So during our teenage years, Francois and I often spent summer days aboard Grandpa’s little orange Allis-Chalmers tractor mowing fields and lots for people around Dayton, and then took turns sitting atop a big rake to collect the hay into piles. Grandpa, who would have been spending his time at the shop, would come after the raking was done and we would all load the hay onto a trailer, which we would pull behind the tractor to Grandpa and Grandma’s house and empty into the barn.
When I go to Texas now for summer visits I wonder how we survived, working as hard as we did in the incinerator that was Texas in summertime. More important, how did Grandpa survive? The man worked harder than anyone I have seen either before or since, and he would get up each morning and do it again. Amazing!
But Grandpa wasn’t an all-work-and-no-play guy. He had his enthusiasms and took his pleasures. None of those pleasures was greater than professional wrestling.
Every Friday night, one of the Houston stations would telecast wrestling matches from the City Auditorium in downtown Houston. And Grandpa would always be in his ringside seat: a blue plastic-covered rocker-recliner in the room where he and Grandma kept the television. Grandma’s younger brother, Uncle Clarence Brown, would drive over from his house on the north end of town to join Grandpa in watching the show. And they were a pair to watch!
The names of the wrestlers became familiar to all of us: Gorgeous George; Bull Curry; Danny Savage; Lou Thesz, Dick and Jerry Kozak; Dory Dixon, the rare black wrestler; El Medico, a masked Mexican; Pepper Gomez, small but mighty; Rito Romero, a Mexican lightweight and a favorite of ours; Duke Keomuka, an Asian who was one of the first to learn and apply the excruciatingly painful stomach claw, which meant certain defeat for any opponent who fell victim to it.
I can still hear Grandpa cheering, coaching, exhorting, lamenting, deploring as he watched the eternal, cosmic conflict between good and evil acted out within the ring at the City Auditorium, while a feckless referee—either Otto Coose or Marvin Jones—struggled to keep some semblance of order and enforce some sort of fairness, and Paul Bosch, the announcer, narrated the proceedings.
“Hit him!” Grandpa would shout when a good guy would win a momentary advantage over his dastardly opponent. “Hit him!”
A few seconds later, of course, the tables would turn as the bad guy pulled some object from his wrestling trunks and used it to blind the hero, or clobber him into senselessness.
“I told you to hit him!” Grandpa would wail, the pain in his voice almost palpable, as this disastrous turn of events was acted out.
Somehow, week after week, year after year, the good guys never seemed to figure out that you just couldn’t play fair with the baddies, that you had to hit and hit and hit until all the fight was knocked out of them and, maybe most important, you couldn’t expect the referees to do their jobs and enforce fairness and justice. Might as well expect Barney Fife of Mayberry to pacify Tombstone.
Besides the wrestling matches, Grandpa watched several other TV shows along with Grandma and Aunt Willie. He especially looked forward to “Lassie.” And while I may get my race card pulled for admitting it, we all enjoyed “Amos and Andy.”
Grandpa also liked to hunt, and the raccoons that invaded his corn patch annually provided him with a reason to do it. On the best such occasions, he would invite his cousin, Darrell “Son” Trahan, over from Ames to join him. Darrell would show up toward sundown with two or three hounds and a friend or two, and they and Grandpa would disappear into the thicket “under the hill.” The dogs would bray; Darrell would urge them on with an exhortation of “Go on ahead!” and the hunters would follow them through the soggy bottomland in search of “coons.” I was lucky enough to go along with them once or twice. Grandpa carried his shotgun and I toted a single-shot .22 rifle. I don’t recall that we bagged anything on those trips. But for me, the excitement lay in being there, in the presence of these manly men doing a manly thing.
Yes, being with Grandpa was what I would miss most in leaving Dayton.
But Mother and Daddy had made their decision and there was no appeal from it. We may have been trading “down south,” Texas, for “up south,” Kentucky, rather than for one of the more glamorous venues that so many other migrating black folks went to--places like New York, Chicago, Seattle or Los Angeles. But what mattered for us was the same thing that mattered to other black migrants before us: The end of our trek promised opportunity, while staying in place meant…staying in our place, the subordinate station reserved for black folks in the South. And so we went.