Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: BOOK(S) - Begins January 4 / Ends January 11 (01/04/18)
- TITLE: The Sundown Town
By Phillip Cimei
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“She’s yer’n now. Get’er out’a the house and do what you want with ‘er,” said Sheriff Skinner. “We don’t take kindly to keep’n dead n-----s around.”
Sheriff Skinner stood there chewing away on his tobacco. He wore a light brown Stetson hat stained with sweat high on his head. His khaki colored shirt, sloppily half-in, half-out, had as many wrinkles as his scowling face. His faded Levi’s had one leg half tucked in his black ankle-high engineer boot.
A shriveled-up wisp of a man, now. He had been the town’s sheriff for the past fifty years. Once a formidable hulk of a man using his brute appearance to intimidate and remind those of another color that this was an all-white town. Eliza’s family challenged their prejudices.
Sheriff Skinner turned his head to the side, chewed a few more times on his Red Man chewing tobacco, gathered up a mouth full of pungent smelling juice and spit a stream right at the feet of Eliza. The furrows in his wrinkled face deepened as he spewed out a warning, “Ya know this is a Sundown town. Y’er lucky I’m let’n ya take that filthy corpse with ya.”
“Sir, thank ya much. I can handle it from here.” Her mother always told her that Coals of fire will do more than bitter words. She thanked him for letting her know of her mother’s discovery—a homeless man seeking shelter had pulled a plywood panel from this undiscovered hiding place.
The sheriff turned, stopped, and barked out another threatening reminder, “Remember, this is a Sundown town.”
“Have a blessed day, Sir,” Eliza said.
He left with a “Humph” and another spit of tobacco that splashed onto Eliza’s shoes. He turned and said, “He deserved what he got. His kind always got what were com’n to ‘em.”
Eliza knew who the he was. Forty-five years earlier, the locals, including the sheriff, had taken her daddy to the edge of city limits and hanged him right above the sign declaring that M--a, Arkansas was a Sundown town. The sign read, “N----r, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In, M--a.” She walked solemnly to the portal of her mother’s eternal resting place. Her mother was in the sitting position, knees up and head down, as if she was reading. Her left hand rested on the book in her lap. It appeared as if a finger was pointing to a passage in the book. Her right hand was to her side clasping another book. This peaked Eliza’s interest.
She took a quilt, laid it down and knelt by her mother. Her doleful stare turned into an inquisitive one. She peered down at the blackened pages and charred edges of the book. It was her mother’s worn King James Bible. Her mother’s finger rested on a verse she often quoted to Eliza, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” John 8:36 KJV. The other book would tell a similar story.
Eliza grabbed the book resting at her mother’s side. The book was a signed copy by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Eliza and her mother were named after some main characters in the book. That book gave hope—the Bible assured it. One book, a reminder of the misnomer—freedom— white America embraced. The other a reminder of the true freedom all could embrace—white, black, yellow and red. It all became clear now to Eliza.
Her mother had been at home when they dragged her daddy off. She told Eliza, then a teen, to run for her life. She would gather items and meet up with her later. Chloe hid in her little hideaway cubby, read by candle light, and waited for the mob, that returned for her, to leave. She read the books and waited. Then the flames came.
Eliza wrapped her mother in the quilt, laid the two books in her lap, and gently picked her up like a sleeping child being carried to bed. “Free at last,” she whispered, “Free at last.”
Note by Author: The part about the hanging outside of M--a Arkansas was true. The signs they put at city limits were also true. The majority of western Arkansas cities were sundown towns from the late 1800’s until the 1980’s. Three counties were entirely whites only counties at one time. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a heart wrenching account of the atrocities of slavery in the US and the will of African Americans to escape the slavery that a free country heartlessly placed upon them.
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