In honor of Black History Month, I am sharing an excerpt of my book in progress called Mama. This is a fictionalized documentation of the life of my great-grandmother, Buena Vista Rogers, and her children. This excerpt shows how I imagine her meeting my great grandfather, James De Rogers. May they rest in peace.
It was 8:07 a.m. on Wednesday, July 22, 1932.
BV was late.
“How could this have happened?” she whispered under her breath after she looked at the bell-ringing alarm clock that never rang on her bedside table. BV jumped up in a fluster and scurried across the bedroom floor in her slippers to the vanity table in her bedroom.
Dropping herself on the aged Victorian chair in front of the oval mirror on the table, she rested her eyes on the floral carvings of roses surrounding the perimeter of the glass and sat with a heavy sigh as she grabbed her brush to style her up-do into a bun. “Shoot!” she said, fumbling through her jewelry box for bobby pins. “I never oversleep. I just don’t understand.”
“Watch your mouth, young lady.” BV didn’t realize her mother was standing silently at the doorway of her bedroom until now. Nannie Pope was a very thin lady, fair-skinned and had blue eyes. Many thought she was white, being called mulatto: half white and half black. Slender in body as well as narrow in facial structure, Nannie had long black silk-like hair that she draped down her back into a long braid. Her look was angelic and soft-spoken, yet stern.
“I’m sorry Momma,” BV said, “Why didn’t you wake me up, Momma?” Reluctant to answer, Nannie stood there and looked BV straight in the eye, “You’re a young lady now, baby. You have to learn these things on your own.” And, Nannie turned around to walk back to the living room where she had been folding laundry, leaving soft echoes of her foot steps in the hallway.
Her eyes still gazing at the now empty doorway, BV’s mind drifted to yesterday afternoon, when she bumped into a young man at the school where she taught. He was quite handsome, she remembered. “Oh, so handsome,” she said effortlessly, but suddenly embarrassed as she realized she had actually said it out loud.
BV recalled heading down the bright yellow school hallway at noon yesterday, hearing the floor creaking as she walked towards the cafeteria for lunch. She passed the administrative offices on the right, and two classrooms on the left. And, right before making the left turn into the lunch room, she knocked straight into him, a very talk, dark-skinned man. The hit almost knocked her petite body down to the floor.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said, sounding to BV like an angel that had a deep melodic voice that paired well with the sounds of harp strings and piano.
James De Rogers was a new cook in the cafeteria and BV knew all about him, even though this was the first time she met him. The other colored teachers and tutors would giggle as they talked about him in the classroom when all of the students left. From what they said, he was exquisitely handsome and carried himself as one fine gentleman, but this was the first time BV met him face-to-face.
“Oh, that’s OK,” BV said in response, trying to sound very lady-like and proper. Inwardly, however, she was embarrassed and wished that her body would stand still so that she could get a chance to feel her body against his. She nodded with a greeting smile, trying to sweep her bang hair from falling in front of her eyes and get a better look at him. But, he smiled his pearly white teeth so bright that she had to squint to look at him. And, he quickly passed beside her and continued down the hall.
Right then, as if someone had slapped her in her face, she heard, “BV! What are you doing in there?” Her mother’s voice and the aroma from coffee that was brewing in the kitchen snapped her out of her daydream. BV was supposed to be at the school by 8 o’clock this morning to teach her class, and by now it was 8:20 and she hadn’t even stepped out the front door. Surely, she would get in big, big trouble for this.
Still seated in the vanity chair, BV jumped up and went through her closet to find her white blouse with the doily-like collar embroidered with yellow daisies. She pulled that out of her closet, along with a light gray pencil skirt she ironed the night before. After throwing the clothes on the bed, she pulled out her nude panty hose from the dresser and hurriedly pulled them up her long, lean legs. She then climbed into her slip before clothing herself with the rest of her garments.
BV took a quick look in the long mirror hanging on the wall beside her closet, straightening the clothing that hugged her body like a fitted glove. Her hair was in a neat bun now and she patted it for any fly-away hair strands and then immediately stooped her body down to the floor to look under her bed for her black flat ballet slipper shoes. She would have to stuff a pair of her taupe Mary Jane shoes in her pocketbook, she thought, as her mind continued to wander through yesterday’s encounter.
“Momma, I’ll be home right after school today,” she hollered as she ran through the house to the front door. She grabbed her baby pink cardigan that she had left on the sofa yesterday and the door slammed behind her as she left the house.
Usually very punctual, BV would leave home in the mornings with enough time to take a slow stroll down College Drive, absorbing the fresh air in the ‘Bama sky, watching the branches kiss against each other and produce sounds that resembled faint waterfalls. She would even count insects she would pass along the way during her morning walk. Yesterday she counted 10 red ants, three grasshoppers and even a cricket. But, today there was no time for leisurely observations. She had to pick up her steps and walk a little quicker. Anyone who passed by her, though, wouldn’t be able to tell that she was in any kind of rush. Her back was straight and her head held high as she gave a determined strut, focused on her destination without being flustered.
BV taught classes at the Alabama Girls’ Industrial School (AGIS) in Montevallo, Alabama. Opened in October 1896 as Alabama Girls’ Industrial School (AGIS), the institution was a women-only technical school that also offered high school-level courses. AGIS became Alabama Girls’ Technical Institute in 1911 and added “and College for Women” in 1919. The school fazed into being a traditional degree-granting institution, becoming Alabama College, State College for Women in 1923.
As a youngster, BV was always quick to learn her lessons and knew that she wanted to share her knowledge with other women. So, when she found out about this teaching position, she knew it was a perfect fit. She was usually on a rigid work routine at the school. The 22-year-old would begin the day teaching an English class at 8 a.m. sharp and then she would help Mrs. Johnson in the tutoring class with students who needed additional help with reading and writing.
Now, at 9 a.m., she found herself in the director’s office, having been too late to teach her class this morning. “I am so sorry. I am never tardy, Mr. Wellington. I don’t know what happened to me this morning, but I can guarantee you that I will never be late again. I sincerely apologize,” BV pleaded to the director of the English department.
As she stood in front of his desk, anticipating his response, she felt little sweat spots forming on the center of her forehead as if men were taking their stance – in their suited armor and weapons – ready to fight against its enemies.
At this moment, the memory of her mother’s voice echoed in her ears, “Now, BV, don’t give anyone any reason to doubt your talents. You are a smart girl, so always conduct yourself as such. Do you hear me?” Her mother always made tough-love remarks like this as a way to protect her daughter from the outside world. BV thought to herself that she had certainly let her mother down this time, for sure.
Mr. Wellington had not lifted his eyes off of the papers he was holding in front of him while BV stated her case. He had a very stern look with his reading glasses hanging at the tip of his nose. Actually, he always carried himself this way, making everyone think that he was highly upset for just waking up every morning. A Caucasian man in his 60s, Mr. Wellington had been the director of the department for close to 25 years now. Always dressed in a tailored suit, usually gray or blue, he sat in his chair, which looked somewhat uncomfortable, sitting stiffly and rubbing his finger horizontally across the top of his thickly graying mustache that intertwined with his long nose hairs.
“Mr. Wellington?” BV said, after a long awkward silence.
He immediately shifted in his chair as if startled, sniffed and cleared his voice before speaking. “Yes, um, Miss. Rhoden,” he started in a forced bass voice. “We take tardiness very seriously here and this is not something that we will take lightly at our institution. We expect all of our staff, especially the colored ones we are allowing to work here, to be here not one minute late; we have students to teach and they rely on us. I hope that I make myself very clear? This will not be tolerated here at our school.”
“Yes, sir, I understand,” she said.
“Well, I certainly hope so. You may go back to the classroom now,” he said, more interested in getting back to the piles of papers he was reading.
Surprised that she wasn’t reprimanded more, BV said thank you and stepped out of the office towards the direction of the class she was to tutor. As she walked through the long hallway, she said a silent prayer to herself, thanking God for Mr. Wellington’s forgiveness. “Lord, I thank you for your patience with me. I acknowledge your blessing me with this job, Lord, and I ask that you continue to bless me to make the right decisions and an impression on my peers. Amen.”
Then again, as if appearing out of the heavens, it was him.
“Good morning, ma’am. Nice to see you again,” he said, with a charming smile. BV thought she responded, but actually dropped all of the books that she had in her arms on the floor in front of him. While he was picking them up for her, she stood there in a gaze at where he was standing before he stooped down to pick up her literature. And, just like a snap of a finger, before she knew it, he was walking away. She didn’t realize he had handed the books back to her and wished her a good day.
Not much time passed before they crossed paths again. This time, however, it was not by accident. James came to visit her classroom during one of her lesson breaks. Just as much as she had taken a liking to him, he apparently found himself intrigued by her beauty. He stared motionless.
At 10 a.m., BV sat in classroom 207 at the teacher’s desk dressed in a light yellow, mid-calf day dress that was nipped in at the waist and adorned with geometric printed fabric, a popular style in the 1930s. As always, BV sat with perfect posture and her eyes were fixed on the homework she was grading for her students.
Unbeknownst to BV, James was admiring her through the square glass opening of the closed door. And, as she sat there at the desk, focused on her work with her horn-rimmed reading glasses, she noticed through her peripheral vision a man standing at her doorway, not knowing that he was trying to build the courage to enter the room. Clearing his throat out of nervousness, he walked in and BV looked over to her left and saw him standing there. A magical moment happened before either one of them spoke. And, then James snapped out of what seemed like a trance.
“Um, excuse me for interrupting you, ma’am,” James started saying, as he stood there staring at the floor nervously, “I wo- wo-would like to know if you would like to grab something to eat in the cafeteria after your class ends on Friday? I sure would like if you would do me the honor.” At that moment, time froze for what seemed like several hours. Then suddenly, BV responded, breaking the silence, louder than expected. “Yes!” she blurted out. “Why, yes,” she softened her voice, “That would be just fine, Mr. …?”
“James De Rogers,” he replied, instantly. “But, you can call me James, Miss. Buena.” She didn’t know he already knew her name. She also didn’t know that he wanted to cook a special meal for her that included a dish he had been working on since working at the women’s school cafeteria, smothered meatloaf with smashed red potatoes and herbs.
BV was nervously excited about her cafeteria date with James, as she thought about him on the walk home that day, but she was also terribly concerned. Her mother was very strict when it came to boys who were interested in courting her. Take Freddie, for instance. That was her neighbor’s son who had a crush on her ever since elementary school. With terrible acne and a protruding forehead, the poor boy was always dressed in clothes perfectly tailored for his frame but that never matched. He would come by the house and speak to Nannie directly and express his feelings for BV.
He tried, he really did. But, Nannie told him that he couldn’t possibly date her daughter. Nannie only wanted the best for her daughter, but sometimes it didn’t come off so pleasantly. She told him that it was because he was ugly. Nannie never held her tongue when it came to the welfare of her family. Freddie was so upset over the matter that he never came back to the house to profess his love for BV.
Thinking about this episode, which had been the talk of the town, BV wasn’t sure how her mother would react to James’ request, but she knew it would be embarrassing. BV hadn’t been on many dates and when she wasn’t working, she spent most of her time helping Momma take care of the household. Her siblings needed taken care of and Momma needed help with cleaning the house, doing laundry and cooking.
That evening, when BV told her mother about James’ invitation, her mother immediately refused as BV thought she would, but BV had a glimpse of hope in her heart that perhaps Nannie would realize she was growing up and needed to choose the boys she would date on her own. Not Nannie; she said the gentleman would have to come to their home for dinner so that she could meet him herself. Papa was working a couple of towns over for several months so he wouldn’t be there to meet him.
Two days later, James found himself in front of the old white house that had a wrap-around porch on McCray Street. He had taken a three-mile walk to the house because he didn’t have a car, and walking is what most colored people did back then anyway. So, with a bundle of dandelions he had picked up along the way, he checked to make sure his white collared shirt was tucked in properly in his black slacks, straightened his suspenders and dusted off the dirt from his shoes. Then, he knocked on the door. BV opened the door, grinning from ear to ear and welcomed him in her home.
Surprisingly, dinner was great at the Pope household with James as the special guest. She was a little hesitant at first, but Nannie took a liking to him quickly and BV’s siblings got along with him, too. Over honey baked ham with pineapples, potato salad, and collard greens, as well as several rounds of sweet tea, everyone around the dining room table enjoyed James’ charisma and humor. He was a fine gentleman, Nannie concluded. He hadn’t had much education, only having finished the 7th grade, but he was very smart. James De’s mother passed away while he was young, so he stayed with his grandmother. He always had the ability to talk to people well, in a convincing manner.
After only a few months of courting, James asked for BV’s hand in marriage.
They were married quickly. Nannie made the perfect dress for BV’s wedding. It was exquisite, yet simple. The off white, lace-trimmed dress had elbow-length sleeves, a high neckline, and was long and slightly loose against her body, as to not hug her frame too tightly in the Christian ceremony. Minister Chapman conducted the short ceremony and Buena Vista became a “Rogers” when she married James in a small Methodist church on top of the hill on a warm and sunny afternoon in June of 1933.
There was no bridal party, and no guests besides both of their parents and siblings. It was simple. They had fallen in love and they were soon-to-be parents.
Thank you for reading. Stay tuned for another excerpt about their first son, James Arthur.