Following my previous blog post, please see below another excerpt of Mama…
Tall, dark and handsome – resembling his late father James De Rogers – James Arthur, cleared his throat before he began to speak carefully and distinctly. It was evident by the rustled movement on the other side of the telephone line that he had straightened himself upright in his chair. And, with a sharp memory at the age of 78, he was ready to recapture the memories of his parents, as well as his childhood, from over half a century ago.
Very matter-of-factly and crisp, he said, “I was born in 1934. May 26th. It was a Saturday, around midday, according to Mama,” he said. “Mama was a teacher at the ladies’ college and dad worked in the kitchen at the college. This is how dad’s career in cooking began.”
A certain presence overcame others, including myself, when James Arthur spoke. Experience, nobility, and adoration were words that rolled off of the tongues of those who encountered or had a conversation with the eldest Rogers offspring. James Arthur was born soon after BV and James De married in their Montevallo home. You could see the resemblance he had to his father. His dark skin and thick nose were accents to the face that always seemed to have a warm smile that was always seen on his mother. Taking great thought before speaking, James Arthur said there were many things about Alabama that stay in his mind today.
He recalled a particular woman, for example, named Jessie May, who used to watch him while his parents were at work and said, “She was like my second mom. Her husband was like my godfather. We always had very friendly people around us growing up.”
With hesitation in his tone, James Arthur brought me back in time to narrate his life as a child, moving back and forth from Montevallo and Tuskegee with the Rogers.
It was quiet on the dead end street of Fairview Lane.
The orchestrated music of crickets was the only sound detected in the late night as residents in the Montevallo, Alabama neighborhood slept. Lightening bugs danced to the music in the air as male crickets released their mating flirtations through the vibrations of their legs rubbing against each other, inquiring for the female crickets to give them pleasure. The mating game was like a tribal calling for these insects, and uncomplicated.
Just as the sounds reached the chorus of the melody, a loud high-pitch holler came from the white two-room cottage house with the number 62 on its front mailbox – breaking the instrumental rhythm that soothed the city like a lullaby.
Baby James Arthur had cried out suddenly, making BV jump from her bed to her feet in fear. She was startled by the sound, not sure exactly what it was at first. She needed a few minutes to realize that it wasn’t a house intruder making that loud noise, it was her baby, her sweet little baby boy. James De beside her was sound asleep, as if the silence had not been interrupted in the home. “Hmph,” she said, before letting out a low girly giggle at the fact her husband was unaware of the baby’s cries. After a short exhale, BV looked at the clock beside her bed, James Arthur still crying. It was 2:38 a.m.
“My, oh my, Lord. This baby just does not want to let me sleep,” she said, walking over to the hand-made, wooden bassinet a couple of steps from the bed. “Okay, James Arthur, it’s going to be alright. Just quiet that hollering sweet boy.” She lifted the dark chocolate toned baby gently from his sky blue sleeping cushion and swayed him back and forth in her arms while soothing him with her sweet voice. Baby James, who was born on a warm spring day in May in 1934, had his father’s dark skin and wide eyes, but it was his mother’s warm and angelic smile that made everyone “oooh” and “aahh”.
BV let the cricket songs accompany the lullaby she gingerly sang to her first born, in an attempt to get baby James back to sleep. And, as always, almost instantly, the crying stopped a few minutes after he was in his mother’s arms and BV placed him back into his bassinet before joining her husband back to sleep.
Just a few hours later, James De was already awake, showering and getting ready for work at the woman’s college where he had met his bride. BV heard from town folk that he had a great following of his cooking. She knew his specialties included his smothered meatloaf, fried chicken and peach cobbler. But, this morning, BV was the chef in the kitchen. The aromas of bacon, eggs and cheese grits engulfed the small house.
James De stood at the doorway of the kitchen, dressed in his crisply ironed white chef uniform for work, admiring his wife and the plate of food she had prepared for him. BV stood at the stove staring at him. “Well, are you just going to stand there,” she said with an angelic grin, knowing that he was admiring her. “You will be late if you don’t hurry up and sit down and eat this breakfast.” She returned her stern voice with a soft smile at her husband and turned around to finish cleaning and scrubbing down the counter.
James De quickly ate the meal that was prepared for him on a floral place setting at the kitchen table. They may not have had much money, but BV always found a way to make things look as if they were of prestigious affiliation. The plate was white with an intricate floral and line design in silver with roses that framed the perimeter of the dish. In the center of the plate was a solo flower to match the border. Only one who stared would notice that chipped edge of the plate. A folded cotton napkin was set to the right with the utensils, and a matching cup with coffee and a mason jar filled to the brim with orange juice was set at the top of the place setting.
As soon as he finished eating, James De jumped up and kissed BV on the cheek before he jolted out of the house off to work. The screen door hit the frame with a slam.
BV wouldn’t be accompanying him today. Since she had baby James, she only taught at the school three days out of the week when she could get Sadie next door to watch him. “It’s just you and me, James Arthur,” she whispered with a smile, looking at her 14-month old in his high chair. She sat at the kitchen table and began to peel sweet potatoes that she would be preparing in a sweet potato casserole for dinner later that afternoon.
BV spent days cooking, cleaning, teaching, and attending to baby James, and then turning around to do the same thing the next day. It was a daily routine.
Before she knew it, baby James grew to be a young boy, saying first words like “radio,” referring to the music box that was regularly set on the bedside table. He was also very adventurous, getting into things he shouldn’t, as toddlers do. “Don’t go too close to the end of the porch!” BV would holler time and time again to James Arthur, who tempted his mother’s rules in that little house on Fairview Lane.
As James Arthur became a toddler, the family started growing. James’ sisters, Shirley and Bertha, were born and a fourth child, Gerald, was on the way. So, they moved from Montevallo to a city about 100 miles east called Tuskegee, which offered a booming economy and a home with more space. Everyone was talking about “Skegee.” The Rogers moved to a neighborhood in the city called “Green Forks” in 1938, named after a nearby intersection. This new residence would be the start of house-hopping in rental homes for the Rogers, as their family continued to grow and their financial status changed. James De found work where he could.
Tuskegee Institute, a college for black students, and Tuskegee Veteran’s Administration (VA) Hospital, which treated injured and mentally ill soldiers, were in the heart of the community. The Rogers house, on Washington Avenue, was close to both facilities, and as a toddler, James Arthur was amazed at the men he would see walking around town in those finely pressed uniforms, whether it was a veterinarian student in a lab coat or one of the Tuskegee Airmen. “Mama, I want!” he’d say one time, being held in his mother’s arms and pointing forward to grab aviation goggles off of one man’s head. James was in BV’s arms during a conversation she had with the young airman downtown at the market one day.
Aside from the airmen, the upcoming scholars who attended Tuskegee Institute were the talk of the town. Several men had a hand in bringing the institution to fruition decades ago, back in 1881, including a former slave, Lewis Adams, and a former slave owner, George W. Campbell, who both shared an interest in opening an educational facility for blacks. Educator and Reformer Booker T. Washington became the front runner in expanding the school, built on former plantation land, and was the institution’s first president.
Some of Tuskegee Institute’s students took part in internships and even worked for pay at the nearby VA Hospital, where James De began to work as a patient care assistant. Although he enjoyed his career as a cook, he had to put his passion aside and make a change in jobs to financially support his growing family. The long hours required at the hospital meant longer hours away from BV and his children. And, now it was time for baby James to begin pre-school. He did so at a home school on Old Montgomery Highway, led by a woman named Ms. Reed.
Recognizing shapes, colors, and sounds of animals, James developed his learning abilities quickly while being home-schooled by BV. “Bluuuue … round …greeeen!” James De would scream with glee to his siblings while walking around the house, amazed at the way the sounds of the words rolled off of his tongue. But BV, being a teacher, wanted better for her children and started looking into admitting him into a program designed for the children of those who worked at Tuskegee facilities. The program was known in town as the Chambliss Children’s House School Program, named after successful Tuskegee Institute graduate William Chambliss. The “practice teachers” who taught at Chambliss Children’s House School were actually students from the Institute who were studying education and participating in the student-teaching assignments as part of their studies.
Unfortunately, at the time BV wanted to admit James Arthur, the Chambliss Children’s House building had a waiting list. So, James Arthur was admitted into one of the neighboring schools that was also part of Tuskegee Institute, called Mitchell’s Mill. This school, and another one called Prairie Farms, was designed to help black rural children get the education they needed in a time when the Deep South was still heavily segregated and limited for blacks.
James Arthur joined three other families’ children at Mitchell’s Mill school: the son of the minister at Butler Chapel AME Zion Church, the daughter of a dean at Tuskegee Institute, and the daughter of another school official at the Institute. All three children were picked up every morning at 8 a.m. from their homes to go to school.
“Now James Arthur, don’t you give me trouble today,” BV said sternly, a tone in her voice she had learned from her mother, Nannie. The morning of his first day at the school, BV dressed James Arthur in his best clothes, as if he was going to Sunday School at Butler Chapel, a freshly starched and ironed white shirt, grey slacks and his best shoes. But, James Arthur wasn’t cooperating. He didn’t like wearing his church clothes and he cried louder and louder the more he got dressed. “You need to go to school and learn your lesson so that you are a smart boy. Don’t you want to be a smart boy? I will not have a child of mine uneducated. Now, after school, we will go over everything you learned so that I know you were paying attention. You hear me?”
“Yes, mama,” James Arthur mumbled, still annoyed at his attire. But he kept his thoughts to himself. He didn’t say another word about it. After he was fully dressed and BV had brushed his hair, she placed his school book in the nook of his arm and then tugged his arm to walk him outside to the front of the house to wait with him for his ride to school. They stood there silently until the car came with the other children in the back seat. A student from the college campus took the children to school.
“Now, you behave in school, James Arthur,” BV said before she gently kissed him on his forehead. “I love you baby. Do well in school, so you can be the smartest in town!” Her contagious smile made James Arthur grin and his mood instantly became jolly as he turned around and skipped to the vehicle to get in the car with the other children. “I love you mama,” he hollered. And, they were off to school.
It was all fun and games for James Arthur to be around children his own age. Back at home, there were babies BV had to tend to all day long. But, at school, it was different; he could make real friends. Overall, James Arthur was a happy child. At the innocent age of five, he didn’t realize his family was poor, as were most black families in the neighborhoods of Tuskegee during that time.
Zenobia Powell Perry, who became a well-renowned African American Composer, studied education during the 1930s and was a student teacher at Tuskegee Institute around the time James Arthur was enrolled at Mitchell’s Mill School. Perry stepped in to teach at the school when the director of student teaching was ill. She recalled:
“There were no textbooks, writing pads, slates or blackboards and chalk for Mitchell’s Mill School. To my dismay I found a porch on which set an upright piano in very poor condition, subject to the weather. Inside was only a large empty room with a roll-top desk and high stool, and a potbelly wood stove in the middle of the room. This was Mitchell’s Mill School.”
Equipment was scarce. There were no books or materials found in the empty room. The children and I made seats from willow shoots and nail kegs given by the Mitchell Lumber Mill. Wrapping paper was given by the butcher where soup bones were purchased; heavy twine and crayons were brought from the “Five and Dime Store” in Tuskegee on the way to Mitchell’s Mill the next semester. These were used to make charts – in lieu off books to teach reading, spelling, writing, arithmetic, and music. Each child brought a vegetable, a spoon, and a tin emptied from products the family had purchased so that they could eat the lunch that they had prepared. All chores and activities were used to make stories for charts for teaching. (American Composer Zenobia Powell Perry: Race and Gender in the 20th Century, by Jeannie G. Pool, Chapter 9, pages 109-110)
James Arthur attended school at Mitchell’s Mill for a couple of years and then an opening became available at Chambliss Children’s House.
At first, he didn’t like the idea that he was at a new school with new faces, but soon James Arthur was a praised student at the Chambliss Children’s House. In fact, he was one of the smartest students in the class. Although his learning had excelled, his family’s finances had fallen behind. By the time he was in the 3rd grade, it became more evident that as his family grew, the poorer they became. His father had purchased a car by now in order to get around and household groceries were getting expensive. The end result: they had to move to Columbiana, Alabama to live with BV’s parents, the Popes, for a while.
There were always people in and out of the Pope home, James Arthur thought as a kid. Most of them were family members and neighbors, but James Arthur wasn’t used to so many people being around. The Popes lived on a farm; so, many people were coming to get some of the fruit and vegetable preserves that Nannie was well-known for making.
With so many unfamiliar faces, James Arthur maintained a constant and unique bond with his grandfather, William A. Rhoden, whom he referred to as Poppa Daddy. He was a man of many trades, having a degree in masonry, working as a plumber, a musician, and even holding a job as a band instructor at a high school in Anniston, Alabama. Music was a big part of the family, and because of that BV and her siblings had piano lessons growing up. BV played the piano quite well in church.
One evening, after the traffic of people had been in and out of the house and the only ones left were the Rogers and the Popes, James Arthur found Poppa Daddy in the living room by himself playing the keys on the piano. Everyone else was in the kitchen and the dining room preparing for dinner. It was as if Poppa Daddy was in his own zone, far away from people, and engulfed in the strong, yet classical sounds of the keys. James Arthur didn’t know it, but Poppa Daddy would submerge himself in his music to get his mind away from the burdens his family faced, including the everyday struggle of segregation.
Earlier that day, Poppa Daddy was at a site where he was building the foundation of a new school for white students. He had worked five long hours straight, with no break, laying down stones for the foundation. His stomach was grumbling, so he decided to take a break from the work to sit down and eat the ham sandwich that Nannie had prepared for him. All of the white workers had taken their lunch break a couple of hours ago and he worked while they had lunch, so he saw no problem with eating his lunch quickly, before getting back to work. He sat down on one of the large stones off to the side of the site where they were building with one of the other black masons, Robert, and began to unwrap the foil from his sandwich when all of a sudden, one of the supervisors came up to him and said, “What are you doing over here boy?! You’re supposed to be working!”
“Sir, I was just taking a break to eat my…” Poppa Daddy started, but was quickly interrupted. “Did I say you could speak? Now, get your narrow nigger behind back to work or I will send you up and out of here with no pay!”
As Poppa Daddy sat at the piano, he thought of the anger and fury that bubbled up inside of him, but was also saddened because he knew if he spoke back, that could mean no money to bring home to his family. Being black was hard in the Deep South with never-ending racism. It was something that he didn’t want his children or grandchildren to have to go through, so he sheltered them as much as he could.
“Poppa Daddy? Why are you in here all alone?” James Arthur said in a holler, not realizing the level of his voice like most children his age. He startled Poppa Daddy, distracting him from his inner thoughts. “Oh!” Poppa Daddy said before giving out a sigh and laughing at the bubbly boy. “Come in here little one. I’m just enjoying music,” he said. “Come sit next to me so I can show you all about the piano.”
Poppa Daddy lifted James Arthur and placed him on the creaking bench next to him. The boy dangled there for a while as he tried to get his long legs over the bench and down on the other side to sit. “Now, you see these white keys on the piano?” Poppa Daddy asked. “They are called naturals. They sound a natural note when you press it, not a sharp sound. Now, James Arthur, there are seven naturals on the keyboard: C-D-E-F-G-A-B. Kind of like the alphabet that you learned in school, James Arthur. After the B, it repeats itself on the next C. This means you only have to memorize seven notes.”
Unbeknownst to Poppa Daddy, James Arthur was completely clueless as to what his grandfather was trying to explain to him, aside from the alphabet letters that he remembered hearing in school. But, Poppa Daddy kept sharing his musical knowledge with the boy. He was always trying to teach James Arthur about something.
After dinner that night, he brought James Arthur out to the porch to look at the stars
“You see that? That’s a moon,” he’d say. And, then would seem to go back into a zone, forgetting where he was and that he had been speaking to his grandson. Whenever that happened, Nannie would come out and tell James Arthur to come inside and leave his grandfather to himself. James Arthur would hurry back inside and Poppa Daddy would stay out there hours at a time throughout the night.
To Buena, and the entire family, it seemed like James Arthur was growing up at a rapid speed – literally. At age 11, James Arthur was already six feet tall. His long legs and athletic skills gave him a great advantage in sports, and the camaraderie that came with athletics gave him a little time away from the hardships that his family dealt with on a daily basis. While many thought that basketball would be his choice sport, it was an interest in track and field that really held James Arthur’s excitement.
By the time he reached his teen years, James Arthur became very interested in academics and athletics, and since he excelled in these things, his siblings began to look up to him. Their father was in and out of the household due to his on-and-off jobs. James Arthur became a father figure for his sisters and brothers. He was the man of the house and although he had his own interests, his main interest was his family.
The Rogers family lived in Columbiana for a period of time with Nannie and William Pope, but as James Arthur grew older and entered high school, BV thought it was best that he go back to Tuskegee to complete his studies. “Mama, I want to stay here with you and help you,” James Arthur pleaded with his mother. “You can’t take care of everything all by yourself. I can quit school, and work. I’ll do it, Mama. I’ll do whatever you need me to do, Mama,” he cried.
“Now, stop it with all that nonsense talk James Arthur,” BV said sternly. “Now, you listen here and go back to Tuskegee to do your schoolwork the way you’re supposed to like a young man. No child of mine will quit school, no matter how hard it gets. Now, you go on and get your clothes together to catch the train.”
So, James Arthur left, and he stayed with a family friend. While in Tuskegee, James Arthur’s love for track and field led him to become captain of the high school track team. And, he started a paper route to financially help his family while his father continued to be away from home working various jobs now not only in Alabama, but also in other places like going north to New York.
“The summer before the 8th grade, I remember dad asked me and my brother Gerald to come help him at his job. It was in Inwood, New York on a beach,” James Arthur said. “I worked with the fellas that put out beach chairs and umbrellas and would watch wealthy Caucasians have fun. It was something we could do during the summer to keep busy.”
James Arthur said his father traveled back and forth to work often, while he was in high school. “Dad was still trying very hard to keep the family going. At one point, he was working at night as a janitor, and then I think he eventually became a contractor.”
However, he still did not make enough money. “Mom began to work as a seamstress from home. She made a lot of prom gowns for girls in the area and would also do tailoring and iron uniforms for the Tuskegee Airmen. They used to call them Eisenhower jackets. It started when one airman asking her to do one and then she began to have a reputation for doing it well. Mama knew many of those airmen,” he said.
When Nina, the seventh and last child, was born on August 17, 1949, James De Rogers moved back to Alabama to be closer to the family. He was a chef at a restaurant in Montgomery and also did lumber work in the area.
All while this was happening, James Arthur continued to work to support his family, but he always had athleteics on his mind. The bicycling during the paper route helped his exercise routine for track.
Early on Saturday mornings, he would wake up, get dressed, and start his paper route. As he bicycled down those quiet streets, only to hear his foot peddling the wheels, he’d let the wind kiss his face like an angelic touch. He was away from his now crowded house and by himself in his own world, thinking about how one day he would attend college. The paper route gave him a chance to meditate and think about his life.
Meanwhile, at school, he became so well known for being in track that Tuskegee Institute coaches realized his talent and gave him a scholarship. James Arthur graduated from high school and enrolled as a student at Tuskegee Institute in 1951. By this time, BV had managed to move back to Tuskegee, so James Arthur commuted to college from home, instead of living on campus and did well with his major in engineering. However, that race towards academic success was short-lived. After only two and a half years at the Institute, James Arthur had to stop school and work in order to help his family.
Following the footsteps of his father, James Arthur began working in a restaurant kitchen, but not as a cook. At Mammy’s Shanty and Pickaninny Coffee Shop in Atlanta, Georgia, James Arthur did things like washing pots and pans, and peeling potatoes. In the meantime, more children had been born in the Rogers household: Faye and Robert.
James Arthur continued to work to help support his family, but now that he was not in college, there was a chance he’d have to serve in the military for the country. Since he was part of the ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) while in college, he was deferred from having to go into the military service then. But, now that he was out of college, it was likely that he’d be obligated to serve his country as part of the draft.
To avoid being called to the army, where he didn’t want to serve, he took it upon himself to enroll in the United State Air Force, an inspiration from seeing the Tuskegee Airmen back home. When he got there, however, they noticed a heart murmur and he wasn’t allowed to serve.
With six children, even though his son was now working to also help the family, James De really had to find more ways to make more money. So, he went back into the cooking business and worked at two high-end restaurants, one in Florida during the winter, and one in New York for the summer, which meant he wouldn’t be home for a while.
When work became even more scarce in Tuskegee, James Arthur and his brother Gerald, as the eldest boys in the family, were the first of the children to go to New York to visit their father – and work. So they went to join their father.
Unbeknownst to the rest of the family back home, James De would never make it back to Tuskegee.