Papa’s school bell rests on a high shelf in my library. The smooth worn wooden handle tilts slightly, its screw stripped. The bell cup is now obviously tarnished black.
A lanky, 19-year-old country school teacher must have raised plenty of attention with this brassy clang in a rural Mississippi schoolyard in the late 1890s. Papa, my maternal grandfather, gave it to me when I became a teacher some 50 years ago.
A formal wedding photograph, taken in October of 1899, shows that young country schoolmaster Harry Black seated, his slender bride, my grandmother, standing at his left shoulder. Papa sits stiff in his wedding clothes, stovepipe trousers and a frock coat, one bony knee crossed over the other. I remember him in a much later snapshot with his head thrown back, a straw hat pushed to the back of his high forehead, mouth wide open, laughing.
We cousins, two and three years apart in ages, spent summers with our grandparents before and during World War II in Leland, a small town in the steamy Mississippi Delta nine flat miles of cotton rows from the Mississippi River. Our mothers were sisters just two years apart and close friends – Cornelia and Lucille, sixth and seventh of 10 children born to Harry and Belle Black.
Papa’s father, John Middleton Black, “Pa Black,” his grandchildren called him, furnished the land to build a schoolhouse and a Baptist church, called “Beulah,” in the small farm community of Weir, Miss. My mother, along with her siblings, attended the school. Many family members are buried in the Beulah churchyard.
Papa began teaching in the red hills of Choctaw County, but when he married Miss Carrie Belle Mauldin at the home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Andrew Mauldin near McCool, Miss., he had to give up teaching to become a farmer as were his father and his grandfather before him. Pa Black gave them land; the first of their 10 children, a girl, Madge, was born in 1900.
In the early 1920s, Papa, now on the board of commissioners for the county, bought 100 mules and hired men to build “the good roads,” as the early red clay county roads were called. In the late 1920s, Papa took his growing family to the Delta to farm the fertile cotton land.
The first cotton crop in the Delta was bountiful, and the price of cotton was high. But the next year was poor. He swapped the mules for dairy cows. The next year after that came the “1927 Flood.” The Mississippi River flooded 1,100 miles along its banks “from the Gulf to Cairo.” Mother remembers Papa had to get his dairy cows onto high ground amid rising waters and pouring rain to load them into boxcars and ship them to Winston County.
Papa later sold the cows and opened a creamery back in Louisville. Hardly anyone had a chance to take a breath before the 1929 stock market “crash.” After contending with an illness that lasted several months, Papa returned to Leland and raised tomatoes and peas for the hotel restaurant in the mornings in his “patch” on Deer Creek.
He played a fiddle. And he would play chords on the piano in the dining room for us all to harmonize: “De Camp Town Races,” “A Long, Long Trail A’winding,” “The Old Oaken Bucket” and “Who’s Gonna Take Care O’ Me, Hannah?” He laughed at Mammaw and shelled bushels of peas and even crocheted a bedspread and hooked rugs.
And after noonday dinner while the aunts and uncles rested before going back to town to their separate offices and shops, he was a willing audience for the plays Anne, Baby Sister and I produced with paper dolls we made from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue.
A retired teacher today, feeling the smooth, worn handle of Papa’s Bell, I know I hold a good part of my history right here in my hand.
– Jeanne Little, Fairhope, Ala.