restricted access 6 Rejecting Mammy: The Urban-Rural Road in the Era of Brown v. Board of Education
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183 7 7 7 7 7 7 In April 1955, just before the Supreme Court ruled on how to implement its momentous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that desegregation of public schools should proceed at “all deliberate speed,” the eyes of many black Memphians turned briefly in a different direction, to the case of the “Patio 6.” The appellation referred to a group of six black employees of Joel’s Patio, a downtown Memphis café serving southern-style food. The workers, all but one of them women, were offended by their bosses’ new mode of attracting customers: seating an elderly black woman, Mrs. Savannah Keyes, outside the café, with a bandana around her head and ringing a bell. Behind Mrs. Keyes, a “mammy” rag dollsatinthewindow.AccordingtoMrs.MarieTaylor,whoapproachedthe two white women employers on behalf of the group, they told her: “Look, if you all don’t like it, get your clothes and get out.” The workers chose to leave, at which point the employers locked the door and called the police, who arrested the workers. Mrs. Taylor later reported at a community meeting that one arresting officer had become verbally abusive: “He threatened to ‘knock my brains out’ if he ever caught me on the street.” Jailed and charged with disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace, the employees were eventually found guilty and fined in city court. Not unusual in their content, these events nevertheless sparked an extraordinary response: the formation of the Memphis Citizens Committee for the Promotion of Justice by ministers and other community leaders, in order to defend these “heroes in a common place,” as one ame minister put it.1 The same week that this community meeting took place, another group of black Memphians drove to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, for the annual meeting of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (rcnl) and a speech by black U.S. congressman Charles Diggs Jr. They joined an astounding 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 Rejecting Mammy The Urban-Rural Road in the Era of Brown v. Board of Education 6 The Era of Brown 184 13,000 African Americans from across the Delta, including, according to the black press, “tenants, sharecroppers, day laborers as well as farm owners , and a cross-section of the professional group.” This crowd had turned out in defiance of threats from the white Citizens’ Councils, formed in reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court decision. A week later, the “gangland style” murder of one of the meeting’s speakers, Rev. George W. Lee, a black Baptist minister and leading Mississippi voting rights activist, drew black Memphians back to the Delta for his funeral. After the lynching three months later in nearby Tallahatchie County of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, who was visiting from Chicago, the Tri-State Defender, a new black newspaper in Memphis, characterized race relations in the Delta as a “racial equation” of “master and servant and rigidly enforced.”2 Indeed, black activism in Memphis in the years surrounding the Supreme Court’s momentous decision emerged in the context of a powerful urban-rural matrix that focused attention on such wrenching reminders of the plantation regime as Mrs. Keyes’s presence outside of Joel’s Patio. Local understandings of freedom were shaped in profound ways both by this interchange between plantation and city and by the Supreme Court’s redefinition of equal rights. During the 1950s, the one-way, rural-to-urban migration turned into two-way exchanges of activism and ideas. At the same time, black Memphians perceived what the black press referred to as a “racial equation” of “master and slave” as a description of not only rural but also city life, leading many to strike out against urban practices that were symbolic of the plantation. For the “Patio 6” workers, the “mammy” stereotype simultaneously evoked shame and anger. Protesting it bound them to the historical struggle for freedom. In Memphis in the early 1950s, the race-baiting and red-baiting that de- fined the domestic Cold War in the South nearly crushed black-majority labor unions and put a damper on naacp activism. Given this reactionary social context, marked by such dramas as Senator James Eastland’s public anticommunist hearings in Memphis and the bombing of a home in which a black family was sleeping, one might conclude that the militant activism of the wartime and postwar years was obliterated. Rather than disappearing , hard-pressed struggles by working-class...


Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century
  • African Americans -- Segregation -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights movements -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • Racism -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • Memphis (Tenn.) -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century.
  • Memphis (Tenn.) -- History -- 20th century.
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