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Chapter Eight Lilly and Alberta Weir, Kansas, 1905 I wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now. —African American spiritual When Lilly stepped off the train at Weir Depot, she must have thought she’d landed in the Wild West. The sidewalks were made from rough wooden planks. Coal dust from the town’s thirteen mine shafts clogged the air, and the streets were unpaved, even in the center of town. Prostitution, gambling, and corruption flourished. Weir’s miners worked ten hours a day, six days a week, in dark and dangerous caves buried under the earth. When Saturday night rolled around, they were ready to party. Saturday night brawls and shootings were commonplace in the town’s many saloons, and it was not unheard of for miners to stumble over a dead body as they wandered home in the predawn hours on Sunday.1 Nonetheless, Lilly would have found much to enjoy in her new surroundings. Unlike the teeming slums of Birmingham, there were only thirteen hundred black people in Weir, about 40 percent of the town’s population.2 It was a warm and tight-knit community where most people knew each other. In 1905 Lilly, her seven-year-old daughter, Alberta, and Will Dupree shared a rented home with a family of other miners.3 Like the homes of Weir’s other black miners, it would have been painted in a pastel color with a garden full of morning glories.4 The family lived in four small rooms, warmed themselves by a potbellied stove in the kitchen, and bathed in a tin washtub with water pumped from a well in the backyard. Instead of a paycheck, Will Dupree was paid in scrip-IOUs that could only be used at the company store. He’d have had little cash left over after settling his debts at the end of the month. To make ends meet, Lilly probably grew her own vegetables. Perhaps she kept chickens, pigs, or a milk cow in the small yard behind her house.5 But Lilly was the daughter of an Alabama sharecropper. 30 31 Lilly and Alberta, Weir, Kansas, 1905 She’d grown up learning how to make the most of her resources, and by 1910 she and Dupree were able to purchase a home of their own.6 To protect Alberta from Weir’s omnipresent coal dust, Lilly coated her daughter in Vaseline from head to toe before allowing her outside. However, there was no way Lilly could protect Alberta from the racial hostility that permeated the town. When a group of black mothers attempted to enroll their children in Weir’s elementary school in 1899, they were chased away by a crowd of brickthrowing whites. Rather than force the white parents to integrate, the town of Weir built a two-room schoolhouse next to the train depot for African American students.7 This is where Alberta first acquired her lifelong love of learning. For the rest of her life, she would continue to study, always trying to learn new things. Norma Tolson, who grew up in Weir’s African American community in the 1920s, remembers the black teachers at Central Elementary School as being caring but stern.8 On her way home from school, Alberta would have stopped for a treat at Jackson’s General Store. George Jackson’s store was a focal point for Weir’s black community, and during the winter months when she stepped behind the counter to pick out a piece of penny candy, Alberta would have heard the local hangers-on spinning stories as they sat around Jackson’s cast-iron stove.9 Many years later in an old scrapbook, I found a short story Alberta had written in the vernacular of these Alabama-born miners. It’s about a good-for-nothing layabout named Uncle Jerry and Aunt Cindy, his long-suffering wife: A’nt cindy was a ha’d-wo’kin ’oman who washed w’ite folks’ clothes f’om Monday till Satu’day night ’cause Uncle Jerry, her husban’, been stove up wid de rheumatiz ebber since f’eedom was decla’ed. Some folks said he was conju’d; an’ some said dat col’ settled in his j’ints; an’ some said dat he was jes’ plain lazy. Like most of Weir’s African Americans, Alberta spent many hours in church every Sunday. A photograph I have from around 1905 shows her standing in front of the church with the rest of Lilly...


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