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  • Destination Jim Crow
  • Bettye Kearse (bio)

Ruby had her way. Her child would not be reared in a place where black people were lynched. My mother, Ruby Laura Madison, was born in 1918 on the "colored" side of Elgin, a small town in Texas. She and her two brothers, John Jr. and Mack, grew up in a two-bedroom frame house. Fewer than twenty feet separated the back door from the back fence. At least a dozen chickens strutted about the yard, and three huge hogs lolled beside a weather-beaten feeding trough. The blackland prairie soil was always velvety and dusty, even minutes after a rain, and littered with weeds and chicken feed. Hoes, shovels, picks, rakes, pitchforks, and hatchets leaned against the house, the fence, and the trough. A railroad track stretched behind the back fence. Past the front porch, two rows of nearly identical homes, separated by narrow strips of dry grass, faced each other along the dirt road.

Less than a mile away from the colored neighborhood, Elgin Union Depot served as a switching point for two railroad lines that crisscrossed and linked the southern states. The Missouri-Kansas-Texas Line ran north and south and exchanged cars with the Southern Pacific Line, running east and west. The station crew, yanking and pounding the heavy steel links and pins, uncoupled cars from one train and, [End Page 107] in a matter of minutes, re-coupled them to a locomotive headed for a different destination. About twenty trains a day stopped at Elgin, and many of these switched cars. The little country town was truly an American crossroads, and from their backyard, my mother and uncles could watch the MKT Line pass by. Whenever a train thundered down the track and blew the smell of hog-corn-chicken-slop-dust through all five rooms of their home, the three curly-haired, golden-brown siblings would shout, "There goes Katy!"

Their father, whom I called "Gramps," lived in Elgin for most of his life, but his dreams encompassed the globe. For him, trains were both physical and metaphorical links to the alluring world beyond a small southern town. He subscribed to National Geographic magazine and, for nearly thirty years, saved every issue. A teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, he taught the colored children, including his own, not only reading, writing, arithmetic, and American history, but added world geography and culture to the curriculum. He agreed with the renowned intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois that black youths should broaden their minds, and he concurred with the revered pragmatist Booker T. Washington that black youths must know how to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. Therefore, Gramps' older students learned planting and harvesting and selling and bookkeeping as well as their academic subjects. A scholar who wore baggy pants, suspenders, long johns—even in summer—and a sweat-stained straw hat, Gramps loaned to his students books and magazines from the bulging bookshelves in his parlor and farm tools from his cluttered backyard.

When Ruby, John Jr., and Mack were toddlers, Gramps taught them to identify colors by practicing with the painted freight cars. Soon, he used the cars to teach the alphabet, then words: "Texas," "Kansas," "Southern," "Railroad." He described the attributes of places he had seen or read about—the steep hills and rolling fog of San Francisco, the excitement and energy of Harlem, the music and riverboats of New Orleans—where a train could take them one day.

Still, Gramps cherished Elgin. The colored side of town was a close-knit community. Women in families with abundant food "fixed up" plates and carried them down the road to those in want. Men with cars [End Page 108] gave rides to anyone needing to travel farther than walking distance. Buses were few, and seldom was there room at the back.

Every adult was responsible for all of the children and tried to protect each one from the racism that seeped in from the other side of the railroad track, and the children were answerable to any grown-up. Failure to stay close to home was sure to provoke adult wrath. Home was...