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Authors: Eleanora E. Tate

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Celeste's Harlem Renaissance

BOOK: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
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Copyright © 2007 by Eleanora E. Tate

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at
www.HachetteBookGroup.com

The Little, Brown and Company name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

First eBook Edition: January 2009

ISBN: 978-0-316-04046-4

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Author’s Note

Dedicated to my mother, Mrs. Lillie Mae Tate, who told me to never ever put her name in my books; to Zack Sr. and Gretchen; to my main squeeze, Zack III, and Gretchen; to Elaine Estes; to Wanda Cox Bailey and Thomas Hancock; to Dean Irene Owens; to Dr. Pauletta Brown Bracy; and to my editor, Jennifer Hunt; Phoebe; and T.S.

And in memory of Mrs. Augusta Baker and the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library; Mrs. Charlemae Hill Rollins; Dr. Annette Phinazee; and to my late sister-in-law, Jill Wilson Hamlett. Thanks, Jill, for turning my sorrow into joy.

— Eleanora E. Tate, Author

Chapter
One

S
coot your big bucket over, Cece, and let me have more room,” Evalina yelled. I’d settled myself in the Bivenses’ wagon first! But I moved closer to Angel Mae. Evalina was the kind of girl who
had
to have her way. She’da sat on me otherwise. Lissa, the Bivenses’ mean albino mule, swung her head around in her straw hat and glared at us.

“Please don’t get this mule riled up,” Mrs. Bivens said, and puffed on her pipe. “About the only time she wants to move is when she sees me pack my herb bags in the wagon. Then she won’t take more’n ten steps until we stick sprigs of sage in her hat. She likes the smell of sage. I’m down to my last leaves.”

My neighbor Mrs. Smithfield, in the front seat by Mrs. Bivens, glanced around at us, too. She was a short, pleasant-faced woman with gray eyes, and so fair-skinned that she was often mistaken for being white. “Everybody ready? Leon couldn’t come. All right. They’re ready.” She straightened her woolen cap on her head and pulled her heavy coat closer around her. When Mrs. Bivens clucked and snapped the reins, Lissa brayed, then slowly clopped off.

“Cece, put that bonnet on!” Aunt Society’s clacker bell tongue followed us. “You don’t need to get any darker from this sun, even if it
is
chilly!”

I snatched off my red and white cap and slapped the scratchy gray woolen bonnet onto my head while Evalina snickered. Mrs. Bivens grunted. Leave it to Aunt Society to embarrass me in front of everybody. I hated that old bonnet. I’d take it off and put my cap back on after I got out of her sight. Aunt Society would go up to heaven — or down to the Devil’s Pit of Never-Ending Fire — criticizing my dark skin color. She allowed that she was tangerine-colored, and was she ever proud of that! To me she just looked wrinkled-up orange.

But this was a special Sunday, and I wasn’t going to let either my aunt or the sun ruin it. I was a winner! Me, Evalina, Angel Mae, and Leon had written winning essays about our state capitol in the annual contest sponsored by our Butterflies Club at school. Mrs. Smithfield, who was a cook for the governor, was taking us winners on a tour of our state capitol here in Raleigh right now. This was a great honor, our teacher Mrs. Bracy kept telling us, because not many Colored children got to see the inside of the capitol up close, like we would. Lands sake, I’d never won anything before. Momma was smiling down at me from heaven, and Poppa was proud of me. Aunt Society hadn’t said a word.

When we drove up Hargett Street past the Colored section of City Cemetery, I looked over toward where Momma and my baby brother, Emmanuel, lay, like I always did. Grandma and Grandpa Lassiter, Momma’s parents, were in there, too. Momma stayed sickly after Emmanuel’s birth, but I didn’t hold it against him. He passed a week later. That was four years ago, when I was nine years old. I promised Momma in her last days before she passed on two years ago that I would take good care of Poppa, and I will, no matter what. He and Aunt Society were the only family I had left. Well, I had Aunt Valentina Lassiter, Momma’s younger sister, but she lived in New York City.

We passed Hamlin’s Drug, the Masonic Hall, the Royal Theater, and the Stackhouse Hotel, where Poppa worked. I waved, in case he was looking out a window. Hope he wasn’t coughing. He’d had a bad bout this morning when he woke up.

“Now, children, look to your manners,” Mrs. Smithfield was saying. “Anybody with gum or candy in her mouth swallow it now. And don’t touch anything. We want those guards to see you three are the best-behaved Colored girls in Raleigh.”

We said, “Yes, ma’am.” My stomach was squeezed into knots, like it got whenever I went around strange people and places. Aunt Society said that was due to either the devil or tapeworms in my belly, but I knew better on both cases.

“Will we see the new governor and his daughter Angelina?” Evalina asked, sniffing. She always kept a cold all winter and never had a handkerchief, so her eyes watered and her nose was a mess. I hoped she wouldn’t be snotting inside the capitol building. At least she wore her nicest coat — the brown velour one with the matching cap. Which was nicer than mine. I just had my plain ole blue corduroy coat and cap with the missing pompons.

“We don’t go round to the governor’s private quarters anymore,” Mrs. Smithfield said, “not after some White schoolchildren caught a governor still in bed.” After Mrs. Bivens let us off at the capitol building, we entered through a back door past the guards. We stopped in a circular hallway called the rotunda. Building the capitol began in the 1790s, Mrs. Smithfield said. It caught fire in 1831. It was completed in 1840. “And, Evalina, before you ask, no, I wasn’t around when it was built.”

Evalina closed her mouth, smiling. Mrs. Smithfield handed her a handkerchief. Colored people like my Grandpa Lassiter helped to build the capitol, she said. I smiled proudly. We followed her up the stairs. “I’m glad I don’t have to scrub this place,” I whispered to Angel Mae. “After I scrub our kitchen and bedroom floors, my knees look like tree bark.”

On the second floor we peered into the House of Representatives chambers. “After the Civil War many Colored men got elected to the House and passed laws right in this room,” Mrs. Smithfield told us. “One of Cece’s great-uncles also served in the House and —”

“Only men?” Angel Mae frowned. “If I’d been around, I’d have voted for a lady.”

“Well, women only got to vote in 1920, remember. This is 1921, but things are still slow for us Colored,” Mrs. Smithfield explained.

I started to speak, but Evalina spoke over me again, then Mrs. Smithfield got to jabbering some more. When things got quiet, I said, “When I get grown maybe I’ll run for the legislature.”

“Ole mousey
you
?” Evalina arched up her eyebrows. “If you tried to give a speech, nobody’d hear you.”

I shut up again.
Well, I
am
going to be a doctor,
I added, to myself. Evalina and her big mouth, always talking over me! I had also wanted to say that Momma used to tell me about my great-uncle what’s-his-name in the House. Never mind now.

Mrs. Smithfield said that a ghost man in old-timey clothes haunted the capitol. “But I’ve never seen any ghosts,” she said while I peered around looking for anything shadowy. “Ghosts don’t eat, so they got no business in
my
kitchen,” she said. Upstairs was a room that used to hold samples of every rock, mineral, and plant in North Carolina, she told us. “But when General Sherman came through, people said his men stole all that stuff. I’m sorry about the rocks, but I’m sure glad he came, ’cause he helped to free our people from slavery.”

“Yay for General Sherman!” Evalina yelled, then clapped her hand over her mouth. Nobody else but the guards were around, but Evalina’s big mouth must have bothered Mrs. Smithfield a little, because she hurried us through the rest of the tour. The next thing I knew we were climbing back into Mrs. Bivens’s wagon. I didn’t mind. I’d seen enough. She dropped me off at the Stackhouse so I could walk home with Poppa. I sat down on a bench to wait. This way I wouldn’t have to help Aunt Society fix dinner. I was her captive in the kitchen. She poked, pinched, and plucked at me just like she did a dead chicken.

I waved at Mr. Hortimus Stackhouse, the hotel owner, and he waved back. He stood talking with some men in his blue serge suit and straw hat near the hotel entrance. Mr. Stackhouse built this grand four-story hotel for us Colored. It had a drugstore, where I worked with Poppa on Wednesday afternoons and on Saturdays, a barber chair, and a shoe-shine stand. He was the richest Colored man in town. Well, he and Mr. Lightner, who was building another big place, too. He already had Lightner’s Office Building.

I heard someone playing “Over There,” one of Poppa’s favorite war tunes, on the hotel piano. He and Momma gave recitals there on Sunday afternoons, Poppa on violin, Momma on piano. I played violin, too. I’d named mine Dede, after Edmund Dede, a violinist from New Orleans. Dede and I knew all the songs my folks had played, but we’d never played with them in public. We did at home, though, until Momma got too sick to sit at the piano.

After she passed, Poppa gave away our piano and packed away his violin. Whenever Dede and I played, I thought about Momma. I wished Poppa would play with me sometimes. Maybe I’d ask him again tonight. Maybe he’d learn how to play my poem“Forsythia,” which I wrote in honor of our yellow bush in the front yard, and set to music.

I hummed “Forsythia.” After we’d won the school essay contest, Angel Mae, Evalina, and I had entered “Forsythia” and some other things in the
Brownies’ Book
magazine children’s writing contest in New York, but we hadn’t heard anything yet.

I loosened my coat in the warm sunshine and listened to the piano player. Once upon a time I’d even wanted to be a concert violinist. But have all those eyes staring at me? It’d be hard enough for me to stand up in church and say my lines in the Easter program coming up March 27. Although Poppa and I were members of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal, we almost always attended Aunt Society’s Baptist church now — when he and Aunt Society were up to going.

Poppa left the hotel coughing and pulling his black sweater coat close around him like he was cold. But I saw sweat on his thin face. “Hi, Poppa. You all right?”

“Just a little gas, girlio, just a little gas,” he said, smiling at me, which made the long dimples that I loved crease his cheeks.

“That’s what you always say, from being mustard gassed in the war.” I loved to smell his army uniform when he wore it to the Great Negro State Fair here every year with the other Colored soldiers. But I never smelled what I figured was mustard gas. “I wish you’d go on and see Dr. Pope, so we’d know for sure.”

“Doctors just like to stick folks with needles and cut, cut, cut. They can’t cure what I got.” He pulled a small bottle of Cheney’s Expectorant from his jacket pocket and drank from it. He’d been drinking that stuff for years, but it didn’t seem to help. “Now quit jabbering about me, and tell what you saw at the capitol.”

So I did, especially the part about the ghost. “Poppa, do you vote?”

“Try to,” he said. “When they let me.”

“But Momma couldn’t, because she was a Colored woman, huh.” He nodded.

I believed in keeping promises. I promised myself that when I got old enough, I’d vote, no matter what. They ought to have things figured out for us Colored women by then.

Momma, who had been a root worker and a midwife, said people with bad coughs like Poppa’s had consumption, also called tuberculosis. TB. Momma could show everybody else how to fix and drink which kind of tea and how to swab on which kind of salve to ease aching joints and spider bites. Why couldn’t she have been able to find a tea or salve to help herself after she had Emmanuel?

As we walked on Hargett toward home, we saw the Smithfields sitting on their front porch. Mr. Smithfield, a railroad porter who traveled from Atlanta to New York, waved at us. He was a plump, handsome, dark-skinned man with a thick mustache, always joking. You know how folks have good neighbors and bad neighbors? Though Evalina was my friend, her family let their ducks and chickens and dogs poop everywhere. Other bad neighbors dumped their cookstove ashes in our backyard by our grape arbor. The Smithfields, though, were our
good
neighbors, praise the Lord.

BOOK: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
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