The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART ONE. ESCAPE
Chapter 1. HERBERT
DURING THE QUIET times, always in a small group, or more preferably, a one-on-one setting—in the back of a cab on the way to the airport, over dinner after an exhausting afternoon of smiles, greetings, and waving to the aggressive gaggle of fanatics that always made him nervous—he would try and let people in, try to help them understand him. Henry Aaron would drift back, far past his life and his own individual achievements. You had to go back to the first decade of the last century, and then flip the calendar back further still into the bitter contradictions his people lived, to the land of the ghosts that forever remained inside of him. He would try to explain rural Alabama, across the southern Black Belt into the corner of America that created him.
Even the name, “Black Belt,” meant different things to different people, spoke of conflicting layers. Some people said its origin derived from the dark hue of the southern soil, moist as a chocolate cake. Others said the name referred to the immense financial potential of the land, which offered such lucrative possibilities that its owners would always be, at least according to financial ledger, in the black.
And yet for others still, the etymology of the Black Belt simply described those black people, Henry’s people, whose dark hands dug deep into the land every day for centuries, from sunrise to dusk, whose feet trudged thanklessly across acres of unrelenting realities: the richest land in the country would always be worked by the poorest people—once for free, and then for pennies.
It was into this life that the original Henry Aaron was born, on December 20, 1884. In the spring of 1910, a part-time federal employee named Louis J. Bryant combed an important southern set-piece—the wide swath of cotton fields and dirt roads—collecting data for the United States government. In late May of that year, he arrived at Camden, the venerable county seat of Wilcox County. Rich in harvestable soil and advantageous geography, Wilcox County had been one of the richest cotton-producing counties in Alabama during most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From Camden, the Alabama River twisted southward, then turned into the Mobile River before emptying free into the Gulf of Mexico.
Slavery had long been the lifeblood of Wilcox County. Paddleboats carrying cotton and tobacco crowded the Alabama, but it was the transportation of slaves from down the river that gave Wilcox County its special economic power. So important were slaves to the financial fortunes of the region that whenever a prominent slave ship docked in Canton Bend—the county seat during slave times—town business effectively stopped. Auctions for newly arrived blacks commenced promptly at noon each Thursday, and the ships that served Wilcox County were so well known for producing quality slave manpower that Canton Bend bankers would close early on Thursdays in order to attend auctions in the town’s center. The custom was so deeply ingrained into the fabric of Wilcox County that even a century later, after slavery had become only a haunting memory, many southern banks in the old Black Belt areas still closed at noon midweek. Just before the Civil War, the county seat was moved from Canton Bend to Camden, and its preemancipation customs moved along with it.
The black population of Wilcox underscored the county’s economic reliance on slavery. According to the 1860 census, twenty-six blacks were listed in the county rolls as “free colored,” but each lived uneasily, in constant danger of being captured and resold into slavery. Government records show 905 whites owning 17,797 African slaves. Even with a relatively low white population (slightly under seven thousand), Wilcox County nevertheless held the ninth-highest total of slaves in Alabama and the nineteenth-highest in the entire country.
The county was run by influential families with deep Confederate pedigrees. The two leading family names in Wilcox were Tait and Gee. The Gees were the first white inhabitants of the county, and the northernmost arch of the river was named Gee’s Bend, after the ten-thousand-acre cotton plantation settled on the banks by Joseph Gee. The Gees facilitated slave trades between the family estates in North Carolina and Wilcox County, while the Taits routinely enjoyed the privilege of having among the highest number of slaves in the county, and generations of Tait men, led first by the patriarch, Charles Tait, would hold prominent positions both in southern politics and social circles. Powerful Confederate organizations, such as the Daughters of the Confederacy, were, in part, founded in Wilcox County. Slavery and cotton combined dominated the economy, and the Tait name was an affluent one, the family exploiting one of the most profitable of slave-trading corridors in the state. A few years after Bryant’s visit, on April 1, 1913, another former slave owner recorded his recollections for the state archives in a typed letter:
My Dear Sir,
Your favor of recent date received. I take pleasure in furnishing the following information regarding slavery.
CABINS AND QUARTERS
The cabins were generally one- and two-roomed. They were constructed of pine poles, had plank windows and floors and were ceiled.
The slaves were required to make their own furniture. This was plain, nude, and consisted mainly of a table, benches and a few chairs.
The cabins had one and two rooms. A slave family was housed in a two room cabin. The rooms were all ceiled up well, and were very comfortable in the winter.
CLOTHING, SHOES, ETC …
The slaves were furnished with good warm clothing which was made of kerseys and osnaburg. They were allowed four suits a year. These were made by the white women and the negro seamstresses on the place. The “Lady of the White House” superintended the making.
Their food mainly consisted of bacon, bread, potatoes and peas. 3¼ to 4 pounds of meat was the allowance per week. They had little “extra patches” which they worked at odd times and made money to purchase extras.
They did their cooking at night for the following day. They generally ate their breakfast at home and carried their dinner to the fields in a little bucket.
WORK AT THE HOUSE, IN THE FIELD, IN TOWN, ETC …
Their work was mainly ploughing, hoeing, and splitting rails, and any work that would naturally be performed at a plantation. The work hours was from sun-up to sun-down. They were allowed holidays on Christmas and 4th July.
The region, like the nation, collectively could not envision a world without slavery. In Wilcox County, slaves were not merely purchased but also bred by slaveholders, with the intention of creating a workforce in perpetuity. In The Reins of Power, his memoir of growing up in Wilcox County, Clinton McCarty wrote that when James Asbury Tait, son of Charles Tait, the first federal judge from Alabama and later a U.S. senator, inherited the family business following his father’s death, he perfected the practice of maximizing the financial value of slaves.
Charles Tait rejected the convention of paying more for slave boys, McCarty wrote, and instead would pay an average of $625 for girls. Because any baby born to a slave became by law the property of the plantation owner, Tait set out upon breeding his future workforce, routinely paying as much as fifty dollars more for slave girls just reaching puberty than for teenage boys. The Tait plantation, for example, owned 180 slaves in 1835, but between 1819 and 1834, Tait estimated that fifty-eight slaves were born on his property.
In the surviving family business journals, James A. Tait left a portrait of his slaves’ living conditions and their necessity in providing labor for the Tait plantation. In memorandums titled “The Sickly Season” and “Negro Housing,” he wrote:
More care must be always be taken about health during the sickly season than at other times.… There is more danger to Negroes picking cotton than any other, the hot sun shining on their backs whilst stooping.… 30,000 lbs of cotton total Negroes equal to 18 bales … crop of 1837.… Negroes housing ought to be moved regularly once in two or three years … this is essential to health. The filth accumulates under the floors so much in two years to cause disease. This is cheaper and easier than to pay doctors and nurse sick wages. The putrid threat that prevailed so fataly [sic] in the winter of 1837, 38 was caused by the filth under the houses, and I have no doubt 4 little Negroes died of it.
During the Reconstruction years, when the plantation system gave way to sharecropping, blacks in Wilcox County fared no better than they had prior to emancipation. By 1890, well after the war, blacks outnumbered whites by four to one, the slavery system was dead, and the depression in cotton harvesting had dramatically reversed the affluent position of many whites, but the culture in Wilcox County of whites living in complete dominion over blacks endured. The ensuing result was a region that housed thousands of blacks working the unforgiving land, generation following hopeless generation, prospects as bleak as the granite sky. The topography of the county had virtually guaranteed that change, if at all, would take place at a lethargic pace. The river opened into a teardrop called Millers Ferry, which isolated the portions of the county—such as Gee’s Bend—that had yet to be bridged, leaving the great plantations essentially walled off from the rest of the area. As one visiting writer observed, “Gee’s Bend represents not merely a geographic configuration drawn by the yellow pencil of the river. Gee’s Bend represents another civilization. Gee’s Bend is an Alabama Africa. There is no more concentrated and racially exclusive Negro population in any rural community in the South than in Gee’s Bend.”
Over the days Louis Bryant visited Camden, he discovered just how little life had changed for the black people of Wilcox County. The homes that bordered the pockmarked dirt roads were virtually identical to those that had been written about in the old letter: dilapidated wood-planked cabins that had once been slave quarters balanced unevenly on wooden blocks to protect the rough pine floors against worms and flooding, the rot the moist Alabama soil so easily accelerated. The raised floor also provided marginal relief against the intense heat of the summer months—just enough so little kids could play and cool off underneath the houses. The roofs were comprised of a patchwork of rectangular shingles varying in length. The cabins were spartan, having only one or two rooms, a woodstove with cook-top, and a small four-paned window on each side, patched with newspaper to insulate its borders. Some cabins were constructed with pine logs, insulated by a crude combination of mud and grass. Bryant’s recordings would be included in the vast database that would become the thirteenth Census of the United States.
Bryant recorded on May 23, 1910, that Henry Aaron lived with his family in a rented cabin on 325 Clifton Road in Camden. The 1910 census listed Henry as twenty-five years old, the head of the household, living with his twenty-three-year-old wife, Mariah, born 1887, and their eighteen-month-old son, Herbert, born October 24, 1908. Family members would describe Henry as a man who did not speak unless spoken to and who was slow to come to his opinions of people, but once he had reached a conclusion, his assessments were firm and accurate. Once he had become a famous baseball player, Henry would often say not only that he had been named after his grandfather, whom he referred to as “Papa Henry,” but also that he owed his methodical approach to work and his deliberate style of communication not to Herbert, his father, but to Papa Henry.
Papa Henry told the census taker that both he and Mariah had been born in Alabama, as had their parents. His occupation was listed as a “laborer” who worked as a “general farmer.” According to the census, Papa Henry could neither read nor write and had never attended formal school. Mariah, according to the same data, was recorded as able to read and write and was listed as being school-educated, making her one of the very few blacks on Clifton Road who had attended school. Mariah was among a small percentage of blacks in Wilcox reported to be literate.
Official documents paint a skeletal picture of Papa Henry’s roots. A basement fire at the Commerce Department in 1921 destroyed most of the data from the 1890 census, leaving little, if any, paper trail to Henry’s father, who was likely either one of the last children born into slavery or part of the first generation of southern blacks born free in the United States. Poor record keeping, gaps in memory, and, most disastrously, the disinterest in the black community expressed by local and federal record keepers—the official term to describe this phenomenon was undercounted—would leave mysterious but not uncommon holes in the family story. The irony was that it was easier to keep track of blacks in captivity—slaves were, after all, property no different from a horse or a wagon or a house—than the freedmen who comprised the first generation of post–Civil War American blacks.
When the census was done again in Camden ten years later, on January 24, 1920, the census taker, a man named Joseph H. Cook, recorded the family name as “Aron.” Cook reported that that the Aarons now had six children: Herbert, eleven; Cottie, nine; Mandy, seven; Olive, seven; William, five; and James, three. Herbert would say in later interviews there would be six more children. “I am the oldest of twelve children and father of six,” Herbert told an interviewer in 1985. Age would always pose a riddle throughout the family. On the 1920 form, Mariah, whom Henry and his siblings called “Mama Sis,” was listed as being born in 1894, making her seven years younger than she was listed as being on the 1910 report, which would have made her fourteen years old when Herbert was born.
Like most people connected to Wilcox County, the Aarons were touched by the enormous shadow of the Tait dynasty. Charles Tait’s grandson, Robert, was a Confederate captain, and in 1860, he owned 148 slaves. During the ruthless white reclamation of power that dissolved Reconstruction, the foundation of the sharecropper system was born and blacks who had once worked the land as slaves now tended to the same land as free blacks, and for many—because of the illegitimate bookkeeping and other shady practices that left blacks in a perpetual state of debt—there was no escape from the system. According to the 1920 census, Papa Henry and his family lived next door to Frank S. Tait, Charles Tait’s great-grandson. The Taits were the only white family on the street, suggesting that the black families on that street rented their housing from the Taits and worked the family land accordingly as sharecroppers. This was almost certainly true in the case of Papa Henry, whose World War I civilian registration card listed F. S. Tait as his employer.
As a boy, Herbert worked the fields in Camden, picking cotton into his teens. Though public records are unclear, it is likely at some point or another he worked the enormous Tait property, as had his father.
Herbert was restless and dreaded a life of dreary, hopeless agrarianism. The routine in Camden had not changed for a century: work the land for nonexistent wages, with little chance for self-improvement or respect from the white community, which for the better part of two centuries had held absolute power. In later interviews, he would say the members of his family lived in the fields and the church. As he grew older, he was aware of an important, curious phenomenon: Many blacks he knew were leaving Wilcox—for Mobile, and even Chicago and California—and he decided he would be one of them. From the time of Herbert’s birth, in 1908, up until his twentieth birthday, the black population in Wilcox County dropped nearly 30 percent.
And yet, despite the obvious contradictions, whites still clung to the old paternalisms. In The Reins of Power, Clinton McCarty recalled the prevailing attitude regarding blacks in Wilcox County during the time Herbert Aaron was coming of age in Camden:
Blacks as a race were commented on in routine white conversation mostly in terms of the care they needed, the trouble they caused, or the anecdotes and jokes they lent themselves to. Except for those long loyal to and productive for one’s family, they were said to be lazy, shiftless, promiscuous, addicted to petty theft, quick to ingratiate for a purpose, childlike in their intellectual capacity; on more than one occasion, I heard adult white males address adult black males in the sort of sing-song cadence usually heard when adults talk to small children. Blacks were described as incapable of good taste, humorous in their speech, often amusingly animated in their actions. But with it all they were credited with being the occasional sources of heart-of-the-matter descriptions and homely wisdom. Always there was the suggestion that whites were still the blacks’ truest friends … and would come to their aid in time of trouble.
Herbert had been secretly dating a young girl, also from Wilcox County, named Stella, whose family names were Pritchett and Underwood. In the records, Estella’s birth year ranged from 1909 to 1912, and the exact dates of her family origins would also remain unclear, even to the family.
Herbert had plans to leave Camden, with its grim prospects. He was heading for Mobile. Herbert and Stella waited until she was old enough to leave town, but in 1927, Stella became pregnant and the two moved south down the river, four hours from Mobile. Later that year, Stella gave birth to their first child, Sarah, most likely out of wedlock. As much as movie theaters and water fountains, city records were segregated during those days, and the records of blacks were not nearly as accurate as those of whites. According to Book 36 of the Mobile Colored Marriage License Book, page 503, Herbert and Stella Aaron were married in Mobile on August 22, 1929, by justice of the peace and notary public Thomas B. Allmann. On his marriage certificate, Herbert spelled the family name “Aron,” and he was listed as twenty-two years of age, five eight, and weighing 142 pounds. Stella was listed as nineteen years of age, five seven, and weighing 115 pounds. The license book stated both were Protestant and were marrying for the first time.
The original surname, the first one the clan would claim as a free American family, had been Aaron. As the country moved through the wrenching antebellum period, the hope and disappointment of Reconstruction, and then the subsequent establishment of Jim Crow as the southern rule of law, the Aaron name would move along with it. For a man who would carry his name with an eaglelike pride, Henry recalled his name weathering numerous variations, from Aron to Arron and occasionally Aarron, a stinging byproduct of the lack of educational opportunities afforded blacks at the turn of the twentieth century. By 1930, the family name had returned to its biblical origins, and would not change.
“Our name changed often,” Henry would explain. “My mother and father, they could not read or write, and so it was spelled differently many times over the years.”
Herbert Aaron had come to Mobile as a slender nineteen-year-old without prospects beyond labor, and although he was unable to read or write, he was determined nevertheless that life would be better for him than it had been for his father. He considered himself religious—he attended Episcopal Sunday services in Mobile—but, unlike his predecessors, did not envision a life rooted in the church.
In Mobile, work was plentiful but unpredictable in its reliability. Mobile was Alabama’s main port city, and in the years following World War I, it boasted a growing economy and a diversity of jobs. This optimism stood in strong contrast to the city’s sagging economic fortunes in the decades following the Civil War. In later years, when his son grew famous, Herbert would tell interviewers that, in terms of manual labor, he had done it all. In Camden, he had picked cotton, as well as operated heavy machinery and motorized farm equipment. According to city records, Herbert and Stella moved to 1170 Elmira Street in Down the Bay, one of the two major residential areas for blacks inside of Mobile’s city limits. Rent was six dollars per month. In the Mobile city directory, Herbert listed his first job as a laborer, and later he drove a truck for the Southall Coal Company.
Down the Bay was situated in the southern part of the city, blocks away from the idyllic magnolia-lined beauty of Government Street, bordered by the Magnolia Cemetery to the south, Government Street to the north, and Cedar and Ann streets to the east and west, respectively. Demographically, Down the Bay was poor, unemployment high. The neighborhood was primarily black, but, unlike Davis Avenue—the main thoroughfare, which served as the center of the other predominately black section of Mobile—not without diversity. The 1930 census listed fifteen dwellings on Elmira Street, seven white households, eight black. Whites lived on each end of Elmira, the blacks in the middle. To the north, by contrast, was Davis Avenue, once known as Stone Street and then renamed before the Civil War for Jefferson Davis. It was called “Darkey Town” by blacks and whites alike before adopting the more modern and proud nickname “the Avenue.”
To northerners, Mobile seemed both formidable and chilling. The city was situated in the deepest part of the Deep South, just miles from the Mississippi border, a frightening pocket of intolerance, where good people who said or did the wrong things might just disappear. To white and black southerners alike, however, Mobile was one of the more livable cities for blacks. Bienville Square, with its rushing alabaster water fountain and softly blossomed magnolias and oaks, represented the best of Mobile for its whites, the middle- and upper-class gentry, and on special days—birthdays, holidays—the white poor. The park represented southern beauty, especially on those perfect spring days before the heat soared, and for a time in the late nineteenth century, both blacks and whites had come to see Bienville Square as a place representative of all of the city’s residents.
Both races, naturally, came to resent the northern view of Mobile as another intractable southern monolith. It was not uncommon for blacks to rise to the defense of Mobile as an example of southern tolerance. One of the reasons Mobilians tended to take a more benign view of race relations was due to its population. Unlike Wilcox County, where a small number of whites controlled four times as many blacks, the white population in Mobile hovered around 50 percent.
By the time Herbert and Stella arrived, legal and social segregation had been firmly entrenched for nearly two decades, and in that regard Mobile was no different from the rest of the South. Locals believed that despite the law, daily accommodations had allowed both blacks and whites to live in relative dignity. It was an idea, of course, that rested on the notion that moderation resided in the eye of the beholder. If you were the ones on top, daily life might have been fine, acceptable, without the coarse and brutal edge of, say, Birmingham.
If you were black and did not upset the social order, it was not necessary to live in fear. Moderation also depended on one’s standard of measurement, and in the South, the measure had always been Birmingham, two hundred miles to the north, centered in the heart of the Black Belt, both in the agricultural and racial sense. The locals would always use the backbreaking rigidity of Birmingham as the standard, and the contrast always worked in Mobile’s favor. Compared to Birmingham, Mobile appeared almost sleepy.
Part of the reason for this was its quirky history. Where most regions in the South were demarcated by the oppressive and linear weight of slavery, Mobile’s racial lines were somewhat less obvious. The city had been inhabited by the French and the Spanish. Where in much of the South there were just blacks and whites, Mobile was populated with another racial group, Creoles of Color. Though the event would first be co-opted and later defined by New Orleans, Mobile was the first city in the United States to celebrate Mardi Gras. The historical demographics of the city—with its high number of French and Spanish and a high number of citizens of mixed racial origin—made it difficult to strictly enforce the emerging racial codes that had effectively destroyed the promises of Reconstruction.
The truth was, however, that during the final decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, whites across the South organized a massive resistance to whatever gains blacks had made during Reconstruction. If fond memories existed of Bienville Square as a gathering place for all Mobilians, it was also true that long after the nation had abolished the slave trade, illegal slave ships docked on the Mobile River, next to the L&N Railroad and the Mobile and Ohio docks, and chained-together captured Africans were sold at auction in Bienville Square during the week. Another old slave market stood blocks away, on Royal Street, between St. Anthony and Congress.
During the first two and a half decades of the twentieth century, southern whites methodically restored the old social order through a punishing combination of legal and extralegal means. Mobile, despite an exterior gentility and a favorable comparison to some of the harsher southern cities, did not escape this organized assault on black freedoms.
In 1900, Montgomery adopted a series of segregation ordinances. Mobile was under similar pressure to enact stricter segregation laws, though the city had been relatively free of major incident. The following year, numerous states, including Alabama, rewrote their state constitutions, legally imposing segregation orders, disenfranchising blacks from voting and other social freedoms they had enjoyed during Reconstruction. Between 1895 and 1909, the first year of Herbert’s life, a massive campaign of disenfranchisement had begun.
South Carolina enacted laws severely limiting people of color from voting and prohibiting contact between the races in terms of education, marriage, adoption, public facilities, transportation, and prisons. During the same period, similar laws were enacted in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia (“White persons who marry a colored person shall be jailed up to one year, and fined up to $100. Those who perform such a marriage ceremony will be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined up to $200”), Maryland, Washington, Idaho, California (“Persons of Japanese descent in 1909 were added to the list of undesirable marriage partners of white Californians as noted in the earlier 1880 statute”), Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota (literacy tests) and South Dakota (intermarriage or illicit cohabitation forbidden between blacks and whites, punishable by a fine up to one thousand dollars, or by imprisonment up to ten years, or both), Kansas, and Nebraska.
In justifying separation of the races, the press served as an effective tool to incite fear among whites. It purported that blacks did not possess the social capacity to be treated with the same courtesies as whites, and that blacks were dangerous, uncivilized, a grave threat to the safety of the white women of Mobile. (In 1915, Alabama passed a statewide law prohibiting “White female nurses from caring for black male patients.”)
The social order had been upset by the large influx of blacks who inhabited the city during the final decade of the 1800s. The Mobile Daily Item was the most actively hostile newspaper in the city toward blacks—its coverage only spurred growing insistence among whites for the return of segregation. During a ten-day period in October 1902, its coverage proved even more relentless:
FURY OF A TEXAS MOB
Finds satisfaction in lynching of negroes
HEMPSTEAD, TEX., OCTOBER 21—After being tried with legal form and procedure for criminal assault and murder and given the death penalty in each case, Jim Wesley and Reddick Barton, negroes, were, late this afternoon taken from the authorities and lynched in the public square by an infuriated mob
Is discovered on the gallery of a citizen residing on Espejo Street
Mr. Charles Helmer, while on his way home Tuesday night last with his wife and a party of ladies saw a negro on the gallery of Mr. George McCary, on Espejo Street, near Government. The Negro was on the gallery peeping through the blinds and when one of the ladies discovered him, he jumped to the ground. Mr. Helmer chased the man across a pasture but was unable to capture him.
The black response derived from the old paternalistic relationships with whites. The famous educator Booker T. Washington appealed to the white city elders across the South to confront the “criminal colored elements” but not to “punish the entire Negro race” with segregation ordinances. Washington’s disciples began echoing a similar theme in Mobile. Washington was already a national figure, and his presence in Mobile increased the influence of two black businessmen, Charles Allen and A. N. Johnson. Washington would vacation with Allen, often fishing at his home. Johnson owned a funeral home prominent in the black community and published his own newspaper, where he often broke with Washington’s doctrines of appeasement with whites. Washington appealed to whites to recall the positive relationships between the two races, a relationship that in large part favored whites. Johnson seemed to have a clearer notion of white intentions. Through his writing, he sought to challenge the existing structure. He understood that a single increase in restrictions would only lead to more.
Johnson was right in his belief that a movement to undo current relationships between the races was afoot. Erwin Craighhead, the editor of the ostensibly moderate Register, endorsed in an editorial the necessity of segregation on streetcars. These sensational headlines and editorials only heightened racial tensions in the city, and any idea that Mobile would be different from the rest of the South crumbled. The newspapers increased their character assault on Mobile’s blacks, including a decision by the newspaper editors to publish on the front page reports of crimes committed by blacks hundreds of miles away.
BOUND FACE TO FACE
They had murdered a young farmer while on his way home
One of the negroes escaped into Arkansas
NEWBORN, TENN., OCTOBER 8—Garfield Burley, and Curtis Brown, negroes, were lynched here at 9 o’clock tonight by a mob of 500 persons.… The mob would not listen to the judge and forcibly took possession of the two men.… Ropes were presented and the two men were taken to a telephone pole where they were securely tied face to face. At a given word, they were strung up and in a few minutes both were pronounced dead. The lynching programme was carried out in an orderly manner, not a shot being fired.
Sam Harris Riddled with Bullets at Salem Ala.
USED AXE ON WOMEN
The negro was placed in custody and held until Miss Meadows had sufficiently recovered to identify him. This she did at 4 o’clock this afternoon, and the negro was taken in charge by about 125 armed men and his body riddled with bullets on the spot. He denied his guilt until the first shot was fired, when he acknowledged the crime.
By October 16, 1902, Mobile reacted with a sweeping ordinance that had been adopted in New Orleans, as well as in Montgomery and Memphis.
TEN MORE POLICEMEN PROVIDED FOR CITY: SEPARATION OF THE
RACES ON STREET CARS
Petitions, circulated by the Item and Signed by More Than 500 People, Read and Favorably Acted Upon—full text for the Ordinance Requiring the Separation of the Races on All of the Street Cars.
Be it ordained by the mayor and general counsel of the city of Mobile as follows: That all street railcars operated in the city of Mobile and its police jurisdiction shall provide seats for the white people and negroes, when there are white people and negroes on the same car, by requiring the conductor or any other employee in charge of said car or cars to assign passengers to seats on the cars, or when the car is divided in two compartments in such manner as to separate the white people from the negroes by seating the white people in the front seats and the negroes in the rear seats as they enter said cars; but in the event such order of seating might cause inconvenience to those who are already properly seated, the conductor … may use his discretion in seating passengers, but in such manner that no white person and negro must be placed or seated in the same section or compartment arranged for two persons; provided that negro nurses having in charge white children or sick or infirm white persons may be assigned seats among the white people.
Be it further ordained, that all conductors and other employees while in charge of cars are hereby invoked with the police power of a police officer of the city of Mobile, to carry out rail provisions, and any person failing or refusing to take a seat among those assigned to the race to which he or she belongs, if there is any such seat vacant, at the behest of a conductor … shall, upon conviction, be fined a sum not less than five dollars and not more than fifty dollars.
And so it was done. Jim Crow laws were now established in Mobile, if not as violently enforced as in other southern cities, although equally rigid. Two weeks later, on November 1, the black leaders A. F. Owens, A. N. Johnson, and A. N. McEwen staged a boycott, which lasted barely two months. During the time of the boycott, some white business owners, unconvinced the city would benefit from the segregation ordinance, openly defied it. James Wilson, the owner of the Mobile Light and Railroad Company, told his conductors not to enforce the law. Whites sat anywhere they chose on Wilson’s cars, and blacks were, for a time, seen seated in the front. The courts intervened and the segregation laws were not only upheld but strengthened. On streetcars, conductors could use their own discretion in upholding the ordinances. After December 1902, whites faced jail time and a fifty-dollar fine for not upholding segregation statutes.
Streetcars were the first step. Total segregation came next, followed by the vigilante violence Mobile thought it had avoided. The outspoken black leaders, who once believed they had a voice, fled the city. A. N. Johnson escaped to Nashville in 1907.
“With the disintegration of the boycott and the court’s decision, segregated public conveyances legally became an established element of life in Mobile—a condition that persisted unchanged until the 1950s,” historian and Mobile native David Alsobrook wrote in his comprehensive 1983 dissertation. “By 1904, Mobile’s blacks, as in other southern cities, were separated from whites by municipal and state laws and by customs. Mobile had segregated public conveyances, schools, parks, restaurants, hotels, theaters, hospitals, cemeteries, saloons and brothels. With the single exception of public transportation, segregation was maintained without the passage of municipal ordinances.”
By the time Herbert and Stella arrived, whites and blacks alike now lived under a new, terrifying system, naturally worse for blacks but also not easy for whites who didn’t believe in segregation. David Alsobrook recalled walking down the street in Mobile one day as a boy and seeing the charred remains of a cross. In addition to the legal segregation codes was the daily etiquette whites demanded, unwritten codes that, if not followed, could be deadly. Herbert knew them all by heart:
1. No offering handshakes with whites, for it assumed equality.
2. No looking at or speaking to white women.
3. No offering to light a white woman’s cigarette.
4. All whites were to be addressed as “sir,” “mister” or “ma’am,” but whites were free to address blacks by their first names or “boy.”
This was Herbert Aaron’s America. He knew where he stood.
CHILDREN WERE BORN frequently to the Aarons. The combination of children and Herbert’s constant (and not always successful) search for work forced the family to look for housing as often as Stella bore children. A son, Herbert junior, was born in 1930, and the family moved again, this time to 10 O’Guinn. Then the family moved to 1112 Elmira, before renting another apartment in Down the Bay, at 666 Wilkinson, for nine dollars per month.
Four years later, on February 5, 1934, at 8:25 p.m., Stella gave birth again, this time to a twelve-and-a-quarter-pound boy named Henry Louis. The baby was so large that Stella nicknamed him “the Man.”
A year before Henry was born, Herbert took a job as a part-time riveter at the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company, on Pinto Island, on the Mobile River. The company had been in business since World War I. Herbert worked as a boilermaker assistant and riveter on coal barges, minesweepers for the U.S. Navy, and tank barges for oil companies. The work was hard and often irregular, but a few years later, as the war in Europe escalated and tensions with Japan increased, a job at ADDSCO became one of the plum ones to have in Mobile, especially for blacks. At the company’s peak, a third of ADDSCO’s workers were black, though that did not mean the workforce was treated with complete equity. The riveting and manufacturing and labor crews were largely segregated. Blacks and whites entered together through the large main gate, but both proceeded through designated separate entrances. When he first accepted the job, Herbert was paid sixteen cents an hour.
With the family now numbering five, the apartment on 666 Wilkinson was no longer sufficient. In 1936, Gloria Aaron was born. Two more children followed, Alfred, who did not survive pneumonia, and Tommie, in 1939. At this point, Herbert began forming a bold vision for a semiemployed black person: owning his own house. In Down the Bay, both Elmira and O’Guinn streets were fairly integrated, but, according to census data, only the whites on the streets where Herbert lived owned their homes.
For Herbert, ownership meant protecting his family from outside forces that could, at any time, take away what he had. Herbert had lived in Mobile for thirteen years and had already moved four times. “When you own something,” Herbert would tell his children, “nobody can take it away from you.” Herbert chose Toulminville, once an all-white enclave within the city limits, roughly seven miles northwest from Down the Bay. To black Mobilians, Toulminville was considered a step down from Down the Bay socially, and Henry would later recall that when he was a child, Toulminville kids absorbed insults from the blacks who lived closer to the city.
Local blacks called Toulminville “Struggleville,” because people who had moved out to Toulminville, or so went the local folklore, did so anticipating a rise in social status but routinely found it difficult to pay the rent. Unlike Down the Bay, Toulminville was considered lower-middle-class by black standards, as the city housed numerous teachers within its borders. Herbert purchased two adjacent lots for fifty-three dollars apiece on Edwards Street and began culling wood. Herbert collected ship timber from Pinto Island. Young Henry, all of six years old, collected wood from abandoned buildings. Some of the wood came from houses that had partially burned down, and some of the original walls of the house still contained deeply discolored streaks, charred from fire. Herbert constructed a six-to-twelve-foot triangular gabled roof above the front door. He used the smaller, miscellaneous pieces of wood for the inside walls. The floor was made of yellow pine. Like most of the houses in the South, the structure itself stood on concrete blocks, both to cool the house and to protect the flooring from the damp southern soil.
In 1942, when the house was completed, Herbert moved the family into 2010 Edwards Street, a narrow dirt road on the southwest side of Toulminville. Edwards Street bordered a wide playground and baseball field, Carver Park, to the west. By this time, Stella had given birth to six children. The house consisted of two rooms and a small kitchen area, the backyard big enough for a small garden, a livestock pen, and an outhouse. For lighting, Stella kept a kerosene lamp nearby. There were no windows, no electricity, no indoor plumbing, but the house did not belong to the bank, or a landlord, white or black. Herbert had built a piece of the world for himself, and it would become the cornerstone of the family for the next four generations.
“The only people who owned their houses,” Henry would often say, “were rich people, and the Aarons.”
Ownership was not a concept easily entertained by blacks in the South, but Herbert Aaron keenly understood its value. As much as southern whites would become stereotyped in their collective racial attitudes, so, too, did blacks in the Deep South suffer from the opposite labels of docility, too easily accepting of the withering effects of Jim Crow.
As an adult, regardless of his actual position, Henry Aaron would always be perceived as too accommodating when it came to social conditions. The same was true with Herbert in Mobile. Such clichés were misleading at best. The truth was that Herbert Aaron developed a wide and serious strategy for dealing with the limitations placed on him by society; the first was ownership. He was sophisticated in his knowledge of the social code of Mobile, and fortified by a core toughness that was easily underestimated. Herbert fought for his space, but he used nontraditional weapons.
Residents and historians routinely agreed that daily life in Mobile was not as hostile as in other southern cities. What was less easy to agree upon, however, was why. David Alsobrook believed the crackdown beginning with the streetcar ordinance at the turn of the century—and the violence that followed—served as a powerful-enough deterrent to any new generation of prospective black protesters. Other Mobilians, black and white, took a more benign view, saying that Mobile was simply an easier, less volatile place to live.
Nevertheless, along Davis Avenue during the first years after Herbert arrived from Wilcox, the black community still kept fresh in its mind the handful of events designed to maintain order. There was the 1906 dual lynching of seventeen-year old Jim Robinson and twenty-year-old Will Thompson. Both had been jailed on the vague charge of “improper conduct” toward white women. A mob of forty-five men wearing masks captured the two and hanged them together from a tree just outside city limits. According to Mobile legend, whites heard about the lynching and boarded the streetcar to visit the hanging tree and collect souvenirs, cutting off pieces of clothing from the two victims as well as shaving off bark from the tree.
Herbert possessed a keen sense of self-determination and self-sufficiency, and he knew what it took to survive in Mobile on his own terms. He had suffered humiliations too familiar to southern black males. During the days living in Down the Bay, Herbert was frequently laid off from jobs, although whites were retained in similar positions. Herbert would keep his family close, reminding the two oldest boys, Herbert junior and Henry, that whites wanted to “cut the head off of the snake,” which meant emasculating a black male in order to break his family. That was why Herbert may have responded to whites in a way that appeared subservient. But Herbert Aaron would not be one of the black men in town easily goaded into making an emotional mistake around whites, giving them a reason to break him.
“My grandfather believed in the work,” said Tommie Aaron, Jr. “It got passed down to this day. He used to say it all the time, ‘Nobody is going to give you anything.’ ”
As a young boy, Henry would watch as his father was forced to surrender his place in line at the general store to any whites who entered. There were boys who were never the same after they saw their own fathers back down, the leader of the family reduced. And there were men, unable to live after having been diminished, who lashed out at their own families. Herbert told his children that the psychological destruction of the black man, and by extension his family, was the white man’s true game. Living in the South was a daily contest of restraint, for one weak moment could finish a family. The newspapers were full of stories of black men who wound up dead for a minor offense. Herbert knew that, too, and told his boys. White overreaction was a dangerous weapon. If it were possible to be jailed simply for addressing a white person improperly, blacks in general would hardly dare broaching a more serious offense.
Psychological intimidation was always reinforced by the physical. Periodically, in Toulminville, Stella would hear the ominous sound of a Klansman’s drum, first off in the distance and then closer. She would wake the children and force them under the bed. Peering out from the door, she would see the rows of Klansmen marching down her muddy street, armed, dressed in white robes and hoods, their torches terrorizing the night sky. The children remained quiet, lying on the hardwood floor, waiting for the danger to pass.
“That was the way it was,” Tommie Aaron, Jr., recalled. “We used to hear stories like that all the time. But my grandfather also used to say, ‘Don’t let anybody break your will.’ ”
By the time the family moved to the house in Toulminville, when Henry was eight, Herbert had been promoted to a full-time riveter at ADDSCO. The country was at war, fighting with bombs and bullets but also with its own contradictions of equality and fairness. In 1941, President Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 8802, which prohibited discrimination in the federal workplace, an edict that confronted southern segregation and discrimination patterns directly. One practical application of the order occurred at ADDSCO, where a number of black assistants were promoted to welders, with the same title, same responsibilities, and same salary as their white counterparts. On Tuesday, May 25, 1943, at approximately 9:00 a.m., a fight broke out between whites and blacks, which escalated into a full-scale riot. Black workers, fearing for their safety, were sent home for two days. Roughly 350 state and federal troops arrived to maintain order.
For the press, it was 1902 all over again. The Mobile Register used the disturbance as justification for universal segregation.
ABSOLUTE SEGREGATION OF RACE THE ANSWER TO ADDSCO PROBLEM
The bomb on Mobile’s doorstep has not been extinguished. It still smoulders and will continue to do so unless and until officials of the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company adopt a clear-cut policy of absolute racial segregation in the preparation of this great war enterprise.
The son who would one day become the great Henry Aaron, from his earliest days on, would always be called a mama’s boy, but it was the desire of the father to escape the debilitating roots of Wilcox County and, in turn, to give the Aaron name meaning beyond its past, thereby setting the course the son would one day navigate.
“Obviously,” Herbert said in an interview forty years later, “the black color of my skin presented many unnecessary problems in my life.”
HENRY HAD BEEN taken with baseball ever since the family lived in the cramped spaces of Down the Bay. Herbert junior would toss bottle caps at him at top speed. Henry would watch the caps, flat and convex and erratic, whiz toward him and, unflinchingly, eyes steady and even, he would batter them with a stick. In Toulminville, his brothers and friends like Cornelius Giles would play baseball until the sun disappeared and it got so dark—streetlights were years away—that the kids couldn’t see their hands in front of them. So instead of going into the house, the boys would light rags on fire, toss them up into the dark sky, and hit the descending fireballs. These stories were true, and they would serve the legend.
If there was a dominant memory of Henry during his boyhood days, it was that of a kid who perhaps more than anything else wanted to be left alone. When he was on the baseball field, he was dynamic, but the hard part often was getting him there. Henry was a loner. He would leave his house and venture alone through the tall brush to reach Three Mile Creek. There he would escape from the world and fish and think. He caught catfish and trout and would not be seen for hours at a time. Stella would always call him a loner and mentioned in interviews later in life that when he played baseball, it was not a social event, but his personal avocation. Unlike most kids, for whom sports was as much for camaraderie as for score keeping, Henry played for the game and not to make friends, she said. Many times, the kids with whom he played remained there on the diamond, cardboard cutouts for his ambition. Sports, in other words, did not transform him into a social creature. A female former classmate recalls Henry as certainly having been “interested in girls … but not as interested as he was in playing baseball.”
When he wasn’t wandering along the riverbanks, Henry was playing baseball. His desire for solitude explained in part why he was so comfortable in the batter’s box, playing the game of baseball, the most individual of team sports. There, standing at the plate, he was alone, relying on his own ability to sustain him. No one could hit the ball for him, and no one else could take credit for what he did in the batter’s box. Hitting, it could be argued, represented the first meritocracy in Henry’s life. In a world where virtually everything could be qualified, hitting was the most unambiguous of activities.
Part of Henry’s emphasis on baseball in future retellings would obscure a more revealing element of his upbringing—that he was an unexceptional student. This was not due to unintelligence as much as to disinterest. Aside from his enormous baseball ability, his enjoyment of the game was, for an American boy growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, fairly unremarkable. School never held his attention, and he would admit, though only partially, that as a child the limitations placed on a black person weakened his young spirit. He would talk to Herbert about his dreams, and the old man could be withering in not sparing his children the bitter realities of his life, and, for the moment, theirs.
At 2010 Edwards, Henry, Herbert junior, and Tommie slept in the same bed. Above the bed hung a sign—most likely hand-painted by Sarah—which read RELY ON GOD AND ACT ON THE THINGS YOU CAN CHANGE. Henry wanted to be a pilot and a baseball player, and the sign just above his head said that such things were possible. But Herbert disagreed. He said, “There ain’t no colored pilots. And there ain’t no colored baseball players, either.”
It is safe to say Jackie Robinson’s signing was a transcendent day for America, and for Henry, it signaled the first time in his life that neither Papa Henry’s nor Herbert’s America would necessarily be his. The path of the son did not have to follow that of the father. Henry was eleven. Before Robinson signed with Montreal, Henry had played baseball, basketball, and football nearly equally. After, baseball was transformed into an obsession that did not diminish. Indeed, Henry’s connection to the sport only intensified as Robinson ascended. Conversely, his interest in school waned even more.
In March 1948, Henry was fourteen, starting his high school career at Central High in Mobile. Robinson and the Dodgers arrived in Mobile for an exhibition game as the club made its way north to begin the season. The details of the day would always be sketchy—Henry recalled listening to Robinson in front of a drugstore on Davis Avenue; others recalled Robinson speaking at an auditorium. Henry had skipped school to see Robinson (though in those days, Henry did not need a reason to avoid classes), and for the next six decades of his life Henry would say that outside those with the members of his own family, no moment ever affected his outlook on what was possible in the world more than that day. “I knew I was going to be a ballplayer,” Henry wrote in I Had a Hammer. “There was no doubt in my mind, and so school didn’t matter to me. School wasn’t going to teach me how to play second base like Jackie Robinson. I could learn that better by listening to the Dodgers on the radio. And that’s what I did.”
Robinson would have been disappointed by what the young Henry Aaron took from his message that day on Davis Avenue. Robinson told the throng of kids to stay focused on school, to gain an education, to work hard. Robinson’s words were not the preachy adult bluster that the kids ignored, but a blueprint for an America that had not yet met its enlightenment on civil rights. When Henry met Robinson in Mobile, Robinson was a college man, from UCLA, a prestigious, integrated school. He not only had a college degree but was a veteran, and yet he still was subject to the limitations of what blacks would be allowed to accomplish. The only way to combat such obstacles was through education, Robinson said, a path in which Henry had little interest.
Instead, Henry would be mesmerized by Robinson. He would listen to him but not hear him. From that day forward, Henry started down a road Robinson himself never dared travel. Henry would bet his life on his talent, his ability to connect a piece of wood with a ball covered in horsehide. He would attend school sparingly, spending his time on the Avenue, in the pool halls, dodging Herbert, who knew his son was drifting away from his studies. Henry missed so many days of school—forty by the end—that he was expelled from Central High. He was enrolled at the Josephine Allen Institute, a small private school in Toulminville, on the corner of Sengstak and Walnut streets, run by a local educator, Josephine Blackledge Allen. The school, a long two-story rectangle, did not emphasize sports, but “basic grammar, mathematics and cultural refinement.”
As the Aaron legend was being spun, an interesting caveat would find its way into each subsequent profile: Henry had promised Stella that if he didn’t make it in baseball, he would go to college. Stella would repeat the tale that Henry was headed to Florida A&M, a black college.
For his part, Henry would debunk certain portions of the myth, denying that had he chosen not to play baseball, A&M would have been interested in offering him a football scholarship. This was almost certainly not true, as Henry did not play football as a junior or senior in high school. Henry would go so far as to say that he purposely stopped playing football because it would guarantee no school would have an interest in him. In later years, he would laugh at the suggestion that he’d ever had any intention of playing college football or that a college existed that wanted him on its team.
The truth was that Henry Aaron bet his entire life on baseball. The college promise was, given his high school academic career, empty and illogical, but the words sounded good. They created the fiction that Henry Aaron, who spent more time in a pool hall than in the classroom at a time when a young Negro with little education wound up working in the fields, a factory, or on a chain gang, had a backup plan. What Henry never told anyone was that he was so confident in his ability to hit a baseball that he never thought he needed one.
“It was never one, two, three with me,” Henry would reflect. “It was never ‘this or that.’ I knew it had to work. I knew I had to do it. It was that or, well, I didn’t think I was going to the cotton fields, but it was going to work somewhere for one-fifty a week. It had to work. There wasn’t anything to fall back on.”