Today I introduce Janis F. Kearney to my blog and her new Christian Historical novel
Daisy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
By Janis F. Kearney
Daisy passed on November 4, 1999, five days after my son’s birthday, seven days before her own. She died without me speaking with her, hugging her, mirroring that enigmatic smile of hers or my telling her about my time in D.C. How she loved to hear about the world of D.C. Two years had passed since we last talked. So much had happened since then.
My last sighting of Daisy had been more than two years earlier during the 40th Anniversary of the `57 Crisis. We had only hugged and chatted briefly. The year before, in 1996, we’d met at the Anniversary Celebration of “our” newspaper, the Arkansas State Press – the newspaper she sold to me when she decided she was too tired and too old to continue. I recall how, during that 1996 meeting, Daisy was in such wonderful spirits, still the reigning queen, her smile as bright and her embrace as warm as ever. She stared into my eyes as I fumbled through an awkward explanation of why I left the newspaper to my sister’s care. She laughed, even with her strokes, she held onto that inimitable Daisy laughter.
Then she clasped her small hands around mine, and said exactly what my father had said when I told him I would go, ‘You had to go...why wouldn't you go?’
I often joked with her that she was a trusting soul to sell me her newspaper “on time,” after a $10,000 down payment. I was appreciative and honored that she sensed what she called, `the fire in the belly.’ I honored her trust by never missing the $500 monthly payment, no matter how dire the newspaper coffers might be. The newspaper became mine in 1991.
I would have never guessed that conversation would be our last. It was a wonderful time together. I was happy to see her spirits still as high as ever. We talked extensively about my life in Washington, DC, and for the first time she shared some about her time there, and her work under the two presidents. Daisy was honest to a fault, and told me she would give anything to have my youth and the exciting life I was leading now. She counted her time working for Lyndon Johnson’s administration as one of the most exciting of her life.
Before we parted that day, she made me promise to stop by and see her whenever I was in town. I promised her I would. The handful of times I got back to Arkansas, however, were always hurried, filled with business or family gatherings. I never kept my promise to drop by to see Daisy after that. No excuses.
It was during her roles in the national political arena, not Arkansas’, and during the larger Civil Rights struggle era, not the LR Central High Crisis; that marked the demise of Daisy’s health. Still famous, still beautiful and charming; she was, however, a middle-aged Daisy who had put her body and psyche through 30 years of unrelenting hell, and was now forced to be cognizant of her mortality.
Daisy had fought a long, bitter war with racism, prejudice and segregation, and though she had seen some victories; the battles had left scars - mostly invisible scars. After suffering a stroke in 1965, Daisy returned to her beloved state of Arkansas, and to the husband who wrote a desperate, gut-wrenching love letter to his wife, voicing his doubts for their marriage’s duration through her stay in New York; but declaring his love... in spite of himself.
There would always be a hint of bitterness inside Daisy Bates, as she remembered that `home’ was what forced her move…and, to a great extent, contributed to the debilitating health problems that would persist until the end. Yet, she said more than once, Arkansas would always be her home.
It is believed that Daisy found a strange thing when she returned home this time – some semblance of contentment. Neither Arkansas, nor America was near perfect when it came to race relations or civil rights and equality…yet, Daisy sought smaller, less demanding ways to contribute, to try and make life better.
Daisy and L.C.’s taut marital relations had stretched as far as it could, and they quietly divorced in 1962. Just as quietly, they remarried a year later. Few others would understand these two warriors as they understood and accepted each other. In their elder years, they both suffered chronic illnesses, and after all the fame, they were in dire need of financial stability. Unfortunately no one in Arkansas was hiring people by the names of L.C. or Daisy Bates.
What manner of town was this Huttig, to have produced a child such as Daisy Lee Gatson, born some 11 years after the launch of southwest Arkansas’ timber industry? Daisy Gatson was born in into the state’s most thriving timber belt. It spread to an area wide open for growth, and with little obstacles - no environmentalists lamenting the incoming lumber mills that came from neighboring Louisiana, and other northern states; no loud declarations of the industry raping and ravaging the South’s rich woodlands. Instead, it was a progress that most Arkansans invited with open arms, viewing it as a boost to the state’s economic standing in the region. The people of the area and the state’s economic leaders fully endorsed the manufacturing of southwest Arkansas’ woodlands. What would a small, poor area such as Huttig do with all the giant trees, anyway?
This small southwest Arkansas town was the imagination and creation of businessmen who wanted to ensure the success of their lumber mills by ensuring that their workers had a place to live, shop and to send their children to school – all within the town of Huttig. They created a functional, though segregated, small town for their white and black workers and their families.
In short order, Huttig morphed into a vital, thriving town, critical to the growth of the state, and one that drew every kind of man from other parts of the state, and as far away as Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana. Some came with the honest desire to find good jobs that allowed them to feed and clothe their families. Others – both black and white - came for far less forthright reasons...work, as well as freedom to indulge in `open’ activities. Like fast and loose girls said to frequent the area, the new town’s moral reputation traveled fast. The architects of the town’s physical structures were single-focused men, set on constructing a profitable company, and an inhabitable township. Unfortunately, they left the soul of their new town to its inhabitants.
Arkansas slaveholders usually lived in plain frame houses or log cabins. Slave cabins were grouped in areas called “quarters,” near enough to the owners’ houses that they could keep an eye on the goings-on of their property.
No need to paint a romantic picture of Arkansas’ slave history. These men, women and children bore were forced into excruciating labor, and harsh, utterly inhumane existences. Theirs was a hand to mouth survival, scrounging for unwanted leftovers from livestock slaughters. These `throwaway’ meat pieces evolved into regular slave meals, and included such fare as: pork cracklings; hog head cheese, pork chitterlings, pig feet, pork brains and tongue. Along with this, the farmers would share their corn between the livestock and their human chattel. From the corn, slaves developed meals such as corn pone or hoecakes on their open ovens. They canned molasses, after gathering leavings from the sorghum crops. On their evenings after work, they hunted wild game, and harvested small communal vegetables `truck patches.’
There would have been no happy slaves, none thankful for the role they found themselves. Slaves’ clothing was sparse and usually inadequate for adverse weather. Most was pulled together from throwaway clothing from their owners, or hand-sewn pants, dresses and coats from scraps of cloth they were given to do what they could. Their bed clothing would have been hand-sewn quilting from clothing pieces no longer used.
Seldom were they lucky enough to have at their disposal the full, rich, beautiful quilts now exhibited around the country as authentic slave quilts.
Overall, slaves lived wretched lives, no matter the lineage of their masters. Many sought their freedom by any means possible. Posters were regularly placed throughout Arkansas towns announcing runaway slaves. Though public rhetoric and law denounced brutal mistreatment of slaves, it was little more than rhetoric. Though the larger landowners generally treated their slaves as valuable property, drawing a definitive line between themselves and their slaves; smaller farmers were forced, by necessity, to interact more with their few slaves, including working alongside them in the fields, and inside the homes.
Unabelle Cain Thompson, a spry, friendly 96-year old widow who lives alone, but still cooks her supper of cornbread and Crowder peas never met Daisy, but does remember some ugly rumors surrounding her mother’s death.
“Mill Pond divided the blacks and whites,” she says, though Floyd had some good friends from the black community. She says that many a night she and her friends would listen to the music coming from the black side of town, and the black teenagers would sometimes walk down the street, “all dressed up.”
She repeats that all she knows about the Bates woman is rumors. The pond is where they say the young girl was murdered and thrown. She recalls the rumors even when she came, including the one about the girl being a `lady of the evening,’ who gave one of the white men she went with, a disease. I never knew what was real, but I remember people had come here from time to time questioning what had happened to the woman, but nobody ever came up with anything. “They came in and talked to the mill people.”
“I sit here now and watch the trucks going through carrying the wood and I just want to cry. The trees are about the size of my leg...the mill used to be full to the brim with giant trees.” Huttig, today a mirror of so many once-thriving towns, wrestles with a rash of economic and social ills. The lumber mill, hardly the thriving company it was during Daisy’s childhood, is yet the biggest thing going, a lifesaver for young black and white men needing to feed their families.
There is a sense, that the racial conciliation that Daisy Bates worked so hard for, is still an ephemeral dream in her hometown. The town claimed its first black mayor in 2011, and his tenure was taut with dissension, conflict and recriminations – from both sides of the community. Daisy, however, remains a mystery for most in her hometown. The fact that she rarely visited after leaving so long ago is likely the reason. But, who would blame her, given the ugly history that remains there? One resident recalls her coming to speak at the school, at least once. They hardly know her, though they know she is famous, and they all have seen her on television. A small, green street sign is the only memorial to her existence there.
“Luck” is what the census taker at the Bolivar County, Mississippi, courthouse named him back in April 1910 during the 13th Census of the U.S., the nationally mandated “head counting” exercise that took place each 10 years. Maybe the unplanned renaming would one day mean something to the eight-year-old child. Maybe the fact that “Luck” was actually born in a town named Liberty would, as well.
What is almost certain, based on the noble name the census worker failed to get right, is that Morris and Laura Bates, noted as Mulatto, as their son “Luck” was, had high hopes for their son. Lucius Christopher Bates was the only child of 30 –year-old Morris Bates, an itinerant farmer or sharecropper, and his 27-year-old wife Laura. The child would know in time that he was the living, breathing representation of his parents’ hopes and dreams for the future.
Liberty, “Luck’s” birthplace, was the county seat for Amite County, Mississippi. Located in the Natchez District of the state, the county was established on February 4, 1809, and named for Amite River - a tributary of Lake Maurepas that ran through the area, and was shared by Louisiana. Ironically, the French term for Amités, is friendliness.
The town of Liberty was established in 1891, 10 years before Lucius Christopher Bates was born. Before the town’s rechristening, the area had been known as Three-Chopped Way, so named for the Indian trail that ran straight through it. Obviously, by 1891, when Indians were no longer a substantial population within Louisiana’s demographics, town leaders sought a more dignified name. Liberty was certainly dignified enough.
While there is no documented evidence as to what prompted the name change, it is one more irony of a southern state known as widely for its position within the Bible Belt, as its history of slavery. And, in spite of the name change, over the next century the town, as well as the state would be shadowed by that slave history.
The tall, thin Lucius Christopher Bates looked the part of a serious journalist. His dark, but aquiline features bespoke the “mulatto” status accorded him as a child. No one would describe the young man as an extrovert; but his was a face full of wisdom beyond his years; an eloquence in his demeanor and speech that made him unique from other young men of the southern delta region.
Lucius had decided early on what he wanted in life, and what he didn’t want. He wouldn’t follow in his father’s path as a farmer, certainly not an itinerant farmer. The young man had set his eyes on a profession that would allow him to utilize his keen sense of right and wrong, and his observation skills that allowed him to plainly see the world for what it was. In his writing, he would expose the hypocrisies, and demand something more – particularly when it came to the conflict of the races.
Journalism was the career, Lucius Bates decided, that would allow his strong beliefs and his calls to action. Newspaper writing was what he gravitated toward while attending Wilberforce University in Ohio. This lofty goal not only set him apart from most black young men he knew – heirs of sharecroppers or small farmers—but, from most young whites as well.
Lucius’ first newspaper job was, ironically, in Helena, Arkansas, not Mississippi, where he grew up. He would have recognized that the area mirrored much of the same culture, and struggled with many of the same problems – poverty, racism and illiteracy. There were acres and acres of fields of cotton, and shotgun houses where unimaginably large numbers of family members resided. There were the company stores, and the sharecropping system – a dreadful vortex for black farmers who seemed to never be able to hoist themselves out of the debt-laden relationship with white farmers. Lucius would have learned about the Elaine Riot either firsthand, or no more than secondhand.
It was somewhere around 1920 when the handsome – but, not terribly good looking—Lucius Bates went to work as a reporter for The Interstate Register. And, while it is not evident how long he worked there, he left the Register for bigger and better things. He worked for newspapers in Colorado, and California, before being hired by the Kansas City Call, founded and managed by Chester A. Franklin, publisher of one of the six largest African American weeklies in the country; and the largest black business in the Midwest.
L.C. Bates, his wife Cassandra, their two girls, and his mother were all settled in Memphis when he made his first business trip to southwest Arkansas in 1928. It is unclear whether the insurance salesman had scheduled meetings in the small town; or simply planned to make cold calls at the homes of black families. What is certain, however, is that one specific meeting – at the home of Ora Lee and Susie Smith, of Huttig—would change his life forever. While the salesman’s intent was to locate new clients to sell insurance policies, this trip would net him something much more, a surprising discovery of the stunning 15-year old “roomer” by the name of Daisy Lee Gatson.
L.C., in subsequent recollections of that meeting, remembers Daisy as a child that he paid scant attention. Be that as it may, his subsequent visits to the Huttig household became more frequent and often included gifts for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as well as for the child he had barely noticed. It is quite likely that the friendship that ensued between Ora Lee Smith and the younger L.C. Bates was sincere and based on their common interests in discussions of race matters. Both were ardent and loyal members of the Civil Rights organization, the NAACP. And, though Ora Lee Smith’s level of intellect can only be guessed, L.C.’s was considerable and he was known to delight in intense discussions with like-minded men.
Quite likely, L.C. sincerely enjoyed these conversations on America’s racial complexities with a like-minded Ora Lee Smith. It is also quite likely that the young salesman found himself smitten by a much-younger, beautiful girl who brazenly showered him with a child’s adulation. The young woman had likely not met a man so educated, so courageous or so comfortable with himself. There remains, however, a myriad of unanswered questions around this scenario: was Ora Lee Smith aware of L.C. Bates’ interest in the teenager? Were there any discussions between the two men about the child? Were Ora Lee, Susie, and Daisy aware that L.C. was a married man? How would Susie Smith have reacted to such an ungodly alliance, given her strict religious beliefs? Would L.C. have shared with his wife Cassandra, any of the details of his visits at the Smith home?
What is almost for certain is that L.C. spent far more time at the Smith home in Huttig, Arkansas, than his job required, and that those visits would continue until Ora Lee Smith’s death, in 1932. Daisy said their first “date” was at a theatre in Huttig. Was that before or after Ora Lee’s death? Certainly, a young woman attending a movie and holding hands with a very much married man would have been unseemly, an abomination in the eyes of her foster mother, Susie Smith.
But, who deserved the blame for this dark era in Little Rock – and, who the spoils? There would be two names bandied about for years to come, two stark images that always appeared in most people’s minds’ eye whenever the `57 Crisis was mentioned. Whether one lived in the state during that time, or gathered their information from heresy, national news articles or magazines; the same two names appeared and reappeared, oftentimes their obstinate faces printed side by side.
If you dimmed your eyes...just so, it was as if an invisible thread connected these two; an excruciatingly taut string stretching from one end of the emotional spectrum, to the other. Another image one might imagine is that of two prizefighters tethered together for close proximity as they beat each other senseless. A crass analogy, but no less crass than the daily events taking place around the `57 Crisis, and likely the fighters tethered together had no less rancor toward each other, than Daisy Bates and Orval Faubus during those days.
And the South, most certainly Little Rock, would take sides. On one side of the Crisis, were thousands of accusing fingers – mostly white – pointing directly at Daisy Gatson Bates. Oh, the names they called her...Daisy, the instigator; Daisy, the integrator; Daisy, the Commie, and even Daisy, the Socialists’ whore. There were few derisive names left to the imagination because they were all brazenly and repeatedly hurled at the newspaper publisher and NAACP official.
There was absolutely no question in the minds of America’s Daisy-haters that the tiny, beautiful woman with the come-hither smile, and sometimes moving voice; was the cause of the mayhem that took Little Rock by the throat and held it there swinging its feet in the air as the world watched. And, no less to blame, was her husband, L.C., who most believed was the real brains behind the things Daisy said and did; while L.C. hid behind his newspaper as he supported and encouraged all her outrageous efforts.
It was Daisy, though, who was the face, and the voice they loved to hate...and, she would receive the brunt of the hateful messages throughout the Integration Crisis era. How dare this Negro woman, aided and abetted by northern intellectuals, and the NAACP, force integration down the throat of Little Rock, Arkansas! How dare they put innocent white children’s lives in danger, and forcefully expose them to black children when segregation and separation of the races were legal and accepted by blacks and whites for so long!
The trajectory of Orval’s young adult life was greatly different from Daisy Gatson’s. The difference was more than the facts that she was female and he was male. He was a white male, with some expectations, even though they weren’t great. Their aspirations in life would become more pronounced in their adult lives. In 1931, when Orval, at 21 years old, married Alta Haskins, one of his students; Daisy Gatson was still a teenager, quietly, but brazenly falling in love with a traveling insurance salesman who had begun visiting her parents quite often.
By this time, the once-sickly, shy and introverted Orval was quickly filling out into a well-rounded young man. After leaving home, Orval’s life seemed to take off in a number of ways. In short order he was now a husband, a father, an itinerant schoolteacher in the northwest Arkansas hills, and eventually a short-lived college student. Nothing had ever excited Orval more than books and learning. After teaching high school for 11 years, he enrolled in Commonwealth College, in Mena, Arkansas – the so-called college for socialists. For whatever reason, however, he was only there for a number of weeks. Even this short stint at the College would prove bothersome for his political career, but it was to his advantage that he stayed no longer.
Maybe more than his love for learning, however, was Orval’s inherent love for politics that may have lain dormant for years when he showed no real interest in the things his father espoused, in hopes that his son would also care about them. Orval would admit later that his love for politics was surely passed on from his father, although their political ideals did not always jibe.
The quiet child had spent all of his early years listening and taking in all of his father’s impassioned beliefs, ideals and broad knowledge about the way of things. In the end, the thoughtful Orval would pick and choose what he would hold onto from his father’s repertoire of ideals and beliefs. Some, Orval would keep for his own use, while others he found of no use for his future political career. Above all else – no matter what his personal ideals – Orval Faubus would prove himself to be a consummate politician.
It is difficult not to paint a parallel between Daisy’s childhood relationship to whites – that burning, but helpless hatred of whites who, according to all reports from family and friends, had murdered her mother and warped her childhood; and her feelings about Orval Faubus, who she saw as destroying yet more innocent children’s lives.
In many ways, even with its sense of horror and excitement, the 1957 Central High Crisis was the crest, the crescendo of actions and activities that fueled Daisy’s life over the next few years. While there comes a time in the midst of the 57 Crisis that she questions her role, and the sanity of it all, more often, she accepts with fortitude and conviction that this was an opportunity that fate or God, or both presented to her; and she dare not pass it up.
While the `57 Crisis centered on the two-year integration tug of war between the Central High School administrators, the governor and Daisy Bates; for those looking on from the outside, the war had few if any victors. For Daisy Gatson Bates, her role in the Integration Crisis may have been what she was placed on earth to do, in spite of, or because of the conflicted childhood back in Huttig, Arkansas.
Hate was something Daisy Lee Gatson would embrace as a child, and though she believed she had ridded herself of that early hate, to save herself; the `57 Crisis would likely cause its reappearance. Unfortunately, its reappearance would happen as she moved into her middle years – a most inopportune time for a woman’s emotional conflicts, as she dealt with the 24-hour stresses of the life she chose.
It is most likely that Daisy had repressed, rather than resolved the bitterness that planted its seed the day the Huttig butcher sent her home with fat rather than lean meat, and dared Daisy to question him; the day she learned of her mother’s murder and his father’s disappearance, for fear for his life; of Orval Faubus’ inflammatory segregationist actions, to the adults who taunted and cursed and hit the nine children she’d adopted in her heart; and even the horrific vitriol and damnation expressed in the letters mailed to Daisy’s newspaper and home.
It is 1961 in New York City, a lifetime away from Olin Avenue in Huttig, Arkansas. A battered but still beautiful Civil Rights heroine stares hungrily through the window of her home away from home – the New York’s Brittany Hotel, at 55 East 10th Street. She searches the lamp lit night populated by shadows of huge brownstones and achingly tall office buildings. She searches for just one bright, twinkling star, the kind that once comforted her – back on Olin Street, a lifetime ago.
Too excited to sleep, she ponders this new world in which she finds herself. The thought gives her both a small chill, and a delicious tingle of excitement. Still, she needs just one glimmer of something old to hold onto – like the days of shooting marbles, horseback riding and endless laughter—that filled her days, and gave comfort to her world.
A sleek black pen, a token of love...or adulation, from one of her new, and famous friends; lay silently, interrupting the stark whiteness of the blank sheet of paper. The pen, the paper and her parrot, Harvey share Daisy’s apartment in New York City. Her unsettled mind settles on the letter she wrote before her recent trip. An admirer had mailed her a box of goodies – one of her many gifts from friends and admirers. This one, though, has a special meaning. It is from “Lennie,” husband of her new friend Lena Horne. Daisy describes the package as “too loaded with nice things,” all of which she has given away...All, except just one item. She writes:
“Each night when I’m writing on the book (I still dream of Lena playing the lead role in the Daisy Bates Story), I wear this white shirt. My book will probably be the first best seller (or worst) ever to be written in one of Lennie Hayton’s night shirts…”
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