Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 51

Ash said on the telephone, “No, I thought your wife was very pleasant, last evening — trying her best to be natural with us. You must expect her to take a long time before she accepts Negroes as normal. I’ve tried to do the same thing for forty years, and I’m still a little bewildered to find that I’m not an American citizen or a father or a chemist but a Negro. And now, forget all that, because something very dangerous is starting.”

So Ash gave him the first news of the Sant Tabac.

When Neil had rushed home after work, to inquire how Vestal felt — she just felt like Vestal, and she was irritated that he should insist on her feeling any other way — he telephoned to Evan Brewster, to Cope Anderson, and put together his information:

The Sant Tabac was a new organization, founded in Grand Republic and likely to spread to other Northern cities. It was a conspiracy to drive as many Negroes as possible back South. To prospective members who thought that it resembled the Ku Klux Klan, the organizers explained, “No, there is to be no violence whatever. In fact, we want to protect the colored people — from their own leaders, who’d like to get them into riots, to please the Kremlin. We won’t stand for any lynchings, or even any beatings — not unless the mokes act nasty and rile the cops. Our policy is entirely benevolent and constructive: to get all the niggers that have grabbed off white men’s jobs in the North fired, and no new ones hired.”

There was a great deal of wit and archness in this campaign for economic murder. The name Sant Tabac was made from the initial letters in their slogan: “Stop all Negro trouble, take action before any comes.” The first set of officers were Mr. Wilbur Feathering, who was “Big Havana,” Mr. William Stopple, “Little Havana,” Mr. Randy Spruce, “Penatela”— not Panatela — while the treasurer, or “Ole Leather Pouch,” was Mr. Norton Trock of the Blue Ox National Bank. Among the directors were Mayor Ed Fleeron, Dr. Cortez Kelly, and the Reverend Dr. Jat Snood.

The Peter the Hermit of the order was Feathering, but the whimsy in the titles and name were from Randy and that advocate of Modern Art in Advertising, Mr. Harold W. Whittick, whose merry notion it had been to invent a Portuguese island called Sant Tabac, where tobacco had been discovered and all colored peoples had been banned.

Many of the crusaders were wearing a button depicting a pipe-smoking monk, but their achievements were less playful than their ritual, for the members were solid men of affairs, and if the local peerage, as incorporated in the Federal Club, were above joining, they did contribute. The leaders were trusty, swift and secretive men, given to strategy. And everything they did was known to the Negro world before it was known to the members. Randy Spruce’s office, where the plans were made, was in the Blue Ox Bank Building, and Cloat Windeck, the father of Phil, was head elevator man at that building and in charge of all waste paper.

Evan Brewster suggested to Randy Spruce that the members would save money if Negroes were accepted as workers instead of being expensively jailed or hospitalized, but Randy had no time to waste in listening to a blatherskite preacher.

The Sant Tabac, however earnest, cannot be credited with all the discharges of Negroes in Grand Republic. The return of the white soldiers, the strikes, the conversion of factories from tanks to suspender buckles, and the general conviction, richly cultivated by the radio and the comic strip, that all Negroes are amusing but bungling fools, were greater elements, but all of them worked sweetly together to start the epidemic of firing Negro workers, which began on All Fools Day.

It began at Wargate’s, with the letting out of two hundred brown-skin workers.

The management explained to them that they were being sent back to the breadlines solely because, with war manufacture ended, Wargate’s had to close several departments entirely.

Some of these departments were opened again in a couple of weeks, with new designations and with all-white workers.

The Five Points was certain that, by the end of the year, all of the Negroes working for Wargate’s would be dismissed. The discharged men stood about on corners, not parading, homeless, scared, swapping information about mythical towns in which, “fellow told me they’re hiring spooks now.”

One of the six hundred Negroes working for Wargate’s was a chemist named Ash Davis.

Ash said cheerfully to Martha and Neil, “If I get fired, I can probably get twenty a week fronting for some hair-straightener.”

The naive Neil marveled, “Wargate’s can’t let you go. Why, they’ll make hundreds of thousands of dollars out of your discoveries.”

“They will, but they don’t know it. They think I’m just fooling around at pure research. The South made tens of millions out of Carver’s discoveries about the lowly peanut, but they still made him use the back door. You whites are idealists. You put principle above mere money-grubbing — the principle of hate of the unknown. However. Wargate’s might keep me on as a floor-sweeper. I’m a neat sweeper.”

“Or,” Martha said cheerfully, “you might become a red cap and carry baggage, like most of our people that finish graduate school.”

“Not a chance. The Ph.D.‘s that get taken on as red caps have to speak at least seven languages, and I speak only three.”

Then Drexel Greenshaw walked in on them. “Heard about the firing at Wargate’s?” said Ash.

Drexel was pontifical. “Naturally, but I’m not as worried as you young people. I’ve seen too many set-backs for our race. And you must ask yourselves if this really is as unfortunate as some say. Remember that the folks who are being let out are mostly these new colored fieldhands that have just come up from the Southern backwoods — lot of ignorant, rude, money-wasting hicks — typical immigrants, I’d call ’em. All the old-timers, like Al Woolcape and me, have suffered a lot from having the white folks think WE’RE like those cattle. Oh, I’m sorry for them, but they better go back South, where they belong.”

“I’m an immigrant, too,” Ash pointed out.

“You’re different. You belong.”

“To what? I’d like to find out!”

Drexel expanded, “The white folks are only too glad to have colored gentlemen like you and me working for ’em. Mr. Tartan says to me, ‘Mister Greenshaw, I don’t know how we could ever run the Feesoly Room and satisfy our high-class clienteel without you. ‘I try to do my best,’ I says to him, and he says, ‘I know you do, and we appreciate it.’

“Why, I figure some of my best friends are white folks. Mind you, I’m no Uncle Tom. They got to treat me dignified. You young people don’t understand white psychology. If you make yourself valuable to ’em, they’ll treat you more than square, and if they been getting kind of prejudiced against us, it’s the fault of the black trash. Why, years ago here, we all got along real nice with the whites. My girls were brought up to play with real nice white kids, and when I went to church, I was treated like any other communicant. But the white folks are disgusted with these rug-cutters and slick-chicks that try to act like they’re the same as white folks. All the whites ask of us is humility, and that’s one of the best Bible virtues, ain’t it?”

They did not listen; they had heard it all from Drexel Greenshaw before. They were fond of the erect old man, the father of their friend Cynthia Woolcape; the gentlemen’s gentlemen’s gentleman, the Southern colonels’ Southern sergeant.

That week a Negro veteran was lynched in the Deep South.

From the Mississippi Delta to the Howard Law School to the clubs of Harlem ran a shudder and a mutter, “Next time it could be me,” and dark Communist and Fundamentalist were united as they looked quickly back on the streets at night. Ash Davis as despairingly as Sugar Gowse, Drexel Greenshaw and Dr. Darius Melody along with Hack Riley, heard the horror within hours after it had happened, and they cried “How long, O Lord?” and not meekly. And a Negro named Neil Kingsblood looked at his wife in honest terror and shivered, “It could be us and here and now.”

More of the black workers were dismissed every day by Wargate’s and the smaller firms. Every day the Mayo Street corners were more packed, the grumbling less amiable, and so the canny authorities sent in more policemen — and so the policemen were stoned now and then — and so they sent in still more policemen — and so one Negro was shot and four were arrested — and so a two-by-four was dropped from a third story upon a policeman’s head — and so Feathering said, “I told you so; join the Sant Tabac”— and so there were accelerated dismissals of Negroes from Wargate’s, from the Aurora Coke Company, from the Kippery Knitting Works, from the grain-loading gangs at the elevators, from the railroad car-shops — and so the street-corner gangs became more ugly — and so more policemen were sent in per omnia saecula saeculorum.

Among the white labor-union leaders, a third protested, a third said nothing, and a third rejoiced.

And then, with a handsome letter from Duncan Browler about his work, Ash Davis was fired.

There had been no warning. The letter was awaiting him when he came home on a Friday evening. When he had read it, Ash lost, for an hour, his poise as a skeptical man of the world, and became a frightened and belligerent workman out of work.

He wrote to a number of firms in the East which knew his ability. They answered that there were so many white chemists returning from the wars and, besides, maybe their present staff might object to working with a non-Caucasian.

Anyway, chirped he to Martha, he would prefer teaching to working in another commercial house.

He could get no appointment in any white college, including one that had intended to give him an honorary degree. There were a few, an increasing group, of Negroes on university staffs, but Ash did not have that luck. The college presidents lovingly answered — when they answered at all — that while THEY had no “prejudices,” not one prejudice, all of their present band of hope and light were likely to object to working with a brownskin.

Months later, after he had gone to New York, Ash was sold down the river to a small Negro college in the Deep South, salary $1800 a year and a house, only there wasn’t any house yet.

Then Phil Windeck lost his job at the garage.

Then Drexel Greenshaw lost his job.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38