The gold was gone, the streets were mud, and November was near, when Neil lunched with Randy Spruce of the Chamber of Commerce, Lucian Firelock, who had come from a Georgia newspaper to be advertising manager of Wargate’s, and Wilbur Feathering, who had also migrated North, but more after the fashion of Morgan’s raiders.
Wilbur was the newest business sensation in town; small, trim, forty-five and full of twenty-dollar bills. He had been born in Mississippi, the son of a bankrupt grocer, but he thought that it would be much nicer if you supposed him to be the scion of a plantation-owner. Randy said, in a Boosters Club speech, “Wilbur may be as Southern as a hot tamale but he’s also Northern as a blizzard and as streamlined as a flying torpedo.”
After six years in Grand Republic, Wilbur had added to his Delta accent the virile phrases of Chippewa Avenue, and he was now more likely to say “That’s for sure” than “Ah declare,” and not Randy himself more often crowned a sentence with “Or what have you.”
Wilbur had a mission, even aside from the nurture of his bank-account, a mission to enlighten Grand Republic about the danger of race riots that, he said, was inherent in the growth, since 1939, of its Negro colony from eight hundred to two thousand — to nearly two and a quarter per cent. of the total population, which, by Wilbur’s arithmetic, was ninety-eight and a quarter per cent.
Neil met them in the maple-paneled Green Mountain Cocktail Lounge of the Pineland for a quick one, and they lunched in the Fiesole Room. The presence of the colored waiters started them talking Negro Problem.
“Where you boys got it wrong,” said Mr. Wilbur Feathering, “is in looking on the Nigras here as a reservoir of labor to use in breaking strikes and busting the unions. Used to could, but the damn unions are some of ’em beginning to enroll the niggers just like human beings.”
“I believe he’s right,” said Randy.
They heard their friend, Glenn Tartan, manager of the Pineland, asking a waiter, “Where is Mr. Greenshaw?”
Wilbur wailed, “That’s exactly what I mean about you Northerners! MISTER Greenshaw! For a nigger headwaiter! None of you know how to treat the black apes.”
Lucian Firelock objected, “On committees, I’ve often said ‘Mister’ to Nigras.”
“Aw, you’re just trying to show off, Firelock,” said Feathering. “Me, I have never in my whole life called any colored person Mister, Missus, or Miss, and I never shall, so help me God! Here’s what you might call the philosophy of it. The minute you call one of the bastards Mister, you’re admitting that they’re as good as you are, and bang goes the whole God-damn White Supremacy racket!”
Lucian Firelock, once highly thought of in Georgia university circles, protested, “Do you always have to talk of the Nigras with hatred?”
“I don’t hate the shines. Fact, they tickle me to death. They’re such sly, thievish monkeys, and they all dance good, and when they find a white man that’s onto ’em, like me, they just laugh like hell and admit they’d all be a damn sight better off under slavery. But you’re one of these New Southern Liberals that claim it’s okay to have niggers right at your house for dinner!”
Lucian said earnestly, “No, I believe thoroughly in Segregation. It prevents conflicts. But I also believe in scrupulously seeing that the Nigras get accommodations exactly as good as ours. For example, there is a Nigra chemist here named Dr. Ash Davis, and while I don’t want to intrude on his home or have him intrude on mine, he deserves the best of everything.”
Feathering snorted, “I’ve heard of that guy, and I wouldn’t worry about his equal accommodations being so damn equal! Fact, his having his appointment at all is a stinking injustice to some young white scientist that’s toiled and sacrificed and prepared himself for a good position, and then he finds this fat, greasy, four-flushing nigger has plotted and connived and grabbed it! Don’t that make your blood boil?
“And take this nigger headwaiter here. Does he have the decency to ask Glenn, ‘Please, boss, don’t mister me no misters! It makes me ashamed befo’ de white quality’? Not him! You Yankees —”
And then he said it, he really did say it: “Iwastwelveyearsold-beforeIknewdamnYankeewastwowords.”
“You Yankees have spoiled him and he’ll stay spoiled till he gets a little kind-hearted flick of the bull-whip.”
Neil was saved from bursting out by Lucian’s abrupt, “Oh, don’t talk like a Mississippi Senator!”
“Now that’s all right now! Those Senators may be hicks, but they talk sense on this ONE subject! Say! I hear this headwaiter has a daughter that’s married to a nigger dentist! Can you imagine that — poking around in people’s mouths with his big black fingers! He ought to be run out of town. Yes, and maybe we’ll do it. Some day you boys may be glad that one man come here and stirred up a little action before any nigger trouble could start!”
Neil was choking inside.
— God curse all white people, all of them! When shall I speak up? When shall I come out?
Uncle Bodacious Feathering was going on, “Used to be in the South we had a lot of dignified colored waiters that said ‘Sir’ to every white man even if he was a night watchman or what have you, but we had to kick out a good share of ’em and put in white waitresses, because those anthracites were getting corrupted by hearing the educated Nigras talk about what they called ‘the wrongs of the race’— lot of stuff that never happened. I’d like to hang every buttinsky that helps any nigger to go to college, and deep down in your heart, Firelock, so would you.”
“I would not!”
“Oh, I’m naturally a tolerant guy, myself. I love dogs. But when my dog has been rolling in manure and comes parading in and claims a right to sit right down at the same table with me —”
Neil heard nothing more. He had risen and walked out.
He sat in the Green Mountain Cocktail Lounge, with its hand-pegged maple furniture, its glass icicles on cartwheel chandeliers. He attentively drank one glass of water, throbbing, “I must come out — I must come out,” in a rhythm that beat and beat on endlessly. As he cautiously went back into the lobby, he saw that a Negro, dark-brown, handsome, slim, in tweeds, was standing at the desk. Neil guessed that he was a doctor or a teacher, and that, with his dove-like brown wife, he had been daring to motor and look at his own country.
The room-clerk was yelling, “Oh, Mr. Tartan, could you step this way?”
A year ago, Neil would certainly not have stopped, would have seen nothing, would have heard nothing. Now, he heard Glenn Tartan explain to the unknown, “Yes, sure, Doc, I know it’s the Minnesota law — and a most unjust and discriminatory law it is, and the legislators who passed it would be sore as goats if there were a law compelling THEM to shelter people they don’t like in their own homes. It’s the law, but I want you to understand — you look fairly intelligent — that there has been a lot of complaint among our decent guests at you people horning in. So if you could go some place else, we would be very much obliged.”
The husband and wife turned away, silent. Neil caught them at the door, with, “I think you can find fairly clean accommodations at the Blackstone, at Astor and Omaha, in the Five Points.”
The man answered, “If it’s not rude, may I say that my people don’t ordinarily expect such courtesy from a white man!”
“I’m not white. I’m colored, thank God!”
He heard himself saying it.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57