They hung Grandad from this tree. Feels strange to sit under it now. I guess it was bound to happen at some point, with the tree being in the middle of the only road between home and town. But still, even with my clothes all wet I guess it could be worse, even as hard as it’s raining. After all, they did hang Grandad from this tree.
I still can’t forget Momma’s face when she first told me that story, tears and anger on her countenance from some man in a big gray hat to match his suit saying “watch it nigger” when he ran into her as we all rushed under an awning downtown to get out of a rain much like today’s. She fumed. So I said how come you’re so mad, and she said cause ain’t nobody ever supposed to call you that; so I said it’s just a word, and she said don’t you ever say something so foolish; so I said well why don’t you say something; so she said cause I can’t, and I said why not; and she said dammit boy I’m afraid to. So I asked why she was afraid, and she said because being brave is what killed your Grandad. And I stopped and then asked how Momma and she told me the story. She told me the story not to reminisce and not to commemorate my Grandad but to teach me about bravery and the world I was living in so I did not end up in that tree like him.
The story went that Grandad and some of the other coloreds in town decided that they needed a church. They had grown tired of meeting in each other’s houses to worship, but knew better than to try and pray with the white folks downtown. Pennsylvania or not, these were still old slaves and the children of them, and they knew them and the white folks did not pray to the same God. The white folks had a God that did not hear the same prayers, the same tears, and the same tired and mournful songs that sound like moans. Their God didn’t need the prayers that saved them twice over, their God only needed to deliver them once from their own sins and not the sins of others. And so, a proper house needed to be built to hold all the prayers and moans of the saints, so my Grandad, forty years old and a father of three, got the men together to build themselves a church for coloreds.
Momma said they started building the church in 1912, the men all showing up on an early April morning on the plot bought with raised money along the road between town and where the Black folks lived. The ground was broken, the foundation was laid, and the process began. Word around town began to spread as the building progressed that some of the white folks near where the church would stand might not take too kindly to the church being there. Couldn’t have coloreds meeting up and hanging around all hours of the day and making noise and carrying on like they were still down south. Not in their town. It seemed like even salvation was wrong if it wasn’t grudgingly given to them. So after some of the wooden frame went up, some of those concerned white folks decided to string up a big white sheet with that word that made my momma fume and cry and quake with a pain I never knew.
But Grandad didn’t stop. No, he continued to build that church on the side of that road with fewer, but now more dedicated than ever, followers. Folks would laugh and say he was campaigning to be the pastor once the church was done, and they might’ve been right from what I was always told about Grandad. Momma said he loved the Lord, knew his word, and lived it with every breath he ever took.
He even lived the word on that day the gunshots rang out in the heat of June. Noise had died down since the incident with the sheet, and the whites in town figured with their feelings made clear that construction would have either moved or stopped. When it became clear neither was the case, guns were loaded, and a posse was gathered, and they marched past the old end of town and up that road towards where the coloreds lived with their pistols and rifles and shotguns gleaming in the sunlight, bearing a menace that matched the men bearing them.
The group stopped at the edge of the construction site, the dust settling around them as they waited to be addressed. The construction ceased, frozen and shaken at the sight of white men with guns. But not Grandad. He kept on working, stacking wood in a pile so he could saw and nail it later. Both groups stood equally as shocked, unsure of what to do next.
“Can I help you gentlemen?” Grandad’s question hung heavy in the air, looming over everyone’s heads.
“What are you doing out here with these fellas?” asked the leader of the armed men, assuming his question to be met with begging or an apology.
“Oh, me and these gentlemen are just outside to build a church on this here spot. Lord gave us such a beautiful day for it. We got the deed with us if you’d like proof it’s our land.”
“Now you really think ’cause the city say it’s yours that it’s yours?”
“Well, I figure I’m beholden to the laws of God and of man, and that’s what man’s law say, and God never said I ain’t allowed to own land.”
A sudden dip into a more menacing tone. “Now you listen here, darkie. I’ll make this here very clear since the last warning didn’t get through your thick monkey skull. Ain’t gonna be no nigger church here on this road. Understand?”
Silence. Grandad wiped the sweat from his brow, the sun still bearing down on him, covering his head as it glistened with sweat. “Oh, I understand sir.”
A smile. “That’s good to hear. You boys have a nice day.” And just as he turned around to corral the group, Grandad finished his thought.
“There ain’t gonna be no nigger church here, but there is gonna be a church. But ain’t no such thing as a nigger church. Just a church.”
A sharp about face, in physical and mental manifestation.
“Boy. We had an understanding. Now why you have to go and screw it all to hell?”
“We had an understanding there’d be no nigger church on this road. I agree to that much. Can’t be what doesn’t exist. But you seem to think a church with God’s children in it is a nigger church.”
“A church with niggers in it is a nigger church.” The words hissed with venom from the lips of their speaker. “Ya’ll might be God’s creation, but you still niggers.”
“The Book say there’s no difference between Greek or Jew. I figure Black and White fit in just about the same.”
“Are you questioning my salvation, nigger?”
“No sir, not at all. Just thought maybe you ain’t read that passage. But if you questioning your salvation, you and your friends all invited to Sunday service once we finish this here church.
“You ain’t finishing shit!” Came the impassioned response, and the pistol brandished by the voice raised, fired.
The rounds slammed into the wood piles near Grandad, who jumped but didn’t panic. The rest of the armed men decided to follow suit and fired on the other building materials, breaking and splintering and chipping the wood and cinder block as the rest of the colored folks dove behind cover, terrified of being hit by a stray. But not Grandad. He stood there, unafraid of what seemed an obvious next step in terms of what was getting shot. He stood tall, his ruddy clothes sticking to his dark skin, still glistening in the sun.
Shocked at the absolute gall, the leader of the group asked, “Aren’t you scared, nigger?”
And Grandad held to what gave him life and death, righteousness and sin, washing anew and drowning: his bravery.
“Lord don’t give me no spirit of fear.” His words rang final, solid. The white men stared for a moment before the leader turned silently away and walked off, followed slowly and uncertain by his cohort. Those behind cover stood with caution, mouths hanging open. Grandad didn’t stay in the moment, though. No, he just began cleaning the site so they all could get back to work, singing a hymn the whole time.
It is well, it is well, in my soul
And the men just watched, proud and afraid of his bravery.
They grabbed Grandad out of his house that night. The door was kicked in, and some men grabbed him while the children cowered in their room and as Grandma blocked the door to protect them. She ended up with a fourth and she was told, once more, to be afraid for a lifetime, and to tell her children to do the same even though she was afraid from the start, not for herself, but also for her children and her husband who was bravely being dragged out the door and her life for good.
My Grandma told Momma she knows Grandad was brave the whole time. He was brave when they hit him in the head with a wood plank. He was brave when they kicked his ribs. He was brave when they told him “let’s baptize you preaching nigger” and shoved his head under the water of the creek until the courage was gone. And he was brave after he gave up the ghost, and they stripped him naked and cut off his manhood and strung him up in this very tree, left for the buzzards and the coloreds to look at and chew on and digest. Here my Grandad hung, bravely. Momma said it rained for about a week straight after it happened, so the city didn’t bother to come cut him down for that long.
Nobody ever got arrested for that night, and the nigger church was moved closer to the niggers and off the side of that road. And that was that. That was why my mother taught me, immersed me, baptized me, drowned me, covered me in fear so I could never forget it, and never dare to be brave like Grandad, who got strung up in this tree long but not so long ago. Poor Grandad had it worse than I ever could imagine, screaming as the dirty creek water filled his lungs.
Still, though, I don’t much care for being caught in the rain either.
Elisha James Jones hails from Erie, Pennsylvania, born and raised there since 1996. He currently studies English and Theology at Duquesne University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His work has been previously published in the :Lexicon literary journal.