Juneteenth, Judge’s Story and Mr. Isaiah’s Immaculate Bus: (A Strange Trip Back into My Black Experience)

(Repost, originally published on the BGP site in Summer, 2007)

NOTE: As of this writing, this blog entry is way over a month late. When I started writing it I knew it wasn’t going to be on time. I knew it had to be right, as well as next in the sequence or I’d regret it. Well, as usual, real life got in the way but it’s finally done. It’s long as hell but there was much to say. Ironically, I finished editing this blog entry just after midnight on 8/8/07, minutes after Barry Bonds hit his 756th career home run, topping the record set by Hank Aaron.

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA. SOMETIME AFTER 3AM, JUNE 23RD, 2007 — Juneteenth is one of those unofficial ‘official’ holidays that comes and goes among African-Americans. It’s not on most calendars, nor am I sure it will ever be. The occasion is also called Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, originally commemorating the abolition of slavery in Texas on June 19th but has slowly spread to other states. Here in Virginia it’s usually celebrated in some fashion on the 19th or the closest weekend. I got word from my mother that WICU (Women in Christ United), a local group based out of her church, had put together a day trip to Baltimore for a Black History tour. The ringer about the trip was that most of the passengers were WICU, comprised of ladies well into their 50s and 60s. This wasn’t your granddaddy’s kind of church ladies either. They were a new breed, the generation that grew up in Jim Crow, fought for Civil Rights, and now that many of them are grandmothers and great-grandmothers they have a feisty, sense of not-giving-a-damn that elders seem to be entitled to. The fact that each one of them moved at their own speeds, including slow motion, was going to make the trip even more interesting, especially since a bus trip of this nature couldn’t have happened a little over 40 short years ago. Because of them and the day looked like it was going to be a kinetic time-traveling experience between the past and present, this Juneteenth promised to be one to remember.

Being one of the few adult males on the trip, I was introduced to George, one of my mother’s friends and member of her church. By the time I finished helping him load up the refreshment coolers and was able to get on the bus I had no choice but to take a seat in the back. It seemed ironic for this kind of trip since many of the passengers. The bus ended up with just the right number of passengers. Much to my surprise I had plenty of space and legroom, a rare treat on these Greyhound-style tour buses.

Once everyone was on board, the bus driver, a short, brooding brotha about as old as most of the WICU members, caught everyone’s attention and began his dissertation. Balding on top with the scowl of a seasoned Black Shakespearean actor, after I noted that his first name was Isaiah, I struggle hold back from laughing at the rest of his 20-minute speech. He covered every conceivable rule on his bus right down to instructing passengers how to properly urinate in the bus bathroom — plus standing up at the toilet or taking a dump was strictly prohibited. The only thing he didn’t do was demand DNA samples. I would bet money that Mr. Isaiah had already broken his cherry as far as leaving a passenger on the side of the road for breaking more than one of his bus rules.

It was near sunrise by the time we all said a group prayer and the bus was finally under way. Immediately the music switched from diet jazz to gospel. I said another quick prayer, this time for a few hours of sleep. It’s not that I don’t like listening to the Lord’s message put to music or anything like that. Truth be told, the closest sound to gospel that I feel any spiritual connections to are groups out of Africa like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I knew it was gonna be a long trip if I didn’t get some sleep. Luckily, after sunrise the music stopped and someone popped in a DVD, Tyler Perry’s “Daddy’s Little Girls”.

Figuring the movie was probably a typical Feel Good movie that bordered on being a Black-Chick-Flick, I scrambled to find a comfortable position — the kind that’s almost impossible for a big guy like me to achieve on a bus. Without giving away the story, aside from a few tear-jerker clichés it turned out to be pretty good, especially for general audiences. As I watched a blue-collar brotha working to hold his family together and make his way in the world, I found myself reflecting on all the scenarios I’d encountered where some sistahs would overlook the “nice” brothas because they either weren’t so-called thugs or ballers flush with bling or they weren’t working in some white-collar field where they could be earning six-figures or more — and then they’d complain after they’ve hooked up with a smooth-talking jerk that ended up doing them wrong. Although the movie had a happy ending, I thought about how it rarely worked out that way for brothas faced with those situations.

Sometime around mid-morning the bus pulled up at the Great Blacks on Wax Museum in Baltimore. After a few minutes I noticed some kind of drama begin to unfurl. I had no idea what was happening but it had both Mrs. Goode and Mr Isaiah outside on their cell phones, furiously pacing back and forth like disgruntled executives. That’s where Greg(?), our tour guide, boarded the bus and we headed out on the tour.

As the bus wheeled through town Greg told us stories about the ‘Then and Now’ of parts of Baltimore. ranging from tales of once-thriving venues where people like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald used to appear on the Chitlin’ Circuit (a loosely-knit route of venues where Black musicians could performed along the east coast) to where the original NAACP building once stood to the projects where HBO’s show “The Wire” were filmed on location. I don’t know about the others, but I found myself amazed at the contrast. I could see it all, then and now, as if I was watching two films recorded at the same places 50-years apart and projected on a screen at the same time. I saw phantoms walking along the streets that were once thriving nightlife scenes and hubs of cultural Black pride amidst more than a few of the spots that were either now something else or the evidence of their existence had been reduced to boarded up buildings or empty lots with historical landmark signs. We might as well have been riding past archaeological digs filled with rare dinosaur bones — except those bones were more likely to be reconstructed to their full glory.

Eventually we pulled up and stopped in front of Orchard Street Church. Built in 1837, rebuilt in 1859 and rebuilt again in 1882, legend has it that this church was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, sometimes headed up Harriet Tubman. I was the last to exit the bus and as I paused beside my mother next the door to get my camera ready for indoor shots, Mr Isaiah began to vent. Apparently the original bus driver’s bus broke down so the tour bus company hired him as a replacement and, due to some communication breakdown, he thought he was going to just drop us off back at the wax museum. Well, not only did this conflict with the plans and the contract, Mrs. Goode wasn’t having it since the group had paid for an entire day trip. Because Mr Isaiah had been up since 3am, this conflicted with some new safety law that drivers had to either have a relief driver or sleep after so many hours on the road. Long story short, he was pissed and had the attitude of a rattlesnake. He was stuck with us and it was the fault of the tour bus company. I’m not sure why he decided to share all this with me but based on his initial speech I had a feeling he wasn’t going to take this turn of events with ease. Any old man named Isaiah with Obsessive-Compulsive tendencies wasn’t prone to bullshit around.

Once I caught up to the rest of the group inside the church, we were led down many flights of steps to the basement level. Already packed with people, on one side of this cramped space was the half-bricked up remnants of a huge furnace; the other was an opening to a long dark crawlspace, referred to as ‘tunnels’ by our tour guide. Since the tunnels were pitch black in each direction, I stuck my camera inside and took a few snapshots.

Upon looking at photos of the illuminated crawlspaces I knew I would have died trying make it through. I’d seen coffins with more elbow room. Apparently slaves used to come in from the outside through these small heating ducts and emerged here in the bowels of the church — or this was how they left the sanctuary. Either way, after a bunch of people walked down all those steps only to crowd around down there it was hot. I couldn’t conceive how it must have been with a raging coal-stoked fire that was fierce enough to heat the entire church without the aid of electric blowers, straight out of Dante’s “Inferno” with temperatures well over several hundred degrees. It reminded me of the kinds of sacrifices African-American ancestors made just to survive and be free — and how many Blacks today take it for granted as if it happened a thousand years ago. Admittedly, sometimes I did too.

After seeing the tunnels we were guided back upstairs to the main seating area of the church. A two-story tall brass pipe organ loomed overhead as we slowly entered one by one; with each step even the wooden floors creaked with hollow reverence as if they had their own secrets to tell. With a loud hush to his tone, Greg announced that if we were all quiet enough the Ghost of Harriet Tubman might come out and speak to us — and once everyone settled into their seats, an eerie silence swelled. Just then, a waif of a woman slowly peered in from a dimly-lit entrance near the organ. As she walked toward the open floor it was impossible not to notice her face, gaunt with the pain of ages in every wrinkle except for the steel in her eyes.

As she captivated the audience with her story, I thought about how everything Greg had pointed out there at the church began with “Legend has it that–“. My logical side started to wonder why. Was it because historians lacked proof? Was this some sort of tourist-trap scam? Or was it because of some legal issue, like being liable for false claims? For such an old frail woman, as Harriet Tubman’s ghost gave her speech her presence swelled to that of a Goliath, echoing high into the ceiling as if she was an impending thunderstorm. For those few minutes I forgot that this was an actress. She was Harriet Tubman. The power behind her delivery was intense enough to make me realize something: We were listening to the history of people fighting against oppression, surviving during a time where paper trails could get them killed, Blacks and Whites alike. It didn’t matter that she had on shoes with heels that no one would even consider wearing while running through pitch-black forests. It didn’t matter that the musket gun she held was a souvenir sold at gift shops near Colonial Williamsburg — a cheap child-size version of a musket from a period almost 100 years before the real Harriet Tubman was born. Something about it all reminded of a quote from the movie ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. I realized that it didn’t matter whether or not Harriet Tubman regularly used this church as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The truth was that it happened constantly all around these parts and Tubman was an icon, just one of many helping slaves escape to freedom. Not to take anything away from her amazing courage but when heroes don’t exist, sometimes it’s necessary to invent (or appoint) them just to keep the spirit of a story’s meaning alive to impact future generations. In cases like this, the power of the story and the moral behind such great accomplishments mattered most. The actual details of who did what, where, and when bordered on irrelevant.

Once Harriett Tubman finished addressing our group, Greg made sure to introduce the actress and tell us about her achievements. I didn’t catch her real name or most of her details but she was an 84-year old still delivering her lines with the heart of a Lioness a third of her age. As I took a photo of my mom with her, I had a hunch that somewhere, somehow her work was appreciated.

Shortly after everyone was back on the bus and we were under way, one of the WICU ladies squealed “Ohh Lawd” somewhere up front just as the bus swerved hard to the right. Mr. Isaiah was busy speeding through crosstown traffic, inventing lanes where there were none. He was pissed. At any given instant we were at the mercy of high g-force turns that sent passengers plowing face-first into each other and the backs of seats. Cars that once felt entitled to cutting in front of the bus suddenly honked in terror. Pedestrians scattered like frightened kids. Occasional screams and curses squawked outside as the bus engine revved and streaked onward. All of it seemed to happen at the same time. Watching the church ladies up front endure all the near accidents, suddenly the back of the bus was the place to be. Because of their reactions, I almost felt guilty laughing at every near miss. George and his wife were sitting in the back with me. He seemed completely comfortable with the ride as we discussed the philosophical aspects of dealing with being Black in Corporate America and laughed every time the bus swerved to avoid an accident. Ultimately we arrived at our next destination in record time.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Baltimore, our second stop was Hampton National Park, once one of the biggest plantations of the south, if not America. Owned by the Ridgely family during 1700s and 1800s, by comparison this was the equivalent of the Trump Towers back then. In its heyday the estate covered 25,000 acres, about half the size of modern day Baltimore. Compared to other plantations I’d visited, this place was a resort. The slave quarters were small condominiums. The overseer’s house was bigger than some restaurants I’d visited. Up on a hill about a mile off in the distance was the Hampton Mansion itself, the master’s house. From our vantage point the building was mostly obscured by trees and it still looked bigger than the Governor’s mansion in Virginia.

The Hampton tour guide was a white park ranger, which I found odd and even a little awkward at first. Although I had no problem listening to a white man sharing history of slave life, I could also tell he was probably a genuinely nice man. The plantation was about 18 miles away from Pennsylvania, a Northern free state; it was a little over half a marathon to freedom for any slave that wanted to make a break for it. I had no idea where the Orchard Street Church was in proximity to this plantation but it didn’t matter. Standing out in the midday summer sun, my problem with listening to the ranger describe life on the plantation I couldn’t help but feel the lingering presence of countless slaves that tried to escape — and failed. Just like with the other plantations, I was anxious to leave.

The next stop was a buffet lunch at some hotel where I had the privilege of listening to my mother and Mrs. Goode vent their frustrations about Mr. Isaiah while conspiring to take him down along with the bus company and anything else that was evil in the world. Mr. Isaiah was in earshot but he didn’t seem to care. He felt he was in the right. Mrs. Goode and my mother felt we were in the right. Both sides were at the mercy of the tour bus company’s mistake, albeit I sensed that the company knew exactly what they were doing. As I ate lunch the only thing I hoped for was that tensions didn’t continue to mount. Something about the WICU ladies was the AARP’s equivalent of street gang from ‘West Side Story’; some carried canes. Mr. Isaiah didn’t seem like a man that would back down, either. All I wanted to do was make sure we all got home without incident.

Our final stop, The Great Blacks on Wax Museum, turned out to be both an inspiration and a bit of a letdown at the same time. To clarify, I loved the concept — a non-profit dedicated to teaching African-American history and allowing people to put past lives into perspective by showing people that only existed in books and films for most of us. I found it humbling to stand almost face to face a few feet away from folks like Benjamin Banneker, Bill Pickett, James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ida B Wells, and Marcus Garvey — people that either contributed to civilization as a whole or gave their lives to change my life — and I’d never get a chance to thank in person. The person that made me pause was George Washington Carver. Aside from the fact that he reminded me of my late grandfather John Lee (my aunts and uncles called him ‘Judge’, Mr. Carver always appealed to the 8-year old in me, when everything was possible for a Mad Scientist that stayed true to his game plan. Even though I’d heard about Mr. Carver in school, it wasn’t until Judge told me about meeting him one afternoon that the legend came to life. Judge was a porter on the railroad in the South at the time. The train had just pulled out and one of the cooks was bragging about shaking Carver’s hand as he boarded. Judge, apparently awestruck by the possibility of meeting any Negro he’d read about in the papers, wasted no time going to meet the man. “Mr. Carver was reading a book when I walked up; he closed the book, looked up and smiled,” Judge said as he patted my head and wistfully re-lit his cigar then continued, “After some small talk he admitted that in his travels through the south he wasn’t used to seeing too many Negro cabin porters. He said it was good to see me in that position; it meant that times were changing.”

Judge went on to explain how he became a porter. It was sometime in the 1942 when he landed his first job with the railroad; the only reason he knew that was because Grandmomma Jesse was pregnant with Aunt Shirley, about two years before my father was born. Because he had come from the farming world and needed the money to support his wife and four (soon to be five) daughters, he accepted a starting position as a janitor. Eventually, he set his sights on becoming one of the porters, mostly because he needed the raise. When he asked his boss about the position he was told that he wasn’t qualified. By the way his boss responded without a second thought, he could tell they weren’t trying to make the job available to him because he was Black man that barely had an 8th grade education. In order to get that job he had be able to read as well as know all the stops on their route between Shreveport, Louisiana and Kansas City. Determined to get that position, Judge decided to train himself. Night after night, as he cleaned the offices he rummaged through the garbage and collected notes from all the office memos and read through them at home. Soon he learned what tests we required for the porter position so he began studying in secret until the day he got the job. That was how he provided for his family. His wife, Grandmomma Jesse, was a teacher that earned her Masters and eventually became a Reverend, engaged her own things like ghostwriting to support their children — but that’s another story for another time. Although Judge never explained how he learned everything necessary for the position, as I grew older and wiser over the years I came to suspect that he did it by taking manuals home at night and returning them early the next morning. Years after he passed away I ended up employing the same techniques to learn many things that I didn’t know that would enable me to land jobs I wasn’t supposed to win. Chalk it up to a genetic trait. After all, he was my father’s father.

When I returned reality, Mr. Carver’s statue was still staring my way as if lost in thought. Ever since my grandfather told me about meeting the man that took a peanut and used it to change the face of American agriculture forever, I’ve always believed that if I worked toward my dreams and goals I could make things happen, too.

The museum basement was a steamy, cramped parlor of perils dedicated to every conceivable horror Black people have endured in this since we reached these shores. It was a menagerie of brutal lynching photos that was on par with the Hall of Fame for most professional sports teams, surrounded by statistics of body counts that rivaled the total casualties from Hurricane Andrew. Since I’d already learned this aspect of Black History on my own, seeing it again was like a trip back to when I flunked pre-Algebra in 8th-grade and had to take it again in summer school — painfully uncomfortable to relive but necessary in some unseen way. The only thing that bothered me about this museum was that half the exhibits looked like strange mannequins with blank faces with unnatural skin tones and the other half were nothing short of masterpieces. Because the statues in both the slave ship and lynching galleries resembled life-size Negro lawn jockies with the facial expressions of zombies, part of me wanted to see them have the same real sense of identity like the named historical figures. After leaving the museum I figured out a possible artistic reason for these poorly done sculptures: — they weren’t being treated like humans to begin with.

Back on the bus, silence prevailed on the trip back to Virginia Beach; everyone was spent. Even Mr. Isaiah had chilled out with his Road Warrior driving tactics after he got a nap while the rest of us were inside the museum. Two movies were played during the trip back — “Pursuit of Happyness” and “Dream Girls”. “Pursuit” reminded me of my own crazy “all or nothing” business dealings over the years and how I couldn’t have made it to this point without my family. I would have been flat broke and homeless without them. “Dream Girls”, in all its musical glory, struck me as a cautionary tale about how fame and fortune can tear people apart if they’re not well-grounded, almost an extreme parody of what’s happened within the Black community since the Civil Rights movement. Although my grandfather’s story helped me understand that I could achieve the American Dream, both movies reminded me that anything could happen and if my soul wasn’t right with God, it would be easy to fall to the dark side without warning.

Back in Virginia Beach at the parking lot we departed from, everyone slowed filed off the bus and went their separate ways. Aside from being happy that we all made it back safe without incident, I felt bad because no one wanted to take up a tip collection for Mr. Isaiah. When I brought up the fact that short-changing on his tip was a very un-Christian-like thing to do, several of the WICU ladies begrudgingly began to reconsider. I took the initiative to give him a tip. He said thanks and turned it down. When I pushed the issue he said something to the effect that he’d be alright and that if the customer wasn’t satisfied he didn’t deserve a tip. Although his name would live in infamy among the WICU ladies, I have to admit I had to respect the man — he was a brotha that lived by a code and stuck to it.

A little later I went to my favorite watering hole to begin my late night writing ritual and organize my thoughts for this blog entry. The first thing I glanced at was my backpack as I dug out my PDA and sketchbook as I glanced around the bar — it was wrapped with with chatty people of all races but still sparse, mostly filled employees that just got off work from nearby restaurants. Bob Marley’s “Redemption” song eased its way into the music mix, something that prompted me to dedicate my first drink to those ancestors that got us here. I miss my grandparents but I won’t get into that now. This blog is already long as hell and I didn’t want to get misty-eyed while sitting in a bar.

After watching Harriet Tubman’s ghost speak at a church along the Underground Railroad and see tunnels slaves probably had to crawl through to get in and out, walking through the remains of one of the biggest slave plantations in the South, seeing images of past lynchings, perils endured by escaped slaves, the various tools of inhumane punishment and revisiting my late grandfather and George Washington Carver, I felt a renewed sense of pride. When visions of my grandparents — Ford and Essie, Judge and Jesse — came to mind, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of invincibility. Somehow my family lines survived it all to raise me and my younger brothers — and based on our mindsets, had we been born just a few generations earlier I was pretty sure we would have lived very different lives — nowhere near the comparatively easy lives we enjoy today. Even in the worst way, this was a reminder to be proud of my bittersweet heritage AND the life here in America. Today I’m free, or as Sly Stone once said in a song, at least in my mind if I want to be.

On my backpack I always keep an antique skeleton key hanging from one of the zippers. An older computer hacker associate gave it to me 20 years ago, shortly before he vanished without a trace. Since then it has always served as a reminder that I can always retain my personal freedom no matter what the circumstances are. All I had to do is put my mind and heart into it.

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