Thomasville, Georgia, August 1964
It was only our second Wednesday of freedom that summer, but Mary Beth and I already knew our way through alleys, bushes and backyards to the Walnut Square. We heard there was a new Co-Cola machine down there and I had four dimes and a dry throat.
“Mary Beth, you hear that? Someone’s singing”
“I hear my throat calling out for that cold Co-Cola,” she complained. “And I know yours is, too. Wouldn't you rather get something to drink than just stand here and listen to the Methodists practice?”
“The Methodists are in the other direction, and besides, this isn't Methodist music, it's something different.” I was sure I could feel the intense sound echo in my heart. “You can feel this music, I never felt it before. Come on.” Mary Beth wouldn't want to go, but I faced the sound of the music knowing she would come after me. She always did.
We followed the sounds all the way to the end of Liberty Street, then turned at the corner to find the Thomasville African Episcopal Church. It was a real small church, not more than one big room, and maybe another little one in the back. The glass windows were just plain, and they were propped open up with pieces of wood. Strange voices poured out those windows and filled the air that afternoon. My church may have had the stained glass windows, but these people sounded like the Spirit was flowing right through them. Just listening to them gave me the shivers. I remember thinking that this must be the joyful noise from Psalm 96.
“Give me a boost Mary Beth. I know this song, I want to see inside.”
“If you’re going to be so nosey, why don't you just look in the front door. I don't wanna boost you up.” But even while she complained, she positioned herself against the wall and made her hands into a cup for me to step on. I undid the strap on my black Mary Janes and stepped into her palms. Even when I stretched as far as I could, my head still didn't reach the window. I finally managed to get an elbow up, and then brace myself high enough to get a glimpse of the woman playing the piano.
“If you don't be still I’m gonna drop you,” Mary Beth whispered up at me. “Quit banging into the wall; they might hear you. And why are they singing so funny?”
I stopped moving long enough to hear that the song had changed. There was no longer a full choir. Instead, one voice sang one line along with the piano keys. Then came the choir again in full voice repeating back what she just sang.
“A Pilgrim was I and a wanderin...’”
“Why’s she singing like that?” Mary Beth asked again.
“I told you I don't know.” I clung to the window as I tried to climb up her shoulder. I wanted to see who that beautiful voice belonged to.
“Who’s chiles is you?” A high-pitched voice rang of the dusk by the side of the church.
Mary Beth screamed and lost balance which left me hanging my fingers from the window. My knuckles started to turn white and weak, as I lost my grip on the cracked wood. I landed on my backside in a sparse patch of grass. In an attempt to regain some of my pride, I stumbled awkwardly to my feet.
“Who are you?” I wondered aloud.
“I axed you fust. Why you hanging’ there from my church winda?” A colored girl around my age stood there scowling at me in the weak light. I have never been this close to a colored child before except for when Mama drove one of the maids home, and I went along for the ride with them. I never really had a conversation with one of them before.
“Hellooo, I axed you the question. What is you’s doing?” She had about a dozen braids in her hair with bows at the end of each one.
“Well, we were listening and I wanted to see why they were singing like that”
“Like that” We both paused for a minute to listen. “The lady on the piano sings one line and then everyone sings the same thing”.
“They is larning a new song”
“Why don't they just sing it out of the hymnal? Why do they learn it like that?” This girl looked at me like I was plumb crazy. She turned her head to one side, and her face got all wrinkled like a raisin.
“Hymnal? What's that?”
This time I looked at her like she was crazy. Mary Beth looked at her like she was dumb. “It's a book, and it's got hymns in it. You know church music. You sing from it.”
Her face lightened. “We have three of them things. Pastor Calvin got one, and Sister Martin. And… they’s one on the piano. That's all.”
“Wow! It must take a long time to learn all those songs!” I put my shoes back on and sat on the concrete. I patted the two spots next to me. “Sit down. I’m Helen, and that's my best friend, Mary Beth.”
“I’m not sitting down,” Mary Beth interjected. “If my dress gets dirty, Mama will just wear me out. You know she will.”
“I’s Mabel and I’s nine years old. Why you got two names?” She said all this as she sat down across from me, and looked up at Mary Beth.
“Well, I’m named after both of my great-grandmama’s, cause my parent's couldn't decide. Plus they didn't want anybody's feelings to get hurt.”
Mabel just stared at me like my explanation didn't make any sense.
“Mabel, Tell us about those songs.”
“Most of those you heard are home songs. They didn't come out of no book.”
“What are home songs?”
“Didn't your Mama ever sing to you? They’s songs you learn at home.” I thought about that for a minute, I learned all my songs from the books. I almost have the whole Baptist hymnal memorized.
Mary Beth interrupted my thoughts. “Daddy used to sing Hush Little Baby, but Gramma made him stop and then Mama sang me some church songs.”
“Her Gramma is a very strict church woman. They don't let Mary Beth do anything fun! That's why she has me.” I clarified for Mabel.
Just then I knew I made a mistake. Big old tears ran down Mary Beth’s cheeks and then she tried to sniff them back up. “My Daddy’s leaving . I won't see him anymore. He’s going away because she’s so mean.”
Mabel’s eyes got all big, and she stared at Mary Beth. “That would be terrible, not to have your daddy.”
“I want to go with him.” Mary Beth said wiping her face.
“No,” I protested. “If you leave, then who’s gonna be my best friend?”
“Mabel?” A deep voice boomed from the back doorway of the church. “Who’s you friends?”
“Pastor Calvin!” Mable jumped up quick and turned to face him. I did the same, and Mary Beth soon followed our lead. An elderly, very black man came down the steps. I gave him my very best curtsey.
“Hi sir, I’m Helen, and this is my friend, Mary Beth. We didn't mean to intrude, we just came to listen to the music.” I’d never curtsied to a colored person before, but he was a pastor and he was elderly. I think that makes him important no matter if he’s black or not.
“Well, Mrs. Helen, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. You welcome heah anytime, it was youh Daddy, the one that give us that piana there.
With that he took each of our hands into his and escorted us back to the Baptist Church with every slow limping step. It wasn't until much later in time that I came to realize how much of a courageous act that was.