Chapter OnePoor Boy
Halley's Comet burned across the Mississippi night like a brakeman'slantern during June 1910, leading to suicides and whispers ofArmageddon. Up north in Hartford, the Connecticut Yankees werelamenting the recent passing of the brightest star in the Americanliterary firmament, Mark Twain. In New York City, W. E. B. Du Bois,anguished about race riots and lynchings around the nation, waspreparing the first issue of The Crisis, the magazine of the newNational Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In Reno,Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, wastraining for his July 4th title defense against former champ JimJeffries, "The Great White Hope," a spectacle that would lead tomore race riots. In Washington, D.C., Congress was debating the MannWhite Slave Traffic Act, which would ban "the interstatetransportation of women for immoral purposes"-a law specificallytargeted at Johnson that would soon send him to jail for travelingwith his white girlfriend.
Across the South, Jim Crow and Judge Lynch were triumphant. Blackpeople were subject to vicious but legal discrimination, votingrestraints, violent customs, and state-sanctioned terror thatnegated their rights and blighted their hopes. A half century afterthe horrific war to end slavery, black people in the South wereagain living in near slavery.
In West Point, Mississippi, the news in the West Point Leader("Conservative in All Things; Radical in Nothing") was all about anew brick schoolhouse for "colored" children that cost $7,000, theElk Club's drive to raise $25,000 for an opera house, and the risingprice of live meat hogs: $11 per 100 pounds. West Point, situated inthe state's eastern hills near the Alabama border but formerly thewesternmost point in Lowndes County until it was incorporated intoClay County, covered three square miles, and had a population of5,500. A small town, it was big enough to rate a train visit byPresident William Taft the October before.
Into this violent, radically divided world, Chester Arthur Burnettcame howling on Friday, June 10, 1910, at White Station,Mississippi, four miles northeast of West Point. The baby who wouldgrow up to sing so hauntingly about trains could hear the IllinoisCentral chuff to a stop three times a day to pick up passengers atthe tiny White Station train depot. Because of a nineteenth-centuryborder dispute, people in White Station in 1910 weren't sure whetherthey lived in Clay County or Monroe County to the north. The hamletis near the county line and most of White Station Road lies north ofthe line in Monroe County.
Named for the twenty-first president of the United States, Chester,like most black children in Mississippi, spent his early years incrushing poverty. His neighbors were poor families like his own whostruggled to survive a repressive racial caste system while farmingthe unusually fertile, fifteen-mile-wide belt of "black prairie"soil that ran through the region and across to Alabama. Twenty yearsbefore he was born, black people in White Station were so desperatethat they formed a committee and wrote to the president of theUnited States to beg for help:
We want such things as meat, flour, sugar and coffee and clothes andshoes and also our little children is starving and is naked andcrying for bread and we is not able to give it to them.... If youall don't help us we will all be dead by July sure, without a doubt,and please for God's sace help us for we can not live this way ...
In 1904, Reverend C. S. Buchanan, a black West Point merchant whoowned a thriving printing business, was condemned at a meeting of ahundred white men who objected to his "prospering." Ordered underthreat of death to sell his business, Buchanan and his family fledwith little more than the clothes on their backs. A few yearsbefore, another successful black grocer in West Point was forced toleave town, another black retailer was ordered to "sell his buggyand walk," and a third, who owned two horse-drawn cabs, had to sellone lest he, too, risk prospering. Just thirty-five miles northeastis the town of Vardaman, named for Mississippi governor and U.S.senator James Vardaman, who vowed to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment,which gave black people the right to vote, and claimed that the onlyeffect of educating a black man is to "spoil a good field hand andmake an insolent cook."
In this bleak, unforgiving land, Chester's father, Leon "Dock"Burnett, toiled as a sharecropper, while Chester's mother, GertrudeJones, worked as a cook and maid. Dock, born in nearby Aberdeen inDecember 1891 to Albert and Amelia Burnett, was eighteen whenChester was born. Gertrude, born fifty miles south in Shuqualak,Mississippi, in June 1894 to John Wesley Jones and CatherineTripplett, was nearing sixteen. Chester's paternal grandparentswere African-American; Chester said his father was "Ethiopian."Gertrude, like so many "African Americans," also had American Indianancestors. Her father was a full-blooded Indian, probably of theChoctaw tribe, who had a reservation twenty-five miles fromShuqualak. Dock and Gertrude married in Aberdeen on November 20,1909. Chester was her only child.
Chester was nicknamed "Wolf" by his maternal grandfather, JohnWesley Jones, whom the boy described as "one of them away-back guys,an old guy, whiskers way down to there." Grandpa Jones used to scareyoung Chester with stories about the wolves that roamed the nearbywoods. "I was bad about getting my grandmother's little chicks,"Chester said. "Every time I'd get one I didn't have enough sense tojust hold him-I'd squeeze him and kill him. So I got so bad about itthey told me they was going to have to put the wolf on me. Scared meup like that. So everybody else went to calling me the Wolf. I wasreal young." One day, his grandfather brought home an animal thathe'd shot. Chester thought it was a dog, but his grandfather assuredhim it was a wolf, and then told him "the story 'bout how the wolfdone the Little Red Ridin' Hood." "And me being just a kid I'dbelieve what he say," Chester said. "And it got to where everybodycalled me Wolf if I'd do some misdemeanor, you see, and I'd run andhide under the bed and they'd howl after me. That was where my namestarted. I've always been the Wolf."
Dock traveled down to the Mississippi Delta every spring to work asa farm laborer. He and Gertrude separated when their son was a yearold, and Dock moved to the Delta permanently. Gertrude and Chestermoved north into Monroe County. She was showing signs of mentalinstability-becoming an eccentric religious singer who performed andsold self-penned spirituals to passersby on the streets of Aberdeenand West Point. She and her son sang in the choir at Life BoardBaptist Church, thirteen miles north White Station, near Gibson,Mississippi. Chester later said he got his musical talent from hismother. It was one of the only things he ever got from her.
When Chester was still a child, Gertrude sent him away. We'llprobably never know why precisely. Maybe, as Chester told a friend,his mother became enraged because he wouldn't work in the fields for15 cents a day. Maybe, as he told his last wife, his mother rejectedhim when he refused to sing spirituals with her because he alreadyhad his sights set on another calling-singing the blues. Maybe, as afriend of his wife heard, his mother got involved with a man whodidn't want Chester around. (By 1920 Gertrude was living with a manalmost twice her age.) Maybe, as Chester told another friend, hismother, half-Indian, didn't want him simply because he was "toodark." Maybe all of these stories were true to different extents orat different times in his grim childhood. Who can know why a motherwould reject her only child?
Whatever the reason, one cold winter day, Gertrude cast her youngboy out to fend for himself, saying, "Don't come back." Chesterwalked many miles across frozen ground with burlap "croker" sackstied around his bare feet before he reached the home of hisgreat-uncle Will Young, his father's mother's brother.
Born the year the Civil War ended, Young was fifty-five years old in1920. He and his forty-year-old wife, Eliza, were working to pay offthe loan on their small farm and two-room house in White Station.Also in their household were Chester's retarded aunt, Lyda "Laddie"Burnett, sixteen, her brother Gaddis Burnett, ten, and an unrelatedgirl, Lucy Mae Wiseman, seven, whom the Youngs took in as a toddlernot long before the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed her mother,sister, and two brothers. It may seem odd that the Youngs wereraising so many children who were not their own, but in WhiteStation almost everyone was related by blood or marriage, and poorAmericans at the time often relied on relatives and friends to raisechildren.
Standing six feet tall, dark-complexioned, and weighing more thantwo hundred pounds, Young was half-deaf and had an odd habit ofclearing his throat noisily before he spoke. He had very littlepatience with children, or anybody else, for that matter, and oftendisplayed a violent temper. Annie Stevenson, who married Chester'scousin Levy Eggerson, said, "Will Young was mean to all themchildren." Chester's childhood friend Leroy Swift said, "I ain'tnever seen a man like that in my whole life." Leroy's sister,Priscilla "Silla" Swift, Chester's first girlfriend, said Will Young"was the meanest man between here and hell." But Will and Eliza werethe only parents Chester had then, so he called them "Daddy" and"Mother."
Young had three "outside" children with an unmarried woman who livednearby-ironic, in that he later drove out his own daughter forconceiving a child out of wedlock. But Young and his wife needed thehelping hands of the strapping young Chester and the other children.Life was hard in rural Mississippi in 1910, especially for blackpeople, and the children of farmers had to work long hours in thefields every day. One sharecropper said, "Life was a struggle andthere was so much work-work all the time for children as well as foradults."Another said, "Every day I lived in the field choppingcotton, hoeing corn, plowing.... Rise 'fore daylight, eat yourbreakfast in the field setting on the plow. That's the truth."
Young was especially hard on Chester, beyond the already brutalconditions for farmers in the area. He humiliated the boy by makinghim sit apart from the other children during meals. He worked himconstantly like a beast of burden. "Did he make him work?" Sillaasked sarcastically. "Tear his ass if he didn't work all day long!He got to work all day long, come back and get a little meal and gethis ass to bed." Annie said, "He was raised in the field, workin'cotton and pullin' corn. That old man would work you till you aboutfall out-till you just fall down."
When Chester's uncle got angry, the punishment was severe-oftendelivered with switches cut from trees or even a leather plow line:a "bullwhip," as the neighbors called it. The neighbors neverintervened. "Nobody would report [Young] for whippin' with nobullwhip," Annie said. "There were grown peoples afraid of him, hewas so low-down. It wasn't just the children. He'd even whup thegrown folks if they messed with him. His wife was scared of him,too."
Deacon R. L. Larry, a lifelong White Station resident, said, "Thatold guy would yell, 'Chester! Chester!' ... When Chester hear himcallin', he'd come runnin', he was so scared of him. 'Yassir?"Bring that water!' 'Yassir!' Old Chester used to be plowin' andsingin' so well, but he had to go get that water for Will Young.'Heeeeeeeeey boy-bring me that water!'"
Lucy said, "He'd whup you if you didn't do right. He used to whupChester a lot. In fact, he whupped all of us if we didn't obey.... I don't think he knew any better. He thought that's the way you'resupposed to do it." Young beat Lucy once for a minor mistake. "Hetold me to shuck twelve ears of corn and put 'em in the trough forthe mules: twelve ears of corn apiece. I shucked the corn and then Imade a mistake, and instead of putting twelve, I put eleven. I gotthe worst whipping I ever got about that."
Though Will and Eliza Young could read and write, they didn't botherto send Chester to the local schoolhouse, which was built and paidfor by contributions from the community, and doubled as a societyhall. "He didn't hardly go to school-just worked all the time," saidDeacon Larry.
Chester might not have learned much even if he had gone to theschool. "You did good to get any kind of education," Lucy said. "Ifyou lived in town, you had nine months of school. But they just hadthree months of school out in the country. If there was work to bedone and the weather was nice, you couldn't go to school at the timethere.... One thing I regret so bad is that I didn't get noeducation."
Young often let Chester go hungry. "Will Young had food, but hewouldn't give him none. He was just a low-down man," Annie said."All Will Young would give him was milk and bread, dry, and when heget done there, he had to go to the field," Silla said.
Famished, Chester would walk the train tracks to scavenge scraps offood thrown out by railroad workers. He went about shoeless and inrags-"a barefooted, raggedy-haired nigger havin' a hard time," asSilla described him. Chester was overjoyed when his uncle bought himhis first pair of shoes. "They took him to town in the wagon," saidLeroy. "When he come back, he put his feet up so everybody could seethose shoes."
The Young house rested on trusses a few feet off the ground, withsteps on one side leading to the front porch and door. Overworkedand afraid, Chester sought sanctuary in the dark, cool space underthe house. "He liked it under the house," Silla said. "He didn't goin the house much. He'd go in the house and eat, come back outdoorsand sit up under the house. We'd go out there and sit up underthere, too, with him. We all would sit up under there and play."When Chester's uncle returned, all play came to an abrupt end. Sillasaid, "We see him coming, we better get our ass out of there and runaway from that house because we been there with him. 'Here come WillYoung!' "