T. S. (Thomas Sigismund) Stribling.

Birthright; a novel online

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"Yes, Cissie, I understand now"





f UustrateD b

y. urns flDora





COPTBIGHT, 1921, 1922, BY





"Yes, Cissie, I understand now" .... Frontispiece


Peter recognized the white aprons and the swords and

spears of the Knights and Ladies of Tabor . . . 18

Up and down its street flows the slow negro life of the
village 28

In the Siner cabin old Caroline Siner berated her boy . 68
The old gentleman turned around at last 112

"You-you mean you want m-me to go with you,

Cissie?" he stammered 230

"Naw yuh don't," he warned sharply. "You turn roun'

an' march on to Niggertown" 272

The bridal couple embarked for Cairo 302




AT Cairo, Illinois, the Pullman-car conductor asked
Peter Siner to take his suitcase and traveling-bag
and pass forward into the Jim Crow car. The request
came as a sort of surprise to the negro. During Pfeter
Siner' s four years in Harvard the segregation of black
folk on Southern railroads had become blurred and
reminiscent in his mind; now it was fetched back into
the sharp distinction of the present instant. With a
certain sense of strangeness, Siner picked up his bags,
and saw his own form, in the car mirrors, walking
down the length of the sleeper. He moved on through
the dining-car, where a few hours before he had had
dinner and talked with two white men, one an Oregon
apple-grower, the other a Wisconsin paper-manufac-
turer. The Wisconsin man had furnished cigars, and
the three had sat and smoked in the drawing-room,
indeed, had discussed this very point ; and now it was
upon him.

At the door of the dining-car stood the porter of his
Pullman, a negro like himself, and Peter mechanically
gave him fifty cents. The porter accepted it silently,



without offering the amenities of his whisk-broom and
shoe-brush, and Peter passed on forward.

Beyond the dining-car and Pullmans stretched twelve
day-coaches filled with less-opulent white travelers in
all degrees of sleepiness and dishabille from having
sat up all night. The thirteenth coach was the
Jim Crow car. Framed in a conspicuous place beside
the entrance of the car was a copy of the Kentucky
state ordinance setting this coach apart from the re-
mainder of the train for the purposes therein provided.

The Jim Crow car was not exactly shabby, but it
was unkept. It was half filled with travelers of
Peter's own color, and these passengers were rather
more noisy than those in the white coaches. Conversa-
tion was not restrained to the undertones one heard in
the other day-coaches or the Pullmans. Near the
entrance of the car two negroes in soldiers' uniforms
had turned a seat over to face the door, and now they
sat talking loudly and laughing the loose laugh of the
half intoxicated as they watched the inflow of negro
passengers coming out of the white cars.

The windows of the Jim Crow car were shut, and
already it had become noisome. The close air was
faintly barbed with the peculiar, penetrating odor of
dark, sweating skins. For four years P'eter Siner had
not known that odor. Now it came to him not so
much offensively as with a queer quality of intimacy
and reminiscence. The tall, carefully tailored negro


spread his wide nostrils, vacillating whether to sniff
it out with disfavor or to admit it for the sudden
mental associations it evoked.

It was a faint, pungent smell that played in the back
of his nose and somehow reminded him of his mother,
Caroline Siner, a thick-bodied black woman whom he
remembered as always bending over a wash-tub. This
was only one unit of a complex. The odor was also
connected with negro protracted meetings in Hooker's
Bend, and the Harvard man remembered a lanky black
preacher waving long arms and wailing of hell-fire, to
the chanted groans of his dark congregation; and he,
Peter Siner, had groaned with the others. Peter had
known this odor in the press-room of Tennessee cotton-
gins, over a river packet's boilers, where he and other
roustabouts were bedded, in bunk-houses in the woods.
It also recalled a certain octoroon girl named Ida May,
and an intimacy with her which it still moved and sad-
dened Peter to think of. Indeed, it resurrected in-
numerable vignettes of his life in the negro village in
Hooker's Bend; it was linked with innumerable emo-
tions, this pungent, unforgetable odor that filled the
Jim Crow car.

Somehow the odor had a queer effect of appearing to
push his conversation with the two white Northern
men in the drawing-room back to a distance, an inde-
finable distance of both space and time.

The negro put his suitcase under the seat, hung his


overcoat on the hook, and placed his hand-bag in the
rack overhead; then with some difficulty he opened a
window and sat down by it.

A stir of travelers in the Cairo station drifted into
the car. Against a broad murmur of hurrying feet,
moving trucks, and talking there stood out the thin, flat
voice of a Southern white girl calling good-by to some
one on the train. Peter could see her waving a bright
parasol and tiptoeing. A sandwich boy hurried past,
shrilling his wares. Siner leaned out, with fifteen
cents, and signaled to him. The urchin hesitated, and
was about to reach up one of his wrapped parcels, when
a peremptory voice shouted at him from a lower car.
With a sort of start the lad deserted Siner and went
trotting down to his white customer. A moment later
the train bell began ringing, and the Dixie Flier puffed
deliberately out of the Cairo station and moved across
the Ohio bridge into the South.

Half an hour later the blue-grass fields of Kentucky
were spinning outside of the window in a vast green
whirlpool. The distant trees and houses moved for-
ward with the train, while the foreground, with its
telegraph poles, its culverts, section-houses, and shrub-
bery, rushed backward in a blur. Now and then into
the Jim Crow window whipped a blast of coal smoke
and hot cinders, for the engine was only two cars ahead.

Peter Siner looked out at the interminable spin of
the landscape with a certain wistfulness. He was
coming back into the South, into his own country.


Here for generations his forebears had toiled endlessly
and fruitlessly, yet the fat green fields hurtling past
him told with what skill and patience their black hands
had labored.

The negro shrugged away such thoughts, and with
a certain effort replaced them with the constructive
idea that was bringing him South once more. It was
a very simple idea. Siner was returning to his native
village in Tennessee to teach school. He planned to
begin his work with the ordinary public school at
Hooker's Bend, but, in the back of his head, he hoped
eventually to develop an institution after the plan of
Tuskeegee or the Hampton Institute in Virginia.

To do what he had in mind, he must obtain aid from
white sources, and now, as he traveled southward, he
began conning in his mind the white men and white
women he knew in Hooker's Bend. He wanted first
of all to secure possession of a small tract of land
which he knew adjoined the negro school-house over
on the east side of the village.

Before the negro's mind the different villagers passed
in review with that peculiar intimacy of vision that
servants always have of their masters. Indeed, no
white Southerner knows his own village so minutely as
does any member of its colored population. The
colored villagers see the whites off their guard and
just as they are, and that is an attitude in which no
one looks his best. The negroes might be called the
black recording angels of the South. If what they


know should be shouted aloud in any Southern town,
its social life would disintegrate. Yet it is a strange
fact that gossip seldom penetrates from the one race
to the other.

So Peter Siner sat in the Jim Crow car musing over
half a dozen villagers in Hooker's Bend. He thought
of them in a curious way. Although he was now a
B. A. of Harvard University, and although he knew
that not a soul in the little river village, unless it was
old Captain Renfrew, could construe a line of Greek
and that scarcely two had ever traveled farther north
than Cincinnati, still, as Peter recalled their names and
foibles, he involuntarily felt that he was telling over a
roll of the mighty. The white villagers came marching
through his mind as beings austere, and the very cranks
and quirks of their characters somehow held that aus-
terity. There were the Brownell sisters, two old
maids, Molly and Patti, who lived in a big brick house
on the hill. Peter remembered that Miss Molly Brow-
nell always doled out to his mother, at Monday's wash-
day dinner, exactly one biscuit less than the old negress
wanted to eat, and she always paid her in old clothes.
Peter remembered, a dozen times in his life, his mother
coming home and wondering in an impersonal way how
it was that Miss Molly Brownell could skimp every
meal she ate at the big house by exactly one biscuit.
It was Miss Brownell's thin-lipped boast that she
understood negroes. She had told Peter so several
times when, as a lad, he went up to the big house on


errands. Peter Siner considered this remembrance
without the faintest feeling of humor, and mentally re-
moved Miss Molly Brownell from his list of possible
subscribers. Yet, he recalled, the whole Brownell
estate had been reared on negro labor.

Then there was Henry Hooker, cashier of the
village bank. Peter knew that the banker subscribed
liberally to foreign missions; indeed, at the cashier's
behest, the white church of Hooker's Bend kept a paid
missionary on the upper Congo. But the banker had
sold some village lots to the negroes, and in two in-
stances, where a streak of commercial phosphate had
been discovered on the properties, the lots had reverted
to the Hooker estate. There had been in the deed
something concerning a mineral reservation that the
negro purchasers knew nothing about until the phos-
phate was discovered. The whole matter had been
perfectly legal.

A hand shook Siner's shoulder and interrupted his
review. Peter turned, and caught an alcoholic breath
over his shoulder, and the blurred voice of a Southern
negro called out above the rumble of the car and the
roar of the engine :

" To' Gawd, ef dis ain't Peter Siner I 's been lookin'
at de las' twenty miles, an' not knowin' him wid sich
skeniptious clo'es on! Wha you fum, nigger?"

Siner took the enthusiastic hand offered him and
studied the heavily set, powerful man bending over
the seat. He was in a soldier's uniform, and his broad


nutmeg-colored face and hot black eyes brought Peter
a vague sense of familiarity ; but he never would have
identified his impression had he not observed on the
breast of the soldier's uniform the Congressional mili-
tary medal for bravery on the field of battle. Its glint
furnished Peter the necessary clew. He remembered
his mother's writing him something about Tump Pack
going to France and getting ''crowned" before the
army. He had puzzled a long time over what she
meant by "crowned" before he guessed her meaning.
Now the medal aided Peter in reconstructing out of
this big umber-colored giant the rather spindling Tump
Pack he had known in Hooker's Bend.

Siner was greatly surprised, and his heart warmed
at the sight of his old playmate.

"What have you been doing to yourself, Tump?"
he cried, laughing, and shaking the big hand in sudden
warmth. "You used to be the size of a dime in a
jewelry store."

"Been in 'e army, nigger, wha I 's been fed/' said
the grinning brown man, delightedly. "I sho is picked
up, ain't I?"

"And what are you doing here in Cairo ?"

"Tryin' to bridle a lil white mule." Mr. Pack
winked a whisky-brightened eye jovially and touched
his coat to indicate that some of the "white mule" was
in his pocket and had not been drunk.

"How'd you get here?"

"Wucked my way down on de St. Louis packet an'


got paid off at Pad jo [Paducah, Kentucky] ; 'n 'en I
thought I 'd come on down heah an' roll some bones.
Been hittin' 'em two days now, an' I sho come putty
nigh bein' cleaned ; but I put up HI Joe heah, an' won
'em all back, 'n 'en some." He touched the medal
on his coat, winked again, slapped Siner on the leg,
and burst into loud laughter.

Peter was momentarily shocked. He made a place
on the seat for his friend to sit. "You don't mean you
put up your medal on a crap game, Tump?"

"Sho do, black man." Pack became soberer.
"Dat 's one o' de great benefits o' bein' dec'rated. Dey
ain't a son uv a gun on de river whut kin win HI Joe ;
dey all tried it."

A moment's reflection told Peter how simple and
natural it was for Pack to prize his military medal as
a good-luck piece to be used as a last resort in crap
games. He watched Tump stroke the face of his
medal with his fingers.

"My mother wrote me about your getting it, Tump.
I was glad to hear it."

The brown man nodded, and stared down at the
bit of gold on his barrel-like chest.

"Yas-suh, dat 'uz guv to me fuh bravery. You
know whut a skeery HI nigger I wuz roun' Hooker's
Ben' ; well, de sahgeant tuk me an' he drill ever' bit o'
dat right out 'n me. He gimme a baynit an' learned
me to stob dummies wid it over at Camp Oglethorpe,
ontil he felt lak I had de heart to stob anything ; 'n' 'en


he sont me acrost. I had to git a new pair breeches
ever' three weeks, I growed so fas'." Here he broke
out into his big loose laugh again, and renewed the
alcoholic scent around Peter.

"And you made good ?"

"Sho did, black man, an', 'fo' Gawd, I 'serve a medal
ef any man ever did. Dey gimme dish-heah fuh
stobbin fo' white men wid a baynit. 'Fo' Gawd, nig-
ger, I never felt so quare in all my born days as when
I wuz a-jobbin' de livers o' dem white men lak de
sahgeant tol' me to." Tump shook his head, be-
wildered, and after a moment added, "Yas-suh, I
never wuz mo' surprised in all my life dan when I got
dis medal fuh stobbin' fo' white men."

Peter Siner looked through the Jim Crow window at
the vast rotation of the Kentucky landscape on which
his forebears had toiled; presently he added soberly:

"You were fighting for your country, Tump. It
was war then; you were fighting for your country."

At Jackson, Tennessee, the two negroes were forced
to spend the night between trains. Tump Pack piloted
Peter Siner to a negro cafe where they could eat, and
later they searched out a negro lodging-house on Gate
Street where they could sleep. It was a grimy, smelly
place, with its own odor spiked by a phosphate-reduc-
ing plant two blocks distant. The paper on the wall
of the room Peter slept in looked scrofulous. There
was no window, and Peter's four-years regime of


open windows and fresh-air sleep was broken. He
arranged his clothing for the night so it would come
in contact with nothing in the room but a chair back.
He felt dull next morning, and could not bring himself
either to shave or bathe in the place, but got out and
hunted up a negro barber-shop furnished with one
greasy red-plush barber-chair.

A few hours later the two negroes journeyed on
down to Perryville, Tennessee, a village on the Ten-
nessee River where they took a gasolene launch up to
Hooker's Bend. The launch was about fifty feet long
and had two cabins, a colored cabin in front of, and a
white cabin behind, the engine-room.

This unremitting insistence on his color, this con-
tinual shunting him into obscure and filthy ways,
gradually gave Peter a loathly sensation. It increased
the unwashed feeling that followed his lack of a morn-
ing bath. The impression grew upon him that he was
being handled with tongs, along back-alley routes ; that
he and his race were something to be kept out of
sight as much as possible, as careful housekeepers
manoeuver their slops.

At Perryville a number of passengers boarded the
up-river boat ; two or three drummers ; a yellowed old
hill woman returning to her Wayne County home; a
red-headed peanut-buyer; a well-groomed white girl
in a tailor suit ; a youngish man barely on the right side
of middle age who seemed to be attending her; and
some negro girls with lunches. The passengers trailed


from the railroad station down the river bank through
a slush of mud, for the river had just fallen and had
left a layer of liquid mud to a height of about twenty
feet all along the littoral. The passengers picked their
way down carefully, stepping into one another's tracks
in the effort not to ruin their shoes. The drummers
grumbled. The youngish man piloted the girl down,
holding her hand, although both could have managed
better by themselves.

Following the passengers came the trunks and grips
on a truck. A negro deck-hand, the truck-driver, and
the white master of the launch shoved aboard the big
sample trunks of the drummers with grunts, profanity,
and much stamping of mud. Presently, without the
formality of bell or whistle, the launch clacked away
from the landing and stood up the wide, muddy river.

The river itself was monotonous and depressing. It
was perhaps half a mile wide, with flat, willowed mud
banks on one side and low shelves of stratified lime-
stone on the other.

Trading-points lay at ten- or fifteen-mile intervals
along the great waterway. The typical landing was a
dilapidated shed of a store half covered with tin
tobacco signs and ancient circus posters. Usually, only
one man met the launch at each landing, the merchant,
a democrat in his shirt-sleeves and without a tie. His
voice was always a flat, weary drawl, but his eyes,
wrinkled against the sun, usually held the shrewdness
of those who make their living out of two-penny trades.


At each place the red-headed peanut-buyer slogged
up the muddy bank and bargained for the merchant's
peanuts, to be shipped on the down-river trip of the
fiYst St. Louis packet. The loneliness of the scene
embraced the trading-points, the river, and the little
gasolene launch struggling against the muddy current.
It permeated the passengers, and was a finishing
touch to Peter Siner's melancholy.

The launch clacked on and on interminably. Some-
times it seemed to make no headway at all against the
heavy, silty current. Tump Pack, the white captain,
and the negro engineer began a game of craps in the
negro cabin. Presently, two of the white drummers
came in from the white cabin and began betting on the
throws. The game was listless. The master of the
launch pointed out places along the shores where wild-
cat stills were located. The crap-shooters, negro and
white, squatted in a circle on the cabin floor, snapping
their fingers and calling their points monotonously.
One of the negro girls in the negro cabin took an apple
out of her lunch sack and began eating it, holding it
in her palm after the fashion of negroes rather than
in her fingers, as is the custom of white women.

Both doors of the engine-room were open, and Peter
Siner could see through into the white cabin. The old
hill woman was dozing in her chair, her bonnet bobbing
to each stroke of the engines. The youngish man and
the girl were engaged in some sort of intimate lovers'
dispute. When the engines stopped at one of the land-


ings, Peter discovered she was: trying to pay him what
he had spent on getting her baggage trucked down at
Perryville. The girl kept pressing a bill into the man's
hand, and he avoided receiving the money. They kept
up the play for sake of occasional contacts.

When the launch came in sight of Hooker's Bend
toward the middle of the afternoon, Peter Siner ex-
perienced one of the profoundest surprises of his life.
Somehow, all through his college days he had remem-
bered Hooker's Bend as a proud town with important
stores and unapproachable white residences. Now he
saw a skum of negro cabins, high piles of lumber, a
sawmill, and an ice- factory. Behind that, on a little
rise, stood the old Brownell manor, mainfaining a cer-
tain shabby dignity in a grove of oaks. Behind and
westward from the negro shacks and lumber-piles
ranged the village stores, their roofs just visible over
the top of the bank. Moored to the shore, lay the
wharf-boat in weathered greens and yellows. As a
background for the whole scene rose the dark-green
height of what was called the "Big Hill," an eminence
that separated the negro village on the east from the
white village on the west. The hill itself held no
houses, but appeared a solid green-black with cedars.

The ensemble was merely another lonely spot on the
south bank of the great somnolent river. It looked
dead, deserted, a typical river town, unprodded even
by the hoot of a jerk-water railroad.

As the launch chortled toward the wharf, Peter Siner


stood trying to orient himself to this unexpected and
amazing minifying of Hooker's Bend. He had left a
metropolis ; he was coming back to a tumble-down vil-
lage. Yet nothing was changed. Even the two
scraggly locust-trees that clung perilously to the brink
of the river bank still held their toe-hold among the
strata of limestone.

The negro deck-hand came out and pumped the hand-
power whistle in three long discordant blasts. Then a
queer thing happened. The whistle was answered by
a faint strain of music. A little later the passengers
saw a line of negroes come marching down the river
bank to the wharf-boat. They marched in military
order, and from afar Peter recognized the white aprons
and the swords and spears, pf the Knights and Ladies
of Tabor, a colored burial association.

Siner wondered what had brought out the Knights
and Ladies of Tabor. The singing and the drumming
gradually grew upon the air. The passengers in the
white cabin came out on the guards at this unexpected
fanfare. As soon as the white travelers saw the march-
ing negroes, they began joking about what caused the
demonstration. The captain of the launch thought he
knew, and began an oath, but stopped it out of defer-
ence to the girl in the tailor suit. He said it was a dead
nigger the society was going to ship up to Savannah.

The girl in the tailor suit was much amused. She
said the darkies looked like a string of caricatures
marching down the river bank, Peter noticed her


Northern accent, and fancied she was coming to
Hooker's Bend to teach school.

One of the drummers turned to another.

"Did you ever hear Bob Taylor's yarn about Uncle
'Rastus's funeral? Funniest thing Bob ever got off."
He proceeded to tell it.

Every one on the launch was laughing except the
captain, who was swearing quietly; but the line of
negroes marched on down to the wharf-boat with the
unshakable dignity of black folk in an important posi-
tion. They came singing an old negro spiritual. The
women's sopranos thrilled up in high, weird phrasing
against an organ-like background of male voices.

But the black men carried no coffin, and suddenly it
occurred to Peter Siner that perhaps this celebration
was given in honor of his own home-coming. The
mulatto's heart beat a trifle faster as he began planning
a suitable response to this ovation.

Sure enough, the singing ranks disappeared behind
the wharf-boat, and a minute later came marching
around the stern and lined up on the outer guard of
the vessel. The skinny, grizzly-headed negro com-
mander held up his sword, and the Knights and Ladies
of Tabor fell silent.

The master of the launch tossed his head-line to the
wharf -boat, and yelled for one of the negroes to make
it fast. One did. Then the commandant with the
sword began his address, but it was not directed to
Peter. He said :

Peter recognized the white aprons and the swords and spears
of the Knights and Ladies of Tabor


"Brudder Tump Pack, we, de Hooker's Ben' lodge
uv de Knights an' Ladies uv Tabor, welcome you back
to yo' native town. We is proud uv you, a colored
man, who brings back de highes' crown uv bravery
dis Newnighted States has in its power to bestow.

"Two yeahs ago, Brudder Tump, we seen you
marchin' away fum Hooker's Ben' wid thirteen udder
boys, white an' colored, all marchin' away togedder.
Fo' uv them boys is already back home; three, we
heah, is on de way back, but six uv yo' brave com-
rades, Brudder Pack, is sleepin' now in France, an'

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Online LibraryT. S. (Thomas Sigismund) StriblingBirthright; a novel → online text (page 1 of 17)