Roll of Thunder: Intersections of Historical Fiction and Reality
On a country road in southern Mississippi, Jesse Brown waited patiently to exact revenge.
In the distance, Jesse heard the unmistakable sounds of the school bus approaching. As he knew all too well, the rattling of the engine would soon be drowned out by noises more hostile—taunting, cursing, and spitting.
While Jesse anticipated the vehicle’s approach, the students on that bus would soon spot their next victim.
The year was 1939.
Jesse, the oldest son of an African American sharecropper, understood the routine. The bus would pass near him, the windows in the rear would be slid backward, and, then, angry faces would pop out followed immediately by a barrage of racial epithets and spittle.
Jesse instructed his two younger brothers to move off the road and into the field. Meanwhile, he grabbed a dried cornstalk about four feet long, shook off the dirt, and repositioned himself on the side of the road.
When the bus drew alongside, the rear windows retracted as expected. Jesse “choked up on the cornstalk like a bat. As the bus passed, he swung the cornstalk and smacked the first face that jutted from the windows” (pp. 28-29).
The ill-fated youngster squealed, and the boy’s friends yelled for the driver to stop the bus.
Adam Makos, the author of Devotion, finishes the story about the intrepid young Jesse Brown, who later became the first African American to serve as a U.S naval aviator:
A white man in suspenders stepped out, spit tobacco juice, and strode toward Jesse. The bus driver was older, yet he had broad shoulders and big fists . . . ‘What in the hell just happened here?’ the driver asked, his eyebrows narrowing.
‘Sir,’ Jesse said. ‘Every day when you pass us, those boys stick their heads out and spit on us.’
. . . ‘C’mon, let him have it!’ yelled the crying boy.
The driver studied Jesse from head to toe . . . ‘Well, that won’t happen anymore,’ the drive said.
The driver turned and strode back to the bus. (p. 29)
Two more (brief) examples of the intersections of historical fiction and reality, as illustrated by ROT’s portrayal of schooling, are the focus of the remainder of this blog post.
The School Buildings
The compelling contrast between the two segregated schools in ROT, Jefferson Davis County School (yes, there is a Jefferson Davis County in southern Mississippi) and The Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School (pp. 15-16) are buttressed by historical photographs from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), such as the one’s posted above from Copiah County. To no surprise, the top photograph is a school for white children while the bottom image, as the archival record states, is:
Album: Copiah County Schools-Negro
Copiah County, Mississippi
NOTE: The Antioch School is far from the most dismal example of a “Negro” school in Copiah County let alone the state of Mississippi.
For the reader of history and historical fiction, this inventory provides a treasure trove of evidence that “separate educational facilities [we]re inherently unequal.” While not all the inventory has been digitized (i.e., Jefferson Davis County’s school photographs are viewable only by traveling to MDAH in Jackson), enough county inventories are available digitally for teachers and students alike to view the obvious and disturbing disparities.
The opening chapter of ROT culminates with the Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School teachers distributing “new books” to their excited pupils (pp. 21-25). But the buildup belies the condition of these hand-me-down textbooks. The Logan children’s disappointment at receiving dilapidated books is acerbated by the official label, inside the front cover (p. 25), the last entry of which reads, in part :
One of the prevailing arguments against free public school textbooks, as Clyde J. Tidwell noted in 1928, was that “no satisfactory plan ha[d] been devised . . . for successfully fumigating or disinfecting textbooks." Needless to say, this concern over fumigation and disinfection had immigrant and African American households squarely in mind.
In the summer of 1940, the Mississippi State Textbook Purchasing Board was empowered to administer the newly enacted free public school textbook legislation. Regarding the distribution of textbooks to students, the board stipulated:
- Name of pupil
- Space for serial number of book and date
- Name of school district and name of school
- Name of County
- Race [emphasis mine]
- Condition of book when assigned and returned
Dr. Bickmore Adds a Bit.
Until next time.