By Holman Turner
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1940s. One mid-afternoon, my sister and I were sitting on the front porch of my grandmother’s home, under the watchful eye of my great-grandmother, “Mama”, who was retired. My sister was three and I was five.
Mama and I sat on that porch virtually every day, watching neighborhood people coming home from work. Usually it was just the two of us watching the parade. I came to know the faces. I came to know who would not only speak to us but come over and give me a hug.
I remember Miss Johnny, who lived directly across the street from Mama. She too was retired, and she could communicate without having to speak. From time-to-time, as the parade passed by, she would catch my great-grandmother’s eye. Mama would smile then and say to me, “That Johnny! She just won’t let these children be.”
By “children”, she meant the people coming home from work. They were adults, but to my great-grandmother, at that point in her life, they all looked like children, I guess. When she really liked someone she would call him or her “honey-child”.
That day, the streets were empty. Miss Johnny had not come outside yet. It was a bit early for the parade. My sister was with us, though, and she wanted to play, so we were outside already. A two-foot high cedar wall, with square, concrete pillars at each end encased the front porch. It was a perfect place for hide-and-seek, if you didn’t mind pretending that you didn’t see the person’s head sticking up on the other side of that wall, near the China Berry tree.
Sis and I were sitting on the floor of the front porch, enjoying our coloring books, when suddenly a Black man came running up the street as fast as he could. Out of breath, he stopped and said – “The police after me ‘cause I don’t have no money.”
My sister and I were kind of nervous at the sight of him, but Mama said: “You go around the back of this house and crawl under there and don’t come out till I tell you to!”
He dashed off and he must have been really quiet, because I didn’t hear another sound from him after that. He was pretty well-hidden too. From the front or the sides, you couldn’t see a thing under the house, and even from the back yard it was hard to see because there wasn’t much light under there, and the further in you went, the darker it got. The man must have crawled way deep into that space.
Just about then, a Birmingham police car streaked around the corner. Seeing us on the porch, the cop slammed on the brakes, screeched to a stop right in front of us, and said: “I’m looking for a Nigger that got away from me. Did you see him come by here?”
“No sir, I ant seen nobody come by here,” my great-grandmother replied, using her down-home voice.
He sat there in his car, looking around, frustrated and angry. Finally, he turned to us again. “I could have sworn that damn boy turned on this street. You sure you ant seen nobody?”
“No sir, been out here most of the day, and ant seen no boy pass this way.”
He hit the gas and sped away, up over the hill, and out of sight.
Without stirring from her chair, my grandmother spoke to the man under the house. “Don’t you move from down under there until I tell you to. They could come back by at any moment looking for you.”
Time passed. It was probably less than an hour or so, but it seemed like an eternity. Finally Mama got up and said: “You children come into this house and sit in the living room and let me go out there and get that boy.”
On her way to the back door, she stopped and pushed her hand down into a black jar where she often kept money. When she saw that we were watching, she placed her finger on her lips, as if to say, “Be quiet.” Then she turned and disappeared through the back door.
As soon as she was out of sight, my sister and I ran to the kitchen window. We wanted to know if the man was still under the house, and if so, whether he would come out now. But the windows were too high to see anything. We could only hear what happened. Our great grandmother called out to the man, “Come on out from under there. I think he’s finally gone.”
The man crawled out and I heard Mama say to him – “Here is three dollars. If they stop you again, they can’t take you in for not having any money on you. Now get out of here before they come back and take us both to jail.”
We could hear the rapid footsteps of the man heading toward the open field behind my grandmother’s home. Mama came back into the house and said, “They wanted to put that man in jail because he didn’t have any money on him. They call it ‘vagrancy’. I just gave him three dollars and told him to get out of here. ”
Almost 70 years have passed since that day and only now do I come to understand the significance of what happened to that man. Last night, I was lying in bed reading a book titled Slavery by Another Name. I discovered that after slavery “officially ended” in the United States, White communities in many states adopted an astounding legal practice. In our state of Alabama counties paid their Sheriffs’ fees based on the number of arrests they made. Judges also received fees based on the number of people they found guilty. The majority of the people arrested under this arrangement were Black.
At the dawn of this new system, many laws were passed making it possible to use these fees against the newly freed slaves in an ever-increasing number of ways, which included the so-called “vagrancy laws”.
Vagrancy laws allowed the police to stop and search people at any time. Anyone who did not have any money on them at the time of the stop could legally be taken to jail as vagrants. If you were Black, that’s what generally did happen.
As a result of the stop and the subsequent arrest, the policeman received a fee. When the arrested person went to jail, he became “eligible” for the “State or County Lease Program”.
This program enabled businesses such as steel, railroad, and coal mining companies to “lease” the men for the length of their sentence. The men often worked 15 to 16 hours a day for the entire period of their jail sentence, and often beyond that sentence.
They died in unbelievable numbers, because there was no penalty to the corporations and other companies for any person who died while being “leased” by them.
As we sit here today, I ask: Is there any comparison to be seen between the vagrancy laws of seventy years ago and the “Stop and Frisk” and “War on Drugs” laws of today?
Holman Turner was born in and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, where physical violence was an everyday experience for Black families. He earned a degree in photography and served as Acting Director of Photography at the Academy of Art for five years, before leaving to pursue his own artistic career. Using photography as his medium, he strives to raise the question: “Can a country conceived in violence and slavery produce peace and freedom?” For example, the work “Ironic Symbols” reflects Turner’s observation that both “Black Ministers and the KKK used the Cross and the Bible (as symbols) .. but the KKK also required a gun to enforce their views.”
Copyright 2016 Homan Turner. All rights reserved.