Sunday, October 29, 2017

An Auxvasse story: Alice Scott


I grew up in Auxvasse, Mo., population 507 as of the 1950 census, and was born in November of the following year. Next month I’ll turn 66.

Over the years I’ve written dozens of stories about Auxvasse and I could easily write dozens more. In fact, I could and should and someday just may write a book about growing up in a place whose residents even today don't know whether they're Midwestern or Southern. While central Missouri is geographically the former, it is sociologically very much the latter.

Auxvasse is in Callaway County, one of four counties comprising an area known as Little Dixie. The area was settled in the 1820s by tobacco farmers from Virginia and North Carolina. Thanks to the Missouri Compromise of 1819, perhaps the most ill-advised bill ever passed by Congress, Missouri was a slave state so many of the farmers brought slaves with them.

Growing up in rural Missouri, seeing on the map that my home state was smack-dab in the center of the country, I thought of myself as a Midwesterner. Once I left for northern cities, I was surprised to learn that people I met assumed I was a Southerner, not only because of where I was from but because of my accent, which I immediately made a conscious effort to lose but lapse back into when I've had a couple of drinks. I still don't know what the hell I am. At this point it doesn't matter but it would be nice to know for sure. But I digress.

When I was a boy, Auxvasse was split almost in two by the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio railroad tracks. White folks lived east of the tracks. African-American residents lived west of the tracks. 

I'm telling you all this because it's germane to the story you are about to read.

Alice Scott was our next-door neighbor. She died in 1955 when I was three, so I don’t remember a whole lot about her. I recall sitting with her as she was working in her garden and handing her clothespins as she was hanging laundry on her clothesline. My most vivid memory of Alice is going to visit her in the hospital shortly before she died, a white-haired old lady in a wheelchair.

Most of what I know about Alice I learned from my mother. Mom had a photographic memory and, up to the day she died at 102, could describe in astonishing detail events and people from fifty, sixty, even ninety years ago, and the tales she had heard them tell. While I take pride in my ability to remember things friends say they have forgotten, I certainly didn't inherit the kind of memory mom had. That’s why I want to write down the story of Alice now, before time takes it away from me, because it’s a tale that needs to be told.

Like most whites in Auxvasse, my family lived on the east side of the tracks. So did Alice, the only black person in the white part of town.

Alice thought she was born in the 1870s – she was never sure how old she was so it might have been the late 1860s – near McCredie, a small farming community south of Auxvasse. Her mother had almost certainly been a slave. She never knew her father..

One day when Alice was about four her mother was walking down a country road with her six or seven children when a Doctor Tate rode up and swooped Alice up onto his horse.

“Can I have this one?” he asked Alice’s mother.

Alice’s mother said yes. Unmarried and dirt poor as she was, that would be one less mouth for her to feed. So off the doctor rode with Alice, leaving her family – she never saw them again – in the dust.

That night, the doctor’s wife – the “old missus” Alice called her – placed Alice, who was crying for her mama, on a pallet next to her bed and held her hand.

For the next 60 or so years, Alice waited on the Tates hand and foot. She cleaned their house, hoed their garden, washed their clothes, cooked their meals and, on Sunday, attended their church where she always sat in the back row by herself – she wouldn’t dare sit with white folks who wouldn’t have allowed her to anyway. Alice never socialized with other black people. Working and living in the Tate household, she never had the chance to meet any.

One by one the Tates died off until only Miss Sally, who never married, was left. Sally sold the farm, bought a house on the east side of Auxvasse, and moved there with Alice.

When Miss Sally died, she willed the house to the Auxvasse Presbyterian Church, which she had joined and Alice attended, sitting alone in the back row as she always had, but directed that Alice should be allowed to live in it until her death. To support herself, Alice, who had never learned to read or write, took in laundry, dressed chickens, baked cakes and, on Sundays, made dinner for the Presbyterian preacher, a young man just out of seminary named Joe Mullen.

In 1955, when Alice died of cancer, Joe Mullen, by now a prominent figure in the church, returned to Auxvasse to preach her funeral.

Church elders had planned to bury Alice in the town’s black cemetery but, not wanting to anger Joe, who knew as well as they did that Alice had never been exposed to her own people and wouldn’t have felt comfortable spending eternity in that unfamiliar turf, buried her in the white cemetery instead. It seemed like the Christian thing to do. At the time, Alice was the only black person in the cemetery. I don't know if that is still the case today. Her gravestone, shown above, lists only the date of her death.

For years afterward, my mother made Alice’s orange cake recipe every Christmas. It was dense like a fruitcake, with a gooey orange glaze that, to my unsophisticated palette, tasted bitter. Mom never served it without retelling the story of Alice. As a boy, I thought it was just about the saddest story I had ever heard.

Sixty-some years later, it still is.


5 comments:

  1. Thank you, Tom. Well written and tells the story many need to read at this time in history. People so respected Miss Alice and stopped to visit her on her front porch. I know my sister Barbara and I did if we were walking "one street over" which meant your street one block towards town. We might be by ouselves, but generally with Mom, walking to or from "uptown" to Dad's office or to grocery shop. We waved to her if on our tricyles as we weren't allowed to cross any streets. Wonderful memories growing up in small Midwestern town with some Southern leanings and accents that no one cared about at that time.

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  2. Phyllis-I loved your Dad! He was so special! Thanks Tom for writing about Auxvasse! You should write a book!

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    1. Kathy Gruer CrawfordOctober 30, 2017 at 8:25 AM

      I agree with the complete comments above. Doc Domann was one of a kind! And Tom should CERTAINLY write an Auxvasse book. He and Phil Mills Jr could collaborate!!

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  3. I agree with what everyone has said you are a great writer, and have a fantastic memory.

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