It was Christmas Eve, 1951 during the Jim Crow era when millions of blacks endured the atrocities of institutional racism that favored whites and repressed blacks—a time of inequality in which black men especially felt the greatest blow.
My mother and father had been summoned to work during the day of Christmas Eve. They were to prepare for and serve a luncheon party at the home of Mrs. Annie Mai, my mother’s employer. It was not unusual for my parents, who were domestic workers, to work on holidays. However, it was an anomaly that my two siblings and I accompanied them on this occasion.
When we arrived early that Christmas Eve morning and entered through the back door of Mrs. Annie Mai’s house, I was amazed to see such stunning, luxurious beauty. The areas of the house we saw had exquisite furniture; decorated wallpaper; thick, carpeted floors; and multiple electric lights hanging from a single fixture (at the time, I had no idea what an ornate chandelier was). Also, the kitchen had a matching white electric refrigerator and stove; and the bathroom was equipped with tub, toilet, and running water. There was no comparison to the small three-room wood-frame house we had left that morning where seven of us lived—my parents, my two siblings and I, and my father’s parents.
Mama was an outstanding cook and Daddy a perfectionist when it came to doing his assigned chores—cleaning, mopping, polishing, and hand buffing floors. Finally, that long day came to an end, and my parents had finished all their pre- and post-luncheon assignments. It was time for us to pack up and rush toward the bus stop to catch the last dinky bus headed for our neighborhood. We were anxious to return home so we could finish preparing for our own traditional Christmas Eve activities, including the worship service at St. Luke CME Church, one of the most significant activities of all.
But just as we were about to leave, suddenly we were halted in our tracks by Mrs. Annie Mai’s youngest son (whose name I don’t know to this day), who apparently had been told to inspect and authorize Daddy’s cleaning of the kitchen floor.
The boy stood boldly in front of the door, blocking our exit, and said, “Bob, you missed a spot on the floor. Y’all can’t leave until you clean it up.” That was disturbing enough, but what was more troubling was Daddy’s response to the young boy: “Yes sir.” He politely followed the boy’s command, stooped down on his knees, and went through the motions of cleaning an invisible spot that no one else could see but Daddy and the young boy.
As appalling as this scene was, I believe my dad had no other option, given the circumstances and time in which this incident occurred. Feeling trapped and vulnerable, he acquiesced to the expected norm of most black men of his generation. I couldn’t help but notice the helplessness of my mother as she fought desperately to hold back tears. I can only imagine how distraught and humiliated she must have felt to stand by and witness the stripping of Daddy’s manhood and dignity. I can’t recall another time or situation that quite matched the pain and intensity of this moment. The episode was like some epic film production that gave a real glimpse of how easy it is for one human being to objectify another.
I had never observed such a blatant violation of a commonly known taboo. Children of my generation did not get away with addressing adults on a first-name basis, as if they were equal peers. To my knowledge, everyone in my neighborhood had the utmost respect for Daddy, and when they addressed or referred to him, it was always with one of three titles: Mr. Allen, Mr. Bob, or Brother Allen.
This was a pivotal scene for Daddy, who bowed his head in shame and humiliation, causing my mother to empathize with his sadness and despair. At the command of this young white boy, my siblings and I could see Daddy’s excruciating pain from being denigrated and stripped of his self-worth. But thank God, the story did not end there.
As we exited the bus, we heard authentic Christmas greetings and friendly hellos from neighbors and friends. The spirit of Christmas Eve and the anticipation of a visit from Santa filled the air. What a contrast to the scene we just left in Belle Meade—no big luxurious houses, no hired domestic workers, no nannies or cooks, just genuine down-home folks getting prepared to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Around 5:00 p.m. my brother Bobby and I fetched water from a shared outdoor water faucet and collected coal and kindling from the coal house to fire up the stove to heat bath water for two wash pans and two #3 tin washtubs that would be shared among our seven-member household.
After everyone had finished bathing and dressed, we headed north on 27th Avenue, walking the dirt trail that separated the homes and property lines of the Ransoms and Sneads, which led to St. Luke CME Church, located on 26th and Meharry Boulevard. When we arrived at the church, folks were piling into the sanctuary, ready and excited to celebrate Christmas Eve. The Communion stewards, including my mother and grandmother, were proudly dressed in their usual Holy Communion uniforms—pure white Argo-starched dresses, white gloves, caps, and black patent leather shoes. And my father, grandfather, my siblings, and I were dressed in our best “Sunday-go-to meeting” attire. My parents and grandparents proudly took their stations. The women sat on the front center row pew, and the men on the front side pew adjacent to the chancel area, commonly known as the “Amen corner.” The children typically sat somewhere in the back of the sanctuary, but tonight we (the Sunday school children, including me and my siblings) were seated in the choir stand along with the adult choir members. We were going to perform our annual Christmas pageant; when it was time for us to do so, it was less disruptive to move from the choir stand to the podium and stage area.
The seating arrangement was a God thing. From where I sat and where my parents sat, I could clearly see them and vice versa. For the first time I was happy that was the case. As the order of service advanced to the time for Holy Communion, the presence of the Holy Spirit was quite obvious. The order for administering the elements to the congregants went like this: (1) the pastor and any pulpit guest(s), (2) the choir, (3) Official Board members, (4) the congregation, guided by the ushers, (5) the children, (6) the ushers, and (6) last but not least, the Communion Stewards. The pastor would always stress the open invitation to “whosoever will, let them come” and feast at the Lord’s Banquet. He also emphasized that everyone has equal worth, value, and importance—everybody is somebody in God’s sight.
As the preacher continued to poetically expound on the themes of God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s redemptive power, and indicted a system that perpetuated socioeconomic and political injustice such as racism, discrimination, poverty, manipulation, and exploitation of the weak and defenseless—especially those who are black and living on the margins, the congregation erupted in shouts of “Hallelujah!” “Praise God!” and “Amen!” But in the midst of all the emotions and expressions of thanksgiving, something unusual was about to happen.
Neither Mama nor Daddy freely showed their emotions in public, not even in church. However, on this Christmas Eve, after having experienced such indignities at Mrs. Annie Mai’s Christmas Eve luncheon, Mama could not restrain her emotions, so she let go with shouts, screams, and a release of tears. The whole church could hear her uttering the words “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” And suddenly Daddy left his “Amen” pew and rushed to join Mama in what sounded like an orchestrated antiphonal choir. Mama: “Thank you, Jesus!” Daddy: “Thank you, Jesus!” The preaching and richness of black worship on that Christmas Eve was transformative.
This was one of the holiest experiences in my life. For a few minutes as I watched and listened to Mama and Daddy, I was overcome with a sense of silence and awe. I knew that in response to Mama’s earnest plea, the Lord had whispered a good word to my parents’ hearts. Mama and Daddy’s tears of disgrace had been transformed into tears of dignity.
I never heard either of my parents say anything hostile or vindictive about Mrs. Annie Mai or her son.
My parents’ posture was always to manifest the life and ministry of Christ—one of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I continue to try to follow in their big footsteps.
Dr. Fred A. Allen is national director of Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, an initiative of the United Methodist Church.
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