Bending toward Justice1—at Glacial Speed
In the spring of 1954, Sister Simone Birdwell—like Chief Justice Warren—had not a skeleton, which she could have concealed, but a corpse in her closet.2 Four years previously, a postulant under Sr. Simone’s spiritual direction disclosed that she had been … scourged? pierced? She did not know what to call it by a superior. Having failed to calm and quell the girl, Sr. Simone discredited her testimony.
Every nun in Fort Worth, Texas, knew of Sr. Simone’s complicity, but whether she acted from fear or veneration of the perpetrator, no one could say. To all outward and visible signs, she was serenely—one might say “inhumanly”—oblivious to the young woman whose anguish she had compounded, but her inner life told a different story. She had, she acknowledged on thick, wet, sleep-evasive nights, displayed a mean streak from the get-go.
She remembered coaxing three year-old Graylee Eppler into a playhouse, on the promise of chocolate babies, to see how fast she could make Graylee cry. “I’m so sorry, Graylee. Your mother was killed in a car accident. They sent me to tell you,” eight year-old Simone (née Jayne Birdwell) lied. Graylee wailed in her arms.
She remembered, ten years later, marching into her father, J. Clint (“Big Daddy”) Birdwell’s law office to announce that, no, she would not matriculate at TCU but would enter the Daughters of Charity and yes, she knew that meant relinquishing her portion (2 million dollars and change) of the pythonic Birdwell family trust.
Big Daddy Birdwell looked at his daughter like she had turned a pistol on him at point-blank range and missed. He rifled through the divorce papers that he was drawing up for Lindy (Mrs. Cameron) Buxton. He cleared his throat, steadied his voice.
“Don’t kid yourself,” Big Daddy Birdwell remarked, with devastating accuracy. “You are running away—not reaching toward.”
* * *
Sr. Simone saw judgment in the eyes of her sisters, where it did not exist, and in the blood of Christ which, in the Holy Eucharist, coated her tongue with mud red shame. Unaccustomed to pleading, never having felt the need, she skirted the confessional booth and appealed directly to the Jesus of her Presbyterian youth. “Keep me from the scorn I dread, for your decrees are good,” she prayed, abjuring the rail to kneel on the rough stone floor of the chapel. “Remember, Lord, your compassion and mercy, which you showed long ago.” Sensing something, Sr. Simone raised her eyes to the crucifix but saw, lying against its transverse arm, not the merciful Jesus but a dashboard doll in a rumpled brown suit. “Seek expiation in activism,” the doll advised.
* * *
The time was ripe. That summer, after the great victory in Brown, five Negro physicians had petitioned St. Joseph’s Hospital for admissions privileges. Sr. Simone was the hospital’s chief administrator. Although she had no authority to coerce the 250 white doctors on staff to approve the petition, she had boundless opportunity to influence the vote. “Preparation!” urged the dashboard doll. Sr. Simone complied.
Night after night, she studied the Court’s decision in Brown; that is, she identified the strategies that Chief Justice Warren had wielded to ensure unanimity in the opinion. Plaintiff-by-plaintiff, she tracked the peregrinations of the five legal appeals that made up the case—from their naissance in Kansas, Virginia, South Carolina, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., through their resolution in the Court. She learned by heart vast stretches of the opinion—and offered them up willy-nilly.
At the Hour of Prime, the Daughters of Charity confessed, in the spirit of St. Aelred: “She is our mother—the mother of our life, the mother of our incarnation, the mother of our light.”
Seated at the rear of the chapel, meeting the gaze of the dashboard doll, Sister Simone posed Warren’s seminal question: “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?”
“She is more our mother than the mother of our flesh,” the Daughters continued.
“We believe,” Sr. Simone proclaimed, “that it does!”
* * *
MEANWHILE, FOUR MILES NORTH3
“To think that I would live to see the day,” Dr. Shelby Knight remarked over a late breakfast, shredding his last strip of bacon for the cocker spaniel and scowling at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“What day?” the dog wondered.
“What day?” Shelby’s wife, Melissa Birdwell Knight, asked aloud.
“The day that we might have one Negro doctor at St. Joseph’s—much less five of them!” Shelby slammed the newspaper against the breakfast table.
The previous Friday, in a near-unanimous vote engineered by Melissa’s aunt, chief administrator Sr. Simone Birdwell, Shelby’s colleagues had extended admissions privileges to five Negro physicians, including Dr. Robert Lafayette Prince whose name—discomfittingly—rang a bell.
A damp breeze wafted impossibly through the air-conditioned kitchen. Where the silver saltshaker had been, Shelby saw a dashboard doll sporting a blue plaid western shirt and an oversized Stetson. “I am losing my mind,” Shelby thought.
“Hush!” Melissa warned, sensing the approach of a plate-shattering argument and pointing toward the second-floor landing, from which their eleven year-old twins heard everything.
For the most part, over thirteen years of marriage, Melissa and Shelby had negotiated their differences amicably. Melissa liked her steak cooked rare; Shelby perceived that as sexy, if barbaric. Shelby favored the missionary position; Melissa saw that as sweet, if unimaginative.
Politics, however, set the relationship on edge. In 1954, Ralph Yarborough’s first run for governor—rather Melissa’s knocking on doors for Yarborough while Shelby wrote fat checks to the Shivers4 campaign—frayed their day-to-day affection. The looming eventuality of desegregation in public accommodations threatened to unravel it altogether.
“Parlor pinko,” Shelby muttered, reading Melissa’s petulant blue eyes.
Melissa, having detected an “Impeach Earl Warren” sign on the neighbor’s lawn, stomped outside to destroy it.
Shelby lingered at the breakfast table. “Dr. Robert Lafayette Prince … Lafayette … Prince,” he repeated. “Dadgummit, that’s Laura Anne’s son.”
Laura Anne Prince worked as a maid for Melissa’s grandmother, Caroline Birdwell, and was serving dinner on the metastatic New Year’s Eve when Shelby’s mean streak blazed across the ancestral dining room table and, passing through Caroline’s chest, raised her pressure to such a dangerous height as compelled Big Daddy Birdwell to reach for his pistol.
Shelby had felt ashamed in Laura Anne’s presence ever since.
He hoped to hell that she had kept her mouth shut—or at least not regaled her son, the doctor, with the story.
Laura Anne recalled Mr. Birdwell’s pistol much more vividly than Dr. Knight’s temper but dwelt on neither one. “If I had a nickel for all the white people who thought I was interested in their business,” she said, “I would be one wealthy woman.”
* * *
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
In 1907–1909, while Shelby Knight’s grandfather was building a sod house in Tarrant County and J. Clint Birdwell was studying law at the University of Chicago, four graduates of Meharry Medical College5 moved to Fort Worth to practice medicine. Ultimately, three of those pioneers relocated again in states where opportunities were less tenaciously extended and withheld on the basis of race. Almost half a century later, Dr. Lafayette Prince joined a medical practice in Fort Worth’s Near Southeast neighborhood. In 1955, he and his two partners (along with two other Negro physicians) received admissions privileges at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
When Lafayette resolved to study medicine, his mother almost lost her mind. Seeing him surrender his passion for painting to his common sense broke her heart. “Oh Lord, I’ve failed,” Laura Anne sighed.
Over time, Laura Anne made peace with Lafayette’s decision, acknowledging that the life of a physician suited his disposition, whereas the emotional exposure required of a working artist would have destroyed him.
She remembered worrying in earnest about her boy from the day Mrs. Birdwell sneaked them both into the Kimball and Lafayette, not yet six years old, stood on quivering tiptoes before Laura Wheeler Waring’s Anna Washington Derry, regarding the portrait with a grown man’s tangled rage and shame.
“Born into slavery,” the caption read.
Lafayette flatly refused to budge until a dashboard doll in a museum guard’s uniform, one tiny hand resting meaningfully on his holster, shooed him away.
“How did that picture mess with you?” Laura Anne demanded afterward.
The numbness of Mrs. Derry’s physiognomy and the resignation in her eyes made visible to Lafayette the inner condition that she had inherited.
* * *
On July 23, 1954, wearing the charcoal-gray suit that he had procured at Leonard Brothers after two attempts and one exchange,6 Lafayette entered St. Joseph’s through the front door. He paused in the grand rotunda. “Sweet Jesus,” he whispered, “Never again.” While he might choose to consult a white specialist about a case, never again would he be required routinely to turn over his patients to white physicians, the best of whom radiated discomfort with little colored children; the worst of whom routinely called the elders out of their names. He praised God that his mother had lived to see this day, that his wife would no longer need to take in sewing to make ends meet—and that their precious daughter need never ever bend down in a white man’s home.
Looking about the rotunda, Lafayette blurred his vision, squinting his eyes the more easily to imagine that the portraits of previous medical chiefs-of-staff, which decked the walls, depicted his own black predecessors. Dr. W.E. Davis. Dr. Thomas T. McKinney . . . Dr. Jesse M. Mosley.7 Shaking his head to clear it but failing spectacularly, Lafayette was recalled to 1936.
He stood in a different rotunda, at the entrance to the Hall of Negro Life, which had been constructed (over several Texas legislators’ dead bodies) on the state fair grounds in Dallas. An epic mural by Aaron Douglas surrounded him. In African iconography and Cubist style, the mural showed open jungle merging with a jaundice-yellow sea.
A line of undifferentiated figures (shackled and chained, their heads bent low) marched toward the shoreline.
Two ships approached.
A woman lifted her hands in supplication or despair. A man balanced anachronistically on an auction block, his face illumined by the light of a blood-red star.
* * *
Two years later, after Price Daniel, Sr., backed by Allan Shivers, stole the 1956 Texas gubernatorial primary runoff election,8 the dashboard doll boarded the first of three trains to Boston. This was a bold move—and an ill-advised one. The doll knew no one northeast of New Orleans. He spoke with a twang that few New Englanders understood. With his headspring fully uncoiled, he was only four inches tall. The Stetson that he wore to extend his height did not help him fit in.
On May 14, 1957, following a searing and lonesome winter in Boston’s South End, the dashboard doll heaved and pushed, pushed and heaved until his window opened a smidgen. The scent of Virginia sausage wafted in. His head bobbing ecstatically, the doll squeezed under the window and leapt from the sill onto a lilac bush that bounced him unceremoniously onto the sidewalk. Raising his nose in the crisp spring air, he traced the delectable scent one mile southwest from his room on Pembroke Street to 429 Columbus Avenue.
“Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe,” the marquee read. “Established 1927.” There, behind a Formica counter, the doll beheld his human, Mrs. Emmeline Danahy, a waitress of a certain age with iridescent green eyes and a beehive hairdo.
“What’ll it be, hon?” Mrs. Danahy set the doll on a stool that faced the soda fountain and spun full circle, affording a view of everything. She fed him turkey hash, with a runny fried egg on top, and a side of Virginia sausage.
With the waitress, the doll’s assignments changed. He was instructed not only to initiate and give but to wait and receive. Initially, this proved almost impossible for the doll, but by and by he relaxed, delighting in her curious kindnesses (a diminutive Ace bandage for his trick right knee; a thimbleful of Schnapps).
For her part, Mrs. Danahy softened under the doll’s influence, although she remained wary of strong emotions, which made her feel skinned.
“Continuity and change,” mused the doll from his perch on top of the cash register—continuity meaning his affection for the human in his charge; change meaning how love was manifested, what love required.
1 “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” —Dr. Martin Luther King
2 Warren, who sought and attained a unanimous ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in the Brown decision, had (as Governor of California) enforced the Federal order deporting and incarcerating Japanese Americans after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. “If the Japs are released, no one will be able to tell a saboteur from any other Jap,” Warren said.
3 In the exclusive suburb of Westover Hills, where racially restrictive covenants were universally applied.
4 Allan Shivers was a notorious segregationist.
5 The first medical school in the South for African Americans
6 None of the major department stores allowed black customers to try on clothing.
8 Were it not for “irregular” voting, most notably in East Texas, Ralph Yarborough would have won by 30,000 votes.