The Wrong Place
Evelyn Angelina Smith woke up on a Monday morning in November 1948 with a pain in her right shoulder that might have come from an awkward sleeping position but was more likely the result of the previous day’s furniture rearranging. Evelyn, who most people called Evie, stressing the long vowel sound of the initial “e,” was the live-in maid in the manor-like home of Gertrude and Roger Allen in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Roger had remarked at Sunday breakfast that the seating arrangement in the front room was uncomfortable since the recent replacement of two facing loveseats with a sectional sofa. “The after-dinner brandy was exceptional,” he told his wife, “but Fred Coyle was sitting so far away from me, I had to lean over Judge Horner and an end table to hear what he was saying.”
“I’ll fix it this afternoon, dear,” Trudy said, which meant that she intended to direct the furniture rearranging, but Evie would do the physical labor. Evie was not surprised. Only a few weeks before, she had overheard Trudy comment to a friend that “Negro women are just built sturdier than us. Look at all the babies they popped out while working in the fields down South. If your Cassy wants a lie-down in the afternoon, she’s taking advantage of your kind heart. The dark races can work twice as hard as we can and not feel it one whit. And that’s a scientific fact!”
Evie knew Trudy’s frequent exaggerations and far-fetched justifications were not only wrong, but unfair to whomever she was disparaging. Nevertheless, Evie chose not to react because she liked her job, especially caring for the Allen’s eleven-year-old twins. She hadn’t even minded moving the sofa and chairs this way and that to Trudy’s eventual satisfaction until her shoulder complained as she hauled herself out of bed the next morning.
It was true that Evie was a strong woman, both physically and mentally, a trait her family referred to as her stubborn streak. Her youngest brother likened her personality to a cup of coffee with extra cream (an apt description of her coloring) but no sugar. Evie had three brothers, all older and living in southern Ohio near where they were raised. Evie was married at sixteen and abandoned at seventeen. Although she had wanted children, she never considered remarrying. Instead, she remained close to the nieces and nephews who lived near-by.
Evie stood five-foot-seven, with only an extra five pounds she could never seem to shed, but her frequent wide-legged stance, hands on hips, lower jawed jutting out, made her seem formidable even, occasionally, to her employers. Yes, Evie had a strong sense of self, yet she was always alert to the shifting line a properly behaved servant must never cross. But that was about to change.
On Monday mornings, it was difficult to get the twins, Ethan and Susannah, up and ready for school on time. Although their weekdays after school were dedicated solely to school-sponsored extra-curricular activities and homework, the Friday through Sunday routine was hectic. During the school term, there were ballroom dance lessons every other Saturday morning at Miss Amy’s School for Etiquette, indoor tennis lessons and competition at the country club in the afternoon and frequent sleepovers back and forth with friends from the Funny Farm, the name students gave their private school, The Francis Fernwood Academy. After church on Sunday, Susannah was a candy-striper at the local hospital, and Ethan volunteered at an animal shelter. It was an exhausting schedule, but not an unusual one for the children of the Allen’s friends and neighbors.
Evie had looked after the twins for the past five years, entering the household when she was twenty-six after the previous “girl” had left under not-to-be-discussed circumstances. Although at times Evie wished she had more of a life of her own, she couldn’t figure out what it should be or how she would manage such a major change. She had never been encouraged as a child to aspire beyond a future of marriage, family and honest work, so she settled into the life of a domestic without complaint. Some might dismiss her as a mere servant, but Evie took pride in doing well what the good Lord had set before her to do. She attended church most Sundays, having a few hours in the morning off for just that purpose, but she didn’t consider herself particularly religious. Her church was in a colored neighborhood downtown, and it provided Evie one of few opportunities to socialize with others like herself, Negro men and women just getting by in a society that limited their opportunities in education, jobs, and self-determination.
Many of the churchgoers belonged to the N.A.A.C.P—now 600,000 strong—who challenged the existing laws that supported segregation and advocated for new laws to codify equality. Evie applauded their cause; after all, it was hers as well, but she never seemed to get around to becoming a member.
On the Monday morning following Evie’s stint as furniture mover, as the twins came into the kitchen, Evie asked, “Who wants scrambled eggs?” Their father had already left for his law firm and their mother chose not to get out of bed until 9:00 at the earliest.
“Just toast,” Ethan said.
“Now Mr. Ethan, you know your mama wants you to have a good breakfast so you stay wide-eye awake and do your best at school,” Evie said. Even though words and phrases of cultural dialect were sprinkled throughout Evie’s speech, her accent denied her southern roots. Its only trace was a softening of long vowel sounds to the point where some entirely disappeared.
“Ho hum,” Ethan responded to her admonishment.
“I want eggs,” Susannah said.
“Just toast,” Ethan repeated, looking at Evie with narrowed eyes as he leaned back in his chair. Too far back. Over he went to the delight of his sister.
Evie strode over to him and righted the chair, then offered him a hand up. Looking sheepish, Ethan extended his own hand and resettled himself at the table.
“Scrambled eggs for one,” she said, “toast for two. Be right up.”
The house was quiet when the children were at school and their father was at work. Trudy sometimes had women over for bridge or a committee meeting to plan a benefit gala and relied on Evie for a festive lunch or an afternoon tea. Most days, Trudy spent out of the house busy at things she rarely mentioned to Evie and about which Evie was not at all curious. The silent, empty rooms allowed Evie’s chores to be more easily and quickly completed, but she preferred the bustle and clamor that erupted the moment the children came through the door.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Trudy asked Evie to sit down with her to plan the long holiday weekend. There would be sixteen for Thanksgiving dinner. Evie did most of the cooking for the Allens except when Trudy had a spurt of culinary inspiration and absolutely had to try a recipe everyone was talking about. Usually, Trudy and Roger went out to dinner at least three times a week, and the children were happy with macaroni and cheese or hot dogs.
Besides the menu for Thanksgiving dinner, Trudy informed Evie that on Friday night, a cousin and his wife from Boston who were visiting friends in the area, would be coming to dinner. On Saturday night, the Allens planned to host a cocktail party for ten couples prior to a tribute dinner at the country club to honor a recently re-elected Republican congressman who had survived Dewey’s defeat.
Evie nodded agreeably to each assignment, making suggestions about the menus when asked. Three major dinners in as many days seemed a bit much. However, Trudy was generous with temporary help when warranted: girls to serve, to clean up, to help Evie get the house in order beforehand. Nevertheless, Evie was startled when Trudy added Sunday lunch to the list of holiday festivities.
“I’ve invited our new neighbors for lunch at noon on Sunday. Nothing fancy is necessary, so you’ll have time to prepare before church. Think about what might work and we’ll talk later.”
Besides a few hours Sunday mornings, Evie’s day off was Thursday since the Allens absolutely had to have her there on weekends. So every Thursday, as soon as the school bus collected the children, she crossed to the boulevard’s center median and caught the 8:45 Shaker Rapid Transit, then transferred to a streetcar that would take her to her nephew Louis’ apartment.
Louis, the middle son of her oldest brother, rented a third floor walk-up off Euclid Avenue in the Negro section of Cleveland with his girlfriend, Nancy. Because it wasn’t the best neighborhood for a woman waiting alone for public transportation at night, Evie often slept over and took the 6 a.m. streetcar and transit connection back to Shaker Heights.
Louis was only eight years younger than his aunt so their relationship was more like brother to sister. They rarely disagreed, and both expressed hope that the newly elected President Truman would honor his campaign promise to end segregation and discrimination. However, whereas Evie only daydreamed about racial equality, Louis was proactive.
Nancy had a high school diploma and a certificate from secretarial school that led to a good job as the receptionist-secretary for a Negro lawyer. She was trim, with a light tan complexion and hair professionally straightened so that it hung softly around her oval face. Evie understood that much of Nancy’s politics echoed her boss’ opinion, but that was no crime, and even though Nancy had been outspoken that Evie was wrong to aspire to nothing better than being someone’s maid, her voice was gentle and implied understanding. After all, Evie had finished the 8th grade and wore Louis out, he kiddingly complained, expecting him to get books for her at the public library branch near his apartment. Nancy knew Evie was no pushover and said so with respect.
Louis was a big, square-jawed man whose ebony skin rippled with a laborer’s muscles. He worked in construction, at least when local firms were hiring. In-between employment, he sold magazine subscriptions and did odd jobs for the owner of his building who was too cheap to hire a full-time janitor. His industriousness made Evie proud, and she was even prouder when, this past September, he had enrolled in a correspondence course toward a college degree.
As they sat down to dinner this Thursday, only a little over a week after Truman’s unexpected victory, Louis and Nancy tried to convince Evie that the time for action was now, that the drubbing Democrats of both races had just given Strom Thurmond’s State’s Rights Dixiecrats was proof enough that Negro voices could be heard.
“Thurmond could have been a Democratic party spoiler,” Louis said, “but the mood of the country was against him. Righteous white people understand that if we want to prove America is superior to Nazi Germany, the majority can no longer tolerate suppression of the minority.”
Evie wasn’t sure she agreed with him, but side-stepped her uncertainty and said, “It’s best to take small steps to get where you want to go. You step out too big, you might trip on something you wouldn’t miss up close.”
“We can’t wait another 85 years for equality,” Nancy said. “What’s it mean to be free if you can’t go where you want and feel safe and welcomed?”
“Well, welcome?” Evie asked. “White people don’t accept some of their own and you expect them to welcome you?”
“I don’t need to be accepted,” Louis said. “I need only to be treated fairly and with dignity. If I’m qualified for a job, I want an equal chance to be hired, and I want to be paid the same as a white worker. I’m not asking for the world, just the right to enjoy being in it.”
“And that includes being able to walk down the street without fear of getting mugged, even in broad daylight,” Nancy said. “You heard about May Ellis?”
May Ellis lived with her widowed mother on the second floor of Louis and Nancy’s building. At about 11 p.m. the previous Saturday night, May had been knocked down and bloodied as she climbed the stairs to her apartment. No one heard the scuffle, but May told neighbors she got in a few good licks, which is probably why she wasn’t raped, only robbed. May’s mother called the police as soon as May limped into the apartment, and two white officers came to take a statement.
“And you know,” Nancy said, “May and her mother and those two uniforms all knew nothing would be followed up. May’s statement would wind up in some drawer or wastebasket and that would be the end of it.”
“What if that had happened to a white woman?” Louis asked, “Especially if the attacker was black. The Press and the Plain Dealer would be all over it and the good citizens of Cleveland would be hollering for vigilante justice. You can bet on it.”
Then Louis explained about the need to keep pestering local elected officials and even congressmen to pay attention to issues of race discrimination and injustice. “And if that’s moving too fast for you, Auntie Evelyn,” he said with a big grin, “then I’ll order up your wheelchair right now.”
Evie swiped good naturedly at her nephew, and Nancy asked, “Anyone for apple cake with hard sauce?”
The conversation lightened immediately into the latest gossip about Joe Lewis being past his prime and a recent article rehashing the claim by Frederick Madison Roberts, an Ohio-born Negro who served as a California State Assemblyman until 1934, who claimed to be the great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves.
When Evie returned to the Allens early Friday morning, Trudy was already up, dressed and finishing a cup of coffee.
“Roger’s sister is picking me up,” she said. “We’re going to visit her mother-in-law. She had a small stroke a few days ago.”
“I hope she’s recovering well,” Evie said as she was expected to. Then she asked, “Are the children getting dressed?”
“I guess so. I didn’t look in on them. They’re old enough to be responsible for themselves. You remember, of course, that the mayor and his wife are coming about 6:30 for a drink before we go out to dinner? We’ll need some hors d'oeuvres, but I think the mayor is on a diet. Don’t want to overdo it, but some canapés would be nice. I’ll pick up a few tins of caviar.”
“Yes, Mrs. Allen,” Evie said.
“Oh, I almost forgot. Susannah’s little Jewish friend from camp is coming later, Carol Kantor. She’s been here before, the rather outspoken girl with frizzy hair. She’ll sleep over.”
“That’s fine, Mrs. Allen. I remember her from Susannah’s birthday party.”
A car horn sounded several staccato beeps, and Trudy quickly dropped her cup into the sink. “Have to run, but Roger is still here.” The front door slammed behind her.
Roger was indeed still home although it was rare that he stuck around for the children’s breakfast except on Sundays before religious school. During the week he ate his morning meal at a favorite diner on the way to his office, and on Saturday he ate at the country club with friends.
“Was that Mrs. Allen leaving?” Roger asked as he came downstairs.
“Yes, Mr. Allen. Your sister picked her up.”
“Right. Did my wife tell you about cocktails with the mayor?”
“Well, Mayor Sloan is on a doctor-ordered diet, so we can’t have more than cut-up vegetables and crackers with cheese.”
“Mrs. Allen mentioned caviar canapés,” Evie said.
“Well, I want vegetables, crackers and cheese,” Roger said, clipping off the end of each word.
“Mr. Allen,” Evie said, setting her hands on her hips and looking right into his eyes, “I’m happy to make whatever you and Mrs. Allen decide, but I won’t be put in the middle. Please phone Mrs. Allen, and I will do whatever you both decide.”
Roger said nothing for a long ten seconds. Then he broke into a grin and said, “Evie, you sounded like my mother just then. How amazing. Yes, Mrs. Allen and I will settle it and let you know in plenty of time. And if my sister’s driving today, Mrs. Allen’s Chevy is available if you have to go shopping. I’ll leave a key on the hall table.”
Evie nodded and went upstairs to hurry the children along. Evie’s brother Sam had taught her to drive just before she moved to Cleveland. She got her driver’s license after the third try, but that was business as usual for colored applicants. Her only opportunity to drive now was when the Allens needed her to pick-up or deliver something. Of course, she would never be allowed to drive Roger’s Cadillac, a new two-tone beauty in green with a cream top. She had never been inside it, but Roger invited her to stick her head through an open window to better appreciate the fawn-colored leather interior. Evie thought the new car smell was somewhere between Pine-Sol cleaner and cherry blossoms.
Trudy’s year-old Chevy smelled of licorice, her favorite and ever-present chewing gum and a mix of potato chip, cookie, and cracker crumbs left behind by the children. Yes, Evie was happy enough to drive Trudy’s car.
Evie smiled when she looked back at the time Trudy and Roger were shopping for her new car. Trudy wanted a Volkswagen Beetle, which was becoming increasingly popular. “You’ll never get the kids and their friends into that tiny thing,” Evie overheard Roger say. “Besides, I heard the Nazis planted bombs in the export models to Europe and America, timed to all go off simultaneously in 1950.” Sometimes, Evie thought with a sad shake of her head, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand white folks.
As for the mayor’s diet, the Allens compromised, and Evie took a quick run to the grocery store. By the time the children came home from school, she had made a garlic mayonnaise dip, cut up vegetables, and set the shrimp she’d simmered in court bullion into the refrigerator to chill. At 4:30, Carol Kanter’s mother dropped her off, and Evie set out milk and homemade chocolate chip cookies.
“Want to read my essay for history class?” Ethan asked Evie, dropping crumbs off the sheet of paper as he waved it in her direction.
“I suppose I can do that,” Evie said.
“What’s it about?” Carol asked.
“Our famous ancestor, Ethan Allen. He was in charge of the Green Mountain Boys in Vermont who heroically fought and won statehood.”
“I thought Ethan Allen was a store,” Carol said.
Ethan rolled his eyes. “The store was named after him, of course, because they specialize in early American furniture. Get it?”
Carol nodded and emptied her glass of milk. Evie busied herself setting out ashtrays, cocktail napkins and coasters on the counter to take into the front room later. She remembered the argument Roger and Trudy had had more than once when Roger claimed there was no hard proof that he was descended from Ethan Allen, and Trudy countered with, “So who’s going to ask for hard proof? Your mother believes it, I believe it. Don’t be difficult. We are who we say we are, period.”
“Do you have famous ancestors?” Susannah asked Carol.
“Sort of,” Carol said. “The Kantors are kohanim, Jews descended from Aaron, Moses’ older brother. We still have a special role in the synagogue prayer service.”
“What about you, Evie?” Susannah asked.
“What about me?”
“Well, are there any famous Negro Smiths? We learned about John Smith in Colonial history class.”
Evie paused with the milk bottle halfway upended above Carol’s glass, ready to pour. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Evie came from Africa, and whoever heard of an African named Smith,” Ethan said with a smirk and a chuckle.
“Well, Evie’s Smith had to come from somewhere, meatball,” Susannah said, then turned to Evie. “Don’t you know anything at all about your ancestors?”
Evie set the milk bottle down and drew in a deep breath of determination. These children need to know the truth those history books won’t tell them, she thought, and remembered how Louis always said the truth will set you free. “Don’t know about that, she’d answered Louis at the time, “but the truth is all I’ve got that’s worth anything much, and I’m not about to give up on it.”
Now Evie set her hands on her hips and told the children, “My people were once slaves, somewhere down in Georgia I’m told. The slave owner’s name was Smith, so when my folks were free, they took the name Smith, too, because that’s the only surname they heard of. Did they tell you what a smithy is in that Colonial history class?”
“I know,” Ethan said. “A smithy worked with metal and made horseshoes and things.”
“That’s so,” Evie said. “We borrowed the name, but it’s from people who were strong and did honest labor. It’s a good name, and we kept it.” The children gaped at Evie.
“Can we have spaghetti for supper?” Susannah asked.
“Sure can,” Evie said as the children got up and Evie began brushing the cookie crumbs into an empty glass.
A few hours later, wearing an immaculately pressed light grey uniform indicative of her status, Evie moved silently between the mayor, his wife and the Allens, passing hors d’oeuvres and emptying ashtrays. In between responsibilities, she sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, hearing the conversation in the front room only as background buzz to her private thoughts. Then a single word entered her consciousness, and she sat up straighter and listened.
“Like I’ve been saying, if we change even some of the things the coloreds want, it won’t be the same America we love and fought for,” the mayor said. “A few boys from some group calling themselves a jerkwater name, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, I think, took to sitting down in my outer office and wouldn’t leave until I saw them. I slipped out the back a few times, but then I figured the only way to get rid of troublemaking niggers is to say howdy and be done with it.”
“What did they want?” Trudy asked.
“They want the town to press Congress—and you won’t believe this—to press Congress to pass a law that says black folk can drink from the same water fountain as you can and pee in the same toilets!”
All four of them chuckled. Evie set her coffee cup down and returned to the front room with a fresh tray of shrimp. She bent to offer one to the mayor’s wife, who said over Evie’s shoulder, “Next thing you know, redskins will be wanting a bellyful of rights just as ridiculous as the coloreds.”
Evie was not so much offended at the mayor and his wife’s disparaging her race as she was by the fact that they continued the debasement to her face, as if to deny her existence altogether, not just to ignore it. As used as she was to the Allen’s sometime-insensitivity, their language and attitude were hurtful, but not hateful, an important distinction that allowed Evie to care for their children and household in good conscience. But such remarks coming from the mayor gave Evie a chill impossible to shrug off. She thought of her people as God’s children even when they were in slavery. The mayor had, in her mind, sanctioned an official and dangerous denial of all that had been accomplished for them since slavery ended and all that could be accomplished now and in the future.
At church Sunday morning, Evie sat next to Monroe Peabody and his wife. Monty had served in the 97th Army Corps Engineers, a Negro unit that worked on the ALCAN Highway in Canada which was built during the war to defend North America from a Japanese attack. Monty was proud of his service although it had gone unnoticed and unappreciated, and Evie enjoyed his colorful stories of comradery and the ways in which well-intentioned men could mess up in the middle of doing a pretty good job.
Evie usually loved Monty’s sense of humor, but this morning he was in an foul mood. President Truman had set-up a five-man committee to enforce an executive order to end remaining instances of discrimination in the armed services. However, according to Monty, “They’s dragging their feet. It don’t make no difference that two colored boys are on that committee. Nothing happened so far, and it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.”
“We need to give them a chance,” his wife said, and Evie agreed.
Outside the church, as the parishioners scattered in the chill air, Monty’s wife turned to Evie and said, “We meet again next Thursday at the Reverend Bolton’s home to talk about a letter-writing campaign for school integration. Like I’ve said a dozen times, we’d sure like to have you come. Your niece, Nancy, said she’d be there.”
Evie buttoned the top button of her coat, then let her arms fall to her side. She looked into her friend’s earnest face and thought of the mayor and his smug, piggy wife. Evie had always prided herself that she knew her place, but she finally realized it had been the wrong place.
“Thursday night, you say. I just might be there,” she said. “I just might.”