Words and Photos by Erwin M Davis II
My grandmother turns 65 this year, and she is one of the fortunate few who are able to recollect a time when southern hospitality was a term reserved for those with a pigment to warrant it. With our country in the middle of an identity shift, I found it appropriate to witness the shift from her vantage point. As an early birthday treat, she and I took a drive down to Chickamauga, Georgia for a conversation about what it's been like to go from the dirt roads of Jim Crow to the diverse fast-track we now know.
Jennifer Ann Lawrence, or Mama as everyone calls her, is a woman of habitual
pleasantness. Finding her without a vibrant smile on her face is akin to discovering the missing-link. Her entire life has been one long joyride along the countryside of northern Georgia. Having seen so much in her time, I found it appropriate to ask her opinion on the change she’s been able to witness as a black woman of the South.
“Things were a lot different back then,” she said as she pointed out “Black Alley”—a strip of road adjacent to a more trafficked path formally known as “White Alley.” My grandmother says that she and her siblings Joe and Liz would run down the alley everyday after school and wait for her mother to come home from her job as a cafeteria worker at Gordon Lee High School. As we drove past the very back-door where my great-grandmother was forced to enter as a person of color, Mama went on, “Things seemed to be simpler back then. Even with all that’s going on in today’s world, it was easier.” Deeply engaged by her declaration, I pressed for more insight on the claim. “Really? What do you mean by that,” I said as I swerved past the boldest country-rooster crossing the road you’d ever seen.
She recounted days of cheaper prices, slower sunsets, and southern hospitality—true, defiant in the face of discrimination: southern hospitality. It was this point that had me most curious. Born in 1956, my grandmother truly is an amulet of two different Americas; two different Souths. Her differentiation of her version of southern hospitality was met with, acceptable enough, skepticism by myself. Expressing her fondness for the matter of kindness, she weaves a tale:
“We were so poor. My mama got paid $84 a month and paid $34 for rent. We would have to go down to the dump and dig through sometimes to get extra food. When I was 13, I remember the white families going around the black houses looking for help for their homes. The family and woman I worked for would come and pick me up. I would clean closets, shoes; everything. After work was done, they would bring me home. One Thanksgiving holiday I can remember them taking me home and gifting me a turkey leg and about $11. I came home and gave it to my mama so she could get something to eat. Moments like that help instill a sense of love in humanity—even in those times.”
My grandmother and I finished up our drive with a cruise through downtown Chickamauga. She pointed out where old banks and stores used to be, and how the character of the South she knew wasn’t one of hostility and segregation. Instead, one of hope, kindness, and simple times well-lived. She stops to sit on a bench in the town square. As she does, a look of remembrance for a youth filled with adventure comes over her. Times like that have kept that same girlish smile on her face for 65 years. As we arrive back at her home, she closes by stating her optimism for the future of the South,
“It’s all changed so much since then. It will always change. It’s changed for the better. Change is for the better.”
I think she’s right. Thank you, Mama.