Down in the Delta, somewhere just beyond Alligator,
Mississippi, rests thecolored section of Rudell, a
community of less than five hundred, dividedunequally by
race, wealth, and religion by the Left Hand River. It
wasnamed such because from the top of the highest tree in
Rudell the ripplingriver looks like a man's left hand.
Yes, it sure does.
Well, today all the folks, black and white alike,
moved heat-snake slowalong the dusty, unpaved roads,
pressed down by the heavy hand of theJuly sun.
Towering yellow pines raised their angry fists toward
the blinding whitesky demanding a long, cool drink.
Mosquitoes buzzed and bit, zealous intheir hunt for sweet,
moist flesh, especially the plump legs of little brownbaby
boys and girls. Good chewing grass, razor thin, glistened
like emeraldfire, fanning out as far as the eye could see.
Funny how nature plays its tricks. Earlier that same
year, the spring of1927, the mighty Mississippi River rose
higher than ever before in its history.Before its floods
were over, the river had turned the Delta valley intolakes
of despair. Dikes and levees crumbled, while the river
swallowedwhole towns and farms with an insatiable appetite
that could not bestopped by man.
The war between man and nature rode the ever-
increasing tide. Still,months after the devastation, lost
land and lost lives, recovery was a slowand painful
process. The Father of Waters had spared no one, colored
orwhite. But times being what they were, the colored who
already had solittle now had even less. Yet even the
oppressive, relentless heat anduntoldtragedy couldn't stop
the parishioners of First Baptist Church from stompingand
shouting on this Sunday morning just as on any other.
The white clapboard building, put together plank by
plank by themen of Rudell, offered them little refuge as
the steam ascended from themomentum of the congregation
bunched together along the crowded,wooden pews.
The sun streamed in through the handblown windows
casting rays ofshimmering color across the wooly heads of
the congregation to explodein a ball of brilliant light
that gleamed off the ten-foot cross of Christ.
Thestrongest members of First Baptist, male and female,
had carried that crossin through the narrow door five
years ago, piece by piece, nailing it togetherin silent
reverence. It stood in proud testament of all they had
endured.And they were grateful.
Today, more than ever, they had much to be thankful
for. They'd beenspared.
"We done seen the wrath of the Lord," Reverend Joshua
Harvey ebbedand flowed, his voice an instrument of
persuasion. "His mighty hand sweptthe Mississippi from
Arkansas to the Gulf of Mexico. Wiped out sinnersand
nonbelievers with a puff of his breath."
"Amen! Yes, Lord," shouted the pulsing throng.
"`The great flood of '27' we hear tell it called. I
say it be the greatcleanser. The Lord's way of riddin'
this earth of those who continya ta dous harm." He
stretched out his arm and passed it over the packed
room."And y'all know who I'm talkin' 'bout."
"Praise the Lord!"
"But many of our innocent sistahs and brothas have
suffered, too. Theybeen left with even less than the
nothin' they had."
"That's why we's here t'day, Reverend," shouted Deacon
Earl, looking'round to see the nods of assent.
"Amen," again came the response.
"I knows y'all don't have much," the. Reverend
continued. "You workshard to feed yo' families from
sunrise till set. But it's up to us who havelittle to
share with those who have less."
Government relief had come to those stricken by the
devastation of theflood. But it was slow coming, if at
all, to some of the colored sectionsalong the Delta.
Joshua gazed out at his congregation, the beaten, the
downtrodden. Hisdark, all-seeing eyes peered into their
souls; his heart heard their prayers.He witnessed the
unflinching pride in the bent backs, the clawed hands,and
leatherlike faces. Sorrow shadowed their eyes, but hope
hung on theirlids. In each one he saw strength from a
people who had seen much forany one lifetime. Still, he
knew he could ask for more.
"I knows what I'm askin' is gon' be hard for the lot
of ya. But I needsya to dig deeper than yo' pockets. I
needs ya to dig inta yo' hearts tohelp those who cain't
help themselves. We here in Rudell gotta come togetheronce
again as a community and as a people." He paused to let
hiswords rest a spell. "The doors ta the church gon' be
open all day. Brangwhat chu kin. Deacon Earl gon' be in
charge of collectin' whatever y'allkin brang."
Cora sat in the front line of the choir. The flick of
her slender wristmoved the circular cardboard fan in a
steady flow in front of her face. Shegazed out at the rows
of black bodies, a melody of color, size, and shape.They
were hypnotized by the power of her daddy. Pride puffed
her chest.Papa Daddy could do anything. He could make you
believe the impossible,give you strength when you had
none. He made it so easy for her to lifther voice in
praise, as much for him as she did for the Lord. She
wantedto do them both proud.
Like so many colored communities, the heart and soul
of Rudell couldbe found in the church. Reverend Joshua
Harvey was the bedrock uponwhich Rudell was built. Their
lightning rod. The calm during the storm. Itwas to him the
white folks came when they had trouble with their
coloreds,Cora thought. Daddy always found ways to make the
peace. But, of course,he made them think it was their own
doing. He knew white folks in a wayfew coloreds did in
those parts. He spoke their language, knew the powerof
their words as well as those of his flock. Daddy carried
the weight forall of Rudell on his back.
While he was not seen as the equal of the whites,
something in Daddy'sbearing made them tolerate his uppity
ways. He was like the esteemedBooker T. Washington with
the powerful white folks up north. Daddy wasjust like
that. White folks feared as much as respected him and the
quietpower he held over the town. His church was the
visual symbol of thatpower.
"I want y'all to stand now and join our choir in
song." Joshua turnedbriefly toward his daughter, a smile
of pride on his thick lips. "Lift yo'voices to the
Almighty in thanks."
The choir stood in unison and Cora stepped forward.
David Mackey stood out on the dusty road, his starched
white, high-buttonshirt clinging to his moist back. Even
his sweat tried to find a place to hidefrom the beating
sun, securing sanctuary beneath his stiff shirt collar.
He whipped out a spotless white handkerchief from the
pocket of hisblue serge pants and mopped his brow, then
set his straw hat squarely atophis close-cropped head.
He'd fretted for hours about what to wear, wanting to
make the bestimpression. His customary work pants and
clean but frayed shirts were finefor visiting his sick and
laid-low patients, but not today. Today was special.
David drew up a deep breath and checked his scarred,
gold pocketwatch, a gift from his father.
Service would be over directly, he calculated, and
then he'd see her again.As a matter-o'-fact, if he shut
his eyes he could see her face plain as theday is long, as
he was sure it would appear while she led the choir
throughthe strains of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." Her
powerful contralto voicepoured out of her tiny body,
entered the soul, grabbed and shook it.
The age-old cry of the weary souls seeped through the
walls of the one-roombuilding. But it was Cora Harvey's
rapturous voice that soared abovethem all.
Cora Harvey. She was something else. A right pretty
thing. He'd spottedher months ago, and upon discrete
inquiries he'd found out who she was.That discovery
compelled him to keep his distance as much as he wantedto
do otherwise. Since then, they'd passed each other on
several occasionswhen she made her monthly shopping trips
into town. However, up untilthe other afternoon, she'd
never paid him no never mind other than apassing wave or
flashing that smile of hers. Then they'd run into each
otherat Sam's market earlier that week, and she'd given
him his first look ofencouragement. Of course her daddy
wasn't looking. But he dared notapproach her, not with the
good reverend close at hand.
David sighed. They came from different sides of town.
Cora Harvey wasa sharecropper's daughter turned
preacherman who worshipped in the BaptistChurch. He, on
the other hand, was the one and only colored doctorin
Rudell, the surviving son of the now prosperous Mackey
family, whopaid his homageâ€”at least some of the timeâ€”at
the Episcopal Church onthe other side of the dividing line.
It shouldn't matter none, he mused, but it did. The
Baptists were consideredcommon, while the Episcopals were
made up of the few educatedcoloreds, those with a bit of
money. As much as colored folk had enduredsince they were
brought in chains from Africa and stuffed like garbage
intothe bowels of death ships, one would think that now
they would bandtogether. That was not to be. It wasn't
enough that the white folks madeno secret of their disdain
for the coloreds; the coloreds did it to themselves.
David snapped out of his woolgathering at the sound of
voices surgingthrough the now opened church doors. He took
a quick look at his shoesâ€”whichstill held their shineâ€”
wiped his face one last time and walkedforward.
* * *
Cora stood on the plank wood steps of the church, flanked
on either sideby her parents, Pearl and Joshua. She looked
so soft and beautiful in herpale peach cotton dress, David
thought, just like one of those dolls he'donce seen in the
Sears Roebuck catalog. Her smooth, pecan-colored skin,with
undertones of red, glowed as if lit by an inner sunbeam.
Her thick,neatly plated hair was pulled back in one braid
that fell to the center ofher back, protected by a sun
bonnet that matched her dress. She sure didlook pretty.
She shook hands with each of the churchgoers,
accepting their praisesof her singing with grace and the
right amount of humility.
"Sister Cora, that voice of yours gon' take you
straight to heaven, chile.Lordhammercy! Mark my words,"
professed Lucinda Carver, as the sweatrolled in waves down
her plump face.
"Thank you, Sister Carver. I sure hope so."
"You just make sho' you hold them pearly gates open
for this old sister,"Lucinda chuckled, patting Cora
heartily on the arm.
"See you tomorrow, Cora," Maybelle said, giving her
friend a kiss on thecheek. "I's goin' to meet Little Jake
at the river," she whispered in Cora'sear, before running
down the steps.
Sassy, Cora's friend since they were both in diapers,
stepped up besideher. "That girl gon' get herself in a
heap of trouble if her mama ever findsout." Then Sassy
giggled. "Harold Jr. say he gon' come by and sit on
theporch later when it cool down some. I'll see you
later." Sassy, it wasn't herreal name, but that's what she
was always called, skipped down the stairs.
Cora watched her two friends leave and wished she had
someone waitingon her, eager to see her under the stars.
When the last of the parishioners filed out, Joshua
slipped into his roleas father, husband, and
protector. "Come along, ladies. We best be gettin'on outta
this here heat," he instructed them.
Pearl eased up alongside her towering husband and
slipped her armthrough his.
"Comin', Daddy." Cora took a step down when movement
across theroad captured her attention. She felt the
muscles in her heart expand andcontract, creating a moment
of light-headedness. It was him, that handsome,quiet
doctor who made her stomach feel funny inside.
Pearl's eyes followed the trail of her
daughter's. "Oh, Joshua, here comethat nice young doctor."
She gave his arm a "come on" squeeze and a quickwink to
"How nice kin he be ifn he thinks he's too good to
worship in a BaptistChurch? Humph."
"Joshua," Pearl hissed in warning as David crossed the
"Afternoon, Mrs. Harvey, Reverend." David tipped his
hat and looked atCora. "Miss Cora."
"Dr. Mackey." Cora gave him her sweetest smile and
wished her motherand father would leave her be.
Silence hung over the quartet as heavy as the heat.
The poor boy lookedso nervous from the glare Joshua was
hurling his way that Pearl's maternalinstincts leaped to
his rescue. "What brings you to First Baptist this hotday,
Doctor?" Pearl asked, finally breaking the silence.
"Well, ma'am," he paused and looked from one parent
to the other,wishing that his heart would stop hammering
long enough for him to takea breath, "I was hoping you'd
allow me to take Miss Cora here over to Joe'sfor a soft
drink, maybe some ice cream." He swallowed down the last
ofhis fear and plunged on. "That's if Miss Cora is
willing." He snatched aquick look at Cora. "I have my auto-
mo-bile right 'cross the road. I'd haveher back in plenty
of time for supper. Iâ€”"
"What 'chu know 'bout what time we has supper?" Joshua
pulled hisblack, wide-brimmed hat a little farther down on
his brow, with the intentionof giving his dark features an
even more ominous look.
Cora's face was afire, and it had nothing to do with
the heat. She wasmortified. Here she was seventeen years
oldâ€”eighteen in six monthsâ€”andher daddy was treating her
like a knee-high. When would she ever be ableto court like
the other girls she knew? Daddy was always preaching
abouthow she needed to settle down. How was she ever
supposed to do that ifhe wouldn't let no respectable man
near her? Not that marriage was hergoal no how. It was
just the whole notion of having someone interested inher,
especially a doctor. All the girls would be green with
She wanted to know what it felt like; wanted to know
what she'd heardsome of the girls of the church whisper
about. She had yet to be kissed.How could her daddy
embarrass her this way? Maybe the earth wouldjust open up,
like she'd read about in the picture books, and swallow
"Joshua, for heaven's sake, let the young man speak
his piece," Pearlcajoled, seeing the possibilities in the
union. "That sounds right nice thathe wants to take Cora
for a soft drink. Matter-o'-fact, I could use a long,cool
glass of lemonade myself." She looked at Cora, who flashed
her asmile of thankful relief. "You ought to take the good
doctor up on his offer,Cora. Don't you think so?"
"Sounds invitin', Dr. Mackey. Is it all right, Daddy?"
Joshua heard the soft plea in his daughter's voice and
saw the eagernessshining in her eyes. In that instant he
remembered all too clearly what itfelt like to be young.
What it felt like when he'd met his Pearl. He
weren'tnothin' more than a paid slave workin' the cotton
fields. When he'd draghis weary body home after a day
under the Mississippi sun, Pearl wouldrun down the road
from her beaverboard shack and bring him a tin ofwater and
a piece of dried beef or a biscuit.
"I figured you'd be thirsty," she'd always say.
"Right kind of you," he'd answer.
She'd walk with him part way down the road till he
finished his water.
"Thank you much, Miss Pearl."
She'd duck her head all shy. "Tomorrow," she'd whisper
and run off.
That musta gone on for months. That and things they
didn't talk aboutno more, till Joshua said the two of them
would do much better as one.
"Whatchu sayin'?" Pearl had asked, taking a seat on
the top of a flatrock.
Joshua squeezed his hat in his hands, trying to find
the right words. Heshifted from one foot to the next. "You
what I look for at the end of theday, Pearl," he finally
said. "Thinkin' 'bout you out in dem fields makesme
remember I's still a man, not some pack mule like Mistah
Jackson makeme out to be. I kin be somethin', Pearl.
Somebody. You believe that?"
"I knowed it from the first time I saw you hitchin'
down that roadyonder."
"I got dreams, Pearl. I want to have my own church one
day, preach theword. Iâ€”I want you to be a part of that."
"That yo' fancy way of askin' me to jump the broom wit
Joshua grinned like a young boy, seeing the challenge
in her eyes. "I'spose."
"Then I 'spose I will."
And she'd been by his side ever since, sunup to down.
Never complaining,no matter how bad times had gotten.
Pearl was his strength, his reasonfor everything. Her
faith in him, her unwavering love, was his joy. AndCora
was just like her.
Truth be known, he'd like nothing better than to see
his strong-willedCora married off and secure. It would
sho' nuff make Pearl happy. A good,solid husband may just
be the thing Cora needed to tame her willful ways.But that
didn't mean he had to make it easy for any man who thought
hewas good enough to come a courtin' his baby girl.
Especially an Episcopaldoctorâ€”and one from the other side
of Rudell at that.
"I `spose," he finally grumbled. "We have Sunday
supper at four o'clocksharp."
Pearl briefly lowered her bonneted head to hide her
smile. "You mightthink 'bout joining us, Doctor. I fix a
Joshua threw her a cutting glance, but kept his own
"I just might, ma'am. Thank you." He looked at Joshua,
who gave animperceptible nod of approval. The day is
beginning to look better everyminute, David thought.
Cora gave her mother and father each a peck on the
cheek and steppeddown.
"I'll be sure to have her back in plenty of time for
"Be sho' you do," Joshua added for good measure.
Cora couldn't believe her luck as she walked side-by-
side with Daviddown the church steps out onto the road.
The saints must surely be withher today, she mused,
tossing up a silent prayer of thanks. Her father hadnever
so much as entertained the notion of her courting, even
though allthe other girls her age had a steady
beau. "You're not other girls," JoshuaHarvey would boom in
his preacher voice. "You the daughter of the reverendof
this town, and you ain't gon' be seen with just anybody."
Well, Dr. David Mackey must sure be somebody, she
"I'm right happy your folks let me take you out for a
spell, Miss Cora,"David said in a hushed voice as they
crossed the road to his Model T.
She looked up into his dark face, eyes like polished
black opals, and heryoung heart panged in her chest. "So
am I, Dr. Mackey." She batted her eyesdemurely as she'd
seen some of her churchgoing sisters do, and she wouldhave
sworn David blushed beneath his roasted chestnut
Strong, large hands caught her waist as David helped
her step up intothe seat, and Cora was no longer sure it!
it was the force of the blazing sunor a fire that had been
lit inside of her that caused the surge of heat to runamok
through her body Settling herself against the soft,
cushioned seat,she adjusted her hat while David rounded
the hood and hopped up besideher.
Cora nodded, suddenly unsure of herself.
The Model T bucked, chugged, coughed up some smoke,
and finallypulled off down the rutty road, bouncing and
bumping all the way. As theydrove by the rows of makeshift
shacks, half nude children playing in theriver and old
wrinkled women smoking corn pipes all stopped and staredat
the handsome couple in the automobile. To see colored
folks drivingwas rarer than having meat for dinner once a
But instead of feeling like a specimen under glass,
Cora felt like royalty.She smiled and waved to everyone
who came out on the road, wide-eyed,to greet them. Little
children ran alongside the car until they grew weary,and
the old Model T chugged out of sight.
"Did you go to Sunday service today, Dr. Mackey?" Cora
asked, needingto break the silence that hung between them
like clothes drying on a line.
David cleared his throat. "No. Not today" He shrugged,
then chuckledlightly, "Truth be told, it's awhile since I
been to church."
Cora angled her head in his direction, surprise
widening her sparkling,brown eyes. "Why? Don't you have
anything to be thankful for?"
"Sure I do. Except I don't think you need to set up in
a building to givethanks. I believe that God can hear my
prayers and my thanks fromwherever I am."
Cora frowned, tossing around this new idea. What David
was sayingmay well have been Greek for all the sense it
made to her. It never occurredto her not to attend Sunday
service. She'd been brought up and reared inthe church.
All of her friends attended. They had social functions,
didthings for the community, helped each other out in
crises. Why just theother week, the sisters got together
and took turns sitting with old MissRiley, who'd been
feeling poorly for months. She didn't know what she'ddo if
she didn't have her church and her church family Besides,
on Sundaymornings, she could do what she loved more than
anything, raise her voicein song.
"Butâ€”it's more than that," she protested, convinced
that she was right."It's about belonging to something that
has meaning, being a part of something."
"That may be, Miss Cora, and I don't fault no one for
going. I don'twant you to get me wrong. I do set foot in
from time to time, just notright regular." He turned
briefly to her, hoping that his revelation hadn'tput her
off, especially with her being the preacher's daughter and
all. Butthe reality was, he wanted to be honest with her.
"If Christians are supposed to love all men, then
what's the differencebetween your church and mine? What
makes one better than the otherâ€”theamount of money you put
in the collection basket, how large thecongregation, what
side of town you worship on?" he asked with
Cora crossed her arms beneath her small breasts. She
listened to whathe said. Secretly she'd wondered the same
things, but she'd never dared tovoice her concerns, ask
"You're a very interesting man, Dr. Mackey," she said,
still unwilling togive in. "You done put something on my
head to ponder."
"That's a start," he said, turning to her with a grin.
It was then she noticed the deep dimple in his right
cheek and knew,that barring everything else, whatever
differences might separate them, shewanted to see more of
him, hear his strange thoughts, and maybe becomeexposed to
a side of life she'd never known existed.
Shortly, they arrived in the center of town and pulled
to a stop in frontof Joe's. David quickly hurried around
and helped Cora from her seat. Sheimmediately felt the
curious gazes from the townspeople as they went abouttheir
Sunday business, the surprised look from friends of her
father andmother as she took David's arm and walked toward
Voice by voice, conversation ceased as heads turned
toward the opendoor. The heat stood like a man between
them, separating them from thebrown, tan, and black
bodies, then was buffeted about by the slow,
swirlingceiling fanâ€”the only one in town.
The interior was dim and it took Cora a moment to
adjust her eyes fromthe glare of the outside.
David glanced down the narrow aisle and cleared his
throat. "There's atable in the back," he said, indicating
the vacancy with a stretch of his arm.
They proceeded through the gauntlet of probing eyes.
Cora's gaze faltered for a moment, then darted briefly
about, a taut smiledrawing her mouth into a thin line.
"Afternoon, Miss Wheeler," Cora, said, remembering her
manners as sherecognized her nosey neighbor from down the
"Cora Harvey," Sarah Wheeler droned, long as the
quitting whistle at thecotton mill. "I didn't know the
good Reverend let you keep comp'ny." Hertiny eyes skipped
across David's face. "Dr. Mackey, ain't you lookin'
finethis bright day."