James Simmer settled his back against an over-plump cushion in a hand-turned wicker chair that was sitting next to its twin.
He’d just returned from a visit to the school teacher’s home—was fully annoyed that their daughter had been absent—but was easing himself through disappointment with the aid of a tall, sweated glass of Jack Daniels whiskey swirled with chipped ice and sweet lemonade (it was his drink of choice). Sitting in a patch of shade outside the front door of Carlton Dades’ place of business, he swished a sprig of mint among the ice chips and fanned at his face with his hat.
Dade, a broad-faced man with strands of white hair carefully plastered across his too large head, sipped at a glass of his own. With one hand, he fanned his head. With the other he repeatedly dragged a handkerchief across lips too mean to hide jagged teeth, browned from years of swimming in tobacco spit. He had to keep wiping at the down-turned lips because sweat and spit kept pooling in the corners.
Simmer watched him sip and fan and wipe his mouth…sip and fan and wipe…
“Need to be careful there Dade,” he smiled and fanned. “Gonna wipe them lips clean off!
He and Dade had met only a few years back. It was a day nearly as hot, when Dade accidentally discovered Cabbage T. He’d stepped off the train a few stops too soon, and after seeing his predicament, realized Cabbage T. was not a place to grab a plate of food and glass of whiskey as he intended. In fact, a Bucktown wasn’t anywhere he wanted to be for any reason. There was nothing to see, as far as he could see, but patches of idle niggers standing or sitting in small groups beneath shady trees all along the main road.
He’d spat at a crew of boys who run too close by him when he stepped down onto the platform. And he remembered snatching his bag from an old porter who’d tried to help him carry it.
Dade was bothered in every way by everything he saw. Bucktowns such as Cabbage T. were springing up all across the fresh face of the newly United States. He hoped to see them all burned to the ground. Far as he was concerned, they were filled with two-legged trash doing nothing more than watching folk get on and off the train.
He saw a sign pointing the way to the Ohio River ferry. Was that it? They were looking to rob somebody passing through? Fuckin’ niggas.
No Christian, God-fearing person would want to pass time anywhere near Cabbage T.—not even to wait on the platform until a clock told one nigger to holler out when the next train was due. And after a bit of thought, Dade decided he would feel much better about things if he told a nigger so. Any nigger would do. He picked one, and it was in that moment that he first caught sight of the white man he came to know as the Reverend James Simmer.
He couldn’t understand it, and intended to find out, why a white man of Simmer’s stature might want to live anywhere near the kind of trash filling his eyes. So, he and Simmer had taken a meal together, the two of them. Plates of food and shots of whiskey were interrupted by conversation and affirmation leading them to a consensus—they each had something to offer the other, and together they could skin the folk of Cabbage Town alive, take all any of them had to give, then get the hell on about their own business. Hands were shaken. Glasses clinked.
Simmer told Dade the two of them could do whatever they wanted to do, whenever they wanted to do it, and with whomever they wanted to do it with.
Cabbage T., he told Dade, belonged to him.
Simmer had come up with the idea of introducing a Savings and Trust Company, run by Dade, to his congregation. In less than a month’s time, one of the thick-walled smoke houses was built out to become an office. Dade ordered a safe from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, cut a hole in the floor, and hid it beneath floorboards and a rug. Simmer suggested the name Cabbage Town Savings & Trust, but Dade said he’d never name a business after anything connected to a nigger-run town. He decided to call it The Freedman’s Savings & Trust Company, figuring the name might be familiar to them. Accounts were opened for anyone in Cabbage T. who wanted one.
It was true, many banks and savings & loans had taken on the Freedman name once the two pieces of the United States sewed themselves back together after the War. It was also true that the Congress of the United States had liquidated nearly every last one of them for being so poorly managed—and robbing so many freed slaves blind.
Dade told Simmer if he used the Freedman name, it would build trust between him and the coons.
“Congress shut those businesses down ‘cause they were treating niggers poorly,” Simmer had said. “Why tie your business to a reputation like that? You ain’t thinkin’ this thing through.”
Dade raised Simmer’s brows when he snapped, “An’ I don’t b’lieve it should be any such a thang as a nigga town in th’ firs’ place! Especially no nigga town wit white folk livin’ in it! Did ya think dat through!” After they were done laughing at his truth Simmer clapped him on the back.
“I ain’t gonna follow no rule no nigga sets up. But I am gonna give ‘em all a special treat when they bring they money.”
In a few weeks’ time, Dade welcomed the delivery of a box full of pocket-sized ledgers. The cover featured a poor drawing of a gaunt Abe Lincoln reaching toward three Colored men of different hues—. Everyone who opened an account received one. Those who didn’t save with the Trust company rushed to opened an account so they too could have an Abe Lincoln ledger to pull out of their pocketbook or pocket. The many who couldn’t read agreed with their minister that Dade should hold their account books for safekeeping.
He opened the doors of the Freedman’s Savings & Trust Monday through Thursday to take in whatever any of them might scrape together, and there was always a line of folk waiting for him. Carlton Dade’s ears would be filled with shared dreams of buying land, building a bigger cabin, or building up credit so they might buy anything else they decided to need—he wished he could tell them there was nothing he cared about less than a nigger’s dreams.
His treat to them all held a secret he only fully shared with James. Each of the ledgers he handed out was inscribed with a beautiful white bloom on the inside back cover, and each time Dade recorded a deposit and shoved the ledger back at an eager hand, the grin across his face was genuine. It was because everyone stepping through his door was carrying the mark of the Knights of the White Camellia.
Ignorant beasts. He’d laugh over his little joke the rest of every day.
He and Simmer had dreams of their own. Simmer’s was to build a stash of money, furniture, and fine clothing, and buy a custom coach drawn by fine horses. He would find himself a well-heeled congregation—of white folk. He’d gather enough real money to live off the rest of his days. The nest egg he had already worked tirelessly to grow was enough to finance his travels from state to state, until he decided on a place to settle where he would eventually finance and build a fine church of his own.
Dade was a simple man.
His dream was to steal as much money from as many of the coons as possible and return to Mississippi a rich man.
He re-filled Simmer’s glass, wiped at his lips, and spat in the direction of Fountain Square. There a throng of folk were standing in the road, shouting and waving their arms. He and Simmer fanned (Dade fanned and sipped and wiped).
“I swear ‘fo God,” he stopped mid-sip, “they ov’ah there lookin’ jist like a flock of damned crows.”
Simmer mused, “Hollerin’ an’ fussin’, carryin’ on. You’d think it was something important.” He shifted his position to get a better look. “It ain’t a fight. Crowd’s not big enough…never can tell, though. They do like to jump off in the heat.”
Dade grabbed up his hat to fan the top of his head, “If it warn’t so damned hot, I might be intr’ested enough to git up.” He took a sip and settled back. “Gits any hotter we gonna have to throw ice water on ‘em.”
Simmer nodded, “I already had two incidents today, and I think you’ll agree, that’s two too many.”
Dade sat down his drink and leaned in to hear the tale. After Simmer finished, he nodded gleefully. “I do enjoy it when one of ‘em needs t’ be taught a lesson.” He grinned, “Come to find out, I make a damned good teacher!” He chuckled and clapped hands on both knees, “Been a good while since we had t’ straighten one of ‘em out.”
“Yes, well…when it’s time,” Simmer sipped, “there can’t be any mistakes. Not like last time…”
“Warn’t my fault,” Dade murmured, “some o’ them boys is loose cannons. They jist need to be controlled, that’s all. Got they blood up an’ went too far. Where they come from anyway? Alabama?”
“Well, I’ll put the call out this time. An’ when they gits here, I’ll talk to ‘em myself.”
Simmer shifted to the edge of his chair. “Who’s that?” He pointed toward the Boulevard. “There, down front o’ Tweet’s.”
Dade craned his neck and settled back. “Jist some whores passin’ through. Fell off th train this morning. Been hangin’ ‘round all day. They runnin’ wit two coons wearin’ Sunday best clothes. Saw ‘em smokin’ cigars, walkin’ ‘round. From what I hear, they lookin’ to head North.” A distant low whistle announced the approach of another train. “Here come s’more…”
Simmer had been leaning and peeking, trying to get a better look. “I think I’ll go chat with ‘em a bit. Make sure they’re heading on out,” he pushed up out of his chair. “Hot as it is, we don’t need any more temptation ‘round here. Right?” He grabbed up his hat and saluted.
Dade touched fingers to his temple and sat back fanning and wiping and watching Simmer step carefully through the dust.