My Hispanic girlfriend laments, “You are so white.” In a black community I do stand out. In 1965 and at eighteen, except for college, I have never been away from home more than a week. Certainly not three thousand miles away. Not for an entire summer. Not living in a segregated black community. Not working in the Civil Rights Movement. Bold, surviving on adrenaline, I’m also a kid – lonely and afraid.
And exhausted and scorched by the merciless sun as I plod down a sandy road that winds through miles of cotton fields, over a branch (stream) and around stands of pine trees. At each cabin I stop to talk with the people inside if they aren’t in the fields. If they are, I walk out to find them. I must tell them that they can register to vote, although most of them just say no. It’s too dangerous an endeavor.
On the right I see a small white house set up on concrete blocks, not a cabin. Surrounded by trees and flowers it looks cool and inviting. I brush the dust from my dress and try to arrange my hair as I approach the front steps. A slender Negro woman in a red house dress sits on the porch with her fan battling the heat.
“Come in, come in,” she welcomes. “Can Aah get you a glass of cold water?”
“Cold!” I almost stutter. “Yes, ma’am.”
She stands and pats the chair next to her encouraging me to sit, “Aah’ll be righ’ back. You jus’ res’ yourself.”
I know her name because it’s on the list I’m following. She’s Sarah Butler. I expect her to save me from the heat but, at this time, I have no idea she will change my life.
“You’re one of those civil rights workers, aren’t you?” she says as she hands me a chilled glass. “I’ve been wonderin’ when y’all was goin’ to get back to this section.”
“I’ve seen a lot of Pineville,” I offer. “Thank you for the water. I’m not used to the humidity here.”
“Where you from, girl?”
“California. It’s much drier there.”
“The humidity can make the heat bad. That’s why Aah carry my fan. Guess you want to know if Aahs registered. Aah am. But my husband isn’t and Aah want you to get him to.”
“Can he read and write?”
“Lord, no. Aah try to teach him. He won’t let my growed chilren teach him either.”
“I’ll come back when he’s home.” (I didn’t get any farther than Mrs. Butler or their children. Mr. Butler saw nothing useful about voting.)
I come back to the white house as often as I can for conversation, cool water and Mrs. Butler’s mothering. This is my oasis away from the tension of the Freedom House or the nagging responsibility to get people to vote. Here we share family stories, I meet her children, and I learn to make a sweet potato pie on a wood stove (no small task). We compare our lives and in the process she becomes my home away from home
This is my father Ralph Holbrook. He and my mother Lois heard so much about Sarah Butler, they visited her in 1968.