A divine visitation came to our house
In a dream, God sent Bessie a business gift,
a radical formula for straightening hair.
Rinsing the long black mop in grease,
you run a hot iron through it,
to the sweet reek of blue smoke!
“Brother, she asked, “lend me eleven dollars.
Then I can go into business.”
In 1932, that was more than a cook’s wages for two weeks.
Three times what his father gave him a week
for the savings bank against college.
Where to find it?
But he finagled, somehow,
and gave the dollars to her by the kitchen door.
Later she unveiled an epiphany.
Row on row
of grey‑black cans of petroleum grease, like a factory–
like Henry Ford’s flivvers
stuttering through the factory door.
She was born in Demopolis, once a failed vine and olive colony.
At Renault House
she wrung chicken necks on the back porch.
Her Papa’d gone blind
staring in the fierce bagasse fire,
boiling molasses down out of sugar cane.
She never went to school.
Children she nursed taught her to write a little,
mumble through the bible verse by verse,
and the man of six foot four she married,
used to get drunk and beat her,
giving her two kids. Her favorite songs
were “Precious Love”, and
“The Waltz You Saved for Me.”
Lay any guilt? To her, life don’t argue.
And for the eleven dollars– bless him,
that little boy did the best he knew.
She was right. Life is what it is,
and we can only climb the barricades it rears,
against all thoughtless, ill-regarded, acts of love.
© 2021 by Andrew Glaze, from his unpublished book Sideways Tales.
In 2010, my father e-mailed his friend Irene Latham to compliment a book she was writing for young readers. Leaving Gees Bend is about a young girl in an Alabama town known for Black women who are skilled quilt makers.
The whole heartedness with which you tackle a sad, and practically helpless society and people, breaks my heart. I can’t read more than a few pages at a time because I start crying. I know these people, because I grew up with them. I can’t help thinking of my friend and our maid, Bessie, and the time she asked me to lend her $11 to start a business (hair grease). I took money out of my college savings to help her—thank God.
Bessie worked for my father’s family for many years, both as a maid, and as a nanny to him and his siblings. At the time she had her dream, my father was eleven or twelve and she’d been with the family since he was three.
Her birth-town of Demopolis was founded by French exiles from Napoleons empire and is one of the oldest continuous settlements in the US. It’s likely that her ancestors were slaves to those residents. Her daughter’s name was “Belle”, with the French spelling that translates to “Beautiful”. According to my mother she also had a son.
Her 6’4” husband lost his life at a relatively young age when someone broke into the Dry Cleaners where he worked as a night watchman, and shot him. My grandparents attended the funeral with all three kids in tow.
Like all Black members of her generation in Alabama and the South, Bessie had to follow extremely specific, mostly unwritten, racial guidelines. And yet, she was more fortunate than most. My grandparents were modern thinkers at the edge of Civil Rights awareness and they treated her well. Derogatory names for African Americans were banned from their household. “Colored people” was the socially acceptable term used by both Blacks and Whites in those days..
Bessie took the public bus to and from their house each day, which required walking up and then back down a hill. At times they drove her or picked her up from her home just outside the center of town (my uncle describes it as a “shack”). Truth is, the majority of “colored people” lived in very small rectangular cabin shacks in neighborhoods they were relegated to. Segregation laws kept it that way. Only occasionally did she stay overnight in a room above the detached garage that was designed for the hired help, but mainly used by my grandfather to store his fishing equipment.
My uncle says she was a natural, self-taught musician. It began when she would try to pick tunes out by ear on my grandparents’ baby grand piano. She enjoyed it so much that my grandmother supplemented the cost of a secondhand upright piano of her own. It sat in her “shack”, where she taught herself to play, and was her most cherished possession.
However, Bessie’s major advantage turned out to be my M.D. grandfather’s medical connections. At a time when Birmingham was becoming a major medical center in the South, she was diagnosed with Pernicious Anemia; normally considered a fatal disease. So, my grandfather took her to see Dr. Thomas Spies. He was the Director of the Hillman Hospital Nutritional Clinic and soon to become the USA’s foremost expert in nutritional diseases. Bessie became part of a major study that involved treatment using an unappetizing substance made from liver. The medication was expensive, but my grandparents footed the bill and Bessie recovered. Spies went on to publish his study and the report mentions a female participant identified as “B.B”. He went on to find nutritional cures for Pellagra and Tropical Sprue and by 1938 he was Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year, in comprehensive science”. According to my uncle, when she had other health issues and needed a mastectomy later in life, Spies’ Clinic took care of her. Nowadays, Pernicious Anemia is easily treated with Vitamin B12. Capsules or coated tablets disguise the taste.
A different perspective of Bessie’s life comes from a memoir my late mother wrote. It describes what was an everyday occurrence for Blacks in the South.
“In 1949, I was 18 years old and full of youthful idealism about race relations. Yet, somehow segregation was far from my mind when I invited Bessie, a longtime servant in my future husband’s family, to the wedding. Racism in the context of religion had never truly penetrated my mind. Yet at the same time, I knew very well that Blacks and Whites had separate Methodist churches.
I was waiting in the vestibule for the traditional music cue when Bessie arrived. The groom’s brother, who was one of the ushers, came to me with Bessie on his arm and said, “Where do you want Bessie to sit?” “In the pew with your family,” said I. The only thought in my mind was that Bessie would be the most comfortable with them, and that she was, in a sense, family.
Bobby, my future brother-in-law, escorted Bessie through the doors and on up the aisle. After a couple of minutes, back again they came through those doors, Bessie still holding Bobby’s arm and closely followed by an unfamiliar man of middle age. Bobby said, “This man says that he’s a church official, and he wants to talk to you.” The church official informed me very courteously that it was against church policy for Bessie to sit in the main auditorium. She would have to sit with the black church employees in the corner of the balcony.
I was amazed. I knew that my world was racist, but I never thought my church would be this petty, to embarrass a gentle, elderly woman like Bessie on what, I thought, was a personal occasion. I said to the church official, “Bessie has been working for my fiancé’s family since he was a little child. She should be with the family.” He politely disagreed. A tornado of righteousness rose up in me. I was an 18-year-old struck with shock that my religion wasn’t what I had thought it was, and I was going to set it straight.
“You know that my family has been going to church here since I was six years old. My brothers and I went to Sunday School all those years. My mother taught Sunday School here. My grandmother goes to church here; my uncles and aunts went to church here. We went to Vacation Bible School and revival meetings and everything”.
He said very quietly, “Yes, I know that.”
I said, “Well, what about ‘Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight’, that we used to sing in Sunday School? What about ‘The Brotherhood of Man?’ This doesn’t seem like Christianity to me.”
Quietly, he said, “There are several of us Church Stewards here. Would you like to speak with the others?” He gestured toward the auditorium. “Yes, I would,” I said, and started toward the auditorium door.
Bessie touched my arm. “Please, Miss Dorothy, I don’t want no trouble. I’ll just sit in the balcony.” As she walked toward the balcony stairs, I said to her, “I’m so sorry, Bessie. I never dreamed this would happen”. And that was that. We all went to our appointed places and proceeded with the wedding.
A few years later, in 1958, Bobby got married in New York City and Bessie came from Birmingham to attend his wedding with the respect she deserved.”
—Dorothy Elliott (Glaze) Shari
It’s notable that my mother never returned to her childhood church again, and completely rejected all organized religion from that day on.
By the 1950’s, my aging grandmother was widowed and living in a condo apartment. Bessie or her daughter still came once a week to polish the silver, dust, and vacuum. My father stayed in touch with Bessie for the rest of her life, and although she could not write back, her daughter was able to. When I was a child, and we still lived in Birmingham, I remember driving to her home to drop off Christmas gifts. After we moved to New York City in 1957, we sent a Christmas card with cash tucked inside.
Sadly, one day a phone call notified us that Bessie had died. However, it wasn’t from natural causes. It turned out that as she grew older, she began to develop cataracts. Eventually she tried to cross a street and was hit by a car. The consensus was that she hadn’t seen it coming.
Nonetheless, she still lives her simple life within my father’s poem, and in our memories, and now you know her story as well. Sometimes a legacy is measured in the love you leave behind when you’re gone. Sometimes it’s by swallowing a truly awful tasting liver compound to help find a cure for a fatal disease. And on rare occasions, if our stars are aligned correctly, even if we don’t realize it at the time, some of us are able to do both.
Although there may be other photos of Bessie, this is the only one in my possession. The baby in the wicker carriage is my aunt Martha, the toddler in the foreground is my father Andrew, and Bessie is the “Hidden Figure” in the upper right corner.
Photo property of the Andrew Glaze estate.