Thirty years ago this month the city of Los Angeles went up in flames after a jury acquitted three police officers of criminal charges for the beating of Rodney King one year before.
When I watched that brutal police assault on television with my mother, she told me about a brutal attack her father had endured at the hands of police in Rockingham in 1953. Born 110 years ago on April 15, 1912, my maternal grandfather died in 1962. Happy birthday Gran’Daddy Willie Horne.
Time will tell a story.
The Leak Street Colored School in Rockingham, North Carolina opened in 1924, and Black families began migrating into town from nearby sharecropping fields to give their children the opportunity for an education they never had.
They came from places like Wolf Pit, Steele’s Township, Piney Grove, Beaver Dam, Galestown, and Tabernacle, along with Roberdel. That’s where my momma’s parents lived in a wood-frame house, while sharecropping on land owned by a man named Clyde Marie.
My Gran’daddy Willie Horne found other means of getting paid besides tenant farming.
Say my gran’daddy built himself a liquor still, opened up a liquor house, and in between selling moonshine and running card games, he was about as free as a poor colored man could be in the 1940s South.
Still, my Gran’daddy Willie Horne and his little family moved into town, where his children could go to school and he could help his brother, Tom Horne, whose life was in the gutter and headed straight to hell in a whiskey bottle.
My gran’daddy got his family settled into a white wood-frame house with black shutters at 709 Armistead Street. A pecan tree with a massive trunk that squatted like a cheerful wrestler stood guard in the front yard.
My Gran’daddy Willie Horne opened up another card house. This one sat atop of a red-dirt hill just above his house.
It wasn’t nothing but a shack, that card house: a bucket of blood really, a place where Black men could gamble and drink away the skin of their coins, because the meat was used to keep babies fed and a roof over their heads.
The police busted in on the men one day and rounded ‘em all up.
My Gran’daddy Willie Horne hauled ass.
I imagine he ran like a runaway slave, kicking it on an ill-fated North Star night.
The police caught him underneath that pecan tree that stood in his front yard. Then they pulled out their billy clubs and beat the audacity out of him for trying to escape.
They beat him down right there in front of his wife and children, including his 12-year-old daughter, who would become my mother.
Years later, during the early spring of 1991, whenever the Rodney King beating came on TV, my momma’s eyes would explode with memory.
She say, “Tommy, boy, the police beat your gran’daddy so bad, they made Rodney King look like a picnic.”
My momma would repeat that over and over while staring at the TV as the LA police billy clubs rained down cold-hot metal all over Rodney King’s body.
A church litany. A near-forgotten prayer. A Kodak moment. A revelation of lost faith, while remembering the softness of her father’s head.
“Boy, they beat your gran’daddy so bad, they made Rodney King look like a picnic.”
She say my gran’daddy Willie Horne wasn’t the same after that beating.
He couldn’t hold down a steady job.
My momma say, one day my Gran’daddy Willie Horne looked at her and my Aunt Peggy, and told them, “Y’all ain’t my children.”
“Yes we is, Daddy,” they cried. “Yes we is your children.”
“No you ain’t,” he answered. “Cause if you were mine, I’d be able to feed you.”
There was never any official acknowledgment from the town of what happened to my grandfather. Last year, my child AJ found his death certificate. On May 12, 1962 he literally died of a broken heart—a myocardial infarction—a heart attack at his home on Armistead Street. He was 50. His occupation was listed as “janitor.” The medical examiner determined that his heart failed him because he had been diagnosed with heart disease 12 years before, right around the time the police beat him like a dog.
The pathologist also listed his being “epileptic” as a contributing factor. I guess that’s about as close to an acknowledgement of police misconduct that a poor Black man could expect from the 1960s South. There certainly wasn’t an official investigation, or indignant town officials decrying excessive police violence. Black lives hardly mattered. My mother’s siblings don’t even have a picture of the man I’ve been told all my life by those who knew him that I resemble.
Soon after my mother told me that story about my gran’daddy, I walked up the now asphalt-paved hill where his card house once sat. That hallowed patch of ground is now the home of the Church of God in Christ. As a kid I was afraid to race down the hill on my Big Wheel to my grandmother’s house. I never knew my gran’daddy once ran down that hill from the wickedness that defined his time on Earth.
I knelt down and kissed that bitter earth.
I figured it was still damp, you know.
Wet, with the blood-stained memory of my grandfather.
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