CRISIS AT THE ALL-WHITE LAUNDROMAT [RESCUING BETTE ANNE POOLE FROM THE SEGS] HUNTER GRAY JUNE 24, 2003 UPDATED 6/21/08
A wonderful story from the old Deep South. It was and is a very strange place, though my encounters
New Note by Hunter Bear: 6/21/08
Note by Hunter Bear:
I'm never surprised anymore at how quickly and easily and comfortably I can
slip into the old down home Mississippi story swapping mode -- as I did this
morning in phone talking extensively with a veteran media person in Jackson,
originally from Leake County. Since that rural setting was the home base of
Governor Ross R. Barnett of the Bad Old Days -- as well as being part of the
general Leake/Neshoba region from which my half Choctaw grandson, Tom, draws
that side of his family -- we spent a good while chewing over some Magnolia
hill country gossip, as well as Capitol stuff from Jackson itself. This went
on and on -- always one more story for one of us to tell. "You really are a
Mississippi boy at heart," said my man -- and I certainly do take that as a
He wondered about getting an inscribed copy of my book, Jackson Mississippi.
"Certainly," I promised, and then we quickly resumed our story telling.
It's still a strange and wondrous place -- Mississippi, and the Deep South
generally. It was even stranger forty years ago.
Now here's a story for you:
The afternoon was late winter muggy and my Tougaloo College class,
all-Black, was World Civilization. We'd gotten to the point where, as we
had earlier with the pharaohs, I was comparing the similarities of some of
the less impressive rulers of Rome with their latter day counterparts in
The class always liked this approach. Especially when we focused, as we so
often did, on Governor Ross R. Barnett.
There were several knocks on the classroom door. It was 1963 and Anything
Could Happen. The young man -- a student -- who stood there looked really
scared. "Bette Anne Poole," he said, "She just called the switchboard for
you. She's at that big new white laundromat over on the southwest side of
Jackson. She could only talk for a minute and she had to whisper."
"Holy God," I said, "Not THAT white laundromat."
The kid gulped. "That's the one. She went there pretending to do white
folk's laundry. She thinks they're beginning to figure her out."
He looked at me anxiously.
"She wonders if you could come fast and get her out of it," he finished.
I ended that class pronto, promising them a full report. They weren't at
all surprised. Anything could and did happen in those days. I could be in
jail at any point -- and had been.
Dressed casually, I knew what I had to do. Our home [which had no telephone
at that time] was on campus, close by -- Pope Cottage. Rushing over there,
I yelled for Eldri, and gave her a quick report as I undressed. "My suit,"
I told her, "I'll have to wear that." [My mother, finally realizing I'd
never buy one, had gotten me a nice expensive gray flannel suit. I wore it
to Black churches when I frequently spoke there and to my Mississippi court
As I pulled it on over a white shirt, I yelled again, "The vest. I've got
to have the Goddamned vest."
As Eldri tossed that to me, she also moved in with a conservative, very dark
tie -- deftly installing that importantly symbolic concession to gentility.
I thought a moment -- always at my very best in a Real Crisis. "The
Stetson," I said, "the white one. Get me that."
My old brown cowboy Stetson, purchased at Babbitt's Hardware at my home town
of Flagstaff, Arizona for twenty bucks right after I came home from the Army
in early '55, would never do here. That one -- which I still have and
use -- is great for hunting, trapping, forest fire fighting, union picket
lines and jail -- but this particular special challenge was definitely not
The white Stetson was widebrimmed, but a more genteel dress style. I pulled
it on, noting in the mirror that it always gave me the appearance of a few
All the props now nicely in place, I kissed Eldri and patted Baby Maria --
and cut out for Jackson in my little blue Rambler. In those days, Tougaloo
was several miles north of Jackson -- and the White Laundromat, and a
possible O.K. Corral shootout, hopefully only figuratively -- was well over
on the other side of the Capitol City.
Only if you were there in the Deep South, the Real South, in those strange
and moody and very dangerous years before The Change, could you understand
the absolute irrationality of race and racism -- much of which, of course,
still persists in Dixie and the Nation, however subtly.
In Jackson in those days, Black janitors who worked nights brought us all
sorts of interesting documents from the national offices of the Citizens'
Councils of America [White Citizens' Councils] in Jackson's Plaza
Building -- while Black maids always brought us interesting news from the
homes of the white power structure folks. [In the Klan-infested Eastern
North Carolina Blackbelt, Black laundry workers always gave us the
ostensibly secret names of United Klans of America members whose splendid
robes were regularly brought in for dry cleaning.]
A Black maid could handle white babies and cook white food and clean the
white homes -- but couldn't eat with the white family, nor attend a white
movie with them, nor go into a white restaurant.
A Black maid could go to a white laundromat -- but only, only if the white
housewife or some other member of her white employer family accompanied her.
And Bette Anne Poole -- a sturdy, perennially good humored person and one of
our great student Movement stalwarts, recently arrested with Eldri and
myself and three other Tougaloo students for picketing on downtown Capitol
Street at the formal launch of our effective Jackson Boycott [ which was to
soon grow into the massively direct actionist Jackson Movement] -- certainly
didn't have any white Mississippi housewife as umbrella cover.
I knew exactly what had happened. Ever since that big white laundromat had
opened with much, much publicity -- the Super Palace of Laundromats --
Bette had dreamed of going there and doing her laundry. Oh sure, we told
her not to. Told her that several times.
"We're into bigger things now," I had said. "Don't even mess with that."
My words were echoed by a host of Bette's fellow Tougaloo students.
But I should have known. There was something in her eye that looked far off
and far away. I could get that look myself when I moved against advice,
good and sensible, and plunged ahead into the frontiers and far beyond.
But this really was serious. As I drove along, much faster than usual and
eyes open for cops, I speculated that she must have felt she could get in
and get out fast -- sort of mumbling, if necessary, that her Boss Lady would
be along anytime now. But Bette's laundry were only the things of a very
young woman. No man's clothing. Nothing from children.
Bette had no car. And she took the bus.
Some of those hawkeyed, paranoid segs could spot something racially amiss
with only half an eye in the dead of night with no moon.
And this was afternoon, in a well lighted laundromat -- The Big New White
And then I was finally there. Nice shiny brick building. I rolled into the
parking lot -- fairly full. No signs of disorder nor of police having been
called. Not yet anyway.
I strode boldly and purposefully toward the big doors. Linguistic
studies -- American regional speech patterns -- indicate that my "dialect"
[at least as far as English-speaking] is that of the "Southern Highlands,"
with roots in the Appalachians and in part of Eastern Kansas and the Ozarks
of Missouri and Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma. And from there it all spread
across the rest of Oklahoma into parts of Texas and most of New Mexico, and
finally into my native Arizona where it still holds forth very nicely in the
smaller towns and rural areas.
My Southern Highlands accent was sure as hell needed here. In the White
Laundromat. It wasn't Heavy Mississippi, not by a long shot, but it was all
I'd lay it on thick. And maybe I could pull it off.
I pulled my white Stetson low -- real low -- and walked inside.
And sure enough, backed into a far corner was Bette. And the kid who'd come
to the classroom was right -- she was purely scared.
Her head was down. She was mumbling incomprehensibly in a kind of contrived
defensive speech pattern. Her laundry, obviously finished, was in a bag on
Scared as hell. And for good reason. Although some people in the laundry
were just doing their own washing and drying thing, some others were not.
Facing her -- from only a few feet away, hemming her in -- were at least a
dozen older and middle aged whites, mostly women but some men. Some were
standing, some sitting. Their general mien was obviously super suspicious.
They might not go after her physically -- but who knows?
They were surely very capable of calling the all-white Jackson police. And
what would that mean? Breach of the Peace and Trespassing -- at least.
Total of a thousand dollars bond -- just to start with.
I had no idea how much of her laundry they'd seen. But -- dump the defense,
take the offense. Geronimo and a million other generals were always right
Shifting my Southern Highlands down into low gear, and crossing my fingers,
I went right toward Them. "Bette!" I said. Her face lifted. Never, never
have I seen such an expression of glorious relief. "Finally got heah," I
went on rapidly. "Martha took sick real fast and has gone to Doctah Clark.
[There's always a Dr. Clark somewhere in any Southern town.] Kids'll be home
right soon. And Ah got to get back to the office."
An old white man, standing, looked at me. "She's youahs?" he asked.
"Yassuh, yassuh," said I. "Nevah had a better maid." Later, looking back on
it, I marveled that -- in the full spirit of the setting and charade -- I
hadn't said, "a better slave."
"Don't try to steal her away from us," I grinned at him. He looked coldly
at me. Cold, pale blue eyes.
Then an old white lady smiled. "Why Ah sure hope," she said, "that youah
wife gets bettah."
"Why thank you, maam," said I. And to Betty, my eyes said, " Hat time!"
Head down, holding her laundry bag, she shuffled dutifully toward me.
Never saw better play acting -- and under very heavy pressure.
"You all take care," I said to the several watching people -- who said
nothing back -- and with Bette shuffling behind me, we were quickly out on
the parking lot. I knew They were watching us -- and there was one more
card of racist protocol which we had to play. I opened the door of the
Rambler, pulled the front seat ahead, and Bette got in the back.
Maids never rode in the front seat with the Boss Man. Always in back.
And, as I wheeled around, there They were indeed -- some of them, anyway --
their faces at the window of The All-White Laundromat.
And so we made our getaway. I told Bette she got an A for courage -- and
acting. She said, smilingly, that I seemed to get along very well indeed --
surprisingly so -- in my assumed role of Boss Man. Anyway, in time, the
massive Jackson Movement rose up all around us, in all of its sanguinary
glory. And later, we went on with our Movement work in various other
settings -- Bette with CORE, me with SCEF. And, still later in 1969, when I
was assembling a large, first-rate, interracial grassroots organizing staff
in my capacity as the Southside Director for the Chicago Commons
Association, I heard that Bette was in Chicago. I finally found her and she
worked with us in a very key and critical administrative capacity for the
several years of high turbulence that I was there.
Even long before Chicago, we'd gotten a nice new Maytag washer and dryer.
Never have felt comfortable in any laundromats since that afternoon at
And I don't think I'm a Boss Man. But, as I say, Mississippi is a strange
place. Always has been, always will be.
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear] Micmac / St Francis Abenaki / St Regis Mohawk
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´
with [Toltec] Tezcatlipoca
In our Gray Hole, the ghosts often dance in the junipers and sage, on the
game trails, in the tributary canyons with the thick red maples, and on the
high windy ridges -- and they dance from within the very essence of our own
inner being. They do this especially when the bright night moon shines down
on the clean white snow that covers the valley and its surroundings. Then
it is as bright as day -- but in an always soft and mysterious and
remembering way. [Hunterbear