— By Bruce King
Arthur Chester King, born October 9, 1888 in Abbeville, South Carolina, known as the “Birthplace and the Deathbed of the Confederacy”. Arthur was born an only child just 23½ years after the Civil War and just 16 years after the death of Reconstruction; that seven-year period intended to reunify the southern states and to “reconstruct” the lives of the millions emerging from hundreds of years of the worse form of slavery in the history of man and those others suffering from the ravages of war.
Arthur never knew his parents, whether or not they were born slave or free. He was raised by the “village” and one relative, Sarah Collier, fondly remembered and addressed simply as “Aunt Sarah”, along with others loving and kind enough to accommodate an orphaned child. He never spoke of his parents. To me, it is unimaginable, the horrors and hardships in a place where “Jim Crow” reigned king as the law and rule of the day and which was strictly enforced.
Like all around him, Arthur had to work to eat. He grew up in the country, raising chickens, hogs, cows, horses and mules. They grew greens; collards, mustards and turnips, also peanuts, beans, squash, black-eyed peas, okra, corn and tomatoes. They had access to pecans, peaches, pears and apples along with an assortment of berries, cantaloupe, watermelon and musk melon. They made use of wild plants like dandelion greens, Chickweed, Bitterroot, Purslane, Wintercress and other medicinal plants found in the nearby woods.
My grandfather was a very quiet and soft spoken man. I never heard him raise his voice. Beneath what appeared to be his gentleness was a very powerful and controlled man. His eyes were an odd color brown with grey as the outer ring of his iris. His skin was the color of sand. To me, he spoke very, very few words. Our paths seemed only to cross with great reluctance on both of our parts, for him, because he had no clue about children and babies and for me, I preferred the comforting bosom of Grandma King.
I would see him at the head of the holiday dinner table, from the little table in the corner with my older brother Roy Jr and my cousin Ronnie, carving the turkey, the suckling pig, the standing rib roast and the traditional ham with pineapple slices. I would hear his soft spoken words and glean from the faces of my father, mother, aunts and uncles their reactions to the subtle complexities of his deadpan humor and signifying words. That was the extent of his fun, outside of his television. He read the newspaper on a daily basis.
His self-control was amazing as I recall him in my memory. His smile was slight and his eyes let you know that he missed very little. He was a short, slightly built man. He had very broad shoulders, long powerful arms and very, very large, smooth and well maintained hands.
Under Jim Crow laws. . .there was no eye contact allowed. . .
His movement was visibly controlled and very deliberate, but smooth, giving one the misconception that he did little. His motto was, “Measure twice and cut once.” These words exemplified his thoughtfulness and guided him as a master carpenter, a craft he brought with him from the South. He was taught his trade as a young man while in Abbeville, by “General” Fuller, the patriarch of the Fuller family, whose many members also migrated to Evanston. Thrift was fundamental among all of his generation, coming from a situation and a society that offered very little and gave nothing outside of fear, condescension and pain. This frugality would be later exacerbated by the Great Depression, WWII and the continuation of Jim Crow in the North.
Under Jim Crow laws, as they applied to Blacks, there was no eye contact allowed, never a “yeah”, or “no”, or simply “yes”, ONLY “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am” and you always yielded the right of way to whites in passing. IF you were allowed in a store to do business, you had to wait until all the whites were served before being allowed to step up to the counter to be served.
As a Black boy, you were not held to the strictest and more stringent rules as Black men were, as long as you wore knickers. Do not think this easing of the rules allowed any room for disregarding the superiority whites forced upon my elders, even in their youth. Once a boy stepped out in long pants, all of Jim Crow’s most heinous rules were immediately in Full Effect!
In the fall of 1910, “Lil” Arthur took the irreversible step into manhood. He donned long pants and went into town. Once there, on the sidewalk (sidewalks then were wooden and most times about four feet above the muddy, feces strewn streets) he was approached by some young whites who knew him. He continued forward, not yielding the right of way by jumping into the street below. The angered whites said, “Lil Arthur, we know where you live boy and we’ll be by to see you to straighten this matter out later tonight.” He understood clearly what was meant and knew he had to act quickly.
My grandfather was a Mason and was able, with the help of the brothers, to be secreted out of town to Atlanta in a coffin, there he boarded a train to Chicago. Upon his arrival, he made his way to Evanston, reconnecting with his Aunt Sarah. He found lodging in a rooming house that was next to the gas station on the corner of Greenbay Road and McCormick Boulevard.
He was a very conservative man with very strong family values. His views were of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, along the lines of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League ideology espoused by Marcus Garvey. He was a teetotaler and determined to change the conditions of his life for the better. He worked hard at odd jobs, saving money to buy the tools of his trade and to buy transportation. Six years later he built his first house with scavenged materials, largely from Northwestern University which was expanding and moving in old buildings and building new buildings, which my grandfather and others from the newly forming Black Evanston community were able to work on. In that same year, he married my grandmother. He was the father of nine: Arthur Jr., Mildred, Richard, Elizabeth, John, Roy, Harriet, George and Nancy. He was a devout man who regularly attended the new home of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, located at the 1109 Emerson Street address since 1909.
Being a strict disciplinarian, he raised his children with a strong hand and deep Christian values and a very strong work ethic. Independence, self-respect and self-sufficiency was preached constantly. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that his children were normal in every way, both good and bad, industrious and indolent, comical and morose. For the most part, out of both fear and respect for their father and mother, their straying and street clowning rarely got home, but when it did, Arthur was more than able and ready to address it, whatever it might have been and the stories abound that he did. They were all required to be capable and versatile in the maintaining of the house and garden.
I am eternally grateful for my grandfather relating his story to me in the fall of 1966, weeks before he passed. I am deeply saddened that all I have are very meager photos which only entice my memory and makes my chest tight with the dread that I missed my mark. . .my life’s accomplishments compared to his. . .and he had so few options.