Baptized in Spring Creek

I don’t remember the guest preacher’s name or the messages he delivered, but I’ll never forget the three-night revival he led at my Uncle Walter’s church.

New Mardrid Mississippi River baptism 09-03-1967          My grandfather’s brother, the Rev. Walter White, was pastor of Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, which was down the street from my grandmother’s house. Because the church could be seen from the house and Uncle Walter always stopped by the house on his way to the church, my brothers and I rarely missed church on first and third Sundays. Uncle Walter pastored a church in Cross City on the second and fourth Sunday, so we were only required to attend at Sunday School and church service at Mt. Nebo on the first and third Sundays, Mt. Nebo’s once-a-month Sunday evening service, holiday services, and revivals.

            My brothers, cousins, and I weren’t looking forward to attending three nights of church service during the middle of the week. But, we had no choice.

            So, we moped down the street that first night.

            We sat twiddling our thumbs through the first part of the service, and we moaned and sighed when the service seemed to linger into the night.

            Then, my uncle introduced the preacher who was delivering the message for the night, and from his first word to his last, we clapped and shouted hallelujah like we’d never done.

            When we walked out the church that first night, we began counting down the hours until the next night’s service.

            Our grandmother didn’t have to tell us to get up and get dressed the next night, and by the time Uncle Walter came by to remind us, we were walking out the house heading to church.

            The second night’s service was just as spirited as the first.

            The third night, we were so moved by the preacher’s message that when asked who was ready to live for God, my brothers, cousins, and I all answered by joining the church.

            My uncle, who had been prodding us to join the church for a few years, was more than a little surprised. Our grandmother and my mother were even more surprised.

            The baptism date was set for the first Sunday of August, a little over a month later.

            During the next few weeks, my grandmother and aunts bought a bunch of white bed sheets then cut and sewed them into ten baptism robes.

            As the big day neared, the spirited joy I felt during the revival turned to fear of the unknown.

            My grandmother tried to calm my fears by giving me a new book of Bible stories and telling me, God loves you, but that did little to calm my fear of what creatures existed beneath the surface of Spring Creek at Folsom Park.

             When the first Sunday morning in August arrived, I stood in the middle of the line of about 16 children. I watched as Uncle Walter and one of the church deacons dipped each of the children in the water then said a blessing over them.

            Because none of the children in front of me came out of the water talking about the creature from the Black Lagoon, my fear disappeared when it came time for me to I step in the water. When I stepped out of the water into my mother’s arms, the spirit I felt during that three-night revival was all over me.

Every now and then, I wish I could step back inside Mt. Nebo M.B. Church, hear the message delivered from the preacher whose name I don’t remember, take a dip in the water at Folsom Park, then step into my mother’s arms and feel that feeling again.

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Three Facts All First-Graders Needed to Know in 1970

facts are facts photoFacts Are Still Facts

One plus one always equals two.

A precedes B.

And, people are the same regardless of their skin color.

My mother armed me with these three facts all first graders should know then stuffed a slip of paper with our phone number on it in my pocket before sending me off to my first day of school at Perry Primary. I was five going on six, but even then, I doubted whether all my mom’s so-called facts were indeed proven truths or just aspirations she wanted me to believe.

The year was 1970, and although my mother tried not to show it, she was more than a little nervous about sending her firstborn to the “white” school. She had grown up during the “separate but equal” era and received her elementary and high school education at the “black” school, Jerkins School. So, on one hand she was ecstatic about the opportunities that a real “equal” education presented for me, but on the other, she was terrified about sending me to a place where she had not been welcomed.

At the time, I didn’t understand why she doled out the first two facts: One plus one always equals two, and A precedes B.  My kindergarten teacher had already taught me the 26 letters of the alphabet and how to combine them to make simple words. And I had learned to count and add up to 25 cents by buying penny cookies and freeze cups.

What I didn’t know then, was the first two facts were simply her effort to disguise the other fact as something a first-grader needed to know. And her apprehension was because she believed facts only applied in a perfect world. And for parents like my mother, the first week of school in Taylor County and in many other towns and cities that year was anything but perfect.

Even though I was going to first grade, my mother was afraid there might be riots at the school. Shoving over the see-saw. Rumbles in the sandbox. Spitball fights. For sure. But riots? It seems ludicrous now to think that a race riot would break out at a primary school, but try telling that to the parents of kindergarteners and first-graders back then.

My mother spent weeks preparing me for the transition from an all-Black school to an integrated one by reiterating the three facts all first graders should know, and in the process her anxiety rubbed off on me.

When my bus pulled into Perry Primary on the first day of school, I was the last child off. At the end of the school day, I was the first one back on the bus, but it wasn’t because my mother’s fears had come to pass.

My mother was waiting on pins and needles at the bus stop.

“How was your first day?” she nervously asked as soon as I stepped off the bus.

She was a little surprised when I told her, “I had fun.”

As we walked to the house, she asked what I had learned at school and I replied, “White children are nice too.”

My mother never did let me forget what I told her I learned on that first day of school. And I never let myself forget the real lesson of that day.

It wasn’t, one plus one always equals two.

A precedes B.

Or, people are the same regardless of their skin color.

It was realizing that facts are still facts even in an imperfect world.