OPINION — Memories of going around the Maypole

Published 10:12 am Thursday, May 6, 2021

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In the Black community where I grew up, in the small rural town called Saxe in Charlotte County, there were tobacco farmers, pulpwood and sawmill workers, preachers, and three Black grocery store owners.

The wives and other women either worked cleaning and cooking for the white people or harvesting of tobacco for them. A great majority of the women were, when I lived there, from 1950-1979, were called ”housewives.” In spring, work life was all about cleaning, planting tobacco, vegetable, and flowers gardens. Springtime awakened all the residents, both young and old of the community, and its intoxicating energy gifted them joy and blissful living.

Spring was artistically orchestrated by Mother Earth, with her yellow and white daffodils budding, then blossoming, with the pink or white flowers of the dogwood and the purple morning glories on the field. I mostly enjoyed the smell of the dirt whether red or brown being plowed by my Uncle Thee, Mr. Haskins or our close neighbors Mr. Brooks and Mr. Booker. You could hear them make a funny sound with their teeth or using the black leather straps of the bridle to control the movement of mules. The plough had a wooden, iron or steel frame, with a blade attached to cut and loosen the soil. It was traditionally drawn by oxen and horses, but in our community, it was mules. My father owned two white mules, but some of the white farms plowed with their tractors.

With the earth freshly turned, I could finally take off my shoes and run, walk, skip, and jump bare-footed though the warm earth. And I could be my joyful, happy playful child without a care in the world. Never mind the presence of all the Jim Crow signs and separate but unequal school that I attended. There was one activity coming that filled my inner child with jubilation. Excitement blossomed until sheer joy permeated my body and inner sphere for it was time to wrap the Maypole.

East of Saxe was Randolph where Mr. Edward and Mrs. Nana Morton lived on a 55-acre farm. Both had trained at Thyne Institute, a Presbyterian school that offered educational courses to Black students in Chase City, along with certificates to teach school. Together, they were the most progressive members of the community. They advocated for education, exposure to the arts, trips and activities that allowed Negroes to enhance their lives and evolve in an era of white systemic racism. The Mortons attended Henry Presbyterian church, where they taught Sunday school and began a club called the Linger Nots. Young Blacks in this club were taken on trips to HBCU colleges, like Virginia State in Petersburg and Saint Paul in Lawrenceville, to saturate their minds with dreams of becoming teachers.

At Galilee Elementary, the segregated two-room brick schoolhouse I attended, Mrs. Nana Morton was the school principal. Every year she organized our May Day Festival.

It was a celebration of spring that involved the entire community. Lots of the local segregated schools attended the festival: Salem, Bacon District, and J. Murry Jefferies.

Games included horseshoe pitching, potato sack racing, jump rope and best of all, wrapping of the Maypole. There were lots of sweets to eat, including glorious display cakes of coconut, chocolate, and my favorite vanilla yellow cake served with homemade ice cream and gallons of Kool-Aid. You could hear the festival all over the neighborhood, the sound of children ages 7 to 14, laughing, shouting, dancing and celebrating the warm breezes of spring. The sweet smell of those cakes permeated the air.

The Maypole, a wooden pole made of oak or maple wood, about 8 feet tall with u-shaped nails at the top. It was as a permanent fixture on a field next to our school, built by Mrs. Morton’s husband, Mr. Ed Morton. Mr. Morton could be seen from our classroom windows early in April, evaluating the condition and safety of the Maypole. The Mortons were a couple who supported each other to ensure the Black community quality of life was well rounded even though funds for extra activities were extremely limited.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Morton brought green and yellow crepe paper and made 12 yellow streamers and 12 green ones. With the rest of the paper the girls constructed their dresses. Each girl had a choice of yellow or green skirts and a makeshift top. I always had both colors in my “May Day” costume. With a scalloped tail on my yellow skirt and loose blouse with a hole in the middle of the paper for my neck, I proudly put my outfit on over my clothes with a belt to cinch the two parts together.

Then, we all had to learn the Maypole song. This is some of what I can remember and beware it is not precise:

“Here we go around the Maypole, the Maypole,

Here we go around the Maypole, Skipping all the way Home”

Home is where My Father Lives , Father Lives,

Here we go around the Maypole, Skipping all the way home!

Home is where my Mother Lives, Mother Lives,

Here we go around the Maypole, Skipping all the way home!

Home is where we all Live, we all Live,

Here we go around the Maypole, Skipping all the way home!

The highlight of the festival day, the girls gathered around the Maypole, each one of us holding a streamer. We skipped and sang joyfully, while running in circles around the Maypole wrapping it from top to bottom as our parents and the neighbors watched. It was so much fun. I do not remember any boys participating in this activity. and a lot of them thought it was a girl thing. When we were done, we ate cake, ice cream and drank Kool-Aid. The sugar put us on a hyper inner ride to some place that we did not even understand. We did know that it was one of the few times that we could eat as much as we wanted.

None of children wanted the day to end, especially the children that lived far away who we only got to see once a year. When their teacher prompted them to get on the bus, we locals waved furiously and yelled to the top of our voices, “Goodbye” to all our friends. Tired, as we left with sheer delight in our souls, we all boarded our buses to go home. Some of us fell asleep to be awakened by our bus driver when we were at our stops. We talked about the festival for days.

In my child mind, I desired for spring to never go away and wrapping the Maypole at least once a month, but of course, that was foolish. Instead, my priority was to learn all the requirements to be promoted so I could go to Central High School. There I would feel all grown up, started dating boys and made my way on to the basketball team.

Spring, oh spring how I loved the joy, of wrapping the Maypole, flowers, the smell of plowed land and the feel of fresh earth under my bare feet. I was an innocent, fun-loving beautiful, curly-haired girl child who always appreciated frolicking and playing, which allowed my soul to feel carefree. And that what it was supposed to be.

Thanks to George Smith, Donald Roberson, Joan Jackson, Denita Dupee, Sherwanda Cawthorn, Janet Jackson, Martha Brogdon,and Agnes Dusenbury Cawthorn for sharing information, some of which is contained in this article.

Yemaja Jubilee is a poet, author, inspirational speaker, creative consultant, and TV/radio personality.