I looked around in awe at the big, cavernous courthouse in downtown Charttanooga. I was just a little girl, and didn’t often get to go anywhere with Daddy. I smelled the dusty, rich smells of wood, brick and the breaths of all the folks who’d ever been in there it seemed, and watched the slow-moving Tennessee people go about their business while Daddy talked to some menfolks. I idly watched some old negroes talking quietly on a bench, and thought one of them looked like Uncle Rufus, worked in old Mr. Stutchberry’s warehouse and helped him make shampoo in that big ole round thing that hissed and steamed and had all kinds of tubes running out of it. Uncle Rufus was old like them, and he told me stories about the damyankees who, he solemnly assured me, ate dogs and babies up there in Neywyorkcity, and were all scoundrels and re-per-bates. “They-all worship th’ devil, too, hun.” He’d tell me solemnly. “Ol’ satan hisself. Uh-huh. Cain’t trust ’em, no-how, no-way!” And then, he’d share some of his lunch with me.
I noticed two gleaming white water fountains, on opposite sides of the hall there, and wondered if people in the courthouse got all that thirsty that they needed so many water fountains. Then I saw a sign above one of ’em, and figured it must be special somehow, and laboriously sounded out the letters just like Miss Helen told us to. Then I was puzzled. I looked at the water fountains again. I frowned. I was a curious little mite, and when I had a question, I wanted an answer right then even if Daddy did get riled up at me. I tugged on his suit coat. (You never went downtown without your suitcoat and hat on.) “Daddy! Daddy!” I pipped up.
“Hush, Chylene!” Daddy growled, absorbed in his conversation. “I’m talkin’.”
“But Daddy! I gott know sumthin’!” I insisted in my sweet, little-girl voice.
Daddy frowned, and was about to give me a good scolding, but stopped. The men he was talking to were chuckling indulgently. A sweet-faced brown-eyed child with long black pigtails and adorable gaps in her front teeth probably was going to say somethin’ real cute and dumb.
“What the hell is it?” Daddy growled nervously. He knew me a bit better than the men did.
“Daddy! Them fountains! That there sign says that one is ‘colored’, but its jest as white as the other one! It ain’t got no color at all! You better go tell them folks somebody made a mistake!”
It’s amazing how far a child’s sweet, high pitch can carry. The men’s faces froze into incredulty.. Daddy turned red, then stark white. There was a long, painful silence, then muffled snickers from the elderly negro men as they waited with scarcely concealed amusement to see how my father would extricate himself.
Daddy grabbed my hand and rushed out of there as fast as his feet could carry him, mumbling something about “..haven’t finished paintin’ them all yet..” to me.
He was followed by the rich, full sound of black laughter.