Build Me a School

By  |  September 5, 2013
“Girl Dancing, Baptist Town, Greenwood, MS” by Magdalena Solé, from "New Delta Rising" “Girl Dancing, Baptist Town, Greenwood, MS” by Magdalena Solé, from "New Delta Rising"

They enter the hospitality room at Riverside City College tentatively, these big men wearing sweats and ball caps that identify them as coaches and scouts—UCLA, New Orleans Hornets, Antelope Valley College, and more—and say to Alicestyne Tyson Smith and her sister Roberta Tyson McClinton, “Is that sweet potato pie?”

Alicestyne says firmly, “Did you eat your dinner yet? If you haven’t eaten your dinner yet, you shouldn’t be taking pie.”

The UCLA coach takes a piece anyway, and then huddles behind me to finish it quickly—because he can’t resist. This is southern California, but Alicestyne made that pie this morning from a recipe given to her by her sister, who got it from their mother, Isabella, in Arkansas, who might have gotten it from her own mother-in-law, Rose, in Mississippi, who arrived there as a five-year-old freed slave. The lineage of these queens of higher education is in the hands of two sisters handing out full meals to about sixty coaches and referees and scouts attending the fortieth annual Riverside Holiday Classic Basketball Tournament, where head coach John Smith is Alicestyne’s son.

There are six sisters in this story, and one brother, all educated in a one-room schoolhouse, eighty children and one teacher. All these siblings went to college, and their kids went to college. In this family are Roberta’s husband, Charles, who was a CFO of NASA, Alicestyne’s nephew Keith Jones, head trainer and operations manager of the Houston Rockets, and her cousin Leadell Lee, who was an FBI agent, as is his son Wade.

This story, and the sweet potato pie, come from slavery, which Americans don’t like to talk about any more. The Tyson sisters didn’t hesitate to tell it. “Our grandmother, our father’s mother, was a slave,” Alicestyne said, sitting in the bleachers after feeding all those people. “Back in South Carolina. She was five years old when they were freed, and she had to walk to Mississippi. They had nowhere to go, and so they walked.”

That woman’s son, Ben Aaron, grew up in Mississippi, and went to Arkansas to sharecrop on the Coleman Plantation. Twelve miles down dirt roads from Osceola, Arkansas, about seventy miles from Memphis, the vast plantation grew cotton. There were about 250 sharecroppers living in tiny houses, and one long wood-frame building. Ben Aaron met Isabella there.

Isabella’s own father had left Mississippi with teacakes in a bag, according to a family cookbook put together by Roberta’s daughter Sandra. “Granny told me that when she was a little girl in Swan Lake, Mississippi, her father was a blacksmith. One day, the plantation owner said he wasn’t going to pay him that year.” Isabella’s father pulled the man off his horse, and when he died a week later, he knew what would happen. “Granny’s father had to run away to avoid being lynched. He said he was going to Arkansas and would come for them when it was safe. Granny made teacakes for him and put them in a pillowcase and said, ‘Run, Daddy, run.’”

As Alicestyne and Roberta told me, “They had to build that school for our mother and her brothers and sisters. Her father came up to Arkansas from Mississippi. They wanted him to work at Coleman, and he said his kids had to go to school or he wouldn’t work there.”

There were fourteen children in Isabella’s family, and she was in the middle. When her mother died, Isabella was thirteen, and she carried her three-year-old brother on her back to the old schoolhouse. Some years later, Isabella married Ben Aaron, and had six girls—Charlene, Rosa Lee, Eddie Mae, Roberta, Alicestyne, and Bennie Mae—and Ben Lewis Tyson. “She was Superwoman and Wonder Woman,” Ben told me. “She upholstered furniture. She sewed drapes. She grew all our food and made all our clothes.” Roberta added, “You should have seen the zippers and buttonholes on our pants. Our mother did everything.”

Isabella ran the wood-frame bungalow for the entire plantation community. “That building was full to capacity every single day,” Alicestyne said, while we packed sweet potato pies, cherry dump cake, and chocolate cake into her car the next day. “We had church on Sunday, school every weekday, and movie night every Saturday.” She imitated the hand-cranked projector. “A man came with the movie, and my mother put up her own white bed sheet on the wall, and everyone came. She sold popcorn for five cents a bag.”

On weekdays, there were the eighty or so students, and the one teacher. Roberta said, “Our parents set the standard for education where we lived—my father would drive eighteen miles to Blytheville to get a teacher when one left. When they couldn’t make it back home on the weekend, they’d spend the night at our house.”

“Then he built an addition onto our house for the teacher to live in all the time,” Alicestyne added. The Tyson girls were the first on Coleman to graduate from the eighth grade—but there were no high schools in the area for black students in the 1950s. “A big yellow school bus would pass right by every day, headed to Osceola.”

So Isabella and Ben Aaron had to send their girls away, with the popcorn money and all their savings. “My mother told my older sister she would wear a boot and a shoe so we could go to school,” Alicestyne said. Roberta and Eddie Mae went to junior high at a boarding school in Holly Springs, Mississippi, then transferred to Lucy, Tennessee, outside of Memphis, for high school, where Alicestyne eventually joined them. “My father drove me seventy miles, and I was only thirteen years old when he left me there. I cried and cried—I had never spent the night away from my mother and dad.”

Her parents paid $16 a month, and the girls worked in the kitchens and grounds. There were sixty girls in the dorms, and the Tysons went to summer school, as did most of the sharecroppers’ kids, because they had to return to Coleman for September and October to pick cotton.

But Ben Aaron died in 1956, when he was only sixty. Isabella was forty-three. She and the girls couldn’t survive on sharecropping, and her son was still in school at sixteen. “I said I wasn’t farming anymore,” Ben Lewis told me. His sister Rosa Lee had joined the Air Force, and was serving at March Air Base in Riverside, California, so Isabella headed out there, and eventually the rest of the family followed. Here in southern California, I grew up among hundreds of children whose parents were born in Arkansas or Mississippi or Georgia or Louisiana, whose fathers had been stationed at March or Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, and who then brought their wives here. Why would they return to segregation and violence? They wanted their children to have a California chance.

Ben came in May 1957, he remembers. “I was seventeen, and I just graduated from high school. I was in the back of the bus, you know, because it was Arkansas. When we got to New Mexico, the driver turned around and told us, You can sit wherever you want now.” Sitting in the bleachers, Roberta laughed and said, “Oh, we’d already refused to sit in the back of the bus before! You remember, Alicestyne?”

They’d gone from Osceola to Blytheville after their father died, and they’d sat directly behind the driver. “He turned red, you know, and he said, You need to move back, and we told him, We’ll be sitting here until the conclusion of our journey.” They laughed again and she said, “He didn’t know what to do. That was before Rosa Parks! And then we got to Blytheville, and our aunt who was picking us up saw where we’d been sitting, and she said, Don’t you know you could have been killed?

Roberta came to Riverside with her husband, Charles, in 1957 as well. “When we left Little Rock,” she said, “we passed the troops on the highway. They were coming in, and we were going away.” Those were the Federal troops coming to assist in the integration of Central High School.

But some things were not different in California then. Not yet. There were still housing restrictions and de facto school segregation, and discrimination in hiring. Charles had a degree in business administration from the University of Arkansas, but initially was only offered work as a sandblaster. Eventually, he was the first counter employee at the Downtown Riverside post office, where Ben Tyson later worked as well. Now, he is retired from NASA.

In 1957, Alicestyne was the first black employee in the Circulation Department at the Riverside Press-Enterprise. But not without a pointed and queen-like exchange that her mother would have applauded. Young white applicants passed her by and were immediately hired, but she was told she had to take a spelling test. “A hundred words,” she said, smiling. “Perfect. Then the supervisor carried it around the office”—she held her fingers up high, imitating his act—“and said, ‘Look at this, where’d you learn to spell like this?’” Her voice turned icy-cool. “‘In elementary school,’ I said.”

Her demeanor remained dignified and professional. “After two weeks, one white man said he’d rather quit than work with a nigger. So the next week, the supervisor called him into the office, and he thought they were going to tell him they were letting me go—they handed him his check.”

We watched the game in a moment of quiet after that. Her son, John Smith, was born in Riverside in 1969. He played for my alma mater, JW North High, where hundreds of descendants of people who left the South went to school with people who left Mexico and Europe. We all ate one another’s food—I ate teacakes and chitlins, enchiladas and fish tacos, and my Swiss-born mother was known for meringues and cakes. John Smith’s wife is Vietnamese, and their daughter holds the newest grandbaby, born to Ben Tyson’s son Anthony, known as Red, who is married to a white woman. Red is one of John Smith’s assistant coaches.

During the second day of the tournament, Red was in the hospitality room, where the feature was spaghetti and meatballs, salad and garlic bread, and more pie, along with Roberta’s peach cobbler. Roberta lives in San Jose, and is a retired teacher who now works for a hunger project that fed 15,000 people last year. For vacation, she comes to Riverside to feed hundreds of huge coaches and scouts.

“My aunts,” Anthony Tyson said, holding his plate of food, getting ready for the game. “They told you some stories, right? About education and this family?” His aunts were wearing necklaces pavéed with diamonds, in honor of Coach John Smith’s 2009 state championship team. He bought them for the “Team Cooks,” but really they are like crown jewels. Watching the college players hustle down the court an hour later, Roberta and Alicestyne and Ben looking at both coaches, waiting for the ball to float through the basket, it’s easy to think of Isabella and Ben Aaron Tyson, and their own parents, walking and surviving, carrying each other on their backs, rolling out teacakes and piecrust, driving a teacher or a daughter miles down a dirt road toward a desk.


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Susan Straight has published eight novels and two books for children. Her stories and essays have appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories,  the New York Times,  the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Believer, Salon, Zoetrope, Black Clock,  and elsewhere. She was born in Riverside, California, wher she teaches writing; her work can be found at susanstraight.com.