Mapleshade

New York Press

Consuela’s Return

Not for the first time, Wilbur and his wife Caroline prayed for me. Nor did they omit entreaties to the Lord for my financial good fortune as well as health and safety in my drive from Landrum, SC, back to California. An hour later, the ’62 Plymouth station wagon performing most satisfactorily, I was into Georgia on Interstate 85, and two hours after that into Alabama and passing to the north of Tuskegee, where, on the first day of 1889, a shy young black man called William James Edwards completed his three-day, 90-mile walk from Snow Hill to enlist in Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. He walked with a limp, the souvenir of scrofula that had seen him only able to crawl as a boy, enduring without anesthetic Dr. Keyser’s periodic though ultimately successful assaults with a knife on the infected bone tissue on his heel and elbow.

Three years later the young man who’d never seen a kitchen knife and fork, and who’d slept all his life on the dirt floor of a one-room shack, graduated second in his class. He was confident and determined to return to Snow Hill and open an institute on the Booker T. Washington model. There were more than 400,000 black people in Alabama’s Black Belt in 1870, freed from slavery and mostly facing the new oppression of sharecropping, which seasoned nominal freedom with grinding toil and constant indebtedness, the lynch mob ready to chasten any impertinence with whip or noose.

Ahead of his time, Edwards reckoned one of the big problems of Southern agriculture was the destruction of the topsoil by greed and ignorance. "These waste places," he wrote in his 1918 memoir Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt, "can be reclaimed and the gutted hills made to blossom, only by giving the Negro a common education, combined with religious, moral and industrial training and the opportunity to at least own his home, if not the land he cultivates. The Negro must be taught to believe that the farmer can become prosperous and independent; that he can own his home and educate his children in the country. If he can, and he can be taught these things, in less than ten years, every available farm in the rural South will be occupied."

Edwards started the Snow Hill Institute in the mid-1890s in a one-room cabin with one teacher, three students and 50 cents in capital. By 1918 the school boasted 24 buildings, between 300 and 400 students learning 14 trades and assets including 1940 acres of land valued at $125,000 and deeded to a board of trustees. Dignified and fervent, Edwards was a wonderful fundraiser among Northern whites, as Booker T. Washington gratefully appreciated. He raised many thousands for Tuskegee and Snow Hill. Anna Jeanes, a Philadelphia heiress, listened to him for an evening and sent Snow Hill a check for $5000. Andrew Carnegie doubled that sum in a donation to Tuskegee, with more to follow. Snow Hill waxed in reputation and achievement.

In 1925, under the fearful strain of keeping Snow Hill going, Edwards lost his mind at 56. Friends found him in a cheap hotel in Jackson, MS, fighting the air with a stick and throwing money in the fire. He recovered, retired and lived another quarter century, but the fire was gone. By the time it was closed in 1973, the Snow Hill Institute, now run by the state of Alabama, was in poor shape.

About 50 miles southwest of Montgomery, a sign on Rte. 28 announced Snow Hill, of which there was no other visible trace. I asked an old black man where the institute was, and he told me the next blacktop side road on the right. Soon enough, a mile later, I could see a group of big red-brick buildings, a venerable school bell, but no one around. Higher along the little ridge there were handsome old frame houses, all deserted. A trailer with a radio at mid-volume. Knocks produced nothing, and feeling a little like the first to board a ghost ship I went back down the lane, saw a smaller school building and opened the door to find Consuela Lee, Edwards’ granddaughter, calmly waiting.

My friend Pierre Sprey told me about Consuela last year. He’d just finished recording a session with her for his Mapleshade label in his Maryland studio, east of Washington. Pierre was ecstatic about Consuela’s playing: "Though different in style, she comes out of a very interesting tradition of classically trained black pianists, like Dorothy Donegan, Mary Lou Williams or Shirley Horn, who early in life decided they loved jazz but continued to become classically disciplined pianists. Nat King Cole was another, and in a lot of ways she’s a modern evolution of Nat King Cole, who was an astonishing virtuoso, way beyond Oscar Peterson, though more modest about it."

Pierre mentioned Snow Hill and the summer arts sessions Consuela has been running there, her operettas from Uncle Remus stories, her steely will, her talented musical family, including her brother, the bassist Bill Lee, father of Spike. Pierre sent me the newly released CD a few weeks ago, and I loved its spirit, its subtleties, its discipline. (To get hold of it, call 1-888-CDMAPLE, or visit www.mapleshaderecords.com.)

It didn’t cross my mind, until she’d thrown enough dates into her life story for me to figure it out, that Consuela Lee is set to be 75 in November; nor did I think her slight, though she’s probably around 5-2 and remarked to me the next morning, with a 60-pound Doberman called Garvey (the successor to an earlier Doberman, Toussaint) sitting in her lap, that her two children worry about her weighing 110 pounds. There’s so much fire and focus in the woman that such vital statistics aren’t vital at all.

Though the food was good at a place in Camden, the next town west, Consuela said the owner was a racist who’d recently refused to serve her and a friend. We should go to Selma. Off she went to one of the big frame houses on the hill to make ready, handing me a package she’d prepared. In a couple of pages I was in the midst of Consuela’s onslaughts on the board of trustees of the Snow Hill Institute.

When he was lying by the roadside, stricken with scrofula, young Edwards would often see Roscoe Simpson, the owner of the Snow Hill plantation, riding by, and Simpson would toss him a coin. Then, when Edwards returned from Tuskegee, he went to see Simpson, who strongly supported the plan for a school and gave him his first seven acres, then 33 and then 60 more, an overall gift of 100 acres. Some $30,000 of the money Edwards raised up north later bought half of Simpson’s plantation, an overall holding of some 1950 acres. In his memoir Edwards said this allowed "black people still living in the slave quarters to own their homes and small farms." He was unstinting about Simpson as "one of the noblest men I have ever met, North or South...at least fifty years ahead of his time... Without Mr R.O. Simpson there could not have been any Snow Hill Institute."

After a career teaching music, Consuela got back to Snow Hill in 1979 to try to get it on its feet again. She’s been at loggerheads with Snow Hill Institute’s trustees ever since, whose black members, she charges, "fulfill the roles of: 1) ‘window dressing’ in compliance with the look of integration, and 2) protectors of white interests," with said white interest "lining its pockets with money on behalf of big national timber companies who have made huge profits from Snow Hill Institute’s timber for years at the expense of the community, and the detriment of the children."

On the face of it, Simpson and those Northern liberals who supported Edwards could, if they were still living, probably gripe that the Institute does not seem to be conspicuously exerting itself these days to fulfill Edwards’ dream of educating black children. Similarly, the state of Alabama, which holds the 10 acres on which the main school buildings stand, isn’t doing anything either. According to Victor Inge, a Selma writer who last year wrote and published From the Ground Up, a good book about Edwards, Wilcox County ranks bottom of Alabama’s 67 in the usual stats concerning children, education and unemployment. The public school system in the county is overwhelmingly black and scandalously underfunded. At one school, according to Inge, all but one student qualify for free or reduced lunches. As for Edwards’ vision of independent black farmers, in 1900, 68 percent of Alabamians worked in farm-related jobs. These days, in tune with the national destruction of small farms down the decades, about 2 percent work in agriculture. For years, as a lawsuit successfully charged in 1999, the USDA has been discriminating against black farmers.

As I told her, Consuela’s driving is like her piano playing, spirited yet disciplined. We shot along the narrow roads, across the Edmund Pettus bridge where whites ambushed the civil rights marchers in 1965 and into Selma. Consuela described how her grandmother, at her wits’ end about Edwards’ collapse, had finally taken him to a local woman who practiced voodoo. Inside the dark little hovel the woman talked to Edwards in her kitchen for a while, told Susie Edwards she could help and gave her a bottle of "stuff" with instructions how to administer it. Edwards recovered, and Consuela remembers him for her first 20 years, a muted figure smoking his pipe and reading the New York Herald Tribune on the porch of one of the big frame houses.

Everyone was musical in Consuela’s family: from her father, an electrical engineer (cornet), her mother (piano), Consuela (piano), sister Grace (singing), brothers Bill (bass, "the musical genius of the family, though he’s hard to get along with"), Leonard (sax), Clifton (trumpet), Clarence (trombone). Bill organized a successful family group, the Descendants of Mike and Phoebe, that played around the country, including a particularly turbulent Newport Jazz festival: "The hippies pulled the strings out of the piano. Tore it up. That was ’74 or ’75. Why did they tear it up? It was during those times."

Commencing her autobiographical sketch with the words, "I was brought up like a princess," Consuela briskly marched me through her life, from music at Fisk in Nashville, a spell teaching in a private college near Ocala, FL, where she met the man, Isaac Thomas Moorhead, she was to marry in 1950, then divorce 41 years later. He was the basketball coach on a visiting team and his role in her life narrative these days is not flattering. "Coaching, recruiting, playing around" is Consuela’s pithy resume of men in her husband’s line of work, though she does give him credit for their two fine children.

They were in New York in the early 1950s when bebop ruled, and she could hear Art Tatum, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, along with friends like Mary Lou Williams. She applied to the University of Alabama to do her masters and the school acknowledged her talent, adding that it couldn’t accept her and would pay for her to go to any school outside the state. She ended up at Northwestern ("though don’t think that was any bed of roses").

The late 1970s found her playing three nights a week at a hotel in Williamsburg, and then she saw Snow Hill on a visit to her mother: "I came onto the campus and the weeds were knee high. Devastating. I went into the vocational building where the boys learned farming. The back door was open. I went in and there were bales of hay. They were using it as a barn." She resolved to get Snow Hill back on its feet, and began to spend more and more of her time there, starting her own Spring Tree/Snow Hill Institute for the Performing Arts. In 1993 Consuela was rebuffed in Wilcox County Court for her charges that the trustees were endangering Snow Hill Institute by selling property. Relations with the board are acrid.

After reading through the judgment later that night, I fell asleep on a nice big bed under the high ceiling fan in Consuela’s front room. Ghosts are supposed to haunt the night. I felt them in the dawn, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, sitting on Consuela’s porch looking through huge old trees, listening to the birds. Down to the left was the old spring where the slaves used to haul water to their shacks. Along to the right was Edwards’ house, books in his library just the way he left them. Next door one of her brothers, a diabetic, is tended by Minnie, a local woman who later that morning sang a spell-binding spiritual, plus some of the devil’s music, blues. The feel of history was heavy, though not oppressive.

Consuela came out with Garvey the Doberman and we talked as the sun began to climb. I asked her why one beautiful piece on her CD, a composition of her own, was called "Prince of Piano–Alfonso Seville." "When I got to Fisk, and this was the odd thing about black colleges, they didn’t want us to play jazz, which they thought quite a cut below Bach, Beethoven and Chopin and the boys. They wanted us to concentrate on the Europeans. Of course we’d play jazz anyway. One day I went into the music building, 18 at the time, and there was this guy sitting there, playing like Tatum. I just stood there looking at him. He asked me my name and said, ‘Are you a music student? Aha, do you play jazz?’ ‘No, but I’m trying.’ He was a medical student at Meharry, a black medical school in Nashville. We introduced ourselves and from then on it was Alfonso Seville. The heck with Beethoven. I got a C in piano. My report came home, my mother said, ‘Consuela, a C in piano?’ That’s all she said. She’s a very gentle person.

"I can’t say enough about Alfonso Seville’s influence on me as a pianist. He had huge hands. Usually you can reach a 10th, he could reach an 11th. I can reach a 10th, I really had to work to do that, to get sounds that he was doing. I had to do 10ths with one and fourths with the other. He became a doctor and he died young."

"Did he record?"

"Let me tell you, after I got word he’d passed I called his wife, I said, ‘Listen I’d really like the tapes.’ ‘Oh, I don’t have any.’ ‘You don’t have a tape of your husband, who was the greatest pianist that ever lived?’ I was so mad at that woman...

"Rap? They call it music, but if anything it’s poetry, and dance. No melody. Singing is part of our legacy. Had we not been able to sing I just don’t know if we would have survived or not. Not only do we sing, but we tend to improvise as we sing and it’s such a part of our history. Since rap came in the late 70s I’m finding our children aren’t singing. I decided to organize a mass choir of the children of all the elementary schools in this county. In auditioning I had to teach them to listen for the tone before they tried to sing it. For me that’s so elementary, but these children did not have music, so who’s to blame? They sing in church. But the churches... Sometimes the musicians are not quite up to par. They play electronic instruments, turned up too high. If you’ve got to out-sing a bass guitar and an electronic piano and a drummer, it begins to be just hollering, and it’s not music."

"Down the road here is your grandpa’s grave? Snow Hill must have educated a bunch of Wilcox County people, but the effect has been lost?" I felt a little bad about asking, essentially, whether her grandfather’s legacy had been whittled down to zero, but Consuela answered quick enough.

"Yes, the effect has been lost. Right now we’re at a stage where we can go anywhere we want, we can eat where we want, sit where we want. I’m saying that to say something else: we’ve lost something. Because we were a black community that was sealed in by segregation, we had our own businesses. We had our own restaurants, beauty parlors. We were self-contained. But now we have very few entrepreneurs, especially in the South and even more especially in the rural South. We’re very dependent on whites. We owe the banks too much. We owe the credit cards too much, so we’re not in full control. Even the churches.

"Thank God, because of my grandfather we never had to sharecrop. But I do know the demeaning, debasing, horrible things we went through in that segregation era. You don’t forget. People say you should be thankful, you should forget. But you don’t forget it. So it wasn’t easy, but we were all lumped together. On a train, we were in a car, there were just blacks. That meant you got the doctors, lawyers, sharecroppers, the women, all of us, all of us there. So we had a camaraderie that’s definitely missing now.

"My mother was not religious, though she was very spiritual. My grandmother took us to church and thank God she did, because we heard those spirituals. I don’t go to churches, because I’m not getting anything. The ministers come in here, from Selma or Montgomery, and they come and they’ll preach their sermons and they’re gone. Hey, a minister is supposed to be working in the community. So I stay right here. I have my church right here in this house. I go in there and practice. I try to get in two to three hours a day, usually morning. After I walk the dog. Generally 6:30 to 8:30. I’m playing better than I ever played in my life."

Older folks often say such things and they’re not always to be believed, but I believed Consuela. She has the fire her grandpa lost. I said goodbye, and after a wonderful plate of soul food (baked pork chops and collard greens) in Camden, headed off down the road to Mobile.

Alaxander Cockburn