Sam Tate is a Caucasian merchant, city councilor, and widower who loves his son Billy and daughter Mary Jane. In many ways, Sam meets the standards of the small town of Unionville, Ark., But defies convention because he and Billy love to play baseball with a black baseball team.
Sam’s mother, “Gran” Tate, nÃ©e Ida Belle Pruett, “was firmly committed to the idea that whites and blacks each had a place and should stay there.” One day after Sam and Billy had practiced batting and fielding, Sam asked his son, “Billy, how would you like to go see the Black Tigers play a real game tomorrow afternoon?”
” Sat ! Said grandma, puffing up. ” I told you ! You have nothing to do there with those colors, especially with all this mess going on in Little Rock. People will talk and they will stop buying from you.
âNo, they won’t as long as I have what they want and the price is right. Besides, if someone doesn’t like it, that’s their problem. I’d much rather be sitting at the stadium watching a good baseball game with people of color than sitting in the barbershop having my hair cut with people like Jim Ed Davis.
Sam and Gran, like people from all over Arkansas, sit in front of their televisions or near their radios to hear Governor Orval Faubus explain how the courts have rejected his requests for more time to work out the details of the integration Racialism of Little Rock Central High School. .
“If black students try to enter the school, blood will flow in the streets,” speculated Faubus.
As a result, he had called in the National Guard, armed with rifles, bayonets, tear gas and riot clubs, to prevent chaos – and to prevent the school’s racial integration, even though he was violating a federal court order.
Becky Reeves, a single northerner who ignored her mother’s warning not to go to Unionville to teach in seventh grade, had just started teaching in the classroom when her students started asking questions about Little Rock. One student asked, “Miss Reeves, are we going to have n______ trying to get into our school?” From another student: “My father says there is going to be another civil war.” He says someone is going to be killed. Is that true, Miss Reeves? “
Becky responded that the class would explore these questions, but cautioned her students that âthere is a rule that we all need to follow in our discussion. Neither of us will use the terms n_____r or colored. The appropriate word is negro.
When students talk to their parents about their teacher’s instructions, they are outraged. A man said to his son, âYou don’t have to worry about an old Yankee schoolteacher. I know a lot of people and I was drawn to this school. If it’s causing you any problems, I’ll fix it.
Billy Tate is one of Becky’s students. Billy tells Sam and Gran that the teacher said, “We should say negro, not black or colored.” Granny exclaims: “Well, I never have!” But Sam’s thoughts were on Becky’s beauty in church. He hoped she would still be here.
Preston Upshaw, the racist white editor of the weekly Unionville Times, writes a front-page editorial titled “It Can Happen Here.” Upshaw editorializes that âIf black people enter the best public high school in the capital, others of their race will be encouraged to enroll in white schools across the state, and the result will be chaos. It will happen quickly and out of control, and Unionville will not be spared. People of good character must come forward and oppose it.
“South of Little Rock” is a story of love, hate, fear and courage as the people of Unionville face social change in 1957, a time when Ku Klux Klan terrorism, crossfires , the advice of white citizens and the questioning of the status quo was evident. Different ministers of the church conveyed different messages about all of these events. And, there is also a passionate love story in the novel. The spiritual growth and maturity shown by the characters in the novel, or the lack of such growth and maturity, also holds the reader’s interest.
George Rollie Adams, author of “South of Little Rock,” explains that although his novel is fictional, “it is set against the backdrop of a real crisis in government and civil rights, and across the South people reacted to it as deeply and in a variety of ways as residents of the Unionville imaginary.
At the end of the novel, Adams raises several discussion questions that might come up at clubs or book review gatherings. For example: How did people with different perspectives interpret or use information about what was happening in Little Rock to support their own views on it? How usual or unusual do you think this is in American social and political history? What do you think of Becky’s teaching methods? Are they the same or different from the methods you remember when you were in school? In what way? Why do you think the students liked them? Did Upshaw separate the reporting from the editorial? To what extent? How do its journalistic practices compare to those of today?
Adams, a native of rural Arkansas who now lives in Pittsford and grew up in a segregated society, wrote a novel that makes us feel like we are actually living Arkansas life in the late 1950s. While Adams’ main characters are fictional, there were undoubtedly real people who were – and still are – similar to these fictional characters.
I was curious how Adams was able to reject the segregationist beliefs that prevailed during his youth and early adulthood. Adams explained that this was an evolutionary process, largely influenced when, while a student in Louisiana, he read “Black Like Me” (1960) by John Howard Griffin, a Caucasian journalist who s’ is dyed black and traveled south to get a better understanding of what it was like to be a black person in the racist and segregated society of his day.
I told Adams that I was disappointed with the novel’s ending, that I wished it had brought together what to me was a loose ending involving two of the main characters. I had to imagine for myself how the novel should end. Adams explained that he finished the novel as he did for that sole purpose – to appeal to the creative imaginations of the readers to come up with their own narrative to bring the novel to a close.
Adams said most of the comments he received supported the way he finished the novel, but some readers expressed the same opinion that I expressed to him. A discussion of the literary advantages or disadvantages of the ending of the novel would be relevant during a book review forum, literature class, or seminar.
Canandaigua resident Joel Freedman contributes book reviews and essays to the Finger Lakes Weather often.