'South of Little Rock'

Sam Tate is a Caucasian merchant, councilman and widower who dotes on his son Billy and daughter Mary Jane. In most respects, Sam conforms to the norms of the small town of Unionville, Ark., but defies convention because he and Billy enjoy playing baseball with a Black baseball team.

Sam’s mother “Gran” Tate, born Ida Belle Pruett, “was firmly committed to the notion that whites and blacks each had a place and ought to stay in it.” One day, after Sam and Billy had practiced some batting and fielding, Sam asked his son, “Billy, how would you like to go see the Black Tigers play a real game tomorrow afternoon?”

“Sam!” Gran said, puffing up. “I done told you! Y’all ain’t got no business over there with them colored, especially with all that mess going on up at Little Rock. People are gon’ talk and they’re gon’ stop buying from you.”

“No, they won’t, not 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 a whole lot rather be sitting over at the ballpark watching a good ball game with coloreds than sitting in the barbershop getting a haircut with the likes of Jim Ed Davis.”

Sam and Gran, like people all over Arkansas, sit in front of their TVs or near their radios to hear Gov. Orval Faubus explain how the courts had rejected his pleas for more time to work out the details for racially integrating Little Rock Central High School.

“If Negro students attempt to enter the school, blood will run in the streets,” Faubus speculated.

Accordingly, he had called out the National Guard, armed with rifles, bayonets, tear gas and riot clubs, to prevent mayhem — and to prevent racial integration of the school, even though he was violating a federal court order.

Becky Reeves, an unmarried northerner who ignored her mother’s warning not to go to Unionville to teach seventh grade, had just started teaching the class when her students began asking questions about Little Rock. One student asked, “Miss Reeves, are we gon’ have n______s trying to get in our school?” From another student: “My daddy says there’s gon’ be another Civil War. He says somebody’s gon’ get killed. Is that right, Miss Reeves?”

Becky replied that the class would be exploring these questions, but admonished her students that “there is one rule we all must follow in our discussion. We will, none of us, use the terms n_____r or colored. The proper word is Negro.”

When students tell their parents about their teacher’s instructions, they are outraged. One man tells his son, “You don’t have to pay no mind to some old-maid Yankee school teacher. I know lots of people and I got some pull around that school. If she gives you any trouble, 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 n____r or colored.” Gran exclaims, “Well, I never!” But Sam’s thoughts were on how pretty Becky looked in church. He hoped she would be there again.

Preston Upshaw, the racist white publisher of the weekly Unionville Times, pens a front-page editorial titled “It Can Happen Here.” Upshaw editorializes that “if Negroes enter the top public high school in the capital, others of their race will be emboldened to enroll in white schools across the state, and the result will be chaos. It will happen quickly and uncontrollable and Unionville will not be spared. People of good moral character must step forward and oppose it.”

“South of Little Rock” is a story of love, hate, fear, and courage as the residents of Unionville come to grips with social change in 1957, a time when Ku Klux Klan terrorism, cross burnings, White Citizens’ Councils and questioning of the status quo were evident. Different church ministers conveyed different messages about all these happenings. And, there is a passionate love story in the novel too. The spiritual growth and maturity shown by the novel’s characters, 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 while his novel is fiction, “it is set within the context of a real crisis of government and civil rights, and throughout the South, people reacted to it as deeply and variedly as the residents of imaginary Unionville.”

At the end of the novel, Adams raises several discussion questions that could be raised at book review clubs or gatherings. For example: How did individuals with different perspectives interpret or spin information about what was happening in Little Rock to support their own viewpoints about it? How usual or unusual do you think that is in American social and political history? What do you think about Becky’s teaching methods? Are they like or different from methods you remember from when you were in school? In what ways? Why do you think the students liked them? Did Upshaw separate reporting from editorializing? To what extent? How do his journalism practices compare with those of today?

Adams, a rural Arkansas native who now lives in Pittsford, and who grew up in a segregated society, has written a novel that enables us to feel as if we are actually experiencing Arkansas life during the late 1950s. While Adams’ main characters are fictional, there undoubtedly were real people who were — and still are — similar to these fictional characters.

I was curious to know how Adams was able to reject the segregationist beliefs that prevailed during his youth and early adulthood. Adams explained it was an evolutionary process, influenced largely when, as a college student in Louisiana, he read “Black Like Me” (1960) by John Howard Griffin, a Caucasian journalist who dyed his skin black and traveled around the South to get a better understanding of what it was like to be a Black person in the racist and segregated society of his era.

I told Adams I was disappointed by the novel’s ending, that I wished he had brought together what was for me a loose end involving two of the main characters. I had to imagine for myself how the novel should end. Adams explained he ended the novel the way he did for just that purpose — to appeal to the creative imagination of readers to create their own narrative to bring closure to the novel.

Adams said that most of the feedback he has received supported the way he ended the novel, but that some readers expressed the same opinion I expressed to him. A discussion about the literary pluses or minuses of the way the novel ended would be relevant at a book review forum or literature class or seminar.

Canandaigua resident Joel Freedman contributes book reviews and essays to the Finger Lakes Times frequently.