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Erskine Caldwell
1903-1987

   

The People vs. Abe Lathan, Colored

by Erskine Caldwell



   
 

UNCLE ABE was shucking corn in the crib when Luther Bolick came down from the big white house on the hill and told him to pack up his household goods and move off the farm. Uncle Abe had grown a little deaf and he did not hear what Luther said the first time.

'These old ears of mine are bothering me again, Mr. Luther!' Uncle Abe said. 'I just can't seem to hear as good as I used to.'

Luther looked at the Negro and scowled. Uncle Abe had got up and was standing in the crib door where he could hear better.

'I said, I want you and your family to pack up your furniture and anything else that really belongs to you, and move off.'

Uncle Abe reached out and clutched at the crib door for support.

'Move off?' Uncle Abe said.

He looked into his landlord's face unbelievingly.

'Mr. Luther, you don't mean that, do you?' Uncle Abe asked, his voice shaking. 'You must be joking, ain't you, Mr. Luther?'

'You heard me right, even if you do pretend to be half deaf,' Luther said angrily, turning around and walking several steps. 'I want you off the place by the end of the week. I'll give you that much time if you don't try to make any trouble. And when you pack up your things, take care you don't pick up anything that belongs to me. Or I'll have the law on you.'

Uncle Abe grew weak so quickly that he barely managed to keep from falling. He turned a little and slid down the side of the door and sat on the crib floor. Luther looked around to see what he was doing.

'I'm past sixty,' Uncle Abe said slowly, 'but me and my family works hard for you, Mr. Luther. We work as hard as anybody on your whole place. You know that's true, Mr. Luther. I've lived here, working for you, and your daddy before you, for all of forty years. I never mentioned to you about the shares, no matter how big the crop was that I raised for you. I've never asked much, just enough to eat and a few clothes, that's all. I raised up a houseful of children to help work, and none of them ever made any trouble for you, did they, Mr. Luther?'

Luther waved his arm impatiently indicating that he wanted the Negro to stop arguing. He shook his head, showing that he did not want to listen to anything Uncle Abe had to say.

'That's all true enough,' Luther said, 'but I've got to get rid of half the tenants on my place. I can't afford to keep eight or ten old people like you here any longer. All of you will have to move off and go somewhere else.'

'Ain't you going to farm this year, and raise cotton, Mr. Luther?' Uncle Abe asked. 'I can still work as good and hard as anybody else. It may take me a little longer sometimes, but I get the work done. Ain't I shucking this corn to feed the mules as good as anybody else could do?'

'I haven't got time to stand here and argue with you,' Luther said nervously. 'My mind is made up, and that's all there is to it. Now, you go on home as soon as you finish feeding the mules and start packing the things that belong to you like I told you.'

Luther turned away and started walking down the path toward the barn. When he got as far as the barnyard gate, he turned around and looked back. Uncle Abe had followed him.

'Where can me and my family move to, Mr. Luther?' Uncle Abe said. 'The boys are big enough to take care of themselves. But me and my wife have grown old. You know how hard it is for an old coloured man like me to go out and find a house and land to work on shares. It don't cost you much to keep us, and me and my boys raise as much cotton as anybody else. The last time I mentioned to you about the shares has been a long way in the past, thirty years or more. I'm just content to work like I do and get some rations and a few clothes. You know that's true, Mr. Luther. I've lived in my little shanty over there for all of forty years, and it's the only home I've got. Mr. Luther, me and my wife is both old now, and I can't hire out to work by the day, because I don't have the strength any more. But I can still grow cotton as good as any other coloured man in the country.'

Luther opened the barnyard gate and walked through it. He shook his head as though he was not even going to listen any longer. He turned his back on Uncle Abe and walked away.

Uncle Abe did not know what to say or do after that. When he saw Luther walk away, he became shaky all over. He clutched at the gate for something to hold on to.

'I just can't move away, Mr. Luther,' he said desperately. 'I just can't do that. This is the only place I've got to live in the world. I just can't move off, Mr. Luther.'

Luther walked out of sight around the corner of the barn. He did not hear Uncle Abe after that.

The next day, at a little after two o'clock in the afternoon, a truck drove up to the door of the three-room house where Uncle Abe, his wife, and their three grown sons lived. Uncle Abe and his wife were sitting by the fire trying to keep warm in the winter cold. They were the only ones at home then.

Uncle Abe heard the truck drive up and stop, but he sat where he was, thinking it was his oldest boy, Henry, who drove a truck sometimes for Luther Bolick.

After several minutes had passed, somebody knocked on the door, and his wife got up right away and went to see who it was.

There were two strange white men on the porch when she opened the door. They did not say anything at first, but looked inside the room to see who was there. Still not saying anything, they came inside and walked to the fireplace where Uncle Abe sat hunched over the hearth.

'Are you Abe Lathan?' one of the men, the oldest, asked.

'Yes, sir, I'm Abe Lathan,' he answered, wondering who they were, because he had never seen them before. 'Why do you want to know that?'

The man took a bright metal disk out of his pocket and held it in the palm of his hand before Uncle Abe's eyes.

'I'm serving a paper and a warrant on you,' he said. 'One is an eviction, and the other is for threatening to do bodily harm.'

He unfolded the eviction notice and handed it to Uncle Abe. The Negro shook his head bewilderedly, looking first at the paper and finally up at the two strange white men.

'I'm a deputy,' the older man said, 'and I've come for two things — to evict you from this house and to put you under arrest.'

'What does that mean — evict?' Uncle Abe asked.

The two men looked around the room for a moment. Uncle Abe's wife had come up behind his chair and put trembling hands on his shoulder.

'We are going to move your furniture out of this house and carry it off the property of Luther Bolick. Then, besides that, we're going to take you down to the county jail. Now, come on and hurry up, both of you.'

Uncle Abe got up, and he and his wife stood on the hearth not knowing what to do.

The two men began gathering up the furniture and carrying it out of the house. They took the beds, tables, chairs, and every-thing else in the three rooms except the cook-stove, which belonged to Luther Bolick. When they got all the things outside, they began piling them into the truck.

Uncle Abe went outside in front of the house as quickly as he could.

'White folks, please don't do that,' he begged. 'Just wait a minute while I go find Mr. Luther. He'll set things straight. Mr Luther is my landlord, and he won't let you take all my furnitun away like this. Please, sir, just wait while I go find him.'

The two men looked at each other.

'Luther Bolick is the one who signed these papers,' the deputy said, shaking his head. 'He was the one who got these court orders to carry off the furniture and put you in jail. It wouldn do you a bit of good to try to find him now.'

'Put me in jail?' Uncle Abe said. 'What did he say to do that for?'

'For threatening bodily harm,' the deputy said. 'That's for threatening to kill him. Hitting him with a stick or shooting him with a pistol.'

The men threw the rest of the household goods into the truck and told Uncle Abe and his wife to climb into the back. When they made no effort to get in, the deputy pushed them to the rear and prodded them until they climbed into the truck.

While the younger man drove the truck, the deputy stood beside them in the body so they could not escape. They drove out the lane, past the other tenant houses, and then down the long road that went over the hill through Luther Bolick's land to the public highway. They passed the big white house where he lived, but he was not within sight.

'I never threatened to harm Mr. Luther,' Uncle Abe protested. 'I never did a thing like that in my whole life. I never said a mean thing about him, either. Mr. Luther is my boss, and I've worked for him ever since I was twenty years old. Yesterday he said he wanted me to move off his farm, and all I did was say that I thought he ought to let me stay. I won't have much longer to live, anyway. I told him I didn't want to move off. That's all I said to Mr. Luther. I ain't never said I was going to try to kill him. Mr. Luther knows that as well as I do. You ask Mr. Luther if that ain't so.'

They had left Luther Bolick's farm, and had turned down the highway toward the county seat, eleven miles away.

'For more than forty years I've lived here and worked for Mr. Luther,' Uncle Abe said, 'and I ain't never said a mean thing to his face or behind his back in all that time. He furnishes me with rations for me and my family, and a few clothes, and me and my family raise cotton for him, and I been doing that ever since I was twenty years old. I moved here and started working on shares for his daddy first, and then when he died, I kept right on like I have up to now. Mr. Luther knows I've worked hard and never answered him back, and only asked for rations and a few clothes all this time. You ask Mr. Luther.'

The deputy listened to all that Uncle Abe said, but he did not say anything himself. He felt sorry for the old Negro and his wife, but there was nothing he could do about it. Luther Bolick had driven to the courthouse early that morning and secured the papers for eviction and arrest. It was his job to serve the papers and execute the court orders. But even if it was his job, he could not keep from feeling sorry for the Negroes. He didn't think that Luther Bolick ought to throw them off his farm just because they had grown old.

When they got within sight of town, the deputy told the driver to stop. He drew the truck up beside the highway when they reached the first row of houses. There were fifteen or eighteen Negro houses on both sides of the road.

After they had stopped, the two white men began unloading the furniture and stacking it beside the road. When it was all out of the truck, the deputy told Uncle Abe's wife to get out. Uncle Abe started to get out, too, but the deputy told him to stay where he was. They drove off again, leaving Uncle Abe's wife standing in a dazed state of mind beside the furniture.

'What you going to do with me now?' Uncle Abe asked, looking back at his wife and furniture in the distance.

'Take you to the county jail and lock you up,' the deputy said.

'What's my wife going to do?' he asked.

'The people in one of those houses will probably take her in.'

'How long will you keep me in jail locked up?'

'Until your case comes up for trial.'

They drove through the dusty streets of the town, around the courthouse square, and stopped in front of a brick building with iron bars across the windows.

'Here's where we get out,' the deputy said.

Uncle Abe was almost too weak to walk by that time, but he managed to move along the path to the door. Another white man opened the door and told him to walk straight down the hall until he was told to stop.

 

Just before noon Saturday, Uncle Abe's oldest son, Henry, stood in Ramsey Clark's office, hat in hand. The lawyer looked at the Negro and frowned. He chewed his pencil for a while, then swung around in his chair and looked out the window into the courthouse square. Presently he turned around and looked at Uncle Abe's son.

'I don't want the case,' he said. 'I don't want to touch it.'

The boy stared at him helplessly. It was the third lawyer he had gone to see that morning, and all of them had refused to take his father's case.

'There's no money in it,' Ramsey Clark said, still frowning.

'I'd never get a dime out of you niggers if I took this case. And, besides, I don't want to represent any more niggers at court. Better lawyers than me have been ruined that way. I don't want to get the reputation of being a "nigger lawyer." '

Henry shifted the weight of his body from one foot to the other and bit his lips. He did not know what to say. He stood in the middle of the room trying to think of a way to get help for his father.

'My father never said he was going to kill Mr. Luther,' Henry protested. 'He's always been on friendly terms with Mr. Luther. None of us have ever given Mr. Luther any trouble. Anybody will tell you that. All the other tenants on Mr. Luther's place will tell you my father has always stood up for Mr. Luther. He never said he would try to hurt Mr. Luther in any way.'

The lawyer waved for him to stop. He had heard all he wanted to listen to.

'I told you I wouldn't touch the case,' he said angrily, snatching up papers and slamming them down on his desk. 'I don't want to go into court and waste my time arguing a case that won't make any difference one way or the other anyway. It's a good thing for you niggers to get a turn on the gang every once in a while. It doesn't make any difference whether Abe Lathan threatened Mr. Bolick, or whether he didn't threaten him. Abe Lathan said he wasn't going to move off the farm after Mr. Bolick had told him to, didn't he? Well, that's enough to convict him in court. When the case comes up for trial, that's all the judge will want to hear. He'll be sent to the gang quicker than a flea can hop. No lawyer is going to spend a lot of time preparing a case when he knows how it's going to end. If there was money in it, it might be different. But you niggers don't have a thin dime to pay me with. No, I don't want the case. I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole.'

Henry backed out of Ramsey Clark's office and went to the jail. He secured permission to see his father for five minutes.

Uncle Abe was sitting on his bunk in the cage looking through the bars when Henry entered. The jailor came and stood behind him at the cage door.

'Did you see a lawyer and tell him I never said anything like that to Mr. Luther?' Uncle Abe asked the first thing.

Henry looked at his father, but it was difficult for him to answer. He shook his head, dropping his gaze until he could see only the floor.

'You tried, didn't you, Henry?' Uncle Abe asked.

Henry nodded.

'But when you told the lawyers how I never said a mean thing about Mr. Luther, or his daddy before him, in all my whole life, didn't they say they would help me get out of jail?'

Henry shook his head.

'What did the lawyers say, Henry?, When you told them how respectful I've always been to Mr. Luther, and how I've always worked hard for him all my life, and never mentioned to him about the shares, didn't they say they would help me then?'

Henry looked up at his father, moving his head sideways in order to see him between the bars of the cage. He had to swallow hard several times before he could speak at all.

'I've already been to see three lawyers,' he said finally. 'All of them said they couldn't do anything about it, and to just go ahead and let it come up for trial. They said there wasn't anything they could do, because the judge would give you a term on the gang, anyway.'

He stopped for a moment, looking down at his father's feet through the bars.

'If you want me to, I'll go see if I can try to find some other lawyers to take the case. But it won't do much good. They just won't do anything.'

Uncle Abe sat down on his bunk and looked at the floor. He could not understand why none of the lawyers would help him. Presently he looked up through the bars at his son. His eyes were fast filling with tears that he could not control.

'Why did the lawyers say the judge would give me a term on the gang, anyway, Henry?'

Henry gripped the bars, thinking about all the years he had seen his father and mother working in the cotton fields for Luther Bolick and being paid in rations, a few clothes, and a house to live in, and nothing more.

'Why did they say that, Henry?' his father insisted.

'I reckon because we are coloured folks,' Henry said at last. 'I don't know why else they would say things like that.'

The jailor moved up behind Henry, prodding him with his stick. 'Hurry along,' the jailor kept saying. 'Time's up! Time's up!' Henry walked down the hall between the rows of cages towards the door that led to the street. He did not look back.

 
           

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Last updated:
April 1, 2009
   
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