When the Bright Star first opened for business, a young man named Joseph worked at an iron works not far from the Bessemer rail yard. Joseph and his colleagues endured working conditions that would bring Jeff Bezos to perpetual tumescence. Labor unions were granted no southern hospitality. Relentless hours, verbal abuse, and grievous bodily harm were rules, not exceptions. The wages? Laughable, not livable. Nevertheless and without fail, Joseph rose before the sun and put in a proper shift. In this nook of the Deep South, employment opportunities were limited by his inability to “pass.” For those unaware, “passing” means being able to hide one’s true racial identity to escape the often dire consequences of not being white. Joseph was Black and navigated each day with a deftness of care known only to us.
He kept his head down, minded when and how he addressed his boss, and got on with it. He could not respond to the slurs. He could not speak simple truths or advocate for his colleagues. He could not resist. There was no other choice until, one day, what simmered finally boiled. Verbal jousting with his boss devolved into physical combat and Joseph released a lifetime of frustration. Between Joseph and his racist, small-minded boss, there could only be one outcome.
Joseph read the proverbial writing on the wall and, prudently, absquatulated. When the felled regained his faculties, the man summoned a collection of tapioca-minded good ol’ boys to exact assuredly grisly revenge. Taking time to dress the part, the white-hooded mob knuckle-dragged their way to Joseph’s home, torches and noose in-hands. They found footprints.
Young Joseph had already returned, said a tearful goodbye to his kinfolk, and escaped via “the first thing smoking.” Days later, he arrived safely in Chicago with a bag over his shoulder and a fistful of dollars in his pocket.
Only a few generations following the American Civil War, the U.S. Government’s attempt to progress the country hadn’t quite taken root. The Equal Justice Initiative notes that Americans perpetrated more than 4,400 lynchings upon their fellow Americans between Reconstruction and World War II. To us, those 4,400 or more lynchings were brothers, sisters, moms, dads, family, and friends. These horrific and systemic acts of terror were just another day in the Deep South. With the buffer of time, these 4,400 victims of extrajudicial violence threaten to become statistics.
Joseph I went on to settle in New York City to become a successful businessman and entrepreneur. He eventually married his sweetheart, Georgianna, with whom he had two children, Joseph II and Carole. Joseph II (“Ed”) grew up, married Mae, had a son, David, and a daughter, Donna, while rising through the ranks of State Farm, ultimately managing their Long Island, New York, auto claims office. Having had his fill of corporate life, Ed quit his job to become a professional photographer. Mae survived Ed. Donna is an executive and raised three, brilliant children. David became a lawyer and had two daughters and a son, Lance.