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The Painting that Became an Oral History

By Mary Sterner Lawson

Metro Gazette Guest Writer

 

ALBANY, GA - The pure Americana street-corner scene pulsed with life: children bicycling up to an old-fashioned-looking grocery store whose dark green siding was plastered with catchy advertisements and Coca-Cola signs, grocery-bag-laden people leaving the store, cars and trucks churning up dust as they whisked in and out of the parking area, animated card and checkers players perched on discarded chairs in front of a derelict building next to the store, odiferous skins frying in an old iron pot, church ladies at make-shift lunch tables serving foods for church benefits near the road, neighbors stopping to chat on the grocery store's wide porch.  Clearly this corner was the hub of a Georgia community in South Albany, yet three fourths of the town's citizens—myself included—never laid eyes on June Bug's Grocery and the adjacent Cornfield Jook until the mid-eighties, when a newly opened roadway sliced through the heart of an African-American community in South Albany. 

From that time on, for traffic-related reasons, we motorists driving along Oakridge Drive could not fail to observe the engaging panorama.  To begin with, a traffic light regularly stopped motorists at the clearly significant intersection of South Madison Street and Oakridge.  Then at certain times of the day, if the school crossing guard did not absolutely stop drivers to allow safe passage of K-12 students strolling to the four nearby schools, she at least slowed them down during the reduced-speed hours in the morning and afternoon.

Certainly it was a scene that engaged the artist in me.  Luckily when I was driving by the corner on a sunny, summer day in 1987 I had my camera with me, so I turned down Madison and quickly snapped five or six photos of the scene. However, occupied at that time and for the next several years with the care of ill parents as well as teaching and family responsibilities, I put aside the photos for a later time when I hoped to use them for a watercolor painting.  Thus years passed.

Then in July of 1994 an unbelievably catastrophic flood swept through Georgia, destroying homes and businesses, and lives.  The Flint River became a raging five-mile-wide torrent that blanketed almost 23 square miles of the country and destroyed or damaged the homes of over 7,000 people, displacing nearly 23,000 people, and totaling up over $500 million in damages.  The six feet of water in my husband's and my office at Albany State University irrevocably destroyed a twenty-two year collection of resource books, teaching materials and papers (at least we could not resort to old notes when we resumed teaching!).  At home we were a little more fortunate, for we did remove most possessions, but over five feet of toxic, butterscotch-colored waters destroyed the first floor of our home as well as that of the care home housing my ailing mother.

         Since for several months we would not be able to live in our house anyway, and since my family already had been scheduled to live during the Fall term in Helsinki, Finland, where my spouse had a Fulbright in 1991, we continued with our travel plans, spending a bare month in a rental house before leaving for Helsinki.  In the limited time before we left we made house reconstruction arrangements with a trusted builder. Like other flood victims, we unfortunately were unable to reflect on other locations in town:  we were too busy taking care of our own problems, and helping as many around us as we could.

Nor could we realize how the flood experience might affect our future endeavors.  On my family's return from abroad, we did not find a settled city.  Repairs were slowed throughout the area by frequent rains that Fall, so we had to live on our second floor of our house, among boxes, for a couple of months. Now, however, came the time to view the rest of Albany, after nearly five months away from its horrors.

One day in December I drove across Oakridge, and for the first time since my return to the United States glanced toward the South Madison-Oakridge corner.  Never will I forget my reaction to that sight:  it chilled me to the marrow, raising gooseflesh that still at times is raised again at the very thought or what I saw. The lone and level sand was all that remained; there was no sign of all the teeming life that had filled that spot. My own losses because of the flood made me extra sensitive to the concept of loss and destruction, i.e., assuredly increased my empathy, but my family's distress had been small compared to the massive loss to this community of those two buildings that had been a vital part of its daily life! My horror was eerily and poignantly amplified by the recognition that the very voices--the many, vibrant voices of the scene--had been stilled forever. Instantaneously I vowed to paint that scene, if only I could locate the photographs once my box-and-book filled studio was back in proper order.

Eventually, with my studio cleared and organized, the photos found, and the watercolor completed, I in October of 1996 carried "June Bug's Grocery" and seven other paintings to Phoebe Putney Hospital's solo exhibition space in its imposing entrance lobby. Before I even had finished adjusting "June Bug's Grocery" on its easel the first of the voices began to be heard as a passerby exclaimed, “There’s Junebug’s Grocery!  And there’s Cornfield Jook!”

A little later, as I turned in a price list at the hospital's courtesy desk, the receptionist wistfully told me she used to go to the store when it had been called "Mr. Pete's Store."  Then the very next day Junebug himself, whom I had never met, called me with the most elated response I have ever had to one of my paintings: “My sister told me it was up,” he said, “and morning could not come soon enough for me to see it.  You’ve got it to a T, the shelves on the front–it must be from an earlier photo, because the shelves have been gone for awhile--the ice box, the cars, the child on a bike, the truck out front!  I know whose truck that is too; it’d usually be mine there, but I know who owns that truck!  And the jook, you’ve got the jook there too.  I wish I could have afforded to lease that land and have it taken down, but it’s all right it’s there. It’s part of it too.  And I want to buy the painting!”  His response was so ecstatic that I emphatically told him at the conversation's close, “you’ve made my day,” to which he responded even more fervently, “you’ve made mine!”

His response was merely the start of the hubbub created by that painting during the month-long exhibit. If the phone rang at my home in regard to my paintings, the call was inevitably in regard to "June Bug's Grocery."   And the interest was not just in the African-American community; a white man who said "I know the story of the place and I want that painting" tried unsuccessfully to buy the already sold painting—with an incredible offer of $2000!

A call from Bridget Jordan, who reminisced to me about her and her siblings' walks from their home by way of a lush, green grass path to the grocery they called "Mr. Pete's," was what clinched my growing awareness that these stories I was hearing needed to be caught on tape.  I made my first appointment, and visited the home of Bridget and her sister Cyndi to record their recollections. Their musical voices lapsed into remembrances of the sweet smell the honeysuckle along the path, the playful antics of beautiful butterflies, the joy of chewing on the seasonal treat called sourgrass, and the fun of picking wild blackberries for their mother, who would use them in delicious pies she baked for the family. 

Of course the view of the Jordan women was only one perspective, and as I continued asking around, I found more and more people who provided insight into many of the other facets of the community. As other pieces of the puzzle began to appear, I found myself becoming captivated by a project which, at that point, did not have a particular aim, other than to record the voices I imagined as being "behind the painting."

If the members of the community had not been supportive in this effort, I could not have continued.  After all, I am clearly a Yankee, a silver-haired woman from Ohio who is not African-American.  Somehow, though, a variety of factors converged to aid my efforts.  Perhaps first and foremost is the fact of the painting:  its very existence must have betokened my sincere concern in the site, serving as a validation of my interest, and as an entrĂ©e. People who knew the site well would sometimes look long and long at the print (so many had asked about it that I borrowed the painting from June Bug, and had printed a limited edition of five hundred prints), sometimes even tearing up, and then from their mouths the words would roll.

The fact that I actually knew or indirectly knew of some of the interviewees was another strong contributory factor.  The grandfather of one of my honors humanities students at the university had run Cornfield Jook for nearly thirty years.  His was a crucial interview, and through him and the grandson I came to interviews in the homes of the gentleman's son, daughter, and son-in-law, all of whom were good interviewees.  And the daughter's good friend, nicknamed "Cornfield Jook Girl," really remembered the jook's stories, for she was "raised up to the jook" by virtue of her parents' frequent attendance at the first of the three Cornfield Jooks on that plot of land.

Sometimes the interviewees turned out to be former students, referred to me by nicknames I did not know.  And a number of the most helpful interviewees are employees at my university, locksmiths, painters, and maintenance men I have chatted with on past occasions as they worked around campus.  They not only were instrumental in furthering my knowledge of the history of the site—which people who have lived in South Albany only in recent years would not be aware of—but they sent me on to other people, to nearly sixty in all.

When I was not far all that far into my project, I myself was interviewed--for an article in the local newspaper--by a feature reporter who happened to be the niece of former President Jimmy Carter. The article included a large, colorful reprint of my painting.  Predictably, the printed story brought more voices to the fore as I continued reconstructing the history of the site and community through the stories of those who knew it well.

Inevitably, at times I had reservations about the project.  After all, my PH.D. is in Victorian literature.  Some people who knew of my academic background questioned how I could do this project, but more often wondered why (except the people in the community, who did not ask me but just encouraged me).  Even my spouse remarked, "It's out of field," and noted he would not do it, but I continued.  Along with the community members, I credit my mother for much of this project.  Her abiding interest in history had long ago influenced me to revere that field, and the elements of history that these stories provided had such an incredible accessibility that I remained steadfast in my efforts.  As well, the opportunity to meet and get to know such a receptive and fine group of people appealed to me, for not only do I love to sketch people (as over sixty sketch books in my studio will attest), but I like to converse with people of all backgrounds.  I've never understood "wallowing in sameness," and would always prefer to learn more about what I do not know about.

After a while, what I wanted to share what I was learning with others. In 1997 at the Fiftieth Annual Southern Humanities Conference when I presented my first paper on the project, I received sufficient affirmation from my audience that I had tapped into something with which others could identify. For the eye I put a matted print of "June Bug's Grocery" on the easel, and for the ear I played at one point a segment of the Jordan sister's musical voices as substantive proof. Throughout my "Art as Catalyst" presentation, I offered to the audience the stories of those many voices I had been hearing.  The oddest thing happened at the end:  it was if the people in the audience were transfixed.  First one, then another, then another spoke up in eerie Twilight Zone-like voices:   "When I was a little girl in Atlanta, we used to spend vacations in north Georgia, and there was a store nearby like that one," and "When I was a boy in Virginia, we lived near a place like that," and on and on.  I asked, at the end of this chorus of lines that sounded as if someone had written them prior to the presentation, if the situation were generic or universal, and the Virginia man said generic.  That seemed like a peculiarly mundane word for the rich vein of oral history into which I had tapped, but maybe it was just his way of explaining why he related to it.

I continued sharing various stories, presenting the rural element in a 1997 "Writing the Rural" conference in Mt. Vernon, Georgia at Brewton-Parker College, where writer Dori Sanders attended my talk and was most encouraging about my project; talking of art and history in relation to the project at Albany's Ritz Cultural Center during Black History Month in 1998; addressing the women's perspective at Valdosta State University's Third Annual Women's Conference in 1998.   In December of 1998 I carried the stories abroad to a fascinated audience at the Renvall Institute of North American Studies in Helsinki, Finland.

Along with the on-going effort to enlarge my knowledge of community by continued interviews and to share my findings with others came the growing awareness of my need to know more about the oral history profession.   With a group of Albany State history majors in April of 1997 I participated in a Georgia African-American Historic Preservation Network conference, "If Georgia Walls Could Talk:  An Oral History of African-American Sites," at Boggs Rural Life Center in Keysville, Georgia.  The following year I flew to Buffalo, New York, for the National Oral History Convention, where I participated in "Advanced Oral History Methods," "Community Oral History," and "Advanced Oral History Theory" workshops. Sessions at these conferences, along with books on oral history that I read and articles in The Oral History Review, have aided me immeasurably.  As well, time spent working with the Albany Civil Rights Movement Museum, whose board I am on, has helped in other ways:  helpful books containing oral history presentations are readily available, as is advice from the museum's knowledgeable director, Angela Whitmal. 

Although I was seeking to gain knowledge of the oral history profession, continuing my efforts in my project, and wondering how at some point I might pursue publication of my work, duties at my academic institution were so heavy that all of my oral history-related efforts might not have culminated in a product if I had not taken the "June Bug's Grocery" print to the annual Georgia Association of Historians meeting in Savannah in April of 1999.  There at the conference sat Arcadia Press editor Katie White with a large display collection of her company's oral histories, and a few samples of products printed by Arcadia's parent press, Tempus.  I told her the history of my project; then when she expressed interest in it I obtained the print from my car so she could see what started it all.  She encouraged me to send in a proposal, but I told her I was still too far from the end; I had more people to tape, and many tapes to transcribe.  After some persuasive follow-up telephone calls from Ms. White I filled out and submitted the proposal.  I had not explored the possibility of seeking any other publishing company because I hoped the final cost to purchasers would be more in line with what my interviewees could afford, because I had been assured that I would be granted more space for solid text than I had observed in many of Arcadia's publications, and because I was allowed a longer time until the manuscript's due date than Arcadia usually allows.

On the date I signed the contract, 25 October 1999, the manuscript deadline of 1 August 2002 seemed very far away.  Of course I learned how rapidly time passes when a massive project like this is undertaken.  The final burst of interview activity took place in summer of 2000, before I flow to the Netherlands with a bundle of untranscribed tapes, my Sony tape transcription machine, and my laptop computer.  From August until December, while my husband Ben served out his Fulbright term as the Walt Whitman Chair of American Literature at the University of Utrecht, I transcribed Albany voices.  Partially because I also worked there also on a multi-media discussion (based in part on oral history) of the Albany Civil Rights Movement that I presented abroad at conferences in Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands, I did not finish all of the transcription.  Providentially, a grant from Albany State University helped pay for some transcription costs on my return.  In the summer following the 2001 spring term I added a couple more interviews, then wrote and rewrote, finally sending in my manuscript and more than fifty photos (some of which were on a placard that escaped the flood waters in the jook) at the beginning of the fall term, 2001.  Publication is scheduled for 2002.

Of course I am curious and apprehensive about the response to my efforts, and I have had hints of the local reaction, for June Bug's Grocery and Cornfield Jook had long ago passed into local legend—years before the flood.  The stories of moonshine, illegal alcohol, murders, transit houses, prostitution, irregular relationships, etc. are in the book, and will indeed interest people in this area.  The historical chapter, primarily about the African-American section below city center, provides the backdrop for the subsequent focus on the South Albany community around the Oak Ridge and South Madison intersection. 

The stories are varied and sometimes on the wild side.  Until World War II, Ragsdale, an infamous white prostitution area mentioned in a 1942 Time Magazine was located in South Albany, so some of its stories are included. Close to the Ragsdale area was a prison camp that generated other great stories involving trusty inmates who swapped prison camp hogs for high-proof alcohol.  And the moonshine and cornbuck stories themselves are the very substance of legend. It is easy to imagine a dynamite movie or stage play coming out of this material!

But on a broader and more important level, June Bug's Grocery and the Cornfield Jook is the saga of a specific community.  After the introductory historical chapter, the stories fall logically into certain subject matter as the shift is made to the primary focus, the last half of the century and the stories generated by life in and around a jook and a grocery.   In fact, these tandem structures may be viewed as the catalyst for change in South Albany.  In the nineteen-fifties, when an entrepreneurial white man named Pete Moulton built a simple, quaint grocery beside a ramshackle “jook”, he could not have predicted the changes that would ensue. The saga continues through to 2002, to reminiscences by and about Milton "June Bug" Griffin, who is African-American, and who was running the grocery when it was flooded in 1994.  That June Bug's story did not stop with the flood is an important part of the community's history, for he obtained the very first commercial loan after the catastrophe. On that same Oak Ridge and South Madison site he owns and manages June Bug's Plaza, a flourishing several-store strip-mall.

June Bug Griffin, who grew up in the segregated South and who is a respected citizen sitting on Albany's school board, is just one of the many people to whom I am grateful for my extraordinary oral history experience--of painting a watercolor that became a book.  I have thus dedicated June Bug's Grocery and the Cornfield Jook to the South Albany community, to the voices behind the painting, to the voices no longer stilled. Note: this article was published in The Oral History Review (by The University of California Press for the Oral History Association), Summer/Fall 2002, Volume 29, No. 2, pp. 37-45.               

  Mary Lawson, retired ASU English professor, currently resides in Tallahassee. She was an active local artist in Albany. A

 framed print of her June Bug's Grocery painting (the original was purchased by June Bug) is on exhibit in the Thomasville

 art show, and copies of the print are on sale at the Wiregrass Gallery, open Tuesday through Saturday, 11-5. The framed

 print in the show is not for sale but additional prints are on sale at the Wiregrass Gallery in Thomasville, 120 N. Broad

 Str. She has artwork in the town where she lives as well as in the Wiregrass Gallery Thomasville. One of her Albany scenes, June Bug's Grocery, will in print form be in a show inside the Sweet and Savory Sisters Restaurant in Thomasville, Georgia's historic train depot. Lawson’s framed print and one other artwork of hers will join the art of 14 other artists who are part of Thomasville's Wiregrass Gallery artists' co-op at 120 N. Broad Str., a place where she has clay pieces and paintings. A reception is planned Tues., Sept. 22.  Other exhibits will be at the historic train depot Sept. 22 through Oct. 30.