Steeling for Struggle


At the age of 22, Wiley McDowell returned home from World War II to Bessemer, Alabama, with the dream of opening his own tailor shop. But his apprenticeship with a local tailor ended when the business changed hands. The young African-American veteran sold insurance for a while and studied accounting at a local trade school. Unable to find work as an accountant, he went to work in the local mine. The grimy work deep under the earth was more than he could stand. He quit, and followed his father to the U.S. Pipe and Foundry, where he would spend nearly thirty years casting steel pipes in "the hell-hot de Lavaud." In 1974, at 51, he dropped dead on the job.

In Leaving Pipe Shop, Deborah McDowell tells about listening for her father's footfall when he worked the night shift. When he came home she was always there, "hunched over homework at the kitchen table.... In the late-night quiet, broken only by the vibration of the Westinghouse refrigerator, I could better concentrate.... Daddy would appear, his freshly showered skin still matte and ashen, and would place his black humpbacked lunch pail on the kitchen counter, then give me a noogie before asking about my schoolwork."

Now a professor of literature at the University of Virginia, McDowell revisits the place named for the foundry where her father worked, the place of her childhood and young adult years. She had vowed to leave Pipe Shop even before imagining where she could go. She attended Tuskegee Institute and became the first in her family to earn a college degree. Graduate work at Purdue University took her away from the Deep South; there she began her work as a writer and literary scholar. Twenty years later, at her Aunt Estella's urging, she returned to investigate the circumstances of her father's death.

This is not a routine coming-of-age-in-the-South tale but a journey of remembering and discovery. McDowell's memories of growing up during the fifties and sixties are anchored in stories drawn from family scrapbooks and old newspaper clippings, meditations on the physical remnants of places that define the landscapes of the past, and Wiley McDowell's sparse employment records. And there are the ruminations of Estella McDowell, the author's oldest living relative, who dug "deeper and deeper into memory's trenches," sharing secrets from the past--while still leaving much "out of resurrection's reach."

With prose beautifully crafted, McDowell weaves the pieces into stories that evoke the textures and rhythms of life in a Southern industrial town during the era of the civil rights movement. Hers is not the usual linear narrative so often associated with Southern black struggle during those years; she fits the grand drama to a human scale, replete with the uncertainties and ambiguities that attended the final assault on the caste system. She reminds us just how slow was the pace of change--when she first attended Pipe Shop Elementary School in 1956 it was fully segregated, as was the high school she graduated from in 1968. Her first `'integrated" educational experience came in 1972, when she began graduate school in Indiana. She was one of three black students in her class, and one of two Southerners.

Family serves as the core of this narrative. Portraits of family members reveal the multiple layers of experience that composed the broader social realities of life in the segregated South. Among the most compelling are the women who were a formidable presence during McDowell's growing-up years--her mother ("Mama"), her grandmother ("Mother") and her great-grandmother ("Grandma Edie")--women who, in different ways, maintained a dignity and sense of purpose that defied the limits of the color line and sustained them through tragedy and loss. Viola Williams, McDowell's grandmother, is a virtual life force all by herself: "Mother came from a long line of black American women from the South who thought they could create the world in their own image."

Leaving Pipe Shop tells about a very Southern place, one that seemed immutable while teetering on the precipice of change. It was a world dominated by community institutions and rituals, most of which centered around the C.I.O. hall and Macedania A M.E. Zion Church. At church McDowell was initiated into the art of public speaking under the watchful guidance of a committee of women, known to their charges as "the sweet-potato ladies" for "the brassy, orange-colored dye that set their heads aglow." McDowell suspected that these women were more concerned with keeping the young folks' rising hormones in check than stamping out their Southern drawls. Meanwhile, television, teenage fads and "Steal Away" and other soulful tunes linked the young people together as they pressed against the confines of adult authority and played at the edges of segregation's barriers.

McDowell skillfully renders the subtle and corrupting power of the segregation system. Accounts of shopping trips to downtown Birmingham highlight the bizarre charade of racial etiquette: On one such occasion, the author, at age 14, is not easily insulted by a white cleric who is so unfashionable as to be wearing white patent leather shoes long after Labor Day. The system's brutal toll, however, is read most clearly in diminished ambitions and crushed spirits. Most compelling is the transformation of Wiley McDowell, as witnessed through his daughter's eyes-- from the father who nurtured her love of words, history and John Coltrane to a remote figure, defeated and broken by the time he was 40.

Leaving Pipe Shop makes clear that the civil rights movement had a much more uneven trajectory than is generally acknowledged. The Bessemer Voters League had been around since the forties, promoting voter registration and sponsoring annual citizenship tours for high school students led by civil rights veteran Asbury Howard. But in the early sixties, the Reverend Timothy Lockhart's active leadership in the voting rights movement caused dissension within the Macedonia congregation. "Those who had always temporized in the face of segregation's tumultuous decline," McDowell notes, succeeded in ousting the preacher. (Lockhart was later murdered after moving to a small church in rural Alabama.) The one event that mobilized the entire community was the 1963 Easter boycott of department stores that did not hire blacks. The one holdout was Miss Annie Pearl Wilkes, who strutted down the front of the church on Easter Sunday "in the banana linen sheath and black patent-leather shoes" she had purchased at Loveman's, coolly avoiding the "judging gazes" of the congregation.

In the end, though, "the illusion of desegregation" came at a price-- including deteriorating public schools and the drying up of small black enterprises like her mother's sewing business. There was much, too, that civil rights legislation was powerless to remedy. In the seventies, black workers in Birmingham and Bessemer won a major suit against twelve locals of the United Steel Workers of America for systematic discrimination (and Wiley McDowell's children received $1,200 in compensation for twenty- eight years of dead-end jobs at half the salary of his white counterparts). But the industrial boom of the postwar era had already played itself out, and the once-powerful steel industry was in decline, along with the hopes and dreams that had tied many to the mines, mills and furnaces of Alabama.

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