No Place Like Pipe Shop: Memoir Recalls the South that the Cameras Missed


Memories of monumental occasions often gather lesser images to them like metal filings to a magnet.

Deborah E. McDowell clearly remembers the Easter Sunday in 1963 when she stood in a crowd just to be near the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

She also remembers the drive to the small church where the civil rights leader was to speak. She had to sit on a woman's lap. She also remembers how her knees had made impressions in the blue vinyl of the back seat of her grandfather's car.

King was speaking in various black churches around Alabama at the time. When McDowell's grandfather, Fred Williams Sr., heard that King was to visit a church near their Birmingham community, he filled his station wagon with people and made the drive.

"King was speaking at the Shining Star Baptist Church in Muscoda," said McDowell, who is now a professor of English and African-American studies at the University of Virginia. "People had come from miles around to this tiny church to hear King speak. By the time we arrived, the church was completely packed and a huge crowd had formed around it. We never got near enough to see or even hear King, but it was enough for us to know he was near. We felt that he was our savior."

McDowell remembers the occasion as one of the most memorable experiences of her life. Because of that memory, she also remembers watching children find chocolate rabbits and jelly beans during an Easter egg hunt earlier in the day.

Memories great and small fill McDowell's just-released book, "Leaving Pipe Shop: Memories of Kin." The book is a bittersweet, often humorous, true-life portrait of growing up in a black, working-class neighborhood in the South during the social upheavals of the 1950s and '60s...

McDowell writes images as strong and bracing as the sweet scent of her father's secret barbecue sauce simmering on the stove. With gracious affection, she invites the reader into her life and the lives of those she grew up with during the civil rights revolution of her youth.

"One of the things I hope this book does is give people some glimpse into the part of this region and period that the cameras did not capture for posterity," said McDowell, as she sat surrounded by books in the living room of her Charlottesville home.

"The cameras captured the most important and transformative things, such as the people being sprayed by fire hoses, Bull Connor and his K-9 force and the stained glass windows hanging on their hinges in the bombed-out 16th Street Church.

"But what the cameras did not get was the day-to-day lives black people were living in the midst of all this. I wanted to capture something of that inferiority, because our understanding of black life and black people almost always comes from the outside."

The nucleus of McDowell's life during her formative years was her family. But it, like almost all the other families in her community, orbited around the factory from which Pipe Shop got its name.

For 35 years, McDowell's father, Wiley McDowell Sr., labored for near starvation wages in the factory that produced cast iron pipes for the world. Although McDowell Sr. had almost completed high school and had two years of business school, opportunities for job advancement were dictated strictly by his color.

It was the blatant prejudices and restrictions of segregation that McDowell tried to escape. When she left her hometown to attend the Tuskegee Institute, she vowed never to return to Pipe Shop, except for mandatory family visits.

What McDowell didn't realize when she first left home was that she would always carry a part of Pipe Shop with her. She would later come to understand the old adage: "You can't go home again, but neither can you leave it."

When McDowell was summoned back to Pipe Shop to investigate a settlement involving asbestos poisoning that might have contributed to her father's death, she was forced to reflect on her past.

"I was surprised at the love I felt for Pipe Shop after I went back," McDowell said as she looked at the snow-covered ground through her window. "I had kind of pushed it down because this was also a place associated with catastrophic loss. My family was a small, tight network and at a crucial period in my development, people started to die.

"It was frightening. Loss is such an insistent refrain in my life that it's hard for me to ever relax about people I love because of wondering when they will go."

McDowell said she now realizes that this fear propelled her to write the book. Although she was deeply involved with writing a scholarly book about mourning and loss in African-American culture, she nonetheless undertook the writing of the personal book.

When McDowell's aunt and family historian, Estella McDowell, died shortly after the manuscript was completed, the author understood why she had been so driven.

"I didn't know at the time I was writing this book, why I was in such a frenzy to get it done," McDowell said. "But I now know that without Auntee's help in supplying information, the book people can now read would not have been possible.

"Auntee never got a chance to read the book, but she was very invested in it. I went to care for her this past summer when she became seriously ill. I had the manuscript with me and was tinkering with it one night at her kitchen table when she walked in. She asked if that was the book about us, and when I told her it was, she was very happy."

The book begins with McDowell's beloved Auntee telling the author she has to come home. The story ends with the aunt blinking back tears as she looks at her grown-up niece standing on the concrete slab that once held Pipe Shop Elementary School.

" 'Leaving Pipe Shop' is beautifully written and very evocative," said Katharine Eisaman Maus, professor of English language and literature at UVa.

"Although it's about growing up black, it made me as a white person think of my own immigrant grandparents. I think most Americans will hear echoes of their own experiences in her book.

"Professor McDowell tells us about a real family with great wit and in vivid detail. I read the book twice and found that it helped me remember things from my own early life."

With the help of her aunt, photos, letters, keepsakes, personal journals and old newspaper clippings, McDowell breathed life back into the place and people who are now gone.

In the early morning hours before she would have to hurry off to teach her classes, McDowell worked on the book. After classes, she returned to the manuscript and the insistent voices.

"At first it was difficult to write this book, because it forced me to confront experiences that were very painful for me," McDowell said. "But once I got going, it was exhilarating and swept me along. "I got caught up in it to the point of obsession. It was like once I turned these people on in my head, they didn't want to shut up. 'when I had to leave for class, I had to force myself to come out of Pipe Shop in my head. While I was writing the book, I was leading a very schizophrenic existence."

McDowell relates how she was taught never to look a white person in the eye or place money directly into a white clerk's hand. But she also explained how and why such behavior would seem normal to a black girl growing up in those times.

Beatrice Edwards first met McDowell when they were teaching at Colby College in Waterford, Maine. She now works as a sociologist for the Organization of American States in Washington.

"I think 'Pipe Shop' is one of those rare books that combines the cold eye of objectivity with warmth and humor," Edwards said. "Without grinding any axes Deborah tells the readers how it was and how they lived.

"She has a very true sense of detail and is able to accomplish the very difficult task of combining a child's perspective with the voice and distance of an adult.

"Her affection for people comes through in her writing in a very genuine way. The book is really a tribute to the people in it who she speaks for and renders them so beautifully."

McDowell observes that the concept of segregation doesn't make any sense without integration. The two make each other intelligible.

"Basically, my experience from the time I was born until I was 21 years old and left Alabama were segregated," said McDowell, who is a former Bunting Institute Fellow and is considered one of the nation's leading scholars of African-American literature and culture.

"So, for me, segregation was the norm, and it took the form of not being able to go to the swimming pool nearby or take dance classes. Although I didn't realize it at the time. I also experienced segregation in its effect on our material circumstances.

"It wasn't until I got ahold of my father's employee record card that I began to understand the economical pressures under which he worked."

What McDowell found on her father's ledger was the brutal evidence of institutionalized prejudice. During 35 years if hard and loyal work in the pipe factory, McDowell's father's wages had only increased from 75 cents and hour to $4.75 at the time of his death.

"Seeing how little money my father made, even allowing for inflation. was just astonishing to me," McDowell said. "It took the wind from me."

"I went from shock, to anger, to intense anger. The thing that really galled me were those half-cent raise increments I would see on his record.

"They didn't even have the decency to give him a full-cent increase. Those half-cent increments represented to me just how paltry and insignificant my father was held in the view of that company."

Although McDowell's father never escaped the social and economic restraints, he made sure that his two sons and daughter would. He told his children that education was the key.

"What a brilliant man he was," McDowell said of her father. "It is largely to him I owe my love of words.

He happened to be born at the wrong time, but his was a generation that believed in education. I am completely impatient with the disregard for education today or the idea that it is just a means to a certificate and a ticket to the good life.

"Our parents taught us that knowledge was the ultimate possession, your greatest possession."

On the Easter Sunday when McDowell stood in the crowd to be near King, she felt the power of words.

"I couldn't hear what King was saying, but the strength of his words reverberated through the entire crowd," McDowell said. "It was an incredible experience.

"Writing this book has taught me about all the different ways people have stamped me. In a sense, I've never left Pipe Shop and I'm glad it still lives in me.

"I wrote about things that are very sober and grim, but that is only one part of the book. I hope one of the things people get from the book is all the humor in it."

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