I'll Get My Rest When the Lord Is Done With Me Here

Before Her Death, Fannie Lewis Reflected On Her Remarkable Life

Fannie M. Lewis is dead and the eulogies have begun. Some will now try to name a school, a recreation center or some other monument after her, an idea she abhorred, convinced such acts were prideful and thus wrong with the Lord. There will be others who will fight to assure her ideals become achievable goals, not making headlines but serving the people. And everyone will remember the firebrand who fought for the right of her constituents to choose their own future. But despite the Fannie Lewis Law (the one use of her name she tolerated) - which assured more equitable hiring on city job sites - the school voucher program and so many other achievements, most people do not know the most remarkable accomplishment of Fannie Lewis' life: rising above hate.

"It was not my grandfather they were after. He was too respected. Breaking into his home [late at night] and holding a gun to his head was just a way to speed finding their victim." Later, while attending George Washington Carver Agricultural School in Marked Tree, Arkansas, she had a black English teacher who shared his love of books with Fannie and the other children. Someone had donated a small library to the school because black children and adults were arrested for trying to enter the public library. "The 'haints' didn't like his teaching us to love books. My teacher lived in Marion, part way between Memphis and Marked Tree, and it was in Marion where he was tied to a tree and set on fire. When the charred corpse had cooled, a sign was hung on the remains. It read: 'Niggers, read and run!'" Fannie M. Lewis was born in 1926, three years after the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan in Memphis, where her parents lived. "There were always lines of armed white men, hooded and robed so no one could see the evil inside. To this day, I cannot stand to have white sheets in my home."

As a teenager, Fannie M. Lewis lived with fear, yet focused on the immediate, "doing what we had to do to get from day to day, enjoying God's blessing of the beautiful land, warmed by the hot sun."

Summers meant an opportunity to make back-to-school money by picking cotton - a soft pastoral image that, one horrible summer day when she was in high school, was indelibly stained with blood.

Cotton fields required a large number of pickers. Some worked full-time for the plantation owner. Some were prisoners provided by the local sheriff, who was paid for letting the inmates work. And some were children and adults who waited at prearranged stops for a truck that would take them to the fields. "The numbers of people riding each truck and the names of the drivers on those trucks were carefully noted. Then each person picking alone would have his or her name written down. Families picking together would have their cotton tallied together.

"Finally, we would choose the number of rows we planned to pick that day. Some of us selected just one row. Those who were stronger would often take two, developing a rhythm as they went from one plant to the next, one side to the other. And the strongest men - often those who were just out of prison - as well as families picking together would usually agree to pick three rows. You could pick as little or as much as you wanted, but you were expected to pick everything in the rows you said you would handle.

"The best pickers would gather 300 or more pounds a day. It was enough to earn them as much as $10, almost double the pay of a salaried black man with a good job.

"I had the strength and the rhythm of a good picker and could clear as much as 200 pounds. I usually earned between $3 and $5 per day, depending upon how fast I worked and how early I was able to start. The best time was when the morning dew was still on the cotton. The wetness made it heavier, and the cotton stayed wet in the sacks we used. You could always make a few cents more for what you gathered before the moisture evaporated in the rising sun. "For me, there was always something beautiful about the cotton fields, and that day started as no exception. On that peaceful morning in the cotton fields, as I found myself in the midst of a group of neighbors, all talking and picking, I saw a boy from my school hanging back." He was picking cotton with the rest of his family, but in his own good time, like a typical adolescent.

"My friend's mother was annoyed, though I did not know why. I didn't see what difference it made if he worked hard or not. He was the only one who would suffer, because he wouldn't make as much money as if he did the job as well as he could. Only when my own children reached adolescence did I know the frustrations of the power struggles all kids engage in as they try to become adult. That's why I didn't understand her concern, nor did I recognize her growing anxiety when the rider came along. Riders were sometimes violent overseers who worked for the bosses, making certain everyone did their job.

"The rider noticed my classmate, because he came over on his horse. He was a big man with a large straw hat on his head and a pump-action shotgun in a scabbard hanging against the saddle.

"'Why aren't you working more, nigger?' the rider asked my friend.

"The boy just looked at the man on horseback. He didn't want to be in the fields that day. He didn't want his mother telling him what to do and he certainly didn't want to have to deal with this white man.

"'You hear me, boy?'

"'Yeah,' said the boy. 'I hear you.'

"'Don't you have no manners, nigger?' the rider asked. 'Nigger? NIGGER!'

"The boy's mother sensed what was happening. From the time Africans first sold their fellow countrymen to white slave-buyers, the goal of the white man who used them was always to break their spirit. This was especially true with the black males, who they knew had grown both strong and angry in the fields. For hundreds of years, there were regular efforts to demean our males through the loss of their pre-slavery history, fear, violence and hurtful language.

"Most southern whites were only comfortable with a subservient black man. That was just the way things were done, and you could die for breaking the rules.

"'Just say 'Yes, sir' to the man,' his mother whispered, pleadingly. She wanted to protect her son, to make a move to shield him from his emotions and the rider who was confronting him, but she dared not. If the rider thought she was interfering, he would beat or kill her. Instead, she stayed motionless, pleading with her voice, trying to make certain she could keep her other two children safely out of this. 'Just say 'Yes, sir.' "But he would have none of it.

"I was a few feet away, trying to watch without getting caught. I kept a rhythm going, picking with both hands, and then glancing over at my friend and the rider as I stuffed the cotton in my bag. I didn't understand the full seriousness of the confrontation, but I did understand the hate. I had lived with that hate all of my life. Black people were like so many rabbits, and no white person ever got arrested for killing a rabbit.

"The rider never said he wanted the boy to say the words 'Yes, sir,' but we all knew the rules. It was the way things were in the south.

"'Nigger?' the man tried again.

"'Yeah?' said the boy, his voice contemptuous. His spirit was too strong to be broken that morning. In one swift motion, the rider pulled out his shotgun, pumped the barrel to put a round in position and shot my classmate. There was no warning, no pause to reconsider. The youth was rude. The white man killed him. That's just the way it was.

"Suddenly, there was bedlam. Some people stared in shock. Some were screaming. Several rushed to help the boy, who was rapidly bleeding to death, his head cradled on his mother's lap.

"The rider held the horse's reins with one hand, the shotgun with the other. He didn't cock the barrel again. He didn't need to. The rider maneuvered his horse back and forth in tight little circles, so he could see what everyone was doing in case someone tried to jump him. Then he slowly rode away, never looking back, never worrying about tomorrow. Killing a young black man was so minor an action, it wasn't worth mentioning in the white community. The rider probably couldn't get someone to listen to his story, if he stopped by a bar for a beer to celebrate.

"The men who had been picking with us in the fields gently lifted the dying boy onto one of the sacks and carried him back to a truck. He was dead by the time they laid him on the hot steel bed, and his weeping family gathered around him. The rest of us climbed back into the other trucks to go home. There would be no more picking cotton in that field that day."

She continued: "You begin to hate white people, all white people. You only know the hate that has been turned against you. You come to understand the terrible things people do when they feel desperate, when there is no hope. We were so young and hurt so much … And 'tomorrow' had never been a better day." Years passed. There was marriage and there were children, but it was when Fannie's husband, Carl, returned from the war that the hatred proved overwhelming.

"It was a police officer who went too far for Carl and me. We were driving along Third Street in downtown Memphis. Carl was wearing his dress blues, the handsome formal Marine uniform everyone in the country knew by sight. He was being discharged and needed to take care of some paperwork.

"A traffic light changed, and Carl stopped the car. A police officer was standing there, watching traffic, when he noticed Carl's uniform. I don't know if he was jealous of Carl. I don't know if he had avoided the service because he had a needed civilian job during the war. All I remember was his face turning angry as he started calling Carl a 'nigger.' He yelled at Carl for stopping with the car's nose slightly into the crosswalk. I don't remember if Carl had done that. I wasn't paying attention to anything other than the policeman's words and the gun that he carried. He kept talking about the 'nigger,' trying to get Carl into a fight.

"Carl and I knew better than to say anything. If the white policeman said Carl was too far into the crosswalk, then that was a mistake on Carl's part. Carl was wrong, even though there was no one crossing the street, no one in danger, and if the car was over the line, it was only by a matter of inches.

"Finally, we could move on. Carl was near to tears. 'Why do white folks hate black folks?' we asked each other. We were hardworking people. We sent our children to school to learn to be good citizens. We went to church. We didn't bother anyone. Yet nothing we did could stop the hate."

For years relatives who had moved to Cleveland had come back to visit driving new cars and telling everyone that, in Cleveland, you wouldn't know you were black until you looked in the mirror. They never said they were lying, that the cars were rentals meant to impress the family back home. They never talked about being forced to live in ghetto neighborhoods because white areas were restricted by race rather than economics. For Fannie and Carl, Cleveland had become their imagined future.

"Cousin Bubba and Cousin Sal were settled in Cleveland. Carl also had cousins in both Cleveland and California. We decided it was time to leave the children with our family, move north, get jobs and a home, then bring the children up to be raised in a city without hate. They would be able to become whatever they wanted to become. They would have dignity and self-respect. They would not know the fear and hate with which we were raised. My husband had been called 'nigger' for the last time. We were going north to the American version of the promised land.

"There was no one in pursuit of us on our trip north, except the memories of past horrors we witnessed and would never be able to fully erase. In the Bible, Miriam and the Hebrew people crossed the dry seabed near Pi-hahiroth opposite Baal-zephon. Safe on the high ground, she turned and watched Pharaoh's pursuing army suddenly swamped by the returning water. Then the water rushed back and destroyed all who wanted to enslave or kill God's chosen people. "Our Pharaoh's army was invisible. It was all the white people who hated us.

"I remembered Miriam and how she took a tambourine when she knew she was safe. She and the women who rejoiced still had to journey through the desert. Our promised land was just across a short bridge. Miriam and the other women sang:

Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider, he has hurled into the sea.

"I turned back, looking at the road we had traveled. Then I kneeled down, kissed the ground and stood and did my own dance of freedom. 'Thank you, Jesus!' I shouted. 'Goodbye to all the misery and hate! Thank you, Jesus! Goodbye to all the scorn. Thank you, Jesus! Goodbye to the Ku Klux Klan. Goodbye to the 'nigger'-haters! Thank you, Jesus! We're not going to be bothered any more.'

"And I danced. Lord, how I danced." "Reality [of living in Cleveland] was a shock. I always knew the rules in Memphis and Marked Tree. We all knew who might hurt us when they thought we did something wrong.

"There were no rules when I came to Cleveland, except the understanding among our people that Superior was the Mason-Dixon Line. North of Superior was meant for white families. South of Superior was for 'colored' people. There were movie theaters that showed pictures with black stars. Woolworth's had dolls with black faces. Restaurants seated you anywhere you wanted to sit. But you knew you were only safe in those few blocks.

"No signs told you that crossing Superior wasn't safe. We learned from the business owners, who were suddenly out of things you wanted to buy even while selling them to whites. We learned from restaurants that either were too full to serve us when half the tables were empty or would put us by the kitchen - a noisy, isolated, undesirable location - then ignore all but the most basic service. We learned from barbers who didn't know how to cut black hair. And we learned from our children, who were sometimes chased, beaten or called 'nigger,' a word we hoped had been left for dead when we moved north.

"Black people couldn't walk or ride through Mayfield Road and the Murray Hill area without being beaten or worse. You had to read the Call and Post to learn where you were welcome for entertainment. The Cleveland Orchestra, the Play House and so many other public places only welcomed you if you were white, so they advertised in the Press or the News or The Plain Dealer. There were exceptions, but we never wanted to risk the humiliation of making a mistake.

"The Hough ghetto had once been an area of mostly single-family homes. When my husband and I brought our children to Cleveland, there were few other places blacks could live. Neighborhoods were 'red-lined.' The Cleveland Trust Bank and other financial institutions wouldn't lend money to us to move into those areas, even when our incomes were high and our credit was excellent. Instead, Hough's houses were often divided into tenements where four, five and six families shared space meant only for one. The people who owned and lived in their own homes in Hough could lose them if the City Council member made a deal with the developers to take the houses by right of eminent domain.

"I first got into politics to try and protect my neighbors from the developers, the greedy politicians, the bad landlords and the poor public schools. I fought to help old people keep the homes they owned and lived in. I fought to give school children a free choice instead of seeing them go to second-rate schools used as training grounds for new teachers and dumping grounds for bad ones." Fannie M. Lewis fought to the point of exhaustion, often falling asleep mid-sentence when we were talking, her head dropping, her breathing slow, picking up the conversation 10 or 15 minutes later. Sometimes the exhaustion came from being up all night, such as when we were sitting, talking, when an angry patrol officer from the Fifth District drove up. "Mrs. Lewis," he said sternly. "I hear you and some little old ladies from your church were out confronting the drug boys last night. They're dangerous, Mrs. Lewis. You could get hurt or killed doing that." She looked at him coldly and said, "When you're doing your job, we won't have to be there."

Other times she had been awakened by one constituent or another, and though the problems could have waited until morning, she decided that if they were serious enough for the person to feel the need to call her so late at night, she would respect the person by listening. But more commonly it was her lungs, failing from too many years of heavy smoking. It was the one area where she was impatient. Having loved cigarettes, she felt that if she had to quit, the least that should happen was for her lungs to heal.

But the idea of not answering the telephone, not confronting the young men who threatened the streets, not protecting people others saw as expendable was beyond her comprehension. Each day she was a little more tired - her steps slower, her time away from her home office growing less and less. "I'll get my rest when the Lord is done with me here."

And now it is someone else's time to lead Fannie Lewis' ward and to be the moral conscience of the city. Even if she had not come from a time and a place where all blacks were expendable, her accomplishments would have been remarkable. Given her experiences both before and after she came to Cleveland, that she could accept a person for his or her actions, not prejudging based on race, religion or socio-economic background, makes her life one that, if emulated, will restore the city in ways that no developer or self-indulgent politician can ever hope to achieve. [email protected]

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.