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Miss Babe
by Tom Givens

The idea of segregation was always a bit of a puzzlement to me in my neck of the Mississippi Delta while I was growing up.

See, I hung out with Blacks all the time, and it was a true pleasure. Lula and Robert Simmons were with my family for over 40 years. Without question, Lula, known mostly as Miss Babe, is one of the loves of my life.

Now, back in the 40's and 50's when the Blacks went to town, they dressed up. Some of my most pleasant memories involve going down and watching Miss Babe "getting ready." Babe had a charcoal bucket with vents over which she placed a large curved comb. She'd apply a pomade to her hair and then run the hot comb through it. I was horrified the first time I watched her; I hollered, "Babe, you gone set your hair on fire!"--because, naturally, smoke appeared.

All the tenants gathered at Miss Babe's and Brer Robert's (he was called this because he was an Elder in his church) because they were the patriarchs of the place. That's where the fun began. While they were all getting ready to "go to town," they were cutting up. Now the Blacks called this "playing the dozens." Basically, all this meant was poking fun at each other, and I was privileged to be a witness.

When I was a small child, I'd go with my daddy to the cotton gin in Ruleville. On weekdays this meant dropping off the trailer and going home. Saturdays were different because back then weekends meant time off for everyone, tenant farmers and all. I'd still go in with Daddy on Saturday to the cotton gin. As soon as he dropped off the cotton trailers at the gin, he'd head for the pool room to play dominoes. I was on my own.

My first priority was to find my Granddaddy (I called him Gangy) and I always knew he was most probably sleeping off a drunk in the back room of the office of the local cotton buyer, Pete Bowden, down by the compress. Most of the time I found him there and snuggled him--he was also one of the loves of my life. Now it may seem strange in this day and age for a small child to roam over town, but Ruleville was no metropolis, and everyone knew I was Tom's son and Pres's grandson. They knew where to take me.

But after finding Gangy, next on the agenda was definitely finding Lula. She was easy to find. Miss Babe would be in Jim Kee's grocery on Greasy Street there in Ruleville. The street is actually named Front Street, but was given that name ("Greasy Street") because of all the catfish cafes there. This was the "colored" street. Jim Kee was Chinese, and whites and blacks hung out at his place--as they also did in the catfish places. Anyway, I'd find Miss Babe and sit with her, and she would let me sip her beer.

Miss Babe is one person I can truthfully say captured my young mind early on. I knew her all my life, and she was one of the best people I've ever known. She and her husband, Robert, were hard workers and did well as sharecroppers.

Years after I'd left the farm, after the death of Brer Robert, Miss Babe moved to Lee Street in Cleveland. All those years afterward, anytime I was in Cleveland for whatever reason, I would drop by to see Babe and sit with her again on her front porch.

She's gone now, but she will always be a part of my life. She was always reminding me she helped raise me . . . and I was her "white chile."


Judge Tom Givens continues to contribute his wonderful memoirs to USADEEPSOUTH.COM. Want to read more?

Fats Domino
Gravel Roads
Ahhh, Rufus, How We Loved You!
The Fine Art of Grabbling and Frog Gigging

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