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Captain Ironwood Hamilton of the Tinyville, VA police force looked at the public service docket he had to post for the week of July 4, 2020, and then called his mentor from his days in the Judge Advocate General wing of the U.S. Army.
“Major Hamilton, I can't understand you – you are laughing too hard, mon frere,” said retired Major Jean-Paul Philippe Dubois.
“Let me get myself together but I really can't – this is the biggest end-run you have ever pulled, and we did some big ones in the Army to get to the truth. But we're just Virginian country boys down here! Have mercy, please, Jean-Paul, please!”
And Ironwood Hamilton all but fell out laughing, knowing the conversations he was going to have with people who were going to be mad that they hadn't thought about how to have a pandemic-compliant parade on Main Street on the Fourth of July, with fireworks!
Major Dubois, after legally and tactically outmaneuvering the town of Tinyville and its dumbest mortgage banker, had destroyed the last vestige of racist redlining in the town – Main Street was the very last red line. However, he was a quiet man, a lifetime bachelor from Black French Louisiana, and considered his work its own reward.
There was, however, one woman whom he loved dearly, and whose requests he considered law.
“Mon fils,” said Madame Ébène-Cerise Dubois, his mother, “remember: you have traveled the world and lived outside the culture of our people for a long time, but remember your roots. At what time in Louisiana would we not celebrate any accomplishment such as this?”
“At no time, Maman,” he said. “You are right.”
“Son, you are quiet, and have need of nothing like your father, but your father is loud in his joy because he knows that celebration is for the people, to share and imprint the power in their hearts of every victory. If the red line on Main Street is broken, we need to celebrate that as a community, somehow.”
“That is a little complex at the moment, Maman,” he said. “It would require a creative solution to the ban on all public gatherings, although the ban is not complete in Tinyville.”
“Do you think at this moment the city council will listen to you? I think they would not dare refuse a good plan from you.”
“You are right. At this moment, they dare not.”
“So, what is the challenge?”
“There is none. I will see this done.”
Madame Dubois smiled, and made a note to cook up something special for her eldest son, on the Fourth.
Major Dubois was shrewd as well as wise. He knew about the complexity of the Fourth of July in the South … 156 years after the Civil War, there was a strange blending of U.S. flags and Confederate flags and the idea that they stood for the same things. The tragedy was that 750,000 deaths as the official total made no difference: agreement on the less-than-human status of non-Anglo-Saxons, and particularly Africans who had survived enslavement in America with their children, was something both had stood for, for a long time.
However, the U.S. flag had permitted progress on the question – 2020 was nothing like 1820 or even 1920. For all its flaws, the United States of America had made great progress. For that reason among others, Major Dubois left the Fourth itself alone – no need to rouse up the old hatreds on that day, and also he respected his fellow veterans, who had fought under that flag around the world.
So: Tinyville's city council was chagrined but helpless when at last they saw Major Dubois's draft plan for a parade on July 2 – only one uninhabited block on Main Street, between Green and Court, with two additional blocks for staging. He had laid out every possible public safety detail imaginable.
“And who wants to go toe to toe with him legally again so soon?” one said. “Lord, from whence did Dubois come, and can You just get him to let us breathe for a moment since it would be sinful for us to ask You to just take him away?”
“Well, he's just asking for three blocks for three hours – let's just say yes .”
So, beginning on June 30, 2020, Captain Hamilton began posting notices about the street closures, and then blocked off the necessary blocks at 4:00pm on July 2, 2020.
6:00pm on Main Street – a big truck with a big winch attached slowly and carefully brought a great stone bowl to Main and Court streets – a repurposed old fountain base of solid stone, once in the junkyard, reclaimed and cleaned up for one final, glorious use. It was carefully secured, and Thomas Stepforth Sr. and his wife Velma, resplendent in their summer suits and hats, sat down on the two lawn chairs brought for them to wait by it.
Between Green and Court on Main Street, a family was carefully laying out strips of red fabric at regular intervals down the middle of the street.
On Green Street between Main and Commerce, vehicles were lining up, each maintaining ten feet of distance, in the order that the parade's participants were to appear.
At 6:50, a huge truck loaded with speakers rolled into Main Street between Green and Court. At 6:55, grand marshal Jean-Luc Dubois stepped out, walked around the truck, and helped out his wife and fellow grand marshal Ébène-Cerise Dubois. Both were decked out like Mardi Gras, and, sure enough, at the stroke of 7:00, Jean-Luc Dubois leaned all the way back and did what he had done on all those good days back home in Louisiana as grand marshal, stretching out his booming bass voice:
“Laissez les bon temps rouler!”
Madame Dubois touched on the music, and the sound of a New Orleans Dixieland band on parade filled the street as the good times began to roll.
Parade participants began to pass down the street, by family, two by two, each wearing a green mask, gloves, and holding a sparkler – fireworks sized for Main Street – or a flashlight.
Burt and Beulah Jones, who were infants when Tinyville had officially incorporated in 1910, went first, their grandchildren pushing them in their wheelchairs over ALL the red fabric!
“We done lived to see it!” 111-year-old Burt said.
“Hallelujah, thank You, Jesus – You done done it for us at last!” 110-year-old Beulah said, weakly but intently waving the green flashlight she was holding instead of a sparkler.
After that, each pair of participants stopped at a piece of red fabric, stepped or jumped over it, and then one handed his or her sparkler to the other so as to safely bend down and pick up the fabric. Then, the two carried the fabric between them, the sparkler in the opposite hand, down to where the great stone bowl was. Both the red fabric and the sparklers were placed in the bowl together, where they burned, and the parade participants went to their place on the courthouse steps.
Thus, symbolically, all the members of the Black community were participating in the jumping over and destruction of the red line on Main Street.
From the eldest to the youngest – nine-year-old Vertran Stepforth and nine-year-old Louisa Dubois Chennault, in their Sunday absolute best, were chosen to jump over the very last piece of red fabric and represent the future in a non-discriminatory Tinyville.
Of course, Vertran and Louisa being who they were, they interpreted the matter their own way.
“I guess we are starting our lives as Tinyville's newest and youngest Black power couple, Louisa.”
“Yup,” she said. “Just think … if you hadn't proposed marriage to me the other week, we might have each had to do this with somebody else, and I don't know if I could trust somebody else to hold a sparkler and skip at the same time.”
“You know I'm always gonna be here for you, Louisa.”
And off they went, holding the other's green-gloved hand and their sparklers tightly, skipping down the street and jumping with perfect synchronization over the last piece of red fabric. Vertran handed his sparkler to Louisa and picked up that last piece, and then they carried it between them to Vertran's grandfather, who threw their sparklers and the fabric on the ferociously burning fire now on the stone bowl.
Madame Dubois smiled at her husband and turned the music down just a little, so that now that the street was clear, on came their eldest son in his lawyer suit and briefcase and tap shoes, showing off his old dancing skills all along the block, the snap of tap substituting for the crackle of a sparkler. The street was now free, every inch of it, and this was his personal celebration shared with everyone!
When Major Dubois reached the end of the street, he opened his suitcase for all to see – some of the old mortgages and covenants that were really that red line were in there. Burt Jones rolled up in his chair with his grandson Bart to assist him on one corner of the bowl, some of those contracts in his lap. Vertran and Louisa had contracts in their hands and came to another corner. Thomas Stepforth Sr. had contracts on another corner – and all at once, they began throwing all those contracts on the fire as Madame Dubois turned the music all the way up and those on the courthouse steps raised their green-gloved hands in the air and either just waved them or started dancing in the late evening light.
110 years of struggle, completed in victory, with all five generations it had taken represented there to be part of it – both the Lofton County Free Voice and Tinyville Times were there to mark the occasion, and of course cell phones were out and social media would be filled with moments from the day.
Two evenings later, Major Dubois stood at his window in the loft of the home the Dubois family occupied and watched the rockets' red glare and the firecrackers bursting in air on the Fourth of July. Then came a softer sound … an aged, beloved female hand had reached up – because Madame Dubois was not thinking about climbing all those stairs – and slid a small pot of greens gumbo onto the loft floor for her veteran son.
“Your virtue is its own reward,” she said, “but, gumbo helps. Eat it before Louisa comes begging.”
“Oui, Maman. Merci beaucoup.”
And Major Dubois, knowing the community that had adopted his family was enjoying the Fourth of July more on that day than they had for 110 years, took a moment to get on his knees and thank le bon Dieu for allowing him to remember his own heritage and thus recognize public celebration as service.
Then, he addressed himself to the pot of gumbo, because, as his mother had predicted, another greens gumbo lover was on the prowl.
“Do I smell gumbo?”
“What gumbo? Go back out and sit with Oncle Jules and watch the fireworks – allons!”
Major Dubois enjoyed the whole little pot of gumbo, came downstairs and washed the pot after Louisa had gone to bed, and then went to bed and to a sound, satisfied sleep.