E. Mark Windle 26 August 2023.
While undertaking some book research a few years ago on Nashville’s soul music scene, I was drawn to a very competent cover of Barbara Lewis’ iconic 1963 recording “Hello Stranger”. The version in question was by Alpha Zoe (Hall), an African American teenager who had just been plucked from nearby Gallatin to record the song at Nashville’s Columbia studios for Hit Records, with virtually no preparation – and within days of the original chart release. After managing to track Alpha Zoe down, the next few months were spent interviewing her about her upbringing, career, and life events. The former singer was now her 70’s, and had long been out of the music business. But Alpha Zoe was happy to talk about her younger days as a singer, and our discussions ignited a number of peripheral topics, some entirely unrelated to music. As part of the general quid pro quo, she mailed over the script for a presentation she’d just delivered to her local baptist church. Marking Black History Month, it was written as a retrospective during a period of hope, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term as the first African-American president of the United States. The talk was an illustration of her experience as a young black girl in the times of Jim Crow law, and a perspective on how she felt her race and society has progressed since then. Take or leave the religious element; there’s poignancy in the core message. Of course, Obama is no longer president, and there is a feeling that his immediate presidential successor managed to undo decades of progress, leaving the US very much politically, socially and racially divided. Thankfully, Trump is now also out of office, but there’s a long way to go.
Alpha-Zoe Hall addresses the Mount Gilead Missionary Baptist Church, Nashville, Tennessee; February 8, 2015:
“Good morning. I hope everyone can see this sign. I went to the UPS store yesterday to have my Colored Waiting Room sign bubbled wrapped for safe transport to church. A young white man, maybe in his twenties, helped me. When I took my sign out he did a double-take. He looked at me and said “I’ve heard of things like this. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen one. I don’t know how people could have treated people like that back then. I’m so sorry.” My reply to the young man? “Honey. Don’t be sad. It was the grace of God, and signs like this, that made us the strong people we are today.”
Just like that young man, some of you here may not have seen a sign like this before. Except maybe in pictures. Some might not even know what it means. And there are some, like me, who grew up during the period when signs like these were, like, everywhere. At entrances, exits, water fountains, restrooms, waiting rooms and halls. After Lincoln ‘set us free’ (so they say), Jim Crow laws were passed to make it illegal for any business or public entity to allow colored and white people to sit, eat, marry or associate with each other. And so, we had the birth of these colored signs.
I first noticed the Sign when I was a little girl walking downtown to catch a train. Union Station was a huge, beautiful building with marble floors, long polished wooden benches with cushions and big brass lights. I was awe struck. We entered through the door where the Sign was hanging. The room in which all people of color had to sit was half the size of our choir stand here, and had just one, hard bench. The room was packed full with people. One man stood up to give my mother a seat. Well, I was really ticked off because I could see all the empty seats elsewhere in the station. I kept asking my mother why did I had to stand up because there were lots of seats out there, until she pinched me and instructed me to hush.
So, the Signs. They were meant to keep us in our place, by repressing, intimidating, humiliating and making us feel less than human. Made by those who said we were ignorant. But I believe we were smart and waiting our time. We knew how to act in order to survive. We believed God did not give us any “giving-up bones”, so we obeyed their Signs. We were meek but not weak. Strong but not violent. Our backs were bent but not broken. We turned to our churches and preachers. We loudly sang spirituals with messages of hope and we gave vent to the Holy Spirit who gave us strength to obey the Signs. We may have been obedient, but we were no Uncle Toms.
I believe God answered our prayers. He opened a door, and out stepped the generation of the Negro. While obeying the Signs, colored people had become Negros. They had not counted on our ability to grow and triumph over adversity. The Sign did not impede our progress. We had become doctors, lawyers, educators, nurses, inventors, business owners and politicians. The majority of us may still have been in low paid jobs, but we were not subservient and in the evenings many of us went back to homes; homes that we owned. We built schools of higher learning and established services to provide better opportunities to our people. Yet we looked up, and the Signs were still there. And still we prayed.
God opened another door and out stepped the generation of Black people. Those Black people looked at the Signs and said “these have to go. We have contributed too much to society to be treated as a second class citizen.” So we marched, and prayed, protested, had sit-ins, suffered toils, snares and demeaning treatment. Still we prayed. We instilled pride in our young people and gave them role models. We fought for and won the vote to change the Jim Crow laws. God, in time, had changed the hearts of men, and the Signs were taken down.
Then once again another door was opened and out stepped the African-American. A generation of people living, enjoying and demanding the things of life that our people had dreamed, hoped and prayed for. A generation standing tall on the bent backs of their ancestors.
Remember that little girl fussing because she had to stand in the room with the Colored Waiting Room sign while there were seats in the big room? Well, years later, that same girl, me, walked into a booth, pushed a button and voted for a man of my race who became the president of these United States.”
Copyright E. Mark Windle / Alpha-Zoe Hall (2020, updated 2023).
E. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and as a writer for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). For hire, contact via this site or firstname.lastname@example.org